Separating Facts from Fiction: The British Rule

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Indian IndependenceCome August 15th, India will complete 60 years as an independent nation -a nation that continues to forge ahead even after the countless turbulences and tragedies. Six decades in the life of a man is time to retire and do some self-retrospection and worry about preparing himself for his death – the best possible fashion. However that’s not a case when it comes to Nation, 60 – is as good as 16 – in comparison to the lifespan of a human. But, if at all, something is similar that’s the point of introspection.

A nation, though has to move forward, must never fail to peep into its past – this is not just important but also essential. Essential at this point of time because more than 70% of our population is less than 25 years of age and have very feeble knowledge about our past and lesser knowledge of the history of this great land. The history what they learn are limited to the textbook, which are not just minimal but also one sided. Pampered by politicians from time to time and moreover edited suitably to meet their objective of glorifying their leaders at this time its imminent that efforts are made by us to inform them of what the truth is before the fiction planted by political mongers are turned into facts.

The important questions that our history textbooks don’t answer truly are three: Why did the British come to India? Why did they stay here so long? And why did they leave? Answering these questions is as good as finding the truth of the land’s true legacy.

Writes David Gilmour in his book ‘The Ruling Caste’: “Benjamin Disraeli famously called India the ‘Jewel in the Imperial Crown’. It was a many sided jewel of strategic value, of military power, a jewel which absorbed nearly a quarter of Britain’s overseas investment. But it was not a jewel the British particularly like to gaze at. They wanted to know it was in the bank.”

It is imminent to learn from history that British never came here to stay. India’s resources, mainly natural, held numerous importances in its expansion plan across other parts of the world. British by the end of the eighteenth century had begun to think themselves as ‘Romans’. Though Roman Empire was smaller and less populated than the British, it’s 100 million subjects in Trojan time spread over an area of 2 ½ million square miles, while Britain’s Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century consisted of 440 million people dispersed over 11 ½ million square miles. But the growth and shaping of two empires, the compulsion to occupy territory to prevent another power taking it, had multiple similarities.
Few Victorian Imperialists would have claimed that Britain had held India solely for the benefit of Indians; and the ‘non-official’ Anglo Indians, the businessmen and the planters and other traders, were said to regard the sentiments as a ‘loathsome…’ It was indeed hard to deny the great economic, strategic and military value of India; without it Britain’s position in the Far East and in Australia and New Zealand would have been too fragile to sustain.

During the time of British rule, in India, voices in Britain and elsewhere contested the morality of a nation being ruled by foreigners. The imperialist’s response to them was very much interesting. Stratechy was the most strenuous proponent of the views “We have never destroyed in India a national government, no national sentiment has been wounded, no national pride has been humiliated; and this not through any design or merit of our own, but because no Indian nationalities have existed.”

This wasn’t really wrong either: A Bengali in Delhi was as much foreigner as an Englishman in Rome. A native of Calcutta was more of a foreigner to the hardy races on the frontiers of Northern India than Englishman could be. Even some of existing native states were ruled by unassimilated by a Muslim Prince backed by an army of Arab mercenaries. The Maratha states of Gwalior, Indore and Baroda had combined population of 6 ½ million; but apart from the rulers and followers, they contained no Marathas. However, this is not to say that British did the unifying part of India. The nation was unified mostly due to the equal treatment from the British to the men of the land – the divide and rule policy.

Yet another justification for British rule was provided by the conviction that ‘India would fall apart if left to it.’ They, some section of people, thought that departure of the British would lead to the disintegration of India, the establishment of rival states and the certainty of anarchy and civil war.

Conveniently for the British some Indians backed the view. For example talking to General Roberts in 1884, Sir Madhav Rao, a former minister of Baroda, scoffed at the cry ‘India for the Indians’. “You have to only go to the zoological gardens and open the doors of the cages, and you will very soon see what would be the result of putting that theory into practice. There would be terrific fight among animals, which would end in the tiger walking proudly over the dead bodies of the rest.” When Roberts asked who the tiger was, Madhav Rao replied, “The Mohammedans from the North.” The point, it may be noted, was not wrong either. Before the British the Mughals had ruthlessly dominated the infidels (non-Muslims) with inspiration from the Mullahs.

Boell, who visited the subcontinent at the beginning of the twentieth century, wrote, “The question is not whether England has right to keep India, but rather whether she has the right to leave it. To abandon India would in truth lead to the most frightful anarchy. Where is the native power, which would unite Hindus and Muslims, Rajputs and Marathas, Sikhs and Bengalis, Parsees and Christians under one scepter? England has accomplished this miracle.”

Indians acknowledged the fact, i.e. of the only British united India for the first time, sadly because they were unaware of their own history and the story of Mauryan Empire. It was in fact Kautilya and his disciple and king of the empire Chandragupta who could be heralded for having united the land in one sphere. The India then included today’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Burma.

The British Raj had divided India to rule it. They encouraged scraps among local ruling princes to come to bows, and magnified the existing class and caste systems so they could sit on judgment.

We have been forced throughout our school days to say that “Gandhi won us freedom through Ahimsa (read Nonviolence)”. At the core, should you study the history in depth you would agree that: “India’s independence in 1947 was in fact a fallout from turbulence the British experienced in their home country. World war II and Nazi dictatorship frightened the world into uniting towards a civilized society. Britain’s people and Army seemed unwilling to continue with repression in the Empire, so freedom for India was inevitable.” Even Sir Winston Churchill who led the Allies into Victory was not chosen to steer Britain as Prime Minister in peacetime. He won the election, but his party lost the power to rule. England understood that colonialism and dictatorship are not radically different from one another.

If one reads German or British history he will find that their ruling instincts were more or less the same. The Germans employed the hard dose of extermination while the British used the soft dose of Cultural Transformation. Writes Shombit Sengupta “…History has proved that a soft dose has a lasting impact. Britain’s obsession with imperial pelf gets no less attention even from their Left wing governments. Britain and erstwhile colonies in the commonwealth of Nations, still kowtow to Buckingham Palace, Lady Di and Camilla, giving them superior majestic stature. Why did independent India invite Lord Mountbatten, the last British Governor-General to remain as her ceremonial head for a year? The strong influence of the soft dose is obviously at play.”

This is a very brief saga of British Imperialism in India. How sad to know the fact that: many Indians still don’t know much about it?

U Mahesh Prabhu | August 15, 2007 |

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