Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Until recently, ambitious mothers in India told their children that if they worked hard at school, when they grow up they could be doctors or engineers.
They now tell them they might be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Last October, The Times of India – daily circulation, 1.6 million – reported that the Rishi Sunak’s “Indian roots are being celebrated by people of Indian origin across the globe.” In bookshops in Mumbai’s main airport, a Sunak biography (by Lord Ashcroft, of this parish) is prominently displayed.
The Prime Minister, and his good-news life story, has captured imaginations around the world.
Embodying the benefits of a good education, a strong work ethic, and stable family life, he is an advertisement for core Conservative values. As importantly, he symbolises the powerful bonds between the UK and India – bonds of which it is wise to be mindful.
India is on the march. The World Population Review estimates that its population stands at 1.42 billion and will shortly be overtaking China. Unlike the ageing UK, India will continue to burst with youthful energy; today half of Indians are below 25.
Last year, India beat Britain in the national wealth stakes. Or as Fox Business put it: “India overtakes former colonial ruler UK to become fifth-largest world economy: ‘law of Karma works’.”
Britain’s links with India are more than about a shared commitment to democracy. They include more than three centuries of intertwined history – which is, alas, precisely where mutual goodwill can begin to curdle.
Colonial and imperial history is the most controversial aspect of Britain’s past, apart from slavery (to which it is usually linked). Professor Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning is currently provoking unease by daring to challenge the received wisdom, “which equals Empire which equals wickedness”, as he said in a Spectator interview with Matthew Parris.
Yet in India, as improbable as those who want to tear down statues here might find it, there is what might be called the Merchant-Ivory-at-the-Marigold-Hotel school of history.
Its disciples are the doughty defenders of Britain’s colonial past, who are determined to take an unhelpfully benign view of it. The British brought ‘them’ a legal framework, the English language, democracy, the railways, cricket and the end of suttee (widow burning) – and that’s just for starters.
All this delivered against a background of shimmering heat, swirling dust, military red coats and khaki, white muslin, polo and punkah wallahs, Dickie and Edwina and Nehru, and sundowners on the veranda.
Any visitor from the UK making a passage to India today must be prepared to confront some inconvenient truths about British rule, starting with the rapaciousness of the East India Company, which began operating in Gujarat in 1608, to the disaster of the botched Partition in 1947, via formal British government during the Raj.
This got underway in 1858, after the Indian Mutiny (as we saw it) or the First War of Independence (as many Indians saw it).
For today’s descendants of the colonised, the ills of British rule go far beyond familiar disasters such as the Amritsar Massacre or the Bengal famine.
Amartya Sen, a Nobel Laureate born into the cultural elite, received a first-class education. However his memoir, Home in the World, records the Raj’s lamentable record of public education. In the early 1930s, Indian visitors to the new Soviet Union contrasted the enormous progress it had rapidly made in educating its citizenry, particularly the poorest, with Britain’s effort after decades of being in charge.
In 1919, Rabindranath Tagore handed back his knighthood in protest after Amritsar. A facsimile of his letter to the Colonial Governor can be found in a dusty corner of the Chandannagar museum on the Ganges. It is a small reminder to visitors of how the revered poet, usually described as India’s Shakespeare, came to see British rule.
Attitudes in India about its past are best summarised by the Queen Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. The monumental building dominates the skyline of the maidan, an area of open space in the city centre. Impossible to miss is the large, if unimpressive, statue of the elderly Queen Empress which squats near the steps up to the entrance.
Inside, is an exhibition about nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose. We might view him as the traitorous leader of the Indian National Army, who collaborated with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during the Second World War.
Many in India, however, see the Netaji (Respected Leader) as a hero, with the city’s airport named after him. The multiple images of Bose outdo an oil painting of the future King Edward VII’s arrival in full pomp and circumstance sitting in a howdah on an elephant in 1876.
In May, at the coronation, the eyes of the world might once again be on Britain. With Sunak playing a prominent part in the ceremony, the scale of social change in the country since 1952 will be underlined.
Almost immediately after Coronation Day was announced, mutterings about the Koh-I-Noor diamond began.
This jewel in the Queen Mother’s Crown is far more than 105 carats of bling. Many in India, once described as the jewel in the imperial crown, want it sent there, seeing it as a symbol of so much which was stolen from them during the colonial era.
It would be a huge gesture on the part of Britain hand the diamond over with good grace.
Britain needs an honest inventory of much of its history with India. The past should not be allowed to blight the future relationship with a crucial global partner.