Central & South Asia

British Raj: A Saga Like No Other

Lawrence James’ "Raj" is recommended reading for today’s audiences, in India and elsewhere, who want to understand history in all its splendid complexity.
British Raj, Indian history, British India, India news, Indian politics, British in India, British Empire, Lawrence James historian, Lawrence James Fall of British Empire, Lawrence James British Raj

Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, India © By TheJim999 / Shutterstock

July 26, 2019 10:23 EDT

The medieval Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino thought of history “as necessary for the life of mankind, not only to make it more agreeable, but to found it upon tradition.” He added: “What is in itself mortal, through history attains immortality; what is absent becomes present, what is ancient becomes new.” Ficino goes on: “A young man quickly matches the full development of the old; and, if an old man of seventy is considered wise because of his experience of life, how much wiser is he who covers a span of thousand, or three thousand, years. For each man seems to have lived for as many thousands of years as the span of history he has studied.”

Yet the fact is we all seem to know only too well that we do not often learn from history, not least because we tend to reduce history to our level of judgment.

Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India,” by British historian Lawrence James, is a riveting panorama published just over 20 years ago that brings this pivotal history to life. It is engaging and compelling thanks to the infectious enthusiasm for its mammoth subject, even when it is at times jagged. You’d think this is natural. More so, because James, who is known for his dance of discord, holds a certain status for his perceptive book, “The Rise and Fall of the British Empire,” a subject close to his heart, aside from more than a handful of equally well-chiseled historical works. This would automatically mean that he’s on what is acknowledged as his familiar turf with “Raj.”

Familiar Turf

“Raj” is a monumental work, immense in its form, range and sweep. James is equal to the task. Not once does he lose his sense of grand design, not to speak of telling detail — a surgical examination of a penetrating portrait of British India, the empire’s crown jewel. On a canvas encompassing extensive textual matter, diffused with three separate sections of illustrations and photographs, James recounts a stunning story of one of the most splendid chapters of modern history — a fascinating era of 200 years of colonial rule, a subject rich in incident and character.

James’ work provides a lens for a better understanding of historical facts. Apart from this, it gives British Raj history a tangible meaning in order to think critically about narratives that developed over time. In so doing, it also offers a kaleidoscopic view of meaningful interpretations necessary to examine the events that shaped Britain’s big push develop to India’s infrastructure, Western style of education and enduring commitment to democracy — the three major, positive legacies of colonial rule.

The book brings to the fore a lesson of intentions, experiments and proclivity of those who controlled the distribution of power and wealth — or what the British government really meant for the native population. In the process, James’ book contextualizes narratives and stories of humility, deceit, courage, wisdom and, most importantly, hope. It also establishes the essence of history — that it teaches us to move forward, recognize our mistakes and learn from them and, more significantly, not repeat them, but create a better life for all.

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James’ work is painstakingly researched. His tome is a lucid chronicle of India’s vanished supremacies, of fortunes, wars and a host of new, veiled and controversial subjects, such as the Sepoy Mutiny (or the Indian Rebellion of 1857), the Great Game between the Russian and the British Empires, and the taxing of the country, based on both old and newly released official and private papers. Yet what lets down James’ monumental effort is a host of typos and factual errors. For example, James gives credit to Jahangir, not Shah Jahan (fortunately corrected in the paperback edition), for having built the Taj Mahal — the love song in marble. What’s more, James has misspelt a handful of Indian names and places, often using outdated names of territories instead of their current designations.

To James’ credit, however, and if only one unobtrusively ignores his inadvertent blemishes, his effort is brilliant: The book is a labor of love. In this respect alone, his “Raj” scores one of its major victories. It crystallizes a profusion of chapters of the British rule era — so massive and powerful from the outside, but always insecure. Not only that: It also provides a galvanizing exercise in benign autocracy and good will. This is more than a balancing act and one that X-rays the British mindset, including the hydra-headed chemistry of the East India Company and its bosses, not to speak of their powerful mission to make themselves masters of India through their famed divide-and-rule policy.

Take for instance the slaughter enacted in 1946-47 following independence, which James chronicles with sensitive objectivity. There is a persuasive plea in the midst of chaos that recognizes a broad expanse of why India and Pakistan owed so much to Britain. According to James’ fact sheet, British rule taught Indians to see themselves as Indians, and the “benefits” included the railways, roads, canals, schools, universities, hospitals, law, taxation, a universal language, parliamentary democracy and bureaucracy, not to speak of cricket.

Twilight and Beginning

James begins his work when the great Mughal Empire was all but finished in the early 18th century and in the twilight of its existence. He examines the power shift that gradually took place, thanks to the militaristic and expansionist aims of the East India Company that represented the interests of Great Britain in India. It was a time, reflects James, when Robert Clive, of the East India Company, a go-getter and England’s most unlikely conqueror, knocked the stuffing out of Bengal’s “paper tiger,” Siraj-ud Daulah, through tact, money, deceit and shrewd dispensation of promises to whoever was willing to toe his — or his employers’ — line. In so doing, Clive, notes James, set the stage for Britain’s takeover of India at one fell swoop.

Clive’s bottom line of success at all cost became the fundamental motif of every Englishman sent to “rule” India. The lessons were instinctive: The English powers that be, writes James, took India’s ancient mindset and psychology into consideration, deputing Englishmen born with status. The premise was obvious: Whenever a middle-class sahib was posted to India, acceptance wasn’t particularly forthcoming for more reasons than one. There’s no need to expand on India’s traditional veneration for “blue blood.” This is something that still has a magnetic hold on people from all walks of life, more so in the former princely states.

“Raj” is, however, less than charitable in its treatment of Tipu Sultan‘s persona — a formidable warrior and one of India’s most enlightened and progressive rulers of his time. James has allocated just a few pages on Tipu’s powerful stand against the British. Tipu, it goes without saying, was England’s biggest worry and roadblock in East India Company’s ambitions. Once the “Tiger of Mysore” fell, thanks to perfidy — betrayed by one of his own confidants, a close relative, during the siege of Seringapatam — there was nobody to stall the rolling wheels of the British. The conquest of India by several enterprising men, whose predecessors first came as traders and smelled the abundant riches of a country divided under its own weight, was complete.

Interestingly, James’ flaws are not detracting in the whole context. The good thing is there are several highs in the midst of certain fuzzy fragments, and the arguments James has mustered with vigor and logic are noteworthy and farsighted. James, for instance, has not spared the wayward, inept Englishman or his Indian “stooge,” the spineless country prince, or Britain’s high-powered administrators who went against the ground rules. He comes down heavily on Governor General Warren Hastings for his dishonest and fraudulent conduct, and on Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of British India, for his “politricks” in the culminating epoch of India’s freedom movement.

Lessons from History

“Raj,” overall, is an eminently readable work. It not only traces India’s ancient beliefs, a mixture of dualities and dichotomies, but it also takes an insightful glance into one of the earliest invasions of the country, most notably by Alexander the Great that inspired Napoleon’s unrealized conquest two millennia later, and France’s ambivalent policies vis-à-vis Tipu and India. He also includes in his study several eccentric methodologies of the period — superstitious beliefs, ethnic, religious, diplomatic, militaristic dogmas and fancies.

Another clinical insight made in “Raj” suggests that none of the British ideas was planned. India’s development and progress during colonial rule, according to James, emerged through a fusion of compromises and sternness.

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What also makes fascinating reading is James’ deft handling of the pressure-cooker atmosphere of pre-independence India — the power play and politics, Mahatma Gandhi’s outstanding leadership qualities, the rise of the Indian National Congress party, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s growing insecurity. James touches upon Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India, social non-conformist and statesman, and other leaders without profuse adjectives is as imperative as his simplistic references on Nehru’s love letters and relationship with Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of the viceroy, and her feelings “for the older, wiser widower as those of a schoolgirl with a crush.”

That James tumbles down his own research, in some instances, may be every historian’s professional hazard. He seems, for example, to look at Albert Einstein‘s timeless axiom apropos of Gandhi, “Generations to come, it may be, will scarcely believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth,” with skepticism. He thinks of Gandhi as “a vain man inside and humble outside.” This is a biased keynote of a scholar; it only reflects his latent partisanship.

Add to it his analogy of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer’s “killing fields” at Jallianwala Bagh, and his interpretation becomes anachronistic and discriminatory. Yet, considering the rumblings of more than a handful of India’s so-called leaders today, James’ incisive analysis brings home the fact that contemporary politicians, wherever they are, believe that they are answerable only to their stakeholders, and that they can wield their political power, or view people who do not toe their ideological line, with contempt.

The end of the colonial rule, in James’ words, marked the final resolution:

“In return for its moment of greatness on the world stage, the Raj had offered India regeneration on British terms. It had been the most perfect expression of what Britain took to be its duty to humanity as a whole. Its guiding ideals had sprung from the late-18th and early-19th-century Evangelical Enlightenment, which had dreamed of a world transformed for the better by Christianity and reason. The former made little headway in India, but the latter, in the form of Western education and the application of science, did.”

This also bids fair to James’s own acknowledgment that Great Britain treated its subjects, at times, in a discriminatory, hard-hearted manner. It highlights the fact that any rule by force has its limits as a congenial effect, or outcome. The credo also offers a crystal-clear appraisal, as James observes, of imperialistic intentions and the complexities it created for both the ruler and ruled alike. If this isn’t a lesson for any contemporary government nursing the idea of hegemonic territorial and economic expansion or influence, what is?

It also delineates James’ “Raj”— a heady mix of righteousness, vanity, honor, dignity and disgrace — as a refined summary of one of the finest and also of the most hideous of times. In short, James’ sprawling work is recommended reading for today’s audiences, in India and elsewhere, who want to understand history in all its splendid complexity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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