Grade Crossing

Colonial hangover: How we let the Brits still rule us

After we got freedom at midnight, we still had George VI holding the title of Emperor of India for more than ten months. And that's not all.

 |  Grade Crossing  |  5-minute read |   28-04-2015
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Spanning nearly two centuries, rich with intricate and obscure subplots, and having myriad heroes and villains in it, the Indian independence movement can easily be registered as one of the longest of its kind in human history. Yet, it all boiled down to the second quarter of the 20th century for changes to start appearing. A conventional analysis of India’s freedom movement tells us that, broadly, we had two factions of activists – one that used peaceful ways, and one that used violent ways. In other words – one that requested freedom, and one that demanded freedom.

As per scholarly opinion and popular culture, it is the first group that fetched us freedom. Mahatma Gandhi pioneered the practice of ahimsa and used it as a weapon against the British Raj. Since it followed non-violent methods, the weapon was blunt by design. And blunter became the demands of the Congress when the party mellowed its initial cry for purna swaraj (complete independence) to a request for mere dominion status. Most of the leaders agreed to it, and an independent India was born, which would later be upgraded to a sovereign state.

If we hark back to India’s infancy as an independent country, we may find certain things at sixes and sevens. Those who invest a little more curiosity to put things into perspective, can see that our first leaders were not much of visionaries. That a political movement which believed in ahimsa to get freedom had to eventually resort to armed forces to protect that freedom may sound completely farcical, but the Congress did just that. The widely acclaimed ahimsa ideals were jettisoned in no time as the Indian armed forces were garrisoned to annex some key areas to the Indian Union in the following years. We engaged the forces to (rightly) put himsa into practice in Hyderabad in 1948, Dadra and Nagar Haveli in 1954, Goa in 1961, and Sikkim in 1975. History has it that those Indian governments were led by the same political party that had chastised one Subhas Chandra Bose for propounding the idea of an armed rebellion to win freedom!

The Congress ran, perhaps the most collective struggle against the Raj as it had a pride of leaders, a democratic process internally, throngs of disciplined followers, and strategic plans to broach discussions with the enemy. Yet, it did not have any sensible proposition to govern the nation independently once the enemy packed its bags. That leaves us with enough room for a fundamental question – were we not prepared enough to receive the freedom in 1947, or did we get it too soon to our liking?

After we got freedom at midnight, we still had George VI holding the title of Emperor of India for more than ten months. He still was the head of the state and had two representatives, first in Louis Mountbatten and then in C Rajagopalachari. For the following two-and-a-half years, we retained George VI as the monarch of India. Although the first Indian government had its own national anthem, it still had a special place for "God Save the King" (the male monarch version of "God Save the Queen") as its royal anthem.

One may argue that these happened because we were a dominion then. At least that brings everybody to a concurrence – that we were just a dominion with “conditions apply” tags tied around us when we boasted of independence. But in 1950, we abrogated monarchy and implemented our own Constitution. One of our citizens became the head of the state and we became a sovereign republic. But political changes did not portend the revival of the armed forces.

For nearly one-and-a-half years after independence, the Indian Army was headed by British officers. Our Air Force continued to have British bosses for about seven years post independence. Four different Britishers enjoyed relatively long terms as the Indian Navy chiefs until 1958. Of these, the case of the Indian Navy is of byzantine complexity. It may unsettle those who have conjured up the images of the Indian flags replacing the British flags in our shipping establishments soon after independence, but the truth is, the Union Jack continued to adorn the canton of our naval ensign until we declared ourselves republic. But the St George’s Cross in the ensign continued for another 61 years before it was replaced with the Indian Navy crest in 2001. But after just three years, the crest was abandoned from the ensign, and abracadabra, the Cross was reinstated! And to this day, it remains unchanged.

There are several other colonial ideograms that live on. It was in the most atypical fashion that India inducted herself back into the British Commonwealth (which would be rebranded as the Commonwealth of Nations) through the 1949 London Declaration, against the norm that a republic would automatically go out of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth may be representative of the free association of the member nations, but it still retains a monarchial style in its organisation structure. Although only symbolically, the member countries are made to accept the British monarch as the titular head of this “free association”. When a small country like The Gambia showed the spunk to move out of the Commonwealth two years ago, President Yahya Jammeh accused that it was nothing more than a neo-colonial organisation. But for some shady reasons, those who have administered India over the years have abased themselves by behaving as if we got conditional freedom in a begging bowl. It is a congenital defect, one that is stitched into our chromosomes, and one that cannot be corrected in a trice.

Figuratively speaking, we still allow our pride to kowtow to our former masters in a trance, cast by an extended spell of colonial hangover.


Sreejith Panickar Sreejith Panickar @panickars

The writer is a columnist, researcher and social activist. He is the founder-member of Mission Netaji.

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