Thursday, August 17, 2006

On the legacy of the Raj

Once upon a time I used to watch The West Wing diligently. This was the post-Clinton era. Compared with the boring one and the dumb one, Jeb Bartlet looked a lot better. As one of those East Coast liberal rags said, the show captured the zeitgeist of the era. Then 9/11 happened. Soon after, Aaron Sorkin left the show. And by 2003, the real world became lot more interesting than anything on the show. These days, with actual politics becoming passé, I decided to watch old episodes about the Bartlet Administration. I am glad I did so. The first three seasons are great television, though you have to wonder why the characters walk around so much. But this post is not about The West Wing. Rather, it is about something I saw in one of the episodes.

In one of the episodes, the Indian Prime Minister visits the United States. She gives him a chess set, one used by her grandfather to play with Lord Mountbatten. In case there is any doubt, the President actually says: Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the greatest minds of the century, played this set while convincing Mountbatten of necessity of Indian independence. Right, Priyanka Gandhi, I thought. Wait, hang on, isn’t she the great-grand daughter?

Anyway, the President says he 'understands' the Indian stance over Kashmir. He tells the First Lady that the US foreign policy should tilt to India, that India is preferred to China because of democracy, the rule of law and the English language.

The rule of law, democracy manifest in a constitutional government, a free press and a professional civil service, and the English language that has been Indianized into the country’s own language — these are the legacies of the Raj that has ‘served the country well’, so said Prime Minister Singh (the actual one, not Rajiv Gandhi’s imagined sister) after receiving an honorary degree at Oxford last year.

Of course, the rule of law and democracy were not gifts of the British Raj. If the Raj was all one needed to sustain democracy then Pakistan would not be ruled by a uniformed man today. Rather, the rule of law and democracy were enshrined into the Indian constitution by the founding fathers. And there is more to it than just the constitution. Iraq and Afghanistan have fine words in their constitutions. The legacy of the Raj or not, the survival, no the thriving, of democracy in India has to be one of the biggest achievements of the last century.

While we could debate about democracy being a legacy of the Raj, there is really little doubt that we are writing this in English because John Company, and not the French, won in the 18th century. And while Mr Singh mentioned cricket only in passing, surely that has to be among the greatest legacies the Raj left behind.

Or are they? After all, more people learn English every year in China than anywhere else. And as for cricket, well as Bhubaan from Lagaan says, it is just daanda-gulli anyway.

One legacy of the Raj that is seldom mentioned is Desh’s borders. Everyone knows that the British decided the border in Punjab and Bengal. Most of Desh marked the setting of the Radcliff Line earlier this week. But Desh’s external borders — the Durand Line that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan and the McMahon Line between China and India — were also set by the Raj. Add to this the fact that Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan are independent countries because of arrangements made by imperial bureaucrats.

The borders set by the British, the external as well as the internal ones, have been honored by the Raj’s successors in both India and Pakistan. These countries have quarreled over Kashmir, where the Empire did not set the boundary. India fought China over land Indians did not even know they were granted by the British! Similarly, Pakistan has accepted its western borders as set by the Raj. Just think what if Kandahar was incorporated into the Frontier Province by the British.

Borders decide who is legally an Indian and who is not. Borders decide where Desh ends and Phoren begins. Desh’s borders must be the single most important legacy of the Raj.