Books: An Indian Mutiny

It might go against current cultural pieties, but British rule in India wasn't all that bad, according to David Gilmour
Schoolchildren, who 60 years ago were brought up on the exploits of "Clive of India", are now taught nothing at all about Britain's Indian empire. Such knowledge as they possess comes from Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi, an epic of Good triumphing over Evil in which the British officials are stupid and malevolent, the Indian characters are saintly and heroic, and massacres like Amritsar seem to take place on alternate Thursdays. Should they wish to learn more, they can go to the local library, where they will find gory narratives of the Mutiny, or to a history faculty where they will discover academic volumes denying that their ancestors had a decent motive in India and ascribing Clive's victories simply to naval power and the wealth of Bengal.

Raj: A History of British India is a valuable antidote to all this, a vast and accomplished survey of the different stages of Britain's dominion. It combines the virtues of old-fashioned narrative history, humanising leading characters with brief descriptions of appearance and background, with a knowledge of recent scholarship and a judicious deliberation of evidence. As a military historian, Lawrence James is especially good on the frontier and the campaigns which forged the empire, but he is also impressive on the workings of the Raj, its relationship with the princes, and the progress of Indian nationalism.

One of the great merits of the book is its sense of balance. James is neither an academic carper nor a Blimpish apologist. He condemns the worst aspects of the British presence, and applauds the best, the elite of the Indian Civil Service, whom he compares to "Plato's philosopher princes, men of education, integrity and wisdom whose talents fitted them to rule fairly and honestly". He berates the British for their racial arrogance, which increased during the second half of the 19th century, but wonders how they could have avoided social aloofness when high-caste Hindus refused to eat with them and Indians of all religions would not let them meet their wives and daughters. Such even-handedness helps readers to avoid simplistic interpretations of the Raj and its leading figures. Thus in this book they will find that Clive was neither the hero of Victorian legend nor the lucky beneficiary of economic factors, but a man who was simultaneously a greedy adventurer and a soldier of brilliance.

The pages on the massacre of Amritsar, which since Attenborough's film has come to symbolise British rule in India, show James's impartiality at its best. Nearly all accounts (like Gandhi itself) dwell exclusively on the massacre (in which 379 unarmed civilians were killed on the orders of Brigadier Dyer), on the vote in the House of Lords which exonerated Dyer, and on the support fund raised to comfort the Brigadier in his retirement. While James naturally describes these events too, he also points out that the Punjab was on the edge of insurrection, that several Europeans had just been beaten and murdered in Amritsar, that Dyer was severely censured by a committee of inquiry and dismissed from the Indian Army, and that he was condemned by the Government and the House of Commons where Churchill denounced his actions as "monstrous".

Like Philip Woodruff and Sir Penderel Moon, authors of earlier narratives of the Raj, James provokes questions that academic historians in Britain, the rest of the Commonwealth and the United States wish neither to ask nor to answer. Why did small bodies of British troops - or Indian troops led by British officers - invariably defeat large native armies? Why did Indians submit to the rule of the solitary district officer riding from village to village, setting up his desk under a banyan tree and dispensing justice? Why with only 65,000 European soldiers was Britain able to govern a population of 300 millions in an area stretching from the borders of Persia to the kingdom of Siam? Why, if the empire was fundamentally evil, was Gandhi's ambition to make India an equal partner with Britain in that empire?

The author does not tabulate the answers, which are of course irredeemably "incorrect", but readers will be able to deduce them from the text. Perhaps the British soldier at this period was better than others. Perhaps the ICS officers were just and competent and were regarded as such by villagers who also knew that they were incorruptible. And perhaps - most lamentably incorrect of all - millions of Indians were not entirely miserable living under British rule.

After 640 pages recounting the events, the successes and the failures of the Raj, James feels obliged to produce his own verdict on this aberration of history. Although he accepts that few historians will agree with him - the combination of political correctness, "post-colonial guilt syndromes" and the "residual marxism" of many university campuses is too strong - he believes that "on the whole" the Indian subcontinent has been shaped "for the better" by the Raj. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh "are what they are now because they were once governed by Britain and brought directly into contact with British ideas, values, learning and technology". He is too polite to say that those values have not invariably been upheld or that these three countries are among the most corrupt in the world. But he maintains that in all of them "there is a consciousness of what constitutes good and honest administration, and the periodic outbursts against corruption ... are a reflection that their people judge their officials by standards laid down during British rule."

Lawrence James's 'Raj: A History of British India' is published by Little, Brown at pounds 25.

David Gilmour is the author of 'Curzon' (Papermac pounds 13)