Saturday, December 17, 2011

Maharani's durbar and a blinkered view of history

By Swapan Dasgupta

Apart from newspapers that commemorated the event and an agreeable party on the lawns of Ambassador Hotel where the cultural elite drank to the occasion, the centenary of the transfer of the Capital and the foundation of New Delhi was largely unobserved. ‘Official’ India which otherwise loves to organise tacky commemorations by producing unappealing postage stamps gave this event a wide berth. And, while no one was forthcoming about the reason, the rationale was inescapable: the 1911 Durbar was a ‘colonial’ event and, therefore, only worthy of sneer.

The Hindu sense of history has at the best of times been rather feeble. However, when it comes to the 190 years of British rule, the disdain for a recorded past is coupled with a spurious political correctness and hypocrisy. Even after six decades of Independence and flamboyant assertions of national sovereignty, India has yet to develop the necessary self-confidence to view history as history. Instead, the past has been sought to be tailor-made to view the prevailing political fashions of the present.

It is not that the ignominy of being ruled by a ‘foreigner’ has weighed heavily on the national consciousness. In the past thousand years or so, predators from the west have repeatedly overwhelmed indigenous kingdoms, particularly in northern and eastern India, and combined ruthless vandalism with innovations. Turks, Mongols, Persians and Afghans made India their happy hunting ground, and ruled with a mixture of raw coercion and cultural co-option. The conquerors always took care to maintain a discreet distance from the conquered peoples without creating a closed system based on ethnicity and religion. Of course, post-Akbar many of these barriers broke down but never sufficiently for the hapless Dara Shukoh to become a trendsetter. Not enough of the conquerors went ‘native’ although enough of the conquered peoples appropriated facets of the Persian and Turkish ways of life.

Many of these changes stemming from conquest and subordination were also dutifully played out in the two centuries of colonial rule. The British steadfastly maintained their social distance from the ‘natives’, particularly after the uprising of 1857 and the influx of the memsahibs into the Civil Lines and cantonments. The Indians were socially wary of the British but there were enough ‘collaborators’ (as in Moghul times) who sought to bridge the cultural and emotional gulf between the West and the East.

More to the point, there were enough Indians that genuinely believed (particularly after the demise of the East India Company in 1858) that British rule constituted a significant advance on anything the country had hitherto experienced. At one level the 1911 Durbar was a spectacular show of imperial might—as evident from the grovelling genuflection of the Indian princes (barring Baroda and Udaipur) to the King-Emperor. But it would be imprudent to forget that until Mahatma Gandhi captivated the nation with his simple message of swaraj, the common Indian was genuinely enamoured of the “Queen’s peace”. The choreography of the 1911 Durbar was thrown out of gear when the Indian crowds broke the cordon to kiss the ground on which the King and Queen had walked. Were they victims of ‘false consciousness’?

“Maharani” Victoria wasn’t Indian and nor did she ever visit India. Yet, this diminutive frump became as much a part of India as any distant Moghul. In 1911, when the New Delhi project was inaugurated by George V on December 15, the British Empire was the most world’s most decisive power; by 1931, when New Delhi was finally ready to function as the seat of government, the imperial sunset was approaching.  

This is not revisionist history. It is the history that was itself cynically revised as part of the nation-building project of India’s post-imperial rulers. But history isn’t rewritten by removing the George V statue from its canopied pedestal opposite India Gate or by renaming Connaught Place as Rajiv Chowk. Unless India is overcome by perversity, there will be a Lutyens’ Delhi distinct from a DDA Delhi, a Kingsway called Rajpath, the North and South Blocks and a Parliament House built for an India where democracy was conceived of as the future.

The British Raj wasn’t quite the dark ages the sloganeers make it out to be.

Sunday Times of India, December 18, 2011 

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