India beyond the red crayon

My earliest memories of India are being given a blank map of the world and instructed to colour the countries of the Commonwealth red. It was really Burma that was the problem, giving me the experience of knowing I was being dishonest but wielding my crayon anyway.

And then there was Kipling, stories of life in India and various words in the language of Indian origin.

The early 1950s saw bold talk of New Elizabethans. I remember patriotic Christmas presents relating to the coronation of Elizabeth II with pictures of various exotic types waving to the crowd and beaming with gratitude for the bounty of Britannia.

I wasn’t encouraged to think about why this small island off the coast of Europe should control such vast areas or what we had done or were doing and to whom or whether this was right.

I have a memory from the age of six of sitting on our living room floor in front of the gas fire trying to decide whether I was sad or not because of the death of George VI. I am rather proud of this but a few more years were to elapse before I started to think critically about our role in the world.

There was an ex-Army man in my Somerset village whose house was full of things Indian. And then University and the 1960s and stories of travels to India via Istanbul and Afghanistan for incredibly small amounts of money. I tried this in July 1972 with my then girlfriend from Ecuador – we got as far as Teheran before our even smaller amount of money made a return to Europe advisable. Knowing what I now know about the Indian climate, this was fortunate….

Over a quarter of a century was to pass before I actually got there for a month. It was like discovering a new room or rather floor of one’s house, a fascinating combination of the familiar and exotic. Unexpectedly accessible because of the widespread use of English. And so much of interest to learn about the languages (including Indian English), Hinduism (to understand quasi-polytheistic Christian culture better in the light of an avowedly polytheist religion), literature and history.  I read intensively but slowed down after a few months as other projects demanded attention but have now started again, stimulated by our coming visit to Kolkota.

I’ve just finished a very interesting work by Jon Wilson, a lecturer at King’s College, London, “Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire. India Conquered”.  He is critical of those who try to present the Raj as smooth running and well ordered: “In practice the British imperial regime in India was ruled by doubt and anxiety from beginning to end…Most of the time, the actions of British imperial administrators were driven by irrational passions rather than by calculated plans. Force was rarely efficient. The assertion of violent power usually exceeded the demands of any particular commercial or political interest.”

It makes fascinating reading from the early days of small subsequently fortified trading posts on the coast, to the takeover of more and more areas, the rise of the East India Company, strange amalgam of economic group with semblance of state power, the effects of industrialisation in the UK and the barriers placed in the way of the growth of Indian industry, the breakdown of the old society and economy tending to lead to famine rather than the growth of industry. The inability of the English, few in number, to develop a stable basis of support among the Indian population as in Australia or Canada. Increasing panic leading to atrocities such as the massacre at Amritsar (Jallianwala Bagh) and machine gunning of crowds from the air at Gujranwala. And, as Wilson describes, the final scuttling away in the face of collapse after the second world war.

Jon Wilson provides an impressive range of material to support his thesis about the nature of the imperial regime. My knowledge of Indian history is not sufficient to see the weak spots or any stretched arguments in his fluent and well supported case. But the image in my mind is of a few British ants sitting on the back of the Indian elephant and wondering how to steer the beast. India was simply too huge and diverse and the English too few.

He provides a wealth of sources with a lot of interesting books that I would like to read and his book can be recommended to all those with an interest in that period of the UK and India’s history.

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