An Englishman Looks at India Fifty Years After British Rule

Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester Wikimedia Commons

Bangalore has become one of the most go-head cities in South Asia, a hard-driving, satellite-uplinked, Intel-inside-everything, beer drinking regional capital. But it is also a city where the past and present mingle — and contrast — with an intensity shared by few other places in India. So it seemed an ideal place for an Englishman to take a look at what has happened in the 50 years since Britain gave India its independence.

Simon Winchester, who served as a foreign correspondent in India back in the 1970s, notes that Englishmen like to say that they came to an India in which the people had little except poverty and anarchy, and when they left, it had a legislature, a national railway, courts, bureaucracies, roads and telephones, as well as the unifying influence of the English language. But he found that Indians have many reservations about that legacy, and many blame Britain for a number of things — including the effect of pervasive English on Indian culture, and the troubles of the railway system. One great legacy, the court system, Winchester found, has degenerated into near chaos with Dickensian delays in justice and widespread bribery. The most remarkable legacy — and perhaps the most valuable given the threats to order and outbursts of violence on the subcontinent — is the Indian Army, one of the largest in the world. Unlike the armies of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma, Winchester notes, the Indian Army is virtually nonpolitical.

Winchester ends his story with an extraordinary scene, the military review called Beating Retreat. "Lining the tops of the sandstone walls, in perfectly delineated silhouettes, stand the desert cameleers of India's Border Security Force. The camels are caparisoned, the soldiers' rifles are held at full salute, and they stand silent and rock-still ... against the gold of the evening," while massed bands play the Mahatma Gandhi's best-loved (English) hymn: "Change and decay in all around I see; Oh Thou who Changest Not, Abide with Me."

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