29 April 2010

Be British

Purportedly, the title of this post was the last statement of Captain Edward John Smith from the bridge of The Titanic, before she sunk in the depths of the north Atlantic. The simple statement was a summon to the men to overcome their survival instincts and display the quintessential British qualities. Many of these qualities set apart the British race from the ‘uncouth’ majority of mankind – chivalry, honour, being a stickler for protocol and of course, the tight upper lip.

The British, as a race and The England, as a country is so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche that it is difficult to determine where the Englishness ends and Indianness begins and vice versa.
From cricket being a religion to English being our lingua franca, British have left their mark in many aspects of Indian life.

The Brits have given us a lot of baggage, probably more than we can carry – right from the equation of the ruler and the ruled to a deeply entrenched inferiority complex (an offshoot of Aryan supremacy theory) to our already caste ridden society to that cancer on the world map called ‘Pakistan’ and many other such Frankenstein's monsters.

To be fair to them, British have also contributed immensely by making what we know today as ‘India’ from an assortment of feudal states plagued by in-fighting, creating enduring institutions like the armed forces, civil services and railways, eradicating many abhorrent practices like child marriage, female infanticide, sati etc., at least by enacting laws (implementation was a different aspect altogether).

But then in addition to crippling our indigenous industries and economies, they also imposed on us an education system whose products are not proud of their language, culture and history. Again, a counter argument can be India never had any cultural heritage of its ‘own’ and this education system is precisely the reason India’s macro-economic future looks promising.

However, as I have argued elsewhere on this blog, macro-economic parameters are strong only for one-tenth of the population who uphold all the inequities created and perpetuated by the British. These are the beneficiaries of the system who better their qualities of lives by exploiting the under-privileged.

In the same manner as most of the Western countries have become what they are i.e. developed countries – by plain and simple exploitation of Asian, African & South American nations. Call it whichever ‘-ism’ you may – imperialism, colonialism, slavery, occupation, it has been the hallmark of the industrialized nations since the last three centuries. And as any informed and rational human being knows and understands The U.S is no holy cow in these matters either. When colonialism ended in second half of 20th Century, various other covert and overt means were employed to continue the loot. These included shenanigans of CIA in overthrowing legitimate governments.

In the Nuremberg trials, most of the Nazis were tried and punished for the unspeakable cruelty perpetrated by them, collectively termed as “crimes against humanity”. The US, The UK and The NATO have always feigned as the keepers and flag bearers of freedom, liberty and democracy as the most cherished values of the mankind. It's a different story that their war-mongerers conveniently turn into peace brokers and lap up Noble Peace Prizes. A case in point is Henry Kissinger. NATO's Nuclear Non-Proliferation pundits also conveniently forget that the only time nuclear weapons were used in the history of mankind was done by The US.

I have sometimes wondered whether the cruelties perpetrated by the British in the Cellular Jail, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre where Dyer ordered his troops to fire at the densest parts of the unarmed crowd consisting mostly of the women and children, the mostly man-made ‘Bengal famine of 1943’ and innumerable other instances, should also have been tried as ‘Crimes against Humanity’.

Just as Kissinger, Bush, Cheney and their ilk should be summarily tried and executed without much fuss in the manner of Eichmann, Himmler and other Nazis.

A visit to Jallianwala Bagh around 7 years back filled me with rage. So does the scene of the massacre every time I watch the movie ‘Gandhi’. I just cannot watch it with a pathological detachment. I guess no self-respecting Indian can.

The gentlemanly behaviour of the British doesn’t vindicate such inhuman behaviours. At best, they are hypocrites and at worst, perpetrators of genocide. The same holds true for the US as well.

Coming to what made me write this post in the first place, institutions like the IAS and armed forces simply reinforce these notions of elitism, exclusivity etc. These careers are as much about a lifestyle as it is about the prestige associated with the profession.

Mess parties, evening visits to clubs for having gin & tonic and a game of bridge, having personal orderlies, regimental traditions & religiously followed protocols – all these are basically manifestations of the British attributes I highlighted at the beginning of the post.

Such lifestyles, however glamorous they may be, simply reinforce the inequities in our already feudal society wherein some people are doomed to remain at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. There are many subtle things, like treating one’s wife more like a ‘prized trophy’ to be carried in one’s arm (rather than a man's intellectual equal) to the appropriate notions of behaviour for a lady, which constitute this kind of lifestyle. Doon School, St. Stephens all promote the kind of elitism where your pedigree probably matters more than your calibre. I remember coming across a reunion invitation of Stepahnians which invited everybody along with their ‘gracious spouses’. The implicit assumption in this invitation was most of Stephanians are men with wives who need to be ‘graceful’ if not anything else.

The saddest part is, as human beings, we all long for such exclusiveness. It is as much about having a sense of belonging as it is about ‘us vs. them’. Elite schools, regimental ties, old boys’ associations, gated communities, club memberships, aspirational brands all validate such clannishness. We are the ‘brown sahibs’ or ‘kale angrez’, Bhagat Singh had referred to, long ago.
Talking about rituals which are at best colonial vestiges, here's a well-written piece.


Amul Kumar Saha said...

I couldn't agree more. The rationale that you've provided alongwith your opinions, goes in line with the header which your blog puts in as a disclamier. :-)

Rahul Banerjee said...

While redesigning my blog I came across the stats section and there i found that a few visits had taken place to my blog by people who had first visited your blog. So I reached your blog to see who it is that is unvanquished. Imagine my pleasure therefore to find someone else like I who is an apostate engineer with a hearty dislike for all things British including cricket. I in fact dislike football also! Not because of the game itself but the way in which it is broadcast over TV mesmerising people into inane ecstasies!I also noted with approbation that you have read Fountainhead. Though I must confess that at present I do not really like Roark or Rand so much, there was a time when both inspired me considerably. I wonder whether you have seen the film Casablanca. If you haven't something tells me that you will like it immensely.

Anupam said...

Nice read it was. Here is an optimistic view I have about it - http://godearthlove.blogspot.com/2010/12/decline-of-saheb.html . In a nutshell, allow at least a century to shrug off 2 centuries. Emerge, it will.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Unlike the previous comment-writer, I did not get the impression that you heartily dislike all things British, Rajarshi. Rather, I think you feel the same way I do - a longing to admire them for many wonderful attributes they have (or rather, used to have once upon a time: see my recent blogpost titled 'Oh, Albion'), and simultaneously an inability to forget all the atrocious and vulgar things they did in violation of their own so-called honour codes. I am reminded of an interview in which Tagore averred that the best of the British were the finest people in the world that he had ever known, and when asked about the worst of the British, he chose to be quiet.

One suggestion/request: why don't you allow comments to pop up instead of going over to a new tab (you can do it in Blogger settings), and allow the date of a comment to be shown, instead of just the time, which is not very relevant? Also, installing the widget called 'Recent comments' will help you as well as your readers to keep track better of what's going on at your blog...