In a rather half-hearted piece for TNR, Imperial Illusions, Amartya Sen spends some time ruminating on the good/bad of British colonialism in India with an eye towards comparison with the American imperialism. He offers a sketch of the 2,000 year old pre-history of British rule in India as a “country” with “global influence”. Though, he places this global India squarely in ‘Ancient realm’ and gives us examples only from the second or the fourth century and cites only Claudius Ptolemy and Pliny the Elder – Roman accounts of the Red Sea trade with the East. After having set the stage from centuries ago, Sen jumps straight to “a normal monsoon day, with occasional rain in the town of Plassey, situated among mango groves between Calcutta”, where British won India in 1757. In this particularly cataracted vision of Indian history, Sen can declare, without any historical discomfort, that the 150 years of past and 150 years of coming future of British rule in India all hinged on one lieutenant of the local Nawab switching allegiance mid-”cricket match”. After that uniquely Bengali insight, Sen continues to treat all of British colonial history with the same generalized brush as he treats Indian political and economic history. And, he concludes:
In assessing Britain’s relation with India in this year of anniversaries, we must make a clear distinction between the positive contributions of the British in bringing India more closely into the global world (including many domestic institutional changes) and the plentiful presence of inequity and negligence in British imperial rule. It is important to appreciate the positive impact of India’s British association, but also to recognize that the changes that were important for India could have come without the colonial adversities. India’s approach to the contemporary world was certainly aided by many initiatives that can be linked to British influence, and many of these potentials have come into their own only after the end of the colonial rule.
All of this, is largely standard nationalist historiography. Hundreds of books peddle the same script of Indian and colonial pasts. The curious elision of centuries, the disappearances of key geographies and the History from the Present aspects are neither new nor unique to Sen but he has definitely elevated the discourse.
In this overarching thesis on the good and the bad of British colonialism, Sen opens with a few potshots at Niall Ferguson, a historian much admired and emulated. Sen calls his book “didactic” and calls Ferguson a cheerleader for American imperialism – in so many words. Ferguson responds with his own shot at Sen’s nobel prize. Sen then carries the load back home.
I admit that I found the entire back-and-forth, between these two Harvard nawabs, consistently boring. What is more noteworthy, is that they are both operating from within a standard decline-to-colonial template which necessitates a particular causation to British colonialism in India. That template, by the way, is historiographically Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire. One can trace its ubiquity, even in the Marx essay that Sen cites in his essay.
Karl Marx, writing in the New York Daily Tribune began with this caustic observation on British rule in India:
There cannot, however, remain any doubt that the misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan is of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before … All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface. England has broke down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of anew one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history.
But Marx was concerned not with the particularity of British colonial rupture into Hindostani society but with the systemic failures within that Indian society which allowed for British Imperialism to triumph. The tropes of his argument there are unsurprisingly Orientalist: India had a static, stratified society, ruled by despotism and enslaved to horrendously unenlightened religion. The imperial intervention, then, was necessary for India:
We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.
Kinda reminds you of current discourse on Iraq, doesn’t it? In any event, this decline paradigm posits a particularly banal, generalized and ahistorical reading of the native past which is portrayed as being fundamentally diseased, decayed, and declined at exactly the moment when European civilization is avast in glorious modernity and industrialization. Whether it is the Ottoman, the Saffavid, the Qing, or the Russians, the decline of the East reigns supreme as causative background to the inconceivable rise of the British Empire. This despite the fact that the picture of eighteenth century in India, specifically, has long been complicated by historians as diverse as John F. Richards, Bernard S. Cohn, and Muzaffar Alam and that colonial interventions themselves have been proven wildly divergent in works by Fredrick Cooper, George Steinmetz or James Hevia.
Yet, the decline scenario continues to hold popular sway, both in the ex-colony and in the ex-metropole as an explanation and an excuse. There is no doubt that the central authority of Mughal polity in eighteenth century India was largely a relic – some have pointed towards even the seventeenth century where such effects are quite visible. But the rise of regional powers and diffuse centers of political clout is, in itself, a counter-narrative to any “decline” theory. In areas such as Sindh and Gujarat, or the Nizams in Hyderabad, the eighteenth century saw a particularly healthy growth of trade and local patronage – in communities and in cities.
The British historiography, particularly since the mid-nineteenth century, had a deliberate and conscious emancipatory message for the colony. For that historiography, the decline of the Mughal polity or the despotism of the local principalities was a central theme. Nationalist historians, more or less, continued that theme by casting the late Mughal, if not the entirety of Muslim history in India, as the medieval Dark Ages. Postcolonial scholarship, beholden to Bengal and the nineteenth century, have not had direct access to the Persian archives to make sense of seventeenth or eighteenth century. Nor have they felt a need to do so. After all, as Marx declared, colonialism was its own rupture into Indian pasts.
Alavi, Seema. The Eighteenth Century in India, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Alam, Muzaffar. The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab, 1707-48, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Steinmetz, George. The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa, University of Chicago Press, 2007.