Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lawrence James' "Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India" (Steak Knives)

India has a long, complex history of foreign domination over the last 500 years.  From the Mughals to the close of the Raj in the 1940's, its a unique and fascinating focal point for several 'long-history trends', with the legacy of all this still at the forefront in shaping 21st C. global politics.

Lawrence James' 'Raj' is a fine history of the British portion of this legacy, which picks up not long after the practical if not official decline of the Mughals.  The East India Company (for my fellow Canadians, this would be an analogue to the Hudson's Bay Company of our own history) comes to control much of the Indian subcontinent through trade backed up by military muscle, crowding out the French and slowly chipping away additional territory through a series of bold assaults against far greater numbers.

In fact, this boldness creates a myth of British ascendency in the minds of its Indian subjects.  This delicate fact was consciously and repeatedly noted by British legislators and militants, who understood their tenuous control over far greater numbers rested in large part on a belief that they were not only impossible to defeat, but were legitimate occupiers by virtue of their ongoing stunning successes.  Of course, hindsight always shows this to be a losing game.  But more on that in a bit...

Despite a heavy military and bureaucratic presence in India, Britain never did have sufficient numbers to hold its prize by overt force, and spent much of the Raj fretting over local and external threats both real and imagined.  Pushing the North-West frontier into what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan was a recurring theme, in part to provide a bulwark against a feared Russian play for India.

It's not my intention to re-play the arc of history here, but it's worth pointing out a few case-studies to demonstrate that the Raj was more intricate than a strictly colonizing overlord:

Indian participants in WWI are notable as a demonstration of (for some/many?) real affection and affinity for the British Empire.  Their presence on the Western European front must have been all the more jarring for it's foreign-ness, cold and industrial-scale death.  Despite this demonstration of affinity, the episode exposed enduring inequity and hypocrisy, ultimately hastening independence.

Socionaut & wife at India Gate, erected in Delhi by the Brits in thanks to India for its devotion and sacrifice in the First World War.

The massacre at Amritsar in 1919 is certainly the symbolic low-point of the Raj.  Doubtless, fair treatment of Indian subjects was not universal, though the text points to many cases where closeness and camaraderie (if not 'respect' as such) set the tone for Indian-British relations.  The Jalianwala Bagh massacre by Dyer brings to the surface a thick seam of racism and disregard for the colonized.  Many in Britain continued to support Dyer after the fact, and this further stoked disgust and desire for self-determination in India.

The Jalianwala Bagh Massacre - low point for the Raj.
The decline of a global Britain, in part exposed by the experience of WWII, acted to further breach the bubble of the Raj's invulnerability and ability/willingness to act in good faith with 'India.'

While James' coverage of the hasty close of the Raj and partition of Pakistan/India was a comparatively small portion of the overall text, this bears out in actual history.  It was a hasty and flawed departure, leaving massacre and chaos in its wake and, to the present day, leaves a dicey political climate in the region and beyond.

Note: This was a good, long read at 650 pages.  I *just* wrapped it up in advance of my wife giving birth to our second child - any time now, 3 days overdue.  Probably not much time for reading or updating in the near future, but happily so!

Also - Happy Birthday to my dad, James Lawrence - an inversion of the author posted about here.  Coincidence?

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