Thoughtful Vikrum Sequeira has this about opinions he has run into, here in India, about the British Raj. He mentions Jerry Rao’s recent In Praise of Thomas Macaulay, a piece of writing not calculated to endear Rao to “leftist dimwits” nor “nativist fanatics” (both his phrases). After all, Macaulay is arguably the British colonial figure we Indians most resent, for his expressed desire to produce a race of “brown Englishmen” here in India.
Now Vikrum is neither a leftist dimwit (an oxymoron of a phrase, I should tell Rao, but that's not germane here) nor a nativist fanatic, but he quotes Rao with apparent dismay that Rao would praise Macaulay, and, by extension, the British. Didn’t the British rape this country in many ways? Then how is it, asks Vikrum, that so many Indians have this nostalgia for the Raj?
But I think Rao is making an important point, and it really has little to do with Macaulay. He says it’s time Indians moved beyond blaming the British for our ills; beyond mourning the great damage they did to us. At 58 years old, we should mature enough to be at peace with the legacy of colonialism, whatever it is.
If the British did damage, they also built things. If we can blame them for ruining a thriving economy, we can also applaud them for leaving us with institutions. If we can resent Macaulay for his contemptuous view of India and Indians, we can also thank him for the strength our facility with English gives us in today’s world – something he could never have anticipated.
But to me, Rao is saying even more than this balancing act of positives and negatives. His message, and I couldn’t agree more, is that it’s time we saw all this, good or bad, as just part of our heritage. And that goes beyond the British too. The first Moghuls were rapacious invaders, but half a millennium later, they are part of our history and heritage. Consider all that they contributed to this land and its people; consider how truly Indian those emperors were. Similarly with the Portuguese, the French, Arab traders; and maybe there’ll be a time, a century from now, when we can look at Hollywood and Levi’s the same way.
All of which reminds me of what a Portuguese friend and professor of civil engineering, Dinar Camotim, said to me in a Lisbon bar in 1998. Himself of Goan Hindu descent, Camotim was puzzled by the then active campaign in Goa to ignore the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India, given the colonial catastrophe he set in motion. Camotim observed that Goa owes its very existence, its identity, to Vasco and Portugal. If not for him, if not for Portuguese colonialism, those 3700 square kilometers would today be just another stretch of Maharashtra or Karnataka. What would distinguish it from every other stretch of those states?
We don’t need to ignore or excuse colonial excess; certainly, colonialism harmed us in ways that still haunt us. But it happened. History is hardly good or bad: it happens, that's all. Yes, at 58 it will do us good to see it that way.