Her Majesty’s Royal Service – Making Sense of the British Raj

When it comes to interpretation of the British Rule in India there are two schools of thought. The popular view is that it was an era of darkness. Then there are intellectuals who attribute everything that is good in modern India to the colonial rule.

The Popular View

After Shashi Tharoor quit his international career and entered Indian politics he has been in news more for wrong reasons than the right ones. When he became a minister he preferred to stay in a five star hotel even though he was allotted with a government Bunglow. If the British thought Indians and dogs belonged to the same category, he thought Indians and cattle belonged to the same category.

An unlikely candidate though he is to slam the British way of life, Indian politics makes you do strange things. So he wrote a book called ‘An Era of Darkness’ giving detailed accounts of how the British looted India. I appreciate the pain he/his team has taken to dig out facts from various archives. However there is some propoganda angle too in this book. Tharoor tries to portray the Mughal period as if it was some kind of an economic utopia.

However from the first hand accounts of Travellers to India during Mughal period it can be inferred that the common men of India led same miserable lives whether it was during the British era or the Mughal period. During Mughal period the wealth of the country did not go out. But there was hell and heaven difference between the lifestyles of the aristocrats and the common men.

If the British drained the wealth of India, the Mughal rule was a period of intellectual drain. Being religious fanatics they encouraged only particular types of art, architecture and points of view. It was the death of scientific outlook and near death of multiculturalism in India. Perhaps, this was one of the reasons why Mughal empire itself crumbled.

The Contrarian View

What I describe here as popular and contrarian are from the point of view of an Indian. For a patriotic British or European the opposite would hold true. The official British Historian would make it all look like as if they did a great service to this country of primitive people.

Winston Churchill during his Parliament speeches made frequent references to Indians as those primitive people. According the them it was they who taught us civilization. Of course it is a different story that when great epics like Mahabharata were being written here in India, guerrillas and monkeys ruled over the island called the Great Britain.

But there was one Indian that Winston Churchil particularly liked. Later on this Bengali Bhadralok who spent most part of his very long life in India became the darling of the British intellectuals. He was not only recruited into Her Majesty’s Royal service as an honorary member, but also offered British citizenship which he gladly accepted.

He was non other than Nirad C Choudhury whose maiden book – ‘Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’ – became popular because of the controversies it created. Later on his supporters came up with the usual alibi that people objecting him had not read his book but were merely reacting after going through the dedication which proclaimed – ” … Because all that was good and living within us
was made, shaped and quickened by the same British rule

But I have read his book. He has not hidden his fascination for things British and his disdain for things Indian. Nirad C Choudhury went on to win numerous honours and awards from the west. We must remember that to win a western award (including the Nobel), being excellent in your artistic skill is not enough. You also have to subscribe to a certain point of view. Show me an author, a film director or an artist who has either criticized western values, or highlighted the good things of the east and survived to win such an award. There are still many aspects on which the west continues to be blatantly racist.

The Closing View

I read ‘Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’ many years back. Even though I did not agree with Nirad Babu on many issues, maybe I loved some his insights. Or else I would not have finished his book which may not be easy to do considering the long winding sentences and the frequent digressions in his books.

Maybe, I have also digressed a lot in this post. Now coming to the main issue … Well before that let us take this short digression.

Some Japanese historians think that the Nuclear bombing of Hiroshima was a good thing to happen in the context of the situation of those days. It was a necessary evil. Of course the Americans meant all evil only. While bombing it was not their purpose to cause some long term good to Japan.

The bombing of Hiroshima brought an immediate end to the world war. Had there been no bombing, the war would have prolonged. Had the war prolonged, Japan would have met the fate of Korea. The north half of Japan would have been a communist country with close links to Russia and the south half a capitalist country with close link to the US. Like the Koreans, half of the Japanese would have become enemies of the other half.

The East India Company was founded in 1600 as a Joint Stock Company. Like Google, Facebook, Reliance or any other ltd company of today its purpose was to show good results year on year and see that its shareholders prospered. To further its business interests it started meddling in local politics. Like any good business house does these days. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757 the Company’s hold over India was complete and it continued till the Sepoy mutiny. Subsequently, like many company’s do these days after sharp fall in their share prices, the company filed for bankruptcy and the Queen took over. So, informally till 1857 and formally till 1877 India was not ruled by the Britain, but by a joint stock company established in Britain.

Even though the rule of India passed from the hands of the company to the crown, it was managed in similar fashion as any country would run a public sector enterprise. Fromm beginning to end India was a business venture for the British.

They did what any company does. If a company does not get skilled man power, it gets whatever man power it can get and trains them. The British started English education in India because they needed lots of clerks to keep record of company affairs. Any company also needs good infrastructure. So the British constructed Railways to take raw material to ports and bring finished products of England from the ports to the hinterlands.

The Britsh never bothered to unite India. Before going they realized that it has become a huge country that might emerge as an alternate power centre to the west. So they divided it into two and the two in course of time became three. But had there been no British rule, and there after no Sardar Patel, maybe, this subcontinent might be host to 300 countries.

So perhaps, the British rule was a necessary evil, like the bombing of Hiroshima.

PS : This is the alphabet R post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.

All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.

23 thoughts on “Her Majesty’s Royal Service – Making Sense of the British Raj

  1. This is extremely powerful, enlightening and unnerving. Brilliantly put together and analyzed the repercussions of the British era in our country. I hope children of today get to read such articles. Our history has also been distorted in books taught in schools just like our education system has been altered since decades to produce followers and not leaders.

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  2. I appreciate the bold, honest, and upfront tone of the post. The fine balance between two contrasting points of view is the crux of this very informative, well-researched article and that’s what kept me reading till the end.
    Kudos to you Durgaprasad ji.

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  3. Kudos to you for this post. I was hooked. You understand well that politics plays a role in every little act that is done. Shashi Tharoor understands this well. They play to the pseudo liberal gallery. I have read excerpts of An Era of Darkness. A great effort to appease the average Indian.
    I think the bombing of Hiroshima Nagasaki had a lot to do with the experiments being conducted by Japan about which I shall be talking in one of my later posts.
    As for the British modernization of India well, as you said it was all done to meet their own personal agendas. But at the same time it cannot be denied that it did push India forward on the path to progress. Maybe we would have taken a few more years to get there. Garhwal never allowed the British to take over. As a result it took them years to come up to the level of other Indian cities. Even today it happens to be lagging behind in many aspects. On the other hand places such as Nainital and Mussori that became British settlement saw a different life. Although they were always looked down upon and mocked for bowing before the British but then as I see today Garhwal may have had a better infrastructure. So we cannot overlook that. Having said that, definitely it wasn’t special love of the English for India that made them bring railways or other infrastructure to India. It was all to serve their personal interests.

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  4. And in the same way, maybe this pandemic is a necessary evil that cleanses the Earth and emphasises the importance of hygiene among us. Of course, the British era must’ve brought both good and evil to the nation. I’m looking forward to reading more about the rule from different perspectives. Love reading your posts on Indian history and culture.

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  5. I do agree on the aspect that because of the British rule India did come together as one country in all it’s diversity to fight unitedly for independence….and thanks to them that that spirit of unity has stayed intact till date.

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    1. That is true. We don’t know how the country would have shaped up, had India not been colonised. But the point I wanted to highlight is even though certian good things happened, these were not intentionally done by them.


  6. That is a profound article. Personally I find Mr Tharoor an insufferable degenerate whose true place is in a prison at least for the murder of Sunanda Pushkar, but I might be a victim of yellow journalism. I have never read him, nor I imagine myself doing that in the foreseeable future, but the inference to be drawn form his work that Mughal period was an economic utopia for the disparate states of the subcontinent is like saying the sun revolves around the earth, which could be a fact depending on one’s understanding of the universe.

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  7. Bharata Varsha was a glorious land and Hindu kingdoms stretched further than Afghanistan.
    Much changed after the British came.
    I feel terrible about the loss of our India’s wealth- artifacts & rich education system among others…


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  8. That the British Raj and Hiroshima Bombings were necessary evils and were good is a new insight for me. And makes sense too. Keen to read Autobiography of an Unknown Indian but the long winding sentences and digressions do not inspire me.

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  9. Deeply interesting article. As in most aspects of life, perhaps the British time in India was a mixed bag of some very bad and a sprinkling of good. Looking at the rest of the world, now may be an opportune time to realise you can’t change history, you are a product of it.

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