Independent India

The sun was out and my scalp felt like it was being scoured with a scalding frying pan. The bell tower had just struck ten and already sweat coursed down my back, making my fresh kurta and pyjamas stick to my legs. The heat of the day comes early in Amritsar, regional capital of the Punjab in Northwestern India. My travelling companions were sleeping in the hostel, too exhausted after our 20 hour bus journey from Himachal Pradesh to stir from their bunks. I, on the other hand, had joined a throng of Sikhs in brightly coloured turbans to see the memorial of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

Site of one of the most brutal and bloody acts in the whole history of the British Empire, this memorial is a major tourist attraction for both Indians and foreigners. In brief here is the story of the massacre: General Dyer, on hearing reports of a major insurrection, took an armoured car and troops from three regiments, drove to the enclosed courtyard where unarmed protesters, many of them women and children, had gathered. They opened fire. According to official British-Indian stats, 379 were killed and around 1,100 wounded. Many died jumping down a water well, only to be crushed by those following. This harrowing event, coming as it did just after the first world war in 1919, effectively signaled the beginning of the end of Colonial power in India. The bullet holes pitting many of the walls serve as a chilling reminder of colonial arrogance.

I had come to be reminded. Seemingly though, I was the only one.

Being white in India means you naturally get a more attention than usual but there were times that morning when I felt that I, and not the memorial garden all around me, was the tourist attraction. I have never taken so many selfies or signed so many autographs. As an experience of hollow fame it was quite surreal; when a queue formed though, I had to tell them to stop.

Now, in many ways it’s wonderful that, even in the heart of a place of remembrance for the innocent people harmed by the nasty side of British Colonialism, Indians, no matter of which caste or from which region, were so welcoming to strangers like me. Their charm and unsolicited willingness to help (which, admittedly, one must often expect to pay for) is a delight for the western traveller. However, though wonderful for the tourist there is also perhaps a darker side to the almost reverent way many Indians greet foreigners. In some ways it’s just another side to the colonial hangover.

In the course of the early 19th century, the British government came to realise that colonialism was about cultural, as well as military, supremacy. This led them to initiate a variety of reforms, the upshot of which was to equate British with good and thus make anything traditionally Indian inherently inferior. Having great consonance with the already established and rigid caste systems throughout India, this idea slowly gained currency. For example the British education system was seen, perhaps quite rightly, as far more advanced and hence many Indians aspired to receive a British education. Importantly though, they also came to value things that had this British connection more than those that hadn’t. This meant for example that the British colonists, purely by dint of their identity, were higher up the hierarchy. Even today many Indians use fake-white, just as we use fake-tan, to enhance their status and identify themselves with a perceived Western ideal.

In fact, these reforms caused one of the greatest unreported tragedies in world history. Until the time of Empire, rural India’s staple sweetener had always been unrefined sugar cane. Soon though, it was replaced by British refined white sugar. As a cheaper alternative to sugar cane, refined sugar was soon wildly popular in Indian cooking and masala chai, the milky tea consumed in vast quantities from Kashmir to Kerala. Its associated British cache more than helped to establish a roaring trade. The upshot of all this was that millions of Indians, far more exposed to what had previously been a food reserved for the affluent, contracted type 2 diabetes. Without access to adequate medical services widespread deaths were the inevitable outcome. British intervention has caused a diabetes epidemic the effects of which are still felt today. The tragedy is that, being a ‘silent killer’, this atrocity has long gone unrecognised.

So it was that these British reforms affected Indians, particularly the less well-educated, very strongly; British products, both cultural and industrial, were seen as a cut above their Indian equivalents.

With events such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and eventual independence in 1947 this perception started to change. Indians began to realised that the sun did not truly shine out of an English gentleman’s every orifice.

In fact I encountered an almost direct link between how well-educated a local I met in India, whether this was in the Punjab, in far less affluent Rajasthan, or in the capital Delhi, and how much they bought into this colonial narrative. A local taxi driver might be fascinated to hear about the Houses of Parliament and fawn over India’s magnificent railway system; several of the poorer people I met even suggested bringing back the British to restore order. On the other hand a high-caste Brahmin or someone with a university-education might express a more balanced view and recognise that the British did both good and bad.  (Though even this opinion may show traces of the colonial supremacy narrative. See the recent Guardian article deconstructing the commonly cited ‘benefits’ of Colonialism; search for ‘The myth of Britain’s gifts to India’ on the Guardian website.) It is interesting to note that this deferential attitude never extends to cricket!

Back to Amritsar then. The majority of the tourists to Amritsar are poor and often come from rural places where this colonial narrative has yet to be deflated. Many are there out of religious duty; the Golden Temple, known also as the Sri Harmandir Sahib or the Darbar Sahib, is the holiest Gurdwara and the most important pilgrimage site of Sikhism, equivalent to Mecca for muslims or the Vatican for Roman Catholics. There is a 24-hour soup kitchen which churns out free dal and chapatis to all who want them.

Perhaps this explains the surprising amount of positive attention I received on that sweltering hot morning at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial.

Either way, this isn’t a criticism, and it doesn’t make Indian generosity any less real or detract from the genuine sense of warmth I felt while travelling there. Particularly for Sikhs, these are a core part of traditional values and not merely a colonial imposition. It might though make one pause for thought, perhaps to make one more aware of how one is perceived as an international traveller or to realise that the traces of history are with us always.

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