Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj
When Oxford University sponsored an evening at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly where Denis Judd would discuss the vanished Indian Empire, it could be viewed as promoting the pundit’s recent book. But it was also a reminder of the University’s historic role in the Raj. For years Oxbridge grads, chosen partly on the basis of their prowess in classical studies—surely irrelevant to conditions in the subcontinent—played a key role in India. They ran a distinct system of colonial administration during British rule, on the beneficence of which, in Judd’s words, the jury is still out.
Professor Judd, of the London Metropolitan University, has written a good short history of the British in India, a vast subject spanning three and a half centuries. He could not be better prepared. It is hard to go anywhere in modern British history without bumping into one of his books. George V, Nehru, Joseph Chamberlain, the Empire itself are among his subjects, besides an earlier book on the Raj. He has even published on the blunders of the British Army in the Victorian era. Of his present work, it is only possible to try and convey several highlights.
Although he tells how Alfred the Great sent “a certain Sighelm” to India in A.D. 883, Judd moves smartly to comparatively modern times: the Great Indian Uprising, or Mutiny, as the authorities called it, in 1857, when the British blotted their copybook, and called into question their fitness to rule the “lesser breeds.” The flashpoint was the greasing of cartridges for a new Enfield rifle which the sepoys believed would defile them. The British locals savagely put down the uprising, but Parliament responded by repealing the governing power of the East India Company.
Thereafter, things ticked along well enough until World War I. Improvements such as the telegraph and the railway meant that the isolated British district officer was never far away from a brigadier and loyal troops. A rich stream of revenue flowed to the imperial coffers. Local taxes supported not only an Indian (British) Civil Service and a resident British Army but a British-officered Indian Army, which shored up positions in the Middle East, suffered in the disastrous Mesopotamian “Mess-Pot” campaign, and even served on the Western Front. If Britain ever lost India, in the opinion of Viceroy Lord Curzon, she would drop straight away to a third class power. Nervousness about Russian intentions led to the intrigues of the “Great Game,” adventures in Afghanistan, and Tibet, while the power of the Indian princely states was steadily diminished.
Benjamin Disraeli persuaded Queen Victoria to accept the title of Empress of India and a Viceroy and Vicereine were installed. At the celebrations in India, the rifle salutes spooked the elephants and “a few natives” were killed in the crush. The British colony persisted in ingrown habits and fraternized hardly at all, and never easily, with its Indian wards. To escape the torrid heat they retreated to hill stations like Simla where an England in miniature was created. The women and their menfolk were haunted by tales of rape during the Mutiny, and never entirely trusted natives, even those educated in English schools. Their racial inferiority was taken for granted.
India played so large a part in the Empire and the world that seeking the causes of the gradual unraveling of the Raj would involve sifting a great lot of history. The Great War was a watershed. By 1914, Britain’s days as the sole superpower were over. Economically she had been overtaken by the United States and Germany and her trade position was judged eccentric. The war destroyed much of her wealth and much of a generation. One of her smallish dependencies, Southern Ireland, successfully revolted. Although the end of the war saw more areas of the world colored imperial red, a career in Indian service no longer held the same appeal for perceptive Oxbridge grads. It was a straw in the wind. In addition, in 1915 a ship from Africa had landed an Indian lawyer who had been causing difficulties for the authorities in Natal. He was called Mohandas Gandhi. But his name was Trouble.
An educated Indian class had developed as a result of a degree of industrialization and the establishment of universities in Calcutta and Bombay. An Indian National Congress and a Moslem League were formed and various schemes were launched by the Raj to increase native participation without promising self-government at any particular date. Gandhi’s practice of passive resistance began to put the authorities at a disadvantage. Brigadier-General Dyer ordered troops to open fire on a peaceful demonstration in Amritsar, a holy city of the Sikhs. Four hundred people died; Dyer was reprimanded and retired, but received his Army pension. Holding on to India became an issue in British politics and a passion for Winston Churchill. After all, he had served with the Fourth Hussars at Bangalore, which today is India’s Silicon Valley. Finally, it was acknowledged that Dominion status within the Commonwealth was the goal.
Such was roughly the situation in December 1941. Then the Japanese and the Americans arrived. The Japanese drove the British forces out of Malaya, Burma, and the great base of Singapore and thus arrived at the frontiers of India. Among the prisoners they took were thousands from Indian divisions.
The Japanese thereupon sponsored an Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose who was delivered from Germany by submarine, Hamburg to Singapore. The government reacted to the emergency by resisting concessions and imprisoning Gandhi and other active nationalists.
As Denis Judd shows, Americans, former colonials, further loosened the grip of the Raj. Franklin Roosevelt was no admirer of the British Empire, though he held that the Dutch had been doing a good job in the East Indies. He continually put pressure on Churchill. Joseph Stilwell, the American commander in Southeast Asia, was openly critical of his ally. The British vaunted the Indian railways as a great contribution to Indian development, but the Americans found that the system limited their efforts in Eastern India to fly materiel to China.
The book has a handsome dust jacket showing Viceroy Lord Curzon, his wife the Vicereine, and friends after a successful tiger shoot. Each of the men is holding his topi or sun helmet, standard British gear to ward off the perceived ravages of the burning Indian sun. The topi disappeared after the Americans arrived and moved about in ordinary headgear.
It was generally understood that a self-governing dominion would follow the end of the war, although Viceroy Lord Wavell and Churchill hoped that Moslem aspirations might dilute the pressure. But Churchill was the first casualty of the peace. The subsequent division of India into Hindu and Moslem states cost perhaps a million lives of people caught on the wrong side of the new borders. Gandhi was assassinated.
book earns high marks for organization, style, and general judiciousness.
Judd is never shrill, letting quotations from the players do the
work for him. There are no fat foot- or end-notes to distract the
reader or to lead to the suspicion that there might be another side
to the story. Overall, Judd seems to sympathize with the Indians.
To them, of course, it was a clear case of chez nous, sur nous,