Towering resentment: Why the British are sulking over the Statue of Unity

Towering resentment: Why the British are sulking over the Statue of Unity

It is peculiar that when something good comes out of India, sections of British society start carping about India’s poverty. No other country is as obsessed with India’s poor as Britain (although it is a notable subculture in the media of other countries of the Anglosphere).

In 2008, when an Indian spacecraft discovered water on the moon, the British media was aghast that India was wasting its resources on such high-tech gimmicks while it has millions (sorry, hundreds of millions) of poor people.

A year later when India launched its first nuclear submarine, the British questioned India’s need for such expensive weapons when according to the Brits more than 800 million people survived on $2 a day.

The lament is always the same: Why is Britain giving aid to a country that spends so much on its military and ‘vanity’ projects?

Indians have heard that old record repeatedly and they are tired of it. But not the British – they are raking it up again in the backdrop of the inauguration of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat.

In a tizzy over Patel

Barely had the cheers erupted across India when the world’s tallest statue was unveiled that the British media went after it. According to the Daily Mail, (1) Britain donated more than £1billion to India in the years when New Delhi was “lavishing a fortune on building the world’s tallest statue”. The colossal bronze memorial – almost twice the height of the Statue of Liberty in New York – was “immediately condemned as an expensive vanity project”.

The newspaper continues: “In the 56 months it took to construct the £330million Statue of Unity, UK taxpayers gave India £1.17billion in foreign aid, according to official figures….The engineering project started in 2012, when British taxpayers donated almost £300 million to India. In 2013 a further £268 million was given, in 2014 the figure was £278 million and in 2015 it was £185 million, followed by smaller amounts after that. As the cash rolled in from Britain, the Indian authorities poured billions of rupees into building the 597 feet tall bronze likeness of Sardar Patel, one of the heroes of India’s independence movement.”

Big-ticket Indian defence and aerospace projects invariably draw petulant comments in Britain, partly because the British once enjoyed a leadership position in these fields whereas today it is forced to watch from the sidelines as India, China and South Korea reach for the stars. The Mail says the Indian government is planning to spend millions on a lunar probe called Chandrayaan-2 – despite “230 million Indians living in poverty”. (2)

Tory MP Peter Bone added his two bits: “To take £1.1billion in aid from us and then at the same time spend £330million on a statue is a total nonsense and it is the sort of thing that drives people mad.”

Big Ben and Victorian poverty

The British – and their liberal slaves in India – should know that India is not Somalia or the Philippines that cannot afford to build memorials to its great heroes. India is a leading economy and has enough money for development projects and buildings that inspire people. Sardar Vallabhai Patel was the most important Indian leader of the previous century; without him the British and Indian Muslims – with no small help from Gandhi and Nehru – would have balkanised India. More such statues of unifiers such as Shivaji, Rana Pratap, Rana Kumbha, Raja Raja Chola, Rajendra Chola and Harshavardhana should be built across the country.

That brings us to monumental projects that other nations have undertaken. Take London’s Big Ben – one of the world’s most iconic clock towers. The 159-feet structure was planned in 1844 and completed in 1859. Was London a modern city back then? On the contrary, the living conditions of the vast majority of people in the metropolis were appalling.

In his book The Victorian Underworld, Kellow Chesney gives a graphic description of the conditions in which many Londoners were living: “Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the, metropolis … In big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room.” (3)

Great wealth and extreme poverty lived side by side because the tenements, slums, rookeries were only a stone’s throw from the large elegant houses of the rich. In 1849, Henry Mayhew, an investigative journalist for the Morning Chronicle, described a London Street with a tidal ditch running through it, into which drains and sewers emptied. The ditch contained the only water the people in the street had to drink, and it was “the colour of strong green tea”, in fact it was “more like watery mud than muddy water”.

This is the report Mayhew gave: “As we gazed in horror at it, we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it; we saw a whole tier of doorless privies in the open road, common to men and women built over it; we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it.” (3)

Many women took to prostitution because the alternatives were so grim. Entire streets in the slums of London were inhabited by prostitutes. Many girls viewed a few years ‘on the game’ as a sensible way to build up a little capital to invest in a small business later, but their future was often cut short by sexually transmitted diseases. (4)

Children as well as adults

In her book The Victorian Town Child, Pamela Horn writes: “In 1848 Lord Ashley referred to more than 30,000 naked, filthy, roaming lawless and deserted children in and around the metropolis.”

You get the picture – the Victorian Era, which evokes much nostalgia among Britons, was a dystopian nightmare but it also gave London some of its most famous monuments. Compared with London of the 1850s, Gujarat is a prosperous state with a dynamic economy. So to say that India shouldn’t build monuments of vanity is just churlish. Basically, what the British should say honestly is: “We are envious that you Indians can build so big.”

What’s bugging Britain?

After it was kicked out of India in 1947, Britain kept up the pretence that it is fascinated by India. Their view was that the British Raj – if you ignored its brutal aspects – was the glue that bonded both nations. They argued that for Britain, India is like the high school crush – you never quite forget your first love.

But in recent years that mask has slipped. As Indian companies started snapping up the crown jewels of British industry (Corus, Land Rover, Jaguar) the colonial aversion for Indians reappeared. It doesn’t matter that India is the second largest investor in the UK after Japan, generating tens of thousands of local jobs.

India’s relentless rise back to prosperity comes at a time when Britain is in steep decline and poverty and hunger are common there. While India doles out more than $6 billion in aid (including a generous multi-million pound sterling grant to Cambridge University), London’s arc of influence is shrinking. While the Royal Navy is to be scuttled to a littoral force of 19 ships, India is building a 270-ship navy. Last week, when the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier sailed into New York, Russia’s RT (5) questioned “whether Britain even needed any new aircraft carriers, considering that paying for them meant the navy couldn’t then afford to pay for enough sailors to actually sail them”.

Keep your peanuts

So how much is this aid that the British are getting so crabby about? Chew on this – a big fat £52 million ($67 million) that Indians should be grateful for. Just to keep things in perspective, British aid to India in 2018 is less than M.S. Dhoni’s net worth of $78 million. It’s the kind of cash Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India, probably leaves as loose change in his office drawers.

The irony is that India doesn’t want the money. In fact, seven years ago former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and other Indian ministers had tried to terminate Britain’s aid – but relented after the British begged them to keep taking the money. In fact, Mukherjee famously mocked the UK’s contribution, saying: “We do not require the aid. It is a peanut in our total developmental expenditure.” (6)

Further, according to a leaked memo, senior Indian diplomat Nirupama Rao had proposed “not to avail of any further British assistance with effect from April 1, 2011” because of the “negative publicity of Indian poverty promoted by Britain’s DFID”. However, London requested Delhi to keep taking the money because cancelling the programme would cause “grave political embarrassment” to Britain.

Let that sink in – Britain wants to give aid to India not because India needs it, but because the British wish to continue with the pretence that they are a great power that continues to civilise brown people. You know, the “white man’s burden”.

Politics – and dangers – of aid

The British have good reasons to continue the DFID’s work in India. The nation of shopkeepers has little to offer India by way of trade, so aid acts as a useful toehold. According to Britain’s former Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, the focus of British aid would be public-private partnerships rather than education or health. Translation: British aid is being diverted to schemes that sound uncannily like lobbying.

Anyway, appearing to care for the poor in India also does wonders for Britain’s self-esteem. Images of British citizens working amidst thin, unkempt children hawking stuff on the streets reinforces the widespread belief in Britain that colonialism was okay because Indians are unfit to govern themselves.

Another spinoff is that having British natives on the ground in India is handy when it comes to recruiting informers and spies. This isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. Employment in a nondescript NGO would be the perfect cover for British intelligence agents. Only someone incredibly naive would dispute that intelligence agencies routinely use such cover.

Also, at a time when Britain has become (in former French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s words) “an industrial wasteland”, such aid programmes keep scores of Britons employed.

Fundamentalist agenda

Amidst the volley of criticism, one of the few voices of support for aid to India comes from Christian Aid. This outfit has a vested interest in keeping the aid pipeline flowing smoothly. Christian Aid is part of a consortium that has managed a DFID programme directed at India’s backward classes and tribal communities that have traditionally been targeted for conversion by fundamentalist churches. The outfit, which has been operating in India for over 50 years, currently works in 16 states with 27 partners. (7)

Christian Aid, which unabashedly mixes evangelism and charity, is selling its own brand of salvation in India’s backward regions, potentially setting up future religious clashes between Hindus and newly converted Christians. Its agenda is very clear – the church-backed organisation is openly meddling in deep-rooted social conflicts. Instead of letting India’s various social groups sort out their issues amicably, agencies like Christian Aid are creating discord. The rise of Maoist guerrilla movements, backed by fundamentalist churches based in the Anglosphere, is just one example.

What about the poor?

Britain doesn’t have to be concerned about India’s poor because: one, it has plenty of its own to worry about. The Guardian’s Breadline Britain series (8) notes the combination of soaring living costs (particularly food and childcare), welfare cuts, and charges for previously free services (such as homework clubs) have put Britons under immense, and in some cases, almost intolerable pressure. People affected include the low-income mum who ate once a day and never on Saturdays to ensure that her kids got a decent meal, for example; and the indignity of “just coping” – more than one interviewee reported “people fighting for the discounted vegetables” in the supermarket.

And that’s not including the Peaceful Explosion – the massive increase in the number of Islamic fundamentalists who are invading white middle and lower class neighbourhoods, and the proliferation of child sex rings dominated by Pakistani immigrants.

Secondly, at least 30-40 million Indians are lifted out of poverty every year thanks to India’s growing economy. This is an unprecedented rate of poverty removal that is bettered only by China. It is in this backdrop that Britain – along with its Anglosphere allies the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and European sidekicks such as Norway, Germany and the Netherlands – continues to peddle the nonsense that India needs Western aid.

Poverty is being removed from India through the hard work of leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi who are creating jobs and brand new cities. However, the rising India story doesn’t fit the Western narrative of a poor country that cannot survive without external aid. Too bad, other than some Gunga Dins for hire, Indians are not buying that any more.

Some British politicians have pointed out the irony of British aid to India. When the statue frenzy hit the tabloids, Tory politician Philip Davies told the Express: “Here we are spending money in a country that has not only got its own space programme but is developing its own overseas aid programme….the public is not just sick and tired of this but angry too. It is completely unjustifiable and truly idiotic.”

Davies was echoing what his colleague Douglas Carswell had said when Mukherjee gave London the finger: “The fact is that India’s economy is growing much faster than our own. We should be encouraging free trade with them and trying to learn from them rather than handing out patronising lectures.”

Forget aid, get a life

Indeed, Britain is not in a position to moralise because it alone is responsible for India’s poverty. Britain’s rapacious colonialism turned India from the world’s richest country in the 1700s to one of the poorest by the time the British were kicked out in 1947. Within the span of 190 years, the British also killed at least 60 million Indians through wars, displacement of populations and artificially created famines.

Amaresh Misra, a writer and historian based in Mumbai, argues in his book War of Civilisations: India AD 1857 that after the First War of Independence in 1857, British reprisal killings (which he calls an “untold holocaust”) caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over the next 10 years.

English author Charles Dickens, whose bicentennial is being celebrated this year, said after the 1857 war: “I wish I were commander-in-chief in India…I should proclaim to them that I considered my holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the race.”

And how can you forget the view of The Guardian, the liberal voice of Britain? “We sincerely hope that the terrible lesson thus taught will never be forgotten,” it wrote about the genocide.

And finally, Winston Churchill, who described Indians as a “beastly race”. He caused the deaths of nearly four million Indians in 1943-44 by diverting food from India to Europe. It is known as the Great Bengal Famine during which the daily calorie intake of Indians was lower than that of the Jews in Germany’s death camps.

Forget aid, what India needs from Britain is an apology.


  1. Daily Mail,
  2. Daily Mail,
  3. Poverty and Families in the Victorian Era,
  4. The working classes and the poor,
  5. Britain’s biggest warship parks off the US coast, looking just a little bit needy,
  6. Typhoon in London over aid ‘peanuts’ Delhi doesn’t want,
  7. Christian Aid.
  8. The ‘despair’ and ‘loneliness’ of austerity Britain,

Featured Image: Indian Express

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.