A Passage to India?

by Ed Harvey

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

2021 is starting to feel a lot like 2020 for Boris Johnson. While vaccines are providing glimmers of a route out of Britain’s pandemic nightmare, the situation is still so precarious that Johnson had to cancel his first official bilateral trip: a trip to India as the guest of honour at Republic Day. This visit was supposed to be Brexit Britain’s coming-out party—a chance for Johnson to demonstrate the allure of Britannia, unchained from the supposed shackles of European membership and inserting itself back into the thick of Asia.

It is no accident that India is Johnson’s first planned foreign visit. Much of the rationale behind Brexit was the opportunity it presented Britain to strike fresh deals with the dynamic economies of Asia. As the leader of the Vote Leave campaign and possessing a cabinet furnished with Brexit ideologues, Johnson needs a trade pact with India. The importance of India to Boris Johnson cannot be overstated. 

The tectonic shifts in the global balance of power are bringing an end to 200 years of Western dominance and heralding a new dawn for Asia. India is one of the principal actors in this new Asian century, and Britain hopes to piggyback on India’s economic rise. It must be mildly amusing to former Indian diplomat and parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor that the current power asymmetries are akin to the 18th century, when Mughal India accounted for 23% of world GDP, and Britain was a small nation at the edge of the world.

But what role does their shared past play in their current interactions? Both countries have had a long and complicated history that reverberates through their relations today. For Britain to be successful, it must understand the legacy of its history with India and temper the shroud of imperial amnesia that is infused in elements of British thought and commentary.

Map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886

The history of Indo-British relations is dominated by Empire. In the 1600s, Mughal India was an economic juggernaut with a sophisticated banking system and culture, yet India as we know it today did not exist as an organised polity. Meanwhile, Britain was taking its first steps into the wider world. By 1765, Britain had become a key player. As the Mughal Empire declined, Britain’s power in the region grew as the East India Company gained in strength and filled its coffers. As William Dalrymple argues, the Company, with a permanent London office of 35, ran a continental-sized country with ruthless zeal towards one crucial concern: profit. 

For Jawaharlal Nehru, modern India’s first Prime Minister, the British colonial experience can be described as an enormous country house, with the British enjoying life’s luxuries and the Indians downstairs observing a strict hierarchy from the servant’s quarters. For many in Britain, the Raj (Britain’s regime in India) represented a refined, truly British escapade. It was a fiction dramatised and articulated by Kipling and Forster rather than a reality. Ultimately, the Raj collapsed after the trials of the Second World War and descended into the horrors of Partition. This shared past both attracts and repels Britain and India simultaneously. The colonial legacy and contested memory of Empire pushes the two away, but the shared language, democratic governance, and thriving South Asian community bring them together.

Lord Mountbatten swears in Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India on August 15, 1947

Nevertheless, other historians see value in Britain’s rather rapacious history in India. Niall Ferguson is perhaps Empire’s staunchest defender, arguing that nothing has done more to promote liberal norms and the free transfer of capital and goods across the globe. Importantly, while this argument has provoked fierce academic debate, it has been positively received in British society. Britons still have a mostly sentimental, wistful view of their former empire, with 32% of Britons seeing the empire as a source of pride rather than shame. 

Importantly, it is not just pride that Britons show for their empire but amnesia; there exists a wilful ignorance to the actualities of Empire that still influences British thought today. This amnesia is a common cultural inheritance that has influenced both sides of the Brexit debate. It is particularly evident in the thinking of leading Brexiteers and is represented in government. Tory grandee Iain Duncan Smith, for example, wished to be young again in Brexit Britain so that he could “buccaneer, trade and dominate the world again.” The mythologised past Duncan Smith speaks of will be cold comfort to New Delhi. India’s visceral jettisoning of Britain after declaring independence exemplifies the disdain that many Indians felt towards their experience under British rule and the dim prospects that sentimental statements on Empire will have for deeper Indo-British relations.

Empire’s legacies are woven into the fabric of modern Britain, not only in the community of 1.5 million South Asian British citizens and residents, but also in the psychological impact of Britain’s mythologised imperial past. The history of the two nations cast long shadows for their relations today. Firstly, a lingering colonial mindset will be the biggest impediment on Johnson’s thrust for a deeper economic and strategic partnership with New Delhi. Secondly, any progress in relations is dependent on Britain accepting increased South Asian migration as the price for an economic pact. Lastly, the legacy of Britain’s shared normative foundations with India may harden Johnson’s task. While many see closer ties with India as a gain, they are not swooning at a closer union with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The more Modi indulges in Hindu supremacy, the more Johnson will face resistance as a result of the shared bonds of democracy and respect for the law.

To understand Britain’s history with India is to step into a world more radically different than the one with which we are familiar. Our world now is based on different values, where more states and people have agency. Britain of 2021 is a single nation-state where once it was a vast empire. This means we should not deploy a mythologised imperial past in order to understand and explain the Britain of today and to advance her interests, for in doing so, we are asking to be deceived. The empire of the past should absolutely be treated as a distinct history entity, rather than an ideal to lionise and replicate. Britain’s future relations with India will need a different approach, and the politicians with the intelligence and skill to deliver. Johnson’s visit is merely the starting point.

Ed Harvey is a history and politics teacher based in Birmingham, England. Despite being some years removed from his international relations degree, he still carries a candle for global politics and believes that, in order to understand it, we must look to history.

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