At a laser show in the city of Hyderabad, 1000 or so men, women and children stand in their seats and cheer wildly with raised hands as an illumination of the Union Jack dissipates into nothingness, giving way to the Tiranga, which rises from beneath, whilst the narrator announces the dawn of a new beginning and the end of a two hundred year old dominance by a foreign power. I slump slightly in my seat, trying to look inconspicuous, hoping that the crowd’s energies aren’t directed towards myself.
Amongst scenes of appalling poverty it is difficult, nay, it is impossible to espouse the virtues of colonialism and the benefits that it can bring to a country. During Britain’s rule, sheer incompetence has been blamed for the many epidemics and famines that occurred. Worse are the atrocities carried out in the name of British rule in India; the use of violent force to quash dissent and the countless innocents who were slaughtered. Whilst I was in Amritsar in I visited the site of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The well, into which many had jumped in a bid to escape, was a particularly harrowing sight.
These atrocities and policy disasters will stain the history of Britain in India forever, but that is not to say that they have a cast a shadow over the entirety of Britain’s enterprise in India.Take for instance the rail network and the 13 million passengers that use it every day; a marvel of organised chaos. There are also the architectural treasures that were left behind; the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai, for example, or Kolkata’s striking Victoria Memorial.
However, it is what was created by the departing of the British that is most striking. It is the confidence that India has in itself as a nation. I didn’t have to spend too long in India to notice it. It is thrust upon you by young Indian men with great wide smiles. ‘India is the greatest country in the world, no?’ if you disagree then you are probed for reasons why, and even if you do agree you are pushed to follow-up with an explanation. I found debates to be a vivid part of train journeys and they helped to pass the time in the cramped conditions of third-class. I remember a particularly entertaining few hours where I did my best to interpret and answer the question ‘Britain or India, which country has the best administration?’
From Amritsar I drove the couple of hours west, to the India-Pakistan border. In Wagah I witnessed the ‘retreat ceremony’, a near-to-surreal tradition carried out every evening. It was a tremendous sight; the Indian troops putting every last ounce of effort into outdoing the Pakistani troops, each trying to produce the most elaborate, most energetic body movements in order to outdo the other.??The number of people attending the ceremony on the Indian side far surpassed the capacity of the stadium-like seating (I lost my seat eight times). I stood on my tiptoes to peek at the Pakistan side of border; the stalls were decidedly empty except for the scattering of a few motionless spectators. The crowds repeated the howling sounds of a man with a microphone who worked them into a frenzied mania. Patriotic music is blasted out of speakers, and teenagers are selected from the crowd to run backwards and forwards, waving the Flag of India. Some teenagers standing behind me began to preach about the beauties of India and how it was the greatest nation in the world.
These teenagers were excited about modern India - after all, it is still a young country (not to mention the world’s largest democracy). The younger generations - amongst whom I was surrounded during a visit to The University of Mumbai - made no mistake about hiding their excitement for India’s future prospects. They are energetic and full of confidence, and this is exactly what India needs to drive itself forward, to progress and to emerge as the international power that it is certainly to become in the next few decades.
But, there is the risk of complacency. This energy and confidence seemed to have blinded many of the Indians that I met from a few home truths. That is the absolute poverty, and the degradation of the natural environment. Since the 1950s the Indian government and non-governmental organizations have initiated several programs to alleviate this poverty, including subsidizing food, increased access to loans, and promoting education and family planning. These measures have helped eliminate famine, cut absolute poverty levels by more than half, and reduced illiteracy and malnutrition. However, a short walk down any street in Mumbai tells you that there is so much more to be done.
The natural environment is an important factor in the development of any country; it is from whence the state and its people draw their resources and upon which livelihoods are based. However, throughout India there is an overwhelming neglect of the natural environment. I was shocked at finding myself encouraged to push litter out of the window of a moving train. The ‘outside environment’ is treated as one huge rubbish dump. This is such a terrible shame, for rural India really is beautiful. The British Prime Minister’s recent visit with his delegation of Cabinet ministersand business leaders, as well as the announcement of a £700m deal between BAE systems, Rolls-Royce and Hindustan Aeronautics, has once again highlighted India as an immensely attractive place of international investment. But, as India continues to make economic and social gains, its negligence of the environment may well come back to haunt it.