He does not deny the exploitative excesses of the British presence in India but he also cherishes the ‘lasting legacy we inherited’, not least a ‘liberalism’ that ‘was high minded and enduring in its benefaction.’ If the two nations want a shared future based on ‘partnership, equality and friendship’ they must jettison the ‘baggage of a purely negative and wasteful interpretation of history.’ It is high time, Lalvani announces, ‘to give credit where credit is due.’
“Lalvani is amazed that fewer than 1,500 officials managed to govern the Raj at its height. ‘Today, in Delhi, that number of civil servants occupies just two buildings’”
On the face of things, there is compelling evidence to justify Lalvani’s buoyant analysis. He puts all sorts of present-day Indian institutions and ideals down to British influence: democracy, a free press, a credible judicial system, fine educational establishments, a decent police force, an apolitical army. There seems to be an assumption here that such treasures would never have evolved in India without the British, but I suppose we’ll never know.
Physical achievements are also easy to locate. Lalvani describes, in painstaking detail, the arrival of harbours, lighthouses, telegraph wires, electricity and many other contributions to the nation’s infrastructure. The 1,423-mile Grand Trunk Highway, begun in 1836, connected Calcutta to Lahore and was ‘grander than any scheme ever before conceived, even by the Romans.’ Those who preferred to travel by railway had access to 45,000 miles of track by 1947 and less than one per cent of villages were more than 50 miles from a railhead.
Lalvani has great respect for ‘Britain’s unsung, yet heroic, pioneers in India’ and concludes that ‘the sheer audacity and scale of such an endeavour, the courage and enterprise, have no parallel in world history.’ He is also amazed that fewer than 1,500 officials managed to govern the Raj at its height, stating ‘today, in Delhi, that number of civil servants occupies just two buildings.’
Alongside all the facts and figures, Lalvani challenges various preconceptions. He rejects the notion that everything in India was rosy before the British arrived. On the contrary, he argues, the place was in political disarray and economic turmoil courtesy of ‘barbarous invasions’ by the Persians and the Afghans. Nor, he suggests, should we think that the indigenous population was robbed of all economic opportunity under the British. Self-sufficient iron foundries sprang up, locals were able to travel to new parts of the globe as merchants and administrators, while Bombay and Calcutta were set ‘on the course of becoming the two largest industrial, business and financial metropolises east of Suez.’
The British came to make money for themselves but, writes Lalvani, they cannot be dismissed as ‘plunderers who brought India to its knees.’ Lalvani’s book must be read as a corrective to the prevailing view of India under British rule. He is pushing a counter-narrative as forcefully as possible and can’t reasonably be expected to constantly temper his argument with harrowing tales of empire. Still, how radically should our overall perspective shift? It is hard to argue with all the bridges that were built, or the engineering projects that prevented famine, but the ethical mathematics are devilishly complicated.
Lalvani is well placed to do the sums. He describes himself as ‘a patriotic Brit while also very much Indian.’ He was born in Karachi in 1931, first came to England in 1956 to further his studies, and feels ‘equally at home in both countries.’ He readily admits that, had he been old enough at the time, he would have joined the struggle for independence because of the logic of self-determination. Nonetheless, it saddens him that, over five decades, he has hardly ever heard a ‘Briton speak about the positive legacy of British rule in India.’
That is very gracious of him but it is worth remembering that India had once forged glittering empires when Britain was just a puny, isolated island. Lalvani wonders how, a little later, a ‘deeply divided and weak subcontinent might have developed were it not for the unifying effect of the Raj.’ Who knows but, because of the intruding British, India was never granted the opportunity to find out.
This review was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.