Why are we still debating the merits of the Raj?

by Markus Daechsel

Empire is still widely regarded as a positive aspect of Britain’s history. The #rhodesmustfall campaign may have got an Oxford Union audience to agree with the proposition that the edifice of an arch-imperialist should not grace the entrance of an Oxford college. But the power of historians to shift the debate with the help of the latest and most advanced scholarship is perhaps not as great as many idealistic notions of ‘engaging the public’ suggest. Another Oxford Union debate last year with an Empire focus offers a cautionary tale. The topic was whether Britain owed India reparations for what they had done to the country and its people over two centuries of colonial rule. Making a case in favour of reparations was Sashi Tharoor, a suave and gilded politician from the very core of Indian High Society. Arguing against was a team of British and American establishment historians, who should have known better than to participate at all. The event was widely reported both in the British and Indian media, revealing far greater public interest than one would have expected almost seventy years after Independence, let alone at a time when a rapidly transforming India has successfully shaken off many of its colonial hangovers. Reactions to the debate also showed a quite glaring inability to come to terms with the problem of imperialism amongst the British public. Strangely and paradoxically, as much as this was a debate about history it was also an indication of just how much history has actually become hollowed out, gaining public traction only as a free-floating mythology no longer tied to the gravity of ‘real’ events or ‘real’ scholarship.


Tharoor at Oxford Union - 2015
Sashi Tharoor speaks at the Oxford Union, July 2015

Tharoor, whose Congress Party was thumped in recent elections by the far-right Hindu nationalists, clearly used the occasion to play to the gallery back home. His case for why British Imperialism did India a great deal of harm was delivered with the cut-glass accent and old-worldy rhetorical flourish reminiscent of the days when India was still part of the British Empire, and when winning a debate at Oxford counted as the ultimate prize of recognition. It was consequently lapped up by millions of acolytes online and offline, for whom wagging a finger at the old colonial overlords in their own language and mannerisms was the patriotic equivalent of a comforting warm bath. But there was nothing new in what Tharoor argued. From the de-industrialisation thesis – the argument that British colonial rule deliberately destroyed a burgeoning artisan sector in India and impoverished its people so that its own industry could flourish – to colonial atrocities such as the Amritsar massacre, this was all material that has been publicly debated since the dying days of the Empire itself, and is commonly acknowledged in virtually any work of South Asian history of the last forty years. As a serious historical debate this was about as surreal as if the Union had asked whether it was right or wrong to abolish slavery or to go to war with the Nazis.

Unsurprisingly, the counter-arguments deployed by the professors were similarly unoriginal, and staggeringly contrived. In order to avoid being cast into the unwinnable position of having to morally defend imperialism itself, they focused on the more immediate issue of reparations. Leaving aside the largely symbolic question of whether money should be paid and how much, this was about whether imperialism was in fact so categorically reprehensible as to demand a public acknowledgement of guilt. Here, the professors argued that imperialism had both good and bad consequences, many of them unintended, and that Indians should simply take the rough with the smooth. India may have been de-industrialized, the counter-side argued, but then it also got the railways and Western science. There were some unpalatable episodes of colonial violence and repression, but Britain also (somehow) bequeathed democratic values to India. Imperialism, in short, was to be interpreted historically as a complex and multi-valued formation rather than condemned in principle.

1903 - Lord Curzon (Viceroy of India) and Lady Curzon
British viceroy Lord Curzon and his wife tiger-hunting, India 1903

It does not take rocket science – or, indeed, Sashi Tharoor – to show that many of these arguments are absurd: China, Japan, Turkey or, for that matter, Russia, did not need to be colonized by Britain to build an effective railway network, industrial sector, education system or anything else. And most British colonies did not end up as functioning democracies in the same way as India – witness Egypt, Burma, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia etc. If India remains democratic, this surely has more to do with India’s own political imagination than with its shared colonial inheritance. Ultimately, there is no real argument in favour of imperialism that stands up to today’s commonly held moral standards. The idea that people of a certain regional origin and skin colour are somehow entitled to run the world because they are by nature on the right side of history, while people of another skin colour and geographic origin just don’t seem to be able to look after themselves, is inherently and irredeemably racist.

That any of this still needs pointing out in 2015, and that pointing it out still makes news and gets newspaper columnists and TV and radio studio guests hot under the collar, shows above all the utter irrelevance of British South Asia scholarship in British public life. There have been substantial disagreements about many aspects of India’s colonial past over the decades, but there is not a single established voice in the specialist field who would be unappreciative of the facts and arguments presented by Tharoor in his Oxford Union debate. If anything, they would regard much of the evidence against Imperialism as so old hat as to be hardly worth mentioning. There are, of course, some historians who still equivocate about the rights and wrongs of imperialism but they are, with very few exceptions, generalists who approach Empire exclusively from a British or military history perspective and lack any regional specialism. South Asian history proper has grown bigger than the nationalist reference-frame of the United Kingdom. Historians working in Western countries have become accustomed to listening to their colleagues in the region as equals, and often taking their lead. The most celebrated contribution of South Asian history writing to the historical profession worldwide was Subaltern Studies – a theoretical approach first worked out by Indian and British academics in Brighton, and now the leading orthodoxy in Chicago, Columbia and Princeton.

Little of this established and voluminous scholarship has filtered through to public discourse in the United Kingdom. Colonial India still maintains a large presence in ‘public culture’ but colonial stereotypes remain so ubiquitous as to raise the suspicion that they are actually required ingredients for market success. Why is there such a high chance that a British TV documentary about India (if it isn’t about wildlife) is about railways (which ‘we’ have bequeathed to the country)? Or why does every single fictional account of the Raj from Jewel in the Crown to Indian Summers have to include a transparently ideological leitmotif of interracial love (India – the unrequited exotic seductress)? Even William Dalrymple, a highly successful writer and ‘public’ historian, has for some reason chosen to adapt his book White Mughals – a saccharine ‘true’ love story between an East India Company official and a Muslim princess – for TV and cinema, instead of one of his far more hard hitting works on how the British put down the ‘Rebellion’ of 1857 or went on a colonial killing spree in Afghanistan.

The Raj is omnipresent but unreal, happily consumed but without any realization of what it actually meant for those at the receiving end. None of this is the result of scholarly neglect – the books that would tell a more accurate and much more uncomfortable story are easily available and have been for many decades. The fact that the Tharoor debate still appeared as a ‘live’ controversy for the present day, simply demonstrates just how a-historical –disconnected from both fact and historical experience – British engagement with its Empire has become. It is tempting to blame this state of affairs on the professional historian’s inability to go out and ‘engage with the public’ more. This seems unfair. Historians can of course enter the infotainment marketplace as it is currently configured, but chances are they would simply end up producing a more academic version of what is already on offer – an account that focuses on ‘us’ as essentially moral subjects, and offers at best an artificially ‘balanced’ accounts of the kind proposed by the professors at Oxford. To truly challenge the terms of debate critical historians would need a trump card, a higher source of authority that can effectively take on what the public is accustomed to like. Insisting that this may come from better research and from the weight of historical ‘evidence’ can only be a pious illusion when obvious ‘facts’ have been ignored with impunity for so long.

The India reparations debate proves that better scholarship alone cannot change public debate. So what can? Here lessons may be learnt from one of the few historical subject areas in which methodological advances in professional scholarship have actually filtered through to how society at large sees the world: gender and women’s history has earned an established and entirely normalized place in public historical culture. It sells millions of books, and appeals to TV commissioning editors and museum curators alike. Yet again, this achievement is unlikely to be the result of better scholarship or more public engagement on behalf of gender historians alone. More likely, it has come as one of the spoils of war after a long and tenacious political fight for gender equality. History, it seems, can become a transformative, critical force only if acts as the intellectual rear-guard of a wider political struggle. In the case of British imperialism in India this struggle is still unfinished business, even if the world at large has long since moved on.


Dr Markus Daechsel is Senior Lecturer in Modern Islamic History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest book, Islamabad and the Politics of International Development in Pakistan, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.


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