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‘The job of a historian is to be diagnostic’

MAKING A POINT Author Jon Wilson in New Delhi  

In a riposte to romanticists of Raj, noted historian Jon Wilson has come up with a critique of the British rule in India. Called “India Conquered” (Simon & Schuster), the book unravels the chinks in the victor’s narrative and tells the lessons to be learnt from obsession for absolute power.

“The job of a historian is to be diagnostic rather than celebratory. Romanticism is for fiction. What motivated me was that we still live in some degree of myth that the British rule propagated about itself. I think British projected an idea of power which actually didn’t happen,” says Wilson, who was in Delhi recently.

Wilson, who teaches history at King’s College London, says it was a victor’s narrative and not just in the sense that is often meant by the term but also in the sense that what victor likes to make the action seem to him. “A victor will reduce the chaos, will reduce the uncertainty and would make it seem as if everything had some purpose. So even those who would criticise the British rule, would still say oh! but the structure had a purpose.” Right from the sub title of the book which says Britain’s Raj and the chaos of Empire, Wilson makes it clear that it was not a structured event. “The system of power had clear strategic objectives which it wanted to put in practice. Its concern was always to protect its own power.”

Wilson says they could have traded without conquering India. “They probably would have made more money. At least across the board, they would have made more money. There was no real opposition from the Mughal rulers in the early 18th Century to the British trade. Of course, they didn’t want the British to dominate but British officers had an anxiety and paranoia. There was fear of being driven away. They defined a power which was permanent. The book looks at this strange kind of power, which always thinks in terms of absolutes, always tries to assert its control on whatever it can control. There is a reluctance to negotiate and give and take of any kind of political power.”

Interestingly, Wilson starts his journey from the cemeteries in different parts of the country which hold remains of erstwhile British officers and their family members. Many of them are of children. “The idea was to tell that this is not about big structures. It is about real people, motivated by human feelings. The second reason is to give it a sense of continuity. The graves are there. So some kind of legacy is still there. But the most important thing is to break through the fictional stories to get to lives that people were living.”

Wilson says for many officers East was a career. “For individuals, it was about a desire to earn money. After 15 to 20 years they would return to have a life in Britain. It was seen as something secure.”

Of course, there was a risk of physical survival but it was a gamble worth playing. And at the end of the posting they would tell stories about the mission. “Civilising mission was something that they would tell their friends when they would return to give themselves a sense of purpose and virtue.” Of course, there were some individual officers who tried to do something good but Wilson underlines that there was no big project. “It, certainly, was not the motivation.”

Wilson gives better marks to the Mughal Empire in terms of social cohesion and economic progress than the British rule. “You just have to compare Indian’s position during the Mughal rule and the British Raj. During the British period India was quite poor while it was relatively prosperous during the Mughal rule. It explains two different kinds of power. A power that recognises that political authority can never be absolute. The British leadership didn’t acknowledge that and created a strange kind of embattled, ineffective kind of power.”

Does this include the steel frame of civil services and the railways? “I am not denying their importance but I am also saying they were not part of the governing project in the same way they were imagined to be. They were not part of civilising project either. They were not designed for development of India. They were designed to defend political power.” So, of course, they had beneficial side effects in some ways but the bottomline was India became poorer.

On the policy of divide and rule, Wilson says, “I don’t think it was a deliberate strategy. Apart from some particular events like the Partition of Bengal, I don’t think there was a consistent cunning agenda at work. More than divide they didn’t allow the forces to unite.”

On the days leading to Partition, when the British seemed in an unusual hurry, Wilson says they apprehended complete social breakdown and a civil war. “If you leave a mess, you are responsible for the mess. That is what I tell my children. British rule was about protecting British rule in India. And once it was gone, they were gone.”

As for the role of Indian nationalists, Wilson feels it took them a long time to figure out what was happening. “They came quite late to the idea of State. Nationalism is about institution building and social reform and not just about seizing State power.”

The book suggests that nationalists were okay with the same bureaucratic structure that the British left. “They were frightened of social break down. They also got seduced by the same idea of power as the empire.”

In many ways it seems we got more attached to the colonial rule than the British. Wilson notes many of the legacies like architecture and furniture have been reinvented for a present day purpose to define classy and luxurious. However, he doesn’t agree that the British managed to imbue an inferiority complex in us. “Indians never forgot what they were. And if somebody is trying to paint that picture, I think that’s a very condescending view of India. You just have to look at the majority of books produced during that period. There is a critique there.”

Wilson, who holds that Brexit is not going to make historical research lot more nationalistic in Britain, says there is contemporary relevance of the book. “I think one should guard against adopting the idea of centralised power that the empire did. Political power is always about collaboration.”


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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 1:55:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/%E2%80%98The-job-of-a-historian-is-to-be-diagnostic%E2%80%99/article16441788.ece

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