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A VINDICATION OF THE BRITISH RAJ
At the zenith of British paramountcy in India, the Viceroy, Lord Curzon opined, ‘the British Raj is, under God, the greatest force for good the world has ever known.’ The Marquess Curzon of Kedleston’s dictum is a trifle bombastic. But this redaction concurs with the spirit of it.
There is much vociferation concerning the Britannic Raj these days. Curiously, Indian politicians hardly castigated it in the first few decades of independence. Only now that those in South Asia who were born under the Union Flag are dying off do we hear such shrill and intemperate invective against the British Raj. It is meet to do homage to the British Raj.
Some will find the very existence of this essay nauseating and objectionable. But however noisome views are they ought to be examined. Etiam diabolus audiatur. It is indicative of the fragility and insecurity of anti-imperialists that many of them think that imperialism discourse should not be permitted a hearing. We have come to a pretty pass when even in Britain it is now all but forbidden to espouse British imperialism. As the laudable maxim audi alteram partem is under threat even in the UK it behoves this essayist all the more to strive to give the lion’s roar.
Demagogues such as Shashi Tharoor inveigh against the British Raj. The Congress politico has striven to use just about every formal logical fallacy that there is. His hyperbole and incessant appeal to emotion renders his diatribe unworthy of serious consideration. The Grand Panjandrum of Trivandrum had the nerve to say, ‘’the British destroyed India.’’ In his mind construction and destruction swapped places. I would remind the Congressman of his national motto: truth alone triumphs.
Much Indian nationalist discourse is racist. They would prefer Indians to be enslaved by other Indians than liberated by Britons. Would slaves in India have been better off not to have been set free? How will nationalists riddle their way out of that?
The legacy of the British Raj makes me call to mind a Monty Python sketch in the Life of Brian. What did the British do for India? Apart from the abolition of slavery, the abolition of sattee, the abolition of torture, gender equality, religious equality, unity, the abolition of human sacrifice, cars, bicycles, roads, railways, ports, airports, the rule of law, telephones, telegraphs, the sewage system, running water, electricity, accurate maps, censuses, watches, clocks, the Gregorian Calendar, schools, universities, hospitals, modern medicine, museums, national parks, the English language, the army, the navy, the air force, the police force, the courts, modern weights and measures, the rule of law, the parliamentary system, the banking system, public limited companies, the stock market, cricket, hockey, yes but apart from all that. What did the British ever do for India? A compendium of the benignity of British rule can scarcely be composed since the good wrought by the British Raj is ineffable.
Dr Tharoor suggests that the defence that the British Raj’s bestowal of all this on India is a worthless argument. If all this infrastructure and all these institutions are valueless, why has India not stopped using them? Even the most inveterate Anglophobe must recognise that the Raj conferred many benefactions on India.
Nationalist tropes have been incessantly dinned into Indians for decades. Many people will be incurable when it comes to such nationalist thinking. By no means everything about Indian nationalism is bad. It is excessive hostility towards the Raj and bias that needs a corrective.
Nothing in this essay could construed to suggest that ethnic Britons are inherently ethical or superior. Britishers are a mixed bunch like every other nationality. But as it so happens the British were in a position to help India from 1600 to 1947 and also to help themselves. And they did.
They say you must not judge a man till you have walked a mile in his shoes. I have sought to put myself in the position of an India. How would I think about the British Raj were I an Indian? The emotional pull of nationalism is irresistible to many. To see the Indian Tricolour float on the winds, to hear the national anthem booming out, to see the gorgeously caparisoned Indian Army parading with pigris erect: it would make my heart nearly burst with pride. There is no mistaking the elation that Indians feel to see their flag borne aloft. The sentimental allure of patriotism is then misused to beguile people into hyper-nationalist thinking. No nationalism is bad per se. But Indian nationalist discourse that is unwarrantedly hostile to the Raj is misguided and unhistorical. There are aspects of Indian nationalists that are praiseworthy. Maintaining the oneness is India is a worthy goal. Centrpetal force ought to be supported. Likewise; British nationalism, Irish nationalism or any nationalism can be distasteful and wrongheaded when taken to the fair. Chauvinism is to be avoided.
Were I an Indian, I like to think I would be sagacious and courageous enough to reject nationalist mythology and the demonisation of the Raj. I would recognise that the Raj was created with free consent of India.
The haughtiness of some Britons would get my goat. It is difficult for those from mighty nations not to feel conceited. But the contumelious attitude of some Britishers in ye olde days towards Indians was nauseating.
The British failure to do more to alleviate famines was one of the Raj’s worst sins. Much more should have been done.
I take pains to avoid cognitive biases in myself. I expose myself to Indian nationalist discourse. I go out of my way to cite the wrongdoings and injustices wrought by the British Isles. I frequently ask myself, could I be wrong? Could it be that the British Raj was dreadful with few, if any, mitigations?
Nirad C Chaudhuri was one of few people valiant enough and wise enough to acknowledge that the British Raj had been desirable. For his fearless assertion of the truth in his magisterial tome Autobiography of an Unknown Indian he was hounded from his job at All India Radio. The grandeur and sonority of his magnum opus recommend themselves to any reader. It is an engrossing work even if its political slant is not your cup of cha. The incorrigible anglophile later found refuge in a more congenial habitat: Oxford.
THE RAJ WAS BY CONSENT
As Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi correctly observed, ‘The English have not taken India. We have given it to them.’ My only bugbear there is the misuse of the term English. As an Irishman I am immensely proud of the major part West Britain played in the glorious story of the Raj alongside our kith and kin from Cymru, Caledonia and Anglia.
M K Gandhi also noted, ‘the English rule here not because of their strength but because we keep them here.’ Gandhi was the doyen of the independence movement yet even he recognised that the British Raj endured due to Indian desire for it.
We are often told that the British Raj was something that the British did to India. It is presented as though Indians had no agency. All the accomplishments and the misdeeds of the Raj were with huge scale Indian participation.
When the East India Company (EIC) first had a ship dock in India it was for trade. EIC was purchasing items in India and selling British goods in India. It only carried on this commerce because it had commodities that Indians wished to purchase and others that they were willing to sell. In time the Mughal Emperor granted express permission for the EIC’s activities. The Mughals looked with disdain at England and Wales at the time. To be fair, India a much larger and mightier country than England and Wales or indeed than the whole British Isles.
India was an is a hoary civilisation. Its accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, jurisprudence, philology, philosophy, science, medicine and other fields are most estimable. But having 20% of the world’s population one would assume, all things being equal, that they would be responsible for around 20% of the attainments in any field.
The vagaries of history meant that many dynasties ruled India or portions thereof. Not many lasted more than a couple of centuries. The vicissitudes of politics and economics meant that India’s borders were forever changing. Can India really be said to have continued at all? If you change a hammerhead twice and its handle twice, do you have the same hammer that you started with? The continuance of India as a polity is not as unproblematic as nationalists pretend. The lineage of most nations states is fraught with discontinuities and irregularities. But India’s case is egregiously complex.
The EIC was founded to make a profit. They made no bones about it. It certainly turned a handsome profit.
In time the EIC rented and eventually purchased land as trading posts. These were known as factories. Yet again, the EIC’s acquirement of real estate was by the free agreement of Indian rulers and Indian private citizens.
Commerce must have been mutually beneficial otherwise the EIC would not have prospered through it. If England and Wales were so backward in comparison to India it is curious that Indians choose to purchase its manufactures. The EIC was not selling foodstuffs and the like.
By the late 17th century, the EIC’s focus has shifted from India’s Arabian Sea Coast to the Bay of Bengal. Though Mumbai was acquired as a wedding present from Catherine of Braganza in 1664, the EIC had Calcutta (Kolkata) as its base from 1690.
There was no grand plan to acquire India. As the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge (John R Seeley) said of the British Empire, ‘’it was acquired in a fit of absence of mind.’’ Until the 19th century it took two years for a message from London to be received in India and then replied to. The British Government had almost no control over the EIC. Even in the 1870s Disraeli lamented the prancing proconsuls in various colonies who were a law unto themselves despite the existence of the telegraph.
In the 18th century the Mughal Empire went into long term decline. The declension of the empire is usually dated from the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. It was perhaps portentous that the last great Mughal expired the year of the Act of Union. From that date onwards North Britons were also admitted to EIC.
The empire was divided into many provinces. As the empire weakened the provinces acted severally. Each province was ruled by a nawab (governor) appointed by the Badshah. The title nawab was supposed to be non-dynastic. But some nawabs treated them as heritable. When a nawab died his closest kinsman with leaderly qualities often assumed the nawabship. Delhi was usually powerless to stop him. The emperor tended to accept fait accompli.
As the empire grew feeble so there was a concomitant breakdown of law and order. It was slow and gradual at first. But with the fragmentation of the empire came the rise of insecurity. Banditry (dacoity) and piracy were on the rise. Because of this the EIC found it necessary to establish its own army and navy. Its army was overwhelmingly manned by local men. There were a few all white units. At this time, there was no colour bar. The reason for separates units was linguistic and to a lesser degree dietary.
The EIC’s army and navy provided security to Indians. It also provided others with employment.
Britishers were no slouches at piracy themselves. The Royal Navy was forever catching and hanging British pirates. In time of war however, they are granted letters of marque as privateers. They were permitted to predate the commerce of enemy states.
De minimis incipe the EIC became a major landholder. The EIC purchased arable land. It was then able to cultivate some of the crops that it had theretofore bought from Indian vendors. Moreover, it could feed its staff. The EIC also found that renting out land to farmers was a way to make a tidy profit.
The EIC brought modern technology to India. This included watches and navigating instruments. This was one of numberless benefactions from the British Isles to India.
The EIC was not a charity mission. No one pretended that it was. It was guided by self-interest and this was often enlightened self-interest.
We often hear that ‘loot’ is an Indian word. This is taken as proof positive that the EIC was a plunderer. But if so, who taught them that? Why has India not taken an English word for this activity into any of its languages? Britishers did not behave worse in India than at home. It is almost as though Indian nationalist historians would have us believe that no one in the British Isles had ever ransacked anyone else there. Perhaps they have not heard of the Nineteen Long Winters.
The culture of the soil was the mainstay of Indian life. Kinship counted for much. Little had changed in the life of the peasant in millennia.
In 1690 Job Charnock purchased some of the Hooghly riverbank. He was granted it ‘’in absolute sovereignty.’’ Once again, the EIC was there because Indians wanted it to be!
By the mid-18th century, the Mughal Empire was extant in theory rather than in fact. The badshah’s suzerainty was more honoured in the breach than in the observance. More Indian princes sought alliances with the EIC.
The Mughal Emperor sold diwani to the EIC. Therefore, the Government of India granted the EIC to express and sole right to govern Bengal. Bengal in those times included Orissa, Bihar and what we now call Bangladesh.
The British presence in Bengal stimulated commerce. Siraj ud Daula was a Nawab of Bengal who seized Calcutta from the EIC. He acquired notoriety for his rapacity and sadism. Yet even this convinced anglophobe came to recognise that the EIC was boosting the economy. Amidst of a war against the EIC he opened negotiations to return Calcutta to them because it would be a fillip to the economy.
Most Britons in India in the 17th and 18th century certainly admired the country and its ancient civilisation. They had to learn indigenous languages since virtually no Indian spoke English until the 19th century. Many Britons became adept at these vernacular tongues. They learnt the languages of the upper orders and not the yokels.
Indian was in some senses another Eden. Its warmth and fertility were remarkable. It was demi paradisical to people who hailed from windswept and rainy isles.
The British imagination was fired by India before the 17th century was out. The first poet laureate John Dryden wrote Aurangzeb. This play was about the reigning Mughal emperor which is why it bore his name. Other British literary luminaries turned their hands to limning India’s glory and fame.
Britons bought objets d’art in India. These were conveyed to the UK whatever their provenance.
The EIC’s acquirement of India was sometimes by Machiavellian machinations. They were ably assisted by Indian allies. Kinship counted for much in India but treachery in a family was not unknown.
Many of those Britishers who voyaged to India in the 18th century became affluent. They were then homines novi. The role these ‘nabobs’ played in British politics is revealing. Much of anti-EIC diatribe is down to snobbery against these parvenus. A roundtrip from the UK to India took two years. A man would not wish to return to his native shore empty handed. These men often made sure they were rich before their homecoming. But many found that India was their final resting place long before they could amass much capital.
Because of the EIC army and navy, people under EIC rule did not have to suffer the depredations of banditti and pirates. Trade could blossom.
Warren Hastings was the First Governor of Fort William (Calcutta). He is seen as the first viceroy. Hastings strove to improve the lot of the Bengalis. The exactions under Clive had been too heavy. Hastings was keen to ameliorate education and food supply. Hastings realised that there was little interchangeability between India and the UK. What worked well in the United Kingdom rarely sufficed in India.
Even if you think the EIC was morally bankrupt it was not idiotic. It did not want people to die. The EIC made money from taxing people not land. 9/10 Indians were engaged in the culture of the soil. Arable farming does not do itself. EIC also wanted customers for its commodities such as manufactured goods, tea and opium. It was very much in the EIC’s interests to keep people alive.
Extra-European expansion for the UK in the 18th century was principally actuated by economic consideration. Instrumental rationality guided the EIC. Therefore, it was not in its interests to devastate India.
The impeachment of Hastings was a chance for those who loathed the EIC to calumniate it. Warren Hastings’ repute was not unassailable. He faced formidable rhetors as adversaries. Edmund Burke, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and a third Irishman all lifted their voices against him. Burke overreached himself with his operatics. Such absurdities redounded to Hastings’ advantage. Despite an exhaustive trial for eight years, Hastings was acquitted on all charges. Nonetheless, he suffered pecuniarily since the cost of hiring stupendous barristers was prohibitive.
Many Britishers went native. Some adopted Indian raiment, customs and so forth. Some converted to Mohammedanism. Precious few embraced Hinduism since Hindus do not take proselytes. Some Britons adopted polygyny if they had become Muslims. Concubinage was also accepted practice by upper class Indians of all faiths. It was a custom that some Britons were eager to emulate. There was no bigotry in bed. By 1800 about a third of British males were married to Indians or in long term relationships with Indian women. We can deduce this from the wills they wrote. If others did not intermarry, that was because they had spouses in the United Kingdom. There was no social more against miscegenation.
India occupied the same place in the British imagination that Egypt had in the Roman imagination. The largest and most fruitful colony was as enshrouded in enigma as it was alluring. In both cases the colony boasted a civilisation far more ancient than that of the metropole and a polytheistic religion of spiralling and bewildering kaleidoscopic complexity. With opium and nautch girls, India proffered sensual temptations such as scarcely be conceived.
Britishers like Sir William Jones found India’s lore and jurisprudence to be awe striking and worthy of the most sedulous scholarship. This hyperpolyglot was perhaps the most awe striking of British scholars to study India. The Asiatic Society was founded by the Old Harrovian under the patronage of Warren Hastings when he was viceroy. Its purpose was to promote study of all things Indian. He never claimed superordinate status for his race or his native civilisation.
The prodigious labours of Jones deserve recognition. He expanded the corpus of knowledge very substantially. He made Indology increasingly accessible. It was no longer within the confines of Asia that India’s cultural accomplishments were to be known. He awakened interest in India’s folklore all across the globe. There was a revival of interest in such matters in India too.
The Asiatic Society did much for the advancement of community intellectual life in Calcutta. Its influence spread through much of Bengal. The society was a manifestation of British adoration of India’s ancient and enchanting civilisation. It is a gross refraction of the truth to say that Britons did not respect India.
Jones had spent much of his schooling having a bit of classics knocked into him. I too had to learnt Latin. Multa tulli! However, Jones was a prodigy.
Even North India was far from homogenous. However, the Mughal Court decreed that the official language was Persian. Persian words had ambled sturdily into Hindi. This eventually produced a composite called Urdu as in ‘army’ in Persian since it emerged into the Mughal Army.
When Sir William Jones arrived in Calcutta as a judge at the High Court he plunged immediately into India’s staggering library of literature and theology. He was fascinated by the fact that some Indian Hindus had little notion of calendric time. For them time was circular and no linear. The relative clumsiness of European language was apparent to Jones. The deficiencies of European syntax were thrown into embarrassingly sharp relief when the studied the morphology of certain Indic languages. He was surprised to discover some Indian languages had no preterit. The polylingual Jones was going to have his work cut out attempting the mastery if divers Indian tongues. He began to wonder at the linkage between certain Indian languages and European ones. Being all Indo-European there were more than obliquely related.
Sir William wrote a synopsis of Hindu and Sharia law. The sacrality of these texts meant that Hindu and Muslim scholars were reluctant to engage with them critically. For Jones, these texts were not sacred cows. He could analyse them objectively. Persian was the language of state in North India. Therefore, Sir William rapidly learnt it autodidactically. He also learnt Sanskrit. This British Mezzofanti accomplished mastery of several other Indian languages and a useful knowledge of a few more. His teeming brain was fixated by Hindu mythology. Some of his colleagues were similarly entranced by India’s vast and enrapturing. The legends of ancient India provided spellbinding evocations of a remote age.
Sanskrit had a supranational status. It is the ur language of much of Southeast Asia too. Indonesia was once a Hindu archipelago. Hinduism only survives on Bali. Hinduism never had a political coeval unlike Islam or Catholicism. Sanskrit was so elite that it did not imbue more than a handful of scholars with any consciousness of an international society.
Jones did not pursue the study of Indian Law merely because it caught his intellectual fancy or from sheer caprice. He considered it to be his bounden duty. He had to comprehend India’s legal traditions in order to do justice in India. His digest of the laws of India was very durable. It was used by juriconsults a century after his death.
Magna opera of Sir William are too numerous to name. Jones was a lexicographer and a grammarian of Indian languages. He understood them in granularity. He was a fantastic litterateur. Because of him print treasuries of these languages were created. His stunning attainments merit adulation.
A plaque dedicated to Sir William stands in the chapel of his old college: University College, Oxford. Some unkind souls have demanded that it be removed. The sourness they feel towards a man filled with admiration for India is dispiriting. Some malaperts and mean-spirited persons have accused him of sundry offences. The polemical nature of much comment on Jones is depressing. I tremble at the hideous spectacle of one who lived India so well being execrated by the descendants of the people he served.
The status of Hindu and Islamic law was loudly and self-consciously defended by its adherents. The EIC was only too happy to uphold this. These laws have still not reached obsolescence today when it comes to family matters. English common law is not considered an apt substitute for such affairs.
The Indian Civil Service (ICS) is one of the finest legacies of the British Raj to India. The ICS’s incorruptibility is attested to even by the Raj’s most implacable foes. The legatees of the Raj chose to kept this efficient organ intact. The unheard-of concept of disinterested public service was introduced with the ICS. It was unknown in previous epochs.
The ICS was not sinecure filled. It was because it was a profession that offered career progression that the middle strata of society became influential. Kinship counted for naught in the ICS. There was no nepotism. Meritocracy was introduced. This led to personalisation. A man could be judged on his merits. This was to have reverberations for all areas of life.
Much though independent India has wanted to be autarchic it often relies on British creations. A full flowering of India has only been possible when independent India jettisoned socialism and allowed free play to capitalism.
At that stage the EIC was using Persian as its language of administration. It was comprehended by the ruling class in North India. Urdu was then only semi-standardised. At the time Urdu was widely perceived as a bastard blend of Hindi and Persian and did not have the status of a respected language.
The intricacies of Indian courtly life were coming to be understood by Britons in India. Being so gigantic the customs and mores of Indian courts differed markedly across such a variegated subcontinent.
The British reverence for India’s splendiferous accomplishments is hardly indicative of white supremacism or racialist disdain for India. Viceroys were later to enrobe themselves in Indian attire and accoutre themselves with Indian paraphernalia. Governors-General rode elephants. They even consciously imitated the pomp and pageantry of the Mughal Empire once they had supplanted it and held durbars.
There was no colour bar. White babies were often suckled by Indian ayahs. There was social as well as sexual intercourse between whites and Indians. Admittedly this decreased markedly with the arrival of serious numbers of memsahibs in the 19th century.
Until the late 18th century EIC positions were open to Indians too. Some Indians joined the EIC and rose high in it. Then Lord Cornwallis introduced racially discriminatory laws. Indians and those of mixed stock were no longer permitted to have these posts. Indians were held by Lord Cornwallis to be unfit for higher posts. This vulgar deduction was an outgrowth of racialist assumptions. Rightly, many felt indignation about this wrongheaded and unjust policy. Nonetheless, Indians were welcome as guests as the viceregal palace. Even his lordship did not want Indians to be mere peons.
The EIC only existed because Indians wanted it to exist. This incontrovertible fact is deeply inconvenient for Indian nationalists. Yet it is indelibly stamped on the minds of many Indians that the British Raj was unpopular.
By the end of 18th century the EIC was supporting the Mughal Empire again. Shah Alam II was able to live in opulence once more. Law and order were restored by the British.
Britons always knew that British dominion in India was temporary. Even in the 1780s Warren Hastings penned that eventually British rule would be, ‘’lost to remembrance.’’ Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote that British rule would come to an end when there was an Indian leadership ready to replace it. He was writing in the 1830s. You might disagree with Macaulay’s assertion that Indians were unfit for self-governance in the 1830s. Macaulay’s Minute on Education in 1836 has achieved notoriety for his unpalatably scathing dismissal of Indian learning. Macaulay’s ignorance and arrogance was distasteful and did him no credit. Nonetheless, his wish to provide better education in India was surely laudable. To some degree the change he envisioned of men of brown skin being English in mind and sympathy came to pass. He was lazily Eurocentric and assumed the truth of the evidenceless proposition that everything Occidental was innately superior. It was the sort of civilisational egotism that is common when an empire is mighty. This axiom has been assumed by other hyperpowers. The Chinese, the Indians, the Americans, the Soviets, the Romans, the Greeks and the Arabs have all in their times made this presupposition of their automatic moral, aesthetic and intellectual superiority.
Macaulay’s bland dismissal of Indian erudition is in sharp contrast to the homage paid by a previous generation of Britons to India’s tower scholarly achievements. Many Britons in the 18th century were bewitched by Indian lore and learning. It was not just Sir William Jones who was engrossed by Hindu epics. Macaulay’s hauteur redounds greatly to his discredit. His pig ignorance of India’s lore and history when making such sweeping statements is galling. In antiquity India had been a far more respectable civilisation than anything in the British Isles.
One of the motives behind the Minute on Education was evangelisation. Macaulay was not so crass as to demand the indoctrination of Indians. But he claimed that any Hindu who was Western educated would not longer be a true believer. It transpired to be a false assumption.
Lord Macaulay said he wanted to create a set of people ‘Indian in blood and colour but English in taste and knowledge.’ To some degree he succeeded.
Only 2% of Indians are Christians. Very few of them were converted by the British. British missionaries were perhaps guilty of too much daintiness compared with the Portuguese. Juxtapose the situation in India to Latin America where the Spanish systematically a destroyed the religion of the indigenes.
Eric Hobsbawm said that nationalism goes hand in hand with schools and universities. As the Raj spread education it was perhaps undoing itself. Hobsbawm’s maxim appears apt in this case. Patently the Raj did not want Indians to be mere drudges. There was no rigid curriculum. There was not indoctrination. By contrast nowadays Indians are force fed a diet of anti-imperialist diatribe. The deglutition of such bile is anti-pedagogical.
Indians were schooled in modern medicine under British tutelage. Soon they had Britons among their clientele.
Some Britons were drawing racialist distinctions at that time. It was unfortunate that the zenith of the British Raj coincided with the growth of pseudoscientific racialism in the USA and Europe. Some of these nostra seeped through to Britishers.
The English language was introduced as the state language in the 1830s. It is half fortuitous that it did not arrive much sooner. Had it been introduced a century earlier it would have had decidedly less literary dignity. Perhaps it would never then have achieved the respect that it holds in India today. English was thereafter used in India by officialdom and between Indian elitists in private contexts for their own convenience.
Notably, English never experienced the esotercisation that Sanskrit did. Sanskrit underwent a transformation into something abstruse precisely because the priestly caste wanted to keep what was sacred a mystery to the masses so that they could be the intermedial class. The incomprehensibility of Sanskrit kept the lower castes in impotent ignorance.
The idiolects and ideographs of English gave it greater flexibility that several major Indian languages. The granularity of the language made it particularly versatile. English’s paucity of syllabaries is of course a defect. The anfractuosities of its perfective mood and aspects make it tricky. English is not orthographically exemplary. This has been a stumbling block to people learning it.
English spread in a rather haphazard manner at first. It took several decades before the Indian upper class embraced it. It remained a thing of petty proportions in India until after 1947. Even if it was wrong to introduce English there has been no effort to reinstate Persian!
Those who fought against the EIC are often presented as wanting independence. But these so-called independence fighters were allies of France. Had they won then India would have fallen under the French aegis. The shrinkage of French power in India meant a concomitant increase in British power. It was a zero-sum game.
The arbitrariness of French absolutism would not have been a better destiny for India. Had France won India then it is unlikely that the French Revolution would have taken place. The reforms that France has experienced since 1789 might have been assemblable by now by piecemeal reform.
The EIC fought numerous battles. Most its men were Indians. It always had Indian states as allies too. These wars such as the Mysore Wars were to some extent internal Indian conflicts. Had the EIC not existed then it is probable that these wars would have been fought anyway. The EIC was able to defeat its foes despite the EIC and its allies being outnumbered at almost every battle. The EIC and the British Army in India did not have military technology that was a generation ahead of their nemeses. The Sikhs – for instance – had the latest military hardware and French instructors.
Not every acquisition of land was voluntary. Some states were conquered by the EIC. But if the other state had aggressed the EIC then the EIC had an arguable case for the annexation of the aggressor state.
In the 19th century more and more Indian states acceded to the Britannic Raj. There were 585 princely states. The great majority joined the Raj of their own free will. Cooch Behar is an example of a state which applied for admittance to the British Empire. The state was then embraced by the empire.
Membership of the British Raj conferred major advantages on a state. It was part of the strongest defensive alliance around. It would have access to modern technology and markets. The princely state would simply have to agree to conduct foreign relations via the British authorities. They say you do not miss what you never had. These states did not have embassies in China or the United States anyway. Thus, the concession that they made was of something hypothetical.
The Indian Mutiny of 1857 is known to most in India as the First War of National Liberation. Its causes were partly a religious prejudice against pork and beef. It was rumoured that new cartridges were greased with the fat from these beasts. The swine is profane to the Muslim and beeves and kine are totemic for the Hindu. There were other issues. The possibility of being sent overseas riled some sepoys. Soldiers had been told they could no longer wear caste marks on parade. This irked many. Soldiers were made to listen to Christian sermons translated into their vernaculars. The religious sensibilities of the soldiers were affronted. Some were perturbed by the doctrine of lapse. If an Indian prince died without a male heir of his body, then his realm was incorporated into the British Raj proper.
Indian nationalist historians have chosen to play up the political actuation of the mutineers. They suggest that the mutiny was mainly about a desire for independence. It would appear that, short term reasons and religious reasons more important and determinative.
The attribution of causality is problematic. We do not have many written sources from the mutineers. Those who survived the mutiny tended not to write about it. That would be to incriminate themselves.
The Indian Mutiny only affected some of North India. Some of the Bengal Army committed the worst military crime: mutiny. Other men in the Bengal Army stayed loyal. The Bombay Presidency Army and the Madras Presidency Army remained true to their oaths.
The mutiny was so cataclysmic for India that the Mughal Emperor, Shah Bahadur, entered a secret correspondence with the EIC. He wanted to change sides. He saw British victory as being better for India. He was right.
The Sikhs were pro-British. This was decisive in several battles.
The EIC therefore represented all the faiths on the Subcontinent: Buddhist, Sikh, Parsee, Christian, Hindu and Muslim. The mutineers only represented the last two. They engulfed India in internecine warfare. To some degree this was an Indian civil war. Had no Britons been there then some of this fighting would have taken place regardless. Religious sodality was nowhere to be seen among Hindus or Muslims as both religions had plenty of men on both sides.
Indian nationalists would like the Mutiny to have been popular and high minded. The annals suggest otherwise.
The mutineers committed many massacres of civilians. They were often slain in a gruesome manner. Moreover, they killed Indian Christians as well as any white. The mutiny is indistinguishable from a pogrom.
The mutiny was motivated by racism, obscurantism and religious bigotry. The EIC Army represented multiracialism and religious tolerance. It was gallantly battling for the values of the enlightenment.
1857 was not the prefiguring the secular democracy that India later became. The birth pangs of that were only possible once the Indian elite had acquired a greater exposure to Westminster style parliamentarianism. Significantly, the Founding Fathers of the Republic of India were all British educated. They were barristers to a man.
Had India become independent in 1857 the Mughal Empire would not have been able to hold much of it together. There would have been a fragmentary India. India is by no means homogenous! It took a lot of nation building by Britons for India to be a mere two nations in 1947 rather than hundreds. The Partition Massacres are illustrative of what had happened periodically between different castes throughout Indian history. This is not to suggest the Britons are incapable of ethnic or religious violence. They are as history proves. But in India Britons kept inter-ethnic asperities from spilling over into huge scale slaughter. Even then there were several significant outbreaks of inter-communal violence in the 1920s and 1930s. However, the casualty figures were limited by the British to hundreds and not hundreds of thousands such as occurred after British rule terminated in 1947.
The simultaneity of British rule and the industrial revolution in India is not coincidental. Had 1857 succeeded for nationalists, then India would have lagged behind other parts of the globe technologically. As a control group one can simply observe the adjacent nations not so blessed as to have come under the aegis of Britannia. They did not gain the numerous benefactions that India did.
After 1857 the EIC was wound up. It remained extant only for the purpose of trading tea and that incarnation of the EIC too was dissolved in 1874.
In the wake of the Mutiny, Queen Victoria assured her Indian subjects that all positions were open to them too. Yet the British Government did not assume the reproducibility of British institutions in India. They knew that India was not fertile soil for parliamentary government at that time. Parliamentarianism was considered arcane even in Europe in the 1850s.
India had often been attacked by Afghanistan and Iran. By the mid-19th century India was safe from such depredations. There was some skirmishing along the Durand Line: the border with Afghanistan. The British and their faithful Indian allies launched punitive expeditions deep into Afghanistan. It was very valuable for India to have a stalwart and formidable ally in the shape of the United Kingdom.
By the late 19th century about 67% of the land area of India was under direct British control. The British had district commissioners ruling areas of land. One such man could be in charge of hundreds of square miles. His entire staff was usually Indian. There was uncoerced cooperation. Indian loyalism is understudied.
There was a certain parallelism between the institutions of British India and the princely states. Functionaries were not horizontally barred. They could shift from one system to the other. Contrary to nationalist myth-making, Indians do not seem to have perceived themselves to have been contaminated by being ruled by whites.
The charge of divide et impera is often laid at the door of the British Raj. This is nonsensical. As this essay adumbrated, it was British rule that united a fragmented India. Britons would not profit by there being internecine warfare among Indians. Indians had fought Indians throughout recorded history. That only came to an end under the British Raj. Once the kindly and benevolent British hand was removed, inter communal warfare recommenced. Far from solving problems, independence was to create them as this recrudescence of massive scale violence demonstrates superabundantly.
Britons are sometimes depicted as stupid vicious and base in Indian nationalist discourse. Of course, sometimes that is true. It is held as axiomatic that imperialists are evil whereas anti-imperialists are not. This is ludicrous and childishly partisan just as the inverse presentation would be. Often the so-called anti-imperialists were just imperialists for a less benign or advanced empire in the shape of the Mughals, France or Japan.
Queen Victoria became Empress of India in 1877. She sent her firstborn the Prince of Wales to the Delhi Durbar. There his investiture on behalf of his mother took place in the quondam capital. There the princes did homage When it was Edward VII’s turn for the solemn durbar he did not go in person. He had his younger brother Arthur the Duke of Connaught deputise for him. Hence Connaught Place is in Delhi. The princes and chiefs swore fealty to the king-emperor.
The British Raj opened career opportunities for Indians. Their careers were not horizontally barred. Many went to work and dwell in South Africa, Trinidad and Malaysia to name just a few other British colonies. Indians were therefore colonisers of these land. This phenomenon is much understudied.
No one was ever conscripted into the EIC Army, the Indian Army or the Royal Indian Navy or the police. The princely states also had armies. These princely armies fought for the British Empire.
Armed white men were outnumbered by armed Indians by at least 10 to 1. Had these Indians mutinied or even a significant portion of them done so then it would have spelt finis for the British Raj.
India had been conquered by vast hordes when the Mughals and other dynasties came. This is to be juxtaposed with the largely peaceful acquisition of sovereignty by the British Raj. It relied profoundly on diplomacy and dealmaking.
White Britons were a tiny minority in India. They were always outnumbered by Indians by at least a thousand to one. The British community used to learn Indian languages. No many got their tongues around the polysyllables of Indic languages.
The British Raj was served by many others. Tax collectors, clerks, civil servants, railwaymen and the like all played a role. One Briton said that without so many Indians willingly serving the Raj it would not have lasted three months. An Indian retorted, not three weeks.
To liquidate the Raj, Indians did not need to rebel. All that was needed was non-co-operation. The Non-Cooperation Movement was a flop. If Indian civil servants, telephonists, railwaymen and the like had gone on strike then it would have led to paralysis for the Raj. The army, navy, air force and police force could simply have stopped obeying orders. They did not need to turn their guns on the Britons.
When the Raj took action against insurrectionists it was usually Indian police officers who arrested the miscreant. He was tried before an Indian judge and an Indian jury. He was incarcerated in a prison staffed exclusively by Indians. Often there was not a white face to be seen. The British Raj only functioned because Indians WANTED to serve it because it served India.
As Rudyard Kipling wrote, sent forth the best ye breed. The most expensively educated Britons often took ship for the Subcontinent. Men who had been schooled at Eton, Harrow, Westminster (like Warren Hastings) and Winchester went to administer India. Some of these men had attended Varsity. The apical status of the United Kingdom at this time should not be overlooked. It was a singular privilege to be able to study there in the world’s foremost scientific and technology nation. The USA had not yet supplanted the UK in these regards.
Indians in the UK proved that the idea that Indians were unassimilable was bogus. They could join British society. They were purported British subjects and had all the rights of a white Briton. That is why Dadabhai Naoroji was elected to Parliament in 1892. Not a single non white lived in his constituency. Why does no one mention Lord Liverpool becoming Prime Minister in 1812? He was partially Indian.
The finest educational institutions were open to Indians. From the 1870s Indians attended Eton, Harrow, Cambridge University and Oxford University. Unlike the USA, there was no colour bar. Indians educated in the British Isles enjoyed an exposure to parliamentarianism. Not many doubted the applicability of this practice to their homeland. It was then that the reification of Indian nationalism took place. The British Raj had inadvertently sowed the seeds of its own dissolution. This led ineluctably to the establishment of legislatures along the lines of the Westminster paradigm. The Mother of Parliament bore offspring. It was a fatality that the UK did not share with other metropoles. They did not found parliamentary institutions that turned against them. Pluralism was also a notion that the UK introduced. The shariat state that preceded the Raj was not a valid model on a par with that.
Nehru’s political baptism came in 1906 at the time of the Liberal landslide. Seeing Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman become PM convinced Nehru at a formative age that sweeping change was possible and soon.
Education in the United Kingdom left its mark. Many Britons remarked on Nehru’s gentilesse even when they arrested him. He had never been bumptious at school either.
By the late 19th century there was almost no dissent though free speech was guaranteed. Indian opinion so far as we can determine was pro-Raj. The long exclusion of Indians from the heaven born of the upper echelons of the Indian Civil Service was a motor force behind Congress. Congress critiqued the Raj but fitfully at first. Its criticism then grew in certitude, fervour and acridness.
The Raj even created the Indian National Congress. No oppressor would ever do this. Congress’s brief was to provide critical analysis. For the first few decades Congress wanted British rule to continue. India had free expression which is why Congress was free to castigate the British authorities.
Congress had some white Britons in it at first. Allan Octavian Hume was one of them. The anglophone Indians were then the crest atop a vast plinth of Indians. Most people were unlettered even in their mother tongue. The Raj believed that the Congress elite could guide the ductile masses.
One of the few things that not even the most vicious Indian ultra-nationalist took exception to was, the English language. Even some ultra-nationalists were bilingual adepts.
Britain forged Indian national consciousness even if it did so accidentally. Railways, roads, telegraphs, newspapers and the English language united India more so than any political movement. As Benedict Anderson said, it was the dawn of print-capitalism that expedited the creation of a sense of nation-ness. For the first time Indians could meet people from the far end of the Subcontinent after only three days of travel. For the first time there was a language common to all provinces and faiths albeit it one spoken only by a minute educational elite. Of necessity, it was a language of bilinguals. Anglophone Indians also spoke their local vernaculars. The resurgence of Hindi in political circles in the last 30 years is an interesting phenomenon and to some extent a reaction against globalisation. Notwithstanding that, the English language’s usage has increased exponentially since the end of the Raj. Yet it has still not achieved universality in India. However, Hindi has not superseded it in most spheres of elite life. The fusion of the two languages is a long way off despite English accretions to Hindi. English is still the prestige language. Perhaps that it why Indian English so often sounds stately and snobbish.
It is a curious irony that the genesis of Indian nationalism as we know it was an unintended consequence of British imperialism. The technology, the language and the shared non-whiteness allowed Indians to define themselves. Prior to the 19th century provincial particularism predominated even among the elite. But from the 1880s there was a collective motion among the anglophone educational aristocracy. It was a tiny segment of the population to begin with. But it was only when this highly educated anglophone cadre was formed that India achieved quiddity as a political entity.
The fixity of the English language provided a reliable language for the Indian elite to communicate in. Because they learnt is consciously and not at their mother’s knee it was not so protean.
Despite professing democracy, Congress made little effort to induct the illiterate majority into democracy before 1947. They wanted self-rule not majority rule. There was little spurring for independence from farmers.
In the countryside where most Indians dwelt none, but substantial landowners spoke English until well into the 20th century. Why was English so monopolised? Perhaps because knowledge is power. Some of the baronial classes even reprobated education for the lower orders. There are clear analogies to be drawn between this attitude and say the view of the aristocrats in 19th century tsarist Russia.
Tellingly, Congress did not repudiate the feudal attitude of the landlords for some time after independence.
The dissemination of maps across India in the late 19th century as railway timetables spread gave people a mental image of their country. India could therefore be conceived spatially and even temporally but even the illiterate majority.
As Benedict Anderson said it is print, map and museum that formulated modern nationalism. A census was also a key element in this. It categorised people. Prior to the late 19th century Indianness was not part of the warp and weft of daily life.
Printed Korans and their translations into Indian vernaculars also spread in India in the late 19th century. This led to a revival of Islamic fervour and puritanism. There had been much backsliding due to the dissipation of the Mughal Court. After 1857 that was all gone. The recrudescence of religious mania is one of the undesirable by-products of British rule. The theomorphising of print though is a fascinating phenomenon. This was no conscious manipulation of British policy.
As we have seen it is the convergence of the communications revolution, the transport revolution and the English language that created a pan-Indian leadership class capable of carrying the baton after 1947. The haute bourgeoise were the ruling class after independence and not the princes. It is hard to imagine that happening without Britannic suzerainty.
One of the fascinating consequences of British rule is that neither Hindus nor Muslims claimed to be the sole state bearing people by the 1940s. Half the Muslims claimed a separate homeland, but they had no wish to rule large numbers of infidels. They did not regard Hindus as assimilable.
An embryonic national leadership for India was formed not in India but in the Inns of Court in London. That is perhaps why India has always at least paid lip service to the rule of law. Curiously, the same cannot be said for Pakistan despite its Founding Fathers having the same background. Pakistan’s foundation is owed to barristers such as M A Jinnah and Chaudhry Rehmat Ali. But since then, the country has been ruled officially or unofficially by a Punjabi Pinochet most of the time.
The English language is one of the things that has prevented the fragmentation of India since 1947. The vernaculars that predated English give rise to an identity and that could well have led to more separatist movements. The politico-cultural eminence of English had the effect and creating a certain solidarity amongst the highly educated.
There has been an attempt to foster Hindi as a national language in recent decades. This has borne fruit. However, the elite appears to be irremediably anglophone.
In the 1950s there were proto-national impulses, to put it mildly, behind the campaign for the States Reorganisation Act. Had it not been for the elite being united by English it is probable that a more serious attempt at secession would have been made.
The trans-Indian intelligentsia’s exposure to British notions of parliamentarianism filled them with admiration. They wished to bring home this British export. It was an idea on which the Raj was distinctly cool. English remained a language of power. Congress was still obliged to address the masses in local languages long after independence. It finds it expedient to do so even today.
The Congress Party was soon to start a battle for men’s minds. They were not able to penetrate the countryside very much.
Capitalism was we know it entered India with the British Raj. Indians had always traded. But the British banking system linked India to world money markets. An Indian schroff did not have to rely on a system of codewords any longer. Joint stock companies revolutionised Indian commerce.
At the maximum extent of the Raj there were only 40 000 British soldiers in India. The population of India was then over 250 000 000. The British military presence was minute. That was because India was not occupied. Force was not needed to control India. There as the pro-British Indian Army which had 250 000 men. This taken together with the British Army in India still meant that India had very few soldiers in it. The princely states also had small armies. If the Indian Army or the princely states armies had mutinied, they would have defeated the British Raj extremely easily. India was far less militarised under the Raj than it is today. The British troops in India and their Indian comrades were mostly deployed on the North-West Frontier. They were defending India from the ancestors of the Taliban. As the frontier was replete with soldiery, the plains of India were all but devoid of soldiers. Huge swathes of the country were unguarded since people were content. There was no insurrectionary threat for decades. Nationalists wish to pretend that there were fervent rebels in India in the late 19th century but that is bogus. The Pathans on the Frontier were fighting over local and even tribal issues. They were no friends of the Hindus of the plains or even the Muslims of the plains.
Because of the British Army and the British trained, equipped and officered Indian Army there were no more incursions by Afghanistan or Burma. People could go about their lawful business secure.
The security apparatus was of the British Raj was tiny. There was a miniscule Intelligence Bureau to keeps tabs on terrorists and troublemakers. Congress, the Muslim League and other organisations were honeycombed with informers. Perhaps we shall never know which famous Indian nationalists were actually double agents.
There was patently no siege mentality on the part of Britons in India. They were so vulnerable, but no one attacked a serious number of them. The unenforceability of British authority without huge scale India support was blindingly obvious.
The British Raj also saw the spread of humanism and rationalism. India had had no Enlightenment prior to that. Admittedly there had been Mughal Emperors who were ecumenical but that is different.
Some Britons in India in the last 20 years of the Raj knew precious little of the local lingo. Some spoke not Hindi but dog Hindi. This was commented on by numerous Indians. The Raj was past its heyday. Maybe that was why antipathy towards the Raj grew.
There has been Christians in India since Antiquity. The Assyrian Church was indifferent to the British Raj. This was a matter of some disappointment to the latter.
In the 1920s Congress decided to embarrass the British into granting autonomy. An evil power could not be embarrassed. Congress recognised British decency in believing that Britons could be embarrassed. Congress believe that armed force was not needed to bring about the granting of independence. Until 1930. Congress did not even want independence. It only wanted dominion status within the British Empire. But there were elements that were bolshier.
Congress became more militant as the Soviet Union became mightier. The simultaneity of the two events is not coincidental. Congress realised that the British Empire faced an existential threat. Congress had a potential ally in the shape of this totalitarian force. Congress did not seek to establish a totalitarian society. There were Indian communists who travelled to the USSR and embraced the Stalinist system with fervour and with relish. They returned to India preaching red revolution. These agitators became a menace to the Raj.
The Delhi Durbars proved that British rule was with the express consent of the governed. All Indian princes did homage to the Empress of India who was represented by her son the Prince of Wales. The same was true of the subsequent durbars.
In time there were legislative assemblies. These conferred legitimacy on the Raj. Elected public representatives approved of the Raj and swore fealty thereto. These bodies were elected only by affluent men. Only 20% of Indians could read at the time. Literacy and wealth were largely the same thing.
The Chamber of Princes in the 1920s and 1930s was another legislative body which demonstrated that the Raj was legitimate. The chamber was unelected. It was like the House of Lords. The hereditary principle was accepted in India. In India today family is still everything.
By the 1920s there was unrest. Some Indian wanted independence. A few had wanted it before the First World War. There were terrorist attacks in the 1920s. However, their number was miniscule. In a country as enormous as India the scale of terrorism was trifling. This proves that people were content.
There were protests and hartlals in the 1920s and 1930s. However, these were in a few major cities. Most people lived in the countryside. They were unaffected. There has been far too much focus on a few urban troublemakers. The generality of Indians was quiescent and accepted the Raj.
In the 1920s and 1930s the economy stagnated. That came as the population was starting to grow rapidly. Improved food supply and medicine had got mortality down. The combination of economic stagnation and a bulging population was unrest. Therefore, the discontent in the 20s and 30s was due to these factors more than the British Raj per se. An independent India would also have had to cope with public anger in such a situation.
Subhas Chandra Bose articulated a ferocious indictment of British rule. However, even Netaji found something to admire on the British dominion in India. He concurred that India was not ripe for democracy. One of this Cambridge graduate’s notable characteristics was to speak English. Not to do so would have been to give his movement and anachronistic gloss. He was sceptical of the political wisdom of the Indian masses. He felt the priestly caste was apt to inculcate superstitions into the unlettered peasantry. They could easily be led astray. Therefore, he called for the smack of firm government. Though he was no overfond of the Raj he noted the efficacy and incorruptibility of the Indian Civil Service.
By the 1940s it appeared that most Indians wanted independence. We cannot know since there were no surveys. There were elections but only about 20% of males could vote. We do not know if their views were representative of the populace as a whole.
In 1942 the British Government announced that independence would come within two years of the end of war.
In 1947 George VI, Emperor of India, announced that the UK was granting sovereign independence to India. His titulature changed to King of India.
His Majesty’s vassals in the Subcontinent were the 585 princely states. Some of these opted for Pakistan. Some of them had acquired their titles and states through hucksterings as the Mughal Empire had slowly fallen apart.
The British Empire suffered elephantiasis from 1918 onwards. Imperial overstretch enfeebled it.
Because India has no common language and in 1947 even the most widely spoken language – Hindi – was spoken by no more than 20% of the populace there was no philological-lexicographical movement to affect the masses. This is markedly dissimilar from what transpired in European nationalism. That is why in India the British manufactured state was crucial in establishing India as a single entity. The necessity of a unified language for the ruling class was provided by the British. That is why Congress was a genuinely all India movement. India has involved its own idiolect of English.
It was a paroxysm of religious mania cum nationalism that prevented India from remaining united in 1947. But India in its current borders is now an ineradicable force.
The Britons in India did not really become a creole community. The identification with their ancestral homeland even after several generations in India was what differentiated them from creole communities elsewhere. The Anglo-Indians – those of mixed blood – arguably did become one. This is perhaps derivable from the notion that only those of fully white stock were true Britons.
India has left an indelible print on the British Isles. Indian and British culture are to some degree interwoven. Indianisms are unselfconsciously uttered by Britons who have no ancestral link to South Asia. There are many Britons of South Asian ancestry who cannot locate themselves entirely in one culture or other but in a happy melange of the twain.
It is tristful to reflect that most Britons remain incorrigibly ignorant of South Asian affairs. However, the notion that the word India conjures up only images of snake charmers is bogus.
THE RAJ WAS GOOD FOR INDIA
In extolling the manifold virtues and accomplishments of the British Raj I can only pronounce it magnificent. Even some quibble with this summation I must reply in the words of Warren Hastings, ‘I stand astounded at my own moderation.’
India owes its unity to the Raj. This might seem counterintuitive. What about Partition? Partition came at the call of a segment of the Indian population. That is to say most of the 25% of population who inhabited what became Pak and Bangladesh. Congress agreed to Partition. The Parliament of India voted in favour. Partition was an Indian idea. London fiercely opposed it. Stafford Cripps, Lord Mountbatten and other tried might and main to forfend it.
Why is Indian one country and not hundreds? That is because of the Raj piecing it together. India has been united, divided, reunited and redivided several times in its very long history.
At times India excluded certain states that are not part of it. At times it included some of Afghanistan. India also holds land that once pertained to Nepal.
India owes its existence to its conquest of other states. No sovereign state has had a parthenogenesis. India is unexceptional in this respect. The prefatory lineage of India blurs into myth perhaps five millennia ago. But if conquest delegitimises the Raj, then it must befall that it delegitimises independent India to. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The pretended delegitimisation of either state on the ground of having annexed and incorporated other states is equally fatuous.
India claims its borders based on British era maps and treaties. Therefore, the Raj’s legacy cannot be all bad. The Republic of India explicitly argues it is a successor state of the Raj and must be allowed the advantages of British era treaties. Were it not for that, then China could claim even more land than it already does. India now includes some territory taken from Nepal by the EIC. If India wishes to disavow its British heritage as unmitigatedly wicked, then it ought to affect the retrocession of such territory to the Nepalis forthwith.
It was technology, trade, the military, the police, and the administration that knitted India together. The Mughal Empire did not govern the whole of modern India. Admittedly, it governed some zones that are no longer Indian.
Each region or state of India had its own peculiarities. India is now 28 states. Many of these would qualify as large countries if independent. Many are analogous to sovereign states in that they are based around distinct language and culture and have a tradition of independence.
Nationalism is about particularism. It is hard to see what Indians have in common beyond their British heritage. British influence was mostly about the public sphere. Indians usually did not adopt British clothing, cuisine or mannerisms. Cricket and tea are two of the unofficial aspects of British life that caught on in India. Admittedly, tea was an import from China.
Tea drinking caused a population explosion. So many people in the UK and India died in the 17th century from drinking foul water. Boiling it made it safe to drink. There were health giving properties of tea too.
The British Raj also helped to forge Indian nationhood by introducing the fourth dimension: times. Of course, Indians had a concept of time afore that. India has several calendric systems. But the British introduction of timepieces and timetables made time a universal concept: something that could be measured with precision. To many Hindus, life was something omnitemporal because they believed in reincarnation.
India had little sense of horizontal nationality in the 19th century. People could identify with their social superiors and inferiors who shared their language, culture and faith. India is the most heterogenous country in the world. It is a miracle that it is united at all. It is not all that dreadful that 20% of India’s land seceded in 1947. It is astonishing that as much as 80% of the Raj remained in one piece. Many bewail Partition, as do I. But it could easily have been far, far worse.
It is lugubrious and regrettable that caste prejudice has not disappeared yet in India. Caste discrimination by law still exists in India. But the upliftment of the downtrodden castes was not attempted until the British epoch. With the advent of the railways, castes could not be physically separated any longer. This was the very genesis of sociological solidity. It has grown only very slowly.
Some ill-fated Hindu reformers call for the abolishment of caste discrimination under British rule. They did not get far. The lesson that the Raj learnt from 1857 was to tread very carefully on religious matters. This was a sensitive issue and the British authorities thought is sagacious to allow the Hindu authorities to resolve this issue for themselves.
India has been able to resist the absolutizing tendences of certain political factions thus far. That is partly attributable to the Raj. Those who demagogically call for a confessional state or communism have been resisted.
As we have seen Indian society is by no means a replication of British society. The Indian State is not exactly and analogue of the UK State either. A fascinating question is not asked often enough. How did Britain learn from India? The British Raj was educative on both sides.
Britain gained shampoo, zero, pyjamas, polo, chess, the word bungalow and much more. Some of this came via intermediaries such as the Ishmaelites.
When India moved towards independence Churchill, Clement Attlee, Sir Stafford Cripps, Lord Wavell, Leo Amery and Lord Mountbatten all agreed that India should be one. That is why they tried their uttermost to talk the Muslim League out of the Pakistan demand. But sometimes the struggle nought availeth. At least Mountbatten was able to dissuade almost every princely state from seeking independence. That is why the UK bequeathed its legacy to only two states on the Subcontinent and not 587. That is to say India, Pakistan and 585 princely states. Whatever the frailties of the British Raj it did favour Indian unity.
Some Indians have said that Partition was the final insult. But Partition was voted for by Congress. London emphatically did not want Partition.
It is much more mundane to accept the truth than to believe a conspiracy theory. What did the UK gain from Partition? Enmity?
It is true that some of the institutions created by Britons in India might have subsequently been created by Indians off their own bat. Furthermore, some of the infrastructure constructed under Britannic superintendence might have been developed by Indians even if no Briton had ever set foot on India’s shore. However, it is unlikely that much of this would have been accomplished by 1947. Look at the trajectory India was on in the 18th century? Look at some of her neighbours as a control group? Bhutan, Afghanistan and Nepal remain far less developed. You may say this is because they are mountainous and landlocked. But this also gave them the advantage of being almost impregnable and therefore better able to concentrate on development as their military security was all but guaranteed.
Dadabhai Naoroji wrote ‘The Drain: un-British rule in India.’ He noted that wealth flowed from India to the UK. Even ‘the old man of India’ as he was known illuminatingly acknowledged that India was morally and materially indebted to the United Kingdom. The British had been pacificators and builders of India. The costs of doing so were defrayed by India paying the salaries of those who assisted them. Intra-hemispheric trade blossomed under British rule. That was beneficial. Mutuality of benefit it a hard concept to get across to Marxists as many Indian nationalists were.
The Suez Canal allowed British trade to reach the West more speedily. Had it not been in British hands it might have been closed to Indian traffic. An overland trek would not be a good way to expedite flourishing commerce. The Cape of Good Hope route was too long.
That the Republic India remained united since 1947 and did not fragment is a testament to the mettle of the institutions founded by the Raj. That the second largest population in the world has managed to remain united despite is bewildering diversity is in part due to the British Raj. It goes without saying that since 1947 most of the credit for managing to preserve the oneness of India is down to the Indians themselves.
Indian nationalist discourse’s presupposition that India was entitled to secession from the empire bites back. If India had the right to secede from a large unit do India’s constituent states not have the same right?
Why would so many Indians have willingly given up their lives to serve the Raj. They were not so naïve as to participate in a scheme if it were defrauding them.
THE RAJ WAS BETTER THAN WHAT PRECEDED AND SUCCEEDED IT
We are often told that India had democracy long before the UK. That is true of parts of India in the very distant past. But this soon fell prey to the absolutizing tendencies of rulers after Ashoka.
Prior to the EIC there were only dynastic states. The lineages of these were often intertangled. But after the EIC and the British Raj established India is became a rational-legal state even though it had a monarch. The rechtstaat in India continues to this day. That is why unlike many countries in Asia, India has the rule of law. Arbitrary government reigns in many other lands.
Previous Indian polities had come into existence by elbowing others aside. They did not establish parliamentary institutions when they supplanted other regimes. They had no mission for the betterment of their subjects. This stands in stark contrast to the British Raj’s avowed purpose after 1857.
After 1947 the borders drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe and his predecessors were the taken for granted frame of reference. That is an accomplishment of the Raj. India’s unity within that was seen to be self-evident. Almost all people there had achieved full absorption within the Indian State.
India had been ruled by foreigners for centuries before the first Briton sighted India. The Mughals and before them the Lodhi dynasty were invaders and conquerors. They spoke a foreign tongue. They were an alien faith to most Indians. Britons were hardly much more foreign than the Mughals or the Lodhis.
The Mughal Empire was a dynastic state. Delhi was an incredible metropole. But the locus of power shifted to Agra, to Lahore, to Fatehpur Sikri and back to Delhi a few times. That signifies the chaotic nature of the empire. The provinces were held in vassalage. The subjects were the merest chattel. They had no rights. The traffic on humans were considered honourable. The state was not systematised.
The Mughals did not regard primogeniture as a requisite principle. This had the benefit of mostly able rulers coming to the Peacock Throne. This dynastic Darwinism meant there was survival of the fittest. It was literally survival since the Mughals sometimes practised fratricide like their Ottoman co-religionists. So much for Islam promoting family values! The lack of an established line of succession meant regular free for-alls. The periodicity of these power struggles enfeebled the empire. An unedifying scramble for the throne also meant that bribery became engrained in the system as princelings would offer douceurs to praetorians and the vizier. The Mughal Empire was necessarily erratic due to the inherent instability of its succession. A smooth transference of power was the exception not the norm. Inter-monarchic approval played no role in conferring legitimacy on the Mughals.
The Mughal Empire gradually withered. It was falling apart under the weight of its own contradictions as Marx might have said. An assertively Islamic regime, it failed to convert most of its subjects to its faith. Its legitimacy was grounded on right of conquest, but it could not defend its borders. It was not even ambling towards progress in any sphere when it went into terminal decline in the early 18th century. It lost its clout when it lost its knout.
Even today the Islamic Republic of Pakistan casts its mind back to the Mughals. It lays claim to being a lineal descendant of the Mughal State. General Muhammad Zia ul Haq said he wished to be a latter-day Aurangzeb: a true soldier of Islam. That is why he saw Hindus as idolaters. Pakistan which spent relatively little time under British tutelage did not have sufficient time for parliamentary institutions to bed down. Hence the unacceptance of pluralism. This is a cause of infelicity for Pakistanis even if they do not recognise it.
By stark contrast the British Raj at its apex in 1914 showed little sign of trouble. It was durable. Had it not been for Britain’s fatal decision to fight a superpower in 1914 and against in 1939 there is every reason for the supposition that the Raj would have lasted decades or even centuries longer. It was not running out of steam. It was the cost and the casualties of these wars that enfeebled the Raj. Moreover, Britain’s foes assisted the anti-British forces in India.
By the mid-20th century European colonialism was said to have reach obsolescence. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is paradoxical that by Britain introducing parliamentarianism to India, Britain was sowing the seeds of the Raj’s downfall. But parliamentary governance was not what Britain’s deadliest enemies such as Subhas Chandra Bose envisioned for an independent India.
It is a truism that history is an endless chain of cause and effect. That is why counterfactual history is often imponderable. One can never but sure what would have happened but for British rule. But we shall try to conjecture.
In 18th century Britain there were already some egalitarian movements. These had no analogue in India. The Indian intelligentsia was not interested in the issue.
The Raj was to burst in twain the galling yoke of thraldom. But the Raj gets no credit for this. Untouchability was only undermined by the Raj.
Britons had no technological advantage when they arrived in India. Technology was only ambling forward.
In 19th century there was no movement to abolish slavery until the British introduced it. There was no movement for the emancipation of women. Suttee (widow burning) was condemned by only a handful of Hindu reformers. It is true that most widows were not burnt. However, there were still at least several thousand women who were burnt alive each year in early 19th century India. There is no reason to suppose that any of these abuses would have been ended in the 19th century without beneficent British rules. In all likelihood, these barbarities would have continued well into the 20th century. The British reintroduced human rights to India. Emperor Ashoka invented human rights many centuries earlier. But his humane rulings were soon effaced.
By the late 19th century, the United Kingdom was in many respects the world model. Liberals and reformers the world over, looked to it for inspiration. Its parliamentarianism was envied by many. The UK was also a world leader in industry and science until outpaced by the United States in the 1870s.
We are often told that the British committed genocide in India. It takes some chutzpah when the population increased so markedly under British dominion. As Churchill said whilst American Indians saw their numbers shrink to a fraction of what they had been before the pale face landed in America, the Indians pullulated alarmingly. Indian tenderly multiplied under beneficent British rule. Suffice it to note that a population cannot possibly grow under genocide. Such a flagrantly false claim by Indian nationalists gravely impugns their honesty. They cannot be given the doubt when they make statements that are unfalsifiable.
Britannic inventions perhaps unwittingly undermined the caste system. Aboard a train the castes could not be kept apart. Of course, a dalit’s shadow could fall upon the Brahmin. To be fair, some members of the priestly caste wanted this pernicious system of caste discrimination done away with in the 19th century.
There was at first a subtle shift in caste relations. The caste system has not disappeared even now. But its death knell was sounded under British rule. Castes are antique but lugubriously they are not anachronistic in India.
India did not have the solidity of a single community under the British epoch. The English languages was a mode of communication which led to a meeting of minds between Indians of all regions. Indeed, it was a language for the educational aristos. By 1947 no more than 5% of Indians spoke English even to a low level. The crucial thing about the English tongue is that it is neutral between the states. In 1947 at most 20% of people spoke Hindi including those who spoke it badly. The Hindi speakers were all in north central India. Although English had fewer speakers the vital thing is that they were the elite and were scattered all across the country. That helped to forge links and a sense of togetherness. The language was equally alien to all. Therefore, no one was privileged by his language being chosen and no one was disrespected by his language being disregarded.
The English language was perhaps to lead to the unravelling of the very Raj that introduced the language. Congress leaders communicated almost exclusively in the language of the imperial metropole. This gave them sociological solidity. It was an incalculable gift to a very heterogenous people.
By speaking English in the decades after the dissolution of the Raj, an Indian would situate himself among the elite. Yet the time has come when the language is so widely comprehended that it no longer signifies the elite states that it once did.
Many a ferocious indictment of British perfidy was penned in English. The oracy of Nehru was notable for his pukka pronunciation.
India was bewitched by the fake fakir in the shape of M K Gandhi. This fraud announced many a ‘fast unto death’. It never ended in his death. He was a for war before he was a pacifist before he was for war before he was a pacifist again. His putative naivete about the Japanese shows that he cannot be taken seriously as a political thinker. Someone as sophisticated as him cannot have believed that ‘lathi play and the like’ would have stopped the Nipponese war machine. Was it sheer caprice that led him to propose even that? Was there no linkage between his saying British rule was ‘satanic’ and his willingness to let his people fall to one of the cruellest empires in history? Here was a man who urged the UK to surrender to Hitler even when the war was going well. Hitler incidentally had urged Lord Halifax to shoot Gandhi.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s behaviour towards his nieces was suspect to say the least. His walk sticks, as he called them, appear to have been subject to molestation. But he is on a pedestal. For some Indians, he can never be criticised.
His antediluvian attitude to science was plain daft. He was against Western medicine because it made men ‘effeminate’ and used spirituous liquor. That was often alcohol to clean skin before an injection. He was also against life-saving injections as violence. Happily, India had spurned the absurd jabbering of this Luddite loony. Ruefully, almost all writing on Gandhi is hagiographic in nature. It is high time that he was scrutinised with detachment. He needs to be de-canonised. Gandhi was not all bad. The ill-fated Gandhi was going to a prayer meeting to offer up his orisons for reconciliation with Pakistan when he was gunned down by a Hindu zealot Narayan Apte and Nathuram Godse. When M K Gandhi was smitten by bullets India was plunged into grief and gnashing of teeth. The bewailing his death was genuine.
The trope about Gandhi’s humanitarianism is not entirely to be believed. As I noted earlier, he did much to immiserate his people.
Happily, India has spurned Gandhi’s daft preachments. The country has not returned to a pre-industrial age. It does not follow his pacifist naivete. The people are more decorously attired than bapuji would have them.
India has since produced many a masterpiece of English language novels. The grandeur, hauteur and sonority of upper class Indo-English accents are a rare treat for me.
In teeming slums many would die of treatable illnesses because they believed Gandhi’s preachments against medicines. He has much to answer for.
The Gujarati barrister’s scribbling is far from engrossing. I do not recommend his book My Experiments with the truth. As well as being disingenuous he was also a bore.
Mohandas Karamchand was unsparing of his own nation. He noted that India was to a considerable extent peopled by bigots. He deprecated the noisome racialism that some whites felt towards Indians. However, he said that was trifling compared to the monstrous mistreatment which some upper caste people inflicted on the Dalits (untouchables). The profundity of his observation is not pondered enough. He called the untouchables by the name of harijans – children of god. Many held that Dalits were to be only hewers of wood and drawers of water. They were to be kept subordinate. They were clubbed insentient for centuries such that some became servile. The lumpenproletariat there had gained nothing from pre–British India. Being a Dalit was not a hindrance to seeking British employment.
There were always people who would inculcate superstitions into the masses in every country. In India rationalists began to debunk conmen in the British era. Unfortunately, India is still plagued by these faith fraudsters. But it was the introduction of modern science that set India on the path to stopping these tricksters from fleecing the gullible. Yes, India had been scientifically ahead centuries earlier. But by the 18th century it was far behind the United Kingdom.
The pre-British Indian State was founded by conquest as almost all states are. People all over India did not suddenly one day in ancient times decided to be Indian and to be united. A magnate in one part of the country started to subdue the others. ‘Twas ever thus. North Central India was the locus of power. It is the most fertile zone in India. The Gangetic Plain was the fulcrum of Indian History. Whoever held this plain, held India. It took a mighty army to do so because the area is so flat that it is hard to defend. That is why the capitals of India have always been in this zone. Delhi, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri are there. The holiest sites in Hinduism and in Sikhism are in North Central India: Varanasi (Benares), Amritsar and others.
India was itself an empire. How did it come to rule some of Afghanistan? A claim of national sovereignty cannot be asserted by those who have deprived others of the same.
Shashi Tharoor states that the British Raj was illegitimate since it had mutineers blown to kingdom come from the mouths of canon. Capital punishment was uncontroversial in 1857. It was universally practised. Execution by this method was humane in that death was instantaneous. The mutineers suffered less than British criminals who suffered the short drop method of hanging which caused death by slow asphyxiation. All executions worldwide were in public back then. Blowing people from canon had the virtue of being an effectual deterrent since it was so dramatic. Slower and more gruesome methods of execution were employed by pre-British Indian states. But if the death penalty de-legitimises a state, then pre-British India was also illegitimate according to Tharoor. By his rationale independent India is also illegitimate since it still has capital punishment. His own Congress Party retained the death penalty. The United Kingdom abolished capital punishment over half a century ago. Therefore, judging by Tharoor’s own rationale the UK is legitimate. Ergo as the UK is legitimate and post-British India is not, then the former should rule the latter.
Dr Tharoor’s unhealthy fixation with execution is also an example of trying to make an image an argument. It is the formal logical fallacy of an appeal to emotion. This is contemptible. Were we to conjure up images of terrorists executed by India would that make the cause of India’s foes into a righteous one? Of course, it would not.
Dr Tharoor is overfond of vehemently vituperating the British Raj. Each Brit bashing broadside he delivers wins him another 10 000 votes. The incorrigibly ignorant fall for such demagoguery.
The dissolution of the Raj was accompanied by massive scale bloodletting. The Punjab was turned into a hecatomb. The hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who were murdered were victims of anti-imperialism. Not one of these people slain in Partition was slain by a Briton.
Sir Winston Churchill foresaw that the independence of India would lead to massive scale religious violence and caste discrimination. He forewarned the people of India. He was a Cassandra. Once the calamity befell India he did not say, ‘I told you so.’
If India was so profitable for the UK it is odd that UK let it go. After the Second World War the UK had more need of money than ever. The British could have stamped out the independence movement in the 1930s totally. Congress was briefly banned. But why not ban it permanently? Its leaders were not killed. The British right of free expression and the right to protests were respected in India except when the public order made it exigent to hold these rights in abeyance.
Maintaining India was costly for the UK. The Conservative PM Disraeli had said the empire was ‘a millstone around our neck.’ Imperialism was not liked by everyone in the UK even at the height of the empire.
By the time that His Britannic Majesty granted independence to his Indian realm it was 1947. The British authorities had believed India was unready for democracy. Only around 20% of men were permitted to vote. The Dominion of India instantly gave the vote to all men and women.
Democracy takes a long time to evolve. People need decades or even centuries to learnt is intricacies.
You might say democracy works well in India. Corruption has often been endemic. Significant cheating has also been a serious problem at certain times and in particular places. This militates against the argument that India was in a ripe state for democracy in 1947. Back then only 20% of Indians could read. This figure was higher among males than females. The argument against universal suffrage was that illiterates cannot access and comprehend information. An uninformed choice is no choice at all.
Forget not that until 1947 India included Pakistan and Bangladesh. Pakistan has been under military dictatorships for much of its history. The rest of the time its intelligence agency the ISI has rigged elections. Bangladesh has also had coups and a military junta ruling it. Had these countries remained within India then perhaps democracy in India would not have survived.
It is true that some parts of India had had forms of democracy in the very distant past. But these had withered or been extirpated centuries before the advent of Britannic rule. These democracies were village panchayats. It is misleading to suggest that this was tantamount to the Westminster system that India has today. The early Indian democracies were not analogous to parliamentarianism. Indeed, in the early 19th century the UK was emphatically not a democracy. It had parliamentary government but that was different to democracy at the time. In Britain only a burgher or owner of substantial realty was permitted to vote until 1832.
Indian troops murdered tens of thousands of civilians in India just after independence. You don’t believe me? Believe the Government of India then. The Government of India wrote a report on Operation Polo which was when India deprived the State of Hyderabad of its lawful independence. India launched a war of aggression against a sovereign state. Perhaps you think that Hyderabad should have become part of India. But the issue might have been resolved with spilling a single drop of blood. The government’s report on the massacres was so toxic that it was hidden for 65 years. Judging by independent India’s own standards the British Raj was more humane. This demolishes the core myth of Indian nationalism: that the Raj was brutal; and that independent India was not.
How is it that one massacre – Jallianwala Bagh – condemns the Raj to perpetual obloquy but numerous larger scale massacres do not do likewise for independent India? The ethical elasticity of Indian nationalist discourse must be impressive. How do these moral gymnasts explain that? The infantilism and vacuity of this ideology does it no credit. This essayist feels much scorn for it.
Was Jallianwala Bagh evil? Yes, it certainly was. That does not mean that many more crimes by independent India can be effaced.
At any time, India is battling to contain several insurgencies. This suggests that Indian unity is not as popular as Indian nationalists would have us believe. The Indian Army has been engaged in a counterinsurgency in Jammu and Kashmir since 1989. The army has deliberately killed several thousand civilians there. No army is perfect. Every army contains a few headcases. India has prosecuted some of those accused of such crimes. But many soldiers and police officers have got off scot free for murder. Yet again, the notion that post-British India is more moral than British India is proved to be a grotesque inversion of the truth.
India is arguably a concatenation of hundreds of nationalities. Each has its own particularities and peculiarities. The collective individuality of each community cannot be realised in such a gigantic state. Unsurprisingly some seek self-assertion through independence. Claiming that India has ‘always’ been a nation is one of the frailties of Indian nationalism. At least British nationalism does not have the debility that obliges it to pretend that the United Kingdom is especially ancient.
The mundanities that bind India together are often state agencies. These owe their life to the erstwhile Britannic administration. Indians may say that all Indians share an allegiance to Dr Ambedkar’s constitution. Where did he get the idea of a codified constitution? He studied in the UK.
India is by no means a replication of the United Kingdom. The British did not think that the UK could or should graft everything about itself onto the Subcontinent. Some nostra are not for export. As there was no equivalencing the two countries, it was patent that not all British institutions were applicable in India. Bigamy was never outlawed in Hindustan, for instance.
The centrifugal forces in India underscore another point. This vast polyethnic, polyglot and multireligious subcontinent only achieved even a semblance of nation-ness due to the British. The dynastic states that preceded Britannic dominion were hardly national in basis. They too were often polyethnic and multilingual. How India came to be united is an endless chain of cause and effect that is too long to be limned herein.
Having the British as a common foe allowed Indian nationalists to identify with each other. This formed a bond of comradeship. This is ironic as this is one service that Britons definitely did not wish to perform. Indians could define themselves as not being something else, the Other.
Nationalism has many manifestations. But India is unique in that it such an extraordinarily diverse nation can remain together. India did not appear to have a built-in capacity for nationhood. There was relatively little that united people. 80% of Indians are Hindus: that is as close as it gets. But Islam is not enough to unite most Muslims or even to keep East and West Pakistan together. Hinduism does not unite Nepal and India in a polity. Nehruvian secularism has forfended India making Hinduism the explicit core of identity but under Narendra Modi that might be changing.
Under the Raj civil liberties were sometimes suspended in extremis. The Republic of India, in its wisdom, has seen fit to do likewise. It has oft invoked British era legislation. President’s rule has been imposed on disorderly states. States have suspended civil liberties severally. If such measures when exigent were permissible for post 1947 India, then they must have been permissible in pre 1947 India too. Upholding order is no vice. India has not officially resorted to draconian measures. But unofficially it has engaged in large scale extrajudicial slayings of militants.
This essay does not suggest that the Government of India was also wrong to proclaim a state of emergency. President’s rule in certain states with the state legislature held in suspended animation was sometimes an apposite and proportionate response to grave public peril. As New Delhi has so often felt compelled to avail itself of colonial era statutes in such situations these statutes cannot be considered a malediction.
In Pakistan the constitution is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Even then the Islamic Republic has often had lengthy periods of martial law. In war laws fall silent: Pakistan has been more or less in a state of war in the Khyber Pukhtunwala for decades. That is why Pakistani law has so often been held in abeyance. The Government of Pakistan has usually held itself absolved of obeying its own laws even in times of tranquility.
Many expressions of views are called seditious now. Opining can be perilous. All this suggests a certain thinness to civil liberty in India. Convoluted argumenta in favour of these laws are meritless.
Indian magnates oftentimes oppressed people before the British came. It is dubious that the British were worse. There are twists and turns in the history of every people. But it is hard to see how India would have evolved the institutions that it has today independently.
It is not the task of this piece of trash the reputation of the British Raj. Countless books, monographs and articles do that acerbically. However, it is apt to mention in passing some of the wrongful acts by the British Raj.
It would be infantile and naïve to assume that no one from one’s homeland has ever wronged a foreigner. It would be equally foolish to assume that one’s nation was forever in the wrong. A simple reading of history reveals that Ireland and Great Britain have sometimes been immoral in their dealings with other nation states. Since 1921 the major portion of Ireland left the UK. Nevertheless, Irishmen (including from the South) continued to serve the Raj until the hour of its dissolution.
It is the very beginning of maturity to cast a critical eye at one’s own people. That is however you define people. That could be by ethnicity, colour, faith, nationality or party. Stephen Decatur said ‘Our country, in her intercourse with other nations may she always be in the right, but our country. Right or wrong!’. This closed minded and chauvinistic attitude is to be deprecated. I have always fought against that mindset. The same cannot be said of Indian nationalists or nationalists of any stripe. A person must get beyond his or her emotional attachment to one’s own.
I strive for objectivity. Because of sentimentality towards the British Isles there is a risk that I shall underplay the horrors of the British Raj and overstate its accomplishments and virtues. I am not so childish or naïve to assumed that Ireland and Great Britain must automatically be on the right side of any dispute. The very beginning of maturity is to strive to be unemotional when making judgments about political and historical matters. Closed minded nationalism is as foolish as closed-minded anti-patriotism. For some Britons their greatest pride is their shame. They laud themselves for lacerating their country’s record. They think it makes them clever and broad-minded to demonise their nation’s past excessively.
Chauvinism is a pathology that leads to unspeakable crimes. Therefore, a useful corrective is to try to criticise one’s nation. But the very reverse of chauvinism can be just as bad.
Many of the negative aspects of the Raj are expatiated on by anti-Raj populists such as Tharoor. Can the devil speak true? Yes, he can occasionally. Not every word that the doctor writes is specious.
There was a dark side to the British Raj. I candidly acknowledge the wickedry of some Britons in certain times and in certain places. Millions of Britons and Indians served the Raj in 1947. Many millions more served it throughout its long romantic history. Amongst such an enormous number of people there was bound to be bounders.
The Ilbert Bill was withdrawn owing to the vociferation of many whites in India against it. The bill would have allowed whites to be tried by mixed race juries. Many whites resident in the Subcontinent suspected that Indians would relish sending a white down for a crime he had not committed. Nevertheless, the bill should have been allowed to pass.
The Jallianwala Bagh Atrocity is the most blatant example of evil in the British Raj. This was a shameful act. This act of gross violence did more to terminate the British Raj than any Congress protest. It is hard to feel human sympathy for Sir Michael O’Dwyer when he was assassinated because of his utter impenitence about the massacre. His post-factum apologia for this wholly unnecessary and egregious act of premeditated slaughter superadded insult to injury. It is painful to acknowledge that O’Dwyer was not just a Briton, he was an Irishman.
Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer was the one who ordered his troops to fire into the crowd at Amritsar. His Balochis and Gurkhas obeyed the command. When I have observed that at Amritsar, Indians killed Indians this has not played well with an Indian audience. Some said that the Gurkhas were Nepali. That is true but some Gurkhas were recruited form the Nepali community of India.
Dyer unwittingly did more for the Indian independence movement than the Congress Party. Dyer so wrecked Indian faith in British justice that the Raj was probably doomed from the moment he ordered the Indian Army to open fire in Indian civilians.
The 347 years of British involvement in India are so often judged by its worst 10 minutes. This ghastly incident is totally unrepresentative of the Raj.
The Daily Telegraph as recently as 1997 essayed to defend the atrocity by noting that five British civilians had been murdered the day before and that several public buildings had been burnt. Two wrongs do not make a right. If the culprits for those murders had been caught that would have been commendable. But to exact vengeance on the general public was a monstrous thing to do.
The condescension that some Britishers showed towards Indians was unpleasant and reprehensible. Imbecilic notions of racial superiority were not uncommon.
During the Indian Mutiny, British troops and pro-British Indians murdered at least several hundred civilians. This was not a case of collateral damage. This people were often wilfully slain by soldiers who knew them to be civilians. John Nicholson was, I blush to mention, an Irishman. He was the author of many of these crimes.
In the 1770s the EIC increased tax in Bengal during a famine. This was a horrific thing to do. Even without the tax rise many would have died of starvation. We tend to forget just how malnourished most people in most countries were until well into the 20th century.
There were famines under the Raj as there had been throughout Indian history. There was an Agriculture Department. The Raj tried to improve husbandry and acreage yield. Modern agronomical techniques were introduced. There were warehouses for famine relief. Food was distributed to save the famished. Canals were dug for irrigation. The transport network moved food to afflicted zones. Yet still people died. More should have been done to save people.
The Raj pursued racially discriminatory policies at times. This is of course reprehensible. The utility of the Raj to India cancels out some of this wrongdoing. The haughty and self-conceited attitude of some Britons was lamentable.
Even if a fulsome apology were issued and compensation paid then the UK would still not be redeemed in the eyes of all Indians. Why the UK must apologise to India, but the Government of India must not apologise to its own people for its crimes against them is a riddle I cannot answer.
WHAT IF IT WAS WRONG?
If the Raj was so evil, then those who served it were traitors. I have heard Indians say that every country has a few turncoats which is why some Indians served the Raj. If this so, then these men can be tried for waging war against India. This offence still carries the death penalty.
One of India’s most decorated generals was Sam Manekshaw. He served the Raj. Should he have been executed? He was born in Amritsar a few years after the massacre.
There are those who say the British Raj is extant. The Naxalites say that and so did Rajiv Dixit. They are the real white supremacists: those who believes that whites rule India despite virtually no whites being there.
The Republic of Indian reaches out to the tribals. It wishes to acculturate and assimilate them. The tribals are scornfully called junglies by some. The notion that the state should reach out is a ramification of the Raj.
As the Republic of India took no action against those who worked for the Raj it shows that the government did not believe its own vapid rhetoric about India having been under enemy occupation. Soldiers, sailors, policemen and civil servants who zealously served the Raj were not penalised in any way after 1947. Independent India is a legatee of the Raj in that it gained from the expertise of these faithful servants of British India.
Why is it that Indian nationalists are still haunted by the Raj? There was relatively little griping about it in the first few decades after its termination. Queen Elizabeth II has been on several state visits to India. This is the supreme expression of amity between sovereign states. Such an invitation is only extended when there are not outstanding issues to be resolved. India has affirmed several times that there are no such problems. Yet in the last few years rabble rousers have sought to cause disharmonious relations with the United Kingdom.
The UK has given huge sums in aid since 1947. British charity workers have gone to India to work with underprivileged people. The UK has often sided with India in diplomatic disputes with other countries. The cordiality between the two nation states is imperilled by irresponsible ranting by the more inadequate sort of politician.
Much contumely is poured on Britain’s head because of Partition. India was rent in twain. That was not the UK’s wish or desire. It is facile to claim it was London’s doing. Partition was accompanied by saturnalia of looting and an orgy of raping as well as mass murder. But it was all Indians who did that. However, the British Army should have done more to stop it and shoot marauders.
There was an epoch when India was far more advanced than the British Isles. An Indian civilising mission to these islands would have been excellent. De-barbarising the British would have been a service to mankind.
The chastisement of rebels sometimes went too far. Sometimes the British Raj was bad. The aim of reprisals was to ensure there would be no repeat performance of 1857. There was little recidivism.
If on balance the Raj was wrong, then the UK should apologise.
We shall perhaps be able to return a final verdict on the British Raj only centuries in arrear. The Owl of Minerva takes wing only at dusk. It seems that the Raj was serendipitous for India.
Pax Romana was dissolved in Britannia so many centuries ago that people are able to analyse it objectively. I pay tribute to the tens of millions of men and women (mostly Indian) who served the British Raj.
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