Better the Devil You Know

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

Brit-bashing in India is on the rise. Well, let’s say we deserve it.

For years us Brits hammered you Indians. As Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India, the ransacking of India the British would come to call trade was in fact “plunder”. Nehru describes how the “Pagoda Tree”—or the tree of money—”was shaken again and again until the most terrible famines ravaged Bengal”.

It’s only natural for a modernising India to be growing in confidence. I recall visiting India in the early nineties as a teenager when requests “for the British to return” to ailing India—perhaps tongue in cheek from some—seemed ubiquitous. Thirty years later and the situation has altered—while Brits and Americans may seem more preoccupied with defining what constitutes a woman, Indians have scaled the heights of the financial world both in the City of London and at home, while Indian gross domestic product has quadrupled since 1990 and almost caught up with Great Britain. A self-confident Indian culture pervades my country, from food to the arts to fashion to politics. Even our Jaguars are Indian these days.

While the Indian attitude towards Brits has become more assertive, the British attitude towards Indians has undeniably improved. Well, it could hardly have worsened…

I recall the tale of my great-grandmother who, despite Indians displaying gallantry in two World Wars, dragged her grandson off the seat of a London bus because an Indian fellow dared sit beside him. With a marked improvement in mindset, my grandmother waxed lyrical about her childhood days in India as the daughter of a British military man, and she was profoundly influenced by Indian civilisation and legacy. She would reminisce about sitting astride the mighty Zamzama Gun with her school chums in her birthplace Lahore, leave spent gloriously in Ooty, or playing hide and seek with local children amidst the ancient monuments of Mahabalipuram. My late father had nothing against Indians during his lifetime, in spite of comments from the great and good in British Society which were often disparaging to say the least—typified by Prince Philip’s off-the-cuff remark about a fusebox at an Edinburgh electronics factory bursting with wires looking “as if it was put in by an Indian”. As for my generation, well we have a British Indian as Home Secretary and one as Chancellor of the Exchequer. There may be some oafs left in British society who are racist towards Indians, but, as they shovel mango pickles and chutneys onto their papads, they are both dim and the exception; as rare and regarded as English restaurants in Paris.

Which is why it’s a great shame that—tropes aside—modern India engages in so much Brit-bashing, particularly at a time when we Brits are the most affable and civilised we have ever been towards Indians. To us, Indian democracy shines like a beacon in the East against the increasingly dark backcloth of Communist China flexing its muscles by testing hypersonic orbital weapons, implementing dystopian social credit systems and deviously infiltrating Western universities. Yet many Indians kid themselves that they have more in common with once vanquished China than English-speaking lovers of freedom and cricket in the West.

Let’s be clear. My ancestors ravaged India. They stole your wealth and played state off against state until they won it all, returning to Blighty with chests full of pearls prized off Maharajah’s palace floors and ships full of fancy silks they could turn into cummerbunds. Yes, we Brits left you with some rather lovely infrastructure, yet another language and a sport allowing the rise of world-beaters like Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar, but our abuse of your people and land was tangible and the ledgers shall not be erased. We British tried to shape India into our vision of what India should be, with scant regard for your local customs and traditions.

But, hey, that was eons ago.

Abusive relationships, once laid bare, can repair. Abusers can grow new skins and fresh insights. Time can heal anything. Victims can learn how to stand on their own two feet and give as good as they get. Go to Bangalore and see the mixed couples working shoulder to shoulder at the cutting edge of information technology. Young and educated Indians I have met recently have no animosity or rancour towards the Brits. They love their stays and studies in the UK. They are bursting with modern ideas and expectations.

Most of the Brit bashing comes from India’s intellectuals of a leftist and so-called liberal persuasion—caught up in the wider woke liberal agenda—whose puritan appeal may right now be broader than it should be but whose penchant for statue toppling and divisive postmodern identity politicking will inevitably end in the failure of a circular firing squad not dissimilar to the fate of other ideological absolutists.

Be positive. Be optimistic. We now have the chance to look back on our first marriage with open eyes—not as some nostalgic or airbrushed fantasy but as a nuanced history which none of us alive today actually lived or were ever responsible for. Now is a great opportunity to look to the future—along the lines that Anglosphere advocate Madhav Nalapat, Indian conservative thinker Jerry Rao and the politician Jairam Ramesh aspire to. Let’s heed their clarion call to “move on” from the old rhetoric of Raj—for India to re-engage with Britain and the wider Anglosphere and Commonwealth in a positive and confident manner.

But by all means keep on bashing us Brits. Why not? Everyone else does, from South Americans to Europeans to our Australasian cousins. We English take the brunt of the insults—we are well-used to having the world against us. We are well-aware our self-confidence can sometimes come across as arrogance and entitlement, despite our penchant for self-deprecating humour and regular self-flagellation sessions—certainly by our own loud and misery-gut leftists who gorge on the horrors of past imperial blunders.

Educated Brits know already that the British Raj was not just sahibs, nawabs and gulaams. Despite the yoking and subjugation, there was a great deal of British respect for India and Indians as part of Empire, before and since. Let us rejoice in the positives and enjoy recent Anglo-Indian collaborations and successes as they rekindle an ever-flickering passion. How can a frosty Russian comrade—however charming and vodka-laden—ever sate India’s wandering eye? Do Indians really feel more at ease with nations they are engaged in regular skirmishes with? Have these sudden Sinophiles ever googled the Sino-Indian War, Pangong Lake in Ladakh or the Tibet Autonomous Region?

What do we Brits and Indians have in common? We have Democracy, a love of loot—the lucre of capitalist endeavour and our mutual salute to Lakshmi—we have our shared love of sport and culture, not to forget our love of a belly-aching chuckle. What more do we need for relationship 2.0?

Like our whiskies, we have both matured into a unique and world-beating blend. This time let’s pay homage to each other as equals. Let’s be nobody’s wallah. Let’s set the world stage alight—together.

Dominic Wightman is a British businessman and political adviser. He is the Editor of Britain’s popular Country Squire Magazine and this magazine.