by Vinay Lal

REVIEW OF: C. A. Bayly, General Editor. The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 1990. Illustrated. 432 pp. $60.00.

Originally published in Economic and Political Weekly 28, nos. 29-30 (17-24 July 1993):1511-13.

For nearly five months, between October 1990 and March 1991, the National Portrait Gallery in London was the site of an enormous exhibition on the Raj. Indeed, the largest exhibition ever staged at this gallery, “The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947”, was accompanied by an equally large and rather unwieldy catalogue bearing the same title. The task of General Editor was, not surprisingly, entrusted to C. A. Bayly, who some years ago acquired a reputation as a historian of late colonial India, and has in recent years ventured not merely into the earlier history of British rule in India, but into the larger realm of British imperial history in general. Bayly’s monographs on modern Indian history sought to introduce subtle but nonetheless transparent variations on the crudely wrought theme of Indian nationalism as ‘animal politics’ for which he and his colleagues at Cambridge (now scattered in numerous places) became known. Although The Raj incorporates the contributions of numerous scholars, and in particular arresting essays by Rajnarayan Chandvarkar, John Falconer, and Christopher Pinney, it is largely the work of Bayly, and of a piece with those works which carry the imprint of his name.

Bayly’s volume is divided into four sections: each section is prefaced by one or more essays, followed in turn by dozens of exhibits. The references are, in many cases, quite invaluable, and every student of Indian history,whether a novice or an accomplished scholar, will find some tidbit or the other that amuses or instructs. The Raj has several hundred illustrations, many in resplendent color. In short, no effort appears to have been spared to make the volume as attractive as possible, and this is what makes it all the more insidious. As the text does not leap from the pages, it is all the more easily used to reinforce a certain way of writing modern Indian history that should have been buried long ago.

The foreword by John Hayes, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, sets the tone for the entire volume. “‘East is east and west is west'”, asserts Hayes, and for good measure adds that “this familiar adage has a distinct measure of truth to it” (p. 9). He points out that the exhibition explores a “noble theme”, which he identifies as “the long relationship between the peoples of one of the great ancient civilizations of the East, largely Hindu but part Muslim, and the representatives of a vigorous Western trading nation” which developed “one of the most remarkable administrations — efficient and evangelizing — since the heyday of the Roman Empire.” What makes this relationship “noble”, and for whom was a relationship that was wholly inegalitarian, built on invidious not to mention oppressive race distinctions, “noble”? Is it “noble” because there is, as the whiff of longing for the Raj amply demonstrates, an air of ‘romance’ about this “relationship”, the romance of buccaneers, swashbuckling heroes, pigsticking sportsmen, and empire-builders? As if the essentialism between the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ were not enough, the “ancient civilization” of India is at once grounded in religion, “largely Hindu but part Muslim”, religion being the very essence of India in Orientalist and Indological discourse. The “trading nation”, England, was indeed “vigorous” in the pursuit of Empire, and rather modern in its techniques of governance, but the resonance “vigorous” acquires here comes from the contrast with an “ancient” civilization that, to make the implication explicit, was construed as ‘effeminate’. Having characterized this rule as an “administration”, thereby endowing it with the sanctity of a governmental apparatus that seeks only to ‘improve’ the life of a dejected people suffering from the weariness of inertia, Hayes leaves it to the historians to show how “remarkable” was the British epoch of Indian history.

Bayly’s own ‘Preface’ is scarcely more satisfying: “resistance” and “cooperation” emerge (p. 11), as they have in many other histories, as the twin themes of British dominion in India, although we have to ask what kind of “cooperation” and “resistance”. The history of modern India used to be written as the history of ‘collaboration’: the only kind of ‘resistance’ that was acknowledged was the ‘resistance’ of ‘elites’, and as this was shown to be yet another form of ‘collaboration’, ‘resistance’ was made into an impotent idea. After the interventions of recent years, embodied principally (though by no means exclusively) in the writings of the ‘Subaltern’ historians, ‘resistance’ has become less easier to ignore. Indians appear now as ‘subjects’, endowed with, if we may put it this way, a self-fashioning ‘agency’. Bayly’s ‘noble’ contribution here is to affirm the place of ‘agency’, so that Indians, instead of simply being acted upon, become willing partakers in their own oppression. “What no one now disputes”, writes Bayly, “is the extent to which the nature of British dominion was shaped by Indians as much as by British people, and as much by their cooperation as by their resistance” (p. 11). One would imagine from this that “cooperation”, or what is otherwise, and more frequently, called ‘collaboration’ had never previously been the leitmotif of historiography on colonial India!

The catalogue, as Bayly goes on to point out, tells a story, a story that he attempts to capture in this pronouncement: “The East India Company suppressed open warfare, unified the subcontinent and introduced a new legal system” (p. 11). Since no one doubts that the suppression of “open warfare” is a good thing, and since the other accomplishments stand in apposition to it, one must suppose that the unification of the subcontinent and the introduction of a “new legal system” were likewise commendable achievements. These claims are not really subjected to analysis, merely rehearsed and reiterated, so that again we read (p. 130): “The open warfare of the eighteenth century was suppressed and new courts of justice were established.” P. J. Marshall, however, in his essay in this volume on the British presence in India until the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799, admits that “it now seems difficult to portray eighteenth-century India in general as a land plagued by disorders so serious that they brought about a marked deterioration in economic conditions and thus compelled Europeans to intervene in order to maintain their trade” (p. 20). It is Marshall’s argument that Bayly must reject, if British rule is not to appear as, to his use own word, altogether “superficial”. If the “conquerors” did not achieve much more than the suppression of “open warfare”, and the establishment of “new courts of justice”, it is because they were “dependent on Indian clerks and subordinate officials, and beholden to Indian landholders or peasant leaders” (p. 130), whose sole ambition appears to have been to thwart the British from bringing to glorious fruition their numerous designs for the moral, social, economic, and political ‘improvement’ of the Indian people. The “defective tools” that the British worked with in India were, on Bayly’s account, largely Indians themselves (p. 130). Likewise, the “cultural arrogance” of the Mughals is said to have contributed to the “long-term failure of the [Mughal] empire” (p. 47), but there is not the slightest recognition that the cultural and moral arrogance of the British, which was certainly not any less than that of the Mughals, played its part in the demise of the Raj.

British imperialism in India emerges, in Bayly’s narrative, as a reluctant imperialism. We return, in The Raj, to the earliest formulations of the ‘Cambridge School’, as adumbrated in the writings of John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson. The “politics of Indian states were the prime cause for the expansion of the British empire” in the 1750s and 1760s (pp. 91-2), and the “true reasons for British expansion”, says Bayly of the last quarter of the eighteenth century, “lay once again in the subcontinent itself” (p. 152). We are to believe that had not their access to trade routes been threatened, and had not Indian rulers sought British intervention to resolve disputes amongst themselves, the British would never have thought of acquiring an empire. However, once, willy-nilly, this empire came into their grasp, they found they could do a whole lot of good. The cries of starved children, the wail of the widow, and numerous bloodcurdling practices of religious ‘fanatics’ pointed to the need to eradicate such problems as famine, sati, hook-swinging, and ‘communalism’. British artists tried to capture the ‘exotic’ element in Indian customs, as for instance in Johann Zoffany’s large painting of the ‘Sacrifice of an Hindoo Widow upon the Funeral Pile of her Husband’, but more exotic still is the representation of these ‘subjects’ in Bayly’s volume. Thus, on pages 222-223 of the Raj, we have images, all jumbled together in a jolly good show, of an ascetic smoking a hookah, another sannyasi looking rather gruesome, an idealized sati, and spectators observing hook-swinging. These pages are not exceptional, but merely more indicative of the conception that governs the entire volume, which aims to introduce us to the breathless panorama of Indian life under British rule.

By means of legislation the British could perhaps hope to deal with sati, but what of famine? Bayly admits that the policies of the East India Company contributed to the famine of 1769-70 “indirectly”, but what is meant by this is unclear, for revenue demands were not lowered during the famine (pp. 105, 113). He notes that the extensive canal systems did not greatly reduce the impact of famines in the early nineteenth century, but apparently by the early twentieth century famine had abated, with “the exception of the terrible man-made Bengal famine of 1943” (pp. 198, 200). Just how “exceptional” this famine was can be gauged by the terrible statistic that jumps out from the annals of history: three million dead. The famine was indeed “man-made”, but far from going into the question the responsibility of British administrators for this catastrophe, Bayly merely adduces “poor transport” as the cause of the famine (p. 338). That such a famine could take place, after over a hundred years of supposed experience with management of famines, presents a terrible indictment of British administration, but no occurrence of this sort can be allowed to rupture the picture of the “noble relationship” that Bayly and the organizers of the exhibition were determined to present. Anyhow, what could the loss of three million lives truly mean in a country where people have since time immemorial died like flies? Lest this seem like an exaggerated rejoinder, it is useful to note how Bayly represents, again in the most fleeting fashion, the toll of life, and the exchange of populations, in the wake of the partition of India. “Estimates of those killed”, writes Bayly, “range from 200,000 to half a million and at least ten million refugees fled”, but previously we had been told that “over a million people were killed and tens of millions driven from their homes as new national boundaries were fixed” (pp. 415, 413). From 200,000 to half a million, and from a million to tens of millions: these leaps appear to make no difference. Western scholarship on India has rarely been held to those standards that we have come to expect in the study of European history.

As must now be obvious, The Raj is a saccharine history of India. Almost nothing is allowed to disturb the placid waters of the well of orthodox wisdom. The few unpleasantries in this account of a 350-year old relationship have less of a bearing upon British relations with Indians than they do upon how Indians interacted with each other. “Many of the fiercest conflicts of the eighteenth century”, writes Bayly, “were between Indian and Indian rather than between Indians and Europeans” (p.88), and this argument is extended for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well, as Bayly’s allusions to ‘communalism’ amply demonstrate. Although ‘communalism’ is a hotly contested subject, Bayly has no qualms in etching it unproblematically into the history of India. It is not quite kosher, especially for a historian with Bayly’s formidable reputation, to bluntly characterize Indians as essentially communal-minded, but he cannot quite hide his predilection for this kind of argument. The strategy adopted is to affirm that ‘communalism’ had a pre-history in India before the consolidation of British rule, and then to put this history in doubt, so that he can then also appear as a disinterested and ‘objective’ historian. Thus, on page 226, we are told that the celebration of religious festivals in the early nineteenth century often led to religious altercations, but on the following page Urs ceremonies are said to provide an “object lesson in the close interpenetration of the themes and practices of popular Hinduism and Islam in India in the nineteenth century”. “Most of India’s people lived in peace, if not always in harmony”, and at least in the early period of Mughal sovereignty, “it is difficult to separate specifically Hindu and Muslim traditions.” But no sooner is this admitted than Bayly goes on to a discussion of how Aurangzeb, by alienating “leading Hindus with his more rigid and Islamic court”, created the conditions for the dissolution of the Mughal empire (pp. 49-50). How, if ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ patterns of living were so closely enmeshed, could such supposed bigotry so easily find an operative space? What did ‘Muslims’ have to say about Aurangzeb’s animosity towards ‘Hindus’? What did it mean to be a ‘Hindu’ or a ‘Muslim’?

The pertinent question, as Foucault has reminded us, is not only one of whether certain discourses are ‘true’ or ‘false’, but of the effects of such discourses. Aurangzeb may indeed have been an Islamic zealot, and perhaps there is a pre-history of ‘communalism’ in India to which we must admit, but what discourses are to we to construct around these ‘facts’, and what shall be the place of these discourses in our histories? The ‘Subaltern’ historians have asked, for instance, what kind of place the discourse of ‘communalism’ occupies in the colonial sociology of knowledge, but it is precisely this question that Bayly’s volume seeks to evade. There is a section on the ‘British Understanding of India’, but there is little sense here of the systematization of knowledge under British rule, or of how the conquest of knowledge became an imperative of the state. Bayly appears to be less attuned to the politics of knowledge than the Englishman, quoted by John Falconer in his essay on “Photography in Nineteenth-Century India”, who in 1863 pronounced that “the calotype, the curious tripod . . . taught the natives of this country that their conquerors were the inventors of other instruments beside the formidable guns of their artillery, which, though as suspicious perhaps in appearance, attained their object with less noise and smoke” (p. 264). Christopher Pinney, in his essay on colonial anthropology, likewise shows a keen awareness of how science became the handmaiden to colonial administration. But in general ‘political’ readings are avoided by the contributors to Bayly’s volume, and indeed someone like G.H.R. Tillotson, in his essay on British landscape paintings of India, even passes strictures against ‘political’ readings, for the “preferences” of British artists for the picturesque were, in his view, “inspired primarily by an aesthetic habit” (p. 151). There is, of course, a politics to the alleged lack of validity of ‘political’ readings.

The Raj belongs, in its own way, with that stream of works from the seventeenth century onwards which saw India as a land of exoticism. Fakirs and famine-struck bodies do not give a rounded picture of ‘exotic India’, and indeed what would ‘exotic India’ be without the bejewelled, effeminate, and obese princes whom the British first reviled and were later to cultivate as India’s ‘natural’ aristocracy? These princes play more than their part in Bayly’s volume: they inform the entire history, and not insignificantly the only full-page or otherwise large portraits of Indians in The Raj are of princes. (The front cover itself reproduces a portrait of Maharaja Dalip Singh in magnificent color.) Countless times before the history of British India has been reduced to a history of few ‘great men’, and this rather impoverished approach dominates The Raj. Even in this respect, the selection is partial, for we hear a great deal more about Hastings, Clive, Tipu Sultan, Ranjit Singh, and other Indian princes than we do about the later Indian nationalists in the twentieth century. The foreword by Haynes had promised that the exhibition (and catalogue) would endeavor “to see the British from the Indian point of view” (p. 8). Not only is this promise not kept, but the very opposite transpires: Indians are for the most part written out of history. The Raj is like the architectural photography in the 1860s of David Lyon, of whom Bayly says that “he stationed Indian employees out of sight but holding reflectors, in order to light the long corridors found in some southern Indian temples” (p. 272; emphasis mine). That is all that Indians are really good for in Bayly’s volume: for holding the lights which would reflect illuminate the greatness of The Raj.