If anyone were to ask me whether the British Empire was a good thing or a bad thing, I would reply that this is not a good question. The British Empire was just ‘a thing’, a thing that happened. It was good for some people and bad for others. Opinions about its relative goodness or badness follow on.
One thing that can be said is that Indians need not feel much gratitude to the Empire, in the way that Niall Ferguson seems to think they should. Ferguson’s general thesis is that the British Empire made everyone, on average, better off, and spread liberal institutions across the globe to match. The latter part is true, in India at least, but the long-term economic effects of imperial rule on India have not been good, and certainly not good enough on balance to account the whole project a laudable success. Imperial rule is not fair by modern standards, and it is inappropriate to defend it with any vigour. The costs for whatever benefits one may care to select were very high.
What Britain did give India – and this is not something that an older generation of Indian nationalists liked to concede – was a structured political unity. Many to this day claim that India has always been one entity, and culturally this might be true, though it is hard to say much for sure about very ancient times, and more recently there has only ever been evidence to the contrary. Much on this subject has come from the nationalist Right, but on reading what they say it soon becomes apparent that their central argument is weak, and amounts to saying that India has always been united except in all the ways she hasn’t.
But not everyone on the patriotic Right has been strident about India’s unity. The impeccably nationalist, and much admired historian. R.C. Majumdar conceded that ‘the political unity of India’ was a British achievement, indeed their ‘greatest achievement’. Even Radha Kumud Mookerjee, author of The Fundamental Unity of India, the seminal work on the subject, remarks in the Introduction that: ‘No doubt, the greatest gift of British rule in India has been its political unification under a paramount power’ (p. 24).
But the issue of unity – which is sure to remain in play for the foreseeable future – is of course a stalking horse for much else.
Its most obvious use is to prove that all India’s ills were created by the British, which is what Congress politicians repeatedly said after about 1905. All the while a section of Hindu nationalists have been saying that all India’s ills were created by Muslims. What is at issue here is ultimately not what constitutes ‘unity’, but what constitutes ‘Indianness’. And that is highly subjective.
A more direct question remains: where and when were Indians ever united politically? One answer is, in opposition to the British. This is much more easily accepted. And, of course, such unity as the British brought either positively through institutions, or negatively by raising opposition, was only achieved by violence.
Paradoxically, empires bring peace and unity, at least for a while, but only by the use of well-funded, carefully directed violence.