How the new Gandhi statue testifies to our distinct shared history
“I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a Government which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system.”
So said Mohandas Gandhi in 1922 of British rule in India.
Despite never having held office, on the 14th March the father of modern India joined the likes of Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill when his statue was unveiled outside the very Houses of Parliament against whose rule he once railed. So powerful was his message that Mahatma Gandhi has had an enduring impact, not just for India but for throughout the world.
In part, of course, the statue should be a chance for every Briton to reflect on a dark period of our history. To remember that, less than 30 years before Gandhi secured his country’s independence, it was British trigger-fingers that left hundreds of peaceful protesters dead in Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh garden, yet Mahatma Gandhi never wavered from his path of non-violence.
And yet, like all history, the shared past of Britain and India is far too complex to be dismissed as either entirely good or wholly bad. As Gandhi’s memory is honoured in Parliament Square, we should remember not just the bad, but also how much both our nations have gained from each other and how valuable our enduring bond remains.
In the UK we too often forget how much of our history has been lived alongside the people of India. In the trenches of the First World War, after all, it was not only the lion-hearted that kept our shores safe, but also the heroism of one and a half million British Indian soldiers, all volunteers.
Earlier this month, I laid a wreath along with David Cameron and Eric Pickles at Staffordshire National Memorial Arboretum where 145 specially made paving stones were laid in remembrance: one for each recipient of the Victoria Cross born overseas.
One such recipient was Lance Dafadar Gobind Singh, an Indian soldier who risked his life to deliver urgent messages detailing the position of his regiment to brigade headquarters. His route saw Singh ride six miles across open ground on horseback pursued all the while by enemy machine-gun fire.
Such acts of courage, undertaken in Britain’s name by men and women from around the globe, could undoubtedly fill volumes.
Beyond these acts of individual heroism the shared heritage of our two nations has also been marked by a deep cultural exchange. Indeed, it is hard to think of two more diverse nations that share so much — what, after all, could be more British than a curry, or more Indian than a game of cricket?
As the UK pursues a future in an uncertain world — both politically and economically — the bond we have built with over many decades with the world’s largest democracy could prove a vital asset for both countries.
Mahatma Gandhi’s statue was unveiled by Shri Arun Jaitley, the Indian Finance Minister who recently announced a prudent and encouraging Indian Budget, throwing open India’s doors to international investment.
Few nations are as well-placed as Britain to take up Mr Jaitley on his offer to become part of the success story of what is now one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Yet, with the Home Secretary bent on driving away non-EU immigrants from our shores, with her damaging immigration policies and rhetoric, and an economy that continues to trade more with Switzerland than with India, we often seem to be travelling in quite the opposite direction.
With that Mahatma Gandhi’s statue unveiled last weekend, we now have the opportunity to look back at the history our countries have lived through together and ensure that it continues to enrich the cultures and economies of both nations for generations to come.
Of the numerous quotations from Mahatma Gandhi, the most appropriate at this time is: “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny."