It’s an old debate that’s just burst back into prominence after the Indian Olympic Association president Narinder Batra on Wednesday called for India’s complete withdrawal from the Commonwealth Games.
Batra was angry with what he claimed was the low standard of the games. “We win 70 medals, 100 medals at the Commonwealth Games while at the Olympics, we get stuck at two,” Batra told the Indian Express. “That means the level of competition isn’t high at CWG.”
However, Batra was also angry with the Commonwealth’s perceived mistreatment of India, the association’s largest member in terms of population. “Yet, they don’t consider us seriously,” he said. “There are 13 committees and there isn’t one Indian in them. There is no Indian in the executive board. Why are we in the system? It’s a colonial thing.”
In 2001, the writer Amitava Ghosh had also pointed out the rather obvious colonial hangover that is embodied in the Commonwealth calling it a “a grouping of nations collected from the remains of the British Empire” as he withdrew his book from the Commonwealth Prize for literature.
Indeed, that is precisely what the Commonwealth is today: a grouping of countries whose only link is that they were once colonised by the British.
Is there any utility for India to be a member of this club in 2019?
In fact in 1929, the Congress had decided that when India were to gain freedom, it would not join the Commonwealth as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire (roughly similar to the status Australia or Canada have today). It would instead insist on “purna swaraj” or complete freedom for India.
Unfortunately, the chaotic nature of the British exit meant the Congress had to compromise on its 1929 pledge and the country actual did gain freedom as a British dominion in 1947. In 1949, a new arrangement was agreed upon, where the monarch of the United Kingdom would head the Commonwealth but he would not be India’s head of state.
This history, while very interesting, however seems to have little relevance in 2019. The historical forces that shaped the Congress’ decisions do not exist today. And voices pop up again and again reminding us, as Amitava Ghosh did in 2001, that the Commonwealth simply represents the past – and a rather sordid past at that, characterised by colonial domination and slavery.