Enlightened vested interest

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The debate over the harm, or good, the British colonialism did to India, sparked off by former minister, and Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor`™s impassioned speech in an Oxford University debate a month ago, is interesting from the perspective of Manipur, and indeed from that of much of the rest of the Northeast, especially a thread of argument which emerged from it. Tharoor attacked the British of plundering India and making themselves rich from the loots, for this he argued Britain should pay reparation. Tharoor may have a point here for Britain through history has been all too eager to impose such payments when it came to others. The most outrageous of this, we now know, is on impoverished Tibet in 1904. Col. Francis Younghusband invaded the Monastery State in that year, then under the 13th Dalai Lama, at the behest of then viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, who was certain the Tibetan spiritual and temporal leader was making secret deals Tsarist Russia, Britain`™s arch rival in the Cold War of the time known as the Great Game. After massacring ill-trained and ill-equipped Tibetan soldiers defending Lhasa, Britain asked the nation to pay Rs. 75 lakhs to cover the cost incurred on Britain in sending Col. Younghusband to punish them. No bullying could have been more complete than this. As to what happened thereafter is intriguing, but not a matter for this editorial to delve further. Suffices it to say, it was this kind of arrogance in dealing with what they considered natives, which also left India not only impoverished, but depleted in morale, British Colonialism having bent and broken what was once upon a time a proud spirit, and leaving it servile and insecure.

But if this was the harm, others have since Tharoor`™s spell binding speech come out with why India also gained much from British Colonialism. If Britain had fleeced India white, it also left behind many priceless legacies. This is not just about the often cited examples of the Indian Railways, the Indian Army and Parliamentary Democracy, great as they are, but something to do with the modern spirit of India `“ the spirit of liberalism `“ defined by a complete faith in constitutional law and codified procedural justice amenable to modifications, again by codified procedures, in keeping with the spirit of the times. India imbibed this spirit unlike most other former colonies, undoubtedly a gift of the enlightened leadership of the time, Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Azad, Ambedkar and more, some loved, some hated, in the region today, who were careful not to throw away the baby with the bathwater when they rejected colonialism. So while others sunk into military dictatorship, in India democracy sailed through rough waters rather comfortably except for the brief hiccup of Emergency 40 years ago.

Fareed Zakaria has a very interesting thing to say on this in his book, `Future of Freedom`. According to him, between liberalism and democracy, the former is more fundamental. Liberalism will ensure democracy but the opposite scenario where democracy precedes liberalism can be tragic. In fact, in an illiberal situation, democracy can be dangerous, and this has been adequately demonstrated in the Balkans where the newly liberated but still illiberal former Communist states, chose to become democracies without preparation, and ended up in genocidal wars. Illiberal democracy can divide a polity dangerously into vote banks and ethnic conclaves. This was also witnessed by the world in the US-imposed democracy experiment in Iraq. In the decade since it was supposedly made a democracy, the country has degenerated beyond recognition. Zakaria has another very illustrative example. Hong Kong was a colony of Britain till 1997, therefore till that date, not a democracy. But even as a colony it had all the liberal institutions: a tradition of constitutional adjudication, procedural justice, liberal scientific education etc, so that its transition to democracy was without any birth pangs. It was a simple step over. Liberalism (defined as a belief in these liberal institutions) as against neo-liberalism (which is a belief in the inherent justice of the laissez-faire ) is not just about a goodness of spirit and generosity. It is, on the other hand, an enlightened vested interest. It will ultimately pay political dividends to the believer generously. The inherent fairness of the laissez-faire, we too have no doubt, is a deliberate and malicious lie of neo-liberals.

Leader Writer: Pradip Phanjoubam

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