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Britain finally discovers how the Raj hurt India

By Kanika Datta
November 26, 2017 10:12 IST
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Unlike the Germans, Britons began to face the hard truths about their colonial empire only recently, says Kanika Datta.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The British Empire in India

It has taken a little under seven decades for British academia, if not ordinary Britons, to acknowledge the deleterious nature of their 200-odd year rule of the Indian sub-continent.


The past two years has seen a raft of revisionist histories from British writers that seek to highlight in unequivocal terms the combination of outright violence and chicanery that the British employed on their way to dominating India.

These new writings constitute a comprehensive contradiction of popular delusions -- held by some Indians too -- that the British possessed some sort of inherent racial greatness that enabled a small white minority to dominate a populous sub-continent.

We know the standard narrative of how the political turmoil in the last days of the Mughal Empire provided the European powers -- French, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish in addition to the British -- an easy entry into establishing coastal trading enclaves.

Now, several British academics have taken pains to show how access to global finance via the growth of the City of London gave the British East India Company, the blunt instrument of the British crown, an unassailable advantage in its ability to bribe petty rajas for support.

The eventual victory over Tipu Sultan, for instance, was almost entirely a result of this military-finance complex, as Kate Brittlebank describes in her readable little treatise Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan (Juggernaut, 2016).

In India Conquered: Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire (Simon & Schuster, 2016) Jon Wilson takes this point further by providing a look at the Raj in action. His closely researched 504-page account offers a credible counterfactual history to the notion of calm stability of British rule in India.

The chaotic, almost paranoid, style of governance that characterised the Raj, he argues, impacts modern India today (including, it seems, the extreme propensity for bureaucracy and paperwork).

A less academic if sincere variation of this theme comes from amateur historian Roy Moxham's The Theft of India: The European Conquests of India 1498-1675, which describes the early jousting between European powers for Indian spoils.

A considerably lengthier and illuminating account of the unattractive truths about British rule can be found in Ferdinand Mount's Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Mount traces the history of the Raj through the story of his ancestors who served it in many capacities during its high tide.

Far from a triumphal recounting of power and pelf, this is a story of ignominy and tragedy on both sides of the racial divide.

The past two years have seen a fresh crop of studies on the last days of the Raj, most of them timed around impending anniversaries of Indian Independence.

In 2015 came Nisid Hajari's Midnight's Furies (Penguin), with its searing retelling of the Noakhali Massacre.

In 2016, came Keeping The Jewel in the Crown: The British Betrayal of India by Walter Reid, a splendid recounting of the self-serving chaos that accompanied the British retreat from India.

This August, the 70th anniversary, yielded another account of Partition in Partition: The story of Indian Independence and the Creation of Pakistan (Simon & Schuster) by the military historian Barney White-Spunner, an incremental but important addition to the burgeoning literature on this British-created holocaust.

It offers a pithy reminder of the criminal under-preparation by the British army in India to counter the violence leading up to and after Partition.

In India, these books have value in reminding younger generations (those among them who read books, that is) of the real costs of independence and offer a nuanced and dispassionate understanding of the communal legacy that entraps our politics today.

As important is their impact in Britain, where the colonial era is glossed over in school histories and public memory is imbued with a warm, fuzzy glow spread by the Raj nostalgia movement of the seventies and eighties -- Charles Allen (Plain Tales from the Raj), Paul Scott (The Raj Quartet), M M Kaye (The Far Pavilions) and movies like Heat and Dust, the Merchant-Ivory extravaganza of a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala novel -- not to forget regular reissues of Kipling novels.

Unlike the Germans who learnt to confront their Nazi past quickly, Britons grudgingly began to face the hard truths about their colonial empire only recently.

Maybe that country's imminent decline has something to do with this rush to revisionism but it certainly comes at timely moment in South Asian politics.

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Kanika Datta
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