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May 22, 2005
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May 22, 2005

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Home > 2005 Issues > May 22, 05

Tales of British cruelty in India

By M.V. Kamath

The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj by Denis Judd, Oxford University Press, 234 pp, Rs 345.00

How did a nation of petty traders that Britain at one time was, manage, in the space of a couple of centuries, to conquer an entire sub-continent, heir to a great civilisation and trivialise a magnificent tradition and lord it over a people with distressing ease? Scores of books have been written on the subject. The story of India?s subjugation, slowly but surely, gradually but determinedly by the British has a moral to tell.

Judd is professor of British Imperial, Commonwealth and Indian History at the London Metropolitan University and is a prolific writer. He has recounted the story all over again in some detail, starting with the foundation of the East India Company in 1600, its forays in India, its machinations and its fight for survival that led, step by step, to the acquisition of power.

?They took the greatest toll of the weavers? locality, where they killed some women too. At the sight of white soldiers some people tried to hide in haystacks?but the pitiless demons did not leave them alone?They set the haystacks on fire and hundreds were burnt alive??

Judd, for example, tries to see the British through Indian eyes, claiming that seen that way, ?things could look very different?. As he put it: ?As a result of the activities of the East India Company, the British had abruptly overthrown Indian rulers, had dispossessed landlords and had seemed to encourage attacks on the indigenous religious and cultural order.?

Judd is pretty photographic in describing the early Britishers who came to live in India and the atrocious way in which they behaved in their barracks. He speaks of the ?Battle? of Plassey in glorious terms calling the battle itself as ?great?. According to Judd, ?more than any other victory, Plassey marked a practical and symbolic triumph that guaranteed the future of Britain in India?. Plassey was hardly a battle. According to Prof. A.P. Dasgupta, writing in the classic work: The History and Culture of the Indian People (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan), ?from the military point of view, the Battle of Plassey was an insignificant engagement.?

Clive ?won? the battle through treachery. Judd apparently has not read history thoroughly. The British thought poorly of Indians and unfortunately the latter invited derision by their behaviour. Judd quotes Charles Grant as saying: ?We cannot avoid recognising in the people of Hindostan a race of men lamentably degenerate and base; retaining but a feeble sense of moral obligation, yet obstinate in their disregard of what they know to be right?. The truth is that despite lording over India for two centuries, the British never really understood the Indian psyche.

British cruelty towards Indians who fought them in 1857 was barbarous. General Neill is quoted as saying: ?I wish to show the Natives of India that the punishment inflicted by us for such deeds will be the heaviest, the most revolting to their feelings?? The British ruthlessly sacked the rebel town of Jhansi. Judd quotes a British historian as saying: ?Fires were blazing everywhere?In the lanes and streets people were crying pitifully, hugging the corpses of their dear ones?Not only did the English soldiers kill those who happened to come in their way, but they broke into houses and hunted out people hidden in barns, rafters and obscure dark corners. They explored the inmost recesses of temples and filled them with dead bodies of priests and worshippers. They took the greatest toll of the weavers? locality, where they killed some women too. At the sight of white soldiers some people tried to hide in haystacks?but the pitiless demons did not leave them alone?They set the haystacks on fire and hundreds were burnt alive?? Judd reports that ?blatant racial prejudice was commonplace in British India??

About the Jallianwala massacre, Judd reports that a crowd of some 10,000 Sikhs ?were subjected to one of the most brutal episodes in the history of the Raj?. By and large, Judd does not hesitate to face the truth about what the British did in India. Of the eventual Partition of the country Judd says that ?thus, amid a welter of bloodshed, constitutional haggling, mass migrations and a frenzy of hope and pain, British rule in India came finally to an end. It was the greatest transfer of power in human history, and it was complete.? What unfortunately is not complete is the telling of the story of British rule in India. It is far too cursory.

Judd, meanwhile asks some relevant questions such as: ?Why did the British seek to ?civilise? a country whose basic culture was already 4,000 years old?? He has no convincing answer.

In a way, the Indo-British relationship has been one of love-hate. One suspects that Indians have a streak of forgiveness towards their rulers. The British may not have thought of it that way, but they certainly unified the country and gave it English as a unifying factor. Just for that one reason perhaps one must thank the British. The Indians learnt English, but they retained their Indian-ness when all that Macaulay wanted was to turn them into ?a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.? Like all Englishmen, Macaulay too never could understand the Indians. A pity!

Now, as India is on the verge of becoming a great power in its own right, perhaps the Government of India could make Judd?s history prescribed reading for high school students in India, just to remind them of another time and place. Though incomplete, Judd?s history has a moral to tell-and it is self-evident.

(Oxford University Press, First Floor, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001.)

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