TUCKER CARLSON IS one of the most popular television personalities in the US. From his bully pulpit on Fox News, he gives monologues from a right-wing point of view allied to the Republican party there. It is a political corner that has little interest in India and yet, after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, he suddenly came into the limelight here when his eulogy rubbed off into nostalgia for the good of the British Empire, a world that the late queen straddled. He called the present-day UK a banking centre/refugee camp but as a colonial power, in Carlson’s opinion, was the most benign that any could ever be, leaving every country it owned better than before. For India, this meant, “a language, legal systems, schools, churches and public buildings, all of which are in use today.” And he found the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), or what used to be the Victoria Terminus, in Mumbai, the high point of an aesthetics that independent India has never been able to match.
No one, not even the British, makes train stations that look like palaces now. And while comparison in art is a dummy’s game, anyone who has been to the Taj Mahal and CST will not have to think too much on what is more awe-inspiring. It still does not mean the Mughals were more benign than the British. Elements which lead to architectural design—what a space stands for, who is it for, whether gargoyles must stick out of its towers—keep changing. To say that because independent India has not been able to make something like that makes it deficient, is like saying that Italy is a worse country now because they have never been able to do anything like the Sistine Chapel. Or that Egyptians were at their best 5,000 years ago when the Pyramid of Giza came up.
Was British rule good for India is a question that is impossible to answer, because we will never know what the alternative could have been. That is just the way time and history work. China and Japan didn’t have colonial rule but they got able modern legal systems, railways lines and all the accoutrements that Carlson defines progress by. Colonialism created political organisation but when the rest of the world is witnessing the phenomenon of nation states, why wouldn’t it touch the Indian subcontinent, too, whether or not the British came? On the other hand, if the British were not here, would India have become an independent nation without other outside interference? The Portuguese came a century before the British and their first instinct, even when they were the first player, was to seize political control wherever possible. When there is competition between militarily advanced Europeans to create colonies, the probability of the Indian subcontinent, in the vacuum of the Mughal Empire’s disintegration, having one or the other as its colonist was always high. The British weren’t very different. Their reprisals against those who rebelled in 1857 would have been war crimes by today’s reckoning. Everyone is a monster when they are conquering the world. Once it is over, kindness is easy.