Vivid Colors, Fuzzy Shapes
Lawrence James, Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (St. Martin's Press, 1998)
Whatever their enduring impact on India, the two centuries of the British Raj were an inspiration for novelists, poets, painters, film makers and popular historians. Lawrence James falls into the last group. His Raj is a set of overlapping portraits: some exciting, some grandiose, some grim, some exotic, all animated and colorful. They do not quite blend into a coherent picture of British rule but are fascinating to view.
Mr. James has set himself the task of covering political, institutional and social history. Although he limits himself to the British point of view, the job is too big for even a bulky volume like this one. As a consequence, many years and events receive brief notices or none at all. (By comparison, Sir Penderel Moon's The British Conquest and Dominion of India, which scarcely notices anything except politics, is over twice as long.) The institutional and social accounts likewise jump around. There is, for example, a section, set before the Indian Mutiny of 1857, on the onerous taxation imposed on Indian villages, in which we are told of tax rates of 50 to 75 percent of net income. Later, in a different context, appear economic statistics for a single locality, which have the villagers paying taxes of about five percent. The discrepancy is not explained, nor even alluded to. Did the British wisely cut taxes after the Mutiny? Were rates drastically different in different areas? Did widespread evasion make the nominal rates a sham? Are the figures for some reason not comparable? There is no way to tell, and the question is surely not unimportant.
Elsewhere, as in the section on the Princely States, the author recounts a multitude of details without leaving a clear impression. One would like some estimate of the balance between playboy rajas and their hardworking counterparts, and between princes loyal to the paramount power and those who submitted only under duress. The mere alternation of scandal and praise is not satisfactory.
If, however, one looks at the parts without worrying about their sum, this is an informative (and certainly lively) book. Subjects range from concise histories of the Raj's most dramatic eras (its formation in the 18th Century, the Great Mutiny and the nationalist struggles of the 20th century) to taxation and policing to the social and sexual lives of the sahib class to India's participation in the World Wars to literature and films about the Raj. Unhappily, the author's serviceable prose is too frequently marred by copy editing that is wretched even by the low standards of our day. Jarring is the frequent use of "whom" where "who" would be correct (a most unusual error). Surrealistic is this garbled statement (p. 451) about a corps of staunchly Islamic troops: "Pathans, always highly receptive to Pan-Islamic appeals, were responsible for two mutinies of the 130th Baluchis during the winter of 1914-15, both sparked off by fears of being forced to follow Muslims." My puzzlement lasted until I figured out that "to follow Muslims" was supposed to read "to fight fellow Muslims".
Some readers, particularly among those of Indian descent, have decried Mr. James' supposed partiality for the British rulers and inattention to the masses of their subjects. That is a misguided criticism. The author is alert for signs of racialism, arrogance and ineptitude among the British, occasionally to the point of unfairness. Were those Englishmen who deplored Hindu customs really more blameworthy than the post-1948 politicians who sought to suppress them and turn India into a secular state (an effort that is now encountering a dangerous backlash)? As for his summary evaluation that the Raj was good for the subcontinent, that is a left-handed compliment. He reckons that, given the realities of 18th and 19th century geopolitics, India was bound to fall prey to some form of European imperialism and that the British form was more benign than any of the alternatives.
It is true that he is strongly critical of Mahatma Gandhi's insouciance concerning the outcome of World War II and of vain, incompetent Lord Mountbatten's handling of the partition between India and Pakistan. Anyone who thinks that India would have been better off in the Far Eastern Co-Prosperity Sphere or that Mountbatten deserves no blame for the butcher's bill of 1948 should turn elsewhere for reading matter, preferably to works of utopian fantasy.
The Raj is such a sprawling subject that no single volume can paint it entire. This one, while imperfect in many ways, is a good starting point.