Essays on colonial mosaic
Colonialism in India, economic and non-economic, and its resistance by people in different forms has been the subject of analysis for more than two centuries.
The Company Raj of the British East India Company which begun its rule from a part of Bengal in 1757 gradually acquired the entire territorial sovereignty of Mughal India by 1850.
The 1857 rebellion, however, sealed its fate in India. It was replaced by the Crown. But in the period of a century, the Raj actuated a kind of social transformation that was rarely known in the pre-colonial Indian history in such a short span and at such a vast scale.
It was a substantive break from the past which changed the elite structure, nature of state and ushered in new technology and economy.
This book analyses this period of history spread over a century (1757-1857), which is aptly captioned as Company to Crown with the logos of both on the cover page.
The Company, which was formed on December 31, 1600 by 218 members, knights, aldermen and burgesses “to trade with East in spices and in other products prized for their utility or beauty in the West”, became the state since 1757.
Interestingly, the Company had raised its first troops of approximately 250 sepoys only nine years ago, in 1748, at Madras. Yet, it could defeat a much larger Indian force within three hours at Plassey in the rainy season speaks volume about its nature and functioning. The Company had lost the battle just a year ago to the army of Nawab of Bengal.
The book contains eight chapters on diverse aspects of Company Raj. Almost all papers are of high quality. But the best, to my liking, is the chapter Educating the Colony written by Sudipta Bhaarat.
The best part is, that he informs us that Voltaire had a strong liking for the Oriental knowledge so much so that he believed it to be the “cradle of all arts and it is therefore to the East that the West owes everything”.
Then, he argues that one of the primary reasons to destroy the Oriental education was the fear of the British Anglicists that the success of the French revolution may hamper their plan of expansion in India as the Oriental knowledge system may acquire global importance. It will be, then, difficult to suppress the Indian subjects.
Therefore, they persuaded the House of Commons to take active steps in educating the colonial subjects which was granted during the renewal of Company’s Charter in 1813.
The Company was forced to allot money for public education and chart a new education policy through which they subsequently destroyed the organic knowledge and minds of India.
Thematically related to it is another interesting chapter Culture and Society During Colonial Rule written by Somaila Warsi. She cites the debates in the British parliament that took place post the revolt of 1857. This is an interesting and innovative approach to understand the 1857.
Earlier, commentaries or the reports of the journalists covering the events live in the British / European press were cited and discussed. Russel’s report, for example who was the Times correspondent in India and was the live witness of the battle is often cited.
Warsi’s method, on the other hand, facilitates a better way to peek into the minds of the rulers who were far away and not directly involved at the sites in India. Disraeli, for example, argued that the mutiny was a ‘reflex of the national mind’ which was a different analysis from the others who called it a sepoy mutiny ; secondly, the description ‘national mind’ also makes this rebellion a pan-Indian in dimension, while the sepoy mutiny makes the rebellion localised and army specific rather than treating it as a political revolution.
Warsi also argues that to reestablish the legitimacy of the Raj, the rule of the Company was removed and of Crown was imposed to connect it with the Indian subjects and with the past traditions of the Mughal. The Raj was projected as an extension and continuation of the Mughal. It was, however, the Raj of the new British elite which had acquired the power in England in 1830s.
Another excellent paper is ‘Evolution of Colonial Rule in India’ in which the contributors explain, in simple, basic terms, the functioning of the different land tenure systems in different parts of India, and also, other aspects of administration of the Raj.
Here, the novelty is that there is clarity in the presentation which makes the ordinary reader understand the nuances of the complicated laws. Even original source is being cited such, for example, as John Stuart Mill on Ryotwari System (p.65) to clarify the law.
Actually, there is so much of unclarity about the different land tenure systems and their actual functioning in different regions / sub-regions in other books that this paper looks refreshing.
Let me now conclude with Sidharth Mishra’s paper on 1857. The theme is so vast that writing an academic paper on it by a non-professional historian is risky. Yet, he has written an admirable paper that covers the gist of different arguments of causes of rebellion, of reasons of its failure, and the consequence of it.. Its success could have provided India a liberal democracy long before 1947.
Bur it was the elite of that time who betrayed it to protect their own interests. It was haunted by the fear that the success of 1857 would displace them from their economic and social position, that it would restore the pre-colonial social structure. And it was this fear that led to their active opposition to the 1857 rebellion or their support to the colonial state.
Written for specialized readers, the book serves the purpose well. Its lucid style in narrative form contains interesting research material.
The rare photographs of the era add further value to it. Its cover page, for example, with a rare portrait of Robert Clive surveying the battle field of Plassey is a treat to the context of the subject. The only weakness is the absence of a uniform, professional house style for the end notes. The end notes in each chapter are written in different styles which, however, can be over looked.
(The reviewer is Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi)