Jun 032017

I have been asked to give a short talk at SOAS about my work and its ethos. I am delighted and honoured to be asked, and to help clear my head, I will set out here roughly what I will say.

I started to write about India because I was asked to supply material for a website, and I found the task very interesting. I read a lot, and it was very clear to me how much of what I was reading was biased. Lesson one was that Indian history is very politicised. Why, was my next question, and I still don’t have a glib answer. The newness and complexity of the country are factors, as is the fact of imperial domination by Britain. Having said that, I shall leave the issue for the moment.

I have written three books, with another to come shortly. Throughout, I have tried to remain open-minded, or at least as open-minded as it is possible to be in a country that has its own history and ingrained prejudices of various kinds. But I was clear about my method. I did not reach a conclusion and go looking for evidence to support it.

Shashi Tharoor has just done this, by deciding that the British Empire was bad, and finding ways to show that it was. Even-handedness, balance, the case for the defence goes by default. Result – a readable book, but one that is more polemic than history. And little advancement of our understanding.

Another example would be Ranajit Guha who decided that India’s peasants must have been socialists, and then went looking to recover lost voices and fragments to prove it. Again, the results are unconvincing to a reader who is not already comfortable with the conclusion. Ideally, arguments should persuade the doubter rather than confirm a believer’s prejudices.

In my case, I came to several conclusions that rather surprised me, and I held back from setting them out for a while. Now I feel I can.

First, I found nothing new in imperialism. It is a post-rationalised construct, created by its enemies with hindsight. Imperialism was a certain cultural outlook, short-lived and instrumental. There was a purpose to it, and that was to disqualify subject colonial populations from taking part in government. Its alleged links with capitalism are weak and unconvincing. Lenin was wrong. Or maybe just biased.

Second, I came to view the whole narrative of India’s march to socialism as flawed and misplaced. The Congress was never a socialist party, and its mass following was not revolutionary. Gandhi spoke of ramrajya dressed like a sadhu. He was immediately comprehensible to India’s masses in a way that Nehru’s intellectual socialism was not. Trying to turn the independence movement into a social movement is straining the evidence. The Congress was a nationalist movement, without doubt. And as we all know, nationalism supports all sorts of distorted views, especially of outsiders.

These conclusions gradually forced a new view of the Anglo-Indian connection onto me. They enabled me to see that connection as the axis of liberal modernity – the link that created the first, stable liberal democracies in both Europe and Asia.

The British were forced to develop liberalism as a result of the experience of ruling India – a journey into the philosophy and practice of government that was not self-government. This makes the Anglo-Indian link more important in the history of liberalism than the French Revolution, which touched on liberal principles, but whose main result was the development of nationalism.

India had its own modernisers. All the major social legislation enacted by the British was supported by Indians, as well as opposed. Here a distinction must also be made. Ram Mohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda were modernisers, not westernisers. Gandhi was a conservative radical, with a natural sympathy with liberal principles, but he was actually a believer in Vedanta – the oneness of all, non-duality – and not a natural friend of the modern state. He believed in mutual obligations and duties, which were harmonious and could not be rescinded, rather than rights, which existed at the state’s pleasure, and could.

This was a long-term benefit for India, and might have come in its own way. But what did not, and could not, and represents the great British contribution to India, was internal disarmament. Under British rule Indians stopped fighting each other, and the political thinkers – the Roys, Vivekanandas, and Mahatmas – could grow in an atmosphere of peace.

The final twist was that the British had backed the conservative landholding classes after the revolt of 1857, and it was by the slimmest piece of good fortune that the Congress leadership remained progressive, and immediately after independence drew up a modern constitution, in appropriately liberal, secular language. This assured the birth of an India that could reform herself – which was not a likely result of late British imperial policy.

India was thus not always the beneficiary of British rule – the economic story is quite another tale – but the ultimate result, the India of today, has a joint heritage that only a very convinced – and poorly read – nationalist would seek to deny.


 Posted by at 6:46 pm

  2 Responses to “SOAS”

  1. That is the problem with much writing of course, when starting from a political position. Literature critic Harold Bloom said something like if you read a Feminist or Marxist analysis of Hamlet, you learn a lot about Feminism and Marxism but not much about Hamlet.
    To me, a non-historian, it would suggest that a Marxist historian, a Feminist historian, a right wing historian would all have largely unrelated interpretations of exactly the same event. Surely this would suggest that history is only slightly less subjective than literature. And by the time this history hits the streets we don’t know where we are. How many people in the U.K. know that the Republican Party was formed to combat slavery and the Democratic party was embroiled in corruption for many decades at the beginning of the 20th century?

  2. Hello Ian,

    ‘history is only slightly less subjective than literature’


    It can be. But not when I write it, of course.

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