Over the centuries British engineering has played a crucial role in the development of modern India. In his new book, ‘The Making of India’, Kartar Lalvani explains why this process is today often misunderstood.
“British engineers made an enormous contribution to building India,” says Indian historian Kartar Lalvani, who thinks that theirs was a pivotal role in helping the country “become the India of today”.
Lalvani, who is also a philanthropist and CEO of the pharmaceutical company Vitabiotics, realises that for someone born in the subcontinent to make such a claim seems to fly in the face of modern values. Today, the notion of Victorian colonial ‘progress’ sits strangely at odds with revisionist interpretations of the Industrial Revolution. Even his own PR machine claims that his new book, ‘The Making of India’, will “delight and enrage in equal measure”. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is not quite so equivocal when he says that Lalvani’s latest is “absolutely excellent” and that it “contains the seeds of Anglo-Indian cooperation”.
Over the decades it has become something of an unchallenged universal truth that, while Britain held huge influence in India’s development – particularly in the Victorian heyday – this was somehow a display of colonial overlordship, where the fraternal arm of Empire protected an immense country in exchange for its wealth. But to Lalvani, this truth is a myth propagated by a “serious lack of appreciation”.
While received wisdom says that the British created India’s railways “for the selfish reasons of moving raw materials and for army mobility”, there is also the unavoidable fact that when the British withdrew from India in 1947, they left behind “a fully functioning railways system and network with 45,000 miles of track”. Since then, an independent India has added merely a further 5,000 miles, while the 136,000 bridges that were in place have only increased by in the region of 5 per cent. The inference is clear: in terms of the creation of a physical infrastructure, the British presence was a force for good; what Lalvani calls in the sub-title of his book ‘The Untold Story of British Enterprise’. It was to be an enterprise that reached beyond the world of mechanical and civil engineering – the construction blitz also included dams, canals, ports and roads – to a civil infrastructure of judiciary and court buildings, police stations, schools, medical and engineering colleges, hospitals, book publishing and newspaper presses, and so on.
As Lalvani says, when these projects are put side by side, you are left with nothing less than the creation of some of India’s greatest cities: Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and New Delhi. All built under the watchful eye and guiding hand of British engineers. He develops the idea of fraternal patronage by explaining that while the early days of private ownership by the East India Company were prone to exploitation, the intervention of parliamentary oversight meant that official reform eradicated what he describes as “sharp practice and endemic corruption. After the Indian Mutiny the British Parliament took control of the East India Company and brought in reforms. The rest is history”.
What this history contributed was the greatest era of expansion, from the early 19th to the mid-20th centuries, which the author calls “the massive undertaking for accomplishing India’s vast and wide-ranging infrastructure” that was proceeding “full steam ahead”. But this pinnacle of activity of Anglo-Indian collaboration was also the natural development of a relationship beginning in the 17th century, when “a small seafaring island, one-tenth of the size of the Indian subcontinent, dispatched sailing ships over 11,000 miles on a five-month journey in search of new opportunities”.
He goes on to say that “the British engineers and their staff built up very good relationships with the hundreds of thousands of Indian workforce and developed many thousands of them into a skilled and semi-skilled force”, with training carried out under British supervision and patronage. Further to that, Lalvani regards these pioneering empire-builders as “in a way, the kind of first diplomats to work with, and mingle with, their native subordinates while training and working with them. There are several examples of the beautiful relationship and teamwork between the two that I have detailed in the book”.
Lalvani, who is now in his mid-eighties, was born in the city of Karachi, which is now part of Pakistan. After the partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947, his family was forced to flee to Mumbai, formerly Bombay, in modern India. The author, who was a penniless teenager at the time, made his way to London to study pharmacy in 1956. He says he found Britain to be “the most tolerant and welcoming society and I grew to deeply respect the British values of freedom, fair play and the intolerance of corruption”.
After gaining his doctorate at the University of Bonn, Lalvani returned to London to continue his nutraceutical research, which led him to establish Vitabiotics, which was to become a main player in the UK’s vitamin supplement market.
Of his relationship with his homeland, he recalls that “it was only after this period of living in Britain that I came to appreciate the scale and depth of the British contribution to India”. He remembers vividly that while living back in the East, “the only word of praise for Britain I heard came from the elderly who seemed to miss a time under the British, when corruption was not so endemic”. Of his book, he reflects that “the more I studied, the more I realised that this was a great untold story that one day I needed to explain. Since Britain has afforded such a great opportunity to those from the subcontinent, I hope that I can add some balance and perspective to the shared history of these two great nations”.
This balance comes in the form of what he calls “learning about the cardinal truth” which might be more informally termed myth-busting. For example, he cites the sacking and looting of Delhi as a misunderstanding in history. While the casual student might assume responsibility lay with the British, he points out that “it was not the British, but the Persians and Afghans, who had emptied the capital of India, Delhi, and other major cities of the north with barbaric looting invasions... the British were still confined in Bengal”.
Controversy aside, the author is left in no doubt that the British imperial presence in India was, on balance, a force for good and one that helped shape the modern nation that it is today.
‘The Making of India’ by Kartar Lalvani is published by Bloomsbury, £25