Monday, 13 July 2020

R is for Raj

Wherever there is open ground, children in India play cricket. The bat and stumps may be no more than sticks, but the game is conducted with a fervour which would not be out of place on the playing fields of an English public school.

Cricket, and the way it permeates modern India, could stand for much of the heritage of the Raj, Following Independence in 1948, the sub-continent was crudely dismembered, and thousands were murdered in sectarian violence. Yet there was little anti-imperial iconoclasm. Instead of dismantling all the apparatus of the hated colonial oppressors, the new Indian ruling classes simply shifted across into the places left by the departing British. The system they inherited was so complete, and in many respects so appropriate for India's problems, that the spirit of the Raj, as well as many of its details, survives to this day.

As well as the army, the main pillars of the British Empire in India were the English language, the railways, and the bureaucracy. They remain just as central to the modern country. Without English as a common, neutral, lingua franca, communications would be hampered across the disparate linguistic zones of the sub-continent. Worse, the imposition of Hindi as the only other viable national language would aggravate regional tensions, and bolster the destabilising movements for local autonomy which already pose a major threat to the integrity of India.

The extensive railway network serves a similar dual function. Railways are the key element in the country's transport system; but, like English, they provide also a unifying factor across different geographical regions which otherwise have little to connect them. Only bureaucracy seems an ambivalent legacy. True, the enormous Indian infrastructure does at least act as a stabilising and moderating element in a labile society; but the price paid is a stultifying slowness, and a lack of receptivity to innovation. Rooted in the past, Indian bureaucracy may serve the present,
but it seems to block the way to the future.

The continuing presence of these major imperial relics has made it all the easier for memories and minutiae of that period to linger. Everywhere you go in India, there are signs and notices in the stiff, hortatory English of an earlier age; railway stations are exotic reworkings of interwar images; the whole political process is carried out in a sober imitation of the Mother of Parliaments as she used to be; and the newspaper reports and television quiz shows dwell endlessly on trivial details of life back in Britain, assuaging a strange, phantom homesickness which lingers on. It is as if the British had never left.

One of the most impressive monuments to the Raj is in New Delhi. Running for over two miles past ponds and dark green sward - the apotheosis of the Surrey garden - a long straight road links India Gate with the ensemble of government buildings placed dramatically at the top of the hill. At the end of each day, the sun sets behind these buildings, casting huge shadows over the broad road and lawns below. This great east-west axis of Sir Edwin Lutyens's designs for the new capital is called Raj Path.

A Partial India A to Z

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