Magazine article The American Conservative

All the Raj

Magazine article The American Conservative

All the Raj

Article excerpt

All the Raj [Vishnu's Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion, Maria Misra, Yale University Press, 449 pages]

By Septimus Waugh

SOMETIMES LITERATURE is great because what it communicates belies the creator's conscious intention. Kim, written by Rudyard Kipling to laud the superiority of British rationalism and organization over Indian mysticism, so lost its way in the lyrical description of Kim's travels with the lama from Tibet, that it became the first beatnik novel, and a work of propaganda was transformed into a work of art.

Although it would be presumptuous to describe Vishnu's Crowded Temple as literature, this dense and well-researched overview of Indian history since the mutiny of 1857 is lifted by the copious use of fascinating anecdote. These stories, while perfectly true, have the same impact on the reader as allegory. The mind is led along self-reflective and analytical paths into consideration not merely of India in the 19th and 20th centuries but also of the general predicament at the start of the third millennium.

Maria Misra's account of India during this period resonates with the history of the West. Just as Kipling paid lip service to the superiority of British imperialism, and then went on to undermine it in the telling of his tale, so Misra makes a polite, if trite, salute to Indian nationalist sensibility in her introduction: "The subcontinent is too vast and too ancient and the British presence too brief and microscopic for them to be seen as its leading players." She then, however, proceeds to tell the story of a connection between Britain and India which is not microscopic at all but pervasive and persistent

It is not a nattering portrait of the British Raj that she paints. Although she does not see it as consciously malevolent, she describes a regime that was inconsistent, penny-pinching, and often arrogantly obtuse about the needs of its subjects. At one moment it would be trying to impose utilitarian rationalist values without any heed to the offense caused to the religious feelings of the native population; at the next, it would be enshrining Brahmanical superiority in a caste system that the British imagined was a reflection of their own hierarchies of class.

In fact, there was no such unified system throughout India, where local differences, particularly in the south, allowed low-caste sections of the population to dominate socially and even control temple worship. In their quest to create from the Brahman varna (order of the caste system) an aristocracy modeled on that of Britain, enthusiastic scientists ludicrously sought to establish a racial type for Brahmans by traveling round the country measuring the lengths of noses and the width of nostrils. On one side of an arbitrarily prescribed ratio the population would be described as Aryans and therefore Brahmanical; on the other side, they were simply natives.

In contrast to the Nazis, however, the British did not allow this kind of racial stereotyping to dominate their attitudes; rather, they found their friends where they could. At one point it might be the Brahman, at another it might be the Muslim population that was promoted, depending on who was the least trouble to deal with at any particular time. The empire was driven by exigency rather than ideology. Attempts at grand planning repeatedly failed, due to lack of money and to the strength of local opposition.

Nevertheless, the British legacy was considerable. The formation of a single administrative unit for the whole of India created the precursor for the nation that has evolved, while the resultant jostling for influence between the different religious groups opened the fissure that made partition inevitable in the last days of the Raj. Misra lays the blame for the birth of what she describes as "communitarian" politics in India on the British predilection for categorizing people by religion. When religious identity became inseparable from political identity for Indians themselves, the seeds were sown that would lead to the violence that accompanied the partition of India in 1947 and the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in the 1990s. …

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