The British left six decades too early

The British left six decades too early
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First Published: Fri, Aug 14 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Mon, Aug 31 2009. 09 17 PM IST
Mumbai’s Sea Link bridge took 10 years to make, cost Rs1,600 crore and was inaugurated last month.
For Rs50, it carries drivers across the Mahim Bay from Bandra to Worli’s Seaface. The bridge is designed to shorten the drive from north Mumbai suburbs to the city’s south, where the business district is. Once the driver gets off the bridge at Worli, however, he cannot continue south.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
This is because the Maharashtra government planned only for the Sea Link to bridge the bay: No thought was given to what the driver was to do once the bridge ended. Blocked by a divider, the only way the driver can move is back north. So he drives in the opposite direction. Going around a signal, he travels an extra 1.2km before returning to the exact spot where he exited the bridge, but this time facing the right direction. We accept this mindlessness because it’s normal in India.
Indians don’t fully understand modern infrastructure because we have made no contribution to its advance, though we can purchase its designs. For us a bridge is an independent thing. Its environment is a different thing.
Our response to terror attacks is to add a security layer to five-star hotels. The idea of controlling the environment rather than the venue, the idea of a system and its process is alien, and difficult. We can learn about this, but we have nobody to teach us.
The British left in 1947, and they left too soon. We celebrate Independence Day, but another six decades of dependence as Great Britain’s colony would have been good for us. We could have learnt how to run cities. No harm in admitting what is obvious for all to see: We cannot even manage traffic.
Mumbai, not Hong Kong, would have been the centre for finance in Asia, instead of the second-rate city it has become since the British left.
Delhi would have more bits like the ones the British built, the only elegant parts of the city, just as British South Bombay is the only elegant part. Cities such as Surat and Ahmedabad and Hyderabad and Indore would have become civilized. Under English and Scottish bureaucrats, architecture, certainly civic architecture, would not be as ugly as it is.
Justice would mean something. Gandhi and Nehru repeatedly got arrested voluntarily because, correctly, they trusted British justice. Today’s politician resists arrest even though he may be innocent, because he’s liable to get stitched up, like Omar Abdullah.
What else would be better? Education, through the Macaulay plan.
Europeans, of course, told us who and what we were. After 3,000 years of illiteracy, we learnt of the existence of the Indus Valley civilization from John Marshall in 1924. The identity of our greatest emperor, Ashok (died 232 BC), whose lion capital is our emblem, whose wheel is on our flag, was revealed to us by James Prinsep 175 years ago.
Our Aryan ancestry (or fantasy) was gifted to us by William Jones in 1786, when he reported the link between Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Latin. The barbarism of Muslims at Vijayanagar was revealed by Robert Sewell, when he translated the 16th century work of Fernaos Nunes and Domingos Paes. Between 1879 and 1894, Max Muller translated the entire Upanishad, Vedas and Dhammapada. This helped Vivekanand go lecture the Americans on India’s greatness at Chicago in 1893.
The great German tradition of Indology continues through men such as Heinrich von Stietencron, but a sustained engagement through colonial government would have resulted in more attention to Indian studies.
Growing up in Surat, the only books I had access to were in Andrews Library, built in 1850. This is because Gujaratis, a mercantile people influenced by Jains, have no use for literature. The British stuffed it down our throats like medicine, educating the first reformers, people such as Narmad Shankar who attended the Elphinstone Institute. Shankar compiled Gujarati’s first dictionary in 1873, but the native instinct was strong and he reverted to Vedic tribalism in the last decade of his life.
That is the cycle South Asians normally follow: illiteracy, awakening through contact with European culture, and then a belief in our superiority.
But our bombast is groundless. America’s First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution also gave us the absolute right to freedom of speech. Within one year, the government amended that, denying us that freedom—and wisely. That was because we cannot have freedom of speech in a country where you can get killed for what you say. Or start a riot. It was different for Periyar and Manto because they lived under rule of law.
Nirad Chaudhuri was hated in 1951 for saying that British rule shaped and quickened all that was good within us. Today our best minds accept colonization by migrating to nations where they cannot vote. But they go anyway, because they can succeed under the other man’s law, where the environment is better controlled than in the Indian city.
The Indian city would have benefited from remaining colonized, but what of the village? In 1981, Amartya Sen concluded that famine was better managed under democracy. But famine is an exceptional situation. Millions die every year in India from malnutrition, and independent India has been no good at changing this.
Watching Doordarshan a couple of days ago, I saw an advertisement. “You can build a toilet in your house now!” it said, “contact the municipal department”.
Why did the villager need to be told in 2009 that he could build a toilet in his house? I could think of two reasons: He did not understand hygiene, and he was stopped from building one by the village’s upper caste.
A people who block each other and themselves need a patron.
Aakar Patel is a director at Hill Road Media.
Write to Aakar at replytoall@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 14 2009. 01 15 AM IST