Coronation of George V in India, 1911 | Wikimedia Commons
Representational image | Coronation of George V in India, 1911 | Wikimedia Commons
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The Anglo-Indian connection was instrumental in creating the first stable liberal democracies in both Europe and Asia. This was not a coincidence; there were evident historical processes at work. The enmeshed quality of the Anglo-Indian relationship goes right back to its earliest days. There was always an indigenous Indian liberal constituency; all the social reforms sponsored by the British had extensive local support.

Here it is also appropriate to emphasize that, across the longer view, the substance of the Anglo-Indian link was not primarily economic. The British made money in India, but they always made more money elsewhere. The substance of the link, its real value to Britain, was not primarily economic: it was geostrategic.

Overemphasis on economics leaves too many questions unanswered, especially in terms of speculation about a massive outflow of wealth from India to Britain. ‘Imperialism’—a troubling and inexact term—was never an economic doctrine. There was never close agreement among the economists who tried to define it: between 1902 and 1920, Hobson, Kautsky, Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Schumpeter all came up with different interpretations. Imperialism was a jumble of cultural and political attitudes, born of victory and sustained by dominion, fond of hierarchy and uncritical of supremacism. But in its British avatar, it was also tempered with humanitarian concerns and an occasional taste for self-criticism.

Within the disorderly pile of ideas that constituted imperialism, there was always scope for a wide range of governing attitudes to flourish, some of which were inherently contradictory. The aspiration towards fitting Indians for self-government was the most obvious; educating Indians in British law and political theory was another.

There was collusion on many levels from the very start of British rule in India, and the construction of the later imperial system would not have been possible without the collaboration of Indians, many of whose descendants are still enjoying the privileges they earned.

Indians—rich, powerful Indians—were complicit every step of the way, including the original Bengal revolution of 1757, and the infamous famines of 1770 and 1943. This does not mean just dubashes (interpreters) and banians (agents) on the quayside, hoping to do a little business, though they have their place in the story. It means entire classes with social status and economic clout.

There is a determined refusal among many modern Indians to admit this, but it is inconceivable that the British Indian project could have extended so far or lasted so long without serving the interests of powerful elements within Indian society. The deal was that they were allowed to keep their social influence and, crucially, their land.


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Almost uniquely in world history, the British conquest of India involved very little change in the ownership of land—at least from conquered to conquerors. The British took virtually no land for themselves and, on the whole, did not settle. Even as late as the 1860s, a powerful argument against the sale of ‘waste’ lands in India was that the availability of cheap land might encourage Europeans to migrate in force and assemble estates.

The major change in landownership brought about by British rule was from small peasants to larger landowners. This provides an important clue as to why the British succeeded politically for so long.

When the British arrived, India had an exploitative hierarchical social system, the centrepiece of which was the rural economy. By their own published standards, the British did too little to change this, and eventually ended up supporting it. They tried to redesign the legal framework of landholding, but not the social structures that surrounded it. This made it easier to run the country without making enemies. It was the very heart of the successful British strategy of ‘oblige and rule’.

The demands of domestic British politics required that colonial status had to be seen as beneficial to colonized people, and the tenancy reforms enacted by the British were part of fulfilling this need. But eventually the politics of Indian society forced the British to maintain the status quo, and make alliances with the most powerful sources of support available to them. It was left to the Indian National Congress in the early years of independence to bring about any degree of rural change.

Eighteenth-century India fell under British rule because of two circumstances. One was India’s political disunity, the other was the sophisticated land revenue system which made landholding a profitable business. Most European colonization of that period was of relatively empty lands, which made settlement slow and often only marginally rewarding; the interiors of Canada and Australia offered little to newcomers. But India was populous, wealthy and sophisticated—providing a self-financing road to conquest.

The French were the first to realize the opportunities this presented, and in the 1740s they based their bid for power in the Carnatic on notional grants of land revenue. But they failed to capitalize. The British learned, and did. The French, largely through circumstance, attempted to turn Hyderabad into a client state, which turned out to be a poor choice. The British, largely through circumstance, chose Bengal, which proved to be a lucrative, sustainable and defensible choice.


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Imperial Realities

To structure a new understanding, we must accept that, after British rule in Bengal was established in 1757, the Anglo-Indian relationship was never a conflict between two well-defined sides. Complex and flexible alliances always existed between alien and indigenous forces, as sectional interests sought advantages within the wider context. Conventional histories tend to underplay this fluidity, and overlook the degree to which elite groups in Britain and India were subdivided throughout their encounter, while sections within them were often in collaboration.

British attitudes towards India were never fixed. There was a long series of domestic disagreements about what to do in India. These sometimes fell along party political lines, which is why it is important to look more closely at events in Britain than is usually the case in histories of India. It is also necessary to look closely at the men who built, justified and ran British India. What they believed, the resistance they faced and the assistance they received are the very stuff of the story.

Reducing the story to one strand—the Indian struggle for freedom—makes for a stirring tale, with a high level of emotional payoff for South Asian audiences, but it artificially restricts the narrative. Nor can the story of British rule in India be reduced to a clash of imperialism versus nationalism. Both of these ideas are historically problematic, and events were more often shaped by opportunism, misjudgements and mistaken assumptions, especially on the British side. The most significant example is the reversal of British policy after the revolt of 1857. Before then, the British were allied with India’s modernizers; afterwards they supported the most conservative sections of Indian society. Before 1857 the British were effectively working against the traditional grain of Indian society; afterwards they were working with it. This was the great betrayal.

What ultimately dominated the course of the Anglo-Indian encounter was the development of two parallel political projects: the British search for legitimacy and the Indian quest for unity. Both had a degree of high-mindedness about them, but both were ultimately driven by a strong sense of utility: the British were looking for security as cheaply as possible, and the Indians needed to find collective strength to expel the invaders.

But both projects ultimately failed. The penalty for the British was expulsion; for the Indians it was Partition. After 1757, it was the Indians who got the worse deal all through.

This excerpt from ‘Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India’ by Roderick Matthews has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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