As a historian, I’m bemused by the “Raj-rage” that still inspires debates about British rule in India 70 years after it ended. Even more surprising is the way that present-day British ignorance and embarrassment about the empire, racked by politically correct, post-colonial guilt, reinforces a chauvinistic Indian narrative of imagined past oppression. Two recent books, one British, the other Indian, mirror each other in their evocation of an “evil empire” as fictitious and unhistorical as any episode of Game of Thrones. I’m referring to Jon Wilson’s India Conquered and Shashi Tharoor’s Era of Darkness, both of which claim historical veracity on the basis of footnotes carefully culled to reference and generalise every misdeed any Briton ever committed in India.
The elephant in the room that such anti-imperial polemics ignore is the extent to which the Raj was always more Indian than British, based till its final troubled decade on the active cooperation and consent of the vast majority of its subjects. How else could a small offshore island in the North Sea have ruled a vast, distant subcontinent of 300 million? Let me here declare a personal interest as the product of two proudly comprador families whose fortunes demonstrate how Indians from the most modest “subaltern” backgrounds could rise, through a surprisingly meritocratic imperial hierarchy, to the highest offices in the land.
My two grandfathers, maternal and paternal, were both recruits to the new Indian universities, modelled on London, which the enlightened British Governor-General Lord Canning had the courage to inaugurate at the height of the Revolt of 1857. My maternal grandfather, a UP Kayasth and son of a rural tehsildar, graduated from a Christian college in Kanpur, then broke caste taboos and travelled overseas in his teens to distant Manchester to train as an industrial chemist in the early 1900s. He returned to Kanpur, then newly industrialised, to a job in a British-owned textile mill. In a few years, he had raised the finance to buy over the mill, the first in a series of thriving business ventures that made him one of India’s biggest industrialists by the 1930s. He was by then also a prominent political figure as education minister in the newly devolved and elected UP provincial government. By the 1940s he had reached the top of the imperial pyramid as one of the few Indians in the viceroy’s executive council or cabinet. Although politically a staunch empire loyalist, he epitomised the dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit of a new class of Indian capitalists who had embraced western technology and were challenging British competitors.
My paternal grandfather, a Bombay Parsi, was a very different kettle of fish. His family had migrated from rural Gujarat to the imperial metropolis, a thriving commercial hub by the 1860s, with its own municipal charter, stately public buildings, avenues and tramways, the latest gas street-lighting and a sewage system superior to that of many European cities. Grandfather was a brilliant student, won prestigious prizes and scholarships, and graduated with flying colours in both English and Persian from the newly established Elphinstone College, founded by Indian city fathers to honour the memory of Bombay’s most enlightened British governor.
Way back in the 1820s, Mountstuart Elphinstone had had the vision to see education as the stepping-stone to India’s independence and “our (Britishers’) high road back to Europe”. The Raj, he argued, must sow the seeds of its own dissolution. “It is for our interest,” Elphinstone wrote, “to have an early separation from a civilised people, rather than a violent rupture with a barbarous nation… It is better for our honour…that we should resign our power into the hands of the people for whose benefit it is entrusted…”. Grandfather always believed that this concept of benevolent trusteeship was the driving motive of British rule, despite its many aberrations.
His own career illustrated in the course of one life the infinite variety of professional opportunities that the imperial regime offered versatile Indian talent. Grandfather began work as a young journalist on the Gujarati newspaper Kaiser-e-Hind, went on to become an inspector of Parsi girls’ schools and then a head clerk in Bombay’s rapidly growing municipality, where he had a meteoric rise to become in 1922 the city’s first Indian municipal commissioner. He then retired, began a new career as manager of Bombay’s first Indian-owned bank and later moved on to an academic career as the rector and vice-chancellor of Bombay University. Through all this, he found time to write learned historical books, to translate classics from Persian, to support various philanthropic causes, and even, occasionally, to try and mediate between Mahatma Gandhi and British officialdom.
In 1931, grandfather was one of the founders of the Welfare of India League, set up by prominent citizens of Bombay to act as a bridge between the nationalist Congress and the British government. Their goal was to promote an early transition to responsible government through the Round Table Conferences, which had assembled Indian leaders in London for constitutional negotiations. Grandfather was in London during the talks and sailed back to India with Gandhi after they failed. Despite his considerable respect and affection for Gandhi, he was convinced that it was the latter’s naivete and intransigence, not any reluctance by the British government, which caused the failure of this wasted opportunity for independent dominion status. The sticking point then and later was how to reconcile the majoritarian demands of the Congress with the insistence of the Muslim League on equal status. Grandfather maintained that viceroys like Lords Linlithgow and Wavell, far from trying to divide and rule, worked tirelessly through the 1930s and ’40s to square the constitutional circle and bring the two sides to a compromise.
My parents and their siblings were also children of the Raj, but a far more rebellious generation, schooled in British ideas of socialism and communism. My father was radicalised by his years at the London School of Economics, then a hotbed of socialism. He returned to Indian politics in 1930 as a Congress activist, became one of the leaders of its socialist wing and spent years in prison for civil disobedience. Nevertheless, he looked back with respect, and even some affection, for the British police and prison officers whom he had confronted. “There was never any attempt at humiliation,” he recalled, “as might have happened in other countries. We political prisoners were treated as officers and gentlemen in a war. It was accepted that we were nice chaps who had been misled. It was like a game of cricket, and if the British hadn’t played by the rules, Gandhiji’s non-violence would have been doomed.”
Father later graduated to the embryonic parliamentary institutions introduced by the Raj, first in the Bombay Municipal Corporation, where he was elected mayor, and later in the Central Legislative Assembly. In 1935, the British parliament had, despite Congress non-cooperation, enacted its own constitutional solution for India: democratically elected provincial ministries, central and provincial legislatures that were elected by anyone who had a literacy or property qualification, the promise of full universal suffrage within a decade and, most important of all, the goal of an independent, federal, dominion government (similar to Australia or Canada) at the Centre. Sadly, the outbreak of World War II and Congress boycotts combined to render this federal option a dead letter.
After independence, father spent two decades as an opposition leader in the Lok Sabha; but he maintained that the imperial legislature of the 1940s, which later became independent India’s constituent assembly, was the most mature and evolved parliament in which he ever sat. “The viceroy’s cabinet was not responsible to us and the viceroy’s councillors were irremovable,” he later recalled, “but they were much more responsive to Opposition criticism than the present, so-called responsible ministers since independence”. One example, even during the bitter aftermath of the Bengal famine of 1943, was the very courteous and constructive exchanges on the floor of the House between father, as Congress spokesman on food policy, and his future father-in-law, Sir J.P. Srivastava, then food member of the viceroy’s council.
Despite their nationalist convictions, two of my uncles had decided to join the Raj instead of fighting it. Encouraged by the policy of “Indianisation” from 1919 onwards, they sat and passed the very stiff examination for the elite Indian civil service (ICS), called “heaven-born” because of its reputation for incorruptibility. Despite occasional racial slurs, my uncles were profoundly impressed by the calibre and dedication of most of their British colleagues. Far in advance of Britain’s own domestic civil service, the ICS had been open to competitive, public examination since the 1850s, attracting some of the best brains in both Britain and India and giving them a two-year apprenticeship at Oxbridge, during which it was compulsory to learn at least two Indian languages.
Young district officers of the Raj were conscientious enough to tour even the most remote areas on foot or horseback, dispensing quick and inexpensive local justice, and still found time to write scholarly monographs on local customs, flora and fauna. When independence came, more than half the ICS, like the Indian army officer corps, had been “Indianised,” and they were the steel frame that held the new-born country together through the trauma of partition and beyond.
Growing up as a midnight’s child in the 1950s, I learned my history from new textbooks that glorified nationalist heroes like Akbar and Shivaji, Rana Pratap and the Rani of Jhansi. The succession of British governor-generals, who had ruled us for the past century and a half, was a faceless blur, mostly dismissed as plundering autocrats. It was only with historical hindsight that I discovered the enormous dedication of imperial proconsuls like Warren Hastings, Thomas Macaulay, Lord Hastings, Sir John Munro, Sir John Malcolm, Sir Charles Metcalfe and Lord William Bentinck, men who were steeped in the liberal ideals of the European enlightenment and who constantly asserted that the crowning glory of British rule would be the transfer of power to a self-governing Indian nation. No serious historian who studies, not just their public speeches but their private correspondence and diaries, now easily accessible, can doubt the sincerity of their commitment to Indian nation-building.
Even the arch-imperialist Lord Wellesley, who made British power in India paramount, declared that India must not be treated “as an empire conquered by preposterous adventure and extended by fortunate accident,” but “must be considered as a sacred trust”. Probably the most misunderstood governor-general of all was Lord Dalhousie. Blamed for provoking the Revolt of 1857, he presided over one of the most enlightened, reforming regimes of the 19th century. He built the Grand Trunk Road, the railways, extensive canals, and postal and telegraph networks, all conceived as part of a grand famine prevention strategy. He also had a hugely ambitious plan for a national education system, which would include girls, model, state schools in every district, and new technical, engineering and agricultural colleges. By an Act of 1856, Dalhousie legalised the remarriage of widows and protected the civil rights of Dalit converts from Hinduism. His government refused to allow caste discrimination in its railways, prisons or law courts, forcing Brahmins to rub shoulders with the Dalits, then called untouchables. Unfortunately, his reforming zeal provoked an upper caste backlash and fuelled the anger of mutinous Brahmin sepoys in 1857.
At school, we were taught that the idea of India had its roots more than two millennia ago in the enlightened Mauryan Empire of Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. It’s time to acknowledge that we owe the discovery of Ashoka and his edicts to British orientalists who rescued the Mauryas from two millennia of obscurity by unlocking the forgotten Brahmi script. It was European scholarship, mostly British, that rediscovered India’s classical heritage, British archaeologists who excavated and conserved our greatest temples, and British Indologists who revived the study of Sanskrit and the translation of its classics. It was a two-way imperial traffic: such cultural encounters made Britain the most cosmopolitan country in the world, a multicultural legacy that explains why it still feels like a second home to Indians like me.
The Raj-bashers will say that my own family experiences represent only a small elite of India’s population. True, but they were the new, educated middle class who founded and led the nationalist movement, won independence and adapted the institutions they had inherited from the Raj. They also included people who had risen through Western education from the most downtrodden communities in the land. Those who ritually condemn Macaulay for wanting to turn us into brown sahibs should listen to Dalit leaders, from Ambedkar down to the present, who celebrate English-medium education and the man who introduced it as their saviour from a millennium of Brahminical caste oppression. English has been both their passport to upward social mobility and their key to the Western, liberal thinking that has inspired their own freedom struggles. Constitution-makers like Ambedkar were the first to acknowledge that without British political unification, the rule of law and institution-building, the idea of India would have remained buried in Mauryan obscurity.
As for India’s vast, silent majority, would they really have been better off under the marauding regional warlords who succeeded the crumbling Mughal Empire? Raj-haters are right to blame mass-produced Western goods for wiping out India’s previous comparative advantage in textiles. But would the impact of Europe’s industrial revolution have been any less damaging if India, like China, had remained under indigenous rulers? It’s true the Raj did little to protect Indian handlooms, but it did bring in new investment, infrastructure and technological knowhow. Bombay’s textile mills were built with credit, technical assistance and machines from Britain, even though they were a competitive threat to Manchester. Could India under any regime have had an industrial revolution while its agriculture remained feudal and stagnant and its social hierarchy caste-ridden? These are complex questions which Indian historians need to address, instead of indulging in cheap, xenophobic blame-games.