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Monday, August 4, 2014

“Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India”, by Lawrence James


722 pages, St. Martin’s Press, ISBN-13: 978-0312193225

There is an intriguing puzzle at the center of the Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India: How did a relatively tiny island nation many thousands of miles away subjugate and then for a century rule a subcontinent populated by hundreds of millions of natives with a proud history of self-government, literature, architecture, and warfare? James suggests that two factors above all enabled this improbable conquest of Britannia in India: 1st, the native cultures of the subcontinent had long respected and remained loyal to centralized authority (e.g. the caste system), so long as that power was overwhelming and appeared destined to win; thus, from beginning to end, the Raj rested on a tenuous foundation of prestige and a ruthless display of authority, for any threat to the guarded image of British invincibility threatened the entire enterprise. 2nd, the Raj was able to effectively divide-and-conquer as the upper castes and the rural princes were given a privileged, relatively secure role in the Raj while the lower orders ostensibly benefited from the peace and stability that British influence brought to India. James stresses that the British could only have succeeded with widespread and determined native collaboration, a fact that still rankles contemporary Indian self-consciousness.

In the end, James maintains that the Raj was unmade mainly by the British themselves. On the one hand, the empire failed to emulate the practices of the Romans, who offered conquered peoples the ability to eventually enter Roman public life on a level plane. The author notes continuously how highly talented and generally loyal Indians were stymied by British contumacy. In support of this claim, James chronicles the use of the “n-word” by the British and how it seemed to spread with each successive generation of British overlordship. On the other hand, the nature of the Raj was powerfully influenced by domestic political changes in England in the late 1880s. The British presence and conduct in India had no more vigilant and strident critic than Labor MPs back in London.

A major side theme of Raj is the 19th Century cold war between England and Russia that we know today as “The Great Game”. A simple syllogism underpinned the British commitment to India and likewise motivated Russian foreign policy: Britain was strong and affluent because of the Empire; the Empire would be nothing without India; Britain would not be strong and affluent if India was lost. James sees the whole Russo-British contest as a farce. He compares it to the chess strategy known as “Maskirovka” a ploy to hide one’s true focus by threatening a perceived weakness (James suggests that British India played the same role in 19th Century Russian foreign policy as Cuba did in the mid-20th). James argues that the true national interest of the Tsars was always Constantinople and the Balkans; the much ballyhooed central Asian invasion route to India was a mere diversionary tactic. Thus, James sees “masterly inactivity” as clearly the right approach to British foreign policy, not the so-called forward school.

It is also worth noting that James is positively hostile toward Gandhi: “For all his public humility, Gandhi was at heart a vain man who wanted Indian freedom on his own terms and through his own methods…Gandhi was also a consummate showman and a shrewd politician, with a knack projecting himself in such a way as to attract the greatest possible attention in India and abroad…even [his] now familiar loin clothes was a prop in a well-though-out piece of political stagecraft”. It takes a bold man to shred so thoroughly one of the few national leaders to emerge from the 20th Century with their reputation fully intact and growing by the decade. The only person who is attacked more consistently than Gandhi is the last viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten. He is described as vain, overly ambitious, self-absorbed, and the worst thing a British official in India could be, impartial (in this case, to the Hindu cause as represented by Gandhi and Nehru). James places the death of several hundred thousand Hindus and Muslims in Punjab during partition in 1947 squarely at Mountbatten’s feet for his lack of effort in preventing the sectarian violence.

This is not a perfect book, but there are great chapters and its overall approach is, I think, commendable. I appreciated his view on Gandhi as a good antidote to the hagiographical view so often expressed (I have always had reservations about a man who thought the thing to do was drink his own urine!) but I have seldom seen footnotes so non-revealing (sometimes the name given in the footnote was not in the bibliography). But it is an interesting story James tells, one that is not told often or accurately enough.

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