"Yesterday's Pomp, Today's Circumstance"?
By Shashi Kolar
The thorny question of the legacy of the British Empire upon the social, political and economic climate of India always excites polarized debates. Many urban Indians, bred with Western mores that emphasize the superiority of reason over collected virtues of the ages, nurse a warm nostalgia for the Raj, and for it's residue in the forms political institutions, industrial legacy, educational systems and scientific temper. While such a disposition has remained highly subjective, depending on who is doing the analysis, when and for whom, a case could be made that comparable study of analogous native systems isn't mature enough among us to justly compare such, at times orthogonal, approaches to arrive at more dispassionate views.
An attempt to apply some color to an already crowded canvas follows.
There are several reasons why it was the British, among many vying Continental powers, that finally settled to preside over Indian affairs. The parliamentary system in Britain was favorable to throwing up capable leaders more readily than in France, then ruled by an absolute monarch advised by favorites. The financial machinery in Britain, imported from the Dutch through the years following the Glorious Revolution, allowed the country to support large-scale projects like wars with lesser strain on the treasury by the system of public debt run through a stock exchange. Britain had superior naval prowess that could dominate the sea lanes to India. Their other colonies were much closer to the India than those of the French, allowing the former to procure reinforcements more readily. There was little government interference in the British East India Company than in it's French counterpart, which made economic management of the latter inefficient and it's solvency always suspect.
The motives, justification and legacy of the British empire has been a particularly favorite topic of study among historians for 200 years, as it provides an especially fertile ground for the kind of historiography that the West seems to enjoy - the thrill of adventure, the industry of the individual, the promise of economic benefits, the glory of war, the pleasures of Eastern exotica, the spread of republicanism and the prospect of redemption of the savage races. Recent literature, like those of the past, seeks to furnish reasons to justify the empire project. One of the current heavyweights, Niall Ferguson, opines that India could not have had a less bloody path to modernity if it could compare British suzerainty to that of the then aspiring imperial powers like Japan (with it's massacres of China and Singapore), Germany (with it's cleansing of the Jews), Belgium (with it's naked exploitation of the Congo) and Russia (with the atrocities against its own people).
Britain did end up performing the vital function of injecting European virility into Asiatic ecology. But, it cannot be dismissed that British rule was preferable to any other, and emphasis on a few kinks in her largely polished popular history could be instructive. France, for example, was open to more radical and reformative processes. Thomas Paine, the famous Englishman who argued for the rights of man against monarchy and subversive political institutions whose power could be bought, had to escape to France from charges tantamount to treason. Mary Wollstonecraft also looked up to France for their efforts towards a general plebiscite and for their kinder treatment of women. In the mid-nineteenth century, Chartism, the British working-class movement in favor of political equality and social justice, failed to move a - supposedly reformed - parliament of 300MPs even after 8 million people had signed it's petitions. The military were kept ready to put down any rioting. The iron hand of governmental policing has been credited for the lack of any major political or proletarian revolutions in Britain and Ireland.
Even the Irish Famine of 1845, which reduced the population of that country by 25% while the aristocracy continued their regal ways, was explained away by the Home Secretary as an act of God. If fellow Christians, with an alternative form of faith, could attract such treatment, what could Indian's expect? The Corn Laws, introduced to keep the price of cereal artificially high to protect Britain's landed gentry against the import of cheap foreign food, lingered on for 30 years. There were strident calls for it's repeal, but only from industrialists who complained of the high wages they needed to pay their workers to purchase such expensive corn. It took a large scale catastrophe like the Famine to have it repealed.
The early reforms attributed to the liberal views of the British which, it was thought, were fired by reason and not by social prejudice, also came about because they were "cost-free political initiatives". Governor-General Bentinck, who accepted that position to salvage his reputation, having tarnished it with his handling of the Vellore Mutiny, might not have abolished Sati if not for support and assurances from native activists that there would be no unrest. Educational reforms, which kicked into power two decades after their outlines were first discussed, were introduced to fill in the lower ranks of the civil services at the expense of indigenous knowledge, much against the advice of their own Orientalists. There was none of the filial intercourse that characterized much of the eighteenth century between the two races at that time, least of all in Macaulay who claimed to reform education and law for the belated benefit of the natives, to justify their introduction purely for upliftment.
There was no representative political system in India, and the natives had no say in the way they were governed. The idea of political liberty applied only to the Mother Country, while Indian rule continued to be despotic mostly because it was cheap and efficient. The Viceroy sat atop an enormous pyramid of civil and military power, reporting to the Secretary of State for India who was responsible to Parliament only in theory, both supposedly advised by the Council of India, with none among this whole clique being Indian. This was explained away by stating that such rule of law was so radical, complex and onerous that only the English gentility could grasp and execute it. The machinery in England, most of them made up of men who had never been in India or even seen a native, possessed the power of vetoing any suggestions that bubbled up from their own force on the dusty plains of that country. The natives were seen only as a lot sunk in wretched superstition and poverty. The sociological analysis that later threw a revealing light on such a society came only a century later, an understanding of which the typical urban Indian lacks still (and, it is in this sense of absorbing philosophical learning into sociology that India has remained one country for millennia, against shifting political fortunes). Significant portions of the tops ranks of the ICS were thrown open to the Indians only in the early years of the twentieth century, when the choice of a civil career in India was getting to be less popular in Britain.
The railways in India received attention only after their economic potential in Britain had been trapped. Initially, the investments were all private - it costing one-and-half times to lay a mile of track in India as in Britain -, aided by the nominal return guaranteed by the Government of India (from Indian revenues). The lines were initially laid to link trade centers to coastal ports. They were then expanded inland to reach native customers of British goods, which at a point had reached 75% of total imports into India. Railway lines were laid to reach areas most vulnerable to famines as a preventive measure against costs of famine relief. Though millions of men and women were employed to lay the tracks, more jobs were lost than were created during the first 75 years of the railways, no doubt because almost every rail and locomotive that formed it was imported from Britain. India was thus deprived the industrial boost that Britain flourished under during the development of her network. India's forests that furnished the wood needed to build coaches were reduced to a sixth of the land area, from a third. A third of India's coal production also went into the enterprise. The lack of mechanical extraction of coal, leading to it being cheaper to import it all the way from Britain, also thwarted the rise of an industry around it. The human cost was enormous too; the inclines in the Western Ghats were laid at a loss of 25,000 Indian lives primarily due to the lack of basic shelter and sanitation, the kind of death-toll that was hitherto seen only on battlefields. The reward for such sacrifice was to make only the Third-Class coaches, having no sanitation or dining facilities and condescendingly policed by Europeans or Anglo-Indians, affordable to them. Much the same conditions persisted even during the early decades of the twentieth century, prompting Gandhi to gather popular attention towards it. One can imagine the public outrage should this have occurred in Britain.
The haughty claim that a handful of Europeans ruled over 200 million people on a landmass as big as Europe can readily be dismissed if the attitude of that government towards famines is taken into account. Perhaps no other facet of such rule would prompt an objective Briton to hang his or her head in shame as to it's treatment of such catastrophes. Prior to such rule, an Indian sovereign - be he Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist - had no claims of ownership to tillable land, only a part of fruits thereof in proportion to its produce. Villages held collective rights over such land, and safeguarded its subsistence by storing enough quantities of cereal underground to last them a year or even two. Such an established system was changed after British victo