The Guardians of the British Raj

Stalin found it “ridiculous” that “a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India.” [Link]

A new book by historian David Gilmour, The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2006), “helps explain how [the British civil servants in India] pulled it off.”

In yesterday’s Washington Post, noted author and UN official Shashi Tharoor gave a generally favorable review of The Ruling Caste. In Tharoor’s view,

The Ruling Caste paints an arresting and richly detailed portrait of how the British ruled 19th-century India — with unshakeable self-confidence buttressed by protocol, alcohol and a lot of gall…. [For example,] one 24-year-old district officer found himself in charge of 4,000 square miles and a million people [Link]

The arrogance of the British administrators and the paternalistic means by which they viewed their Indian subjects is upsetting, though not unsurprising. One viceroy is quoted by Gilmour as saying:

We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race.

According to Gilmour:

Few shared Queen Victoria’s “romantic feelings for ‘brown skins….’” Well into the 20th century, they spoke and wrote of the need to treat Indians as “children” incapable of ruling themselves.

Despite Gilmour’s insights into the personal lives and thoughts of these administrators, Tharoor is critical of the book’s failure to examine the Indian response to the British public officials, who were “members of the Indian Civil Service (ICS)”:

What is missing, though, is any sense of an Indian perspective on these men and their work. What did the subjects of their administration think of them? Gilmour does not tell us. He glosses over the prejudice and casual racism of many ICS men.

Thankfully, there are other sources for this information. For starters, former SM guest-blogger Amardeep Singh has this post on an address by Manmohan Singh in which the Prime Minister states:

There is no doubt that our grievances against the British Empire had a sound basis for…. Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th Century, “the brightest jewel in the British Crown” was the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income. However, what is significant about the Indo-British relationship is the fact that despite the economic impact of colonial rule, the relationship between individual Indians and Britons, even at the time of our Independence, was relaxed and, I may even say, benign.

This was best exemplified by the exchange that Mahatma Gandhi had here at Oxford in 1931 when he met members of the Raleigh Club and the Indian Majlis. The Mahatma was in England then for the Round Table Conference and during its recess, he spent two weekends at the home of A.D. Lindsay, the Master of Balliol. At this meeting, the Mahatma was asked: “How far would you cut India off from the Empire?” His reply was precise – “From the Empire, entirely; from the British nation not at all, if I want India to gain and not to grieve.” He added, “The British Empire is an Empire only because of India. The Emperorship must go and I should love to be an equal partner with Britain, sharing her joys and sorrows. But it must be a partnership on equal terms.” This remarkable statement by the Mahatma has defined the basis of our relationship with Britain. [Link]

43 thoughts on “The Guardians of the British Raj

  1. ICS people were pucca brown sahibs.

    However,

    Post-independence and most importantly immediately after partition, they pull India together.

    Also,

    They loved their privileges – the red tape.

    They were also lower tier brown clerks, like one in Massey Sahib – more English than English [Do check out that National Award winning movie, Massey Sahib]

  2. it has been my experience that many (but not all) Brits are not really interested in the Indian view of them. they seem to think that indian scholarship on the raj is suspect and that the only “objective” view of the raj can be written by outsiders, meaning western scholars. even a movie like Lagaan, with an unsympathetic brit character (ok, it was a little cardboardish but to pretend that such brits didn’t exist, especially when they saw indians as an ‘inferior race” and “heathens to be saved”, is naive when diaries written by brit men and women prove otherwise), caused brit publications like the telegraph and daily mail to go into apoplectic fits. the movie was about one character in one small fictional part of india and was not meant as an indictment of the entire raj, but the idea that anyone could dare make a movie that didn’t allude to the all the ways in which the brits saved india from itself was heresy :)

  3. but the idea that anyone could dare make a movie that didn’t allude to the all the ways in which the brits saved india from itself was heresy :)

    Maybe its just British cinema critics, since Vikram Chandra’s ‘Red Earth and Pouring Rain’ — which deals with the Sepoy Mutiny (!!!) and is a cruel indictment of the mentality of the Raj — was quite well received both in the UK and the US. Maybe it is because Chandra weilds a brush with finer strokes?

  4. to me this is a function of language – the pre-independence times seem to have been written almost entirely in english, by englishmen or their toadies – is it any surprise that the view is biased.
    it is more a matter of faith based on pure economics – is the only unbiased tale of those times – what was the east india company was there to do business – if it gave anything, it took back by the handful – it is TRADE – I dont see any reason to bend over and give the english a collective blow (I was once told by a colleague the english have always needed the good indian coolies, so pardon the beef – btw, let’s just say the guy didnt get promoted that year, or the next)- the other point is – the per capita income actually went down over the period of the raj – so spare me the nobless oblige hooey. reminds me of the time in university when my college newspaper wrote about ‘the english took over hong kong because china impose a trade embargo’ (on OPIUM!! you moron!! On Opium!!!)
    I do agree with Gandhi though.

  5. The British stepped into a historical vacuum. India was imploding when the East India Company took over, and it did so primarily to protect its commercial interests. All this talk – some of it apparently coming from Indians – about British gall and nerve ignores the fact that much of it was just good timing.

  6. there are problems generalizing about a nation-civilization of hundreds of milliions with a range of interests in their interactions with a small caste of sahibs. how you weight the simplifying parameters seems highly biased by your organizing narrative….

  7. the other point is – the per capita income actually went down over the period of the raj

    I have never heard this before. As far as I know, the per capita income remained more or less the same. The illiteracy rates went up, the proportion of world-trade went down, but the per capita income seems to have remained more or less the same for a period of 200 years.

  8. “Maybe it is because Chandra weilds a brush with finer strokes?”

    it could be. i haven’t seen this movie, but will now look out for it. sounds interesting. however, as i said, i don’t think all brits are averse to the indian view of it, but there is an obdurate class of brits for whom every movie about the raj has to show the “good side” even if the movie is about one small character or incident and not meant to be a sweeping look at the raj in general. it wasn’t just film critics, but many british viewers who complained that the brits were never that cruel. history shows otherwise. there were some incredibly cruel brits to go along with all the usual suspect indian cruelties that they saved us from. besides, Lagaan had that female brit character who was sympathetic to balance out the evil brit:)

    i have a brit friend who admits they just didn’t learn much about the raj at his school. the general impression is that india was some sort of backwards tabula rasa without any laws, any education, any wealth, any civilization before the brits arrived. what’s worse is that there are indians who think the same. so as much as we owe the brits a more nuanced view of their rule in india, they certainly owe us a more nuanced view of india before and during their rule (and there are some books that come close to managing this).

  9. I think somehow in these discussion social impact of the colonial rule is ignored. This is understandable because unlike economics, society can not be quantified and yet methinks British harmed India much more socially than economically, an impoverished country can become wealthy, it is much more difficult for a wounded and vanquished civilization to boune back. That may explain that why all the former colonies continue to languish at bottom of the table.

    Regards

  10. Pardon me RCK – your point is valid – i got carried away and stretched a data point – not unfairly tho’ IMO – here’s the data point i had in mind – from wikipedia

    An estimate by Cambridge historian Angus Maddison reveals that, India’s share of the world income, reduced from 22.6% in 1700, comparable to Europe’s share of 23.3 %, to a low of 3.8% in 1952. While Indian leaders during the Independence struggle and left-nationalist economic historians have blamed the colonial rule for the dismal state of India’s economy, a broader macroeconomic view of India during this period reveals that there were segments of both growth and decline, resulting from changes brought about by colonialism and a world that was moving towards industrialisation and economic integration.

    Not quite the drop I had claimed – but still my point was that a period of growth that was enjoyed by the rest of the world came at an expense of india and china.

  11. Aparna : I and several other historians would disagree with your India was imploding theory. And if you insist, a similar case of “imploding state” can be made against several countries, such as Lebanon, Nepal,Sudan etc in the present. Will you be as understanding if one of the big powers saunters into those states and plants their flag? If there is a saving grace to the “Raj”, in my opinion, it is that the British caused the demise of the Muslim/Mughal rule. And that the British, unlike the Islamic colonisers, actually contributed something useful and long lasting to the Indian polity.

  12. my last post of the night before i get back to work – i’m sure there were benefits – but it was the english investment to protect the cashflow –
    and not to digress too far – the thrust of this article was a discussion on how a few hundred managed to swindle a few million – bluff and bluster i’m sure – and maybe we shall never truly know because there is no document written from the indian point of view on the experience collective – and that is the tragedy.

  13. well, watching the abject indian surrender to the brits in the third test match in Mumbai and now watching a similar surrender in the first ODI in Delhi, i can see how so few brits managed to control so many indian.. :(

    but still, there are always indians like rahul dravid who will offer as much resistance as possible (fingers crossed).:)

  14. NotPC:

    Where in hell do you see ‘understanding’ of British rule in my comment? My comment was an indictment of the ‘o those plucky British’ school of thought. I don’t buy into the theory that the British ruled India because of great courage, gall, nerve blah, blah, blah. They ended up ruling India because no one was doing it (the Mughal empire had virtually disintegrated), and they stood to lose a lot of dough.

  15. the irony is that Indians today still clamor to kiss Western ass

    no bud – the gandhi said it well above in his views above – and if one falls in the mindset above it’s really non-productive to forging a partnership, even of equals -

  16. Jeez, Aparna – Please don’t bust a vessel. I was only infering from your comment. Stand corrected, however. My bad.

  17. manish, thanks for the clarification. surprised i never heard of this book. will read it. and hey, i mostly enjoyed “hullabaloo in the guava orchard”!:) is that a crime on sepia mutiny?

  18. “hullabaloo in the guava orchard”!:) is that a crime on sepia mutiny?

    I leave the judgement to the SM-Admins. But it is certainly a bad waste of recycled paper and $15 that could have bought so many :)

  19. well I thought she showed promise in it and thought it much better than a lot of pretentious “serious” fiction (and movies ) being produced. maybe it’s because i like her mother’s books that i was willing to give her a chance. haven’t read her second novel though to see if that initial impression can be confirmed. and guavas, along with mangoes, are yummy, yummy, yummy. some of my fondest memories are eating so many guavas – green and ripe – in one sitting and getting sick. i don’t understand the sm aversion to mango and guava references. after all the news that indian mangoes will soon be available in the u.s. elicited lots of excitement and anticipation on sm, proving the hold that the mango has over many indians, no matter how far removed from india they are. :)

  20. Firstly…

    after all the news that indian mangoes will soon be available in the u.s. elicited lots of excitement and anticipation on sm, proving the hold that the mango has over many indians, no matter how far removed from india they are. :)

    …amen to that.

    Re: the aversion to exotic-fruit/spice references — it is just that they are terribly unoriginal and exoticize the east. People reading these novels are more likely than ever to ask you questions like “So, do you have elephants in Mumbai?” or make comments like “I love the colours” — comments which are all right when you are discussing Dior’s Spring/Summer collection — perhaps not an entire country/subcontinent.

    Actually, my biggest complaint against mango-fiction as a genre is that it all sounds/feels the same. Perhaps this was your first encounter with fruit-fiction. Try reading The House of Blue Mangoes now. It is as if some desi writers-workshop-lady recommended that all Indian fiction in English must contain a minimum of 2 kilograms of fresh fruit. Where’s the original ‘voice’ there? After all, therein lies the novelty of the novel right?

    Full disclaimer: Guava is a fruit I do not like. Too gritty.

  21. i’ve commented on another thread that i think sometimes it is we who tend to exoticize the mango/spices/color/cows/ references even when they are perfectly legitimate. we tend to see these things from a western perspective, when from an indian perspective,, they are all perfectly natural and exist in daily indian life. india is colorful, thank God. i’m not sure why it’s upsetting if people say they like the colors. it’s one of the first things that hits you in india after you’ve spent some time away. i don’t mind when people say that, but i do mind when they say things like “garish” etc.,, because that’s from a western perspective. i could very well say i find the western colour schemes rather bland and dull and boring. i mean what;s the deal with wearing black to every formal do? i have seen elephants ( not to mention cows) walking down the main street of big indian cities. i don’t think people always mean those questions in a derogatory fashion. i think you have to take it in the context and tone of the question.

    i havent’ read house of blue mangoes and i don’t doubt that there are authors who churn out forced and artificial sounding novels. however, you can find references to color/spices/mangoes/cows in some of the best indian literature because you can’t really talk or write about indian daily life or the scenery without including at least one of these at some point in a novel. as long as it’s done naturally and doesn’t come across as forced or pretentious. a lot of time in india is spent eating a lot of tasty fruit, mango and guava trees do abound in the gardens, as do color, spices etc. food is an important part of indian life. all sorts of plants and animals are loaded with symbolism in india. my relatives still keep a cow (in the city) for milking. so if i wrote a story based on their life, it would be based on reality. whether i do a good job of writing about that life is another matter.

    i guess we’ll have to disagree. i find exotifications and misrepresentations in school textbooks (i thought some of the edits, but not all, were not unreasonable and not a fundamentalist plot) and certain movies far more harmful than book covers and fruit fiction. To me it all depends on the intent behind – is it from a point of view meant to denigrate, is it just a lack of knowledge, or is it merely naive and unintended? or are we now conditioned to see everything from a western perspective?

  22. P.S.: and i’m not saying there aren’t novels that exotify india, but it seems that only certain types of exotification upsets people and other types are considered ok.

  23. “or are we now conditioned to see everything from a western perspective?”

    Yes.

  24. as long as it’s done naturally and doesn’t come across as forced or pretentious

    That’s the big if :) Midnight’s children has all those and more, as do Suitable Boy and Red E and P.R. All these are novels I love. I was commenting on the unoriginality of the hackjobs.

    To me it all depends on the intent behind – is it from a point of view meant to denigrate, is it just a lack of knowledge, or is it merely naive and unintended?

    I guess you are right. I don’t blame those who ask such questions when those questionsstem from the lack of knowledge. It’s just that I think too many of these fruity-novels play to those preconceived exoticized notions — using them as literary shorthands. Like a marketing gimmick. But…

    or are we now conditioned to see everything from a western perspective?

    Ouch. (and perhaps touche.)

  25. i really enjoyed Midnight’s Children and A Suitable Boy. apologies for all the long and frequent posts, but i’m trying to pull an all nighter to watch the India-England ODI and SM is one of my efforts to stay awake (especially since india are in dire straits).

  26. Cricket is opium of masses.

    I am posting just to waste company time.

    Midnight Children was good, don’ think that Rushdie bettered it.

  27. WGGIA, I have since given up on the match. I am trying to postpone doing an edit on a paper due tomorrow till 7:00 am. Literary conversation is probably a good way to pull that all-nighter.

  28. ddia, guess i’m a sucker for punishment. paid good money to watch this series. feel like sending a bill to the indian team. but living in a land of cricket heathens :) , i guess watching any cricket is better than watching no cricket. sometimes i just need a fix.

  29. Write it down as bad speculation. An unlucky gamble. How can a team with this Owais guy playing in it beat us?

    On the flip side, paying for cricket has its moments. Albeit rare ones – like when we are playing well.

  30. oh well, lunch and india actually managed to creep past 200. not enough dhoom dhoom from Dhoni at the end. now need a miracle (or some excellent bowling in lieu)

    if you’re interested in adding your voice to the “books that changed the world” debate, go to:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4841916.stm

    till a bleary-eyed morrow, good night.

  31. NotPC wrote: “the British caused the demise of the Muslim/Mughal rule”. That is nonsense. The British had nothing significant to do with the process that caused the Mughal Empire to break up into independent states after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, culminating in the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739.

    DesiDudeInAustin: You are all wrong about guavas. Stop chewing so hard.

  32. The British had nothing significant to do with the process that caused the Mughal Empire to break up into independent states

    Correct. Along with reasons such as internal political corruption and overstretched resources, the process was exacerbated by revolutions breaking out an all sides, primarily involving the Sikhs, the Rajputs, and the Marathas.

  33. Damn if there isn’t something like the Raj to get desi blood boiling. Why can’t we see it for what it was: an accident of history brought about by confluence of unusual factors? Maybe there is no hidden insight about India and its “innate character” (a preposterous notion) in the success of the Raj. Stuff happens… must we ascribe MEANING to all of it.

    Is that a cop out?

  34. Why can’t we see it for what it was: an accident of history brought about by confluence of unusual factors? Maybe there is no hidden insight about India and its “innate character” (a preposterous notion) in the success of the Raj. Stuff happens… must we ascribe MEANING to all of it.

    well… the thing that gets my blood boiling is the use of “we” – you didnt point out who you were talking about and since i’ve posted here multiple times, i am assuming you are claiming to speak for me – and i dont like that.

  35. dhaavak, so easy to take offense! sounds like you have some issues. notice i said “you” have issues and not “we.” get your “blood boiling” about something important yaar.

    as context: i was reacting to the tone and content of previous posts. perhaps i was overly generous in my use of pronouns. consider it license with an elastic language.

  36. (A late comment!)

    While interesting, Gilmour’s book suffers from two weaknesses: it is dry, and his admiration of the anglo-indians makes his objectivity a bit suspect. Dry and anecdotal with no real cohesion, the book is a slog unless one has a passion for the Raj (Dalrymple’s, The Last Mughal, is a much easier read). And, his admiration for the Raj leads him to say nice things about the effects of the Raj even when the facts he is relating are completely at odds with that (the chapter on Famine is the prime example – each famine was worse in its effects than the previous ones but Gilmour praises the civil servants – it brought out the best in them, he writes.) Still, a worthwhile read!