The rise, consolidation, and fall of the British Raj is a fascinating story that inevitably raises passions throughout the Indian subcontinent and in Britain itself. What was the nature of the Raj? Was it a pre-planned, colonial enterprise? Did it have some positive aspects? How did it come about anyhow, and how was it ruled?
These questions remain relevant as India and Pakistan cross over into their 71st years as independent states. Some of these questions are answered in a book which was released last year, The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India, by Jon Wilson, a historian at King’s College London.
The book’s focus is less on specific political and military history, instead choosing to explore the impact of the Raj on the ground, from the eyes and ears of Indians and British officials in South Asia, and the impact that the British Raj had on Indian societies. In particular, while the later history of the British Raj is well-known, since it coincides with India’s independence movement, the book explores in quite some depth the murky origins of the Raj and its impact on India’s economy and social structures.
The Chaos of Empire posits that when Europeans arrived in the subcontinent, it was a “society of little societies. Politics was driven by the effort of men and sometimes women to build power by creating a following. Authority was built in alliances between groups of people that had their own organization and identity.”
When the Mughals arrived in India, they adopted this social structure: “there could be no such thing as Mughal nationalism.” This was because governance in India was about keeping “an ordered balance between the different forces which constituted Indian society.” Imposing the will of a centralized state over such a social structure, composed of a multitude of castes, ethnic groups, religions, and languages would have been impossible. These small societies would adjudicate their own disputes and enforce their own laws, with the task of Mughal officers being defined as keeping an “ordered balance between the different forces which constituted Indian society.” The Mughals did have laws and decrees, but these were of a general nature, and constantly subject to negotiation and adaptability.
What happened to that structure of Indian society?
British rule spread, not because of any grand plan, hatched from London, but through the effort of officers of the British East India Company (EIC) to make the most of an unfamiliar social and political situation, and to maximize their profits. This led eventually to the British conquest of Bengal, and then the rest of India, because the British could not operate in such an ad hoc (in their view) political and legal environment, with its lack of clarity.
The primary purpose of the British was “to make money.” In the English legal tradition, widely prized by the British, this required clear and stable laws that protected property rights and emphasized stable and predictable taxation levels, fixed in writing. Rather than adapt to the Indian system of adjudicating disputes between various local groups, the British ditched the practices of local governance, in which issues of taxation, business, and justice were often seen as negotiations, in favor of an increased emphasis on written laws. British rule was not contextualized in the same manner as Mughal, Maratha, or Mysorean rule. It was, instead, overly distant, under the guise of impartiality, and not easily adaptable to particular situations. This benefited the few who could adapt to or understand British legal principles: namely Europeans in India, and some well-connected Indians. Everyone else had to make do with an alien system.
As a result, over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, India suffered as a result of British attitudes toward governance and law. Wilson argues that the Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770, in which 20 percent of Bengal’s population perished, was the result of British inflexibility: the British were unwilling to accept late tax payments or lend money to farmers after crops had failed. Similar issues led to the major economic changes throughout India over the course of the years, resulting in the failure of a large number of Indian businesses as well as further famines.
While British policies and the nature of British governance did much to ruin the prosperity of India’s economy and its social patterns, the British also come off as out of their depth. British India was not the product of some colonial design hatched in London in the 17th century. The British come off as strangers in a strange land, unsure of how to govern India, and more concerned with their safety and cultural comfort, which preventing many British officers from journeying out among the people they ruled and negotiating with them.
The houses and activities of British officers throughout India are described as oases of European architecture and hobbies, with most British individuals sparing little effort to learn Indian customs. The Mughals also originated from outside of India, but adapted much more readily to Indian culture. Too often, this isolation from Indian society drove British fears and led to excessive violence, as the British had few organic connections with Indian society, and could only depend on the threat of force to keep order. Violence thus emerges not as calculated or even desired brutality, but as the product of British insecurity.
Wilson is correct in identifying how the British inability to appreciate the interconnected nature of Indian society led to numerous economic and political disasters. But modernity would have changed India anyhow. Is a society of societies really plausible in a modern nation build upon political and social assumptions of legal equality that have spread since the Enlightenment? In a society of societies, people would be trapped within their castes and negotiate with other castes instead of intermingling with other groups and being part of a larger society.
Different laws would apply to different religious groups. It would be harder for individuals to marry across ethnic and linguistic lines, as such decisions would be subject to constant negotiation by village elders. Clear laws do in fact encourage investment and economic growth, if applied properly, and relaxed during times of economic stress. A society in which individuals occasionally can negotiate different legal outcomes for similar crimes is a recipe for unfairness.
Ultimately, a society of societies may have functioned well in the 16th century, but in modern circumstances, it would result in individual rights and liberties taking second place to a plethora of institutions such as panchayats, which can be quite arbitrary at times. Yet, there is no doubt that the manner in which British social and legal traditions were imposed on their growing Raj worked against the majority of the Indian people at the time, as native legal traditions were jettisoned swiftly, and the new laws were not created necessarily to improve justice, but to create favorable conditions for the maximization of revenue for the British, who after all, wanted predictable incomes and steady taxation.