Magazine article History Today

For Better or Worse? Denis Judd Takes Stock of Current Arguments as to the Effect of British Rule in India and Other Countries of the Empire

Magazine article History Today

For Better or Worse? Denis Judd Takes Stock of Current Arguments as to the Effect of British Rule in India and Other Countries of the Empire

Article excerpt

WHEN BRITISH RULE IN INDIA came finally to an end in 1947, what had it all amounted to? In many ways, the jury is still out. As with so many former colonial territories, even countries like Egypt that were more under informal imperial control than formal, there are sharply different ways of seeing the experience, especially from the viewpoints of rulers and ruled. During the last fifty years the debate has got under way in earnest, and it is still unfinished business. This month Oxford University Press are hosting a special discussion at Fortnum and Mason, Piccadilly, where experts will debate whether the British administration in India and in Egypt was intent on development or exploitation.

As with any historical assessment, there are big and complex questions to confront, like the fundamental query; did Britain develop India or exploit it? In whose interests was the economy run? Was it better to have had efficient, alien rule or that of local elites? Was British administration during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as free of corruption as it seems to have been? Was racism inevitably part of the British presence? Were the reforms of the twentieth century essentially self-serving or genuinely altruistic? Why, while they fought British imperialism, did Indians so passionately embrace English games such as cricket? If the English language and an effective railway system were benefits of British rule, were they worth it? Why did the British seek to 'civilise' a country whose basic culture was already 4,000 years old? Why did so many Indians apparently collaborate with the British, ape their social habits and absorb their educational and political standards? If India was truly 'the jewel in the crown', why did many British people find the Raj offensive and sympathise with Indian nationalism? Did the British set out to 'divide and rule' from start to finish?

One writer, William Buchan, son of the novelist John Buchan, has summed up Britain's contact with India in terms of love and hate. What he wrote in Kumari could serve as an epitaph for the British Raj: 'The whole thing is and always has been a love affair. First and last that's been what mattered. And it's taken the course, worse luck, of most love affairs, beginning with persuasion--none too genie in this case--followed by delighted discovery', mutual esteem, ravishing plans for the future, the first really frightful row, and a long, miserable cooling off into polite bickering punctuated by sharp quarrels and joyless infidelities, each side withdrawing, steadily and continually, more and more of its real self. …

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