Would India have been as advanced a country as it is today had the British never ruled over it?
Even if the right and Left wingers contest historical writings on the ancient and medieval period of India, they are mostly united over the British period, with it being painted as bringing ruin to a country where everything was fine earlier. However, both sides differ on when everything fine got ruined. So, for the right wingers, the ancient period was a glorious era that was destroyed with the coming of the Muslims/Mughals. For the Left wingers, the real period when everything bloomed (‘composite culture’ is the term they use) was the medieval period, which was destroyed by the British.
To these two strands of historical interpretation got added in recent times— I would mention British historian Niall Ferguson’s 2005 book Empire as a catalyst—the glorification of the British rule in India. The methodology that Ferguson adopted, and which is increasingly being adopted by a section of writers, is to see the positive aspects of British rule. Our rise as an emerging economic power, the advantage of English language, railways, our edge in engineering and technology, our modern education system—all of these are credited to the British. After all, without these, we wouldn’t have been able to scale the heights that we have done today. There’s some merit in this line, for if we consider 1857 as our first war of independence, the vision was of going back to the Mughal rule and times. Imagine if we were successful then! Ferguson added another dimension while celebrating the Empire—he compared it with other colonial masters like the French, Japanese and Dutch, and showed that the British colonies are much better off today than those of the others, hence QED.
Needless to say, all these schools of history suffer from limitations. To borrow from the observation of the great economic historian, Dharma Kumar, all issues should be judged from the present context. If British policies were bad, it does not necessarily mean that those of the Mughals were good.
It is in this context that the new book—India Conquered—brilliantly written by Jon Wilson, a professor of history at King’s College, London, needs to be seen. Broadly, Wilson’s extensively researched work runs contrary to that of Ferguson’s. He proves how the British rule was not beneficial for India and how the British never assimilated themselves with the society, systems and culture of this country. They always ruled it from the point of view of controlling this vast land, suspicious of its people. Even the engineering and technological marvels of railways or steamships were not to bring a change to society, but done for the convenience of the British. Wilson begins his book from the 1600 era, highlighting that though during the later Mughal period, the rulers were weak, they were good at negotiating and never hampered trade. Issues were settled and autonomy provided to local rulers, regional satraps, powerful governors and even overseas traders. India was never a unified society governed by a unitary principle and this is what Wilson terms as ‘society of societies’.
“Authority in Mughal India was based on the balance between trusting personal relationships and violence. Despite the flow of information on paper, face-to-face contact was crucial. Coming into the physical presence of the hakim (the ruler) was the central source of Mughal power. The exchange of gifts between rulers and subjects built and cemented reciprocal relationships,” writes Wilson. As per him, the British or East India Company brought into this scenario their system, their unified principle of written rules and documentation, something that was alien to the prevailing system and thus destroyed the entire relationship between the peasants and rulers. Wilson brings out that the land revenue system brought about by the British was rigid based on such documented rules, which created tensions in society.
He’s right. Every country, region and people have systems that are indigenous for them and with which they identify. Any system imposed by the above is always resisted and creates upheaval. The fault, or should one say this is not the scope of the book, is that Wilson never analyses the fault lines with the Mughal system. He simply embraces the theory touted by the Leftist writers that there was no tension between the peasants and the rulers over tax collection before the coming of the British. If one reads the works of Kumar, such proposition is proved false. But one can give Wilson the benefit of doubt on this issue since his work examines British India and not Mughal India. Maybe our writers should now examine that had the British not arrived in India, would our indigenous systems have evolved in a manner like they have? It is all very well to say that the indigenous systems were taking care of the problems, but would they have sustained over a long period? What about regional imbalances? These are issues that need to be examined further.
The economic system of Mughals with its deficiencies is often touted as a workable one. But even our caste system with all its excesses was working fine, wasn’t it? The village patriarch may have been cruel in cases, but he also helped lower-caste people. The lower caste knew very well that they had all the rights, barring purity and pollution. Should we then say by the same logic that it should have continued and there should have been no reforms? The right approach would be to critically analyse the failings of the British rule, as Wilson has done, but not fall in the trap that a golden period existed prior to it. Further, even if the British did things to suit their purpose, like bring the railways, it did eventually benefit Indian society. To borrow the philosophy of Ayn Rand, when man created the wheel, it was not for the benefit of society, but to prove his individual achievement. However, in the course of time, the invention proved beneficial for humankind.
Wilson’s work is well-researched, timely and brings out an important perspective. But it lacks proper analysis of the period prior to the British. Maybe that’s not his focus, but scholars interested in India’s past should look back critically to that period too, and not simply put all the blame at the doors of the British.