India though the eyes of a former Viceroy

A chance encounter with a copy of the October 1943 issue of the National Geographic magazine at a library book-sale piqued my interest since the headline article was about British India. I have always had more than a passing curiosity in the opinions of the British ruling-class during the days of the Raj. What did they feel their roles were in India? Were they simply traders forced into ruling uncivilized natives that knew no better?

I had to find out what this authors’ opinion was so I purchased the magazine on the spot. The article written by Lord Halifax, Viceroy of British India from 1926-1931 combined elements of genuine interest in the affairs of India with unapologetic views of the role that the British played in shaping it. Some of the broader themes in the article are commonly found in many other articles written by authors of similar origin and social-standing and are worth pointing out.

The first comment that struck my attention was this mock denial of the true nature of the balance of power in British India:

“About 39 percent of the whole country, an area of 716,000 square miles, is included in what are known as Indian States. Some of these States of which there are 562, are very large… Many of them are very old, and nearly all existed before the British ever set foot in India. Most of them were never conquered, but of their free will entered into treaty relations with the British… It is an added complication of India’s problems that the 93,189,000 people who live in the States are not British subjects and owe allegiance only to their own rulers.”

Of course Lord Halifax is referring to the Princely States in this passage and delineating them from the eleven Provinces which at the time formed British India. In my opinion, Indian school history textbooks do not adequately describe the powers vested with the Princely States during British rule and only nominally mention the larger of these States  in the context of the political integration of India orchestrated effectively by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. It would not surprise me if the Indian Princely States were willing allies of the British Crown considering it was in their vested interests to support feudalism. However, does simply saying that the Princely States were happy campers that supported the British acknowledge the realpolitik of the climate? Did the rulers of these Princely States have any reasonable choice?

The second thought pervasive throughout the article is the notion of India as a conglomeration of states cobbled together only by the presence of British ruling elite. Although the Mughal Empire had successfully consolidated much of what later became British India, there is arguably, some credence to this twisted notion. Strong opposition to a ruling class can often be a catalyst for unification of  disparate races or tribes. Dislike for the British might not have been the predominant unifying force, but it certainly might have been one of many.

In the article Lord Halifax also states the following:

“The English did not come to conquer; they came to trade…. For the first 150 years after their arrival, their relations with India were exactly the same as those of the United States with India, or Great Britain with South America, today… The successors of Akbar… became increasingly incapable of holding together his mighty empire; and as this dissolved into lawlessness, the only possible successor to take its place was the East India Company, working under the shadow of the British Crown.”

Again, the tone is defiant. The British were, according to Lord Halifax, unwillingly forced to take on the mantle of ruling India because of a void in leadership. Unfortunately, an external, perceived need for unification is paternalistic and rooted in the colonial mindset.

Lord Halifax continues with the following statement:

“The danger of creating a political vacuum by the withdrawal of one type of authority before another equally reliable is able to replace it is obvious enough.”

Here, there is a sense of resignation that the passing of India from British hands is inevitable. But the passage also reeks of a paternalistic attitude. Did the British know what was best for India? It is an irrelevant question when taken in context of the political disenfranchisement of the people of the land. Who was to say what was good or bad if the people had no voice?

Lord Halifax then talks about the social and economic advance of India under the British and economic and financial “independence” from Britain. Regarding political independence Lord Halifax writes:

“In 1757, when the British began to obtain a real footing in India, no one thought that there was anything unnatural in the idea that one people should govern another… The doctrine developed by Locke and other British thinkers, that the powers of government derive from the consent of the governed, was still in its infancy. The American Revolution was indeed based expressly on this doctrine, with which were associated certain inherent human rights; but even after the War of Independence, only an enlightened minority in this country [USA] disputed the institution of slavery of the expropriation of the American Indian.”

Lord Halifax is completely unapologetic and also continues in the vein that the conquest of India was an accident of history. An accident, perhaps, but weak moral justification even when combined with the preceding “we-know-what-is-best-for-India” attitude.

Lord Halifax also attempts to preempt any harsh criticism from American readers (he was the Ambassador to the US at the time) by sermonizing on the shortcomings in the early history of the US. As a debater , I can admire this sort of wily rhetorical maneuvering; as a rational thinker, I find the underlying logic disingenuous.

I will concede that the author does, however, have a point with respect to the concept of nationality and nationalism. From a sociological standpoint, the concept of communities involves including those that “belong” based on shared traits and excluding those that do not because they do not share the same traits. It is the role of any successful government to foster the sense of community among citizens. In modern India, these concepts coalesced around many nuclei (which included, as I pointed out, opposition to British rule).

The final comment worth mentioning from the piece discusses relations between Hindus and Muslims.

“Between Moslem and Hindu, there is a baffling absence of fundamental community of thought or feeling… From time to time it is alleged that the British, on the principle of ‘Divide and Conquer,’ have encouraged the quarrels which lead to this disturbance. This is simply not true.”

Throughout the article, Lord Halifax expounds the view that there are fundamental differences between Hindus and Muslims which are irreconcilable. I leave you to ponder on this viewpoint in light of the events of the last sixty-seven years during which time Pakistan was carved out of India, and Bangladesh out of Pakistan.

Notwithstanding my criticism of the article, I found it to be a provocative read, if for nothing else then for gaining insights into the mind of someone so intimately associated with the history of the South Asian subcontinent.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban


14 thoughts on “India though the eyes of a former Viceroy

  1. Wow. Interesting.

    Though I hate to admit it, its true that they played well and we played right into their hands. Intelligent folks.

    Anyway Lord Irwin wasn’t exactly the most popular Governor General we had. He made trouble with the Indians and that surprisingly earned some British reproval. Maybe Lord Ripon’s (the guy who introduced the Ilbert Bill) take on British India could be less biased. Give us a post on that sometime 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading, Vaishnavi. As you may have noticed, I am not a historian. I only like to pick out the flaws in reasoning in order to understand individual and crowd psychology.

      May give a post on other historical aspects, but as usual, my posts are meant to elicit a strong emotional response.


  2. yeah Mein Kampf is a fascinating read too.
    “Did the British know what was best for India?” .Check this out

    This is what Florence Nightingle had to say about how Brits know what’s best for India.

    –article from nytimes 1858,august 25

    How can it be unclear about why the Brits and the other Europeans came to India? They thought America was India and we saw what happened to the natives there. It’s probably for the spirited and often organised resistance from the Indians(and the Chinese too), that they saved themselves from the fate of Native Americans.

      1. Sushmita, I can tell that you have very strong views on the subject.

        Let me temper the discussion by posing some rhetorical questions. I’ll play devil’s advocate now:

        The Indian educational system conditions us to think of the British as outside invaders that oppressed the indigenous natives who lived in utopia before they arrived. I think the situation is a bit more nuanced than that.

        Also, about the time that the British were establishing the seeds of colonial rule in India, the Maratha invasions were occurring in the areas of Bengal. There were no photographs and scarcely a mention is made of the mass killings of other “Indians” by the Bargis. In fact most of rural Bengal laid fallow due to the bargi incursions. My ancestors lived in that part of India. No atrocity is worth whitewashing and there should be no concept of moral justification either. Do we downplay the Bargi attacks in our history books because the deaths were caused by other “Indian” and “Hindu” marauders that do no service to national integration?

        As I said before, I’m posing questions worth considering.

        Thanks, as always, for reading and for your lucid comments.


  3. Each conquering army or country does not do it reluctantly. They come with a purpose to loot and strip the country of its resources. If you see, even the Moghuls came with that purpose but they stayed back and became a part of our culture and traditions. They married and settled down in India.

    What about Britishers? did they settle down in India? Did they enter into cross cultural marriages? Though we did accept their traditions and language.

    I feel the Britishers always thought Indians were beneath them and their only objective was to Rule, how much ever they want to deny in retrospect.

    1. Lazy Pineapple, your first paragraph accurately describes how I feel.

      I think George Carlin spoke the truth when he said that unless you are still living near the “Cradle of Life” in Africa, you are an alien, refugee, or invader. And India has had a major share of invaders mostly from the western passes, many of whom settled (as you mention).

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Excellent read. I give you 9 out of 10. One point deducted for the typo in the title :-p

    I always find it interesting to explore what ‘they’ think/thought.

    I agree with Vaishnavi, “its true that they played well and we played right into their hands. Intelligent folks.”

  5. I may not be an expert but thaT DIVIDE nd RULE thoery baffles me at times..I doubt if that was an effective practice because untill 1930’s i do not think their was much frictiion among Hindu Muslim Clan..So what did they actualy earn! DOes that Divide and Rule theory was in respect to small princely states?? I am a bit confused as usual!

    What is your view..May be i am misinformed!

    1. Nish, that is a very tough question and I see both sides of the coin. You’ve stumped me buddy!

      I would need to read up a lot more before forming an opinion.

  6. I’ve never quite been fascinated by history. I think I should be…there are lessons to be learn from history. More importantly, a good grasp of the important events of the past gives way to more fuel for the mind when writing, as metaphors and descriptions come easily to the mind.

    This is one of your few non-satirical articles. As a writer and reader, I am going to comment on your writing style, which is very professional and a pleasure to read. It displays a clear sharpness of mind.

    1. Thanks so much for reading. I hated studying history because it was always presented as a hodge-podge of dates and events. However, in the last few years I’ve been reading quite a bit on my own. Modern history in particular fascinates me.

      I am also flattered by your praise. I aim to please, but some posts will invariably have a more serious tone that usual.

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