Business Standard

Making sense of the British Raj and its long shadow in Amrit Kaal

This week in BS also looked at two books that deal with the post-Independence India and the Congress



Vikram Gopal New Delhi
In this, the 75th year of Independence, it is inevitable that the genesis of the Indian nation should come into sharp focus.

It was equally inevitable, perhaps, that a reckoning with the past would spark feisty debates. And, as debates go, there was a particularly heated one that began in December after academics Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel published an article in Al Jazeera titled: “How British colonialism killed 100 million Indians in 40 years”.

That article was based on a paper they wrote for the journal World Development with the more academic title, “Capitalism and extreme poverty: A global analysis of real wages, human height, and mortality since the long 16th century”. 

They argued there that British policies destroyed India’s manufacturing sector, eliminated local tariffs, flooded the markets with British goods, and imposed taxes that prevented Indians from selling their products locally.     

“This system drained India of goods worth trillions of dollars in today’s money. The British were merciless in imposing the drain, forcing India to export food even when drought or floods threatened local food security. Historians have established that tens of millions of Indians died of starvation during several considerable policy-induced famines in the late 19th century, as their resources were syphoned off to Britain and its settler colonies,” they wrote.

Just four days after the Al Jazeera article was published, economic historian Tirthankar Roy took issue with one aspect of Sullivan and Hickel’s work, in particular their contention that there was an increase in famines, in a Twitter thread and subsequently in an article with the equally provocative title: “Colonialism did not cause the Indian famines”. There have been further responses in this debate, like this one by Hickel to Roy’s tweets, this by academic Tamoghna Halder critiquing Roy’s critique, and finally, Roy’s response to Halder.

The Raj was also a big theme this past week in the pages of Business Standard, with two reviews that dealt with different aspects of that history, one with the arrival of the British traders to India and the other with the Santal rebellion.

Nandini Das’ Courting India: England, Mughal India and The Origins of Empire, reviewed by Sanjay Kumar Singh, tells the tale of the earliest engagements between British traders and the Mughal court under Jahangir. “[It] paints the picture of a rather shambolic start,” writes Singh.

“Despite the unsuccessful nature of the undertaking it covers, Ms Das’s book works. Her meticulous research and evocative writing combine to paint a vivid picture of those times,” writes Singh.

For those interested, there is historian Anton Howes’ delightful Substack Age of Invention, which provides a larger picture of the England this book deals with.

The second book on the Raj is a portrait of a different era in British relations with the subcontinent, Australian historian Peter Stanley’s Hul! Hul! The Suppression of the Santal Rebellion in Bengal, 1855, reviewed by Delhi-based writer Saurabh Sharma.

Based on British military records, this book tries to correct the “convoluted” narrative of the rebellion.

“The histories of insurgency and counter-insurgency, no matter how exhaustive, tend to exclude specific experiences that may underwhelm select readers; this book is a standout in terms of reflecting on the course of the Hul insurrection in its totality,” writes Sharma.

Apart from reinterpreting the history of the rebellion, the book also offers surprises in the form of Santal poetry. “These verses capture the rebellion, the oppression the Santals endured at the hands of wealthy zamindars, and the nature of their communities’ struggles after Hul. For its multiple merits, it is a notable work that not only concludes that the Hul wasn’t ‘suppressed’ militarily but also highlights the possibilities that ‘revisionist interpretations’ allow in retelling histories,” writes Sharma.

In two other reviews this week, Business Standard looked at a more immediate past, post-Independence India to be precise.

The first of these books deals with the figure who has, perhaps, cast the longest shadow over the Indian state, the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

In Nehru’s India: A History in Seven Myths, Taylor Sherman seeks to question the notion that Nehru was the architect of independent India, and the principles of non-alignment, secularism, socialism, strong state, successful democracy, and high modernism.

Nitin Desai, who reviewed the book, writes: “Professor Sherman’s narrative about the early history of independent India is valuable because of the facts that she presents to advance her argument about the principles being myths. But her description does not take into account adequately the role of Nehru as an educator and the impact of this on those of us who grew up then. A secular, rationalist, articulate and forward-looking Nehru gave us a vision of what we wanted to be.”

As Desai points out, Nehru’s legacy has lived on providing a standard by which to judge subsequent history, even though he did not succeed in ensuring that the policies he championed came to fruition in his own lifetime. Take just two of these principles. Non-alignment survives, even though not in name, and has seen a resurgence, especially after Russia invaded Ukraine. Secularism, already watered down in Nehru’s time to mean the equal championing of all religions by the state, continues to occupy the mental landscape of the nation.

“What Professor Sherman describes as myths were partially influential guiding principles that, at least, gave a shared idea of India to its powerful elite. But, despite the alternative that has emerged in recent decades, the idea of India that emerged in the Nehru era continues to prevail even now, not just in parts of the elite but also among some in the underprivileged classes,” writes Desai.

The fourth book reviewed this past week was Azaad: An Autobiography by Ghulam Nabi Azad. It is a book influenced by Azad’s dramatic decision to quit the Congress in a huff last year, writes Aditi Phadnis in her review.

“Ghulam Nabi Azad’s biography makes you wonder if the version of the life described by him would have been different had he not, on that fateful day in 2022, left the Congress and launched his own regional party,” Phadnis writes.

Concerns about inner-party democracy appear hollow in this telling, she says, coming from one who supported Indira Gandhi’s wish to make Rajiv Gandhi the party president or the subsequent decision to install Sonia Gandhi in that post.

Or take this, for instance, on the Emergency. Phadnis writes: “Mr Azad is untouched by the Emergency and remarks breezily that ‘it is possible that some excesses might have happened during Emergency but they were conveniently placed at Indiraji and Sanjay’s doorstep, though they had nothing to do with it’.”

“For those who closely follow recent Indian politics, this book is important— as much for what it says as it is for what it doesn’t say,” writes Phadnis. 

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First Published: Apr 29 2023 | 7:00 AM IST

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