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The Price of Empire

NEW DELHI – Indians tend not to dwell on the country’s colonial past. Whether through national strength or civilizational weakness, India has long refused to hold any grudge against Britain for 200 years of imperial enslavement, plunder, and exploitation. But Indians’ equanimity about the past does not annul what was done.

Britain’s shambolic withdrawal from India in 1947, after two centuries of imperial rule, entailed a savage partitioning that gave rise to Pakistan. But it occurred curiously without rancor toward Britain. India chose to remain in the Commonwealth as a republic, and maintained cordial relations with its former overlords.

Some years later, Winston Churchill asked Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had spent nearly a decade of his life in British jails, about his apparent lack of bitterness. Nehru replied that “a great man,” Mahatma Gandhi, had taught Indians “never to fear and never to hate.”

But, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, the scars of colonialism have not fully faded. I learned that firsthand in the summer of 2015, when I delivered a speech at the Oxford Union decrying the iniquities of British colonialism – a speech that, to my surprise, inspired a powerful response across India.