Getting Into It With Niall Ferguson: Facts About Empire

I know Priyamvada Gopal slightly from Cornell, and I’m always happy to read something she’s written. A recent editorial she published on neoconservative imperial historians in the Guardian provides lots of food for thought. I think she makes some important points about the current conservative fad for praising British imperialism, but I wanted to supply some quotes from Niall Ferguson’s book Empire that might challenge some of Gopal’s assertions. My own goal is to use this discussion as a learning opportunity, rather than a chance to throw around more polemical language; there’s been quite enough of that as it is.

(Incidentally, there are quite a number of intelligent comments in respone to Gopal’s essay at the Guardian site linked to above [check out especially the the comments by "Sikanderji"], as well as a lively discussion at Pickled Politics.)Let’s start with Gopal’s substantive, factual claims:

More famines were recorded in the first century of the British Raj than in the previous 2,000 years, including 17-20 million deaths from 1896 to 1900 alone. While a million Indians a year died from avoidable famines, taxation subsidising colonial wars, and relief often deliberately denied as surplus grain was shipped to England.

Tolerance? The British empire reinforced strict ethnic/religious identities and governed through these divisions. As with the partition of India when 10 million were displaced, arbitrarily drawn boundaries between “tribes” in Africa resulted in massive displacement and bloodshed. Freedom and fair play? In Kenya, a handful of white settlers appropriated 12,000 square miles and pushed 1.25 million native Kikuyus to 2,000 restricted square miles. Resistance was brutally crushed through internment in detention camps, torture and massacres. Some 50,000 Kikuyus were massacred and 300,000 interned to put down the Mau Mau rebellion by peasants who wanted to farm their own land. A thousand peaceful protesters were killed in the Amritsar massacre of 1919. (link)

One thought I have in response to this is to point out that Empire operated differently from place to place, and any discussion of its possible benefits ought to take that into account. I beleive the British Raj in India did have some benefits along with its many negatives, but it’s hard to say that the British presence in Africa, from the Slave trade up through formal colonization in the 1870s, had very many positive effects at all. India entered independence in relatively good shape, and largely adopted the British industrial and legal infrastructure when it established a new state; the African states, by contrast, had far less to work with. Also, it’s worth noting that most of the bloodier incidents in the history of the British empire actually took place outside of India (the massacre at Amritsar, while bad, is not of the same order as the suppression of the Mau Mau that Gopal mentions).

Secondly, I have my doubts about blaming the British for the Partition of India, though I concede I am not an expert on the nitty-gritties of that process. Third, “Sikanderji” has some interesting comments on the question of famines and the Indian textile industry:

A few other points: 1) The British regime was the first to make some comprehensive attempt at famine prevention in India, by vastly extending irrigation networks and building railways lines to famine-prone areas, as well as introducing famine codes in most provinces (though not, tragically, in Bengal). The historical record is insufficiently complete for any historian to be able to compare the levels of famine under the British with those under preceding regimes, but it is extremely unlikely to have been higher, given that by the latter half of the 19th century it had at least become possible to move grain and rice to areas stricken by shortage from areas of surplus using the railways. 2) India’s textile industry would have been destroyed with or without British rule, as it was largely export driven, and could not compete with industrial production in Lancashire, which would have taken over its exports anyway. India did eventually industrialise from the 1880s onwards, and the nationalist grievance is that protection of the industry through tariffs did not happen until the 1890s. (link)

I do not know whether all this is correct, and I’m willing to be educated by readers who know the details about the famines and the Indian textile industry (especially ones who come armed with links to actual facts!).

But since this debate concerns Niall Ferguson, I would encourage people participating in this debate to actually go read his book Empire. It’s true that he tells the history of Empire from the British side, but there is really an impressive amount of knowledge on display in the book. Here is a passage from Ferguson’s book specifically on the question of the effect of the British presence on India’s economy. It addresses some of Gopal’s points:

[E]ven Curzon once admitted that British rule ‘may be good for us; but it is neither equally, nor altogether, good for them.’ Indian nationalist agreed wholeheartedly, complaining that the wealth of India was being drained into the pockets of foreigners. In fact, we now know that this drain — the colonial burden as measured by the trade surplus of the colony — amounted to little more than 1 per cent of Indian net domestic product a year between 1868 and 1930. That was a lot less than the Dutch ‘drained’ from their Indonesian empire, which amounted to between 7 and 10 per cent of Indonesian net domestic produce in the same period.

And on the other side of the balance sheet were the immense British investments in Indian infrastructure, irrigation and industry. By the 1880s the British had invested &270 million in India, not much less than one-fifth of their entire investment overseas. By 1914 the figure had reached &400 million. The British increased the area of irrigated land by a factor of eight, so that by the end of the Raj a quarter of all land was irrigated, compared with just 5 per cent of it under the Mughals. They created an Indian coal industry from scratch which by 1914 produced nearly 16 million tons a year. They increased the number of jute spindles by a factor of ten. There were also marked improvements in public health, which increased the Indian average life expectancy by eleven years. It was the British who introduced quinine as an anti-malarial prophylactic, carried out public programmes of vaccination against smallpox — often in the face of local resistance — and laboured to improve the urban water supplies that were so often the bearers of cholera and other diseases. . . .

True, the average Indian had not got much richer under British rule. Between 1757 British per capita gross domestic product increased in real terms by 347 per cent, Indian by a mere 14 per cent. (from Ferguson’s Empire, 215-216)

After enumerating these economic benefits of Empire in India, Ferguson does go on acknowledge the role of the indentured laborers, as well as the bad British economic policies that exacerbated the famines of 1876-8 and 1899-1900. All in all, a fairly balanced picture. It’s not exactly the story Marxists want to hear, and it’s certainly not quite as bad as what Gopal describes Ferguson doing (“Colonialism–a tale of slavery, plunder, war, corruption, land-grabbing, famines, exploitation, indentured labour, impoverishment, massacres, genocide and forced resettlement–is rewritten into a benign developmental mission marred by a few unfortunate accidents and excesses.”).

I quote Ferguson here not to exonerate him for the kinds of things he said on the radio during the recent BBC interview (which I haven’t heard), nor for other comments he’s made along the way. In fact, I agree with many of Gopal’s criticisms of the smug, celebratory version of Imperial history that is currently in vogue in some circles. But Ferguson’s actual book on the subject of Empire is generally more learned than smug; it’s also well-written and decently documented. I’d rather discuss historical facts and maybe learn a thing or two than simply re-declare that Imperialism was bad, or continue on in the endless bloggy “bartering of positions” that the blogger Rage recently lamented. Once we get past blanket generalizations, the history of the British Empire is both fascinating and thoroughly complex.

135 thoughts on “Getting Into It With Niall Ferguson: Facts About Empire

  1. It is true that most villages in northern India, even extremely rural ones, have Muslims in them. Certainly every district does. This has presumably been the case for a few centuries at least since large-scale active conversion to Islam stopped a while ago. And it is easy to forget that Punjabi districts like Hoshiarpur, Jallandhar, etc. were 35% to 50% Muslim just 60 years ago. So in that sense the Muslim influence was widespread. But on the other hand, somewhat along the lines of what Saurav said, the version of Islam practised by most was a syncretic, ‘folk’ Islam with a lot of indigenous, pre-muslim elements, a lot of local Hindu influence, and would not have been recognized as Islam by Arabs for example. Conclusion? It’s VERY hard to say for certain how much each factor influenced the overall social picture or how much Hindus were influenced by Islam. I do concede the possibility that it may have been a fair bit.

  2. It’s VERY hard to say for certain how much each factor influenced the overall social picture or how much Hindus were influenced by Islam. I do concede the possibility that it may have been a fair bit.

    i think it can be argued that hinduism, as a way of life, and islam, as a way of life, in northern india emerged in a coevolutionary fashion. a non-south asian ‘orthodox’ form of islam always existed for the non-south asian origin elites. in the 19th, and especially 20th century, muslims whose origins were predominantly hindu (converts) began to transition away from ‘folk’ islam through a simultaneous push from without (transnational movements) and within (groups like the tableegh) which standardized south asian islam and brought it in line with world ‘best practices,’ so to speak.

    I remember hearing the figure 10% thrown around at the time of Independece. So the Mughal period must have had half that(5%), even if you balance it out for the areas of heavy concentration. Sounds like a miniscule percentage to me.

    10% within post-partition india. remember than india until 1947 included what is now bangladesh and pakistan, and both these regions had many hindus (bangladesh at independence was 25% hindu). anyway, the concentration wasn’t equal. some regions were bireligious, while others, like orrisa, were all hindu. this seems so obvious i’m a bit confused as to why this is news or contentious.

  3. What about the dress “Salwar-Kameez” that is called Indian-Pakistani dress today actually originated in Turkic area. How about that for a significant impact on culture ?

  4. Razib is correct. i believe the figure – taking the subcontinent as a whole – was like 23-24% muslim at time of partition. I also believe the rate of conversion to Islam slowed during British rule as well.

  5. I also believe the rate of conversion to Islam slowed during British rule as well.

    i have read the reverse, but i would like citations. i suspect the difference is quantitative, of degree, than qualitative.

  6. Lot of interesting and quite useful comments.

    I am with Dark Knight, Divya et al on this issue.

    Amardeep, you wanted some links, right?

    Hope you have heard of and read some works by Dharampal.If you have not, I recommend that you get his books on Indian History.

    Here’s a link to his profile.

    Ok, I will save our readers the trouble of finding this excerpt. Read it please.

    What next? Yes, there is an article on India’s educational system during the pre-British days.If not the 100% literacy rate claimed by Divya, it was quite high compared to today’s literacy rate.Moreover, education was not restricted to upper castes alone (as it became during the high point of British rule).

    I am not a scholar; just a curious person like most of us here are. So, I looked at the local self government in UK and compared it to historical proof about India’s heritage of local self government, and the maturity of our democratic process way back in 10th century CE.

    I think I have given enough links for now. The point is: the argument about the benefits of imperialism/colonialism on India is an outdated topic. What is more intersting to me, is why, in the past decade or so, there has been a resurgence in books trying to paint the ‘Empire’ in a good light. I read a news item recently that the UK Government wants to teach its students in detail about the ‘Empire’. Here’s the link (the last one in this post, I promise!).

    So, why do you think some of the former colonial powers want to attempt once again, to build consensus about the beneficial impact of colonialism, in the guise of taking a ‘balanced view’? It will be interesting to know what you think about this ‘trend’. I have my theory on this, and I will share it by and by.

    Cheers, Kumar

  7. “It has to be remembered that the dominant European instinct is that of a killer.”

    from one of the links noted above. whose the essentializer now???

    there are problems with scholarship, and knowledge is a process. but there is no excuse for slanted propoganda.

  8. and just to be clear, i find this idea that the “european instinct” as a “killer” as offensive as the idea of the african with a ring in his nose and a dish of stewed man flesh.

  9. Many on this board would lump me in with the Indians you talk about. As a matter of fact I do see benefits in the caste system. This does not mean I am blind to the injustice of it. But my point was that the caste system is equal to the Nazi analogy. It is used once too often, in effect to simply shut hindus up since such a morally reprehensible society cannot possibly have anything going for it. Most of what gets labeled hindutva is simply a backlash to this type of thinking, imo
    This is mostly off-topic and I do not want to continue a discussion on the caste-system or pograms. But if you make a claim that it is important to look at both sides of an issue, broadly speaking, you are simply stating the obvious. It would be helpful to show how it applies to this particular example where people have disputed this claim. You have not done that but have rather distastefully dragged in the eternally useful trump card – the caste system (and pograms).

    DIVYA…

    Firstly, I think you’re getting a bit oversensitive chicky, I was not targeting ‘people like you’ (assuming you got this from my whitey sounding name which means you didn’t think I was Hindu). JAI, above, did get my point that I was saying that unquestioning glorification of one’s culture is what allows neo-Imperialists to parade their theories around like they’re the best thing since sliced bread…on BOTH sides of the fence.

    Secondly, just as you see benefits in the caste system, which was a race-based segregation system which stratified indigenous people at the bottom of the heap and was effectively a system of social control…so people like Niall Ferguson see benefits from British imperialism. You yourself said that you are not blind to the injustices of the caste system, and similarly, reasonable, educated people who point out that colonialism did have some benefits are coming from a parallel angle. I personally disagree with both you about the caste system and imperialism-groupies. I was just pointing out that to me Amardeep was calling for reason on both sides of the debate.

    In fact, if you look at the language you’re using and your own discourse, honey, I think you’ll see that calling me out for throwing ‘trump cards’ like the caste system and religious pogroms at you is pretty much the same thing as what a racist person says to minority groups when they play their own ‘race card.’

    I was not using those examples as an excuse to denigrate you or to disassociate myself from them, as an Indian they are part of my own history too. I was just saying that it’s harder for anyone to be critical of their own culture than of others. So maybe instead of guilt-tripping and emotionally blackmailing white people into feeling sorry for colonialism, we could all sit down and have a reasonable discussion about it and then injustice would be apologised for. I believe that the injustice of British imperialism is terrible enough to stand up as a rational argument without having to resort to guilt-tripping others or getting defensive about yourself.

  10. “we could all sit down and have a reasonable discussion about [colonialism]“.

    These people are a product of the western media. They simply parrot the talking points they uncritically absorbed from the carefully edited media they are exposed to. They are simply incapable of seeing the West as bad guys. Even when western countries invade another country without cause, systematically loot and plunder it, brutally put down the resistance – torturing and executing anyone even remotely suspected of supporting the resistance – in effect declaring everyone a terrorist, exploit the natural faultlines in the society to divide the people, impose their vasals to rule with an iron fist, and then – here comes the best part – announce to the world that it was all for the good of the people whom they conquered!

    Do you know what I’m talking about – India in the 18th and 19th centuries or Iraq today?

    Tragically, certain chosen ones among us buy into the Big Lie put out by the colonizer! Enough to praise the wisdom of colonialism in “reasonable discussions”, emphasizing quite earnestly, that it was all ultimately for the good of those who got raped. Tch-tch-tch, if only the rest of the natives weren’t so bloody ungrateful!

    These certain chosen ones who are so eager to be understanding of the white man’s crimes suffer a bout of apoplexy when discussing similar crimes committed by one group of Indians against another (Godhra, riots, caste system, and any number of things that are wrong with India). Whither goes their “reasonableness and enlightened understanding” and their deep intellectual insights? Why descend into polemics, huh? Why buy into the polemics put out by the western media against the native resistance, huh?

  11. See, the thing is, I really don’t see the point of being hung up on our colonial history 50 years after Independence. Yes, it had a lot of negative effect on India, as well as a few positive ones.(You have to remember that species such as the tiger were far better protected under British rule than in an independent India.) But there has been a fifty-year gap to improve the state of the country and I really don’t see any point in blaming the British for everything that has gone wrong since. Aside from that, British do have a dismal record of recognising the damage inflicted upon the colonies. To contrast: though arguably the Dutch were far more brutal in their treatment of ‘natives’ than the British ever were, in this country during highschool years we received extensive education on the colonial history of Indonesia and the negative impact on the people. Even in France did I come across a plaque in the Notre Dame de Paris, honouring fallen soldiers of Indian origin during the Second World War.

    And European killer instinct?? WTF??

  12. Do you know what I’m talking about – India in the 18th and 19th centuries or Iraq today?

    All of the points concerned also apply to India in the 11th, 12th, and 15th-18th Centuries. The British Empire wasn’t exactly the first “foreign colonial” period in the subcontinent.

    British do have a dismal record of recognising the damage inflicted upon the colonies.

    Not exactly. One of the reasons why the Empire was taken off (or at least significantly reduced from) the British educational syllabus was to counteract what had been perceived as glorification of this period in previous decades. I would agree that there needs to be a little more honesty in some quarters about the downside of the Empire, but to imply that the average Brit is some kind of jingoistic imperialist constantly harking back to the heady days of the Raj is inaccurate, and certainly outdated.

    It’s one of the reasons why the Union Jack flag (hijacked by right-wing extremists) has such controversial connotations in modern-day Britain, and why there has recently been such a social push towards flying the English flag (St George’s cross) at every opportunity instead (eg. current sporting events) — it’s because the latter doesn’t have the right-wing, racist imperial connotations that the former is percieved to have.

  13. What about the dress “Salwar-Kameez” that is called Indian-Pakistani dress today actually originated in Turkic area. How about that for a significant impact on culture ?

    Exactly. The impact goes far beyond that — clothes, obviously, but also food, language, music, along with quite a few social customs and attitudes (especially involving women and interaction between the sexes).

    It’s not just restricted to Punjab; anyone who has had any direct experience of villages and small towns in Rajasthan, UP, Gujarat etc could confirm this, especially if they have relatives living in such areas (and/or their own ancestry originates there, via parents/grandparents etc).

    These people did not (and indeed, do not) exist in some kind of pre-Islamic “bubble” where their way of life and ways of thinking were/are exactly the same as their Hindu ancestors 1000 years ago. Possible exceptions, to some extent, are “banjarans” (gypsies) and various “tribal” groups, eg. “Meher” (sp ?) caste people etc.

  14. It has to be remembered that the dominant European instinct is that of a killer.

    This author is suffering from some kind of neurosis, or at least has a major case of racism against Europeans which is severaly warping his judgement.

    It would probably be more accurate to say that “the killing instinct” can become dominant in humans in general if a combination of social sanction, environmental factors, and psychological issues (dare I say “psychiatric issues”) facilitate this.

    During the course of human history, violence against one’s fellow man/woman and imperialism have hardly been confined to the European continent and its inhabitants.

  15. Dear duh:

    I think you got the wrong end of the stick about what I wrote. I fully agree with you that British imperialism and colonisation itself is a terrible injustice whose horrors should never be forgotten. Having just returned from the first NZ screening of Mistress of Spices, I couldn’t agree with you more when you say that its impact (through negative stereotypes) is very deeply ingrained. And painful for those watching.

    The reason I supported Amardeep’s call for trying to move away from polemics was not to whitewash racism…but it’s just that for some of us multiculturalist and postcolonial debates seem to have been a bit hijacked by people who do not seem to support its true aims. To use an example totally removed from Indians since that seems to get people thinking of trump cards…in NZ at the moment there’s been a murder/child abuse case of twin babies that is part of an endemic problem of child abuse within Maori/indigenous families.

    Instead of trying to raise awareness about this issue or to look for constructive solutions, many self-seeking Maori community leaders often use issues like this to highlight the evils of British imperialism and use it as an excuse to get state money for their own private enterprises and businesses.

    I am a total supporter of affirmative action and more substantial forms of historical redress for colonialism, but when I see them being so rampantly abused by a few self-seeking leaders who are only out to milk white guilt for themselves, it gets me worried. Just as Indian politicians who were freedom fighters in another life and are now corrupt bastards in this one get me worried too. Neocons are disgusting (and I’m part of a defiantly lefty blog to prove it) but making sure that we don’t move to that other extreme of a blind ‘white man always bad, brown man always good’ mantra is important too.

  16. The British Empire wasn’t exactly the first “foreign colonial” period in the subcontinent.

    I think what distinguishes British colonialism in the subcontinent from its predecessors is the fact that an elaborate ideology of “justification” was developed to assert that colonialism was “in the best interest of the natives.” Statements by British administrators reflecting such sentiments are not very difficult to track down. In effect, this ideology asserts that Indians (and others fortunate enough to be colonized) are less civilized and need to be brought up to the standards of “western civilization.” To the best of my knowledge, there is no equivalent to this in prior Indian history. None of the Mughals made any such claim. Babar’s “Babarnama” is full of detail about the unattractivness of India and Indians but it makes no moral claim about the necessity of his rule for the benefit of Indians.

    It is not difficult to see why this argument would be offensive. Equally, it is not difficult to see why the strongest reaction would be from “westernized” Indians; that is, those who have had exposure to this argument. I suspect that the strong reaction to Niall Ferguson is in part because of the suspicion that his argument is only a sophisticated version of the old colonial argument. That might be completely unfair to Ferguson: I have to confess that I have not read his book so all this is just wild speculation on my part. (Be gentle on me. :-) ) I believe, though, that Ashis Nandy has examined the “internal psychological wounds” of colonialism in his somewhat polemical work “The Intimate Enemy.” That might be relevant in understanding what is going on here.

    Suresh.

  17. I think what distinguishes British colonialism in the subcontinent from its predecessors is the fact that an elaborate ideology of “justification” was developed to assert that colonialism was “in the best interest of the natives.”

    Yeah, because “Babar”/other Kings/Sultans/emperors need not justify their actions to the electorate back home in turkey/turkmenistan(??) etc.. :-)

    In those days they can just use their military might to go, capture and subdue foreign lands and people.. No need for an elaborate ideology of “justification”. If anyone questions they can just kill them..plain and simple..

    But the Brit colonialists or for the current “democracy spreading invasions” you need to put a “justification” spin so as to convince the electorate back home..

    So there is really no difference between British colonialism / Mughal aristocracy / with the various other kings/emperors.. I bet none of them cared more for people’s interests than their own self interests. Not that the current democratic leaders are the “noble” ones. Atleast now people have a choice in changing the rulers..

  18. Tashie – I wasn’t thrown off by your name. I actually know two Tashies, plus one Lhasa Apso pup by the name :-) In any case, I somehow assume everyone on this site is a desi of some sort.

    You say the caste system is “a race-based segregation system which stratified indigenous people at the bottom of the heap”. Not even the Indologists refer to it in this manner! It is not an organized system at all. It is just a tenacious part of Indian culture that simply refuses to go away in spite of centuries of effort and waves upon waves of reform movements, including Buddhism, Sikhism, Arya Samaj, the umpteen gurus all over India, onslaughts by liberals, giants like Ambedkar, the Indian Constitution, and relentless criticism from assorted interest groups.

    Caste had mostly to do with profession and in some form or the other exists all over the world. In New York specially you can see it rather clearly and no-one calls it a “segregation system.” Most of the cabbies here are South Asian, the carts selling nuts are mostly Argentenian, the financial world is mostly Jewish, the jewelry business is Jewish and Indian, the grocery stores are mostly Korean, the diners mostly Greek. Such “caste” groupings form naturally. Moreover, I am not at liberty to visit certain “temples” such as the Harvard Club or the Explorers Club at my leisure. From your perspective this too should be considered a form of segregation in that case.

    It is also not accurate to claim that certain groups have been deliberately marginalized for millennia. Tribals by definition are marginalized because they live in remote places, jungles, deserts, and rugged mountains. This too is natural and to be expected. Now, certain communities denigrate and abuse other communities and this is the part that is troubling. Nobody glorifies this. In India such atrocities take on their own unique form of expression. But the implication in your and most peoples’ criticism is that there is some form of system that is deliberately and forcefully held in place. This is simply not the case and never has been. And when you consider that “segregation by caste” exists in different forms all over the world the hindu criticism of caste begins to sound rather arbitrary. That is the reason I do not believe you can draw a parallel between imperialism and caste. And I still maintain that caste is used rather indiscriminately to counter any and every argument put forth by hindus and it is flashed like a trump card along with the full force of moral superiority.

  19. But the Brit colonialists or for the current “democracy spreading invasions” you need to put a “justification” spin so as to convince the electorate back home.. So there is really no difference between British colonialism / Mughal aristocracy / with the various other kings/emperors.. I bet none of them cared more for people’s interests than their own self interests. Not that the current democratic leaders are the “noble” ones. Atleast now people have a choice in changing the rulers..

    I think you are mistaken. I am not saying that the arguments of the British colonialists did not have an element of self-serving justification but my impression is that many of them honestly believed in the moral case for colonialism. It might give comfort to Indians (of whom I am one) to believe that the colonialists were all thorough b***s but that does not appear to have been the case. Certainly, some of them were but there were also idealists and others somewhere inbetween.

    In any case, the “democracy” of Britain 200 years back was very elitist…Only landowners had the right to vote (which excluded most of the population) and women did not have the right to vote until 1920s. And there was nothing like TV or saturated media coverage…I therefore find your claim that the element of justification arose out of a need to convince the electorate unpersuasive. I do not where this impulse came from; it would be interesting to know this.

    I am not a historian so I really don’t want to continue this argument; perhaps someone can clarify?

    Suresh.

  20. Suresh, Tashie, right on. I think what distinguishes British colonialism from other forms is an obssessive justification of its benevolence (which doesn’t mean that it was so). But that many of them were driven by “a moral case” for it is also correct. Did these people ignore economic and other structural inequalities? Yes. Were the native ruling class in India benevolent? Mostly not. I think it is very important to understand colonialism and its legacies, and any attempt to muzzle people who do so is no different from other forms of repressive name calling. It seems to have escaped the understanding of some people here that those who study imperialism are neither for it, nor defending it, but often come out with the best analyses, exposes, critiques of empire. Instead of hysteria, they muster up arguments against the likes of Ferguson. I’ll sign off now–got to finish that manuscript on (against) British imperialism.

  21. I think what distinguishes British colonialism in the subcontinent from its predecessors is the fact that an elaborate ideology of “justification” was developed to assert that colonialism was “in the best interest of the natives.” Statements by British administrators reflecting such sentiments are not very difficult to track down. In effect, this ideology asserts that Indians (and others fortunate enough to be colonized) are less civilized and need to be brought up to the standards of “western civilization.”

    muslims have often argued it is better to be a dhimmi that live as a free kuffir. this is in fact part of the argument you will hear from transnational islamists: that non-muslims should welcome the rule of god and god’s true faithful as it is preferrable to the rule of man. when akbar engaged in syncretism some of the ummah accused him of apostacy and rolling back islamic hegemony, which they argued was good for muslims and non-muslims. the scale doesn’t equal what the british did though because of course justification was more toward themselves than those they conquered.

  22. Jai – I don’t contend that the average Brit is jingoist – far from that. I’m sorry there has been a misunderstanding.

  23. In any case, the “democracy” of Britain 200 years back was very elitist…Only landowners had the right to vote (which excluded most of the population) and women did not have the right to vote until 1920s. And there was nothing like TV or saturated media coverage…I therefore find your claim that the element of justification arose out of a need to convince the electorate unpersuasive. I do not where this impulse came from; it would be interesting to know this.

    It is true that their democracy was elitist 200 years back… I could also argue that once their democracy stopped being “elitist” to include everyone from poor people / women etc.. from 1920s.. we gradually see the loosening grip of imperialism / colonialism etc..

    Anyways I’m not an apologist for imperialism / colonialism.. I just want to put things in the perspective of comparing Brits to the other rulers/sultans/emperors.. Even during the imperial days, people in British India had more rights than the people who lived in the princely states..

  24. one can have justice & liberty without democracy. in fact, in many situations democracy is inimical to liberty. remember that the british campaign against the slave trade predated universal sufferage. sometimes moral arguments are the real arguments and we don’t need to scry the materialist intent.

  25. btw divya, i happen to agree with some of the things you are saying about caste (though not all). you seem capable of some subtely and precision.

    so, i have to ask, why the hell do you see incapable of not expressing laugh-out-loud inanities when they align with your own political biases? i mean, seriously, you seemed averse to 3rd grade math in some of the comments above regarding numbers for muslims (though i guess mean & variance are more middle school levels, though perhaps in india this is taught in 1st grade, i don’t know).

    i’m not trying to be insulting, i really don’t get it.

  26. Razib wrote:

    muslims have often argued it is better to be a dhimmi that live as a free kuffir

    Were these arguments ever used by the Mughal empire itself, or at the time of the Empire? I had thought they were more recent.

    As for the Brits, we’re mostly Macaulay’s Minutemen here ( a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect) and some of us are still subjects of the Queen (Happy 4th of July to the rest of you) — it’s obviously a treacherous topic.

  27. Razib – Don’t know what exactly you’re referring to in the comment above. Whether I was incapable of figuring out the percentage of Muslims in South Asia? You’re right, I’m not mathematically inclined and I only skim through most calculations including the one provided by you in this case. I’m also an oldie and have long forgotten third grade math. To me the important point was that the percentage of Muslims was miniscule. Does it matter whether it was 5 percent or 10 percent when all we’re interested in is trying to figure out how such a small percentage of people could succeed in spreading their culture? You may have worked out the right percentage but the exchange just ended up revolving around numbers instead of the real issue which was the dynamic of the cultural spread (by a miniscule percentage of people).

    And you, monsieur, also leave me befuddled with your comments. Its so easy to write off parts of the world as hell holes – which is how I think you referred to Bangladesh a couple of months ago. Which pretty much sums up your attitude with regard to SA in general. I don’t dispute the claim as such except that you make it sound like this was always the case. Like there never ever was a “sonar bangla”. Like the west is truly the best. To me it is more interesting to try and figure out what happened to the famous bengali brain. How can B’desh and W. Bengal have been reduced to such abject levels of misery. I don’t see you address any such issues and I do detect a strong unquestioning western bias in your comments.

  28. Were these arguments ever used by the Mughal empire itself, or at the time of the Empire? I had thought they were more recent.

    yes, most of them are more recent, but i have seen references toward these sort of arguments from the ulema at the time of akbar’s operational apostacy. in other words, the above poster is correct that the mughals didn’t need to justify themselves, but the clerical classes needed to do something with their time….

  29. To me the important point was that the percentage of Muslims was miniscule. Does it matter whether it was 5 percent or 10 percent when all we’re interested in is trying to figure out how such a small percentage of people could succeed in spreading their culture? You may have worked out the right percentage but the exchange just ended up revolving around numbers instead of the real issue which was the dynamic of the cultural spread (by a miniscule percentage of people).

    you use the word ‘minsicule’ differently than i do. e.g., < 1% is miniscule. 20% is not. (the 1931 census of united india showed that muslims formed 1/4 of the population, i can accept some increase since the mughal period, but it seems that 20% would be a good figure for circa 1750). also, as jai noted, the number is not distributed equitability. in much of the north indian plain muslims are 1/3-1/2 of the population, and the majority in eastern bengal.

    as for western bias, yes, i have one. as for wondering how bangladesh turned into a hell hole, it has some interest for me, but not a great one. i’m american. i’ll leave it to those who are interested, but, that doesn’t mean that those individuals have carte blanche to make shit up!

  30. in other words, the above poster is correct that the mughals didn’t need to justify themselves, but the clerical classes needed to do something with their time….

    Aurangzeb was pretty outspoken about his desire to Islamicize the entire subcontinent, and both his motivations and his actions were supported by the ulema/clergy of the time. He was even referred to as “Zinda Pir”, ie. Living Saint.

  31. Divya:

    Behind such talk and the embrace of the broadcasters is the insistence that we are being offered gutsy truths that the “politically correct” establishment would love to suppress. This is the neo-conservative as spunky rebel against liberal tyranny.

    This is from Gopal’s article. The whole reason I brought up negative aspects of our own culture (and yes, I still stand by what I think of the caste system and my belief that overall it was and is a negative feature of Indian culture) and why I supported Amardeep’s call to move away from polemics was because no-one can afford to suppress neocons with their disgusting views, or worse, use weaker tools like guilt/emotional blackmail to fight imperialism-groupies when there’s enough bloody evidence and cold hard facts to show how negative British colonialism was for Indians.

    I don’t live in the US but the last election was a classic case of what happens when you suppress neocons – they go for the stupid people. It doesn’t matter how many educated people we think there are out there, (I mean look at the comments on this blog and the commenters are articulate and have some knowledge of history, anthropology, sociology etc…) refusing to examine simple messages because they’re stupid is not a good idea because there’s enough stupid people out there who like simple messages.

    I hate racism disguised as a ‘PC message’ more than anything but I think it’s dangerous to assume that enough people out there will ignore racist views or have enough of a moral conscience to turn against them when racists style themselves into ‘rebels’ who claim they are just ‘speaking the truth that white-apologists are too guilt-tripped to admit to…’

    I think we’re both on the same page about the fact that empire was a negative thing, as for caste, I know that it’s a loaded topic. But when you talk about class discrimination in the west, caste systems basically entrenched that in India – different professions and skills reserved for different people. To me the existence of other forms of discrimination around the world does not make historical discrimination in India less severe or ‘arbitrary’, I chose it because it’s a form of discrimination relevant to Indian culture. If we were talking about another country then other class issues would be discussed.

    Also I don’t think that the caste system was a random way to organise people who were already in the ‘natural professions’, as if there was a bunch of priests and then a bunch of shit-sweepers who naturally lived in a society and then a caste system just rocked up one day in someone’s head like a vague idea to explain it all. I still think that ideas of which people can do which jobs are definitely culturally created and maintained. The detailed nature of the caste systems into sub-groups etc. makes it seem like a pretty organised system to me. Yes, it developed incrementally but all systems change with time.

    Also I hope that puppy was really cute ‘cos that sounded like a bit of an online b****-slap to me! Hope it wasn’t. Was just muckin’ around online so hope you just see views on here as a discussion, I’m not trying to assert the gospel truth and am v open to change my ideas when others that I like better around.

  32. Also I hope that puppy was really cute ‘cos that sounded like a bit of an online b****-slap to me!

    The pup is adorable (must be big now). And it just came to my head right off the bat, wasn’t meant to be mean at all.

    I don’t agree with your assessment of how caste was organized but cannot get to it today. Anyway, this topic is bound to come up again sooner or later.

  33. To this quote,

    The British regime was the first to make some comprehensive attempt at famine prevention in India, by vastly extending irrigation networks and building railways lines to famine-prone areas, as well as introducing famine codes in most provinces (though not, tragically, in Bengal). The historical record is insufficiently complete for any historian to be able to compare the levels of famine under the British with those under preceding regimes, but it is extremely unlikely to have been higher, given that by the latter half of the 19th century it had at least become possible to move grain and rice to areas stricken by shortage from areas of surplus using the railways

    I can only refer to Michael Davis Late Victorian Holocausts which shows how comprehensively British policies, especially building the railways, contributed to famines. Tens of millions of people died in a number of Indian provinces due to these policies, and many British commentators at the time were horrified by how British policies from pricing to administration contributed to these deaths. Famines in British times were much worse than before, and Bengal in the 1940s is an excellent example of how callous these policies could be.

    The past is over, there was a lot of bad stuff in India before the British and they did bring some very good things, often in spite of themselves (or in discord among themselves), but please let us try to get the facts straight.