Remembering Deepak Lal

To Lal there were no contradictions in defending classical liberalism, democracy, empire and faith in India

Artillery Row

To memorialise Professor Deepak Lal, who died on 30 April at age 80 in London, is to limit his memory. A man of dazzling erudition—a historian, a social critic, a cultural connoisseur—he was a proud member of the vanishing breed of intellectuals spawned by the Anglo-Indian encounter. He was unique, too, because he not only acknowledged but celebrated this detail. Unlike his post-colonial peers, Lal did not reflexively spurn his heritage. He considered it with an open mind, embraced it, and matured over the course of a long and distinguished career into one of the most forthrightly eloquent dissenters from the sacrosanct consensus about empire in the academy and in public life. I almost always disagreed with him, and yet, like so many Indians, I read him with interest.

It is strange to think that the first job held by the man who wrote in later life with such directness had been in diplomacy. After returning home in 1962 with a degree in PPE from Oxford, Lal joined the Indian Foreign Service—the most glamorous government department—but quit almost immediately because he could not endure the rigmarole of protocols: friends who knew him then say that the endless trips to airports in foreign capitals to receive eminences from India particularly galled him. He returned to England and took up teaching positions in Oxford and London, before relocating in the 1990s to the University of California in Los Angeles. In between, his output as a scholar and intellectual ranged widely. He advised the World Bank as a research administrator and the Indian Planning Commission.

He came to regard the planned economy advanced as a novel panacea by India’s founders as a sad recrudescence of pre-colonial India’s awful habits. Nehru’s passion for socialism struck Lal not so much as a departure from old India as a reassertion of India’s caste-conditioned mind in Fabian drapery. To prove the point, he quoted the passage from Nehru’s autobiography in which India’s inaugural prime minister had equated the British with the Hindu bania, or merchant, caste. The soul of India, Nehru had written, had been ravaged by “the bania civilisation of the capitalist West”, before being rescued by Western socialism, which was endowed with “the old Brahmin ideal of service”. Socialism was the means, Nehru said, to achieve the “brahmanisation … of all classes and groups” in India. “A more succinct expression of the ancient Hindu caste prejudice,” Lal observed dryly in The Hindu Equilibrium (1988), “would be difficult to find.” Was ever the political philosophy of the great Nehru so casually confuted?

Even Lal’s critics conceded that his attitudes were never an affectation: his attachment to classical liberalism was guided by beliefs steeped in formidable learning and profound self-awareness. The learning sometimes could obscure his vision. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 prompted Lal to amplify his argument for empire as history’s best guarantor of peace, security, and prosperity. But Lal was a patient prospector of history, not a blundering cheerleader for war. He championed a lasting commitment to bringing economic modernisation to countries—not fleeting missions to upend societies.

Lal maintained a missionary faith in India’s destiny as a defender of democracy.

Lal’s error was to allow himself to believe, in that moment of great upheaval, that Americans had the resolve, discipline, and dedication to create the kind of empire he envisaged. Although Lal searched for vindication in small triumphs in the wars that ensued, the rhetoric of bringing freedom to faraway people fell quickly out of fashion. And after two decades, two trillion dollars, unquantifiable bloodshed, America’s civilisational mission to “liberate” the Afghans from the tyranny of the Taliban ended in a ceremonial presentation of the Afghan people on a platter to the Taliban.

Ironically, it is the people in the post-colonial lands that have not yet outgrown their experience of imperialism who may find utility in Lal’s defence of empires. He urged them to accept that history is unjust and move forward, rather than squander their existence on the futile pursuit of righting the past. Who profited, he asked, from Yasser Arafat’s insistence on the “right to return” of Palestinians? Certainly not the Palestinians made to live in squalid refugee camps for more than half a century. Lal addressed Palestinians as a fellow refugee: his own family had been driven out of their native lands in what became Pakistan at India’s partition in 1947. Their properties were seized and they had to start over in India and make “new lives” for themselves. That possibility was not granted to the refugees created by the partition of Palestine to make way for Israel. And “fifty years later, two generations have lived in the misery of these camps, waiting for the Israeli state to be destroyed”.

It is a measure of Lal’s personal warmth that he numbered among his dearest friends people who disagreed viscerally with him. Mani Shankar Aiyar, one of India’s fieriest socialists, has spent a lifetime arguing against everything that Lal espoused. “With Deepak,” Aiyar told me, “irreconcilable differences never segued into irreconcilable enmity.” For a man of such powerful views—on Brexit (he was a leaver), on climate change (he was a sceptic), on wokeness (he considered it ruinous)—Lal was impossibly shy and the shyness was frequently misinterpreted as arrogance by those who did not know him. Those who knew him well knew also that some of his opinions, especially on climate change, were intended to irritate rather than illuminate.

Although he lived much of his life abroad, Lal maintained a missionary faith in India’s destiny as a defender of democracy. A lecture tour of China undertaken a few years after the great recession of 2008 cemented that belief. Being told repeatedly by his hosts that they had “discovered an alternative and more successful” model of governance dismayed the man whose heart had been gladdened by the rising living standards of ordinary Chinese people. His last book, War or Peace: The Struggle for Power (2018), was an exhaustive response to the ascent of China—animated by “hope that it will be India rather than China that will prevail”.

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