WAY back in 1872, Britain’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli popularised the image of India as “the Jewel in the Crown”. He was not referring to the Kohinoor diamond which the British, in the manner of other marauders like Mohammad of Ghazni had spirited away and now are reluctant to return. He was merely comparing India with other countries that Britain had conquered in Asia, and Africa, say like Singapore or Uganda or Nigeria, to feel proud of India’s rank among the comity of suppressed colonies. Now did Britain manage to conquer this huge country? Was it a well-designed plan or was it just an accident of history? How did the British ‘run’ India, a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country and to what purpose?
Over the years, especially since history willed that Britain must quit India, many such questions have been asked but few have ever been satisfactorily answered. Before the British finally took over the country, India was badly divided. Though the Mughals ruled for almost four centuries, politically, India was a conglomeration of several kingdoms, some of which were at daggers drawn against some others. The British arrived not to conquer the land, but to carry on a lucrative trade. British take-over of bits and pieces of the country was primarily to protect their trade not to per se conquer the land. It so happened that in the process of self-protection, the East India Company felt compelled to play politics in a fractured society, but once this process started, the end was inevitable.
As the author rightly notes, in India “politics and land revenue drew them (the British) a lowly, but profitably, into the holding of territory”. After 1800, the atmosphere changed. Military victory encouraged the growth of contempt for the conquered, and then scorn prevailed. Roderick provides a masterly analysis of how the British slowly but steadily came to power. What would India have been today, if the British had never come to India? According to the author, “Indian unity might have been achieved without the British, or at a losser price, but we cannot know for sure”. One wonders, though. One can only guess. Would India have collapsed? Would it at all have made any progress in science and technology? What made Britain to rule as it did? The ultimate beneficiaries of British rule were the British themselves, no matter what good they bestowed on India. Was it idealism? Was it a desire to set up a formidable Christian nation?
Macaulay had no respect either for Hinduism or its culture. His aim was to turn Indians into brown counter-parts of Englishmen, so that governance would be easier. He could never have envisaged a time, say, a hundred and eighty years later, when his chauvinism would turn Indians into world leaders, using their knowledge of English as a marketable commodity. The British may not have planned it deliberately, but in the end they helped India to become a united nation. As no less an authority then RC Majumdar has written: “The greatest achievement of British rule was the political unity of India.” One has to give the British credit for that, whether that was their primary motive. According to the author, by 1920, for Britain it was hardly worth holding on to India on a ‘ledger book basis’, but they stayed on, “unable to go, becoming increasingly inventive in their stated reasons for remaining”. The economic aspects of colonial rule had become almost all negative; its benefits were almost all political, even then on long term.
The British came to India to buy but stayed on to sell. And once they killed the Indian textile industry, the huge Indian textile market became theirs for the asking. Colonialism helped growth of aggressive capitalism that developed from the money amassed from conquest. That led to its own consequences. To hold on, the British had to show that they were good masters. So, willy nilly, they had to introduce a system of governance that was kindly seen from the outside, but aggressive from the inside. That, in turn, paradoxical as it may seem, led to the establishment of Indian nationalism which, ultimately, was to sign the death warrant of colonialism.
Matthews argues that from the very start, the Raj was never strong. It was weak almost throughout its life. But it had found many ways to hide its weaknesses and to prop itself up. Right from the start, it got into alliances with Rajahs, Maharajahs, Nawabs and the one-and-only Nizam, knowing fully well that as long as they were left alone to themselves, they will never join hands to displace the Raj. It also created social elites that could be trusted. Also, there were two factors that enabled the British to stay on. One is that, as Harcourt Butler said in his book India Insistent (1931), Indians, by and large, have no interest in politics and are indifferent to who ruled them, so long as the rule was beneficial. For the British, having established themselves in India, they could never think of themselves out of existence.
As the author thoughtfully remarks: “What was best for Britain was that India remained peaceful; but what was best for India always remained a puzzle”. Looking back, perhaps for everything, there was a historical inevitability. In the 18th and early 19th century, following the virtual collapse of Mughal rule, India was going to pieces, there was hardly anything to keep the country united. Communication hardly existed. It was none for all and all for none. The vacuum that existed needed to be filled in. The British came in handy. They took advantage of the situation without looking too far into the future, not so much to rule as the barbarians from Central Asia wished, not to meet their special economic needs. It sounds like a win-win situation, with both sides gaining.
What matthews has done is to put British rule in India in a new – and challenging – perspective. How would things have been in India, if, for example, Robert Clive had succeeded in his attempt to commit suicide? If Mahadaji Scindia had won the Battle of Shivpur in 1781? Matthews addresses himself to so many ‘Ifs’. If the Congress had not passed the Quit India resolution and had given its willing cooperation to the British during World War II, would there have been Partition? Questions, questions, questions. But to read this challenging and provocative work by itself is an education. There is so much to ponder over. Perhaps it was all destined. Who knows? And who can tell? But Matthews makes a good attempt at analysis.
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