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On Point

The Seven Years War and Britain's Passage to India


by Austin Bay
February 26, 2013

British Prime Minister David Cameron's mid-February visit to India began with a flattering appeal. "I want Britain and India to have a very special relationship," Cameron said in Mumbai. "Special relationship" has specific echoes, which Cameron no doubt intended. Britain possesses a "special relationship" with another former colony, one which became a global power: the U.S.

Cameron recognized India's potential. "India's rise is going to be one of the big phenomena of the century," he said, adding that India's democracy and economic power would make it one of the world's "top three economies by 2030. That's why I'm here. Britain wants to be your partner of choice."

Britain is already India's biggest European investor. Cameron also emphasized historical, linguistic and cultural ties.

Cameron could have mentioned another tie, the legacy of the rule of British common law, albeit British common law as imposed on colonials. The Yanks admired the British legal and political system, but had severe objections to Britain's onerous and demeaning colonial administration (taxation without representation). The Yanks revolted and fought two wars against the Crown. The passage of time, assisted by common security and economic interests, forged the British-American special relationship.

Indian memories of British colonial rule are much more recent. Deep resentment lingers. "Brit rhymes with spit," an Indian immigrant to the U.S. told me, in a conversation three decades ago. We were discussing the beneficial legacy of British common law, especially contract law and freedom of expression. Both are economic catalysts. Then anger flashed. Though born after Indian independence (1947), the man was one generation and scarcely 30 years from decolonization. The subcontinent anti-British grievance list includes: misrule, injustice, ethnic and class prejudice, and secondary status in ones own country. However, an angry U.S. citizen circa 1815 -- roughly 30 years after U.S. independence -- might have had the same list, including the ethnic. The grandson of a displaced Canadian French Cajun, now residing in American Louisiana, could harbor a bitter ethnic grievance.

My Indian acquaintance acknowledged speaking English had benefits. His fluency made getting a job in the U.S. much easier.

Though the use of English remains a political issue in India, you can make a case that the English language, or its emerging subcontinent cousin, Inglish, is contemporary India's economic glue. That doesn't sit well with hardline Indian nationalists, but it translates (literally) into high-tech jobs in Bangalore and Mumbai. Hindi is India's official language, but the country has some three dozen major languages.

Use of English was supposed to cease in 1965, but non-Hindi speaking regions objected; pro-English riots broke out in Tamil Nadu. Indians value their polyglot heritage, but they are also practical. English continues to serve as an official language for government and business, which makes it India's de facto common language. A Tamil speaking software entrepreneur in Bangalore uses English to communicate with his Marathi-speaking Mumbai business partner.

Cameron's passage to India comes at a historically ironic moment. Feb. 10, 2013, was the 250th anniversary of the signing of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War. If this war is obscure, its long-term effects aren't. It was perhaps the first genuine global war. Combat occurred on every continent except Antarctica. Ticked off Cajuns and angry Indian nationalists ought to study up on the conflict. Here's why. In North America, we call the Seven Years War the French and Indian War. The French lost Quebec, and the British took Canada. After 1763, the Cajuns fled their maritime Canadian homes for Louisiana.

The Seven Years War also left Britain the leading power in India. For better and worse, Great Britain's victory in the Seven Years War gave it Canada and India as colonies. The British left their social, political, legal and linguistic marks on both. Like the U.S., both are 21st century powerhouses. It appears being a former British colony has a long-term upside. Cameron certainly hopes 21st century Indians draw that conclusion.

                

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