Empireworld extract: What would a decolonized India look like?

In this extract from Empireworld, author Sathnam Sanghera examines the inextricable and complex global legacies of British imperialism.

Sathnam Sanghera

Introduction: Spot the Colonial Inheritance

There is nowhere on earth that crackles with the atmosphere of British empire like New Delhi. The British may have fled the subcontinent many decades ago, but you can still feel the influence of the largest empire in human history in the city which was designated India’s capital by the British, in the place of Calcutta (now Kolkata), in 1931. You can sense it in the streets, the uptight diagonals and preternaturally tidy but scorched patches of lawn sitting in contrast to the chaos of Old Delhi, with its winding, narrow roads, some accessible only on foot. You can divine it in Parliament House which, designed by the British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker in the classical style, mostly ignores Indian architecture, except for the occasional nod to its context in its decoration. You can almost smell it around the bungalows that Indians invented as a form but the British embraced as a colonial ideal, scattering them on tree-lined roads in what is known as the Lutyens Bungalow Zone. It’s a 7,000-acre area originally established to house government officials, the colonnaded verandas offering imperial administrators somewhere to cool down, somewhere to take refreshments and somewhere to maintain, in the paranoid colonial way, surveillance.

The mood even seeps into Old Delhi, where the Maidens Hotel, my home for half a week in the middle of a series of international research trips tracing the legacies of British imperialism, doesn’t seem to have got the memo that empire ended at all. Established in 1903 by an Englishman, but now run by the Indian Oberoi chain of luxury properties, its website talks proudly about how it ‘offers a journey back in time’. The welcome letter in my room waxes lyrical about how the hotel retains its ‘original 19th century colonial charm and architecture’ (I’ve seen British colonialism described in all sorts of ways, but never ‘charming’). One of the hotel restaurants is called the Curzon Room, after one of the viceroys who exercised authority in India on behalf of the British sovereign. And it all goes down curiously well with a clientele that consists of a mix of Indian and European guests, one of its many rave online reviews declaring that it is ‘one of the nicest hotels . . . Brings you back to the colonial British time.’

It’s a surreal place to base myself for my tour examining the international influence of British empire, not least because there are also few places on earth, in the twenty-first century, more committed to the task of decolonization than New and Old Delhi, or what, when combined, India calls its National Capital Territory. I’m not just thinking here of Coronation Park, the 52-acre plot which was once the site of the grandest imperial spectacles, including the Delhi Durbars but has in recent decades become the dumping ground for the unwanted statues of British imperialists, and now, having been cleaned up, is home to only a handful of viceroys and monarchs. I’m thinking of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim in 2014 that India had been troubled by ‘1200 years of slave mentality’ (he combined British rule with preceding periods of Mughal/Muslim rule in his definition of colonialism), and of his efforts to delete all things colonial since. These decolonization efforts have included redeveloping the capital’s Parliament in a $1.8 billion initiative, replacing the building opened by the British in 1927 with one dreamed up by Indian architect Bimal Patel. The two Parliament buildings face each other, but on the day I visit the smog caused by Delhi’s intense pollution is such that you can barely make out the edges of one building when standing next to the other. New Parliament House is not quite complete, but there has already been an opening ceremony, when Modi unveiled a 28-foot-tall statue of the militant Indian independence figure Subhas Chandra Bose, near the India Gate memorial – where the statue of the British monarch George V once stood. Bose, who was popularly known as Netaji, and whose defiance of British empire extended to seeking alliances with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, is something of an obsession for Modi’s governing, Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. I’m in Delhi on the very holiday Modi created in tribute to Bose’s birthday: so-called Bravery Day, also known as Parakram Diwas, which is being marked by, among other things, a terrifying fly-past of fighter jets that makes this part of the world feel like it’s being invaded all over again.

As a tribute to Bose, Modi – who is reportedly keen to rename India ‘Bharat’ (the Hindi name for the country) on anti-colonial grounds – has also rebranded three islands of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, previously named after imperial figures and once serving as a colonial penal colony, and this impulse to relabel things in the name of decolonization is hardly new. Since independence, the cities of Bombay, Bangalore and Calcutta have been given more indigenous names – Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata respectively. But efforts have intensified. The ceremonial avenue that links the two Secretariat buildings in central New Delhi was once called Kingsway (and, in translation, as Rajpath), but is now known as Kartavya Path (the Hindi word for ‘duty’), the Prime Minister’s website declaring that the renaming dis- plays a ‘shift to public ownership and empowerment’. Elsewhere, Modi has unveiled a new ensign for the Indian Navy in place of the St George’s Cross (described casually in news reports as ‘a sign of slavery’);14 the hymn ‘Abide With Me’, traditionally played to conclude Republic Day celebrations, has been replaced with the patriotic song ‘Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon’; Indian musical instruments including the sitar and tabla have been introduced for Independence Day ceremonies; and the government launched the ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ campaign in 2022, to mark seventy-five years of India’s independence, encouraging Indians to put up the national flag (the Tiranga, meaning ‘three-coloured’) in celebration. A campaign which means that, as I walk around in 2023, there appear to be more national flags per square foot of the capital than there are posters featuring Modi’s face.

The government has also declared war on the English language, colonial use of English having, in the words of Robert Young, ‘alienated colonized people from themselves’ by devaluing their own languages. In October 2022, officials in BJP-ruled Maharashtra were forbidden to say ‘hello’ when greeting the public – they were instructed to say ‘Vande Mataram’ instead or ‘I bow to thee, oh motherland’. And, following a 2020 move to allow practitioners of ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine, to perform surgery (to the dismay of many medics), the Madhya Pradesh state government has declared its intention to offer medical degrees in Hindi. Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Rajan Sharma, former head of the Indian Medical Council, described the move as ‘regressive, backward-looking, pathetic, deplorable’. He continued: ‘Where are the Hindi speaking teachers to teach medicine? I am not even going to talk about how good the translations are going to be because that implies one accepts the policy which I don’t. The policy will be a failure.’

But the ultimate point I’m making here is not that decolonization is futile. Some of these initiatives, and those elsewhere around the globe, are crucial steps in restoring the self-respect and agency of the formerly colonized.

Sharma’s fury echoes through my mind as I continue to walk around India’s capital, Googling information within the confines of my international roaming data allocation. I understand why he objects and can see why other people might also have problems with this aspect of India’s decolonization project. After all, there are factors besides British colonialism which make English today the world’s most spoken language, with approximately 1.5 billion speaking it as a first or second language: the enduring popularity of Friends, the dominance of English on the internet, American English in general. Also, what happens amid this decolonization to the many English words, not least ‘bungalow’ and ‘veranda’, which derive from Indian languages? And what about the practical challenge of removing English from a society which sprinkles it in almost every advert, every TV/Bollywood script, every other conversation, and provides linguistic common ground for India’s speakers of at least 121 languages? To see it through, India would need to disown writers like Rohinton Mistry and Arundhati Roy, who happen to be among the best on the planet at writing in English. It would need to take on the popularity of English-language books across India: walk or drive around long enough and someone will try to flog you a pirated copy of Harry Potter or Malcolm Gladwell. It would need to undo its intensely competitive English-language newspaper market, in which the Times of India enjoys a readership of some 15 million, and the Hindu has some 6 million readers. It would need somehow to erase the fondness across India for classic writers such as Dickens and Shakespeare, and then it would have to ban the intense study of English literature, which, as Gauri Viswanathan has pointed out, has a longer academic history in India than in Britain.  

But Sharma, and other critics of the Indian decolonization mission, need to pace their anger. For if Modi continues with or even accelerates his initiative, which seems to have proved popular so far, there will be bigger things to get exercised about. Such was the depth and length of British imperial involvement in the Indian subcontinent that ongoing decolonization could reshape India in profound ways. Not least, the nation’s built infrastructure would have to be rethought. Banning new Western-style apartments and office blocks might be relatively achievable and even admirable; it turns out they’re not particularly suited to the climate, Time reporting recently that ‘many Indian architects [have] abandoned the vernacular traditions’ – such as ‘the earthen walls and shady verandas of the humid south, and the thick insulating walls and intricate window shades of the hot dry northwest’ – only to find that Western-style buildings struggle to cope so well ‘with the weather extremes of different regions’ in India. But removing other colonial features of the built environment could be rather more disruptive. Take, for instance, the wide streets that would have to go because British colonialists introduced them for reasons of public health (to ‘ventilate the towns and blow away smells and disease’), temperature regulation (though if anything they ‘proved to be environmentally unsuited to hot climates’) and security (to ‘preserve colonial power through surveillance’). Digging them up would be quite a task, as would be removing Delhi’s postboxes and the associated system of mail, the empire having introduced the imperial postal service to India in 1854. However, electronic communication has probably done for them anyway, and it was very much Indians who made it work, in a country where few towns even had street names and a dozen different languages might be spoken in one town.

In turn, even these challenges would be dwarfed by the task of curing India of its obsession with cricket, a palpably imperial spectacle which, in India, is only marginally less popular than breathing. As Brian Stoddart explains, ‘cricket was considered the main vehicle for transferring the appropriate British moral code from the messengers of empire to the local populations. Colonial governors were especially important in emphasising cricket as a ritual demonstration of British behaviour, standards, and moral codes both public and private.’ Imperialists were so successful that the Bollywood film industry plans its releases around the cricketing calendar; gambling on cricket makes up the vast majority of sports betting in the country; India’s national cricket team has many of the world’s top players; and the Indian Premier League is the most lucrative domestic league on the planet.

And as if that wasn’t enough imperial heritage to face up to, Modi could, if he wanted, take on the popularity of other sports introduced by the British, from horse racing (‘the sport of kings, as it was known widely, was inevitably among the first of sporting activities to be introduced to new colonial situations, partly because of the availability of horses, partly because of its traditional association with the English landed gentry, and partly because of its established gambling tradition’) to croquet (‘genteel games like croquet were to be found in most outposts of empire along with indoor activities such as billiards, board games, and different forms of card playing’), tennis (the Colonial Secretary Lord Milner once came to visit Palestine and, after taking tea with the Governor of Hebron and his guests, played tennis with them; the ball boys were two Arab convicts who had been excused from prison for the occasion, but had to fulfil their duties on court while in leg-irons) and football (Sir Richard Turnbull, a governor of Aden, once remarked that ‘when the British empire finally sank beneath the waves of history, it would leave behind it only two monuments: one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression “Fuck off ”’).

Let’s face it, Modi would have less on his hands if he attempted to delete dal, or honking in traffic, or religion, from Indian culture. But the ultimate point I’m making here is not that decolonization is futile. Some of these initiatives, and those elsewhere around the globe, are crucial steps in restoring the self-respect and agency of the formerly colonized. In India, they clearly mean a great deal to lots of people: outside New Parliament House, I’m approached by a homeless man who I assume is going to request money, but he instead enquires where I come from and then asks, with pride, ‘Do you have anything like this in your country?’, indicating the new Parliament. I have to admit that we probably don’t: while the Indians have rapidly put up this building, plans to refurbish the disintegrating Houses of Parliament in London are the subject of interminable argument. My ultimate point is that decolonization, which is growing in popularity as an idea across India, across the former British empire and in Britain itself, can only ever be tokenistic. Having spent years tracing the legacies of British imperialism in Britain, and having now spent several more years tracing the legacies of imperialism across the globe, I realize that the British empire’s influence upon the quarter of the planet it occupied, and its gravitational influence upon the world outside it, has been profound. British imperialism is baked into our world and, frankly, it would be easier to take the ghee out of the masala omelettes I’ve become addicted to eating for breakfast in India.

Empireworld is out 25th January

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