Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Brits in India, Part One

On the last day of our India trip last winter, I got to go to a bookstore in a New Delhi shopping center. Nearly all the books were in English. Hmm.

But what caught my eye was a two volume epic, The British Conquest and Domination of India by Sir Penderel Moon. Hmm, I thought, and looked it up on Amazon, where it appeared as a 1,200 page single volume doorstopper, two volumes in one.

In the end I bought it from Amazon when I got back to the US, and it's been a real experience.

I started out with the idea of finding out when Indians started to develop a notion of India as a nation. In other words, when did an Indian National Movement emerge from out of the chaos of history?

The story starts with the Brit East India Company in 1705 with its trading ports at Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta.

The situation was that there was always a border between the Brits and some native prince, and the Brits would always find a reason to teach that native prince a lesson. When they did they would establish suzerainty over him and demand revenue to pay for the troops to garrison his state and make everything "safe." Of course, wherever the border is, the native princes beyond the border end up being a problem...

From time to time, the East India Company would have a Governor who was extra aggressive with the native princes. This happened first during the Napoleonic War when the Brits were worried about the French, especially if some native prince had a French officer as an advisor. The second time was in 1840 when the Brits started to worry about the Russian Threat, and so started a foolish incursion into Afghanistan.

But, as I say, I was wondering about the Indian national movement, and this is what I experienced.

In about 1825, some Brit noticed that the people in India didn't really like the Brits. They seemed to prefer to be ruled by their own native princes, corrupt and disorganized as they were, rather than the modern and efficient Brits.

In about 1840, the Brits started to think about internal improvements, roads, canals, even education. But they found that they didn't have any money to do it, because of the expense of the war in Afghanistan.

By about 1850, you get a Brit governor mentioning "Indian opinion" and when a legislative council was proposed they were a little taken aback when "some young Indians" saw it as "the beginning of a Constitutional Parliament in India." No, no: not what we had in mind at all, old chap.

Then there is this, during the Crimean War and the Siege of Sebastopol from 1854-55.
Educated Indians were now sufficiently awake to the outside world to follow with close interest this European war in which their masters were engaged, and ill-wishers of the British, of whom Azimullah Khan was an example, discussed with malicious glee the ill-success of British arms.
Do you see what is happening here? Under Brit rule the inhabitants of South Asia are starting to develop a national "public opinion," and the Brits are conscious of that. And the thing is that by uniting most Indians into a single state, they are in fact, willy nilly, creating an entity that could be called and experienced, by Brits and South Asians alike, as "India."

Also, about 1850, the Brits actually have in hand actual projects: to build irrigation canals -- starting with the 525-mile Ganges Canal; to build railways; and to create an education system.

Then, of course, in 1857 came the Indian Mutiny, or Great Rebellion. But what was really going on? Partly, no doubt it was this.
It was becoming increasingly evident that the now unquestionable supremacy of the British was likely to lead to the cultural extinction of the old ruling classes and feudal aristocracy, and also posed a threat to the long-established influence of the Brahmans.
Hmm. Our modern politics tends to revolve around the poor helpless victims and what "we" must do to save them. But there is also, even in the United States, the thing you are not allowed to discuss: the impact of change on the traditional ruling class. In India in 1850 it was the old feudal Nawabs and Rajahs and the Brahmins that were feeling the pinch. But you would not expect them to oppose the Brits on the grounds of the extinction of their ancient right to rule and plunder the agriculturalists. No, just as in our own day, the threatened ruling class would argue that The People would suffer, and that they were valiant champions of The People advocating valiantly to protect them from the existential peril of white supremacy of our day and the Brit imperialism of 1850. We well-born activists are doing it For The People!

The other takeaway, for me, is the power of the European nation state when compared with the feudal native princes. Throughout the story, the contrast is stark. When a European nation state, with its central banking, its access to the world credit system, its organized and disciplined army, its administrative bureaucracy, goes up against a feudal ruler that thinks no further than his feudal revenues, his harem, his succession, and the occasional raid on his neighboring prince the result is no contest.

And, of course, that is why India had to come up with a National Movement in order to deal with the Brits on their own terms. But how that happened is, no doubt, the subject of Part II of The British Conquest and Domination of India.

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