For a disconcertingly large constituency in Britain, Indian history ends in 1947.The two centuries leading up to that bloody year – when British rule formally ended, India gained independence and Pakistan was conjured into existence – were replete with books, articles, pamphlets, lectures and debates on India. What unites this body of work, apart from colonial condescension, is an effort to comprehend India. That impulse faded once India attained freedom.
Britain’s sins in India – racism, carnage, plunder – are a matter for British consciences. But a more confident India will also one day acknowledge that its modern state would have been improbable in the absence of the encounter with Britain. It was the British who, reacquainting Indians with their past glory, reminded them of their great and tragically squandered history. The Indian sociologist André Beteille, no apologist for empire, has written about the intellectual currents provoked by the public universities raised by the British in Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai. They revolutionised for the better a society that had been frozen for centuries in a ‘conservative and hierarchical mould’.
After independence, India surged forward; Britain’s idea of India, however, remained captive to the past. India became the subject of conservative nostalgia – epitomised by interminable documentaries about the railways – and the object of progressive pity. India hands became a vanishingly rare breed in Britain. Now, as India emerges as an economic force and Narendra Modi’s sectarian Hindu revivalism displaces Pandit Nehru’s ecumenical secularism as the state’s de facto religion, Britain has barely anyone who can demystify this extraordinary transformation.
The all-pervading ignorance of India prompted British officials to make a series of self-wounding mistakes. The late Robin Cook, visiting Delhi in 1997, offered with an almost viceregal air to act as a mediator in Kashmir.