India’s British influence

Updated 31 August 2011

Everyone is influenced by one’s past. So it is with nations. India‘s conquerors tended not to adopt Indian language, practices and culture, resulting in massive diversity – more of that later. And, in particular, its British colonial legacy, in particular the English language as well as many of the institutions such as parliament, democracy and corporate governance and so forth, has been embedded into India and have stood it in good stead.

India is more ‘western’ after years of colonial legacy

Some analysts would say that Britain bequeathed India with:

  • English language
  • Secular law
  • Education system
  • Constitutional government
  • Railways.

Most secondary schools in the upper tier conduct lessons in English. Many of these were established by Christian missions during the Raj for both British kids and those of aristocratic, wealthy or well-connected Indians. Over time they opened to middle class families and now often to poor kids who pass entrance exams. Many are run in English public school style, with cricket, soccer, hockey and perhaps boxing as main sports; and blazers and striped ties in winter for boys. More importantly, as English is the medium of instruction, Shakespeare and other classical English literature are on the curriculum and so graduates can speak English as well as any English kids, though sometimes a bit archaically. In fact, some of these Indians not only think but also dream in English.

Many who live in Commonwealth countries will know, mission schools are prevalent and often amongst the top performing. And they were so in China.  My paternal grandfather went to St Xavier’s a Jesuit run school in Shanghai. Years later, I studied at St Xavier’s, Calcutta.

For kids determined to succeed, often entrance to one of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) is sought after. Competition is fierce – 60 candidates for each place. Some IIT graduates had moved abroad, with many staying on as professors and others ending up as entrepreneurs, such as in Silicon Valley. The majority remains in India and usually is very successful in industry or commerce, though some, like Jairam Ramesh (see Home page) entered politics very successfully.

  • Indians are generally more fluent in English than the Chinese. And more Indians speak English than Chinese do.
  • But India has lower literacy than China: 60% (45% women). Worse for Dalits: 31% for men and 11% for women. Lack of educated workers is beginning to hamper economic growth.
  • It produces over 250,000 new engineering graduates and nearly 700,000 science and maths graduates each year. However, note should be taken of the reality behind the headline figures. There are probably around 100,000 engineering graduates per year of requisite standard – see Duke University report, esp slides 6 and 7.

Indian institutions are largely based on 19th Century British institutions adapted to Indian conditions and updated at the time of independence. For example, there is clear separation between the legislative, judiciary and executive branches of government. The civil service is modelled on that of British India. And the Bombay stock exchange was modelled on the London one and opened in 1850s, the oldest in Asia, and company laws were originally derived from British company laws. At one time, Indian lawyers and judges dressed similarly to British counterparts and the barrister would address the judge as “milord”.

  • They often dwell as large ‘joint’ families.
  • India has over 100,000 $millionaires and c100m middle class people.
  • It has more ‘ultra’ poor (<$1 per day) than China: 30% of population.
  • Slums exist in large cities – one estimate says slum population doubled in last two decades, though there are plans to replace them by affordable high-rise apartments over next decade. Between £500m to £1bn promised for Bombay in Vision 2020. But it is not clear how ‘industries’ such as plastic recycling and clay pottery now run in places like Dharavi with 85% employment – made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire – will be accommodated.
  • There is also less opportunity for women, despite being granted full suffrage in the constitution in 1949, especially in lower-level jobs. In addition, traditional ‘son is better than daughters’ attitude, just as in China, made worse by a dowry system, officially outlawed, is still practiced, especially in rural areas. Nevertheless Indira Gandhi was Premier for many years. In 2009 Pratibha Patil was elected as its first woman President and Meira Kumar as its first woman Speaker.
  • Also, a January 2010 news item says that HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS and Fidelity International in India are run by women. Before you say: “Ah, but they are all non-Indian companies”, the CEO of Indian banks ICICI and Axis are women, and half of the deputy governors at the Reserve Bank of India are women. Even more encouraging is legislation first proposed in 1996 to reserve 1/3 of seats in both the lower house and state assemblies for women is finally showing signs of being passed.

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