Unveiling the underbelly of the Raj through British eyes

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By Vishnu Makhijani

New Delh– This is not an account of Indians accusing British colonials of perfidies but of the rulers themselves laying bare the truth in their own words.

“The history of modern South Asia was determined largely by the intervention of British colonialism. As you research British rule, information breeds more information. I decided to tell the story of the culture and policy decisions of British rulers through their own experiences and perceptions, taken from their own accounts of their time in India,” says distinguished writer and Member of Parliament representing the BJP from Madhya Pradesh M.J. Akbar.

“This is not an account of Indians accusing the British of some perfidy but of the British telling the truth in their own memoirs and in their own words. The narrative is sometimes bemusing, occasionally hilarious and alas too often brutal,” Akbar told IANS of his book “Doolally Sahib And The Black Zamindar � Racism and Revenge in the British Raj” (Bloomsbury).

For instance, theosophist Annie Besant, an ardent supporter of Indian self-rule, had in 1915, counted 22 major famines under British rule, and this excludes the Bengal famine of 1940s.

“But to get the true perspective we must describe what we mean by ‘major’: the template was set in the first famine of the Raj, in 1770. Warren Hastings, then governor of Bengal, writes that “one-third of the inhabitants” of Bengal died of starvation. One-third! After which, Hastings gloats in a note to East India Company directors written on 3 November 1772 that he actually increased ‘the net collections of the year 1771’ by using violence,” Akbar pointed out.

“The numbers were in millions in every major famine; some of the pictures that we have reproduced are beyond belief. Instead of organizing relief the British gouged out greater revenue from the dying. It was mass genocide by starvation,” he added.

The first Famine Commission established the Indian Famine Code only in 1883, and even then Indians got more sermons than succour. Lord Curzon, “although an undiluted imperialist, was the first Viceroy to do something significant when he set up the Irrigation Commission as a long-term solution and passed legislation preventing moneylenders and merchants from seizing land in lieu of debt,” Akbar noted.

Question: Why have post-Independence Indian academics not given this extraordinary crime against humanity the scholarship it deserves?

“Well, I can only say that I continue to be astonished particularly since Dadabhoy Naoroji’s seminal study of colonial exploitation, published in 1901, became the intellectual spur which aroused the consciousness of an oppressed India. I wonder: did the legacy of British history, in which the empire was a force for good, outlast British rule? The facts and sources after all existed. Why did we never see a flood of research on famine as an instrument of exploitation,” Akbar wondered.

He also contends that the “most productive area of Indo-British cooperation was in corruption”.

Indian skills, he said, “Complemented British greed; both the Company rulers and the new comprador class they created, the ‘Black Zemindars’, became fabulously wealthy. It was as simple as that. Some of the instances I have quoted from a wide and fertile field are not without a touch of humour. British merchants began by bribing Mughal officials in the 17th century, quite often with copious amounts of wine and liquor and cash.”

Aurangzeb might have ordered prohibition, but his generals were toasting his health in Madras with foreign wine.

“When they became revenue collectors, the British needed intermediaries. Gobindram Mitra was the first ‘Black Zemindar’ and his ‘charhi’, or stick, passed into the language. The anecdotes, all from original sources, can be hilarious,” Akbar stated.

Another worthy, Prankrishna Haldar, in the 1820s, became so rich that he used to smoke tobacco rolled in 100-rupee notes at his palatial mansion in Chinsurah and took out an advertisement in the papers when inviting ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ to his nautch parties.

“There is a twist in the tale, however. He was also forging currency on the side, so that 100-rupee note might not have been so valuable after all. Everyone was on the take, not least the judiciary.

“The first Chief Justice of Calcutta Supreme Court, Sir Elijah Impey, was nicknamed Justice Pulbandi because Hastings gave him a fat contract for repairs of roads and bridges as reward for hanging (tax collector) Maharaja Nandkumar. Some of the stellar Indian names in Calcutta society became rich as agents of judges,” Akbar maintained.

One of the saddest tragedies of British rule was the manner in which they treated their own children, their own flesh and blood, the Anglo-Indians only because the mother of their own children was an Indian.

“The racist imperialists introduced a strange doctrine during the time of Lord Cornwallis, the second Governor General: that children of mixed descent inherited the worst of the genes from both sides. Anglo-Indians were driven out of government jobs and the armed forces, and when space was made for them it was only at the periphery.

‘The tragedy of Anglo Indians, who wanted to claim their paternal rights, is one of the most shocking examples of British racism. The Portuguese were not pleasant rulers; they could be ferociously cruel, but they gave rights to their children which continue. So did the French. The British were in a class of their own,” Akbar contended.

Thus came about the Doolally Syndrome.

“Doolally is now a word in the dictionary, meaning a bit drunk, or off-balance. It comes from Deolali, the city near Mumbai, where the British set up a cantonment for troops on their way back to England after their tour of duty. Naturally, the prospect of returning home induced some heavy drinking and much merriment.

“The only wail which could be heard in Deolali was that of Indian parents whose daughters had been girl friends of the troops and were now being abandoned. The parents would curse the soldiers: May your ship sink in the waters,” Akbar noted.

This is possibly the first book that unveils little-known aspects of the downside of the British Raj. One earnestly hopes it will spawn many more because the truth can never be forever swept under the carpet. (IANS)



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