No other country in the world was quite as fortunate as ours, a Times of India editorial gushed in 1841. Talk of luck. Not only were we ruled by White Gentleman, the Times pointed out, we were ruled by White English Gentlemen. (It could have been the Dutch, you know.) So committed were these Gentlemen to the governance of this heathen land, they "would do the utmost to protect our independence... " And this was not "superhuman or romantic.' After all, our rulers merely "act[ed] like English gentlemen of good common sense."
For the enslaved to choose between colonialisms is for the chicken to choose the sauce it prefers to be cooked in. Yet, some still cling to the notion that British colonialism was more benign than others.
This week we marked our escape from good English common sense. As smart a time as any to review its legacy. When the Times (then called the Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce) ran that edit in 1841, it was, after all, owned by other White English gents. When brown Indian gentlemen echo those views 164 years later, it is worth revisiting. When the Prime Minister does not "entirely reject" British claims to good governance, it becomes pressing.
That governance was certainly good for the British. Tax collections rose even as millions died of man-made famines. Like Bengal of 1770-72. The East India Company's own report put it simply. The famine in that province "exceeds all description." Close to ten million people had died, as Rajni Palme-Dutt pointed out in his remarkable book, India Today. The Company noted that more than a third of the populace had perished in the province of Purnea. "And in other parts the misery is equal."
Yet, Warren Hastings wrote to the directors of the East India Company in 1772: "Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of this province, and the consequent decrease in cultivation, the net collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of [pre-famine] 1768." Hastings was clear on why and how this was achieved. It was "owing to [tax collection] being violently kept up to its former standard."
Between 24 million and 29 million Indians, maybe more, died in famines in the era of British good governance. Many of these famines were policy-driven. Millions died of callous and wilful neglect. The victims of Malthusian rulers. Over 6 million humans perished in just 1876 when Madras was a hell. Many others had their lives shortened by ruthless exploitation and plunder. Well before the Great Bengal Famine, the report of that province's Director for Health for 1927-28 made grisly reading. It noted that "the present peasantry of Bengal are in a very large proportion taking to a dietary on which even rats could not live for more than five weeks." By 1931, life expectancy in India was sharply down. It was now 23.2 and 22.8 years for men and women. Less than half that of those living in England and Wales. (Palme-Dutt.)
Mike Davis' stunning book, Late Victorian Holocausts, also ought to be required reading in every Indian school. Davis gives us a scathing account, for instance, of the Viceroy Lord Lytton. Lytton was the most ardent free-marketeer of his time - and Queen Victoria's favourite poet. He "vehemently opposed efforts ... to stockpile grain or otherwise interfere with market forces. All through the autumn of 1876, while the kharif crop was withering in the fields of southern India, Lytton had been absorbed in organising the immense Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Victoria Empress of India." The weeklong feast for 68,000 guests, points out Davis, was an orgy of excess. It proved to be "the most colossal and expensive meal in world history." Through the same week as this spectacular durbar, "100,000 of the Queen Empress' subjects starved to death in Madras and Mysore" alone.
In fact, barring the scale, it all sounds depressingly like the present. In terms of ideology and principle at least. The Raj nostalgia of today's neo-liberals is quite heart-felt. Thousands of farmers have killed themselves as the agrarian crisis deepens. Tens of millions have seen their livelihoods destroyed. They now hotfoot it to the cities in hope of succour. Massive amounts of grain were exported during the National Democratic Alliance rule. Even as grain per Indian in 2002-03 fell to the levels of the great Bengal famine. And with all the misery in the countryside, the elite orgy of excess goes on. Lytton would have approved.
In his time, Lytton ordered that "there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of government with the object of reducing the price of food." Leave alone the Times of India of 1841. Lytton could surely land the editorship of most Indian daily newspapers in 2005. Imagine the edits his "sensitive and poetical mind" might have thrown up on the idea of guaranteeing employment. Lytton's era saw huge amounts of grain exported to Europe from here while millions of Indians starved to death. Even as he scorned the Indian populace for its "tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from its soil." (Davis: Late Victorian Holocausts.)
The neo-liberals of the present have not achieved the scale of death their White English forebearers excelled at. This is surely due to hundreds of millions of brown Indian men and women of good common sense. Blessed with an unpleasant habit of voting now and then. (And, oh yes, the Brits set up roadblocks to stop the rural hungry from pouring into Bombay and Poona. Police threw out tens of thousands of famine refugees. Sounds familiar? How well it sits with the brutal crackdown on slum dwellers in Mumbai.)
It's a good thing the great uprising of 1857 might be back for a bit on the agenda thanks to a Bollywood film. But it's also worth recalling that the then elites of cities like Bombay held meetings to pray for the success of the British troops. Not for Mangal Pandey and his comrades. Their descendents now plan on how to rid Mumbai of the poor. And would be happy to send Indian troops (mostly from poor rural families) to fight alongside the White English Gentlemen now floundering in Iraq.
Yes, there's that, too. British good governance killed more than those tens of millions in famines. Countless numbers of Indians died in wars waged for, by, and against the British. Over 8,000 died in the single battle around Kut in Iraq in 1916. London used them as canon fodder in its desperate search for a success against the Turks after the rout at Gallipoli. When there were no Indians around, the British sacrificed other captive peoples. "Waste the Irish" was the term used by an English officer when sending out troops on a suicidal mission.
The collapse of the purchasing power of the poor was a big feature of British rule. (Sounds a bit like the present!) The policies, bungling, neglect and corruption of Good White English Gentlemen had much to do with the death of perhaps 4 million people in the Great Bengal Famine of 1942-43. As Amartya Sen points out, this appalling event was never officially declared as a famine. It was only in October 1943, when much of the damage had been done, that the famine was "acknowledged officially in Parliament by the Secretary of State for India... "
The Statesman of Calcutta, notes Prof. Sen, raised the issue after the government coyly confessed to the great disaster. The paper wondered why there was "no direct admission of grave misjudgement on the higher authorities' part." How did this square, the paper sought to know, with earlier claims "that there existed virtually no food problems in India."
Again, while the scale is wholly different, the parallels are odd. In June this year, we could see Montek Singh Ahluwalia speaking solemnly of problems, even a crisis in agriculture. (Gee! I wonder who told him.) These headaches, he feels, go to back to the mid-1990s. No mention of who was shaping the ghoulish policies of that - and the present - period. And no questions asked about it in the media. There's good governance for you. Welcome back, Lytton. All is forgiven, come home.