Britain's colonial India hangover is nauseating

Nirpal Dhaliwal
Nirpal DhaliwalApr 08, 2016 | 13:43

Britain's colonial India hangover is nauseating

These past few months will, in time, be regarded as the moment when the Raj came home to roost here in Britain.

Last November, this country witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of its prime minister giving a warm-up speech at Wembley Stadium to 60,000 UK citizens whose hearts were throbbing expectantly for the main act: the arrival on stage of Narendra Modi.


For a British prime minister – a Conservative one at that – to enthusiastically greet this foreign leader and be so welcoming of how dearly British-Indians regard both him and India was a watershed event. Only David Cameron – one of the smartest politicians the UK has ever produced – would have the nous to do that, and do it without reaping the storm of criticism that one would expect from Britain's jingoistic press.

And this week, the news here has been filled with two stories that even more starkly highlight the reversing relationship the British have with the people they once lorded over.

Tata Steel's decision to pull out of the UK – with the possible loss of 40,000 jobs – has sparked a paroxysm of national anxiety. Watching Tata's European head, Koushik Chatterjee – with his desi accent and trademark Bengali side-parting – nonchalantly speak of Britain as a busted flush was a sight I never expected to see while growing up.

To observe the British media and political class jittering as envoys were dispatched to Mumbai, wondering whether the Indians would be merciful, was to witness the moment when the British finally, with great anguish and humiliation, began their slow collective transition into reality and a post-imperial sense of themselves.


The media here has already excitedly found a possible Indian saviour, the Punjabi magnate Sanjeev Gupta, who's shown an interest in buying the Tata plants – but he would want the sort of massive subsidies that the UK government could not give Tata, and would surely downsize the operations anyway.

If it wasn't galling enough for the Brits to watch Indians pull the plug on their industrial base this week, and then haggle over the the leftovers, they also had to deal with a report on the British education system which revealed that Indian kids in the UK outperform white British ones by a staggering 50 per cent.

While in the past some would have regarded such a statistic as proof of what an open society Britain is, a place where immigrants are accepted and their children able to thrive, the figures have this week been universally interpreted as a national crisis, proof that something is chronically wrong with Britain. Afterall, what is Britain coming to if the cards here aren't reliably stacked against the darkies?

To be so comprehensively outsmarted by a people who arrived in the UK with nothing – no money, education or ability to speak English in many cases – is a difficult fact for the British to digest.


There has been much talk of the systemic dysfunction of British schools – the same schools that Indian kids have no problem excelling in – and bizarre widespread allegations that somehow "standards have dropped", because brown kids can meet them while white ones can't.

Indians overtaking Brits at school is only a microcosm of the wider reversal of fortunes the two peoples are experiencing in the world today. And global reality is something the British – a people who acquired a grossly inflated sense of themselves as they stumbled fortuitously into their very brief empire – find excruciating to comprehend now that colonial arrogance cannot pass muster anymore.

The empire underlies the self-loathing that permeates British society. Left-wing Brits are disgusted that Britain had an empire, while right-wing ones are appalled that Britain lost one. In both cases, the legacy of the empire is a neurosis that delusionally places Britain at the centre of human history: as the country that's responsible for all that is either right or wrong with the world.

The fact that the rest of mankind regards the British and their history as largely irrelevant is too painful to accept. For both the Left and the Right, their obsession with the empire – be it proud or shame-ridden – is merely a narcissistic fantasy with which to prop up their very shaky sense of national self-esteem.

The Brits are obsessed with India in a way that Indians certainly aren't with them. Wodehouse-reading Anglophiles are an increasing rarity in India now, whose young and thrusting population look within themselves for inspiration, and to China and the USA when glancing for it abroad. But there's an embarrassing and tragic yearning for India in Britain these days – an India that's long gone, if it ever existed at all.

The bookshops here are bursting with sentimental tomes about the Raj, while the dynamic ever-evolving actuality of modern-day India is largely ignored. And the television series Indian Summers is now into its second season: an abysmal piece of nostalgia about the last days of the empire. Shot in Malaysia, it bewildering portrays Shimla as steamy and tropical, not the chilly outpost the Brits chose precisely because it reminded them of home, and is full of pen-pushing babus conflicted by their desire for independence while admiring the merits of British civilisation, and sweaty gin-swilling Brits lusting after the natives while trying to reconcile the responsibilities of ruling them with the increasing realisation that the Indians are – lo and behold! – human beings just like themselves. Complete tosh.

To underscore it all, William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, will next week undertake their official visit to India, giving the British media endless colourful photo opportunities of their future king and queen reconnecting with the vast exotic land that, but for a tryst with destiny, they would have been crowned emperor and empress of.

The Brits will be rapt before their TV screens, dreaming weepily of the alternate reality in which this would be the case. Indians will enjoy it too, of course, having the closest couple Britain has to Beyonce and Jay-Z amble admiringly about their country, advertising its wares to the world.

This sort of mushy nonsense is staple fare in Britain. The BBC is constantly producing documentaries, all of them either desperately searching for some dim reflection of the British in India – in its railways, architecture or tea plantations – or following wide-eyed Brits, babbling in wonder as they take a whistle-stop tour of a lush and magical land that defies description. None of them tell the British public what it really needs to know: how to deal effectively with Indians.

David Cameron, however, does seem to know. Unlike other minorities here, British-Indians are actively encouraged by his government to develop and deepen their relationship with their country of origin: Cameron's compering of the Wembley Modi-fest was all about that. The reason is, of course, the OCI status they are entitled to that gives them a massively privileged commercial position in India that no other British citizens have.

Britain has an NRI population of 1.5 million – the biggest Indian population outside of India – and these people are a strategic national asset, with a ready access to the Indian market that the British government is shrewdly seeking to leverage. British-Indians are Britain's, and the European Union's, strongest foothold in India and the wider Asian economy.

The irony of it all is that when British-Indians wake up – as, I think, the British government is nudging them to – and start regarding themselves as an extension of India rather than as a minority fitting quietly into Britain, their dual status will supercharge their already conspicuous success.

The British would benefit greatly from this as a whole, but also be confronted with the reality that their former imperial subjects now enjoy an almost colonial position of power and privilege in their own country.

This phenomenon will agonise the Brits. But they will console themselves, as ever, with schmaltzy historical-dramas or the works of William Dalrymple, plunging their heads into the sand as they delude themselves that they are – like some pining, long-forgotten party to a one-night stand with someone who was way out their league – the ones who uniquely understand India and matter most to her.

Last updated: April 08, 2016 | 20:37
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