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Imperialism and Nationalism in India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008


Among the dominant themes of world history during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been the imperialism of the west and the nationalism of its colonial subjects. Nowhere were these themes developed more spectacularly than in South Asia; its history quite naturally came to be viewed as a gigantic clash between these two large forces. The subject then was held together by a set of assumptions about the imperialism of the British and the reactions of the Indians against it. That imperialism, so it was thought, had engineered great effects on the territories where it ruled. Those who held the power could make the policy, and they could see that it became the practice. Sometimes that policy might be formulated ineptly or might fall on stony ground or even smash against the hard facts of colonial life. But for good or ill, imperial policy seemed to be the main force affecting colonial conditions. It emerged from an identifiable source, the official mind of Whitehall or the contrivances of pro-consuls; and so the study of policy-making made a framework for investigations into colonial history.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1973

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1 Perhaps the most devoted advocate of imperial power was Curzon, but bitter experience led him to conclude that ‘The Government of India is a mighty and miraculous machine for doing nothing’. Curzon to Hamilton, 9 April 1902. Curzon Papers, Mss Eur F 111/161, India Office Library.

2 According to Sir John Strachey, ‘…the first and most essential thing to learn about India—[is] that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing according to European ideas, any sort of unity…’ It is interesting that this classic apology for British rule stressed its centralizing and unifying impact, but denied that ‘such bonds of union can in any way lead towards the growth of a single Indian nationality’. Strachey, John, India (London, 1888), pp. 5, 8.Google Scholar

3 The officials of the Raj provided many of the data upon which studies of the political arithmetic of the regions are based, and administrative practice rested on their categories. That is another reason why their arguments have powerfully influenced the new wave among historians of India.

4 Graduates and professional men in the presidencies undoubtedly had a large part to play in the politics of province and nation. But they were not quite as important as they once appeared. Some of the suggestions in Anil Seal, The Emergence of Indian Nationalism (Cambridge, 1968), have dropped through the trapdoor of historiography.Google Scholar

5 Of course the presidencies liked to recall their separate historical pasts. So did the princes. But the Supreme Goverment eroded these little local vanities.

6 White settlers, once prohibited, later were never more than a handful.

7 Many of the land settlements of the Raj were also designed to stimulate agrarian improvement; its canals brought new land under cultivation; its improvements to transport linked cities which it had done so much to create. It sent Indians to school, partly to train cheap clerks for its offices, but also to create economic men. But to judge the Raj as an immensely powerful system of government makes sense only in terms of policy-making. In practice, many of its efforts were buckled by the hard facts of Indian society.

8 About a third of the total expenditure of the Indian government in the four decades before World War I was on its army. Statistical tables on government's finances (and on many other aspects of Indian society and economy) are being prepared, with the help of C. Emery, by the modern Indian history project at Cambridge, financed by a grant from the Social Sciences Research Council. It is hoped to publish these results soon.

9 Expanding its revenues was a difficult task for a government which relied upon so regressive a system of taxation. Income tax was obstructed by Indian interests, customs duties were kept low by imperial interests, opium was threatened by humanitarian interests. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, government finances continued to be propped up by the peasants, since receipts from land revenue were greater than receipts from all other taxes put together.

10 Sir Charles Wood quoted in Moore, R. J., Sir Charles Wood's Indian Policy 1853–66 (Manchester, 1966), p. 39.Google Scholar

11 Banerjee, A. C., Indian Constitutional Documents 1757–1947 (Calcutta, 1961, third edition), II, 319.Google Scholar

12 Control over defence and foreign policy was not even mentioned in the Montagu-Chelmsford report; the Government of India Act of 1935 stated that this control was to remain in British hands (26 Geo. V, c. 2, section 11). London also kept the true underpinnings of profit. It was from London that Indian loans came; London manipulated the exchange rate of the rupee as it saw fit and knocked India off the gold standard when that suited its purpose. Even the granting of tariff autonomy to India meant less in practice than in publicity.

13 Report on Indian Constitutional Reforms (Calcutta, 1918), para. 49, p. 33.Google Scholar

14 After 1919 the provinces had assured monies of their own; but the central government took a firmer grip than before in auditing their accounts. Again, the provincial governments administered the Criminal Investigation Departments founded between 1905 and 1907; but important intelligence work was always left to officers from the central CID after 1919, and the reforms of 1935 led to the appointment in the province of a Central Intelligence Officer who was responsible to the Intelligence Bureau in New Delhi. SirGriffiths, Percival, To Guard My People. The History of the Indian Police (London, 1971), pp. 342–54.Google Scholar

15 But leading Indian politicians, concerned to change the structure of the Legislative Councils, quickly lost interest in local self-government when they saw that it was to begin and end in the localities; only when it came to be tied more firmly to the structure of rule above, did their interest in the municipalities and rural boards revive.

16 Thus, for example, the membership of the rural boards in the Central Provinces was intended to represent the interests of landlords and traders; during the eighteeneighties some towns in the Punjab began to reserve seats for communities. Much the same process can be seen in the municipalities of the United Provinces before 1916.

17 One consequence of the reforms was the growing intervention by Indians in matters where the Raj had always feared to tread: the Hindu Religious Endowments Act of 1926 was not a measure that the Madras Government would have passed before devolution.

18 Of course, when the British retreated upon the centre, their concern with the details of the religious and social prejudices of their subjects became more remote than ever, while Indian interest in the powers which the British retained became much keener.

19 It suited the administrative convenience of the British to deem that throughout India, a landlord was a landlord and that a Muslim was a Muslim. Deeming is always dangerous, and many historians have been misled by this example of it. Sir Herbert Risley was responsible for much of the category-making behind the Morley-Minto reforms; but we need not suppose that such a distinguished ethnographer, with thousands of castes to his credit, believed that Indians could really be shut into such large boxes.

20 In the towns and villages, men of different religions, castes and occupations worked promiscuously together, heedless of the categories of the census and legislation. Indians had to don new caps to fit the rules. Cornwallis's zemindars and Munro's ryots had done much the same.

21 These are examples of political brokers (and in due course managers) at the top; they had innumerable counterparts, who performed much the same function at lower levels: Rafi Ahmed Kidwai of the United Provinces, Rangaswami Iyengar and Satyamurti in Madras, and Anugraha Narayan Sinha in Bihar are middlemen of this sort.

22 ‘Addresses presented in India to…the Viceroy and… the Secretary of State for India’, Parliamentary Papers, 1918, XVIII, 469587.Google Scholar

23 Their membership also illustrates that a politician might be forced to play many roles. As Montagu's advisers recognized, ‘One individual might, and often did, appear as a member of several deputations, which represented, for instance, his religious community, his social class or professional interest, and his individual political views’. Ibid., 472.

24 Ibid., 478.

25 Ibid., 479, 486.

26 These pretentious pot-makers, the Visva Brahmins, managed to split into five separate associations, with three distinct demands.

27 Solomon's problem was child's play compared to Montagu's; the Governor of Madras, who had to work the minister's solutions by balancing these claims inside dyarchy, bitterly complained: ‘Oh, this communal business. I am being bombarded by all sorts of sub-castes of the non-Brahmins for special representation and as I believe there are some 250 of these, I am not likely to satisfy many in a council of 127. You're a nice fellow to have given me this job!’ Willingdon to Montagu, 20 February 1920. Willingdon Papers, India Office Library. David Washbrook dug out this gem.

28 Constitutional politics and agitation rode in unsteady tandem throughout this period. The defeat of the constitutionalists in 1920 was more tactical than strategic. By December 1920 when the Nagpur Congress met, the first elections under the reforms had come and gone. By the time of the next elections in 1923, the Swaraj party was in the front seat, and Gandhi was back-pedalling from gaol.

29 Once war came, Vallabhbhai ordered all the Congress ministers to quit office. Reluctantly they obeyed.

30 The North-West Frontier Province.

31 Many villages hired their chowkidars from the criminal tribes, following the old adage.