Empires Featured

Indian Commemorations of British Legacies

Indian Museum Courtyard Kolkata India
R P Fernando
Written by R P Fernando

Many commentators today regard the Raj as a period which greatly benefitted the British with negligible benefits to Indians. Individuals espousing these views may be surprised to learn that there have been many commemorations in India, since independence, of beneficial colonial legacies. An article has already been included on Indian commemorations in 2021 of the introduction of parliamentary democracy. This paper highlights commemorations of railways, universities, hospitals, courts and financial and cultural bodies.

Railways

It is frequently said by commentators that the British built the railways in India only to transport British goods and troops and that these railways were of little benefit to the Indians. In reality, by the time of independence one billion passenger journeys were being made annually and 90% of the passengers and the one million-strong staff were Indians. The railways were so beneficial for India that in 1953, on the centenary of their introduction, major commemorative ceremonies took place throughout India. On 8 March, Nehru opened a special exhibition in Delhi and on 16 April, the exact centenary of the first journey, an Indian Railways Centenary Day was held with the Vice-President attending the exhibition. The Minister of Transport and Railways recalled that the railways had appeared in India at a time when there were scarcely any internal communications and that nothing could be more welcome than the changes they brought about. A film called ‘A Century of Progress’ was shown and a commemorative postage stamp was issued. Celebrations also took place in Bombay and Calcutta. A book entitled Indian Railways—One Hundred Years by J N Sahni was published which detailed the technical feats involved in the construction of the railways and further benefits for the country.

India also marked the 150th anniversary of the railways in 2002 with a series of celebratory events:

https://archive.pib.gov.in/archive/releases98/lyr2002/rapr2002/10042002/r1004200213.html

The Indian government commissioned a book, Indian Railways—150 Glorious Years, by R H Bhandari.

Universities

Another of the great legacies of the Raj was the founding of modern universities. The first three were Calcutta, Bombay and Madras Universities in 1857/8. All three held centenary commemorations lasting several days in 1958. The Madras celebrations included a science symposium under the chairmanship of the Nobel Laureate Sir C V Raman, as well as a ceremony in which Mr Nehru laid the foundation stone of the Centenary Building. Each university published a book celebrating its anniversary by a leading university official. The book on Calcutta University noted that the establishment of the university marked the beginning of modern higher education in India and that the authorities had not quite realised at the beginning that there was so much thirst for knowledge in the country and interest in Western literature and science.  A postage stamp celebrating each university was also issued.

All three universities commemorated their 150th anniversaries in 2006/7. Calcutta University noted that three British sovereigns, as Prince of Wales, had received honorary degrees in person from that university.

Hospitals

The Medical College Bengal, which was founded in 1835 by Lord William Bentinck, is thought to have been the first medical college teaching Western medicine outside the West. Its centenary in 1935 was celebrated by publishing a book and laying the foundation stone of the casualty building. Its 150th anniversary in 1985 was celebrated by laying the foundation stone of the Terjubilee College for education and research and by issuing a postage stamp.

The King George’s Medical College in Lucknow was founded in 1911 to mark the King’s visit to India. Its centenary was celebrated in 2010 with various exhibitions, starting a new outpatients facility and a research showcase programme. A commemorative stamp was also issued.

Law Courts

The first independent court in India was the Calcutta Supreme Court which was founded in 1774. The modern courts in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were founded in 1862. All three courts celebrated their centenaries in 1962 with grand ceremonies involving the President or Prime Minister, commemorative books and postage stamps. They all celebrated their 150th anniversaries with similar ceremonies in 2012. The Calcutta High Court produced the following magnificent volume:

http://www.wbja.nic.in/wbja_adm/files/The%20High%20Court%20at%20Calcutta%20150%20Years%20-%20An%20Overview.pdf

Finance

Many of India’s financial institutions were established by the British. The State Bank of India, originally established as the Bank of Calcutta in 1806, celebrated its bicentenary with a gala event in Mumbai in June 2005, attended by the Indian Prime Minister, and speeches in parliament in February 2006.

India’s system of fiscal federalism was introduced by the Government of India Acts 1919 and 1935.  Odisha, an Indian province, in the following impressive book commemorating 80 years of Odisha’s budget, describes the evolution of the system.

https://budget.odisha.gov.in/uploadDocuments/Odisha_Budget_E-Book.pdf

Cultural Heritage

Some of Britain’s greatest legacies relate to India’s cultural heritage. The founding of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784 initiated the systematic and academic study of India’s cultural heritage. Its bicentenary celebration in 1984 was attended by the Indian Prime Minister. The Indian Museum in Calcutta, founded in 1814, is considered to be the first museum established outside the West. At its bicentenary celebration in 2014, the Indian Prime Minister noted that it was ironic that the Museum was founded by Western intellectuals. He added that besides the Indian Museum, great institutions like the Geological Survey of India, the Trigonometric Survey of India and the Archaeological Survey of India set in motion a process that produced the institutional underpinnings for the rediscovery of India.

It is evident that the Indian authorities have regularly commemorated colonial legacies and it regrettable that these beneficial legacies of the Empire are not acknowledged by many commentators in the UK today.

About the author

R P Fernando

R P Fernando

The author was born in Sri Lanka and is a scientist with a first degree and doctorate from Cambridge. Extensive correspondence and some articles of his have been published in the national press in the UK and in Sri Lanka. He has published Selected Writings – W A de Silva (2009) and Buddhist Heritage in India and Sri Lanka – Rediscovery and Restoration (2017).