India for the English

Rajnarayan Chandavarkar

  • The British Conquest and Dominion of India by Penderel Moon
    Duckworth, 1235 pp, £60.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 7156 2169 6
  • Raj by Gita Mehta
    Cape, 463 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 224 01988 0
  • The Last Days of the Raj by Trevor Royle
    Joseph, 291 pp, £15.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 7181 2904 0

The history of the British Raj is emotional, complex and controversial. It invokes guilt and shame, nostalgia and pride, for diferent reasons, in Britain as well as in India. It represents not merely a relic of the past but a vibrant, self-generating, living myth. Its collective memory, images and symbols have proved indispensable to the definition of Englishness, or perhaps Britishness. In the ‘sceptical’ 1960s, Trevor Royle tells us, some people considered the British Raj a ‘shameful thing’, and ‘the idea of empire was met with derision by younger intellectuals’; now, in the Eighties, happily liberated from guilt, ‘people want to know ... why the privilege of being British has been so absolute,’ and ‘the benefits of empire ... are being examined again with interest and, let it be said, not a little pride.’

Among Indians, too, there has sometimes been a feeling that we need to come to terms with the history of our apparent subordination and with the weight of our traditions, which for two centuries have been called on to produce a constant response to modernity. The history of India under British rule thus appears to represent a conflict of cultures. Each of the books under review takes this for granted. Here was English civilisation and power with all its pomp and panoply; there, Indian culture and its timeless, unchanging tradition. Here, the rationality, science and markets of the modern world; there, the superstitions of the harem, the iniquities of the caste system, the blind passions and loyalties of religious community. In each work, the colonial experience buffets Indians between these cultures or prompts their evolution from the traditional to the modern. Each of them demonstrates the costs of placing the history of India under British rule within the straitjacket of these cultural antinomies.

Sir Penderel Moon, who died over a year ago, enjoyed an unusual career as a civil servant and historian. Having started out as a member of the Indian Civil Service, he served first as a rivet in the steel frame of the Raj, then as an adviser at the court of the Maharaj of Bhawalpur, and finally, until his retirement in 1962, with the independent Government of India. Moon also wrote a number of books about India and its recent history, notably a memoir of Partition. He was responsible for Wavell’s Viceroy’s Journal, and as assistant editor for the Transfer of Power documents, a major contribution to historical scholarship.

Moon’s mammoth book is cast in the tradition of long, narrative colonial histories stretching back to Elphinstone, Malcolm, Grant Duff and James Mill, and is a monument more to his career as an Old India Hand than as a historian. His aim being to rescue the architects of British rule from ‘the oblivion into which they have fallen’, he concentrates on ‘the deeds, motives and thoughts of the principal British actors’ rather than on what he characterises as ‘the almost unmoving background of the mass of the population against which they played their parts’. With these objectives, Moon sets himself the task of recording the ‘miracle’ by which ‘a mere handful of foreigners from a distant island’ became ‘masters of a large sub-continent’. He invokes the usual causes – the anarchy and chaos which followed the Mughal collapse, for example, and the superiority of European military technique – but finds a more ‘basic explanation’ in the ‘assistance and connivance’ of Indians in the conquest and their ‘collaboration and tacit consent’ in the domination. There was, he says, ‘a lack of national feeling among them – which is perhaps to read history backwards as well as sideways from 19th-century European nationalist ideologies. This absence of national identity combined with their inherent fatalism, ‘their long habituation to domination by people of other races and religions’, to dilute their resistance. Second, Indian élites, ‘products of a very ancient civilisation’, were ‘sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate the benefits of the British Raj’. Indeed, Indians responded so favourably to their rulers’ attempts ‘to impart to India English civilisation and culture’ that English ‘ideas, institutions and language’ were swiftly diffused throughout the sub-continent and ‘have not yet been dispensed with’.

Accordingly, the major theme of the late 19th century as well as the 20th is how Indians confronted the British with ‘a demand for self-government based on their own doctrines of freedom’. The British responded with caution, knowing only too well that ‘representative government was unsuited to India.’ Although Moon recognises that this response was largely a rationalisation ‘for the desire to retain control of India’, he argues trenchantly that ‘the modern world, which tends to decry Imperialism, should not forget that for many years it was regarded by most educated and politically-minded Indians as a necessary and even beneficent phenomenon.’ The Twenties and Thirties witnessed protracted conflict between the British Government and Indian nationalists. But this was in Moon’s view largely superfluous: for they had no differences over the principle of self-government, but only over ‘the pace at which it was to be attained’. Nonetheless, this conflict had the ‘mitigating feature’ of being largely peaceful. The British responded to Congress agitations ‘for the most part with moderation and good humour, sometimes in the face of considerable provocation’. Consequently, British rule ended ‘quite amicably and with a minimum of lasting ill-feeling’. But there was one exception. During the Second World War, when Muslims ‘became alive’ to their weakness within a scheme of federation, the Congress and the Raj were ‘at loggerheads and more interested in fighting each other ... than in bringing about a Hindu-Muslim understanding’. The outcome was the trauma of Partition.

Few of these propositions would bear close examination and many were stuffed through the trapdoor of history several decades ago. But they are not without interest or significance, partly as statements of a particular moralising liberal doctrine of British imperialism and as a function of British nationalism, partly as a set of assumptions informing popular notions about the nature of the British Raj. Perhaps the most widespread and persistent assumption, now firmly embedded in the common sense of our time, is the notion of the gradual Anglicisation of India.

Gita Mehta’s saga, Raj, traverses very similar terrain, generally with a more casual and jaunty gait; intermittently, as if suddenly self-conscious, the author turns ponderous and plodding. The subject of her tale is the response of Princely India – one-third of the sub-continent never passed under direct British control – first to colonial rule and then to the rise of nationalism. It is explored through the story of Jaya, daughter of the Maharaja of Balmer, from the moment of her conception against a background of famine and death at the turn of the century, through the last decades of British rule until 1950, when she registers as a Parliamentary candidate in independent India. Here, the Indian response to English civilisation is not simply and consistently favourable and imitative. It is characterised by impotence and a deforming self-hatred, rather than a happy and grateful espousal of English civilisation. Immunity and refuge from its dominance are only to be found in the women’s quarter or the private domain of the zenana. Only the women of Princely India, the thesis seems to go, are able to resist the encompassing hegemony of the British, and even then only with uncertain and partial success.

Despite their splendid durbars and magnificent wealth, their elaborate public rituals and their jealously-guarded secrets of state, the princes were rarely masters of their own kingdoms. Rajput princes – once ‘the proudest warriors in the world’, as Jaya’s father, the Maharaja of Balmer laments – ‘have become toy soldiers to decorate British parades’. Maharaja Victor of Sirpur, Jaya’s brother-in-law, characterises his own role as that of an actor, rather than a king – an actor, moreover, who won’t even have the chance to marry the Hollywood starlet of his choosing. The realisation dawns on Jaya in young adulthood that ‘if her self-respect was mortgaged to a husband, their self-respect was mortgaged to an empire.’

This is a long novel which shows the hand of a miniaturist: at half its length it would have been twice the book. For the most part, it reads more like the script for a soap opera and history is slung like an albatross around the novel’s neck. Mehta’s characters are prone to explain great events, or introduce historical figures, in subordinate clauses, while chatting with their friends, and usually in the most trite and mundane ways. When the nation’s leaders speak, especially to each other, it is often as if the wrestling coach had been persuaded to take over Third Form History at short notice.

To suggest that the history of the sub-continent since the mid-18th century primarily consisted of a continuing clash between British values and Indian tradition is to flatten and distort the subject. At one level, the very notion that there was a single, consistent interpretation of British values is scarcely plausible and it is hard to imagine how some essence of Britishness might be identified or distilled. Moreover, its purveyors in India were usually unlikely agents. Many merchants, officers and even civil servants were drawn from marginal elements in British society, often from the Celtic fringe, sometimes from social and political out-groups seeking advancement through the Colonial Service, not infrequently from the ranks of adventurers and misfits who found outdoor relief, moral as well as material, in the Empire. They were out of step by a generation with the moods and fashions of the Mother Country; and they usually returned in their retirement to a profound sense of disappointment with and alienation from a world which had changed utterly beyond their fond recall. On the other hand, the notion of an undifferentiated, unchanging Indian tradition, in a land of innumerable languages, almost every faith known to man and every form of social organisation known to anthropology, from hunter-gatherers to urban working classes, from nomadic pastoralists to suave industrialists, ought to stupefy the imagination.

It is, of course, no easy task to specify the place of ‘English ideas and institutions’ in Indian social life. As cultural missionaries, the English in India were Jesuitical in style: they worked from the top, trying to influence princes and courtiers, trying to create new ones in their own image through their educational and judicial systems, through their bureaucracy and legislatures. Yet to put it in this way is to make very plain the limits of their cultural influence. In the last decades of the Raj, after two centuries of colonial rule, barely 2 per cent of the population had even the most rudimentary command of the English language; and an infinitesimal proportion attended university. Larger numbers attended secondary and especially primary school, but the transactions of the classroom were rarely what the cultural missionaries prescribed or recognised and, indeed, the colonial state feared the village schoolmaster as an agent of sedition. The legal system touched many layers of Indian society, but its processes seemed remote, arcane and long-winded and its outcomes often arbitrary and unpredictable. People entered Bleak House not to settle disputes but to bury them. The bureaucracy was equally remote and mysterious, and its high priests were the officers of the heavenly Indian Civil Service. But these Mothers and Fathers of the Indian people were usually overwhelmed by their duties. Increasingly tied to their desks in the Secretariat, they struggled to peer over their mounting files at the society they tried to comprehend and control.

Nor should too much be made of the introduction of liberal representative institutions. The British Raj in India was an Oriental Despotism. In the Twenties, when the British cautiously extended their franchise and the powers of elected Indian representatives, the nationalist attempts to wreck the councils from within only revealed how strong the reserved powers of the executive remained and how easily their business could be conducted without reference to elected legislators. In 1975, when Indira Gandhi dissolved Parliament and imposed authoritarian rule, she was relying on the precedent and customs of these reserved powers.

Imperial rulers developed elaborate rituals to exemplify and exert their power and perhaps even to assert the superiority of their civilisation. These rituals, the vice-regal durbars and princely audiences, ‘royal’ processions and military parades, the flag salutations and the regimental bands, the plumed feathers and pith helmets, the chota peg at the Gymkhana Club and the gargantuan tiffin in the Secretariat, created a grand and exotic spectacle to amuse and to be enjoyed. It is less clear that it colonised or even Anglicised Indians. The mystique of imperial power was painstakingly constructed in India as well as in Britain. But like all fantasies, it was always vulnerable to the humdrum realities of daily life. Increasingly the mystique wore thin and the image of the white man became tarnished. Perhaps this was a natural consequence of proximity. Indian soldiers fought in the trenches of Western Europe and then again in the deserts of North Africa, and the two world wars brought an influx of British soldiers and officers to India. In the Twenties and Thirties, Indian travellers observed Britain at close quarters and revelled in tales of its lengthening dole queues and tawdry suburbs, its flying ducks and spotted dicks, its dreary pubs and weekly baths. This, it seemed, was not so much the land of the modern Romans but of tired and beleaguered Pooters. Britain’s imperial strategists became painfully conscious of their military and naval weakness. In India, Gandhian nationalists pilloried and mocked the pretensions of the Raj. It was the British who had taken the image of the white man most seriously. When the colonial authorities grew anxious that Hollywood’s portrayal would tarnish that image, and especially when they were led to ban Gunga Din from Indian screens, they must have found it hard to retain their faith in the moral purpose and political legitimacy of their empire.

What colonial historians and ideologues perceived as the effects of Anglicisation finally became manifest only in the Sixties after the Raj had been dismantled. A greater proportion of the population spoke and used the English language, now more an international than an imperial medium. Cricket became a mass sport. Larger numbers of students attended universities and colleges. Universal adult suffrage became a reality. It is ironical, though not perhaps entirely surprising, that the mystique of imperial power has created its most lasting impression in Britain, where the myths and artifices of the Raj have been hungrily swallowed, repeatedly and variously expressed and persistently re-created. In India, the place of ‘English ideas and institutions’ soon acquired the sepia tint of the archaic – which could be thought to arouse curiosity, provide pleasure and fuel resentment in equal measure.