William Makepeace Thackeray, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, Vivien Leigh, Spike Milligan, Engelbert Humperdinck, Cliff Richard, Joanna Lumley, my mate Vicky’s dad – all made in India. Considering the British presence in India spanned the best part of 200 years, it’s no wonder some of those born in the Subcontinent left their mark on the artistic and pop cultural landscape; though it’s ironic that when The Beatles visited India to sit at the feet of the Maharishi in 1968, the one member of the band who had been born there was no longer present – Pete Best. However, by the time the last batch of these household names arrived, the days of British India were numbered, anyway; there were only 500 Brits left in the Indian civil service by 1935 and the posting was no longer viewed as the job for life it had been for generations.
For an exit that was, in the end, perceived by many as ridiculously hasty, there had been warnings for decades that the Raj was unsustainable; but it took the draining impact of the Second World War on the Mother Country for the jewel in the crown to finally slip from the imperial grasp. Some Indian nationalists had expected independence – or at the very least the dominion status afforded Australia and Canada – as a reward for the manpower India supplied in the First World War, where a million Indian troops had served King, Country and Empire; but the failure of the British to concede either fuelled the nationalist movement anew, and saw a fresh figure emerge who recognised the power of enigma.
Like Benjamin Franklin two-hundred years earlier, Gandhi had undergone a transformation from loyal colonial subject to unlikely revolutionary; he had written of his younger self, ‘Hardly ever have I known anybody to cherish such loyalty as I did to the British Constitution.’ The man who eventually took charge of India upon independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, had been educated at Harrow and Cambridge and had been admitted to the English bar. But both he and the Mahatma were one-time Anglophiles whose previous participation in the traditional cultural exchange between Britain and India didn’t affect their desire and demand for independence.
The Raj may have been mythologized in the British imagination since 1947, but it was mythologized during its lifetime. Unlike many of its overseas colonies, India was viewed by Britain in the same way Algeria was viewed by the French, as an extension of home soil; Indian sportsmen from the world of cricket and polo were as familiar a sight in the UK as Maharajas were in London society, and we all shared the same King/Emperor. Even if the beneficiaries of the Raj on both sides tended to be small in relation to those for whom it was either an irrelevance or an encumbrance, the idea of another England thousands of miles away baking beneath a sun that never set was one that embodied all of the vaguely comical grandeur of romantic British pomp and circumstance. Even when the British sensed the sun was setting after all, they still anticipated it would take decades after the end of WWII before it happened.
As with the majority of Britain’s colonial possessions, the British presence in India had arisen from maritime trading rather than a military invasion. The trailblazers had embraced the nation’s religions, taken Indian wives and enjoyed the kind of cross-cultural immersion that was frowned upon following the 1857 Indian Mutiny, when direct rule by the British Crown replaced the corporate rule of the East India Company. From then on, there was a strict divide between colonists and natives; the playing fields of Eton trained the governors, administrators and Viceroys, whereas the civil service was open to any ambitious young Englishman, and many ambitious young Englishmen went for it.
For the generations of Brits who lived, worked and died in India, the standard of living for someone working in the civil service was considerably higher than they could expect back in the UK, and the job was an attractive proposition. Army postings on the Subcontinent were also envied; even the future Duke of Wellington had served his dues in India as a young ensign. In retrospect, it was remarkable that so few Brits were able to govern so many Indians for so many decades and for so long. But the system was stretched on several grim occasions, such as the 1919 Amritsar Massacre or the devastating series of famines in 1876-78, 1896-97, 1899-1900, and 1943-44; the total death toll of the first is estimated to have been in the region of 6.1 to 10.3 million.
The cult of Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violent protest in the 1930s contrasted with the increase in Sectarian violence that the British authorities struggled to keep a lid on. The PR sold back to Britain glossed over the realities of the situation as best it could, but it became harder to attract recruits to the Indian civil service in the years leading up to the Second World War. When British barrister Cyril Radcliffe arrived in India in 1947 to deliver the geographical partition he’d drawn up once India’s independence as two nations had been decided, he found the country in a far worse state than he’d been led to believe. Civil war seemed all-but inevitable. In June 1947, the last Viceroy, Earl Mountbatten, announced the date for the end of British India; the remaining Brits had barely two months to get out as the unsatisfactory new map provoked the natives into migration, panic and unprecedented bloodshed.
The shock for the wave of Brits departing the only home they’d ever known upon arriving in Blighty was the jarring comparison with the place they’d left behind. A cold monochrome country, battered by wartime bombing and recovering from a crippling winter was compounded by the sudden diminishing of their social status; from comfortable surroundings complemented by servant staff, most found themselves reduced to living in small, grey homes on small, grey streets and having to accept jobs several notches down from the ones they’d enjoyed back home. It must have been a humbling comedown, and a story rarely told when the end of British India understandably concentrates on the bloody division of the nation the Brits left behind.
A language, an educational system and a legal system are the most visible and valuable legacies of the Raj in India today, surviving and thriving while the statues and monuments to forgotten British figures crumble away with the same slow drift from living memory as those Brits born and raised in the Raj. Not many of those voices have been heard during the media coverage of the 70th anniversary, but this anniversary marks a moment as crucial to the story of Britain as it is to the story of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In its own way, 1947 ranks alongside 1066, 1815, 1918 and 1945 as a pivotal turning point in our fortunes.
© The Editor