I discovered the India Club much too late. On a hazy Saturday earlier this summer, I found myself at its door, entirely by chance. Up a flight of shabby tiled stairs, I found a noisy, busy room full of formica tables, laminated menus, and a certain faded old-world glamour. A hearty helping of South Indian chicken curry was accompanied by crispy onion bhajis and an ice-cold beer, all available at extraordinarily low prices.
We are witnessing, in real-time, the birth of a brand-new India
The Club had been founded in 1951 by members of the India League in order to foster good relations between Britain and newly independent India. Its mustard-coloured walls bear portraits of famous historical faces – Nehru, Dadabhai Naoroji, Mahatma Gandhi – and its décor is inspired by the Irani cafes of the mid-19th century. From top to bottom, the place was brimming with charm.
‘Finally,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’ve found the best place in London for a lunchtime curry.’
On September 17th, the India Club will close its doors for the final time. Leaseholders Marston Properties intend to gut the building and turn it into a luxury hotel, the final chapter in the life of this iconic London eatery. Sad as this is, I can’t help but feel that the restaurant’s demise is fitting – the India that birthed it is fading fast.
More than seventy-five years after independence, the memory of British India is fading. Those old enough to meaningfully remember British rule are in their late eighties, while the colonial cityscapes of Kipling and Forster have been supplanted by flashy high-rises and new apartments.
Last week, it was reported that the country was planning to change its official name to ‘Bharat’, a moniker for the subcontinent which stems back to the Bronze Age. The Government in Delhi is currently planning to replace the country’s system of ‘personal law’, instituted by the British, with a uniform civil code which will apply to all groups, regardless of culture or religion.
In May, the country opened a new legislative building replacing the Old Parliament House, built by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker in the 1920s. In 2019, a new National War Memorial was inaugurated in Delhi; nearby India Gate, which commemorates the British Indian servicemen who died in both World Wars, has been quietly deemphasised.
In 2022, it was announced that a marble statue of King Edward V would be replaced with a statue of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist activist who collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Second World War.
Meanwhile, Modi has deemphasised the role of English as a shared language, instead preferring to promote Hindi – a move which has met with fierce resistance in the country’s linguistically diverse south. The list goes on. The two legislative seats reserved for the mixed-race Anglo-Indian community were abolished in 2020. The iconic Victoria Terminus, built in British Bombay, is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai.
The complex tapestry that is India owes as much to the Persians and the British than to its Vedic heritage
We are witnessing, in real-time, the birth of a brand-new India. Centralised, globally assertive, focused on its Hindi-speaking Hindu majority – this is Modi’s India. It roots itself in semi-mythical accounts of Ancient India and minimises the role of outside influences on the country’s development. It’s not just the British who are in the firing line – BJP legislators have called for the destruction of the iconic Taj Mahal, on the grounds that it was built by the Muslim Mughals.
It also rejects the pluralistic vision of India set out by nationalist leaders like Nehru and Gandhi, preferring instead to emphasise the role of the Hindu majority. Modi is far more comfortable with violent and revolutionary leaders like Bose than with the genteel, British-educated cadre who ruled the country from its independence.
Unfortunately, this vision of a New India fails to tell the full story. The complex tapestry that is India owes as much to the Persians and the British than to its Vedic heritage. India’s modern borders are a creation of the British – no Hindu-led empire has ever ruled the entirety of modern India. The Maurya Empire (322 BC to 184 BC) came closest but failed to subdue the Tamil kingdoms to the south.
Even the name ‘India’, touted by some as a colonial imposition, can be found in texts as ancient as Herodotus’ Geography. By the time of Alexander, ‘India’ was the widely accepted term for the region beyond the Indus River. It is a straightforwardly geographical distribution, widely used for centuries – by no means was it a British invention.
When the British arrived in India, the language of administration was Persian, not Hindi. Delhi, the nation’s capital, had largely been ruled by Muslim emperors since the 13th century until it fell into British hands in the 1850s. Many of the country’s most iconic historic sites, including the Taj Mahal, were built by non-Hindu outsiders. Modi isn’t decolonising India – anything foreign, however old and storied, is being destroyed.
Yet many Western commentators let these falsehoods go unchallenged, understanding little about India or its history. For those on the political left, Modi’s crowing about colonial injustices aligns with their domestic ambitions and reinforces their postcolonial guilt.
For its part, Nehru’s Indian National Congress has failed to defend that vision of a pluralistic India united by robust, inclusive institutions and a shared sense of civilisation. Mired by accusations of petty corruption and nepotism, the INC staggers on in opposition, seeming further from holding power with each passing year.
Challenging this new narrative is more than an academic exercise. Modi’s view of Indian national identity informs his geopolitical strategy; as G20 host, the Prime Minister went to great pains to emphasise India’s ‘human-centric’ approach to the world, and using it to justify reform of international institutions.
Britain in particular stands to suffer from this new strain of Hindu nationalism. As the most-recent coloniser, we are subject to demands for reparations and restitution. Everything bad in India is our fault; everything good in India is the hard work of the Hindu majority. Colonial guilt is a tool that India will wield against Britain time and time again, if it is allowed to do so.
Grovelling apologies will not work; we must have the backbone to stand up for ourselves
Discussions about changing the Republic’s name have also sparked conversations about ‘Akhand Bharat’, or Greater India, a concept which harkens back to a mythical time when the subcontinent was united under Hindu rule. The country’s new parliament building features a mural, allegedly depicting the greatest extent of the Maurya Empire, which subtly gestures in the direction of a unified subcontinent. Neighbouring countries will no doubt find the prospect of annexation altogether less appealing.
Geopolitical ambitions aside, dogmatically sectarian Hindu nationalism also has a propensity to breed violence. In February 2020, 36 Muslims were killed in Delhi, many of whom were set on fire. They were marked as targets for violence, humiliated, and brutalised.
The stories of violence against Christians in India are equally concerning. Among these is the distressing story of Graham Staines, an Australian Christian who worked in Odisha, caring for lepers and supporting the tribal people in the area, who lived in extreme poverty. Accused of ‘converting’ local Hindus, Staines and his young sons were burned alive by a Hindu nationalist mob.
Westerners shouldn’t fear or resent this process of change. This is the cycle of history; samsara, the process of death and rebirth. Just as the British replaced the Maratha, who in turn replaced the Mughals, India is reinventing itself again.
However, we must labour under no illusions about what this New India is. We must challenge its ahistorical narratives, and recognise that with each passing year, the commonalities between Britain and India are fewer and fewer. Grovelling apologies will not work; we must have the backbone to stand up for ourselves.
The first quarter of the 21st century has seen India launch itself onto the global stage in explosive fashion. By some estimates, its economy could be the second largest in the world by 2075. Already, the British Prime Minister, the American Vice-President, the CEO of Google and Microsoft, and the President of the World Bank are all of Indian descent.
In the decades to come, the country and its diaspora will have an outsized hand in global affairs. To allow the Government in Delhi to call the shots simply because we don’t understand how India operates would be a gross mistake. Westerners should educate themselves on the realities of modern India and learn to approach it as a civilisation quite unlike our own.
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