The need to break free of the shackles of colonial legacy is an essential step for former colonies to assert their independence. Renowned post-colonial scholar Frantz Fanon once insightfully remarked, “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land and from our minds as well”. Fanon proposes that the residual effects of colonialism are not simply confined to the visible, tangible aspects of political or economic structures but are embedded deeply within the psyche of the colonized, affecting their identity and cultural expression. Therefore, it is not only a political imperative but also a psychological and cultural necessity to discard the colonial legacy in order to foster a genuinely independent and self-determined society.
This brings us to the Commonwealth. Despite being viewed by some as a benign institution promoting shared values and cooperation among member nations, its roots in British colonialism are undeniable. In its inception, the Commonwealth was an attempt to maintain ties with former British colonies and retain some influence over them. For nations still part of the Commonwealth, it can be argued that this continues a colonial legacy. Being part of the Commonwealth can inadvertently perpetuate the very colonial ties that nations seek to transcend, muddling the path to genuine post-colonial identity and independence.
While nations like Australia and New Zealand embraced the Commonwealth immediately upon decolonization, India, with its long and tumultuous history of colonization, exhibited an unexpected and arguably misplaced allegiance. India’s decision to remain within the Commonwealth after gaining dominion status in 1947 and becoming a republic in 1950, post the 1949 London Declaration, remains a perplexing diplomatic conundrum. At a time when India should have been relentlessly asserting its newfound independence and sovereignty on the world stage, it ironically chose to retain symbolic ties with the very colonial power it had fought so ardently against. Under the London Declaration, India accepted the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and, as such, the Head of the Commonwealth (until India adopted its constitution). The acceptance of King George VI as a symbolic head, even if just in title, seemed to undermine the very essence of hard-won independence. The nation had just rid itself of the monarchy; to tacitly endorse a monarchical figurehead in any capacity was contradictory and almost self-deprecating.
It beckons the question: Why did India, after embarking on a path of self-governance and republicanism, feel the need to linger in the shadows of its colonial past? In this particular instance, the nation’s leadership could be criticized for not taking a more assertive stand that resonated with its aspirations and the sacrifices of its freedom fighters.
In 1949, India’s decision to join the Commonwealth may have seemed like a pragmatic move; tethered as it was to England’s supply of defense materials and the financial incentives of foreign exchange and customs exemptions. Moreover, it offered a stage to rebuff Pakistan’s disparaging narratives. However, in hindsight, relying on such vestiges of colonial dependency for defence, economic favours, or diplomatic clout feels like an anachronistic misstep. Such motivations are clearly outdated and redundant in our contemporary world.
The Commonwealth has been criticized as an assemblage of nations bearing a colonial legacy, leading to debates about the relevance of India’s membership in the 21st century. Given India’s stature and its colonial history, questions arise concerning the necessity of India’s continued membership, especially in the light of perceived discrepancies in treatment despite being the largest member.
Over the years, India’s status quo approach to its membership of the Commonwealth has presented a disquieting inertia in its foreign policy. Despite having evolved into a global power with its own unique geostrategic interests and initiatives, the country inexplicably clings to a vestige of its colonial past. There is an undeniable paucity of substantive benefits that India garners from the Commonwealth. While the nation often excels in the Commonwealth Games, one must question if the occasional sports accolades truly justify the perpetuation of such an incongruous relationship.
The Commonwealth Games, although a platform for showcasing talent and fostering sportsmanship, cannot be the sole rationale for maintaining India’s membership of the Commonwealth. Is it not perplexing that a nation that has surmounted numerous challenges and reached significant milestones in various fields should attach such considerable significance to a mere sporting event?
Furthermore, the Commonwealth’s relative insignificance in contemporary geopolitics and its minimal influence in resolving global challenges, such as climate change, poverty, and regional conflicts, places the credibility and relevance of India’s continued membership under rigorous scrutiny. It is as if India is shackled to an antiquated relic of a bygone era, one that only serves as a grim reminder of its colonial past rather than contributing constructively to its present and future aspirations.
The time has come for India to reassess and recalibrate its ties with the Commonwealth. It must ascertain whether this colonial artefact warrants preservation or if it is indeed an obsolete association that only perpetuates a historical anomaly far removed from India’s progressive vision.
Bibek Debroy is the Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM) & Aditya Sinha is Additional Private Secretary (Policy & Research), EAC-PM.
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
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