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What if there was no British Raj?

What character might India have developed had the British never prevailed

Book covers of India Conquered (left); and Keeping the Jewel in the crown (right).
Book covers of India Conquered (left); and Keeping the Jewel in the crown (right).

The appearance recently of a series of books on India and the Raj shows that the history of empire is once again in fashion. There is Jon Wilson’s magisterial India Conquered, which investigates the manufacturing of British power in India, and Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears Of The Rajas, which explores its traumatic corollary. Shashi Tharoor delivers a withering review of colonial exploitation in An Era Of Darkness, while Walter Reid, in Keeping The Jewel In The Crown, exposes British perfidy in the closing chapter of Pax Britannica. Most of these books succumb, however, to sometimes painting history in black and white—Curzon, as this column has argued before, earned points as a villain for partitioning Bengal, but it was also he who restored India’s monuments and preserved our historical heritage.

It’s a slippery proposition, but what character might India have developed had the British never prevailed? Would the south have existed as an autonomous unit, possibly under French influence? After all, by the mid-18th century the French had booted the English even out of Madras, and established a robust peninsular presence. The chief of Pondicherry was dignified by the Mughal emperor as a nawab and managed to keep the Marathas at bay (apparently by plying the commander’s lady with alcohol). Tipu Sultan was a friend of the French, and had it not been for revolutionary convulsions in the 1790s that preoccupied his allies overseas, he might have received the assistance he needed to vanquish the British. More endearingly, Tipu entertained plans to educate his sons in France, and given his interest in engineering, the fruits of the Industrial Revolution may well have found their way to Srirangapatna via Paris. As it happened, the French enterprise collapsed, and the English claimed supremacy.

It was the entrenchment of British power that made racism state policy; this could, perhaps, have been averted had Indians retained power, dealing with Europeans from positions of strength, confidently commissioning Western talent for indigenous purposes—it was a German who commanded the Marathas at Assaye, and in Kerala it was a Dutchman who modernized Travancore’s armies. The nautch girl turned begum of Sardhana had tragic romances with a Frenchman and an Irishman. Such exchanges were a two-way street—in the early 19th century, Tamil devadasis performed in Europe and Kalidas won Western admiration when his Shakuntalam was staged in London as Sacontala. Racism reversed this, but if the politics behind racism had itself been avoided, things might have been happier.

Not everything, of course, would have emerged perfect even under Indian rule—caste, for instance, would have remained a deep-rooted obstacle to the dawn of any sense of nationalism. Politically, by the late 18th century, the Marathas dominated north India, from Lahore in the west to Bengal in the east, and a line of Shivaji’s family ruled in Tanjore, deep in Tamil country. But while the Marathas might have united much of India, had the last Anglo-Maratha War in 1818 not culminated in defeat, they would have had a long way to go before they could claim the loyalty of India’s diverse peoples. After all, it was raiding rather than governing that animated them, and as the Maharashtra Purana noted in the context of Bengal, “When they demanded money and it was not given to them, they would put the man to death. Those who had money gave it, those who had none were killed"—hardly a promising formula to inspire brotherhood and patriotism.

The irony, contested as it is, is also that it was a common hatred of the English that energized feelings of Indian unity. And that it was a foreign language that allowed a Mohandas Gandhi from Gujarat to mentor a Jawaharlal Nehru from Allahabad, collaborate with Tamil-speaking C. Rajagopalachari, and debate with the Bengali Subhas Chandra Bose. Indeed language would have been another interesting twist if the British had never reigned. English was imposed officially in 1837, before which it was Persian, now dead here, that served as the lingua franca of officialdom across much of the subcontinent. As one 1858 report noted, Persian was “for 600 years the language of justice…the language of the Court…(and indeed) it was much better known even than the English language is at present". It was used in Nepal and fragments of it were employed as far south as Kerala. If English had never picked up, India’s elite may still have been speaking to one another, across divides of region, religion and language, in an equally foreign tongue born in faraway Iran.

So instead of the succession of East India Company rule by the Raj under maharani Victoria, India might have come into the 20th century with a figurehead Mughal badshah, presiding over a Persian-speaking bureaucracy, supervised by the Marathas, with diplomatic dealings with a French-influenced south. Like foreigners before them—from the Arabs and Jews to the Turks and Central Asians—the British, Germans and French would have been absorbed into local society, through inducements of marriage and employment. Indian philosophy would have proudly travelled beyond its frontiers, and ideas from the rest of the world would have received a welcome in India too.

All this, of course, is one grand hypothetical proposition, fraught with perils. But while we increasingly investigate the impact of the Raj in shaping modern India, one hopes to be forgiven for wondering what the land might have looked like had the English never claimed dominion, and demeaned India as the jewel in a foreign monarch’s crown.

(Disclaimer: Pillai works with Shashi Tharoor)

Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. The author tweets as @UnamPillai

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