The Raj, revisited | Book Review — Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India by Roderick Matthews

A fresh perspective of the British era that rejects many existing biases

The Raj, revisited | Book Review — Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India by Roderick Matthews
Coins of the East India Company. 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

History has for long been used and misused by all shades of political opinion and ideology. Why the past becomes a contentious battle can perhaps be understood by the famous quote of George Orwell in his book Nineteen Eighty Four: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” Since history fashions contemporary political theories, it’s a given that it will always remain contentious and controversial, and not only are politicians guilty of this, but even professional historians. Nowhere is this better reflected than in Indian politics and academia.

In a nutshell, what’s the brief outline of the history of India as told by Marxist scholars? That the ancient period was a period of evolution; medieval saw the blossoming of a composite culture with heavily sugar-coated conflicts; modern says everything was spoiled by the coming of the British. So much so that today one can easily blame the poor Brits even for driving on the wrong side of the road.

Nationalists are no better at telling the story. There’s a slight twist here though. The ancient period becomes a land of honey and sugar, of Himalayan achievements in science and maths. Medieval period became a dark age when Muslims plundered India. Regarding the British, both sides are united: they spoiled everything.

So the Marxists come out as Hinduphobes, the nationalists as Islamophobes, and both as Britishphobes.

Popular culture and Bollywood have also done their bit when it comes to villanising the British period by victimising Indians, who continued their heroic battle for independence despite all odds, winning at last.

It is in this context that Roderick Matthews’ Peace, Poverty and Betrayal – A New History of British India, comes as a breath of fresh air, for it tells the story in a new light, rejecting several biases. The British were neither heroes nor villains, they did many wrongs, and they also did things that helped us in the long run. In his words, “The point is not to ask whether British rule in India was good or a bad thing; like all governments it can be seen as both. Nor does it matter whether we approve of what happened. For good or ill the British governed in India for nearly two centuries, 1765-1947. That would be a long time for any regime that was irredeemably bad, and the hardy endurance of British rule might suggest that it brought sufficient benefit to enough people to have survived for so long.”

In a well-written account, Roderick bursts several myths that over the years have been passed as standard historical facts by renowned historians and scholars. Any attempt to correct misconceptions draws the charge of being an apologist for imperialism, and I would not be surprised if the high academia of Indian universities paste this charge on the author.

So let’s sample some of the myths busted with rational logic and impeccable research. British linkage to India was mainly economic, they made money here. Wrong, says the author. 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.

It is stated like a gospel truth that the British plundered and looted India and the loot from here was used to finance the industrial revolution in Britain. Wrong says Roderick, and offers economic facts. The way the economy was handled was more complicated than a straightforward national plunder. Wealth was certainly brought from India to Britain, but this was not originally organised by the British state. Between 1600 and 1757, wealth came back through the East India Company (EIC), whose profits, in the good times, were conventional and legitimate. The plunder of Bengal after 1757 was different; it went from private coffers of Indian nawabs to the pockets of EIC governors, not looted from the common public. And none of this financed the industrial revolution as the sums involved were too small and went into the wrong hands, not in the British treasury. After 1800 the profits in trade with India earned by EIC were modest, and its surplus came from its dealings in China. Positive balances on trade only grew substantially in the 1830s. Until then, British trade with the West Indies was larger than with India.

The hardcore Mughal lovers who do not tire reminding time and again on social media that before coming of the British, India’s GDP was highest in the world but touched its lowest by 1947, ergo the impoverishment by the British, only go on to exhibit their ignorance of economics. India generated 23% of the world’s wealth in the 1700s, which was down to 3% by 1947. But when India was generating 23% of world GDP, she contained around 23% of the world population also. In those days productivity did not differ across geographies because the world economy primarily relied on agriculture, so what mattered was population. As Europe moved to technological and financial breakthroughs and India missed the bus, its global output fell.

Roderick does not offer a revisionist history, a charge many in India might level against him, but a balanced, contextual analysis. According to him, what 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.

Both projects ultimately failed. The penalty for the British was expulsion; for the Indians it was Partition. The most significant things that the British stole from Indians was the opportunity to design their own future, and the real valuable thing that Britain gave to India was internal disarmament and civil peace, two elusive, enabling preconditions for modern politics.

Says Roderick, “As the new Indian state came into being in 1947, all its principal ideals like the rule of law, religious liberty, legal equality, freedom of expression, protection of minorities were identical to those of the British Raj it replaced. Except for one: mass democracy. And by the cruellest of ironies, that was the one which brought about Partition.”

While abolition of untouchability, equal rights for women and adult suffrage were part of the social reform agenda pursued after independence, other major elements like land reforms and standardisation of family law were resisted by the conservative forces. The Congress thus ended up with both the Raj’s ruling system and its familiar inability to bring about real change.

If a long view is taken of the British era, it can be justly condemned on two accounts. First, for under-stimulating the Indian economy, and secondly, the British were guilty of both cowardice and hypocrisy for the support they gave the Indian conservative class after 1857. This was done for pragmatic reasons, but it swam against global currents in politics and economics, and it directly contradicted the self-declared rationale of the colonial government.

Personally for me, who did not offer a glowing review to Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness, Roderick’s book comes as a vindication. This is what he writes about Tharoor’s book, “A good read but a bad book. Shrill with righteous indignation, it displays little or no concern for balance, and is open to a wide range of criticisms, including an unblushing taste for absurdity. Most seriously, Tharoor eliminates Indians from the story almost entirely, except as victims. For him, Britain’s inglorious Indian empire had no rich Indians in it.” Though he does not mention William Dalrymple’s Anarchy, for me this also falls in the category of a “good read but a bad book”.

Elegantly written, backed with sound historical research and convincing arguments, the book is a tad heavy but still a page-turner. A mandatory reading to undo the brainwashing effected by text books, works of general interest and popular movies.

Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India
Roderick Matthews
Pp 416, Rs 799

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First published on: 05-09-2021 at 01:30 IST