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Ratting out the Raj

In The Scandal of Empire, the picture of British rule in India becomes even less rosy.

india Updated: Jan 08, 2007 19:21 IST

The Scandal of Empire
Nicholas B. Dirks
Publisher: Permanent Black
Price: Rs 650
Pages: 389

As historians slug it out over the next 12 months to tell us about what really led to the 1857 Uprising(s) — while the rest of us celebrate how ‘we nearly...’ — there will be less focus on another commemoration: the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Palashi.

On June 23, 1757, Robert Clive established the first stages of British imperial rule in India on the banks of the Bhagirathi river, some 10 kilometres from Calcutta.
In the public mind, the two years, 1757 and 1857, seem to signify two vastly different eras in the history of British presence in India. The first year marks the ushering of the ‘Company Raj’, a period in which the East India Company, like a modern rogue multinational corporation, went on an expansionist spree for the purpose of amassing wealth by hook, joint venture or crook. It was as a ‘factor’ or ‘writer’ in the civil service of the East India Company that the 18-year-old Clive joined in Madras, amassing great amounts of wealth as he moved up the chain of command to become the ‘Clive of Bengal’, the ‘Founder of an Empire’.

The so-called ‘second phase’ starts with the ‘filth and the fury’ of the Company being brought out in the open by the English ‘back home’, culminating in the East India Company Act of 1784, which directly subordinated the Company to the British government. Thus, the still existing notion of a despotic, money-grabbing East India Company put firmly in its place by a concerned, benevolent Government of Britain (at least until the volcanic eruption of 1857).

“Rubbish,” says Columbia historian Nicholas B. Dirks. In lucid prose that remains faithful to empirical evidence throughout, Dirks demolishes the notion of the British Crown coming to the safety of a nation out of some civilisational zeal and concern. Instead, he carefully plots the trajectory of a cosmetic two-step imperialist process through various chapters — ‘Corruption’, ‘Spectacle’, ‘Economy’, ‘State’, ‘History’, ‘Tradition’ — by which the British Government used the East India Company’s shenanigans as a stepping stone to entrench itself for the very same purposes as its out-of-control predecessor.

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So what about the strong tirades against the East India Company — especially the rousing denunciation by Edmund Burke in 1788 against imperial excess at the spectacular impeachment trial of India’s Governor-General Warren Hastings? By this time, there was, after all, a general recognition throughout England that “India had been pillaged by a growing succession of increasingly unscrupulous nabobs”. That may be the perception among the general populace in 18th century England, but it never quite overwhelms the British government sensing an opportunity to dip its hands into the same cash till of India that it so forcefully berates the likes of Hastings and other nabobs about.

“Scandal itself,” writes Dirks, “is a peculiar historical form that reveals its real meaning long after the public outcry and formal investigations have ceased ... If the early scandals of empire had been taken seriously, empire itself would have been the victim rather than Hastings. Not only was empire hardly abandoned, it was reformed precisely so that the private and idiosyncratic excesses of venality and corruption attached to particular individuals could be transformed into national interest.”

The Scandal of Empire details the fiction of sovereignty as negotiated with the Mughal emperor by the British government as well as that fixed with the East India Company. Dirks also underlines the rather neglected fact that the “notion that modern Britain as we know it was the product of its imperial power — and specifically of its participation in and dependence on the colonial state — is still strangely absent from both British national and imperial historiography”.

In fact, the author accuses British imperial historians of hiding behind the conceit of historical ‘neutrality’ and thereby making the true relation between the colonised and the coloniser in British India invisible. (He reserves special venom for historian Niall Ferguson for his thesis of the British Empire playing a ‘necessary’ and ‘benevolent’ role in the modernisation of the world.) If Dirks overdoes anything, it is in him drawing parallels between the British imperial project in India and the American invasion of Iraq. The point could have become apparent to the reader — if he or she chose to make the link — even without such hectoring from the sides.

As for the desi apologist of British rule in India, this book will either make you rethink certain notions you had about our post-1757-pre-1947 past, or make you burrow deep in pucca denial.