Skip Navigation

 

Empires Good And Evil

UCLA professor Sanjay Subrahmanyam discusses the nature and impact of British colonialism in South Asia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s depiction of it.

By Sanjay Subrahmanyam

This essay was originally published by The Times of India on July 21, 2005.

The PM has simplified the colonial encounter

On June 1, 2004 The Royal Geographical Society in London held a debate whose motion was "The British Empire was a Force for Good." The motion was suppor-ted, amongst others, by historian Niall Ferguson, who had recently become a one-man industry on the question of empire, both British and American. In extremis, he made use of a shallow but ingenious counterfactual argument: If only Indian soldiers had not fought in the Second World War, he argued, Hitler would not have been defeated. Since these soldiers were recruited by the British empire, therefore the empire was a force for the good. QED! The motion was passed by a popular vote of the audience.

Such an argument has a familiar ring to it. It could be used for example to defend Stalin and the gulag. Without them, surely Hitler would not have been defeated either. We can thus easily see where suchopportunistic arguments take us. Reading through the public debate in India after Manmohan Singh’s remarks to the convocation of my former university, Oxford, puts me in mind of some of these exercises.

As I see it, Singh was careful not simply to praise the British empire. He first criticised it, on the basis of some rather bogus statistics produced by Angus Maddison on the change in India’s share in world GDP, allegedly 22.6% in 1700 compared to 3.8% in 1952. No one knows what India’s GDP was in 1700. But let us admit a part of the premise, and say that India’s share did fall over these years. Three questions then arise. First, was this fall the result of British rule? Second, in the absence of British rule, what was the most plausible alternative? Third, is this the most useful way of looking at the effects of British rule in India, and of British imperial rule more generally?

Singh also implied that while the economic consequences of British rule were negative, the global effects on liberal institutions and political culture were really quite positive. These consequences cannot be measured in numbers, but the issue is worth thinking about. Nor does it imply that the consequences were planned or intended to be positive by the British, which is again unfortunately implied in Singh’s remarks.

Despite periodically using the rhetoric of paternalism, it is clear that British colonial policies were not primarily designed to promote economic growth in India. They often and insistently said so themselves. Growth between 1800 and 1950 was thus slow and fitful, and many other parts of the world (including Japan’s colonies in Taiwan and Korea) clearly did better than India.

It may be argued very plausibly that some institutions that came under British rule, such as the railways, would have come even without such rule. After all, many modern institutions fell into place in Iran, nineteenth-century Latin America, China, Japan or parts of South East Asia (e.g. Thailand) that were not colonised. Why is it a plausible assumption then that Britons, whose primary allegiance was to Britain, would have done better for India than Indians? Would any historian of Britain be willing to accept, say, that Britain would have performed better economically if only she were ruled over by Indians?

So, much depends too on the answer to the second question: If not Britain, then what? Here, each writer will have his own alternative scenario. Had the French under Bussy conquered peninsular India, would French colonial rule have produced a better outcome? Perhaps French revolutionary republicanism would have worked marvels on India. I have my doubts, but we cannot simply measure this by looking at France’s performance in Algeria. Would India not have fragmented into many small states in the absence of British rule? I have my doubts about that too, since I believe that the Mughal empire left a powerful cultural and institutional legacy of cohesion, which we tend to neglect today because of Hindu right-wing rhetoric.

But the most important question is the third one. The British empire was a complex and multi-faceted motor. Two aspects are worth keeping in mind. First, the British practised selective forms of acculturation, which were less brutal than those of the Spaniards in America, but also less nuanced than the Ottomans. However, acculturation is always a many-sided process. It was not just a question of what the British brought to the table, but the cultural resources that other parties disposed of. This is why the British empire produced such different outcomes in different parts of the world, and even within South Asia itself. It is also why nostalgia about British rule is not equally shared. Second, despite Ferguson’s arguments, most historians of even Britain today would admit that ‘modernity’ was not something that the British produced domestically and then exported. Britain and British society were also deeply affected by the empire. Therefore, we cannot see what happened in colonial India simply as a transfer, or a gift - even a poisoned gift.

By making the colonial encounter in India a meeting between rigid, timeless, Indian society and its frozen values, and egalitarian and fair-minded Britons, we are caricaturing India. But we are also caricaturing Britain. There is comfort in this, but only for those who are comforted by cliches.

***

Sanjay Subrahmanyam is Doshi Professor of Indian History at UCLA. He is also the founding director of the UCLA Center for India and South Asia. Click here for a profile.

Center for India and South Asia