Decline Scenario

declineandfallofthebritishempire.pngIn 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.

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18 thoughts on “Decline Scenario”

  1. and very belatedly, because I was distracted and missed this excellent discussion, I wanted to mention that Donald Quataert has an v good essay somewhere on the changing attitudes to the “decline” paradigm in Ottoman historiography (o, for access to an academic library…will dig up a reference eventually).

    And of course, similarly, declinism is a crucial ingredient in Turkish republican/nationalist history-writing about the Ottoman past as well.

  2. Thanks for the nice writeup. This story of descent is pretty ironic considering that the british were able to rule India precisely because the descent narrative was factually untrue. They could not have run India without the extant bureaucratic and administrative institutions that they inherited from Indian rulers.

    Incidentally, the standard nationalistic narrative of british takeover emphasized the importance of trade, and that the loss of Indian freedom was a consequence of loss of control over sea lanes of communication (due to neglect of naval security and regional political and military instability), and hence trade from India. At least this was the narrative when I studied NCERT books as a school student (80’s and early 90’s). The books were otherwise pretty communist :), and I must say that there is much more merit to this than the standard tropes that you refer to. This is of course also partly Braudel’s thesis of colonization.

    I also really felt sorry for Dara Shikoh and was pretty distressed by his fate when I heard the story in my childhood. :)

  3. great post and discussion. not the trivialize things, but it made my day to see the Kinks album cover at the head of the post. as ever, way to go Sepoy.

    And, to Qalandar, I often imagine an alternate universe with the 2 vols. of The Rothschilds and none of Ferguson’s later books. I feel better about liking them, that way.

  4. great post. i struggled for a time with the question of the impact of colonial intrusion in South Asia for a while before giving up because I don’t speak Persian (yet) and have no way of knowing who to believe even if I found enough sources.

  5. I’ve heard good things about the new NCERT books (i.e. compared to the ones they replaced) too, would be curious to get teachers’/educators’ take on them too…

    Dara: Random Aside: his “Mingling of the Two Oceans” is available in English too…

  6. Qalandar
    I first learnt of Dara Shikoh vs Aurangzeb in Maulana Abul Hassan Ali Nadwi (Ali Mian)’s Saviours of Islamic History and took a early dislike to Dara shikoh on reading of his rather unorthodox ideas .
    I began to appreciate Dara shikoh’s ideas when I grew older.

  7. Good point Red — and note that in nationalist historiography (referring here to the Nehruvian kind, not the right-wing kind) you have Akbar as “good” and his nefarious ideological other, Aurangzeb*; combined with the other Indian monarch Sen champions in “The Argumentative Indian”, namely Asoka (whose chakra is of course the centerpiece of the Indian tricolor), one can easily see Akbar and Asoka as two pillars of the Nehruvian ideological project. To this day Indian school history textbooks will typically have a lot more material on Akbar than any other medieval monarch (I note that based on what I’ve seen with my cousins in Karachi, at least the post-Zia textbooks there accord a lot more space to Aurangzeb than to Akbar).

    *[I’m myself very unsympathetic to Aurangzeb’s ideology, and have had distress ever since childhood that Dara Shikoh didn’t win :-)].

  8. For what its worth, Sen does eulogize Akbar in his argumentative Indian and has the great line about while Europeans were burning Giordano Bruno at the state, Akbar was formulating his suhl-i-khul, which goes to confirm Q’s point about the central role the Mughal state plays in the nationalist geneology of the modern Indian state.

  9. Why constantly compare the “American empire” with the Brits?

    The Spanish or Ottoman empires provide better comparisons, imho.

  10. Sorry, meant to say, in my first paragraph above, that “…I would agree that PRE-Mughal Muslim rule is placed under a pall”

  11. Good piece and comment (although sepoy, I would resist the notion that standard nationalist historiography cast the entirety of Muslim rule under a pall; I think — with a view to the consolidation of the nation state centrally ruled from delhi — that the Mughals were privileged; I would agree that PRE-Muslim rule is placed under a pall).

    Jonathan: to this day, standard histories treat the 18th century as some kind of doom and gloom period for India, and I am glad to see openness to countervailing notions. The century probably wasn’t all that bad from the perspective of the Maratthas, the Jats, etc. etc. (more broadly this would get into the debate over, not only whether de-centralization was “good”, but over how centralized the imperial polities were in the first place). [The “empire-centrism” re-asserts itself here too, as this or that polity is anointed as imperial successor; typically the Maratthas, doing some violence to the way that polity was structured.]

    I must confess to great impatience with Ferguson, who often does read like an apologist for empire, especially in his post-9/11 writings. And, playing devil’s advocate for a second, Sen’s view is standard nationalist, but he might feel the need to re-invigorate the paradigm given the triple threat it faces from the likes of Ferguson; the Hindu nationalist accounts which basically see an unending night from Mahmud of Ghazni all the way down to Jawaharlal Nehru (suitable glimmers for Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, and Vijaynagar); and a certain “post-modern” tendency to resist the simplistic accounts of imperialism by focusing so much on the cross-cultural exchange aspect of it that the empire begins to seem like one big pluralistic party.

  12. I’m always struck, teaching world history, at the degree to which the textbook writers seem to be rooting for empires, especially in places like India where empires rarely controlled the whole region. (Africa is kind of the same way) I think it’s laziness: empires make it possible to simplify the history, to refer to “a culture” and “a history” for a big chunk of the world. The gap between the Mughal and the British is a dead zone in the textbook: in the absence of empire, there can only be stasis until the land is reabsorbed into history in the form of another empire.

  13. Excellent post. I’m particularly interested in the point you make about lack of access to the Persian archives at the end. Looking over Macaulay’s minute recently, I was struck by the occlusion of Persian in the Orientalist/Anglicist debate; the options given are English, classical “Indian” languages, and the vernaculars. Persian is not rejected; it’s never taken into consideration.

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