Amartya Sen's conception of liberty extends to counterfactual cases such that if what happens is what one would have chosen 'counterfactually'- i.e. where one didn't chose it at all- then, 'decisive preference' obtains and this means 'freedom' is 'enjoyed' even if no 'decisive choice' was made.
This opens the possibility that India exercised liberty in choosing to be a British colony. However it also opens the possibility that India, not Britain, was dictatorial in imposing the burden of Empire on a nation which held such a task in repugnance.
The Guardian has published a 'long read' by Sen which its 'woke' readership would naturally assume to be a castigation of the Raj. Yet, it may actually be an elegy- for those who know Sen's work in Social Choice- in the spirit of Nirad Chaudhri.
Sen is a Vaidya, rather than a Kayastha, unlike Nirad Babu, and belonged to an irenic strain of the Brahmo tradition that keeps a distance from 'Sakta' (which means Power) Religion . Yet, like Nirad, his ancestral roots are in East Bengal and he well knows the history of that place. This gives an amphibolous edge to his essay which makes it an even more bitter diatribe against the Bengali than any Nirad penned.
Why did the first Brahmos- Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dwarkanath Tagore in particular- lobby Westminster to remove curbs on British settlers in India? They said, in plain terms, this was to give the Brits an incentive to hold the Muslims in check. Dwarkanath's family had been degraded in the caste hierarchy because a collateral branch had been forcibly converted to Islam. Thus the Tagores were known as 'Pir Ali' Brahmins. This gave them an incentive to join with Roy to start the 'Brahmo Samaj'.
Why did Rabindranath Tagore, Dwarkanath's grandson, turn against Indian Nationalism? It was because he saw that the Muslims in East Bengal (where they were the majority) would take away the landed wealth of the Hindus. He may not have foreseen the extent of ethnic-cleansing however the ending of his novel 'Home and the World' could not be clearer. Bhadrolok Hindus, like himself, were slaughtered by poorer Muslims.
Amartya Sen studied at Tagore's Shantiniketan. His family was from East Bengal and he could see with his own eyes what happened to them there. Yet, he writes in his memoir 'Home in the World'-
What did the British achieve in India, and what did they fail to accomplish?
The British achieved something worthwhile for Britain- viz. gaining increased wealth and power. They failed to make India strong enough or rich enough to protect and feed itself under the rule of elected Indian politicians (which they believed was the only way the thing could be done). Thus, they left because America would not finance their staying on and also they could not prevent elected Bengali politicians from presiding over famine and ethnic cleansing.
During my days as a student at a progressive school in West Bengal in the 1940s, these questions came into our discussion constantly.
Bengal had narrowly escaped becoming a Japanese colony. Kids may not have understood how bad things could have become. Sadly, few politicians and 'buddhijivis' understood- or admitted to understanding- what would have happened in a Japanese puppet state notionally presided over by Netaji Bose.
They remain important even today, not least because the British empire is often invoked in discussions about successful global governance.
This is foolish. The European Empires were racist in a manner which is simply no longer tenable.
It has also been invoked to try to persuade the US to acknowledge its role as the pre-eminent imperial power in the world today: “Should the United States seek to shed – or to shoulder – the imperial load it has inherited?” the historian Niall Ferguson has asked. It is certainly an interesting question, and Ferguson is right to argue that it cannot be answered without an understanding of how the British empire rose and fell – and what it managed to do.
This is not the case. The US should do what is in its national interest. What the Brits or the Romans did is irrelevant.
Arguing about all this at Santiniketan school, which had been established by Rabindranath Tagore some decades earlier, we were bothered by a difficult methodological question. How could we think about what India would have been like in the 1940s had British rule not occurred at all?
The answer was stark. Bengal would have big famines and ethnic cleansing- till the Japanese conquered it and enslaved its people. Even if Japan was defeated by America, Tagores would lose their estates in the East and Sens would have to run away from Dacca.
The frequent temptation to compare India in 1757 (when British rule was beginning) with India in 1947 (when the British were leaving) would tell us very little, because in the absence of British rule, India would of course not have remained the same as it was at the time of Plassey.
True. It could have been worse- at least for Bengali Hindus.
The country would not have stood still had the British conquest not occurred. But how do we answer the question about what difference was made by British rule?
The alternative to British rule was French rule- which may have suited the genius of the people better- or else a revived Muslim rule, dependent on immigrants like Reza Khan, which would have forcibly converted the Hindu (at that time) majority. However, such Muslim rule would sooner or later have come under the paramountcy of one or other of the Western European maritime great powers. Why? Money matters in politics. The countries whose ships facilitate global commerce get richer and acquire the means for force projection and thus become Imperial.
What if, like Iran, India had remained independent because Religion was a powerful enough force to preclude direct rule by infidels? Consider the Persia famine of 1917-19 which some estimate to have killed ten percent of the population. India, too, could have been a place where foreign armies, perhaps through local proxies, fought while living off the land. What seems unlikely is that, like Japan, it would have turned to the seas and risen up as a great trading nation.
To illustrate the relevance of such an “alternative history”, we may consider another case – one with a potential imperial conquest that did not in fact occur.
Let’s think about Commodore Matthew Perry of the US navy, who steamed into the bay of Edo in Japan in 1853 with four warships. Now consider the possibility that Perry was not merely making a show of American strength (as was in fact the case), but was instead the advance guard of an American conquest of Japan, establishing a new American empire in the land of the rising sun, rather as Robert Clive did in India.
Clive found plenty of Indians to help him. They only cared about money. The patriotic Japanese would have slaughtered the Americans even if they took disproportionate casualties.
If we were to assess the achievements of the supposed American rule of Japan through the simple device of comparing Japan before that imperial conquest in 1853 with Japan after the American domination ended, whenever that might be, and attribute all the differences to the effects of the American empire, we would miss all the contributions of the Meiji restoration from 1868 onwards, and of other globalising changes that were going on. Japan did not stand still; nor would India have done so.
As a matter of fact, we can assess the 'achievements' of the American occupation of Japan. They were highly salutary. Unlike in Bengal, where landlordism was supported by the Brits, the Americans redistributed about 40 percent of cultivable land to the peasants. The power of the aristocracy was broken. There was both privatization of public utilities as well as a break up of 'zaibatsu'. Trade Unions were permitted. America made Japan more equal. The Brits in Bengal did the reverse. Why? They were few and died like flies in a humid climate. But Indian compradors were dime a dozen.
Why did Indians prefer to work for these foreigners? The Brits may have been arrogant and rapacious but they were less so than one's cousins- or indeed one's own sons. The latter might kill you or blind you or castrate you just for the hell of it. The Brits were more business like. If the thing didn't pay, they didn't do it. That's also why they left.
While we can see what actually happened in Japan under Meiji rule, it is extremely hard to guess with any confidence what course the history of the Indian subcontinent would have taken had the British conquest not occurred.
Why not look at Nepal? Gurkhas had fighting spirit so the Brits befriended their ruler after curbing their predations. But Nepal wasn't exactly flourishing economically was it?
Would India have moved, like Japan, towards modernisation in an increasingly globalising world, or would it have remained resistant to change, like Afghanistan, or would it have hastened slowly, like Thailand?
There would have been no India. The question is, what would Bengal have looked like? The answer is that its Sen-tentious pundits would be Francophone.
These are impossibly difficult questions to answer. And yet, even without real alternative historical scenarios, there are some limited questions that can be answered, which may contribute to an intelligent understanding of the role that British rule played in India. We can ask: what were the challenges that India faced at the time of the British conquest,
It was divided up into mutually hostile kingdoms and subject to internal predation and external attack.
and what happened in those critical areas during the British rule?
The British succeeded in uniting the sub-continent and suppressing all internal or external threats.
There was surely a need for major changes in a rather chaotic and institutionally backward India. To recognise the need for change
you must ignore irrelevant shit- like what happened centuries ago. Otherwise you end up creating white elephants like Nalanda University.
in India in the mid-18th century does not require us to ignore – as many Indian super-nationalists fear – the great achievements in India’s past, with its extraordinary history of accomplishments in philosophy, mathematics, literature, arts, architecture, music, medicine, linguistics and astronomy. India had also achieved considerable success in building a thriving economy with flourishing trade and commerce well before the colonial period – the economic wealth of India was amply acknowledged by British observers such as Adam Smith.
But India fell behind in maritime commerce. Unlike Japan, Korea and now China, it didn't go in for shipbuilding and the construction of modern ports on a large scale. Much blame for India's decline in economic standing after Independence must go to stupid mathematical economists like Sen.
The fact is, nevertheless, that even with those achievements, in the mid-18th century India had in many ways fallen well behind what was being achieved in Europe.
It was not usual, in Europe, for a General to betray his King on the battlefield or for brothers to kill brothers so as to secure the throne. When a wealthy merchant in London died, his wives and concubines were not forced to commit suttee- i.e. immolate themselves on his funeral pyre.
The exact nature and significance of this backwardness were frequent subjects of lively debates in the evenings at my school.
Shantiniketan is now- according to newspaper reports- littered with used condoms and empty liquor bottles. That beats 'lively debate' as a way to pass the evenings.
An insightful essay on India by Karl Marx particularly engaged the attention of some of us. Writing in 1853, Marx pointed to the constructive role of British rule in India, on the grounds that India needed some radical re-examination and self-scrutiny.
India needs Indians to stop being so shitty. One way to achieve this is to export Sen-tentious pundits and just mimic what more successful countries are doing. Fuck 'self-scrutiny'. Just do what smart people are doing. If you find yourself materially better off, do more of that stuff. If not, find some other mimetic target.
And Britain did indeed serve as India’s primary western contact, particularly in the course of the 19th century.
No. Britain served as India's primary ruler. Indeed, Brits became India's primary Indian contact. It was through English that Indians learnt about each other. Mahatma Gandhi read the Bhagvad Gita in England and in English.
The importance of this influence would be hard to neglect.
Yet, we can neglect it utterly. The fact is Japan showed that a country determined to better itself could learn everything from everybody. There were smart Indians who saw, by the Edwardian era, that America was better than England for higher education and technological studies. Indeed, the great Marshall himself advised Indians to look to America.
The indigenous globalised culture that was slowly emerging in India was deeply indebted not only to British writing, but also to books and articles in other – that is non-English – European languages that became known in India through the British.
Sen does not say that the Brits encouraged the vernacular languages. Thanks to them, Bengali and Tamil- and even Urdu- displaced Sanskrit or Arabic and Persian.
Figures such as the Calcutta philosopher Ram Mohan Roy, born in 1772, were influenced not only by traditional knowledge of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian texts, but also by the growing familiarity with English writings.
Roy was a clerk to a British magistrate. He became rich.
After Roy, in Bengal itself there were also Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar,
who was educated and later taught at the Sanskrit College created by the Brits
who found success after switching from writing boring English verse to writing bombastic Bengali verse.
and several generations of Tagores
compradors par excellence. One branch of the family had the hereditary entitlement to hold an umbrella over the Viceroy's head or something of that sort.
and their followers who were re-examining the India they had inherited in the light of what they saw happening in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their main – often their only – source of information were the books (usually in English) circulating in India, thanks to British rule.
So, if British were not ruling, Indians would not be reading- isn't it?
That intellectual influence, covering a wide range of European cultures, survives strongly today, even as the military, political and economic power of the British has declined dramatically.
In other words, Indians are too lazy to do anything for themselves. They have to be spoon-fed knowledge by the Brits. That's why Sen's dad paid a lot of money so he could study in England. If English not ruling, Indians not reading English- innit? Better send the boy to Engyland. Queenji will give him tight slap if he is not learning.
I was persuaded that Marx was basically right in his diagnosis of the need for some radical change in India,
Sen had witnessed a great famine, a threat of invasion by the Japanese, and then massive ethnic cleansing. Yet, it took an article written one hundred years previously by some German to get him to see that Bengal needed to change.
as its old order was crumbling as a result of not having been a part of the intellectual and economic globalisation that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution had initiated across the world (along with, alas, colonialism).
But Sen's Vaidya class had high male literacy in English in the Thirties (when he was born). They had participated in European Enlightenment and modern industrial methods for longer than the Japanese or the Chinese. Yet they were shite. Why? They didn't get that the only thing which matters is to mimic what smart people are doing so as to be materially better off. Read books by all means if this makes your mimicry better. However, mimicking useless tossers won't help your country. Emigrate to where those useless tossers are and compete with them in being a useless tosser.
There was arguably, however, a serious flaw in Marx’s thesis, in particular in his implicit presumption that the British conquest was the only window on the modern world that could have opened for India.
The Mutiny proved Marx right. There was another window but it opened on anarchy. That's why the succeeding generation of Indians were ultra-loyalist. Incidentally, Mahatma Gandhi's father was rubbish as Diwan (i.e. Chancellor) of Porbandar. It was degraded to third class status on his watch and only restored to a better class after he died. It is not sufficiently understood that Gandhi was sent to England not because he was too stupid to study at Samaldas College- or so as to get him away from they syphilitic bisexual Manilal Dwivedi- but because England was supposed to make him more loyal and virtuous. Obviously, his caste- one composed of traders and usurers and corrupt jacks in office- wished to ostracize him. If high caste Hindus became virtuous and public spirited, what would happen to their relative wealth and privilege? They would end up following some low caste Ghanchi simply because the fellow had greater merit.
What India needed at the time was more constructive globalisation, but that is not the same thing as imperialism.
Why not simply say 'India needed nice foreigners to come and feed it and wipe its bum and teach it to read and then send it to Cambridge and then provide it with intellectual affirmative action and then give it a Nobel Prize?'
The distinction is important. Throughout India’s long history, it persistently enjoyed exchanges of ideas as well as of commodities with the outside world.
It kept getting conquered. Welfare is linked to warfare. The one attracts or enables the other. Exchanges of ideas and commodities are non-coercive or mutually beneficial only if both sides have a high enough threat point- i.e. an offensive military doctrine.
Traders, settlers and scholars moved between India and further east – China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere – for a great many centuries, beginning more than 2,000 years ago.
But then Hindu India turned its back on the Sea. Thus its present existence is a product of a great Sea power which, thankfully, wasn't greatly interested in spreading its Religion.
The far-reaching influence of this movement – especially on language, literature and architecture – can be seen plentifully even today. There were also huge global influences by means of India’s open-frontier attitude in welcoming fugitives from its early days.
Though the fugitives could turn into conquerors or, by other means, establish an ascendancy over the indigenous people.
Jewish immigration into India began right after the fall of Jerusalem in the first century and continued for many hundreds of years. Baghdadi Jews, such as the highly successful Sassoons, came in large numbers even as late as the 18th century.
The Sassoons came in the 19th century. Armenians would be a better example. in 1688, an Armenian merchant in London signed a treaty with the East India Company on behalf of his 'nation' granting them equal rights and protections. Interestingly, the first ever Armenian constitution was written in Madras, India, 1773, by Shahamir Shahmirian,
Christians started coming at least from the fourth century, and possibly much earlier. There are colourful legends about this, including one that tells us that the first person St Thomas the Apostle met after coming to India in the first century was a Jewish girl playing the flute on the Malabar coast. We loved that evocative – and undoubtedly apocryphal – anecdote in our classroom discussions, because it illustrated the multicultural roots of Indian traditions.
But, except for devout Hindus, Bengal and Malabar were completely separate countries. Only Sanskrit speakers could have seen any common 'roots'. North Indian Muslims shared the opinion of Ibn Batuta that the Moplahs weren't proper Muslims because women enjoyed relative freedom.
The Parsis started arriving from the early eighth century – as soon as persecution began in their Iranian homeland. Later in that century, the Armenians began to leave their footprints from Kerala to Bengal. Muslim Arab traders had a substantial presence on the west coast of India from around that time – well before the arrival of Muslim conquerors many centuries later, through the arid terrain in the north-west of the subcontinent. Persecuted Bahá’ís from Iran came only in the 19th century.
The Chinese also came and, like others, left in great numbers for America and Europe because independent India was a shit-hole which even the Indians wanted to escape.
At the time of the Battle of Plassey, there were already businessmen, traders and other professionals from a number of different European nations well settled near the mouth of the Ganges. Being subjected to imperial rule is thus not the only way of making connections with, or learning things from, foreign countries.
But, imperial rule may be the only way of turning a bunch of warring princedoms or marauding tribes into a country.
When the Meiji Restoration established a new reformist government in Japan in 1868 (which was not unrelated to the internal political impact of Commodore Perry’s show of force a decade earlier), the Japanese went straight to learning from the west without being subjected to imperialism.
Why? Because they were patriots who had a long tradition of collectively picking the best Tardean mimetic target. It was clear that Japan had to 'escape from Asia' (Datsu-A Ron) and it proceeded to do so with vim and vigor till it was strong enough to prey upon its Asian neighbors.
They sent people for training in the US and Europe, and made institutional changes that were clearly inspired by western experience. They did not wait to be coercively globalised via imperialism.
Because they were cohesive and placed a very high value on patriotism. Buddhism had been promoted and Christianity banned when the latter were seen as a threat. Then, when Buddhism was seen as holding the nation back, Temples were burned and monks beaten till they grew their hair out and got married. The ban on the meat of 'four legged creatures' was lifted and the Japanese were encouraged to eat beef. Sadly, one legacy of Buddhism- untouchability- was not removed completely.
One of the achievements to which British imperial theorists tended to give a good deal of emphasis was the role of the British in producing a united India. In this analysis, India was a collection of fragmented kingdoms until British rule made a country out of these diverse regimes. It was argued that India was previously not one country at all, but a thoroughly divided land mass. It was the British empire, so the claim goes, that welded India into a nation. Winston Churchill even remarked that before the British came, there was no Indian nation. “India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator,” he once said.
First Buddhist Burma went its own way and then the Muslim majority areas. If India exists now as a nation it is because it is overwhelmingly Hindu.
If this is true, the empire clearly made an indirect contribution to the modernisation of India through its unifying role. However, is the grand claim about the big role of the Raj in bringing about a united India correct? Certainly, when Clive’s East India Company defeated the nawab of Bengal in 1757, there was no single power ruling over all of India. Yet it is a great leap from the proximate story of Britain imposing a single united regime on India (as did actually occur) to the huge claim that only the British could have created a united India out of a set of disparate states.
The alternative was another Aurangazeb instrumentalizing Islam. It was only after Hindus saw that they could cohere through Democratic means- i.e. the question of who should be Emperor was immaterial- that India became politically viable as a Nation State. It must be admitted that Britishers- like Hume, Wedderburn, Cotton- but also Annie Beasant- contributed to this. Still, we have to admit there is a strong dynastic bias in Hindu democracy. This suggests that Indian democracy is less about Social Choice than just solving concurrency and coordination problems on the basis of uncorrelated asymmetries. Thus, only if no Nehru-Gandhi is electable does the post go to anyone else. Modi may have changed India in this respect. Previously a Chief Minister or a Prime Minister used his Cabinet to keep his enemies close. Now there is a notion of collective responsibility for good governance. This is more in line with classical liberal thought. Let us see if it lasts.
That way of looking at Indian history would go firmly against the reality of the large domestic empires that had characterised India throughout the millennia.
But those Empires did not evolve a stable cadre of soldier/administrators similar to the Samurai of Japan or Mandarins of China. What you had under the Mughals was a courtier class of immigrant Muslim soldier/savants intermixed with Hindu 'writer caste' bureaucrats as well as some hereditary potentates and a variegated supply of mercenary soldiers who, however, tended to run away if they couldn't be sure of securing some loot.
In the end, Religion trumped everything else. The Hindu/ Muslim divide proved unbridgeable and led to the partition of the country.
The ambitious and energetic emperors from the third century BC did not accept that their regimes were complete until the bulk of what they took to be one country was united under their rule.
Sen is too stupid to understand that Emperors on a winning streak don't stop when they reach the natural borders of any country. They just keep going.
There were major roles here for Ashoka Maurya, the Gupta emperors, Alauddin Khalji, the Mughals and others. Indian history shows a sequential alternation of large domestic empires with clusters of fragmented kingdoms.
Actually, there was no sequence. If the Emperor became weak what, de facto, obtained was fragmented kingdoms. If he became strong this was reversed till he became weak again or died and was replaced by a nitwit.
We should therefore not make the mistake of assuming that the fragmented governance of mid-18th century India was the state in which the country typically found itself throughout history, until the British helpfully came along to unite it.
Ashoka persecuted Jains- who still exist though Ashoka's Buddhism disappeared. Khilji persecuted Hindus who have taken an ample revenge- where there were able to.
The British did create an administrative and military cadre which, provided one religion was recognized as dominant, was loyal to what became the successor states of the Raj. However, speaking generally, this class has been shit at economic policy.
Even though in history textbooks the British were often assumed to be the successors of the Mughals in India, it is important to note that the British did not in fact take on the Mughals when they were a force to be reckoned with.
They did make an attempt in 1688-89 but were beaten. Aurangazeb's mistake was to let them off with a fine. The Indians didn't see that their security depended on controlling their own littoral.
British rule began when the Mughals’ power had declined, though formally even the nawab of Bengal, whom the British defeated, was their subject. The nawab still swore allegiance to the Mughal emperor, without paying very much attention to his dictates. The imperial status of the Mughal authority over India continued to be widely acknowledged even though the powerful empire itself was missing.
This is simply false. The nawab was afraid of the Marathas who controlled the Mughal Crown after the Afghans had been sent packing. Then the Brits defeated the Marathas and the 'Emperor' became their pensioner. They did do a little to restore Delhi but then the Mutiny reversed these small gains.
When the so-called sepoy mutiny threatened the foundations of British India in 1857, the diverse anti-British forces participating in the joint rebellion could be aligned through their shared acceptance of the formal legitimacy of the Mughal emperor as the ruler of India.
The thing was tried, but it didn't work. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan depicted the Emperor as a moon-calf. One might as well appoint a goat to the highest office. At least a goat can eat the files placed before it.
The emperor was, in fact, reluctant to lead the rebels, but this did not stop the rebels from declaring him the emperor of all India. The 82-year-old Mughal monarch, Bahadur Shah II, known as Zafar, was far more interested in reading and writing poetry than in fighting wars or ruling India. He could do little to help the 1,400 unarmed civilians of Delhi whom the British killed as the mutiny was brutally crushed and the city largely destroyed.
That number seems a gross underestimate.
The poet-emperor was banished to Burma, where he died.
As a child growing up in Burma in the 1930s, I was taken by my parents to see Zafar’s grave in Rangoon, which was close to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. The grave was not allowed to be anything more than an undistinguished stone slab covered with corrugated iron. I remember discussing with my father how the British rulers of India and Burma must evidently have been afraid of the evocative power of the remains of the last Mughal emperor. The inscription on the grave noted only that “Bahadur Shah was ex-King of Delhi” – no mention of “empire” in the commemoration! It was only much later, in the 1990s, that Zafar would be honoured with something closer to what could decently serve as the grave of the last Mughal emperor.
Interestingly, the grave's location had been forgotten by 1900. Pressure from Muslims caused it to be relocated and, more recently, upgraded.
In the absence of the British Raj, the most likely successors to the Mughals would probably have been the newly emerging Hindu Maratha powers near Bombay, who periodically sacked the Mughal capital of Delhi
The Maratha flag flew over Delhi from 1788 to 1803.
and exercised their power to intervene across India. Already by 1742, the East India Company had built a huge “Maratha ditch” at the edge of Calcutta to slow down the lightning raids of the Maratha cavalry, which rode rapidly across 1,000 miles or more. But the Marathas were still quite far from putting together anything like the plan of an all-India empire.
Maratha rule was acceptable to some parts of Hindu India but not to others. It was wholly repugnant to Muslims.
The British, by contrast, were not satisfied until they were the dominant power across the bulk of the subcontinent, and in this they were not so much bringing a new vision of a united India from abroad as acting as the successor of previous domestic empires.
No. The British Viceroy was wholly subordinate to the Crown in Parliament. There was an 'Anglo-Indian' class but it returned to England for education and after retirement from Government service. India had never seen anything like it before. The reason this system worked was because the British administrator had no kin-folk in his District. Only where a sizable 'planter' community existed could there be a problem. But such places were few and far between.
British rule spread to the rest of the country from its imperial foundations in Calcutta, beginning almost immediately after Plassey.
Bombay and Madras too played a big role but this was before there were any 'imperial foundations'.
As the company’s power expanded across India, Calcutta became the capital of the newly emerging empire, a position it occupied from the mid-18th century until 1911 (when the capital was moved to Delhi). It was from Calcutta that the conquest of other parts of India was planned and directed.
This is misleading. Though the 1793 Charter Act gave the Governor General extensive powers over the Governors of Madras and Bombay it was only in 1833 that supremacy was made explicit.
The profits made by the East India Company from its economic operations in Bengal financed, to a great extent, the wars that the British waged across India in the period of their colonial expansion.
The profits made by Hindu Bengali compradors largely financed the cultural and intellectuals pretensions of the 'bhadralok'. Sadly, this involved a great predisposition to talk bollocks.
What has been called “the financial bleeding of Bengal” began very soon after Plassey.
But parasitic Hindu tax-farming and money-lending castes had been bleeding everybody for centuries before that- save while being robbed or chased away.
On the other hand, there was also a drain towards Iran and Iraq. The Nawabs of Oudh paid for the irrigation of the Najaf Kerbala region which is why, according to some authorities, Iraq now has a Shia majority. In this case, the drain of wealth was resented by Sunnis as well as Hindus. Still, as Secular historians point out, Kayasthas who were castrated to enter the service of Shia nobles must have been very happy. Sadly, the Brits refused them this valuable method of advancement.
With the nawabs under their control, the company made big money not only from territorial revenues, but also from the unique privilege of duty-free trade in the rich Bengal economy – even without counting the so-called gifts that the Company regularly extracted from local merchants. Those who wish to be inspired by the glory of the British empire would do well to avoid reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, including his discussion of the abuse of state power by a “mercantile company which oppresses and domineers in the East Indies”. As the historian William Dalrymple has observed: “The economic figures speak for themselves. In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was producing 22.5%. By the peak of the Raj, those figures had more or less been reversed: India was reduced from the world’s leading manufacturing nation to a symbol of famine and deprivation.”
The Brits had become much much more productive. The Indian 'buddhijivis' had become even more addicted to talking bollocks. Self-righteous moral indignation was the Gandhian hole in the Nehruvian begging bowl.
While most of the loot from the financial bleeding accrued to British company officials in Bengal,
and those who, like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, worked for them
there was widespread participation by the political and business leadership in Britain: nearly a quarter of the members of parliament in London owned stocks in the East India Company after Plassey. The commercial benefits from Britain’s Indian empire thus reached far into the British establishment.
But the Brits got to rule India only because when they promised to put money in your pocket for surrendering, they actually put that money in your pocket year after year, decade after decade, century after century.
The robber-ruler synthesis did eventually give way to what would eventually become classical colonialism, with the recognition of the need for law and order and a modicum of reasonable governance.
No. Classical colonialism relies on settlers forming colonies. What Britain was doing was forcibly exporting 'invisibles'. The reason it could do so was because its Navy, vital to its own defense, could more than pay for itself by transporting British manufactured goods on increasingly favorable terms of trade. Only when British industrial leadership came into question did Britannia's ability to rule the waves begin to falter. Timely reform in India and elsewhere might have reversed this outcome. Racism, alas, was the nigger in the woodpile.
But the early misuse of state power by the East India Company put the economy of Bengal under huge stress.
Because the even earlier misuse of state power made Bengal vulnerable to predators.
What the cartographer John Thornton, in his famous chart of the region in 1703, had described as “the Rich Kingdom of Bengal” experienced a gigantic famine during 1769–70.
But Bengal experienced two big famines under democratically elected Bengali politicians in Sen's own life-time.
Contemporary estimates suggested that about a third of the Bengal population died. This is almost certainly an overestimate. There was no doubt, however, that it was a huge catastrophe, with massive starvation and mortality – in a region that had seen no famine for a very long time.
More recent scholarship disputes this.
This disaster had at least two significant effects.
It gave rise to Thomas Malthus's notion of famine as a natural check on overpopulation which in turn contributed to Social Darwinism. Tirthankar Roy in a paper discussing whether Indian famines were natural or 'man made' says-
Modern famine analysts and
historians owe their conception of ‘natural’ to Thomas Malthus. Malthus used the word
‘nature’ in a wide range of senses, including the ‘natural carelessness’ with which some
populations reproduced. But one meaning is particularly relevant in this context. This
meaning is expressed in the sentence: ‘Famine [is] the last and most dreadful mode by which
nature represses a redundant population.’ In other words, famine is the inevitable result of
overpopulation. Using ‘Indostan’ or India as one of his examples, Malthus suggested that the
yield of land was so low here and the population ordinarily lived with so little food that the
effect of a ‘convulsion of nature’ such as a crop failure could be immediate and devastating
Sen himself believes that the 1943-44 famine was caused by the rise in wages of people who had previously filled only half their bellies. Suddenly, they could eat double the quantity. Thus the other half of the poor starved to death. The 'Sen-Dobb' thesis suggested that India could grow by freezing real wages and confiscating the surplus so as to invest in shiny technology. Sadly, Sen hadn't noticed that productivity is related to nutritional intake. You have to raise real wages- e.g. by increasing supply of 'wage goods' and 'luxuries' (which permit 'Giffen goods' to drop in price thus making it cheaper to feed the destitute- in order to raise productivity which in turn lowers per unit labor cost and permits export-led growth on the basis of economies of scope and scale. In other words, Sen made his name by ignoring everything taught in the first year of High School Econ.
First, the inequity of early British rule in India became the subject of considerable political criticism in Britain itself.
But this criticism had no effect.
By the time Adam Smith roundly declared in The Wealth of Nations that the East India Company was “altogether unfit to govern its territorial possessions”, there were many British figures, such as Edmund Burke, making similar critiques.
On this point, they were completely and utterly ignored.
Second, the economic decline of Bengal did eventually ruin the company’s business as well, hurting British investors themselves, and giving the powers in London reason to change their business in India into more of a regular state-run operation.
In other words, the Brits cracked down on their crooked native compradors. British investors did suffer in the 1840s because of speculative bubbles but there was little long run effect.
By the late 18th century, the period of so-called “post-Plassey plunder”, with which British rule in India began,
every war yielded plunder and a division of spoils. The difference between the Brits and what went before was that British control ended 'loot' as a motivator for internecine violence.
was giving way to the sort of colonial subjugation that would soon become the imperial standard, and with which the subcontinent would become more and more familiar in the following century and a half.
Till elected politicians presided over famine and the ethnic cleansing of Sen's family from East Bengal.
How successful was this long phase of classical imperialism in British India, which lasted from the late 18th century until independence in 1947?
Classical imperialism in India can only date from 1813 when the ban on Christian proselytization was lifted. Still, in 1818, Warren Hastings was still saying that the time was not distant when the only connection between India and Britain would be that of mutually beneficial trade and cultural exchange.
The British claimed a huge set of achievements, including democracy, the rule of law, railways, the joint stock company and cricket, but the gap between theory and practice – with the exception of cricket – remained wide throughout the history of imperial relations between the two countries.
Very true. Ceylon got universal suffrage twenty years before India did. Why? The Indians couldn't agree among themselves to accept it. Pakistan only had its first proper general election twenty years after India- and promptly broke into two pieces.
Putting the tally together in the years of pre-independence assessment, it was easy to see how far short the achievements were compared with the rhetoric of accomplishment.
Rhetoric falls short of achievement. What an amazing discovery!
Indeed, Rudyard Kipling caught the self-congratulatory note of the British imperial administrator admirably well in his famous poem on imperialism:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of famine
And bid the sickness cease
What is sad is that the Indian Planning Commission refused, for almost two decades, to take up the Brown Man's burden of feeding an agricultural country unravaged by War.
Alas, neither the stopping of famines nor the remedying of ill health was part of the high-performance achievements of British rule in India. Nothing could lead us away from the fact that life expectancy at birth in India as the empire ended was abysmally low: 32 years, at most.
Nor can anything lead us away from the fact that countries where life expectancy increased had populations which didn't start making babies till they were sure those babies would be well-fed and educated.
The abstemiousness of colonial rule in neglecting basic education reflects the view taken by the dominant administrators of the needs of the subject nation.
But that 'abstemiousness' was also a feature of Independent India. Gandhi did have a scheme of 'Basic Education'. It failed immediately because it made students more stupid and ignorant than they would otherwise have been.
There was a huge asymmetry between the ruler and the ruled. The British government became increasingly determined in the 19th century to achieve universal literacy for the native British population.
Because the 'native British population' were determined to rise through education. All Indians wanted, or- in the main- still want is a Government job. If we have something like 25 percent enrollment in Higher Education it is because you need a degree just to get married and have babies. Nobody cares if you are completely illiterate.
In contrast, the literacy rates in India under the Raj were very low. When the empire ended, the adult literacy rate in India was barely 15%. The only regions in India with comparatively high literacy were the “native kingdoms” of Travancore and Cochin (formally outside the British empire), which, since independence, have constituted the bulk of the state of Kerala. These kingdoms, though dependent on the British administration for foreign policy and defence, had remained technically outside the empire and had considerable freedom in domestic policy, which they exercised in favour of more school education and public health care.
But popular Governments with charge of Education had been in place since 1937! Kerala was ahead because of the 'Ezhutachan' teacher caste plus the high number of Christians. Having good teachers is what changes educational outcomes.
Education, relative to resources, was improving under direct British rule. Contrary to what Sen suggests, there was nothing stopping a district from educating kids to a higher standard. The Indian Education Service provided quality assurance which in turn increased parent's willingness to pay.
Some IES officers were remarkable. E.H Neville- who persuaded Ramanujan to go to Cambridge - pays a generous tribute to Richard Littlehailes, of that Service, for his role in promoting the genius from Kumbakonam. Sadly that cadre was wound up in the Twenties as the country prepared for Self-Rule.
The 200 years of colonial rule were also a period of massive economic stagnation, with hardly any advance at all in real GNP per capita.
But, after Independence, for two decades, there was just one percent per capita growth per annum. With hindsight, this was entirely because of stupid economic policies endorsed by Sen-tentious mathematical economists.
These grim facts were much aired after independence in the newly liberated media, whose rich culture was in part – it must be acknowledged – an inheritance from British civil society.
Actually, the press freedom worsened after India became a Republic. Indeed, India was able to grow a little faster after Independence because, it turned out, Indians were better at beating and locking up people- though, it must be said, extra judicial killing is what voters prefer- than the Brits had been. At any rate, they were willing to spend a lot more money on it. The Communists whined like anything but Stalin was pleased. He despised the Indian Communists. On the other hand, he got on well with Radhakrishnan.
Even though the Indian media was very often muzzled during the Raj – mostly to prohibit criticism of imperial rule, for example at the time of the Bengal famine of 1943 – the tradition of a free press, carefully cultivated in Britain, provided a good model for India to follow as the country achieved independence.
Who was curtailing the 'free press' in Bengal? Guys with names like Huq- not Hobson- or Suhrawardy- not Smith. It was they who pressurized the media to toe the party line. Later, precisely because British military power had increased, newspapers could take a more independent line. However, they were careful to shift blame onto officials in Delhi or London. Why? Because otherwise they might end up with a knife in their guts.
If the Indian press was relatively free it was because Hindu India needed Democracy to cohere. Burma and Pakistan went in a different direction.
Indeed, India received many constructive things from Britain that did not – could not – come into their own until after independence. Literature in the Indian languages took some inspiration and borrowed genres from English literature, including the flourishing tradition of writing in English. Under the Raj, there were restrictions on what could be published and propagated (even some of Tagore’s books were banned).
Just as 'Satanic Verses' is still banned in India. But so is a book by Bertrand Russell critical of India's position in the '62 war as well as a book about how the Ambanis became so rich.
These days the government of India has no such need,
Narendra Modi did ban a book on Gandhi when Chief Minister. Sen is saying he now has no such need. Good for him.
but alas – for altogether different reasons of domestic politics – the restrictions are sometimes no less intrusive than during the colonial rule.
Nothing is perhaps as important in this respect as the functioning of a multiparty democracy and a free press. But often enough these were not gifts that could be exercised under the British administration during imperial days.
Because one side wanted ethnic cleansing.
They became realisable only when the British left – they were the fruits of learning from Britain’s own experience, which India could use freely only after the period of empire had ended.
Only because Hindu India could only hang together as a Democracy- albeit of a dynastic sort.
Imperial rule tends to require some degree of tyranny: asymmetrical power is not usually associated with a free press or with a vote-counting democracy, since neither of them is compatible with the need to keep colonial subjects in check.
Unless 'colonial subjects' are smart and cohesive in which case they become equal citizens of a Commonwealth or go their own way. India could achieve this- at the price of getting shot of Muslim majority areas. But this meant people like Sen's family were chased away from their ancestral homes.
A similar scepticism is appropriate about the British claim that they had eliminated famine in dependent territories such as India. British governance of India began with the famine of 1769-70, and there were regular famines in India throughout the duration of British rule.
There was no major famine from about 1903 onward till the Brits surrendered control of food to elected governments in 1937. Moreover, there was a second big famine in Bangladesh after a transition to democracy and a free press.
The Raj also ended with the terrible famine of 1943. In contrast, there has been no famine in India since independence in 1947.
There was a famine in Bihar which forced LBJ to send food.
The irony again is that the institutions that ended famines in independent India – democracy and an independent media – came directly from Britain.
The greater irony is that Sen is a Bengali in whose life time elected Governments have presided over two big famines whereas other parts of the sub-continent managed to muddle through with much lower excess mortality.
It will also be remembered that Sen said a famine in Britain was possible because of Mrs. Thatcher's policies.
The connection between these institutions and famine prevention is simple to understand. Famines are easy to prevent, since the distribution of a comparatively small amount of free food, or the offering of some public employment at comparatively modest wages (which gives the beneficiaries the ability to buy food), allows those threatened by famine the ability to escape extreme hunger.
Poverty is easy to prevent since the distribution of free money makes everybody rich.
Sadly, famine arises because there is food availability deficit- the thing isn't free at all.
So any government should be able stop a threatening famine – large or small –
very true! They can just get free food from God. But then just by declaring every starving person a Government, that starving person can get free food by himself.
and it is very much in the interest of a government in a functioning democracy, facing a free press, to do so.
Not if it can blame the famine on someone else- e.g. evil Hindu hoarders or CIA saboteurs or whatever. Anyway, if people believe there is a Malthusian trap, they may be glad if the poor simply drop dead. Sen himself explains the Bengali famine by suggesting that the very poor starved because the slightly less poor decided to eat twice as much.
A free press makes the facts of a developing famine known to all,
But the British 'famine code' did a better job of identifying risk factors. That's why ICS officers like B.R Sen knew a big famine was on its way before the newspapers did
and a democratic vote makes it hard to win elections during – or after – a famine,
There is no evidence of this. Suhrawardy was in charge of 'Civil Supply' and had the major role during the Famine. In 1946, he was able to form a Government.
hence giving a government the additional incentive to tackle the issue without delay.
But Civil Servants who get fired or demoted have an even greater incentive. A politician can always shift blame or find a wedge issue.
India did not have this freedom from famine for as long as its people were without their democratic rights,
But Sen's part of the world had two big famines in his lifetime under popular, elected, leaders.
even though it was being ruled by the foremost democracy in the world, with a famously free press in the metropolis – but not in the colonies. These freedom-oriented institutions were for the rulers but not for the imperial subjects.
Freedom oriented institutions only exist in a country if freedom is what its people want. Those who can't agree on how to rule themselves may end up acquiescing in being ruled by some third party. Last year, some people in Lebanon were calling for France to take over the governance of that country.
In the powerful indictment of British rule in India that Tagore presented in 1941, he argued that India had gained a great deal from its association with Britain, for example, from “discussions centred upon Shakespeare’s drama and Byron’s poetry and above all … the large-hearted liberalism of 19th-century English politics”. The tragedy, he said, came from the fact that what “was truly best in their own civilisation, the upholding of dignity of human relationships, has no place in the British administration of this country”.
Because Bengalis predominated in Bengal. In 1940, the Premier of Bengal, Fazl ul Haq (which, I assure you, is a pukka English name) presented the Pakistan Resolution at Lahore. Tagore died before the real blood letting started.
Indeed, the British could not have allowed Indian subjects to avail themselves of these freedoms without threatening the empire itself.
No. Had Indians been able to agree on how to govern themselves, then like South Africa, Australia etc, it would either have been part of the Commonwealth, taking an increasing role in Imperial Defense, or else- like Ireland- would have gone its own way.
The distinction between the role of Britain and that of British imperialism could not have been clearer.
The role of Britain was to provide membership in the British Empire to those who wanted it. It would also sell you a whole bunch of other stuff.
As the union jack was being lowered across India, it was a distinction of which we were profoundly aware.
But Nehru had begged Mountbatten to stay on as Governor-General. Still, the ethnic cleansing which then accelerated happened under native, not British, rule. That must have been a great consolation to those who were slaughtered. Tagore, of course, had foreseen this outcome but, vacuous bore that he was, could not drum this into the heads of students at his Shantiniketan. Sad.