Posted on: 18 February 2013

"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

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Extremely informative. Sharing it.

Brilliantly written Shashi, except for the word 'blessed' in the second-last paragraph. There is nothing 'blessed' about being subjugated, beaten and robbed of one's resources and dignity for 200 years by violent and cruel despots.

Its rare to come across a modern essay by an Indian on such a contentious topic as 'the examination of British rule in India'.... to have been written with such maturity, integrity, restraint and dignity. Of course...any such writing is bound to face strong criticism from some and instant support from many others. Regardless of that...this essay sets a new bench-mark as to how these issues of the past have to be approached for a greater understanding. Thank you Shashi Kolar!...keep writing.

Mr Kolar One assumes , if you are prepared to take the time to contribute a 'post ' to this forum as lengthy as the one that is provided here, that you will be pleased to receive a little feedback from those of us who have taken the time to plough our way through it ! First of all: I read your extended and thoughtful comments with interest. However, as much as I might applaud your scholarly approach (a refreshing quality at the RBSI !) – I cannot, alas, support many, if any, of your very broad conclusions. You certainly raise a number of valid points within the body of what is, let’s be honest, an otherwise rather critical overview of the British imperial ' state of mind ' and of its lingering ramifications – in which you dismiss the numerous practical advances and benefits that Imperialism brought along with it (whether by accident or design) as nothing more than a " warm nostalgia for the Raj "- but, I have neither the time nor the inclination to attend to each of these points one after another. Suffice to say that some of the issues that you touch upon have been discussed at the RBSI in the past and will, no doubt, be raised again in the future. Let us hope that any such dialogue remains a fruitful and constructive one! As you point out in your opening remarks, most historical analysis is " highly subjective ", and to my mind, you have not really managed to brake that mould on this occasion. I'm sure that you would be the first to admit that your tone is a little bit too judgemental, a little bit too cynical and often borders on the partisan (e.g. "...while aristocrats continued in their regal ways..." etc &c) – and your ' essay ' also contains several historical inaccuracies ( e.g. the population of Ireland was reduced by 45% during the 1840s, but largely on account of emigration – not famine – though the former was, in some measure, driven by the latter.... and yes, Thomas Paine did indeed ' escape ' to France from Britain – where he was subsequently imprisoned and very lucky to escape execution... I could go on) but – having said that, genuine historical ' objectivity ' is a very rare commodity, and one that eludes most of us, for most of the time. We are all products of our own environment and of our own cultural conditioning – which is, in many ways unfortunate. Post-imperial assumptions and prejudices, both in Britain and in India - be they positive or negative – have seriously damaged the prospects for divining the ' objective ' historical truth concerning the colonial period – and much research remains to be done – but at least there is an enthusiasm that this research SHOULD be done, and that when it is done it should be conducted from a ' neutral ' perspective. I hope that you do not object to my mild criticisms – they are meant with the best of intentions – furthermore – I only feel that I am able to comment on other peoples writing style and skills as a result of bitter experience. I remember that when I was an undergraduate, learning how to construct a reasonable argument in an essay, one of my early submissions was returned with only four words of analysis, those words being: " This is waffling verbiage." Best etc &c

Hello Mr. Craig. Thank you for taking the time to respond. At least someone read through all of the essay. :) I am in agreement about the distinctly nationalistic tone of the essay, which gives it an opinionated bent. Please allow me to explain. In many of the histories that have been compiled of the Empire, the pressures and their effect on indigenous peoples of the colonies do not get balanced coverage. Entirely too much has been said of the rectitude and incorruptibility of the Briton, together with his egalitarian, if paternalistic, approach. Equal currency is rarely afforded to the other side of the story. It is in such a light that I have penned the note. I give four examples to stress my point, all about famines. The books I quote from are written for the general audience, and which, consequently, I have access to. There is no reason to believe that mainstream academic work differs significantly in character. 1. Piers Brendon's "The Decline and Fall of the British Empire" is a 650-page tome of that project. One would expect a calamity such as the Irish Famine to deserve some real estate. But, that event has been dealt with under 5 pages given that it reduced the population by 25% (as not 45% as you state - 1 million died due to the famine and about 1 million had emigrated to the Americas and Australia, out of a population of around 8 million). How different would have been the treatment if such a famine had occurred in England? 2. Lawrence James' "Raj", which Jan Morris - herself a veteran on the subject of Empire - says would "remain unsurpassed in our generation" does not have the word "famine" in it's index. This when the number of deaths due to famines in India in just the preceding 40 years from 1910 was close to the population of England and Wales. 3. David Gilmour's "The Ruling Caste" dismisses the death toll of a million in one sentence (pg. 114) and says that "famine duty bought out the best in the ICS" (pg. 116), giving a couple of examples of the the sacrifices that a few officers made. How about those of the natives? Was it not fit to mention them, because it was "out of the scope" of the book? If the British were indeed in India to help it, nothing would have given more cause to pride than prompt and effective famine relief. He claims that the relief offered in the 1874 famine was excessive due to the financial loss involved. Thus, in the 1878 famine, checks were installed against relief work while a pointless war against Afghanistan was being fought with Indian blood on Indian money. And, of course there was the coronation durbar in 1877 with it's expenses. Vernacular newspapers were also censored. Unlike Engels or Dickens who have immortalized the horrors of industrialization over which the refinement of Victorian society was built, such critical dissemination was not afforded to India as an environment to foster such critical appraisal by the natives wasn't developed, literacy being poor (less than 10% had any kind of formal training). We see that most of the criticism comes from that section of the Britons who were connected to the realities on the ground (Thompson's Lectures, Alfred Russel Wallace's comments as those of Rammohan Roy, Digby, Naroji, R. C. Dutt, Wedderburn etc.). Thus, in many cases, the most severe criticisms came from the government's own administrators, to which the India Office turned a deaf year too, even if the Viceroy was sympathetic to the reforms suggested. For example, here is Wallace: "Our whole dealings with subject races have been a strange mixture of good and evil, of success and failure, due, I believe, to the fact that, along with a genuine desire to do good and to go-vein well, our rule has always been, largely influenced, and often entirely directed, by the necessity of finding well-paid places for the less wealthy members of our aristocracy, and also by the constant craving for fresh markets by the influential class of merchants and manufacturers. Hence the enormous fiscal burdens under which the natives of our Indian Empire continue to groan; hence the opium monopoly and the salt tax; hence the continued refusal to carry out the promises made or implied on the establishment of the Empire, to give the natives a continually increasing share in their own government, and to govern India solely in the interest of the Indians themselves." 4. Philip Mason's "The Men who Ruled India", which to me - if you will pardon the strong language - is the most disgustingly specious of all books I have read on the subject, says "by the end of the century, organization had gone so far that direct deaths from starvation were almost unknown" (pg 222), as he does not account deaths from pestilence as a casualty of famine. Famines were generally explained away by labeling the tropics as unhealthy, diseased, prone to crop failures and through the theories of Laissez-Faire economics and Malthusian claims of population check that were popular during the 19th centur

... Re: " while aristocrats continued in their regal ways..." Andrew Wilson is a well known socialist - would you expect him to talk in any other terms ? Brendon, James & Gilmour are all British writers of populist history -they are not ' academic ' historians... The " disgustingly specious " Philip Mason - by way of contrast - was a former Civil Servant who spent thirty years in India dealing with - amongst many other matters - famine relief...

Hello Mr. Craig. Yes, Philip Mason spent a lot of time in India under the ICS and that makes the condescending tone of his book all the more disappointing. I'm not sure if his "A Shaft of Sunlight" would bring in some balance?

Re: " I'm not sure if his "A Shaft of Sunlight" would bring in some balance?" I've not read the book - but - I dare say that it might. The " disgustingly specious" Mason was, by the way, one of the early founders of the 'Institute for Race Relations' - an organisation that was established to combat the proliferation of ' racist ' opinions in the post- colonial world:

Thank you Mr. Craig. I was unaware of this. I will look it up.

Mr Shashi Kolar, thank you for your brilliant, scholarly and well-researched responses, which are definitely not ' 'verbiage' as some others' school papers might be. It's disappointing however, to note that the paternalistic, condescending attitude of certain members of the thankfully, now defunct Raj still exist. Please keep up the good work - we need more scholars like you!

Thank you Ms. Ullal for your continued support. I really appreciate it.

Mr. Craig, how is it possible to be neutral when one is the oppressor and the other the oppressed? Another example of the duplicity and impossible-to-fulfil demands made by those who would be in control!

Mr. Kolar. Being Indian and living in India, i want to appreciate your effort. Although I do not have a background in history, i can well understand the position from which you write your views. And, after having given Mr. Craig's views due consideration without bias,I believe your kind of writing is the need of our historical writing in India today, not in the least to counter any past propagation of one-sided views, but to create an Indian perspective and interpretation of events that happened then and to learn from them for our collective future. In that sense I congratulate you for your effort.

Now, now...! as my school Headmaster (an Englishman, and a Rev. Canon of the C of E by the way) would say when calling a slightly boisterous bunch of us to order. As Julian says, much of this contentious debate has been rehearsed before with more or less the same levels of passion, and some objectivity. The point is, it IS all repetitive, and more to the point, irrelevant. As an independent nation free of 'colonial shackles' for 67 years now it's time we stopped harping on what the colonists did or didn't do, and (what's more pernicious) using that as a seeming excuse, or worse, cause for all our present ills. While the latter might be expected of politicians eager to deflect public opprobrium from their own deeds of commission and omission, I think scholarly discourse could rise above it. As an illustration, Vietnam, a thin sliver of Asian geography which had been ravaged by a century of French colonial excess and brutal inhuman colonial wars for more than half a century is now a showpiece nation, an Asian Tiger. They have moved on - and how!

Hello Mr. Joyce. The idea of leaving our colonial past behind us and moving on is easier said than done. Jesus moved on 2000 years ago, the Buddha a couple of centuries before that. Should we, in our discussions, rise above how they chose to colonize our minds, or should we, in turn, learn from them? The atomic bombs were dropped half a century ago. Should the victims shrug their shoulders and move on, because it was just one form of aggression over another like colonialism? I'm diluting the spirit of your argument down to absurd levels to make a point, and I assume you get it. Why is the West so keen on pontificating to the rest of us, while not heeding it's own advice? It's museums are filled with men and women who have made a difference. In India, the numerous idols that adorn prayer rooms in each abode correspond to our version of the National Portrait Gallery. If one needs to see how cultures interact, it's important not to assign labels to each other's outlook and study it as it really is. The West has been writing India off for 200 years. This is nothing new. Conduct is the only language that does not lie in the long run. It would be worthwhile to remember that maxim.

There is no doubt in the fact that these topics need to be discussed more often... especially when we have the comfort of observing them in hindsight with enough knowledge and maturity... to join the dots. Times have changed but people have not... especially people in power. As I have often mentioned in this forum...that its not 'what you say'... it is 'how you say' that is important when we are discussing such topics...even though we are interacting with virtual people.

First of all : I had to remove one or two of my own comments from above - which were made under the influence of alcohol - and didn't make a great deal of sense - Sorry to have lowered the tone etc &c... C'est la vie. Re: " England itself suffered the most from of the imperial past .... you agree with me, Mr. Craig? " No - I do not agree. Britain did rather well out of its ' Imperial past' ... not that the ' possession ' of a vast international Empire had much effect on the daily lives of the British public at large - on the 'man in the street' (as they say). Bernard Porter has written a very interesting book - " The Absent Minded Imperialists "( 2004 or 2005) on precisely this subject... The Empire was run by a tiny elite of Civil Servants - drawn largely from the British upper classes ... apart from a thirst for tea, and the singing of an occasional patriotic song - the Empire had very little impact upon the day-to-day consciousness of the average Englishman (or indeed, Scotsman or Welshman) circa 1900. Having said that - I think that Britain HAS struggled ('struggled' rather than 'suffered') to come to terms with its reduced role in the post-Imperial world... and the British still live - to some extent at least - upon the reputation of past grandeur... Although this period of inward looking reflection/ national nostalgia has been drawing to a close for some time - and Britain continues to play a significant role in global affairs - which, on balance, has always been a good thing.

Hello Mr. Craig. Regarding your comment, "the Empire had very little impact upon the day-to-day consciousness of the average Englishman...". This is true, if he or she did not hold East India shares pre-1857. Politically, this is also true post-1857, because the Secretary of State of India was not responsible to parliament in any practical manner, only to India House. Had it been otherwise, that is, if India was not governed out of her own revenues and but from taxpayers money, the story would have been different. Because then, the discussion on Indian budgets would not be held on the last day of parliament, when most of the MPs were on they way to their estates. It was frequently only the speaker who comprised all of the audience. Some way to rule 200 million people. Also, when one means how Britain was impacted, one usually also means the exchequer. Economically, 75% of Indian imports were British goods in the late 19th century. That is some impact, I'm assuming, Indian railway efforts being the least of it. India participated heavily in WWI and WWII. It was due to Indian efforts in WWI that Britain agreed to draft a motion for self-rule. And, it was Indian man power and money in WWII ("sterling balance") that helped defray some of Britain's burdens. Therefore, I guess Britain was impacted. If the common man did not know about it, the attitudes of the MPs and the press (many of which were under one MPs patronage or another) needs to be looked into for an answer.

Re: " It was frequently only the speaker who comprised all of the audience. Some way to rule 200 million people.".... ... Something of an exaggeration, Mr Kolar - but - I take your point. There is a famous quote (I forget by whom and when it was made) that was something along the following lines : "The quickest way to empty the chamber [ of the House of Commons] is to bring up the subject of India." Still, is India any better run today than it was 100 years ago ? Obviously here " I'm diluting the spirit of your argument down to absurd levels to make a point, and I assume you get it."

No - I don't think that the British are really prepared to take a lecture on the probity or rectitude of our elected officials - past or present - from the voice of popular Indian opinion. In the nineteenth century British MPs conducted their duties without financial renumeration - hence their need to "return to their estates".... but be that as it may ... Some way to run a country of 1.2 billion - wouldn't you say ?

Hello Mr. Craig. I guess India is run better as far as there is the semblance of a republic. But, we have plenty to learn from Britain, especially intellectual honesty towards a goal (be it "good" or "bad"), which sadly, has been lost in our country centuries ago. We, as a society, are in a state of "advanced decay" as Coomaraswamy puts it, because it has forgotten it's spiritual heritage.

Sadly Coomaraswamy said that almost a hundred years ago...and the situation has only deteriorated many times over.

Re: " I guess India is run better as far as there is the semblance of a republic. " ... A little bit odd to conflate ' republicianism' with a " forgotten spiritual heritage".... but still ... I think that most outside, independently minded, observers would strongly disagree with your statement. ' India ' was certainly better run 100 years ago - I would suggest -than it is now.... and this is not simply " a warm nostalgia for the Raj " manifesting itself , it is a practical historical and political reality. Quite apart from the I.C.S. being, during the colonial period, utterly scrupulous in its devotion to duty - and almost totally incorruptible *- ' India ' was not governed as the vast monolithic central entity that she represents today - but - as we are all aware, as a series of provinces and Princely states etc &c... The Governor of Bombay or Madras, or wherever - while operating, strictly speaking, under the authority of the Viceroy (and by extension the British government) - had considerable autonomy to conduct regional affairs as he saw fit - in response to local needs and requirements. Even though modern India has something of a 'federal' character - too much power remains at the centre - a flaw in the consititution. It is rather ironic that the one aspect of colonial administration that latter day Indian nationalists begrudingly praise ie. the ' unification ' of the country - is - in many respects, the nations greatest contemporary weakness.... Or so it certainly seems to the Western eye. * But what was it that Curzon said : " The average Indian would much rather be ruled badly by one of his own countrymen, than expertly ruled by representatives of a foreign power." ? Something like that ... and so it has come to pass.

Mr. Craig, I'm in agreement that the present composition of elected representatives in India are no approximation to even a merely competent clique of MPs. But, do you agree that one parallel does exist between Britain and India? The personalities that run India today are no where near the mold of those that ran it when it was reborn as a republic (Gandhi [unofficially], Nehru, Sardar Patel, Ambedkar, Rajaji and Radhakrishnan, a veritable galaxy of political and spiritual stars). Similarly, there is hardly anyone in the British parliament today who could be compared with Gladstone, Disraeli, Russell, Peel or Wellesley etc. It could still be the case that they aren't criminals as the laws define them to be. But, our MPs mess up our country. When Britain get things wrong, usually with it's partner in crime -the US, it's shakes the world up. It's involvement in the Middle-East and Afghanistan are recent examples. India, as Ramachandra Guha says, is the only country in the world which granted general plebiscite to every citizen soon after it became a republic, without entertaining financial, educational or gender-based divisions. I'm comparing circumstances a 100 years apart, but we know the struggle that the common man was put through to reform the British parliament in 1832 and 1867 (with no secret ballot till 1872) and for woman's suffrage, liberally granted only in the 1928. If nothing, India can at least be credited to learning her lessons from history. It is true that British MPs did not receive salaries until 1880, but that also implied that it was more often that not the landlords of the electors who could afford such an occupation, not the laborer. If I may ask, and thus veer to more a constructive discussion, what do you think Britain did learn from her 350+ years of association with India? That would be interesting to read.

(1) "But, do you agree that one parallel does exist between Britain and India? The personalities that run India now are no where near the mold of those that ran it when it was reborn as a republic" I can't really comment on this with any authority or particular knowledge - I am an Englishman who lives in England, afterall - but - I do think that modern India, for all the strides that she has made remains - very sadly - something of a shambles. Furthermore : with the advantage of hindsight it is clear that the leaders of your 'freedom' movement, who subsequently led the newly Indpendent India, made some serious errors of political judgement that have impacted negatively on the present... Clearly, this is only a personal opinion.

Mr. Craig, I'm very glad you bought up the topic of republicanism and spiritual heritage. I'm pretty sure you will shoot me down here, but has democracy really given what it has promised - governance according to the will of the people? There is plenty of evidence that mass subversion occurs in the two "poster childs" (is that a word?) for this movement, the US and the UK (for example, the literature around Edward Bernays and his impact on the manufacture of consent, and that of Noam Chomsky etc.). As Coomaraswamy says, leaders of republican societies can never strive towards the goal of an ideal government; popular consent would be against it as they would not understand it. India, for example, lives in multiple worlds at once, and the spiritual one dwarfs that of the republican. We have the ideal of a perfect society passed down to us in our literature, not under egalitarian impulses under the influence of which some of the greatest British MPs have worked in the 19th century, but that of spiritual perfection. It is such learning that has been lost on us. As Coomaraswamy put's it so brilliantly, "The problem of modern Europe is to discover her own aristocracy and to learn to obey its will." At the moment, it does not have one (definitely not in the British House of Commons). This would be another interesting debate we could get to sometime.

(2) Re: "It is true that British MPs did not receive salaries until 1880, but that also implied that it was more often that not the landlords of the electors who could afford such an occupation, not the laborer." Yes - that was why the law was changed... a mistake,some would say (self included). The result was the creation of a largely self-seeking political class. There are fewer men of character and principle in the British parliament today than there were a century ago.

Mr Craig, "I am an Englishman who lives in England, after all..." We would be delighted to have you in India so you could experience her first hand. I'm sure it would be a refreshing one. Someone likened India to a home made meal - variable in quality but never devoid of love - and the West to that of a pre-packaged one bought off the supermarket - identical in quality every time, but somewhat sterile! You can judge for yourself when you are here. :-)

... I have visited India on several occasions Mr Kolar ... the first of which was almost twenty years ago... I think that many Englishmen - for various historical and cultural reasons - have a type of 'love - hate' relationship with India. We love all of her numerous charms - and praise her highly - but - we are also rather critical (perhaps too critical) of her many faults....

Re: " At the moment, Europe does not have an ' aristocracy ' " I presume that you mean in the spiritual sense - as well as in the political ? ... This is largely to do with the fact that Europe - in a never ceasing quest for something that is defined as ' secular egalitarianism' has spent much of the last 100 years attempting to abolish aristocracies of all kinds ! Re: What did Britain learn from 350+ years of association with India ? Originally : a global outlook ... Followed by a period in which we came to strongly believe in our own merits and values as a society.... and finally : A certain sense of national humility....

Boy, Oh Boy ! This has been some thread. Would have loved to express my views too, but much seems to have flowed since I last visited this page. Will touch upon Shashi Kolar’s last post “what do you think Britain did learn from her 350+ years of association with India?”… extract from 'Power, Authority and Freedom' by AJ Stockwell summarised the British view : ‘For two centuries, possession of empire was justified by British politicians on either authoritarian or libertarian grounds and sometimes on both. Those who saw the virtues of empire as authoritarian maintained that it committed the rulers, or 'guardians', to service and bound the ruled to obedience; while those who saw the empire as libertarian claimed that it provided subject peoples with freedom from oppression at the hands of lesser breeds without the law, such as their own leaders or foreign adventurers or unbridled British colonialists. Witness, for example, the claims that British rule was preferable to that of the French, Dutch, Germans, or Belgians, and that the empire would free Asians from oriental despotism, Africans from barbaric customs, Maoris from settler rapacity, and white settlers from international aggression.’ Just about the only thing that all historians agree on is that the story of living in the British empire is not a simple story. The impact of British rule on the countries of the empire is very controversial. Millions suffered as a result of the empire building of the British and other Europeans like the Germans, French and Belgians. The historian Professor Simon Schama believes that the British empire was based on hypocrisy. He feels that the British talked about liberty, good government and free trade without actually doing it. They took most of the benefits and profits and did not allow most of the people in the empire the benefits of democracy or free trade. The historian Prof. Niall Ferguson argues that British rule was a lot better than German, French or Belgian rule. His research suggests that British investors put huge amounts of money into developing the economies of Africa. As the British empire spread, so did modern technology like the telegraph (which has been called the Victorian Internet by some historians). He also points out that British rule was usually honest - rare in empires. Finally, he suggests that most British colonies adopted democracy after the British left. He does not deny that many suffered as a result of the empire, but he believes that we should take a balanced view of the empire - it was not all good or all bad.

Mr. Craig, "...has spent much of the last 100 years attempting to abolish aristocracies of all kinds..." This is precisely what I allude to. And, I do not mean aristocracies in the narrow sense of a small clique a having disproportionate hold over the imagination of people for the former's benefit. I mean aristocracies as classes of people of superior stature to be learnt from and emulated for everyone's benefit. I, in a million years, cannot better Coomaraswamy and will thus be content to quote him: "There is a fundamental difference between the Brahman and the modern view of politics. The modern politician considers that idealism in politics is unpractical; time enough, he thinks, to deal with social misfortunes when they arise... It is just this problem which India long since solved for herself in her own way."

Re: " was not all good or all bad." Quite ... it is really a question without a definitive answer - was the Empire positive or negative ? It was both - you cannot take a three hundred year period of incredibly complex human experience and history and assign some sort of intrinsic value to it ... Impossible... There was much to be deplored, there was much to be applauded... The Empire provided the means for change and development in some respects ( new technologies, political systems etc) but it was also exploitative at its core ...

Julian and Shashi Kolar, this has been a serious exposition of the battles for many a centuries and the Generals in Julian and Shashi, nestled in different corners of the globe. Seriously, for a novice like me wishing to immerse in the knowledge of this era, must bookmark this page.

... Ha ha... I don't really see myself as a ' General ', Arindam... more like an Umpire at a cricket match - an arbitrator of ' fair play '... there is so much nonsense talked in India (I'm afraid to say) about the British as a people and as a society - as is frequently made clear here on the pages of the RBSI - that I feel I have a patriotic duty to step in when opinions go too far... Likewise, when in conversation here in ' my corner of the globe' I try to burst the bubble of pomposity that surrounds many people when they come to think about our Imperial legacy...

Mr Kolar One very valuable resource - in some respects a legacy of the British/ Indian experience - did occur to me : the existence of The Rare Book Society of India ! Which ,although based in India, is essentially an English language forum and has many British members - and without which (along with the attendant technologies) we would not be able to have these occasionally infuriating but always entertaining and insightful ' virtual 'conversations and discussions ... ... On a more serious note : there are dozens and dozens of ways in which the mutual history continues to demonstrate itself - some of which are less obvious than one might think - For example, I have recently been working on a project that is seeking to high-light Indian (or South Asian) influences within British architecture. Of course, we Brits erected hundreds of buildings in various syles (neo-classical mainly) on the sub-continent - but - a certain number of buildings were put up in Britain during the 19th century that had distinctly ' Indian ' qualities . Your point is an interesting one because when we think about Imperial ' legacies ' (for want of a better term) the British tend to look overseas in search of them, and seldom stop to think about how those ' legacies ' helped to shape our own nation.... Unfortunately, in our modern world, this is not a matter that my fellow countrymen ever stop to give much consideration.

Hello Mr. Craig, "For example, I have recently been working on a project that is seeking to high-light Indian (or South Asian) influences within British architecture." There is a (out-of-print) book called "The Indian Style" by Raymond Head which deals with this subject extensively. You might have heard of it, but just thought of letting it be known.

Thank you - I do, as it happens, own a copy of ' The Indian Style ' - a battered old paper-back edition. It contains some wonderful illustrations & photographs - unfortunately, Mr Head's own literary ' style ' leaves something to be desired (very dull)....

British Prime Minister David Cameron [ Images ] began his three-day visit to India by invoking the "huge ties" between the two countries of "history, language, culture and business." One wonders which particular aspect of the shared history of the two nations he found supportive of his current quest for broadened economic linkages. Could it be what the East India Company did after bribing its way to control of Bengal, the richest province of Mughal India? Within a decade of the so-called "Battle of Plassey" (Pilashi) in 1757, Bengal lay in ruins. The destruction of its economy was so severe a third of the population, some five million people, died of starvation in the first of the great "man-made famines". British rule spread across India. A conservative estimate of the overall toll of such famines is 100 million. Or perhaps Cameron found inspiring the theft of the fabled Kohinoor diamond after the British defeated the Sikhs almost a century later. Maharaja Ranjit Singh's 11-year old grandson went with the diamond to Britain where it became part of the "crown jewels" and he was comprehensively debauched with drugs and sex to disable his potential as a leader. Or maybe the prime minister is enthralled by the post-1857 "pacification" that involved the indiscriminate slaughter of some 10 million civilians, men, women and children. Cameron's historic admission that the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh massacre was "deeply shameful" does not begin to address the long line of British atrocities in India, most of which remain officially unacknowledged. They are systematically ignored or downplayed even in works of history by British scholars supposedly engaged in the pursuit of truth. That is true not just of the colonial era. There is no honest British account of the cold-blooded manipulation of communal violence that led to Partition, the killing of well over a million people and the biggest migration in history as 14 million people were forced from their ancestral lands. Nor is there admission that Britain created Pakistan as its proxy in South Asia and that it is the real sponsor of the terrorist "war of a thousand cuts" against India. Such denial is not to safeguard national pride and honour. It is to hide the fact that Britain has maintained its imperial interests in the region, and indeed, globally, without benefit of the apparatus of colonialism. ..........................

Satyakam Sudershan: Maybe all that Bhaskar Menon writes in his article is partially true. Its good to know the truth and face up to it. Regardless of the fact that it is single-mindedly anti-British in its tone and argument. But then this article is definitely not in the category of a balanced historical view-point...and the past acts of ancestors should not block us in moving forward in the present or future. I found this comment below the article particularly relevant: "Let bygones be bygones by ravi prakash on Feb 22, 2013 11:07 AM The article makes it that the British Govt of today is as evil as its pre-independence predecessor. I don't think that it is solely Britain that is responsible for encouraging nay supporting a global economic system that is founded on human misery and deprivation. British Society is an open society and this has to be acknowledged. They are also a nation with a strong sense of their own national interests. I don't believe that a society cavorting with a potentially abhorrent economic policy can itself escape the ill effects of such a step. They are much too shrewd for doing such a thing. We cannot blame Britain for our faults which are far too many to mention. The single lack of confidence in our national thinking has made us ask the present British prime minister to apologize for the sins of his ancestors. The have been many such massacres perpetrated by all the colonial powers including Japan, Germany, Spain, France and Portugal. That Britain exploited the fissures in the Indian Society is an open book but so did the Mughals, the Portugese and a host of invaders that India witnessed. But we continue to dwell in this dark past and avoid engaging the present situation with confidence."

One wonders at the motivation of individuals such as Mr Menon - and those of his ilk. What is their particular political agenda ? Fairly self explanatory one would have thought - the distribution of mis-information for overtly nationalistic purposes. It is worth keeping in mind that the purpose of ' propaganda ' has always been to convince large numbers of people - the population at large - that historical truth is fiction, and that historical fiction is truth. To think that such methods are not deployed in India because she remains - by and large - 'democratic', would represent a certain degree of naivety. Still... for all of that ... I would suggest that the RBSI ' moderator ' has summed the contents of this ' article ' up rather well - viz : " ... single-mindedly anti-British in its tone and argument. Definitely not in the category of a balanced historical view-point. " Enough said.

If one would like to summarize the discussions in this thread, it should be said that I have failed to shepherd attention - particularly from the West, of which Mr. Craig has been the only consistent participant - , towards the seamier sides of the Raj. It would be absurd to suggest that 350+ years of association with Western rule and ideas failed to benefit India. It performed the vital function of shining the cold light of reason over our affairs, forcing us to judge our mores with civilizations institutionalized under it's power. This aspect is well documented and generally accepted. What is less studied is the despotic nature of the rule, the consequent suffering bought about and the reasons used to justify the Raj. Comparisons with Mughal rule in the first half of the nineteenth century, with the Russians in the second half, and with Japan, Germany and Belgium in the twentieth century is generally done. It is up to professional historians like Mr. Craig to weigh and credit such arguments, but my contention is that India is too vast, diverse, politically fractured but spiritually united to let martial rule last for centuries, and there is no precedent for such a state of affairs elsewhere in the world to draw parallels from. As said before, Britain prides itself on it's dispassionate institutions. It would, then, not be unreasonable to ask it not to condescend against the ills of its rule, but to discuss, acknowledge and learn from them. Before Independence, Indians had been branded as a people without a nation who needed Western power and thought to pack them into one. But, when people did speak out for such a nation, it got (and gets) dismissed as nationalistic rhetoric (if Indians did so) or ramblings of imperial apologists (if they came from Britons; see The Economy of Modern India, 1860-1970 by Cambridge University). Such attitudes are unfortunate. However, it is interesting to note that the case for India in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was made from both ends of the spectrum: through institutional methods (Ram Mohun Roy, Dadabhai Naoroji, R. C. Dutt), by appealing to the spiritual sympathies of the masses (Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo) and by those who did a bit of both (B.G. Tilak, G. K. Gokhale, M.K. Gandhi). The combined effect of such efforts have not be holistically studied, at least in popular literature, and would be very instructive indeed.

Mr Kolar Thank you for the unexpected promotion – although I am sorry to say that I am not a ‘professional historian’ – at least, that is not how I earn a living. I suspect, however, that we both hold academic qualifications in the field – as is evidenced by the breadth of the various references/ reading etc that you supply and of the erudition that underpins your micro-essays (as above). Personally, I would prefer that the various exchanges/ discussions that take place at the RBSI occurred entirely in the third person – but – when one is dealing with sensitive or controversial matters it is inevitable that one’s own opinions (even one’s own values/ beliefs etc) will become apparent and will intrude. After all, how would any of us be able to stand up for or defend certain interpretations of history without a strong residue of internal conviction from which we can draw ? As to the further body of your remarks – again you raise several entirely valid points – and it is difficult to engage with all of them in one response. These points represent ‘themes’ for development, rather than simple questions that can be succinctly answered. In Britain, there is certainly no lack of desire to engage with the ‘seamier side of the Raj’ – and many contemporary British historians (the few that focus exclusively on India, I should say ) devote much of their time to doing exactly that. The question, as ever, is where is the balance to be found? Post ’47, India almost disappeared off of the radar of academic scholarship in Britain – the subject was considered too recent, too raw, too fraught with emotional resonance, to be addressed in anything other than a superficial manner. This changed during the 1970s toward a Left-leaning narrative that was dominated by sentimental ‘post-colonial guilt’... In recent years, the perspective has shifted toward a more clinical, coldly rationalist debate about ‘ the good ‘ that was achieved outweighing ‘the bad’... make of that what you will – but - at least, today, we see British historians who are more willing to discuss such great historical conundrums with their partners in the East itself. It is a shame that there is a shortage of scholars on the sub-continent who have yet to free their own thinking from the befuddlement of the lingering Imperial hangover, with all of the attendant bias and even resentment that this implies.

Coming back to this page after a short hiatus. Am going to add my two bits again. 1. Mr Joyce, there's no need to be patronizing when such a serious topic is being discussed. To compare this to a bunch of rowdy schoolboys is infuriating, considering the enormity of the crime. As for talking about moving on, that is not for the oppressor to say. Rather an apology would be more in order. Lastly, I'm sure, as an academician, you've heard the saying that the past determines the future. It happens to be true! 2. Please don't compare India to Vietnam. There is not one nation on earth, not even the US, that has the incredible diversity of India, when it comes to race, language, religion and ethnicity. The only land mass that can be compared is Europe and even then India is far more diverse. The fact that India has managed to remain as one democratic country for so long and to maintain the rule of law for 65 years despite massive drawbacks, is a tribute to its remarkable people. 3. Mr Craig, Indians are a remarkably good-natured people, always trying to keep the peace and getting screwed in the process. We forgive and forget far too easily and phrases like 'chalta hai' and 'jaane do' which mean 'let it be' (which might have been John Lennon's inspiration for his song) are rooted deep in our DNA. 4. Now to the question of whether Britain's colonization (occupation?) was good or bad. On a moral, ethical and humanistic basis, the answer is an unequivocal 'yes- it was bad!' I cannot fathom how such a question can even be asked! Is India better off than what it was 65 years ago? Again, a resounding 'yes!' India's economic growth in the last 20 years has been spectacular by any standards. However, before occupation by Britain, India was one of the richest countries in the world. Its metallurgy and textile industries were the finest in the world and partly the reason why everyone from Columbus to the Portuguese and the French wanted to trade with India. When the British left, it was one of the poorest. How can anyone say that colonization was good??? Did some good things happen? Yes, but they were not due to any philanthropy of the British and can only be ascribed to happenstance. Are there problems? Of course, but which country doesn't have problems? However there is amazing social activism in India and that will be its saving grace.

Just one more thing. Did Britain learn anything from India? Yes - they learned to appreciate its amazing cuisine! There are more curry places in England than fish and chip joints apparently!

I'm no scholar here, like Julian Craig and Shashi Kolar, but I found William Dalrymple's 'The Last Mughal' fascinating and authentic.

Perhaps its little early to write the history of Empire. Let the empire in its disguised form vanish completely and then only we can do the autopsy of its deeds in India and other part of the world it ruled.