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(First published on June 15, 2019 )

What does the United Kingdom owe India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the rest of the countries that were once part of the British Raj? This question was popularised recently by Indian politician and former diplomat Shashi Tharoor. As I read his book An Era of Darkness, my skeptic mind kept forming theories. Just for the record, I have been a firm believer that whatever the British rule did in South Asia had both its highs and lows. For instance, while there are many brutal episodes in our colonial history, the truth is the rule did usher in an era of modernisation which would have taken its sweet in materialising on its own. So why someone as learned as Mr Tharoor was highlighting the dreaded parts of history? Kingdoms and empires always had their darker side. It is not as if absolute monarchs elsewhere, or even in pre-British India were angels. Why go there? And why now?

The half-baked theory forming in my mind had something to do with Modi’s India. In Modi’s India populism and historical victimhood sells. And owing to personal misfortune, Mr Tharoor was under investigation. No, no hear me out for this is as much a confession as it is an analysis. So was it possible that his uncountable talents were being abused through blackmail? And this theory stayed. I did not share it with anyone but did disagree with the key conclusions of the book. This was another century, another generation. We and nobody else is responsible for the plight we are in. And on. To my surprise, I found that some of my British friends and colleagues also vociferously argued with me when I had the audacity of disagreeing with his views. When a man is as handsome and effortlessly charming as Mr Tharoor, his fan base is bound to be diverse and driven, I told myself. You are lucky that you are not being skinned alive by an angry mob. But his views stayed with me.

But this year’s Indian election has totally changed my perspective. To be honest the reelection of Narendra Modi makes absolutely no sense. In 2014 the situation was different. The outgoing Congress government was badly divided and riddled with scandals. The likes of Anna Hazare had optimally been used to undermine the then government’s image. So, Modi was viewed as a lesser evil who despite his odious Muslim and minority bashing, had at least successfully brought development to the state of Gujarat. So, people went with him. This time, however, the situation was different. Mr Modi’s surgical strikes on the economy had pulverised the chances of rapid growth. While a report on poor job creation was suppressed and capable technocrats let go, how could people fail to notice that they had lesser and lesser jobs? Or adverse effects of demonetisation. People died you know. And lives and small businesses were destroyed. Or inflationary effects of a quickly assembled Goods and Services Tax. Or an economy seriously threatened by the teetering pile of under-reported non-performing assets. If that was not enough, Mr Modi’s former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian’s recent research work titled ‘India’s GDP Mis-estimation: Likelihood, Magnitudes, Mechanisms, and Implications’ has revealed that Indian economic growth was being exaggerated at least by 2.5 per cent and that its actual rate was not more than 4.5 per cent. How could the voters miss it? They were there, were they not?

Now I can either do the easy thing and blame it on client media and seriously compromised institutions like the Election Commission and the Supreme Court or do the right thing. And the right, albeit difficult thing, is to admit that hate, fear, and jingoism sell more readily in India than we care to admit. Some of my Indian media friends were kind enough to gloat in my face telling me ‘it wasn’t economy, stupid’. During the election, I maintained that it was. I see their point now and openly concede, although it is no gloating matter. Worth crying perhaps if not worth dying of shame. So, our Indian friends had decided that they would go hungry if need be but teach those awful Pakistanis a lesson. Does it ring a bell?

One of Pakistan’s most popular premiers had once said, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” This India Pakistan competition and hostility is mind-boggling for many of our friends outside. It is sad because both countries have inflicted incredible harm to themselves just because of this hostility. Pakistan, after all, is just emerging out of an existential war the purpose of which was to root out the harvest of hate of the seeds of which were sown during the Afghan Jihad, of which Pakistan was a willing partner. Why partner? To have leverage. Against whom? India.

Ergo, when business executives of Indian origin, including Google’s Sundar Pichai, meet Mike Pompeo in Washington in which they immediately expose their obsession with Pakistan and suggest how they hope to see India clash with England in the World Cup final and defeat it on its soil it is nothing out of the ordinary. South Asians are also obsessed with breaking or making records. Do you know who owns a small enterprise called ‘The East India Company’ these days? An Indian.

So, this blind latching on to a divided identity, craving for unending victory, normalising of anger, hate, intolerance and violence, suffering endlessly to inflict pain to the assumed enemy, all must stem from something, right? Some massive psychological trauma. Now look at all bad, divisive trends in South Asia. From the RSS to the Kashmir dispute why do they all owe their existence to the British patronage? I can see the efficacy of divide and rule as a governing policy under an imperial rule. But when they were quitting, they could at least have diffused the time bombs they had created in the shape of the RSS, Kashmir dispute and a divided Bengal. Of course, India was not free of violence or divisions before the British rule. That is why it fell. But the arming of identities, the invention of hate as a cottage industry and border disputes which make friction unavoidable were all imperial gifts.

Hence, this election has helped me see Mr Tharoor’s point and I am embarrassed that I doubted his intentions. But I also believe that we are talking to a different generation. If we were to answer for the crimes of our forefathers, entire mankind would be sitting behind bars. Therefore, I do not support the idea of reparations no matter how nominal. What I hope our British friends will do is to actively engage with India and Pakistan to disarm the sources of friction that their forefathers left behind.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 15th, 2019.

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