An English grandee of the eastern India firm depicted riding in an Indian procession, 1825-1830. Photograph: print Collector/Getty Images
It is true that before British rule, India was starting to autumn behind various other parts that the civilization – however many the the arguments defending the Raj are based on serious misconceptions around India’s past, imperialism and background itself


The British empire in India was in effect developed at the fight of Plassey top top 23 June 1757. The fight was swift, beginning at dawn and ending close to sunset. It was a regular monsoon day, v occasional rain in the mango groves in ~ the town of Plassey, i m sorry is between Calcutta, where the British were based, and Murshidabad, the resources of the kingdom of Bengal. It was in those mango groves that the british forces faced the Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula’s army and convincingly beat it.

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British ascendancy ended practically 200 years later with Jawaharlal Nehru’s well known speech top top India’s “tryst with destiny” at midnight top top 14 respectable 1947. Two hundred years is a lengthy time. What did the British attain in India, and also what walk they fail to accomplish?

During my days together a college student at a progressive school in West Bengal in the 1940s, these concerns came right into our conversation constantly. Castle remain important even today, no least because the British empire is frequently invoked in discussions around successful an international governance. That has additionally been invoked to shot to guide the us to recognize its function as the pre-eminent royal power in the human being today: “Should the United states seek to melted – or to shoulder – the imperial load it has inherited?” the chronicler Niall Ferguson has actually asked. That is definitely an interesting question, and Ferguson is appropriate to argue the it can not be answered there is no an expertise of how the British empire rose and fell – and what it regulated to do.


Arguing about all this at Santiniketan school, which had actually been created by Rabindranath Tagore some years earlier, we were bothered through a challenging methodological question. How can we think about what India would have actually been favor in the 1940s had actually British preeminence not occurred at all?

The constant temptation to compare India in 1757 (when British ascendancy was beginning) through India in 1947 (when the British to be leaving) would tell us an extremely little, due to the fact that in the absence of brothers rule, India would certainly of course not have actually remained the very same as it was at the moment of Plassey. The country would not have stood still had actually the British occupation not occurred. Yet how perform we answer the question around what distinction was make by brothers rule?

To highlight the relationship of such an “alternative history”, we may consider an additional case – one through a potential imperial occupation that did not in fact occur. Stop think around Commodore Matthew Perry the the united state navy, that steamed right into the just of Edo in Japan in 1853 with four warships. Now consider the possibility that Perry was not merely making a show of American toughness (as was in reality the case), but was instead the breakthrough guard of an American conquest of Japan, creating a new American empire in the soil of the climbing sun, fairly as Robert Clive did in India. If us were to evaluate the achievements of the an alleged American preeminence of Japan with the simple device of compare Japan before that imperial conquest in 1853 with Japan after the American dominance ended, at any time that can be, and also attribute every the distinctions to the impacts of the American empire, we would miss out on all the contributions of the Meiji restoration from 1868 onwards, and also of various other globalising alters that to be going on. Japan did no stand still; nor would India have done so.

While we can see what actually taken place in Japan under Meiji rule, that is incredibly hard come guess with any confidence what food the background of the Indian subcontinent would have actually taken had actually the British occupation not occurred. Would certainly India have actually moved, prefer Japan, in the direction of modernisation in an progressively globalising world, or would certainly it have remained resistant come change, choose Afghanistan, or would certainly it have hastened slowly, like Thailand?

These space impossibly daunting questions to answer. And also yet, even without real alternative historical scenarios, there are some limited questions that can be answered, i beg your pardon may add to one intelligent expertise of the role that British dominion played in India. We can ask: what to be the obstacles that India confronted at the moment of the british conquest, and what occurred in those an important areas during the brother rule?

There was surely a require for major changes in a fairly chaotic and also institutionally behind India. Come recognise the require for change in India in the mid-18th century does not need us to overlook – as many Indian super-nationalists are afraid – the good achievements in India’s past, v its extraordinary background of accomplishments in philosophy, mathematics, literature, arts, architecture, music, medicine, linguistics and astronomy. India had actually also achieved considerable success in structure a thriving economic climate with flourishing trade and commerce well prior to the colonial period – the financial wealth of India was amply acknowledged by british observers such together Adam Smith.

The reality is, nevertheless, that also with those achievements, in the mid-18th century India had in numerous ways fallen fine behind what to be being completed in Europe. The precise nature and significance that this backwardness were regular subjects that lively debates in the evenings at my school.


An insightful essay ~ above India by karl Marx particularly engaged the attention of some of us. Writing in 1853, Marx pointed to the constructive duty of British rule in India, ~ above the grounds that India essential some radical re-examination and also self-scrutiny. And also Britain did indeed serve together India’s primary western contact, an especially in the food of the 19th century. The prominence of this affect would be difficult to neglect. The indigenous globalised culture that to be slowly arising in India to be deeply indebted not just to brothers writing, but additionally to books and also articles in other – that is non-English – europe languages that ended up being known in India with the British.

Figures such as the Calcutta theorist Ram Mohan Roy, born in 1772, were influenced not just by timeless knowledge the Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian texts, but additionally by the growing familiarity with English writings. After Roy, in Bengal itself there were additionally Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Madhusudan Dutta and also several generations that Tagores and also their followers who were re-examining the India they had actually inherited in the irradiate of what they witnessed happening in Europe in the 18th and also 19th centuries. Their key – frequently their only – source of details were the books (usually in English) circulating in India, many thanks to brother rule. That pundit influence, spanning a wide selection of europe cultures, survives strongly today, even as the military, political and economic power of the brother has decreased dramatically.


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The Gateway the India in Bombay, a monument commemorating the landing that King George V and Queen mary in 1911. Photograph: robertharding/AlamyI was encouraged that Marx to be basically best in his diagnosis of the require for some radical change in India, together its old order was crumbling together a an outcome of not having actually been a part of the intellectual and economic globalisation the the Renaissance and the Industrial revolution had initiated across the world (along with, alas, colonialism).

There to be arguably, however, a major flaw in Marx’s thesis, in particular in his latent presumption the the British occupation was the only home window on the modern world that could have opened for India. What India needed at the time was more constructive globalisation, yet that is no the very same thing as imperialism. The difference is important. Throughout India’s long history, that persistently took pleasure in exchanges the ideas and of products with the outside world. Traders, settlers and also scholars moved in between India and also further east – China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and also elsewhere – for a great many centuries, beginning an ext than 2,000 years ago. The far-reaching influence the this motion – especially on language, literature and architecture – have the right to be viewed plentifully also today. There were likewise huge an international influences by means of India’s open-frontier perspective in welcome fugitives from its early days.

Jewish immigration into India began right ~ the loss of Jerusalem in the first century and also continued for countless hundreds that years. Baghdadi Jews, such together the extremely successful Sassoons, came in big numbers even as late as the 18th century. Christians started coming at least from the 4th century, and possibly lot earlier. There space colourful legends around this, consisting of one that tells united state that the very first person St thomas the Apostle met after coming to India in the an initial century to be a Jewish girl play the flute top top the Malabar coast. Us loved that evocative – and also undoubtedly apocryphal – anecdote in our classroom discussions, since it depicted the multicultural root of Indian traditions.

The Parsis started getting here from the early on eighth century – as quickly as persecution began in their Iranian homeland. Later in that century, the Armenians began to leaving their footprints from Kerala to Bengal. Muslim Arab traders had a comprehensive presence on the west coast of India from approximately that time – well before the come of Muslim conquerors countless centuries later, through the arid terrain in the north-west the the subcontinent. Persecuted Bahá’ís from Iran came just in the 19th century.

At the moment of the battle of Plassey, there were already businessmen, traders and also other professionals from a number of different European nations well settled near the mouth of the Ganges. Being based on imperial rule is hence not the only way of making relationships with, or discovering things from, foreign countries. When the Meiji Restoration developed a brand-new reformist federal government in Japan in 1868 (which was not unrelated come the interior political influence of Commodore Perry’s present of force a te earlier), the Japanese went directly to discovering from the west without being based on imperialism. Castle sent human being for cultivate in the US and also Europe, and also made institutional alters that were plainly inspired by western experience. They did no wait to it is in coercively globalised via imperialism.

One that the accomplishments to which British imperial theorists tended to give a an excellent deal of emphasis was the duty of the brother in producing a united India. In this analysis, India was a repertoire of fragmentised kingdoms until British rule made a country out the these varied regimes. The was said that India was previously not one country at all, however a thoroughly split land mass. It was the brother empire, so the insurance claim goes, that welded India into a nation. Winston Churchill also remarked that before the brother came, there to be no Indian nation. “India is a geography term. It is no an ext a united nation than the equator,” he once said.

If this is true, the empire plainly made one indirect contribution to the modernisation the India v its unifying role. However, is the cool claim about the big role that the Raj in bringing about a joined India correct? Certainly, when Clive’s eastern India company defeated the nawab the Bengal in 1757, there to be no single power judgment over every one of India. Yet it is a an excellent leap from the proximate story of brother imposing a solitary united regimen on India (as did in reality occur) to the vast claim that just the British might have developed a united India out of a set of different states.

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That way of looking in ~ Indian history would go firmly versus the fact of the large domestic empires that had qualified India transparent the millennia. The ambitious and also energetic majesties from the third century BC did no accept that their energy were finish until the mass of what they took to be one nation was unified under your rule. Over there were significant roles here for Ashoka Maurya, the Gupta emperors, Alauddin Khalji, the Mughals and others. Indian background shows a sequential alternation of huge domestic empires with swarm of fragmented kingdoms. We should therefore not make the failure of assuming the the fragmentized governance of mid-18th century India was the state in i m sorry the country typically found itself throughout history, till the brothers helpfully came along to unite it.