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Kolkata - the legacy of empire



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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April 13, 2010

I have spent eight months now in the glorious city of Kolkata. You wouldn't think it is glorious from those who still pedal the story of "The Black Hole" and quote Kipling. Paul Theroux, an exceptional novelist, in his new book, "A Dead Hand, A Crime in Calcutta", continues the myth. The city "went on growing, yet it still looked rickety and ruinous, and in areas of faded elegance and dramatic misery a bad smell lingered, haunted and human", he writes.

But it is glorious in many ways. At its centre is a park larger than New York's Central Park, full of boys and men playing cricket, and gardens with well tended flowers. In the midst of it sits the Victoria Monument, one of the finest buildings built in the nineteenth century that housed the central government of the British Asian empire. Right through the city are fine mansions. Some are badly decayed. Others are being restored and spruced up as Indian prosperity grows and spreads.

Where did this legacy come from? Where did the world's second largest train network come from? Where did the tens of thousands of schools, health clinics, the telephone and electricity originate? Where did the universities come from? And who taught them the high standards of academia that has not just created scientists, doctors , novelists and economists of high repute (a London professor told me if you put 50 of the world's top economists in a room half would be Indian and half of those from Kolkata) but today is producing some of the world's best IT specialists. The "New City" of Kolkata has to be seen to be believed - miles and miles of brand new office buildings with what seems like every IT firm under the sun, factories and housing. It will soon rival Bangalore as the IT centre of the sub continent. It is rooted deep down in the maths teaching that the British brought to the culture that invented the concept of zero and then stagnated.

And where did the law and the world's largest and most bustling democracy come from? And the sharp, intelligent, independent, news media and the increasing respect for human rights. One American banker said to me, "China so far has surged ahead of India because it doesn't have law, debate and democracy. Now India will overtake China because it has law, debate and democracy." We could also add because the Indian elite has experienced the fruit of the European Enlightenment, and is English speaking to boot.

Though it fought many small wars, the Empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. Certainly India's debilitating infighting was subdued.

And we should add that free trade, agricultural research and organised famine relief started India on the road to prosperity. Arguably free trade was the most important component, avoiding what would have been high protectionist tariffs in Britain. British rule facilitated capital export to India.

All this was powered by a small off shore European island, despite the fact that the total number of British government officials in India was just over 900. (The military and the commercial sector had far larger numbers.)

These days Indians will admit to the British achievement. But for decades it was barely mentioned. In Europe and North America in some quarters it has been a capital offense to look kindly on the British legacy.

India lived through this at a price. E.M Forster in "A Passage to India" and Paul Scott in "The Raj Quartet", with all the subtlety of good writers, take one into the day to day world of the Raj. Apart from a chosen few, Indians were treated too often despicably. To say the British had airs is an understatement. To say they could be condescending, discriminatory and often racist is more the truth.

Indian sensitivities were dealt with crudely and harshly. Not until the time of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were the British forced to change their attitude, and it came gradually. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill had to deal with Gandhi for negotiations on independence he described him as "a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the vice regal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor".

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The humiliation of the educated Indian left a bitter residue. Despite Gandhi and Nehru it took a generation - some would say two - for independent India to find its feet. Apart from Tagore it produced no great modern literature but now produces some of the world's best. Its classical music and dance was ignored. It produced no great indigenous architecture or painting since the eighteenth century. Now the arts are surging and flourishing. Even parts of Bollywood are becoming serious.

Britain did not create the right climate for any of this. It stifled Indian creativity. It assumed - and it became a self fulfilling prophecy - that the Indians were not up to it. That's over.


Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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