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From the mid-eighteenth century, as the East India Company embarked on its 
career of conquest, the British had to confront the question of how, as a people 
steeped in the ideas of nationalism and liberalism, they could claim the right to 
control a vast Asian subcontinent. The principles they enunciated endeav- 
oured to legitimate their rule over India. Thomas Metcalf argues that the 
British devised two divergent strategies to justify their authority; one defined 
essential characteristics which the Indians shared with the British themselves, 
while the other emphasized the presumed qualities of enduring ‘difference’. 
Over time, however, it was the differences — differences of history, race, gender 
and society — which embedded themselves most deeply in the British idea of 
India, and so became predominant. Since the British constructed few explicit 
ideologies of empire, the author explores the workings of the Raj through 
study of its underlying assumptions as revealed in policies and writings. 

Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 

Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


Ideologies of the Raj 

Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


General editor GORDON JOHNSON 

President of Wolfson College, and Director, Centre of South Asian Studies, 
University of Cambridge 

Associate editors C. A. BAYLY 

Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge, 
and Fellow of St Catharine’s College 

Professor of History, Duke University 

Although the original Cambridge History of India, published between 1922 and 
1937, did much to formulate a chronology for Indian history and describe the 
administrative structures of government in India, it has inevitably been overtaken 
by the mass of new research over the past fifty years. 

Designed to take full account of recent scholarship and changing conceptions 
of South Asia’s historical development, The New Cambridge History of India will 
be published as a series of short, self-contained volumes, each dealing with a 
separate theme and written by a single person. Within an overall four-part 
structure, thirty-one complementary volumes in uniform format will be 
published. As before, each will conclude with a substantial bibliographical essay 
designed to lead non-specialists further into the literature. 

The four parts planned are as follows: 

I The Mughals and their contemporaries 
II Indian states and the transition to colonialism 
III The Indian empire and the beginnings of modern society 

IV The evolution of contemporary South Asia 

A list of individual titles in preparation will be found at the end of the volume. 

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Ideologies of the Raj 





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Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo 

Cambridge University Press 
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge cB2 8ru, UK 

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York 
Information on this title: 

© Cambridge University Press 1995 

First published 1995 
Reprinted 1997 
First paperback edition published 1997 
Sixth printing 2007 

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge 
A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library 

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data 
Metcalf, Thomas R., 1934— 
Ideologies of the Raj / Thomas R. Metcalf. 
p- cm. — (The New Cambridge History of India: 11.4) 
ISBN O 521 39547 X 
1. India — History — British occupation, 1765-1947. _ 1. Series. 
DS346.N47 1987 pt. 3, vol. 4 
954.03 — dczo 94-6117 CIP 

ISBN 978-0-521-39547-2 hardback 
ISBN 978-0-521-58937-6 paperback 

Cambridge University Press has no resposibility for the persistence or accuracy 
of URLs for external or third party-internet websites referred to in this publication, 
and does not guarantee, that any content on such websites is, or will remain, 

accurate or appropriate. 

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nu +} WY WK 


List of illustrations page viii 
Preface ix 
Introduction: Britain and India in the eighteenth century I 
Liberalism and empire 28 
The creation of difference 66 
The ordering of difference 113 
Coping with contradiction 160 
Epilogue: Raj, nation, empire 215 
Bibliographic essay 235 
Index 241 

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1 The East Offering its Riches to Britannia, by Spiridion 

Roma, British Library F245 page 16 
2 A Brahmin, on the monument to Warren Hastings 22 
3 Statue of Lord William Bentinck 95 
4 ‘An Indian Woman Burning Herself on the Death of her 
Husband’, British Library P1947 97 
5 “The Magistrate’s Wife’ from G.F. Atkinson, Curry and 
Rice 108 
6 Detail from ‘A Company Officer about to sketch a 
Ruined Temple’, British Library LID586 IIs 
7 ‘Brinjara and Wife’, from Watson and Kaye, The People 
of India 118 
8 Monument to Warren Hastings 131 
9 The Madras Law Courts 1§7 
10 ‘Miss Wheeler Defending Herself Against the Sepoys at 
Cawnpore’, British Library X2 164 
11 Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, British Library 430/62 169 
12 Viceroy’s House, New Delhi 170 
13 Bungalow, Allahabad, British Library 491/1 178 

Figures 1, 4, 6, 10, 11, and 13 are reproduced by permission of The 
British Library. Figure 12 is reproduced courtesy of the British 
Architectural Library, Royal Institute of British Architects. Figures 2, 
3, and 8 are reproduced courtesy of Barbara Groseclose. 


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This volume examines the ways in which the British sought to justify, 
and thus legitimate, their rule over India. The Indian Empire, as it was 
put together by the conquests of the East India Company during the 
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was for the British 
unprecedented in its extent and character. As Thomas Macaulay 
exclaimed in wonder in his speech on the renewal of the Company’s 
charter in 1833, the Indian Empire, ‘the strangest of all political 
anomalies’, was a state that ‘resembled no other in history’. To be sure, 
precedents could be found. The Spanish Empire in Latin America 
could have provided a model. But Spain had been Britain’s enemy 
since the sixteenth century, and it was always in British eyes associated 
with the vices of popery and tyranny. The British had, of course, 
conquered Ireland, and this conquest, in Tudor times, had helped 
shape the British image of themselves as an ‘imperial’ people. Yet, 
especially after the Union of 1800, the British chose not to avow the 
colonial nature of their dominion over Ireland. Then too, they had 
colonized the eastern coast of North America. But this, the so-called 
First British Empire, had involved driving the original inhabitants of 
America into the wilderness and replacing them with settlers of British 
stock. From the outset these settlers had been awarded a large measure 
of self-government, and until the crises of the 1770s they proudly 
proclaimed themselves to be British. 

Hence, as the British set out to make space for themselves as the 
rulers of India, they had to devise novel, and exceptional, theories of 
governance. This task was made more difficult by the evolving British 
definition of their own society through the discourse of nationalism. 
In contrast to most continental European states, for which conquest 
simply involved extension of the sway of a ruling dynasty over 
additional peoples, the ‘United Kingdom’ of Great Britain, though it 
might accommodate within itself the peoples of Wales and Scotland, 
and, uneasily, those of Ireland, by its very nature could not incorpo- 
rate into its ‘imagined community’ the peoples of a distant India. 
Indeed, if anything, the notion of a ‘British’ national community 


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implied that the people of India were equally entitled to form their 
own national identity. Furthermore, as Britain became, during the 
course of the nineteenth century, a society shaped by the ideals of 
liberalism, and, in time, of democracy, the existence of an autocratic 
rule over India stood in sharp contrast with the presumption, ever 
more deeply embedded in the British constitution, that the people, 
through election and representation, possessed the right to choose 
those who were to rule over them. By what right, the Victorian British 
had to ask themselves, could a liberal democracy assert a claim to 
imperial dominion based on conquest? 

At the heart of this volume is the contention that there existed, as the 
British contemplated India, an enduring tension between two ideals, 
one of similarity and the other of difference, which in turn shaped 
differing strategies of governance for the Raj. At no time was the 
British vision of India ever informed by a single coherent set of ideas. 
To the contrary, the ideals sustaining the imperial enterprise in India 
were always shot through with contradiction and inconsistency. At 
some times, and for some purposes, the British conceived of the 
Indians as people like themselves, or as people who could be trans- 
formed into something resembling a facsimile of themselves; while at 
other times they emphasized what they believed to be enduring quali- 
ties of Indian difference. Sometimes, indeed, they simultaneously 
accommodated both views in their thinking, making it perilously 
difficult to discern any larger system at all. This book argues that, 
throughout the Raj, and especially during the years of uncontested 
British supremacy from 1858 to 1918, the ideas that most powerfully 
informed British conceptions of India and its people were those of 
India’s ‘difference’. 

Despite an enduring commitment to the production of knowledge 
about India, the British made little effort at any time explicitly to 
construct an ordering system of ideology for their imperial enterprise. 
As a people, after all, the British had always eschewed grand political 
theories in favour of ones presumed to be derived from empirical 
observation, and, from John Locke onward, they insisted upon the 
value of experiential modes of understanding. As one seeks the 
sustaining ideologies of the Raj, therefore, much has to be inferred 
from theories devised to serve other purposes, as, for instance, in John 
Stuart Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government. Much, 
too, that one might regard as theory was elaborated only to meet the 


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needs of particular occasions, or in response to particular challenges, 
such as the 1857 revolt or the Ilbert Bill controversy of 1883. And 
much remained always embedded in practice. Assumptions about 
gender, and even those concerning race, although centrally important 
to British conceptions of India’s people, were rarely the subject of 
systematic inquiry. 

Asa result, much in this book involves an attempt to tease out larger 
implications from an array of decisions, policies, and activities on the 
part of the British in India. These range from the construction of 
administrative categories in the census to the layout of British Indian 
residential areas, from the strategies of archaeological preservation to 
the diagnoses of disease. In addition to the works of established poli- 
tical theorists — James Mill, Henry Maine, and J. F. Stephen, among 
others — the sources consulted include works of imaginative literature, 
among them the writings of Rudyard Kipling and Flora Annie Steel; 
the memoirs of Indian civil servants, like Alfred Lyall and W. W. 
Hunter, who reflect upon their careers in Indian service; and, of course, 
the important recent writings of the growing numbers of scholars of 
Indian history. I have endeavoured to give credit to these secondary 
works, ever more stimulating and suggestive, on the many occasions 
where they have helped shape my own thinking. In addition, I have 
consulted government records in the National Archives of India on 
some subjects, and for others I have drawn upon the research materials 
which I have collected during more than thirty years study of the Raj. 

It is important to emphasize that this book does not attempt to 
examine the character of the Indian response to the ideologies imposed 
upon them by the British, nor does it make any claim to be a general 
history of India during the British era. Although I have attempted to 
make clear that much in the elaboration of these systems of knowledge 
was a collaborative enterprise, above all in the British reliance on 
Brahmin pandits for information about the nature of Indian society 
and religion, the British presented these ideologies as their own and for 
the most part used them to convince themselves of their right to 
govern India. The Indian response to, and, as the years went on, their 
interaction with, the various British descriptions of their land was 
complex and multi-faceted. It involved simultaneous processes of 
acceptance, accommodation, adaptation, and rejection. I have tried to 
hint at some of the ways Indians endeavoured to come to terms with 
the ideas that defined their status as colonial subjects, but this is a vast 


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topic, currently an exciting area of new research, and one that would 
require a volume of its own. I have furthermore, so far as possible, 
avoided analysing or pronouncing general opinions upon the nature 
and overall development of India’s social, cultural, or political institu- 
tions. This work seeks only to understand the ways in which the 
British endeavoured to create a system of knowledge, about India and 
themselves, which would sustain that ‘strange anomaly’, the British 
Indian Empire. 

I am deeply indebted to the director, Robert Connor, and the staff 
of the National Humanities Center (North Carolina) for a fellowship 
during the academic year 1989-90. Their help and encouragement, and 
the extraordinarily congenial environment of the Center, made pos- 
sible a year of uninterrupted work on this project. I especially wish to 
thank Kent Mullikin, associate director, and the Center librarians, 
Alan Tuttle and Rebecca Vargas, for their unstinting assistance 
throughout the year. I appreciate too the lively and supportive criti- 
cism I received from the other fellows in residence, especially Suzanne 
Graver and Melvin Richter. For supporting a summer’s research in 
India in 1990 I am indebted to the American Institute of Indian Studies 
and its ever-helpful director in New Delhi, Pradeep Mehendiratta. 

I am grateful to several institutions who invited me to share my 
ideas with them during the writing of the manuscript. Among them are 
the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, and especially 
its director, Ravinder Kumar; the Shelby Cullom Davis Center in the 
Department of History at Princeton University, and its then director, 
Natalie Davis; the Berkeley—Paris exchange lectureship programme, 
organized by Lucette Valensi at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en 
Sciences Sociales in Paris; and the University of Cincinnati, for an 
invitation to participate in the conference on feminism and imperial- 
ism organized by Barbara Ramusack. Many friends, among them the 
members of the Triangle South Asia Group in North Carolina, and in 
Berkeley, Sandria Freitag, Stephen Greenblatt, David Keightley, with 
the other Yuppie Bikers, and especially Thomas Laqueur, have offered 
informed and helpful suggestions for the improvement of early drafts 
of the manuscript. Kevin Grant and Nasser Hussain, together with the 
other members of various graduate seminars over the past several 
years, provided ideas and stimulus, as well as bibliographical and 
research assistance, for which I am most grateful. As always, Barbara 
Metcalf has encouraged me throughout with her support and example. 


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As they extended their rule across the face of India during the late 
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the British had to confront 
the problem of how to govern this far-flung dependency, and, more 
importantly, how to justify this governance to themselves. How could 
the British, as a members of a society who adopted as their own the 
ideals of nationalism, in good conscience extend their authority over 
this distant and densely peopled land? There was, to be sure, agree- 
ment, after the rapacious years of conquest following Plassey, that, as 
Edmund Burke reiterated, Britain must secure the ‘prosperity’ of 
India’s people before seeking any gain itself. Britain’s right to rule 
India, so its leaders argued, could be made legitimate, but only 
through just governance. Yet such a principle by itself gave little 
guidance for a fledgling empire. How was such a governance to be 
secured, and what principles might give the English a claim upon such 

This introductory chapter examines the intellectual foundations 
upon which, during the eighteenth century, the British constructed 
their rule in India. Of necessity, as they sought to come to terms with 
the existence of their new dominion, the British drew upon a range of 
ideas that had for a long time shaped their views of themselves and, 
more generally, of the world outside their island home. As products at 
once of Britain’s own history of overseas expansion and its participa- 
tion in the larger intellectual currents of Europe, these ideas included 
settled expectations of how a ‘proper’ society ought to be organized, 
and the values, above all those of the right to property and the rule of 
law, that for the English defined a ‘civilized’ people. As they extended 
their conquests to India, the British had always to determine the extent 
to which that land was a fundamentally different, ‘Oriental’ society, 
and to what extent it possessed institutions similar to those of Europe; 
how far its peoples ought to be transformed in Europe’s image, and 
how they should be expected to live according to the standards of their 


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own culture. Under the leadership of men like Warren Hastings and 
Lord Cornwallis, Edmund Burke and Thomas Munro, the British had 
begun by 1800 to lay out ordering principles for what was to become 
the most extensive empire since that of Rome. 


The British idea of themselves as an imperial people, charged with the 
governance of others, had its origin in the discoveries and conquests of 
the Tudor state in the sixteenth century. As Elizabeth’s lieutenants set 
out in the 1560s and 1570s to subdue Ireland and establish there 
‘plantations’ of their followers, they endeavoured to devise expla- 
nations, satisfactory to their own consciences, which would justify 
these expeditions. Although a simple ‘right of conquest’ provided 
some measure of legitimation, the English conquerors sought further 
justification for practices that often involved massacre and expropri- 
ation by asserting that the Irish, especially the Gaelic-speakers beyond 
the Pale surrounding Dublin, were, despite their professed Chris- 
tianity, no more than pagans, or even barbarians. As evidence, the 
English cited their wandering pastoralism, so unlike the settled agri- 
culture of England, and their unorthodox belief. “They are all’, so 
Edmund Spenser wrote, ‘Papists by their profession, but in the same 
so blindly and brutishly informed for the most part as that you would 
rather think them atheists or infidels.’ The Irish, as another put it, 
living like ‘beastes, void of lawe and all good order’, were ‘more 
uncivill, more uncleanly, more barbarous and more brutish in their 
customs and demeanures, then in any other part of the world that is 

Consequently the English had no difficulty convincing themselves 
that the imposition of their rule would benefit the Irish. As Sir Thomas 
Smith argued, God had given the English responsibility to ‘inhabite 
and reform’ this ‘barbarous’ nation. It was their task, he said, to 
educate the Irish ‘in vertuous labour and in justice, and to teach them 
our English lawes and civilitie and leave robbyng and stealing and 
killyng one of another’. In so doing the English saw themselves acting 
as the Romans had done in England itself. ‘Ones as uncivill as Ireland 
now is,’ so Smith insisted, ‘this contrey of England was by colonies of 
the Romaynes brought to understand the lawes and orders of than- 
ncient orders whereof there hath no nacion more streightly and truly 


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kept the mouldes even to this day than we, yea more than thitalians 
and Romaynes themselves.’ With the conquest of Ireland the English 
thus made of themselves for the first time — but not the last ~ new 
Romans, charged with civilizing backward peoples. Conquest hence- 
forth found justification not, as in the Crusades, in the punishment of 
heretics and infidels, though the Irish were of course degraded by their 
Catholicism, nor as the outcome of dynastic rivalry, but as the product 
of a conception of civilization whose differing levels secured a place 
for the English at its apex. The English took this rationale for the 
subjugation of foreign peoples from Ireland to America, and thence to 
India and to Africa.! 

During the early eighteenth century, united into a single state, the 
peoples of Great Britain began to construct a view of themselves as an 
integral nation, joining English, Scots, and Welsh into one community 
set apart, as ‘British’, from others. Much in the creation of this ‘British’ 
national identity was, as Linda Colley argues, a product of a shared 
Protestantism, especially as the three peoples together confronted 
Catholic France in a succession of major wars lasting throughout the 
eighteenth century. The ‘British’ patriotism evoked by these recurrent 
wars, however, gained further strength from the extension of British 
power across the seas. Shared participation in the imperial enterprise, 
from which the Scots, the Scots-Irish and Anglo-Irish benefited 
disproportionately, as it forged a new ‘British’ identity, not only 
obscured the differences between the three peoples, but encouraged 
the British at the same time to see themselves as distinct, special, and 
superior. Whatever their internal differences, Colley writes, ‘Britons 
could feel united in dominion over, and in distinction from, the 
millions of colonial subjects beyond their own boundaries.’ The 
growth of empire, and a conviction of ‘Britishness’, went hand in 

In the mid-eighteenth century this sense of imperial patriotism 
found expression pre-eminently in a populist politics. While the 
Hanoverian dynasty fought on the continent to shape the fortunes of 
Europe, enthusiasm for empire defined an arena of dissent, set apart 
from the narrow struggles of court and ministers, in which Britain’s 

' Nicholas Canny, “The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America’, 
William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, vol. 30 (1973), pp. 575-98. 

2 Linda Colley, ‘Britishness and Otherness: An Argument’, Journal of British Studies, vol. 
31 (1992), pp. 309-29. 

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merchants and artisans, with the residents of its provincial towns, 
gloried in the country’s overseas triumphs. In 1739 Admiral Vernon 
was made a popular hero for his victories in the West Indies.> The 
following year ‘God Save the King’ was first sung in Britain, and the 
same year brought the first publication of ‘Rule Britannia’. This 
empire was, however, for the most part a maritime empire, an oceanic 
empire of trade and settlement, not an empire of conquest; an empire 
defended by ships, not troops. Indeed, the British people, while proud 
of their navy, were fearful of a standing army, and apprehensive of too 
deep an involvement on the continent of Europe, for they saw a 
powerful army under royal control as a threat to their liberties. The 
simultaneous conquest of India and loss of America, from the late 
1770s, gave this imperial patriotism a new character. Henceforth, 
‘Britishness’, as Colley argues, manifested itself not through an inclu- 
sive sense of community shared with the American colonists, but by 
the demarcation of ‘an essential quality of difference’. Foreshadowed 
in Tudor Ireland, Britain’s empire was now to be like that of Rome, 
defined by ideals of law and order flung across a subcontinent, united 
by roads and by rulers. Its heroes were not admirals, but generals, like 
Clive and Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington; its military, 
quartered abroad and so no threat to its masters, was a mercenary 
army comprised of its conquered subjects. 

As the British defined their own identity as a nation in opposition to 
the world outside, so too, more generally, did they as Europeans, 
under the influence of the ideals of the Enlightenment, announce their 
own pre-eminence as a ‘modern’ and ‘civilized’ people. The medieval 
Christian world view envisaged the ‘East’ as a fabulous land of mira- 
cles and monsters, of gold and heroism. For many it was the location 
of paradise; for others the abode of the terrible Gog and Magog, 
perhaps even of the anti-christ himself. Despite this often fearsome 
vision of a land utterly different from the known world of 
Christendom, the ‘East’ was, paradoxically, part of that known world. 
Bound into a unified cosmology with the European centre, Hell and 
Paradise, the anti-christ and the devil, were all integral, even necessary, 
elements of the medieval world order. Familiar, even if frightening, the 
‘East’ was always described through the forms of Western icono- 
graphy. Partha Mitter has shown how Hindu gods, conceived as 

3 Kathleen Wilson, ‘Empire, Trade and Popular Politics in Mid-Hanoverian Britain: The 
Case of Admiral Vernon’, Past & Present, no. 121 (1988), pp. 74-109. 


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inventions of the devil, took shape in Western painting as monsters 
and demons. Similarly, though more sympathetically, in a famous 
fourteenth-century painting, the devadasis, or women consecrated to a 
temple, described in Marco Polo’s travel account, were represented in 
such a way that, did the caption not state the subject of the picture, it 
would be impossible to recognize it as Indian, for the devadasis were 
transformed into blonde nuns attired in flowing habits!* 

From the seventeenth century scientific study of comparative relig- 
ion, with greater knowledge of India, dissolved the old ‘monster’ 
image of a frightening ‘East’. Under the influence of Enlightenment 
rationalism and secularism, distant lands lost their cosmological sig- 
nificance for Europeans, and were described instead through the 
taxonomic structure of eighteenth-century natural science. Much of 
this description was sympathetic, and informed by a search for the 
underlying unities that bound together the family of ‘Man’. Neverthe- 
less, it decisively set the non-European world apart as an ‘Other’. 
Several elements in Enlightenment thinking together produced this 
result. One was the use of such societies as platforms from which to 
criticize the governmental structures and social conventions of Europe 
itself. From Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters’ to the invocation of the 
‘noble savage’, the philosophes of the Enlightenment drained non- 
European societies of all content. Imagined places, they served only, 
through the device of irony, to reflect Europe’s gaze back upon itself. 

Furthermore, and more importantly, the taxonomies of natural 
history, by constructing secularized notions of the ‘modern’, and the 
‘civilized’, inevitably emphasized at once the difference, and the 
inferiority, of non-European societies. No longer occupying broadly 
‘sacralized’ roles of symbolic inversion, as monsters and devils, distant 
lands either marked out, as in America and the Pacific, early ‘natural’ 
stages of human social organization, or, like Egypt, whose antique 
greatness caught Europe’s attention during these years, societies 
forever in decline. However described, such societies, though com- 
prehended within a universalistic framework, and no longer stigma- 
tized for their religious beliefs, still, so Europeans insisted, were 
excluded by their cultural backwardness from the ‘progressive’ world 
order defined by a newly ‘modern’ Europe. 

One might argue further that, as Europeans constructed a sense of 
self for themselves apart from the old order of Christendom, they had 
4 Partha Mitter, Much Maligned Monsters (Oxford, 1977), chapter 1, especially pp. 1-31. 

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of necessity to create a notion of an ‘other’ beyond the seas. To 
describe oneself as ‘enlightened’ meant that someone else had to be 
shown as ‘savage’ or ‘vicious’. To describe oneself as ‘modern’, or as 
‘progressive’, meant that those who were not included in that defi- 
nition had to be described as ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’. Such alterity, 
what one might call the creation of doubleness, was an integral part of 
the Enlightenment project. As the British endeavoured to define 
themselves as ‘British’, and thus as ‘not Indian’, they had to make of 
the Indian whatever they chose not to make of themselves. This 
process, as we shall see in the following chapters, had as its outcome 
the creation of an array of polarities that shaped much of the ideology 
of the Raj. These oppositions ranged from, among others, those of 
‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ to those of ‘honesty’ and ‘deceit’. In the 
end, such contrasts encompassed anything that would serve to reas- 
sure the British of their own distinctive character and keep the Indian 
‘Other’ in its proper place. 


As they began to put together their Raj in the latter half of the 
eighteenth century, the British had to devise a vision at once of India’s 
past and of its future. Without such a vision there was no way they 
could justify their rule to themselves, much less shape a coherent 
administrative system. This section examines some of the ways the 
British conceived of India, and with it their role in India, in the early 
years of their rule. In particular it examines the tension between the 
notion of India as a society stamped by despotism, and that which saw 
it as an ancient land with its own enduring laws and customs. 

Among the central categories the British employed as they sought to 
comprehend India was the notion of ‘Oriental despotism’. From the 
time of Aristotle ‘despotism’ had existed as a description of a style of 
governance in which legitimate royal power was nearly the same as 
that of a master over a slave. For the ancient Greeks, the home of 
despotism was, not surprisingly, the land of their antagonists, the 
Persians. In the process this concept became a way of setting off 
people like themselves, conceived of as ‘Europeans’, from those, 
conceived of as ‘Asians’, who, in their view, willingly submitted to 
‘absolutism’. Although the notion of despotism later fell into disuse, 
the concept enjoyed a renewed currency in the eighteenth century, as 


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Europeans, under the influence of the Enlightenment, began sys- 
tematically to regard themselves, and Europe, as distinct from Asia, 
and Asians. Despotism described the way ‘Oriental’ states were 

At the same time, however, as critics, above all of the French 
monarchy, men such as Montesquieu and Voltaire, sought ways of 
challenging the growth of royal absolutism, ‘despotism’ became not 
only something to be found in the Orient, but a form of government to 
be feared, and fought, in Europe. The ‘tyranny of the Turk’, as in 
Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters’, was a foil for that of Louis XIV. The 
model of ‘despotism’ thus helped Europeans define themselves in 
European terms by making clear what they were not, or rather were 
not meant to be. Europeans, one might say, projected onto the “Turk’ 
the elements of unrestrained violence and sexual licentiousness they 
endeavoured to suppress within themselves. Part of the cost of Euro- 
pean liberty was to be a distorted imagining of the nature of non- 
European societies. 

Although ‘despotism’ faded from European concerns after 1789, 
with the ending of French absolutism, the notion of ‘Oriental despo- 
tism’ had enduring implications for the emerging Raj in India, for it 
carried with it the connotation that Asian countries had no laws or 
property, and hence its peoples no rights. Everything, in this view, 
derived solely from the will of the despotic ruler, who could take back 
what he had granted. Asia was at once, as Alexander Dow wrote in his 
History of Hindostan (1770), ‘the seat of the greatest empires’, and ‘the 
nurse of the most abject slaves’. As the British, India’s new rulers, 
began, from Dow’s time onward, to write the history of India, the 
concept of ‘despotism’ took ‘on fresh life. It was now a way of 
contrasting India’s earlier history with the law and order that the 
British conceived they were bringing. Henceforward ‘despotism’ was 
in India a thing of the past, but at the same time the ‘idea’ of despotism 
had to inform the whole of that past.® 

Yet, ironically, as the British were the inheritors of India’s past, 
many of the assumptions about India’s peoples that shaped their view 
of that past found a place in their own government. Dow himself 

5 Richard Koebner, ‘Despot and Despotism: Vicissitudes of a Political Term’, Journal of 
Warburg and Courtauld Institute, vol. 14 (1951), pp- 275-302. 

© Alexander Dow, History of Hindostan, vol. 3, Dissertation on Despotism (London, 1770), 
Ppp. Vil-xxil. 

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found implicit justification for Britain’s own authoritarian rule over 
the subcontinent when he wrote, “When a people have long been 
subjected to arbitrary power, their return to liberty is arduous and 
almost impossible. Slavery, by the strength of custom, is blended with 
human nature; and that undefined something, called Public Virtue, 
exists no more.’ The British, as India’s rulers, not only sought to create 
‘Public Virtue’ in their subjects, but willingly accepted the responsi- 
bilities its supposed non-existence imposed upon them. As the 
eighteenth century’s ‘enlightened’ despotism in Europe had drawn 
admirers as well as critics, so too did its nineteenth-century variant 
flourish, as we shall see, in the paternalism of the Raj. In so doing, it 
drew as well, looking back to Hobbes, on a tradition that insisted on 
the enduring power of the royal prerogative. As such eighteenth- 
century jurists as Lord Mansfield repeatedly affirmed, the exercise of 
rule could not, in overseas territories, always be contained within the 
bounds of ‘law’. 

The tropical climate of India powerfully reinforced European ideas 
of it as a land fitted for ‘despotism’. For the inhabitants of India the 
‘labour of being free’, as Alexander Dow put it, simply could not 
surmount the ‘languor’ occasioned by the heat and humidity the 
English saw as the characteristic features of the country’s climate. 
With ‘tranquillity’ and ‘ease’ the chief objects of their desire, Indians 
let themselves be subjected ‘without murmuring’ to the ‘arbitrary 
sway’ of despotic rulers. The ‘enervating character’ of India’s climate 
was complemented by the subjection of the land for six centuries to 
rulers who accepted the ‘faith of Mahommed’. The perception of Islam 
as a religion, in Dow’s words, ‘peculiarly calculated for despotism’, 
was of course deeply rooted in the European consciousness. Its origins 
go back at least to the medieval and early modern perceptions of 
Islamic states, above all the Ottoman Empire, as at once infidel and 
menacing. What Europeans feared most they not surprisingly associ- 
ated with the most vicious of governmental forms. 

Dow laid out in careful detail the ways Islam encouraged the growth 
of despotism. In so doing he took for granted that India was a land 
inhabited by ‘Mahommedans’ and by ‘Hindoos’. Muslim rulers, he 
argued, derived their position from the sword, whose ‘abrupt argu- 
ment’ enslaved the mind as well as the body; Muslim law gave every 
male unlimited power over his family in a ‘private species of despo- 
tism’ that reproduced in miniature that of the state, and so ‘habituated 


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mankind to slavery’; polygamy, the immurement of women, the 
absence of primogeniture, with a host of other customs, all contri- 
buted to a state of society in which cunning and passion, jealousy and 
intrigue, flourished. Freedom and independence, by contrast, and with 
them justice and security for property, withered and died. In India, 
furthermore, Islamic despotism found its perfect foil. There climate 
and faith alike contributed to produce in the native Hindu a being so 
ineffectual and submissive, the ‘most effeminate inhabitant of the 
globe’, as Robert Orme described him, that he was an ideal subject for 
the ‘fierce’ and ‘hardy’ Muslim invaders from the north.” 

Emphasis on the formative influence of the environment in making 
India a land so well suited for despotism reflected of course the 
enduring influence of Montesquieu. Yet such explanations raised 
awkward difficulties. In Orme’s view, for instance, the ‘climate and 
habits of Indostan’ had even ‘enervated the strong fibres with which 
the Tartars conquered it’. As Europeans, following the conquests of 
Clive, began to contemplate extended years of residence in India, 
climatic explanations for India’s degeneracy had of necessity largely to 
be set aside. Europeans sought, on the one hand, as we shall see in a 
subsequent section, to protect themselves physically from India’s 
threatening climate by erecting walls of distance marked out by dis- 
tinctive styles of residence and behaviour. At the same time, as they 
undertook from the 1770s a more detailed study of India, the British 
turned their attention increasingly from climatic determinism to what 
they saw as the enduring cultural and racial characteristics of its 

In this extended process of study the British endeavoured to secure 
at once understanding of India’s uncharted civilization and a sense of 
mastery over it. Both the interpretations such study yielded, and the 
self-assured mastery it produced, became lasting foundations for 
British claims to rule India. In the process some ancient notions came 
into question. Among these was the idea of a pervasive ‘Oriental 
despotism’. This concept necessarily implied that no will, and hence 
no law, existed apart from that of the despot himself. During the 
1770s, however, just after Dow had completed his history, the 
Governor-General Warren Hastings began elaborating a view of the 
Hindus as a people who ‘had been in possession of laws which 

7 Dow, Dissertation, pp. xiii-xx; Robert Orme, Government and People of Indostan, part 1 
(London, 1753; reprinted Lucknow, 1971), especially Book 4, pp. 38-48. 


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continued unchanged from remotest antiquity’. The country’s ‘ancient 
constitution’, he insisted, was very much intact. What the British must 
do, in his view, if they were successfully to govern India, was to master 
these laws and the Sanskrit language in which they were contained, 
and, more generally, to respect the customs of their new subjects. As 
he told the company directors in 1772, ‘We have endeavoured to adapt 
our Regulations to the Manners and Understandings of the People, 
and the Exigencies of the Country, adhering as closely as we are able to 
their ancient uses and Institutions.” 

Both practical and scholarly concerns fuelled Hastings’s commit- 
ment to the study of ancient Indian learning. Shaped by the Enlighten- 
ment ideal of understanding all cultures, he saw in the ‘cultivation of 
language and science’ in India a way to secure the ‘gain of humanity’. 
Yet such learning would also be ‘useful to the state’, as it would ‘lessen 
the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection’ and 
at the same time ‘imprint on the hearts of our own countrymen the 
sense and obligation of benevolence’. This mixture of scholarly curio- 
sity and administrative convenience, neither purely disinterested nor 
purely manipulative, was by no means unique to Hastings. Rather it 
informed the scholarly activity of such organizations as, above all 
others, the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Founded in 1784, under the 
patronage of Hastings, and with William Jones as its first president, 
the Asiatic Society was for some fifty years a centre of learning that 
took the shape of a host of translations of texts and other scholarly 
endeavours, and the publication of a uniquely influential journal, 
Asiatick Researches.? 

The scholarship of the Hastings era was informed by assumptions 
whose consequences were to shape all subsequent British understand- 
ing of India. The first was the belief that there was something which 
could be identified as a separate religion called ‘Hinduism’. Europeans 
were from the beginning determined to make of Indian devotional 
practice a coherent religious system possessing such established 
markers as sacred texts and priests. This process of definition gained 
momentum during the later eighteenth century as the British secured 
greater knowledge of India and its languages. It can be seen in the 
8 Cited in Bernard Cohn, ‘The Command of Language and the Language of Command’, in 

Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies IV (Delhi, 1985), p. 289. 
9 P.J. Marshall (ed.), The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century (Cam- 

bridge, 1970), p. 189; O.P. Kejariwal, The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of 
India’s Past, 1784-1838 (Delhi, 1988). 


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supersession of such discursive, and often credulous, accounts as J. Z. 
Holwell’s Religious Tenets of the Gentoos (1767) by Sir William 
Jones’s and H. T. Colebrooke’s detailed descriptions of Indian belief 
published in the volumes of Asiatick Researches. No longer simply the 
congeries of practices of the ‘Gentoos’, by 1800 Hinduism was, in the 
British view, beginning to resemble a ‘proper’ religion. 

The coherence of the Hindu religion, so these early scholars 
insisted, was, like that of Christianity itself, to be found in its sacred 
texts. In their view, the ancient Sanskrit texts would reveal the doc- 
trinal core of the Hindu faith, and they turned for advice in the 
interpretation of those texts to those whom they saw as the ‘priests’ of 
the religion, the Brahmin pandits. These texts were seen as embodying 
not only moral injunctions but precise legal prescriptions. The first 
fruits of this enterprise can be seen as early as 1776, when N. B. 
Halhed published A Code of Gentoo Laws. Subtitled The Ordination 
of the Pundits, this work involved a collaboration between Halhed and 
eleven ‘professors’ of Sanskrit, who created a text ‘picked out sentence 
by sentence from various originals in the Shanscrit language’. The 
articles thus collected ‘were next translated literally into Persian ... 
and from that translation were rendered into English’. From this 
laboriously contrived text, Halhed conceived, could be formed a 
‘precise idea of the customs and manners of these people’, as well as 
making available materials for the ‘legal accomplishment of a new 
system of government in Bengal’.!° 

A view of Indian society derived from the study of texts and 
cooperation with pandits inevitably encouraged the British to view 
Brahmins as the predominant group in Indian society, and to adopt 
their perspectives on it. To justify his reliance on Brahmin collabora- 
tors, Halhed insisted that the people paid his eleven pandits a ‘degree 
of personal respect little short of idolatry in return for the advantages 
supposed to be derived from their studies’. A Brahminical Hinduism 
was of course not only the result of conversations with pandits, for 
such an orientation was embedded in the texts themselves. Almost all 
were written by Brahmins and incorporated mythic accounts such as 
that, faithfully reported by British writers from Dow to Colebrooke, 
which saw the Brahmins ‘proceeding, with the Veda, from the mouth 
of Brahma’, while the three lower orders sprang from his arms, thighs, 
and feet. Though themselves occasionally sceptical of Brahminical 
10 Marshall, Hinduism, p. 143. 


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claims, these scholars nevertheless insisted that this ordering of society 
was accepted by all. If, as Halhed remarked, the ordinary people 
‘blame any thing it is the original turn of chance which gave them 
rather to spring from the belly or the feet of Brihma, than from his 
arms or head’. In the end, indeed, one can only see the ‘constructed’ 
Hinduism of the early colonial era as a joint product of British scholars 
and Brahmin pandits. Yet, ironically, though the Brahmins were the 
chief beneficiaries of this collaboration, still for them the Hindu 
religion was a living system, not a mere collection of texts. Hence they 
were sometimes reluctant participants, occasionally even protesting 
the British denial of authenticity to medieval, and vernacular, mater- 

The discovery of ancient Indian legal texts inevitably undercut the 
notion that India was a land subject to an ‘Oriental’ despotism. As 
Halhed proudly proclaimed, his ‘Code of Gentoo Laws’ offered a 
‘complete confutation of the belief too common in Europe, that the 
Hindoos have no written laws whatever’. Yet the amassing of Sanskrit 
texts did not put an end to the notion that India was a distinctively 
‘Oriental’ land. Men like Jones saw themselves not only as rescuing 
India’s ancient laws, but as ordering these ‘original texts’ in a ‘scientific 
method’. This ‘method’ involved the assumption, foreign to indige- 
nous Indian scholarship, that somewhere there existed fixed bodies of 
prescriptive knowledge in India — one for Hindus and one for Muslims 
- and that the closest approach to certainty was to be gained by 
establishing the oldest texts. These alone were authoritative; all sub- 
sequent versions were invariably corrupted by the accretions and 
commentaries of later ages. To be sure, during the Renaissance Euro- 
peans had themselves looked to the classical past for ‘authentic’ know- 
ledge. But after the seventeenth-century ‘battle of the ancients and 
moderns’, and the subsequent adoption of the idea of ‘progress’, such 
notions had fallen out of favour. By Jones’s time, though the British 
steeped themselves in the classics of Greece and Rome, they took pride 
in the Europe of their own time as ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’. Asia 
alone was a land where all greatness was to be found in antiquity. 

The outcome of British study of the ancient texts, in Jones’s view, 
was to be a ‘complete digest’ of Hindu and Muslim law, which could 
be enforced in the Company’s courts, and would preserve ‘inviolate’ 
the rights of the Indian people. As Jones proudly told Lord Corn- 
M1 [bid., pp. 114-15, 165, 169. 


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wallis, the governor-general, with such a code the British government 
could give to the people of India ‘security for the due administration of 
justice among them, similar to that which Justinian gave to his Greek 
and Roman subjects’. Cornwallis, Jones’s patron, would thus become 
the ‘Justinian of India’. Nor was Jones the first to conceive of Britain’s 
role in India in these terms. Halhed had already in 1776 held up the 
model of the Romans, who ‘not only allowed to their foreign subjects 
the free exercise of their own religion, and the administration of their 
own civil jurisdiction, but ... even naturalized such parts of the 
mythology of the conquered, as were in any respect compatible with 
their own system’. Parallels between Britain’s empire and that of Rome, 
as we shall see, were to be drawn ever more insistently as time went on. 

The notion that there existed ‘original texts’, and that these could be 
taken as representing an enduring Indian reality, inevitably meant that 
any code based on these texts would devalue India’s historic experi- 
ence, The contrast with the British conception of their own law was 
striking. The common law, which formed the basis of jurisprudence in 
England, was, to be sure, based upon a presumption of antiquity and 
stability in legal culture. Precedent was honoured, and the origins of 
the law were sought in the forests of Saxon times. In England too, as in 
India, the law was meant to fit the ‘disposition’ and ‘habits’ of the 
people whose lives it shaped. Yet the common law, as a succession of 
precedents derived from individual cases, flexible in accommodating 
multiple interpretations, embodied in its very nature the history of 
England. In it could be seen, so English jurisprudence believed, the 
changing ‘habits’ and ‘usages’ of the English people. There was no 
sense that Hindu ‘usages’ were similarly responsive to historical 
change. To the contrary, Jones’s conception of Hindu law implied that 
Indians lived a timeless existence. In practice, the British courts in 
India, as at home, developed their own case law, including such 
distinctive forms as ‘Anglo-Muhammadan law’, so that by the later 
nineteenth century most pleading in the courts was conducted on the 
basis of prior judicial decisions. The idea of India as a country 
somehow lost in time nevertheless remained, and was to have pro- 
found effects not only on the working of the British Indian judicial 
system, but on the fundamental structures of the Raj itself.'? 

12 Bernard Cohn, “The Command of Language’, p. 295; Marshall, Hinduism, p. 147. See also 
Bernard Cohn, ‘Law and the Colonial State in India’, in J. Starr and J. Collier (eds.), 
History and Power in the Study of Law (Ithaca, 1989), pp. 131-52. 


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The late-eighteenth-century Oriental scholars further sought ways 
of locating India’s civilization in the larger world of European classical 
antiquity. This activity took several forms. One was the search, almost 
obsessive in character, for shared origins and ‘resemblances’. Jones, for 
instance, arduously contrived equivalences between Hindu and 
classical gods — between Ganesh and Janus, Krishna and Apollo, and 
many others; and he sought as well to link the Hindu chronology of 
kalpas and yugas with the established signposts of the Deluge, the 
dispersion from Babel, and the Mosaic revelation. The structure of the 
Hindu religion too, as he wrote in an extended essay on ‘The Gods of 
Greece, Italy, and India’, shared a fundamental resemblance with that 
of the classical world. Jones’s greatest triumph was of course his 
discovery, on the basis of linguistic affinities, of an origin shared by 
Sanskrit with the other languages that subsequently came to be known 
as ‘Indo-European’. Of the ties of Sanskrit to Greek and Latin, he 
stated simply that, ‘No philologer could examine them all three 
without believing them to have sprung from some common source, 
which, perhaps, no longer exists.’ Whether far-fetched or full of 
insight, these parallels, by giving the country a shared classical past 
with Europe, brought India into a familiar framework, and so made 
the strange and exotic comprehensible in European terms for a Euro- 
pean audience,!3 

This scholarly enterprise reflected at all times an exuberant over- 
flowing alike of wonder and of curiosity. Some of the earliest expres- 
sions of Romantic sentiment can be found in the writings of such men 
as Jones. Above all, attracted by the ‘glories’ of ancient India’s civili- 
zation, Jones and his fellow scholars sought to convince their fellow 
countrymen of what they perceived as the ‘fertile and inventive genius’ 
of the Hindus. Jones, for instance, described their poetry as ‘lively and 
elegant’, their epics as ‘magnificent and sublime’, and the Upanishads 
as ‘noble speculations’. Above all, he spoke of the Sanskrit language as 
a ‘wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious 
than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either’.'* 

Yet the Orientalist project as it emerged was clearly fitted to the 
needs of Europe. Classification always carried with it a presumption of 
hierarchy. Jones, perhaps more than most, was drawn to a sympathetic 
understanding of Hinduism, yet even his enthusiasm for things Indian 
excluded the most recent centuries of its history, perhaps, one might 
13, Marshall, Hinduism, pp. 196-245, 252, 259, 262~89. 14 Thid., pp. 252, 259. 


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even say, the thousand and more years that had elapsed since anti- 
quity. At best, in his view, contemporary Indians might be living relics 
of pagan antiquity, ‘adorers of those very deities who were worship- 
ped under different names in old Greece and Italy’. The glories of the 
‘golden age’ had of necessity to be located in the most distant past. 
Such ideas were not wholly a European invention, for Indian cosmo- 
logy itself was built upon a conception of decline, albeit cyclical in 
character, to a contemporary kaliyuga. But India was for Jones always, 
despite his appreciation of its ‘many beauties’, the ‘handmaid’ of a 
‘transcendently majestick’ Europe. Asian learning, he insisted, could 
supply many ‘valuable hints’ for ‘our own improvement and advan- 
tage’. Europe’s ‘superior advancement in all kinds of useful know- 
ledge’ nevertheless remained unquestioned.'5 

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, then, shaped by 
notions of ‘Oriental despotism’, together with belief in an India once 
‘magnificent’ but now fallen, the British began to put together what 
was to be an enduring vision of this land. Fundamental categories of 
analysis were set in place, a comparative philology was constructed, 
and the enduring structures of what were to be ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ 
law were established. Yet the British still worked only with fragments 
imperfectly understood, and they framed them in an idealized concep- 
tion of India which made its present another’s past. Only in the 
nineteenth century, with the conquest of the subcontinent, and the 
creation of the ‘scientific’ apparatus of the Victorian era, were the 
scattered insights of the era of Hastings and Jones to be welded 
together into an ideology that endeavoured to explain at once India’s 
enduring ‘difference’ and its relationship to Europe. 


The British attempt to reach some understanding of the nature of 
Indian society and religion was inseparable from the parallel effort, 
during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, to devise an ideology 
that would sustain their rule, initially over Bengal and subsequently 
over the entire Indian subcontinent. This process involved several 
elements. The British had, first of all, to decide how far, and in what 
ways, the East India Company should be involved in governance as 

15 William Jones, ‘The Second Anniversary Discourse’ (1785), in Asiatic Researches, vol. 1 
(sth edn, London, 1806), pp. 405-14. 


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1 The East Offering its Riches to Britannia, by Spiridion Roma (1778). This painting, originally set in the ceiling of the East 
India House, shows Britannia, seated on a rock, guarding the East India Company, represented as children behind her and 
shadowed by her veil. At the lower left the genius of the Ganges is shown pouring out a stream on Britannia’s footstool. To the 
right, under Mercury’s supervision, various Asian provinces present produce before the throne. At the centre is Calcutta, 
presenting a basket of jewels and pearls; China is shown with jars of porcelain and a chest of tea; Madras and Bombay present 
corded bales of textiles. In the distance an Indiaman bearing these treasures sets sail. 

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well as, or in place of, trade. They had to set in place principles that 
would enable them to justify to themselves their rule over India. And 
they had further to establish enduring structures to order that 
governance. By the end of Lord Cornwallis’s years as governor- 
general (1786-93), the British had put together a fundamental set of 
governing principles. For the most part these were drawn from their 
own society, and included the security of private property, the rule of 
law, and the idea of ‘improvement’. By the coming of the new century, 
though their meaning in India was often substantially different than it 
was at home, these principles had become so deeply embedded in the 
shaping ideology of the Raj that to question them would have been to 
challenge the very purpose of the Raj itself. 

Clive’s conquests, beginning at Plassey in 1757, with those of his 
successors, undertaken on the initiative of the East India Company, 
forced Britain to face the question of whether this mercantile body 
should play a role in India apart from that of making money. (See fig. 
1.) By the 1780s, following the passing in 1784 of Pitt’s India Act, the 
Company, though for some years still retaining its trading privileges, 
had been largely transformed into a governing body, its servants no 
longer traders but magistrates and judges. This was by no means an 
inevitable transformation. As it existed in 1770 the Company was 
rather a barrier than an asset to an effective government of India. A 
logical strategy might then have been to abolish this commercial body 
and subject India to direct Crown rule. Though such an outcome was 
proposed on several occasions, most notably in Fox’s 1783 India Bill, 
mutual mistrust on the part of Crown, Company, and parliament 
doomed such proposals until the vastly altered circumstances of the 
mid-nineteenth century. As a result, in the settlement of 1784, the 
Company’s directors retained control of patronage and day-to-day 
administration in India, but a Board of Control subordinate to parlia- 
ment was created in London. This Board, whose president was 
effectively an Indian Secretary, supervised all activities of the 
Company and had to approve in advance all dispatches sent to India. 
The Indian governor-general similarly was appointed by the 
Company but subject to recall by the Crown. 

This so-called ‘double government’, which also found expression 
within Cornwallis’s India in the separation of the powers of district 
judge and collector, embodied many of the central elements of 
eighteenth-century Whig political philosophy. In the Whig view, 


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going back to John Locke, the main organs of government, executive, 
legislative, and judicial, ought to exercise separate powers; each would 
then check and counterbalance the others, and so together they would 
secure the liberties of the individual. This division of power was not 
introduced into the Indian government as part of a self-confident 
assertion of the superiority of English institutions. To the contrary it 
testified to a Whig belief that power was always liable to abuse. The 
British imagined - and not without reason - Crown, parliament, and 
Company as alike all corrupt, and so unworthy of being entrusted 
with so important a task as the governance of Britain’s new Indian 
dependency. Only a complex set of institutional checks could contain 
the venality of those who sought profits and places in India for 
themselves and their friends. Indeed the entire structure of the rule of 
law established by Hastings and Cornwallis can be seen in large 
measure as a way of containing British fear of their own complicity in 
Asian despotism. 

Fears of such complicity also informed the unrelenting attacks on 
the Company’s government of two of late-eighteenth-century 
England’s most eminent political thinkers — Philip Francis and 
Edmund Burke. Though each had personal interests at stake, for 
Francis especially sought to make his reputation by venomous attacks 
on the Company, nevertheless by bringing before the English public 
what they saw as the misdeeds of their countrymen in the East, they 
helped shape a new sense of purpose and a new strategy for the 
governance of India. As Burke argued, in the memorable phrases of his 
speech on Fox’s India Bill, the English conquerors were worse even 
than their ‘Tartar’ predecessors. ‘Animated with all the avarice of age 
and all the impetuosity of youth’, he said, they ‘roll in one after 
another, wave after wave; and there is nothing before the eyes of the 
natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey 
and passage.’ This rhetorical vision informed Burke’s tenacious 
pursuit of Warren Hastings in the latter’s impeachment trial. In this 
trial, begun in theatrical fashion in 1787 only to end inconclusively 
with Hastings’s acquittal seven years later, Burke sought to make of 
Hastings a symbol of the rapacity with which the East India Company 
had exercised ‘arbitrary power’ in India. Rejecting Hastings’s conten- 
tion that his position as in some measure an ‘Asian’ ruler necessitated 
the exercise of a discretionary authority, Burke charged his opponent 
not simply with specific acts ranging from the misuse of the revenues 


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of Bengal to the extortion of funds by force from the rulers of Benares 
and Avadh, but, more generally, with ‘cruelties unheard-of, and 
devastations almost without a name!”!6 

In creating what Sara Suleri calls a ‘litany of such uncontainable 
evil’, the managers of Hastings’s trial inevitably wove together not 
merely a catalogue of one man’s misdeeds, which were no worse than 
those of many others at the time, but a ‘fabric of colonial anxiety’ that 
caught up everyone in a guilty sense of recognition. In its larger 
meaning, as Suleri argues, the event was less the trial of an individual 
than ‘a documentation of the anxieties of oppression, where both the 
prisoner and the prosecutors are equally implicated in the inascribabi- 
lity of colonial guilt’. If Burke’s rhetoric were followed to its logical 
conclusion, the trial would have had to end not with the impeachment 
of Hastings alone, but with the overturning of the Company’s rule in 
India. This neither Burke nor Hastings, nor the English public —- now 
with the growth of the press for the first time an active participant in 
politics — was prepared to contemplate. Hence the trial became theatre, 
a spectacle for an applauding English public to observe, and the stage 
upon which Burke, and the English Whigs, struggled to erect barriers 
against arbitrary rule, alike in India and in England. Far from being an 
exotic land that could easily be known and controlled, Burke’s India 
was a place of English wrong-doing that could easily recoil on England 
itself. “I am certain’, he said in 1783, ‘that every means effectual to 
preserve India from oppression is a guard to preserve the British 
Constitution from its worst corruption’.!” 

To legitimate the conquest of India it was necessary, so Burke 
argued, not only to discipline Britain’s agents in that country, but to 
reorder their activities. England, he insisted, could right the wrongs of 
the past, and so contain the guilt implicit in the colonial enterprise, by 
constructing a government that would rule India in the interests of the 
Indian people. Time and again throughout a period of some twenty 
years beginning in the late 1770s, Burke insisted that ‘the prosperity of 
the natives must be previously secured, before any profit from them 
whatsoever is attempted’. He further argued that the interests of the 
Indian people and those of Britain were, ‘in effect, one and the same’. 
There is nothing, he continued, ‘which can strengthen the just auth- 

16 PJ. Marshall (ed.), The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vol. 5, India: 1774-1785 
(Oxford, 1987), p. 402. 
'7 Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago, 1992), chapters 2 and 3. 


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ority of Great Britain in India, which does not nearly, if not alto- 
gether, in the same proportion, tend to the relief of the People’. 
Imperialism, in other words, could be made moral by a just 
governance that would reconcile the Indians to their subject status. 
Such views, as we will see, were to echo down the years to 1947.'8 

The exercise of this trust required, in Burke’s view, that the British 
refrain from ‘shaking ancient Establishments’ and ‘lightly adopting 
new Projects’. Such views were of course part of Burke’s larger 
conservative conception of human nature and his veneration of the 
past. For Burke, as for most Englishmen, private property in land lay 
at the heart of an enduring social order. Hence, to bring about a justly 
ruled India, property, above all else, had to be made secure. Philip 
Francis, a friend of Burke’s and a member of the Supreme Council in 
Calcutta in the 1770s, drew up in 1776 the first comprehensive plan for 
a ‘rule of property’ for Bengal. Its basic elements subsequently 
informed Cornwallis’s 1793 Settlement, which ordered Bengal rural 
society until the end of British rule. The Bengal land system, Francis 
insisted, resembled neither the Oriental ‘despotism’ of an all-powerful 
monarch who could dispose of his subjects’ property at will, nor the 
feudal order of the European Middle Ages. Rather, he conceived that 
India possessed an ancient aristocracy, whose title to their estates had 
always been recognized as hereditary until it was subverted by 
Bengal’s British rulers. The landholder, in his view, was a proprietor, 
and hence entitled to the security of knowing ‘once and for all how 
much he is to pay to Government’ with the assurance that ‘the 
remainder will be his own’.!? 

Francis’s imagined Bengal bore only a faint resemblance to the 
functioning society of the Indian countryside as contemporary schol- 
arship now sees it. The zamindar, as the landholder was known, 
performed a variety of tasks. Among them were collecting tax revenue 
from the peasantry who tilled the soil, regulating the holding of land, 
maintaining order, and dispensing justice. At least in principle, the 
zamindar paid over to the nawab, or other superior government 
official, nine-tenths of the revenue he collected, retaining for his own 
use as compensation the remaining one-tenth. During the eighteenth 
century, as the power of the Mughal central government waned, the 
zamindars enlarged their estates and acquired ever greater power over 

18 Marshall, Writings of Burke, vol. 5, pp. 179, 221. 
19 Ranajit Guha, A Rule of Property for Bengal (Paris, 1963), especially chapter 4. 


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them. Still, though they possessed by custom a hereditary right to their 
dues, zamindars never held title to the land comprising their estates. 
Technically they remained no more than revenue collecting interme- 
diaries placed between the villager and the government. 

Hence the idea of restoring the ‘ancient institutions of the country’ 
by the award of proprietary rights to the zamindars concealed a 
commitment to a European, and Whig, conception of the proper 
ordering of society. A physiocrat, Francis saw in landed property, and 
the figure of the gentleman-entrepreneur, the source of England’s 
prosperity; and he consequently cast the Bengal zamindar in this same 
image. Cornwallis too sought to ‘restore’ the ‘principal landholders’ to 
what he conceived of as their previous position of prosperity and 
influence. But underpinning this vision was a firm belief in a ‘regular 
gradation of ranks ... nowhere more necessary than in this country for 
preserving order in civil society’. The 1793 settlement therefore had as 
its objective, not the reconstruction of some timeless rural India, but 
the conversion of the zamindar into an ‘improving’ landlord on the 
model of ‘Turnip’ Townshend. Under a permanent settlement, Corn- 
wallis wrote, ‘Landed property will acquire a value hitherto unknown 
in Hindoostan’, with the result that ‘the large capitals possessed by the 
natives’, now employed in usury, will be applied to the ‘more useful 
purposes of purchasing and improving lands’.?° 

Guided by the ideal of ‘improvement’, Cornwallis thus set on foot 
what was meant to be an agrarian revolution in Bengal. In the end, 
however, the permanent settlement proved to have been misconceived 
to achieve its ends. The zamindars, their taxes fixed in perpetuity, and 
their lands held by peasants engaged in subsistence agriculture, had no 
incentive to undertake productive investment. A rentier class, often 
residing in Calcutta, they sought instead to take advantage of their new 
legal position by extracting ever greater rents from a tenantry left 
bereft of the protection of custom. Already by the early 1800s doubt 
about the wisdom of the settlement had hardened into disillusionment. 
Yet the permanent settlement was not repudiated, and the ideas of 
private property and ‘improvement’ which defined it remained central 
to the Raj of the nineteenth century. 

By 1793, when he left India, Cornwallis had set in place the 
institutional structure of the Whig vision. The Company’s servants 
were no longer allowed to engage in private trade or to amass large 
20 Tbid., chapter 5, especially pp. 167-73. 


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2 A Brahmin, on the Monument to Warren Hastings, by Richard Westma- 
cott (1830). This tall, classically proportioned figure, with shaved head and 
topknot, represents the heroic image of the Brahmin, as Oriental scholar and 
Hindu priest, prevalent among the British in the early years of their rule. (See 
also figure 8.) 


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incomes by extortion; instead they were paid high, but fixed, salaries. 
The district collector was strictly restricted to the task of collecting the 
public dues; he was, as Cornwallis’s Code of Regulations described it, 
‘amenable for them to the courts of judicature’, and subject to personal 
prosecution for ‘every exaction’ exceeding the amount he was 
authorized to collect. The district judge, given magisterial authority 
and control of the police, embodied the Whig ideal of a government 
whose primary task was the impartial administration of laws that 
secured property and order. The era of ‘flights of birds of prey and 
passage’ had come to an end, and with it British fear of their own 
complicity in the practices of ‘Oriental’ despotism. 

Despite these Whig reforms the British remained dependent on an 
array of Indian intermediaries. Brahmins especially, in the courts and 
countryside alike, played an indispensable role both in the collection 
of revenue and the administration of justice. (See fig. 2.) This depend- 
ence at once angered and frustrated their British superiors. As William 
Jones wrote Hastings in 1784, soon after his arrival, ‘I can no longer 
bear to be at the mercy of our Pundits, who deal out Hindu law as they 
please.’ If, he later told Cornwallis, ‘we give judgment only from the 
opinions of native lawyers and scholars, we can never be sure that we 
have not been deceived by them’. In the countryside too, as Corn- 
wallis wrote of Madras, the Company’s servants ‘are obliged, both 
from habit and necessity, to allow the management of their official, as 
well as their private business, to fall into the hands of dubashes [Indian 
intermediaries]. These men, ‘cruel instruments of rapine and extor- 
tion’, were capable of rendering even ‘the most upright and humane 
intentions ... perfectly useless to the interests of the company, and to 
the unfortunate natives who happen to be within reach of their power 
and influence’.?! 

Jones’s remedy for this ‘evil’ was to learn Sanskrit himself and then 
to compile a complete digest of Indian laws. With such a digest, he 
said, ‘we should never perhaps be led astray by Pandits or Maulavis 
who would hardly venture to impose on us, when their impositions 
might be so easily detected’. Knowledge, that is, could effectively 
subordinate and contain the Company’s Indian underlings. Yet, 

21 §.N. Mukherjee, Sir William Jones: A Study in Eighteenth-Century British Attitudes to 
India (Cambridge, 1968), p. 118; Carol Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer (eds.), 
Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament (Philadelphia, 1993), chapters 7 and 8 
especially pp. 234-40; Burton Stein, Thomas Munro (Delhi, 1989), p. 38. 


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despite the publication of Jones’s ‘Digest’ in 1798, Hindu and Muslim 
legal advisers remained attached to the British Indian courts until the 
1860s, while on the executive side Indian revenue officials and col- 
lectorate clerks, as Robert Frykenberg has vividly demonstrated in his 
account of Guntur district, could easily subvert the intentions of 
government and divert substantial funds from its coffers to their own 

Hence British frustration did not abate with the growth of know- 
ledge. Rather, as the British became ever more convinced of their own 
‘upright and humane intentions’, they sought to make of the Indians a 
people uniquely predisposed to corruption, extortion, and mendacity. 
A once shared sense of complicity in the practices of despotism had 
now to be borne by the Indians alone. As Cornwallis boldly 
announced, ‘Every native of Hindustan, I verily believe, is corrupt.’ 
In this way, with chicanery and lying established as the norm of 
Indian behaviour, the British could at once reaffirm their own moral 
superiority, and quell the anxiety generated by their uneasy control of 
a colonial order they did not fully comprehend. If Indians were 
people without moral principles, then inevitably they lied in court, 
pocketed bribes, and wilfully rejected the benefits of British justice. 
Throughout the nineteenth century, alike in James Mill’s strictures on 
the Hindu habit of ‘deceit and perfidy’ and in such satirical accounts 
of life under the Raj as I. T. Pritchard’s The Chronicles of Budgepore, 
the Indians were in their character decisively set apart from the 
British. This stereotyped sense of Indian ‘difference’, as we shall see, 
was to loom ever larger in the British imagination, and helped shape 
an enduring ideology that marked out Indians as fit only to be 
colonial subjects. 

The notion of despotism as an appropriate mode of governance for 
India did not wholly disappear with the Cornwallis reforms. Rather, 
the growth of Romanticism in Europe in the first years of the nine- 
teenth century brought to India a new kind of sensibility that 
enhanced the appeal of a more personal style of rule. With its concern 
for individual introspection, its focus on the emotions and the glories 
of the past, its distrust of artifice, uniformity, and abstract learning, 
Romanticism necessarily challenged much in the Cornwallis system, 
with its faith in impersonal laws and limited government. Men who 

22 Garland Cannon, Letters of Sir William Jones, vol. 2 (Oxford, 1970), pp. 643, 720-21, 
794-95; Robert Frykenberg, Gunter District, 1788-1848 (Oxford, 1965). 


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came of age during the Napoleonic era, as the Raj spread itself across 
the face of the subcontinent, the Romantics in India included such 
figures as Thomas Munro, John Malcolm, Mountstuart Elphinstone, 
and Charles Metcalfe. Sensitive to history as an organic expression of a 
society’s character, anxious to conserve the enduring institutions, as 
they saw them, of India’s past, these men endeavoured to rehabilitate, 
and reclaim for the Raj, what they conceived of as the Indian tradition 
of personal government. Their aim, as Eric Stokes has written, was ‘to 
take the peasant in all his simplicity, to secure him in the possession of 
his land, to rule him with a paternal and simple government, and so 
avoid all the artificialities of a sophisticated European form of rule’. 
The romantic temperament in similar fashion reaffirmed notions of 
Indian ‘difference’. As childlike peasants, Indians stood in sharp con- 
trast with the Britons who were then fighting for their liberties against 
the tyranny of Napoleon.?? 

The Romantics in India necessarily believed in an active govern- 
ment, and they sought to make the district collector, in place of 
Cornwallis’s judge, the central figure of the British administration. In 
their view, the collector was to be the ma-bap, or compassionate father 
and mother, of the peasantry. This ideal inevitably involved a rejection 
of the idea of ruling through landed intermediaries of any sort. 
Although some, like Malcolm, sensitive to fallen greatness, endeav- 
oured to cushion the blow, and sought to sustain an array of princely 
states, for the most part the men of this generation placed their faith in 
the British officer. As Burton Stein has written of Munro, ‘the play of 
Indian traditional forms had to be directed by men like himself, 
knowledgeable and sympathetic, with great and concentrated auth- 
ority’. From 1800 onward, idealized as a kind of miniature, if bene- 
volent, despot, the collector came to embody the British vision of 
proper Indian governance.*4 

A government committed to a sympathetic understanding of India 
and its people required more intimate knowledge of the country than 
was the case under the more distant Cornwallis regime. Hence the 
years after 1800 saw the first of many detailed surveys that were to 
define the subsequent British comprehension of India’s lands and 
peoples. Pre-eminent among them were those of Francis Buchanan, 
who surveyed Mysore and then eastern India for the East India 

23 Eric Stokes, The English Utilitarians and India (Oxford, 1959), pp. 9-22. 
24 Stein, Munro, pp. 352-53. 


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Company, and Colin Mackenzie, cartographer and indefatigable 
traveller throughout southern India who became India’s first surveyor 
general. The work of both men testifies to the relentless quest of the 
colonial state for detailed information, above all that which could be 
collected in lists or reported in numerical fashion. By 1820 the Raj was 
already based far more on direct observation and measurement in the 
Indian countryside than on the citation of Sanskrit texts. As we shall 
see, the production of such knowledge continued to flourish as part of 
a larger positivist enterprise that sought empirically verifiable infor- 
mation about all societies everywhere. 

Munro’s vision informed directly the ryotwari, or peasant, settle- 
ment in the South, and inspired the work of Elphinstone, Malcolm, 
and Metcalfe in the Bombay Deccan and the North. Assessment in 
each area was based upon a detailed survey of rural life and local 
tenures. Nevertheless, local knowledge did not invariably carry with it 
comprehensive understanding of India’s past or the structure of its 
society. Munro, for instance, endeavoured to make of ryotwari, a style 
of landholding he had discovered as a young officer in the Baramahal, 
a procrustean bed to which all of rural India was meant to conform. 
He had little patience with the superior rights even of the lowly village 
headman. At the same time in the area around Delhi, as Metcalfe 
sought to preserve the distinctive features of the village community, 
his vision of India drained its past of all content. Unlike the Romantics 
in Europe, for whom the past provided a rich texture of meaning, 
Metcalfe cast India in the timeless mould of the Sanskrit scholars. In a 
famous passage he insisted that the village communities were ‘little 
republics, having nearly everything that they can want within them- 
selves, and almost independent of any foreign relations’. They seem to 
last, he continued, ‘where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty 
tumbles down; revolution succeeds to revolution; Hindoo, Patan, 
Mogul, Mahratta, Sikh, English, are all masters in turn; but the village 
community remains the same.’ The village, like so much else in India, 
became in British hands a living fossil.?5 

The officials of the Romantic generation in India shared a great deal 
with those of the Cornwallis era. To be sure, as Munro wrote with 
exasperation, ‘It is too much regulation that ruins everything.’ Yet 
these men were in fact themselves committed to the fundamental 

25 Clive Dewey, ‘Images of the Village Community: A Study in Anglo-Indian Ideology’, 
Modern Asian Studies, vol. 6 (1972), pp. 296-97. See also chapter 3 below. 


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values of the rule of law, of property, and of ‘improvement’. In similar 
fashion, though they might accuse Cornwallis of ‘rash innovation’, 
neither they nor their Whig predecessors were prepared to restore the 
India that existed before Plassey. Their ideas shaped as youths in 
eighteenth-century England, the officials of the Munro era had no 
more conception than Cornwallis of the currents of change that were 
to sweep over India after 1830. None imagined the Raj driven by the 
forces of liberalism, evangelicalism, and capitalism. Munro’s vision of 
empire, as Burton Stein has observed, like that of Warren Hastings, 
‘contemplated an India so distant from Britain, and so different, that it 
must have its own future, one that built upon a foundation of Indian 
institutions, cultures and peoples under the watchful hand of archi- 
tects like himself’.2¢ 

By 1820 much that was to endure in the framework of the Raj had 
been set firmly in place. The British had convinced themselves of the 
righteousness of their conquest of India, and, after the agonies of the 
Hastings trial, of their own moral superiority over their Indian sub- 
jects. This assured sense of superiority further informed the adoption 
by the Indian government of institutions and values — above all those 
of law and property — that lay at the heart of the English national 
consensus. Together these were to provide a bed-rock for the years 
that were to follow. The years from 1780 to 1820 also foreshadowed 
tensions between competing visions of the Raj. Some portion of the 
tension is revealed perhaps in the contrast between Cornwallis’s eleva- 
tion of the district judge and Munro’s preference for the district 
collector. For the one the rule of law, though built on English ideas, 
was presumed to embody universal principles of justice, and assumed 
as well that men everywhere would, unless checked, abuse power to 
their own advantage. For the other, India was a different kind of place 
from England, so much so that even despotism, so long as it was 
exercised by enlightened rulers, might properly flourish. Such contra- 
dictions grew ever more intense as the Victorian era brought new 
ideas, and new enthusiasms, to British India. At no time, however, did 
these internal tensions ever call into question the fundamental British 
vision of India as a land lost in the past, whose people were shaped by 
the heat of their climate, the distinctive character of their religion, and 
the immemorial antiquity of their social institutions. 

26 Stein, Munro, p. 358. 


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With the coming of Lord William Bentinck as Governor-General in 
1828, the British avowedly embarked upon a thorough-going pro- 
gramme of reform. Building upon what had previously been little 
more than a vague expectation that somehow British rule ought to 
bring ‘improvement’ to India, free traders, utilitarians, and evan- 
gelicals created a distinctive ideology of imperial governance shaped 
by the ideals of liberalism. From Bentinck’s time to that of Lord 
Dalhousie (1848-56) this reformist sentiment gained a near universal 
ascendancy among the British in India. 

A product of the industrial revolution and the growth of a new 
morality, as well as of Britain’s worldwide predominance after the 
Napoleonic wars, liberalism was in no way simply a vision of how 
empire ought to be organized. Informed by the thought of Adam 
Smith and Jeremy Bentham, it provided a strategy for the remaking of 
Britain itself. A host of legislative enactments, from the Reform Bill of 
1832 through the New Poor Law, the repeal of the Corn Laws and the 
creation of the administrative state, mark out its progress through 
British society. Liberalism was, to be sure, in no sense a coherent 
doctrine. Indeed, as Richard Bellamy has pointed out, it is a ‘notor- 
iously elusive notion’, extremely difficult to circumscribe and to 
define accurately. It incorporated a variety of heterogeneous views and 
evolved piecemeal over a long period of social upheaval. As a result, 
within early Victorian England there existed liberals of many kinds. 
One can identify as liberals, among others, men of such diverse 
political views as aristocratic Whigs, classical political economists, 
Tory Peelites committed to economic reform, radicals, and 
Benthamite utilitarians. The distance separating, say, the radical John 
Bright from the Whig Lord Palmerston was immense. And there was, 
of course, no organized Liberal Party until the rise of William Glad- 
stone in the 1860s.! 

' Richard Bellamy (ed.), Victorian Liberalism (London, 1990), chapter 1, especially pp. 1-3. 


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Those who may be considered liberals shared, nevertheless, a set of 
fundamental assumptions which set them off sharply from Burke’s 
oligarchic Whigs, or, subsequently, from Disraeli’s Tory conserva- 
tives. Above all, liberals conceived that human nature was intrinsically 
the same everywhere, and that it could be totally and completely 
transformed, if not by sudden revelation as the evangelicals envisaged, 
then by the workings of law, education, and free trade. Liberals 
differed over the urgency of reform and the relative importance of 
particular measures of reform, say of law or education. But invariably 
they sought to free individuals from their age-old bondage to priests, 
despots, and feudal aristocrats so that they could become autonomous, 
rational beings, leading a life of conscious deliberation and choice. 
Liberals had for the most part little sympathy with established institu- 
tions that were sustained by simple antiquity alone. What shaped a 
proper society was individual self-reliance, character, and merit, not a 
hierarchy that rewarded individuals on the basis of patronage and 
status. Necessarily optimistic, liberals never doubted that the 
wholesale transformation of society was not only possible but certain. 
Nor were the values they cherished relevant only to the reform of their 
own society. Universally valid, they belonged to all peoples 
throughout the world. 

In Britain, despite the new order inaugurated by the 1832 Reform 
Act, liberals often found themselves tightly constrained. Local bodies, 
backed by riotous urban workers, opposed sanitary legislation; landed 
gentry frequently contested the reorganization of local government as 
well as repeal of the Corn Laws; aristocrats sought to retain the right 
to duel and to purchase army commissions. Though far from a democ- 
racy in the 1830s and 1840s, England still possessed vocal constitu- 
encies who could not be brushed aside. In India, by contrast, a 
conquered people could not as easily protest measures introduced for 
their presumed benefit. Hence, India could become something of a 
laboratory for the creation of the liberal administrative state, and from 
there its elements — whether a state sponsored education, the codifi- 
cation of law, or a competitively chosen bureaucracy — could make 
their way back to England itself. Furthermore, in India, as we shall 
see, the conflicts within liberalism became muted. Away from the 
contentious political environment of England, liberalism, as a pro- 
gramme for reform, developed a coherence it rarely possessed at home. 
For the most part evangelicals, free traders, law reformers, educational 


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reformers, and utilitarian theorists worked amicably side by side in 

The liberal view of Indian society found its fullest expression in 
James Mill’s classic History of British India, first published in 1818. A 
man who prided himself on his philosophic disinterestedness, Mill 
himself served the East India Company for some seventeen years, 
from 1819 until his death in 1836, and rose to the post of examiner, the 
highest position in the Company’s home government. Informed with 
the historicist ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment, which laid out a 
series of stages by which the degree of ‘civilization’ of any society 
could be measured with ‘scientific’ precision, Mill set himself the task 
of ascertaining India’s ‘true state’ in the ‘scale of civilization’. For Mill, 
following Bentham, the criterion of utility was the measure of social 
progress. ‘Exactly in proportion as Utility is the object of every 
pursuit’, he wrote, ‘may we regard a nation as civilized.’ After scruti- 
nizing India’s arts, manufactures, literature, religion, and laws, he 
concluded, vigorously disputing Sir William Jones’s claims, that the 
Hindus did not possess, and never had possessed, ‘a high state of 
civilization’. They were rather a ‘rude’ people who had made ‘but a 
few of the earliest steps in the progress to civilization’. There existed in 
India, he wrote, a ‘hideous state of society’, inferior even to that of the 
European feudal age. Bound down to despotism and to ‘a system of 
priestcraft, built upon the most enormous and tormenting superstition 
that ever harassed and degraded any portion of mankind’, the Hindus 
had become ‘the most enslaved portion of the human race’. Moreover 
~and here Mill agreed with Jones — Hindu society had been stationary 
for so long that ‘in beholding the Hindus of the present day, we are 
beholding the Hindus of many ages past; and are carried back, as it 
were, into the deepest recesses of antiquity’.? 

To free India from stagnation and set it on the road to progress, 
James Mill proposed a remedy which was at once, as he saw it, simple 
and obvious. All that was required was a code of laws that would 
release individual energy by protecting the products of its efforts. 
‘Light taxes and good laws’, he insisted, in good Benthamite fashion, 
‘nothing more is wanting for national and individual prosperity all 
over the globe.’ In fact, of course, the simplicity was deceptive, for 
Mill’s scheme, with its creation of individual property rights enforced 

2 James Mill, The History of British India (reprinted Chicago, 1975), pp. 226-27, 236-37, 


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by ‘scientific’ codes of law, involved a wholesale revolution in Indian 
society. Nor did it matter to him that India’s government remained . 
unrepresentative. For James Mill, as for his mentor Bentham, happi- 
ness and not liberty was the end of government, and happiness was 
promoted solely through the protection of the individual in his person 
and property. Once secure in their property, the Indians could find in 
their own ‘industry’ the means for their ‘elevation’. In England, Mill 
supported representative government as the only way to keep power- 
hungry elites in check. But he insistently denied that participation in 
government was a key to moral improvement. So long as the business 
of India’s government was ‘well and cheaply performed’, it was, he 
argued, ‘of little or no consequence who are the people that perform 
it’. From these views came an enduring British belief in the value of 
good government provided by British experts. 

John Stuart Mill inherited from his father both the mantle of liberal 
leadership and the family tie with India. First employed in 1823 to 
assist his father in the office, he remained with the East India 
Company until its dissolution in 1858, and he too rose in time to the 
post of examiner. The younger Mill’s diagnosis of India’s ills differed 
but little from that of his father. He elaborated more carefully, 
however, the rungs on the ‘ladder of civilization’, and prescribed a 
somewhat different plan for ascending them. J.S. Mill is best known 
for his On Liberty, in which he argued, against his father, that liberty 
possesses an intrinsic value of its own beyond mere happiness. In his 
Representative Government, however, he made clear his view that this 
‘ideally best polity’, as he called it, was not suited to all peoples. Only 
those capable of fulfilling its ‘conditions’, he argued, were entitled to 
enjoy the benefits of representative government. For the rest, subject- 
ion to ‘foreign force’, and a government ‘in a considerable degree 
despotic’, was appropriate, and even necessary. 

Behind Mill’s views lay a hierarchical classification of all societies. 
‘The state of different communities, in point of culture and develop- 
ment’, Mill wrote, ‘ranges downwards to a condition very little above 
the highest of the beasts.’ At its lowest point were those who lived in 
‘savage independence’, and so required an ‘absolute ruler’ who would 
teach them to obey. Just above them were slave societies, where the 
people were being taught the need for ‘continuous labour of an 
unexciting kind’. The next step upward was that of a ‘paternal despo- 
> Stokes, Utilitarians, pp. 64-70. 


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tism’, where the government exercised a general superintendence over 
society but left individuals to do much for themselves. The Inca state 
of Peru was of that sort, together with the societies of Egypt, India, 
and China, which had reached that point in ancient times. But these 
‘Oriental’ societies were then ‘brought to a permanent halt for want of 
mental liberty and individuality; requisites of improvement which the 
institutions that had carried them thus far entirely incapacitated them 
from acquiring’. 

Among the ‘Oriental races’, in Mill’s view, only the Jews escaped 
this enduring stagnation, and they only because the existence of a line 
of ‘Prophets’ kept alive among them ‘the antagonism of influences 
which is the only real security for continued progress’. Elsewhere, 
since improvement could not come from within, it had to be ‘superin- 
duced from without’, by a ‘government of leading strings’ that could 
break down old institutions. Yet the peoples of Europe, who alone 
could provide a government of this sort, were not themselves uni- 
formly advanced. The southern Europeans, with the Latin Americans, 
fell short of the topmost rungs, for they shared with the Orientals a 
debilitating passivity which left them prey to corrupt, if not despotic, 
rule. The French too were ‘essentially a southern people’ who, if they 
possessed ‘great individual energy’, still could not match the ‘self- 
helping and struggling Anglo-Saxons’.* 

A cynic might contend that the rungs on this ladder marked out not 
stages of civilization but the relative distance of these societies from 
England, or more precisely, from the values cherished by John Stuart 
Mill. Yet Mill’s object in constructing this scale was not to condemn 
those whom he saw as less advanced, but rather to make clear what had 
to be done to propel them forward. Above all, Mill insisted that 
neither race nor environment dictated whether a people could enjoy 
the benefits of representative government. To be sure, there was some 
ambivalence. Britain’s settlement colonies, he argued, were entitled to 
immediate self-government, but whether because they shared with the 
‘ruling country’ a ‘similar civilization’ or because they were ‘of 
European race’, was not wholly clear. Similarly, his references to the 
‘indolence’ and ‘envy’ of southern peoples implied a measure of 
environmental determinism. Still, for Mill civilization alone truly 
mattered, and that was not unalterably fixed either by a people’s 

+ John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government (London, 1957), pp. 
197-201, 213-14, 218-27. 


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biological nature, or, challenging Montesquieu, by the climatic zone in * 
which they lived. 

Mill was adamant in his insistence that ‘leading strings’ were ‘only 
admissible as a means of gradually training the people to walk alone’. 
The great advantage of ‘the dominion of foreigners’, like that of Britain 
in India, was that it could, more rapidly than any but the most 
exceptional indigenous ruler, carry a people ‘through several stages of 
progress’, and ‘clear away obstacles to improvement’. For Mill this 
‘training’ in self-government involved much more than simple codifi- 
cation of the laws. Unlike his father, the younger Mill did not see men 
as inherently selfish, moulded only by the external sanctions of law. 
They could be taught to pursue the public good, and to develop the 
‘active self-helping’ character that self-government required. 
Together, he argued, good government and education could so trans- 
form India’s peoples that in the end their claim to freedom would be 

John Stuart Mill was not alone in repudiating the rigors of Bentha- 
mite utilitarianism in favour of a more eclectic liberalism. Even in the 
1830s, at the height of utilitarian influence, few reformers were strict 
Benthamites. Distinguished less by sectarian zeal than by a belief in the 
limitless malleability of human character, most combined an interest in 
legal reform with evangelical Christianity and a commitment to free 
trade, education and moral improvement. The young and ardent 
Charles Trevelyan, who served under Metcalfe at Delhi and then in the 
Calcutta secretariat under Bentinck, can be taken as representative. As 
Macaulay wrote of him in 1834: 

He is quite at the head of that active party among the younger servants of the 
Company who take the side of improvement ... He has no small talk. His 
mind is full of schemes of moral and political improvement, and his zeal boils 
over in his talk. His topics, even in courtship, are steam navigation, the 
education of the natives, the equalisation of the sugar duties, the substitution 
of the Roman for the Arabic alphabet in the Oriental languages.> 

Nor was John Stuart Mill alone in looking forward without hesi- 
tation to the eventual end of British rule. “Trained by us to happiness 
and independence, and endowed with our learning and political insti- 
tutions’, as Trevelyan put it, ‘India will remain the proudest 

5 Macaulay to his sister, Margaret, 7 December 1834, in G.O. Trevelyan, The Life and 
Letters of Lord Macaulay, vol. 1 (London, 1876), p. 385 


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monument of British benevolence.’ Most stirring perhaps was Macau- 
lay’s peroration in his speech on the 1833 renewal of the Company’s 

It may be [he said], that the public mind of India may expand under our 
system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may 
educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having 
become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, 
demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come I know 
not. But never will I attempt to avert or retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be 
the proudest day in English history. 

At its heart, therefore, liberalism can be seen as informed by a 
radical universalism. Contemporary European, especially British, 
culture alone represented civilization. No other cultures had any 
intrinsic validity. There was no such thing as ‘Western’ civilization; 
there existed only ‘civilization’. Hence the liberal set out, on the basis 
of this shared humanity, to turn the Indian into an Englishman; or, as 
Macaulay described it in his 1835 Minute on Education, to create not 
just a class of Indians educated in the English language, who might 
assist the British in ruling India, but one ‘English in taste, in opinions, 
in morals and in intellect’. The fulfillment of the British connection 
with India involved, then, nothing less than the complete trans- 
formation of India’s culture and society. Its outcome would be the 
creation of an India politically independent, but one that embodied an 
‘imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our 

This liberal idealism was inevitably fraught with troubling impli- 
cations. With neither racial nor environmental theories to sustain it, 
culture alone remained to distinguish Europeans from those overseas. 
As a result, the more fully non-European peoples were accorded the 
prospect of future equality, the more necessary it became to devalue 
and depreciate their contemporary cultures. The hierarchical ordering 
of societies on a ‘scale of civilization’ reflected not just the classifying 
enthusiasms of the Enlightenment, but was a way to reassure the 
British that they themselves occupied a secure position, as the arbiter 
of its values, on the topmost rung. It was not some chance prejudice, 
but the liberal project itself, that led Macaulay in 1835 to scorn the 
‘entire native literature of India and Arabia’ as not worth ‘a single shelf 
of a good European library’. Similarly, in looking forward to the 
eventual freedom of India, he had of necessity to insist that the Indians 


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of the present day were ‘sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and 
superstition’. The future triumphs of ‘reason’ demanded as their 
counterpart the present existence of ‘barbarism’. Such an insistence 
was especially necessary in the case of India, where the existence of an 
ancient civilization could not be denied. Unlike Africa, whose 
‘savagery’ could be taken for granted, in India the notion of its 
‘barbarism’ required a defiantly assertive rhetorical exercise. 

By its very nature the liberal transformation of India meant the 
flowering on Indian soil of those institutions which defined Britain’s 
own society and civilization. Among the most important of these, as 
we have seen, were private property, the rule of law, the liberty of the 
individual, and education in Western knowledge. The triumph of 
liberalism was not, however, to be simple or straightforward. Invari- 
ably, contestation with other more conservative visions of empire, as 
well as the day-to-day exigencies of colonial rule, shaped the final 
outcome of the reform enterprise. The stirring rhetoric of Mill and 
Macaulay should not be allowed to obscure the transformations that 
did not, as well as those that did, take place. 

Central to an understanding of both the contradictions and the 
transforming power of British reform in India was the notion of the 
‘rule of law’. In nineteenth-century England the legal order was meant 
above all to guarantee the rights of property, conceived of as vested in 
individuals and secure from arbitrary confiscation. In India too, from 
Cornwallis’s permanent settlement of 1793 onward, private landed 
property was made the cornerstone of Britain’s commitment to an 
India transformed. In the hands of James Mill and his utilitarian 
disciples, as Eric Stokes has pointed out, this ideal carried with it 
radical implications. Some few theorists, among them James Mill 
himself, committed to Ricardian theory, argued that the entire rental 
of land, conceived of as an unearned surplus, rightfully belonged to the 
government. For the most part, however, men like Holt Mackenzie 
and R. M. Bird in the North-Western Provinces instead used utili- 
tarian theory to advocate what Stokes called ‘an agrarian revolution’ 
that, ousting ‘parasitic’ intermediaries, would vest all property rights 
in the actual cultivators of the soil.® 

In keeping with this ideal, during the settlements of the 1820s and 
1830s in the upper Gangetic plain, the revenue-collecting taluqdars 
and zamindars were largely set aside, and ownership rights were 

6 Stokes, Utilitarians, chapter 2, especially pp. 110-16. 


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awarded to the villagers. Yet property relations in the north Indian 
countryside were for the most part not transformed. Theory meant 
little to many settlement officers as they struggled to make sense of the 
complex patterns of landholding they encountered, nor for their part 
did the courts vigorously promote the rights of individuals as a way of 
ushering in a new liberal order. To the contrary, much of Anglo- 
Indian law enshrined a conception of Indian society that in fact placed 
the family and community above the individual, and enforced values 
seen as embedded in religion from antiquity. The purpose of these 
laws was, as David Washbrook has written, ‘to keep society in the 
structure of relations in which the colonial authority had found it and 
to construe the moral problems of the present against standards taken 
directly from the past’. This conception of India first took shape in Sir 
William Jones’s time in the enforcement of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ 
personal law. From there it found its way into British Indian property 
law. Despite Cornwallis’s permanent settlement, and subsequent 
declarations of private property rights, the Hindu joint family, many 
Brahmin communities, and cosharing village brotherhoods, among 
others, secured rights which sharply restricted the working of the 
market in land, and with it prevented any far-reaching transformation 
of society or the widespread diffusion of capitalist agriculture. The 
more closely, Washbrook concludes, ‘is the Anglo-Indian law’s 
“freedom” of property scrutinized, the more limited does it seem to 

At the same time the British sharply distinguished the ‘religious’ 
from the ‘secular’. They sought to confine the activities of the state to 
what they considered ‘secular’ affairs, and, consequently, to withdraw 
it from such activities as the management of Hindu temples and 
Muslim shrines. Such a distinction contrasted sharply with practice in 
England, where an ‘established’ church drew support from a state 
whose monarch was also the head of that church. In India as well 
pre-colonial states traditionally had secured much of their legitimacy 
from association with the institutions of religious faith. Raja and priest 
always depended on, and sustained, each other. Yet the British in 
India, anxious to distance themselves from any appearance of support- 
ing ‘heathen’ faiths, insisted that the spheres of the ‘religious’ and the 
‘secular’ should be identified and kept separate. Such views were not 

7 David Washbrook, ‘Law, State and Society in Colonial India’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 
15 (1981), pp. 649-60. 


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easily implemented. The disassociation of the Company’s government 
from Hindu and Muslim religious institutions, a long and arduous 
process involving the establishment of local managing committees, still 
left the government with the task of mediating disputes over succes- 
sion and the control of property held by temples and shrines. Despite 
the colonial state’s hostility to religions whose beliefs it did not share, 
it remained locked in an uneasy embrace with them. 

In addition to the foot-dragging of those committed to a more 
conservative ideology, liberal reform was further thwarted by the 
fiscal and military requirements of a government only recently, and 
still insecurely, established in power. The East India Company, whose 
rule was in some ways little more than that of a ‘garrison state’ in the 
early nineteenth century, simply dared not risk antagonizing its sub- 
jects by disturbing the bases of religious authority or interfering too 
openly with their intimate personal relations. Even the disassociation 
of the government from Hindu temples was undertaken with reluc- 
tance, and then largely in response to unremitting pressure from 
outraged evangelicals. Beyond this, until 1850 the Company was 
caught up in ceaseless military campaigning with a large and expensive 
sepoy army. This placed an enormous drain on state finances, and, 
together with economic depression throughout the 1830s, forced the 
government always to concern itself with the size and security of its 
revenue collections. In such circumstances the British had but little 
space, or leisure, in which to experiment with measures that might 
unsettle society. Of necessity they kept up much of the extractive 
mechanism they had inherited from their eighteenth-century pre- 

Yet the vision of the transforming power of the ‘rule of law’ was 
never abandoned. It triumphed above all in the codes of civil and 
criminal procedure, proposed by Macaulay’s Law Commission and 
finally enacted in the 1860s. The process of codification marked an end 
to an India seen as a land of ‘Oriental despotism’. By their very nature, 
codes of procedure introduced into the law predictable rules and 
regulations for the adjudication of disputes, and so did away with the 
wilfulness, and by extension the immorality, that marked despotism. 
Further, codified law created a public sphere —- a place where equity 
and justice were seen to be meted out — in place of what was imagined 
as the despot’s ‘dark and solemn’ justice executed in private, and often 
at midnight. Codifying procedural, rather than substantive, law had 


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the additional, great advantage that such codes could incorporate the 
Benthamite, and utilitarian, desire for unity, precision, and simplicity 
in the law; yet they could do so without challenging Hastings’s and 
Jones’s decision to utilize the ancient Sanskrit texts as the basis of the 
Hindu civil law. The legal system of colonial India thus accommo- 
dated both the assimilative ideals of liberalism, which found a home in 
the codes of procedure, and the insistence upon Indian difference in a 
personal law defined by membership in a religious community. 

To be sure, the codifying enterprise was never wholly compelling. 
Many continued to see India as a land suited for despotism, only now 
that of enlightened British officers. In part a nostalgia nourished by 
early nineteenth-century Romanticism, this dissident ideal flourished 
principally among officials in newly conquered territories, before the 
courts had been established, in what were called non-regulation 
provinces. It reached its ultimate flowering in the Punjab during the 
decade after its conquest in 1849, when the province was ruled by the 
brothers John and Henry Lawrence. For the officers of this ‘Punjab 
School’, the ideal, as John Beames described it, was that of ‘personal 
government’, in which the magistrate would ‘decide cases either sitting 
on horseback in the village gateway, or under a tree outside the village 
walls, and write his decision on his knee ... and be off to repeat the 
process in the next village’. Not all officers, as the dissident Beames 
reported, liked being turned into ‘homeless vagrant governing- 
machines’, and in any case regulation and the rule of law could not 
forever be kept at bay even in the Punjab.® Still, throughout the later 
nineteenth century, the self-assurance fostered by the Punjab ideal 
permitted officers in that province a wider range of discretionary 
authority than was customary elsewhere in India. 

This belief in a legitimate concentration of authority drew suste- 
nance from a conviction that in the colonies a resort to vigorous 
executive action, including even the abrogation of habeas corpus, in 
England seen as the guarantor of the subject’s liberties, could not 
wholly be avoided. Such acts found justification in the Crown’s 
prerogative to secure order, and generated frequent tension between 
the courts and the executive government. At times of perceived crisis 
officials unashamedly resorted to exemplary measures of punishment. 
To crush an uprising among the Kukas of the Punjab in 1872, for 
instance, a local official summarily shot seventy protestors who had 
8 John Beames, Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian (London, 1961), pp. 101-3. 


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been rounded up by the police, and had forty-nine blown from guns, 
while his superior, the divisional commissioner, hastening to the 
scene, himself hanged another sixteen. Though these two officers were 
censured, their vigorous defence of their actions marked out a path 
that was to lead in 1919 to the infamous Amritsar massacre. 

The British were nevertheless determined always to mark out the 
Raj as a moral, ‘civilized’, and ‘civilizing’, regime. For this purpose a 
‘rule of law’, conceived of as the use of standardized impartial pro- 
cedures for the settlement of disputes, was in their view essential. The 
British could not give to India their own, English, law; that was 
impractical. But they could give India codes of legal procedure. In this 
fashion, even though they could not introduce into India the substance 
of their law, the British could, or so they thought, bring its spirit. In so 
doing they could fulfil, to their satisfaction, their avowed ‘civilizing’ 
mission. In place of a religious faith shared with its subjects, the British 
colonial state thus found its legitimacy in a moralization of ‘law’. No 
one stated this more vigorously than James Fitzjames Stephen, legal 
member of the viceroy’s Council from 1869 to 1872. As he wrote: 

The establishment of a system of law which regulates the most important parts 
of the daily life of the people constitutes in itself a moral conquest more 
striking, more durable, and far more solid, than the physical conquest which 
rendered it possible. It exercises an influence over the minds of the people in 
many ways comparable to that of a new religion. ... Our law is in fact the sum 
and substance of what we have to teach them. It is, so to speak, a compulsory 
gospel which admits of no dissent and no disobedience.? 

In the reformers’ programme, next only in importance to law, stood 
education in Western learning. By education alone, as Macaulay made 
abundantly clear in his Minute on Education, could India truly be 
reshaped in England’s image. Yet the educational enterprise was beset 
by many of the same difficulties and contradictions as that of law 
reform. Altogether apart from enduring fiscal constraints, which 
meant that the government never founded more than a very few 
schools, a further fundamental problem stood in the way of using 
English education to transform Indian society. In England in the early 
Victorian period all schooling was religious in nature. Although the 
government eventually awarded them grants-in-aid, the schools were 

9 J.F. Stephen, ‘Legislation under Lord Mayo’, in W.W. Hunter, Life of Mayo, vol. 2 
(London, 1875), pp. 168-69. 


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run by various Christian sects, and they taught Christianity as an 
integral part of their mission. Indeed, intellectual training was not 
conceived of as existing apart from the moral training of Christianity. 
The mission societies, as they set up their schools in India, followed 
the same pattern, for they conceived of them as elements in a strategy 
of religious conversion. The British government, however, dared not 
introduce the teaching of Christianity into the schools it sponsored in 
India, for its officials, even those who looked forward eagerly to the 
Christianization of India, realized any such patronage of religion 
might well provoke intense hostility. In the end, although men such as 
Trevelyan and Macaulay solaced themselves with a vision of Hinduism 
as ‘identified with so many gross immoralities and physical absurdities 
that it gives way at once before the light of European science’, the 
British of necessity made of religious neutrality, like the notion of the 
state as ‘secular’, a liberal virtue of its own. A symbol of free intel- 
lectual inquiry, religious non-interference generated an image of the 
Englishman as benign, disinterested, and impartial. Assertion of the 
ideals of neutrality and secularism should not, however, be allowed to 
obscure the highly interventionist role the colonial state played as it set 
out to remake Indian society. 

The tension between an increasing involvement in Indian education 
and an enforced non-interference in religion, as Gauri Viswanathan 
has shown, was resolved through the introduction of English literature 
as the central element of the school curriculum. Although education in 
India was to be secular, moral training was to be supplied by study of 
the great works of England’s historic literature. No such schools 
existed in England, nor was English literature seen there as a substitute 
for Christian training. The guiding ideal was that of ‘godliness and 
good learning’, enunciated by the educator Thomas Arnold. Indeed, 
humanistic study in English schools in the early Victorian period 
centred around classical literatures, Greek and Latin, not English at all. 
Professorships of English literature did not even exist in Oxford and 
Cambridge until the 1870s. In India, by contrast, eighteenth-century 
neo-classical literature, along with Shakespeare, formed the core of the 
curriculum in the government schools. Despite the fierce criticism of 
such missionaries as Alexander Duff that education without Christian 
training would produce converts only to ‘atheism’ and ‘rebellion’, the 
government had no choice. As reformed codes of procedure had in 
India to stand for, or one might say represent, a commitment to the 


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‘rule of law’, so too in similar fashion did a secular and literary 
education represent the larger transformation of character and mora- 
lity envisaged by Macaulay and Mill. In British India cultural value, as 
Viswanathan has described it, was relocated ‘from belief and dogma to 
language, experience, and history’.!° 

Though dedicated to rooting out the evils of Indian ‘barbarism’, the 
liberal enterprise had itself the effect of disseminating more widely 
than ever before notions of Indian difference. Indeed, somewhat 
paradoxically, the attack on ‘difference’ served often to embed in the 
popular imagination persisting images of Indian exoticism, linked to a 
fascinated horror at practices that involved death or the mutilation of 
the body. The campaign against sati, or widow burning, for instance, 
as we shall see later, reinforced notions of Indian women as helpless 
victims of religion, while lurid tales of the doings of the thags power- 
fully reinforced the idea of Indians as treacherous and unreliable. 
Stranglers in the service of the goddess Kali, thags were perceived as 
roving bands of men, linked by hereditary ties, who preyed upon 
travellers along the roads, luring them into their company and then 
ritually murdering them. The discovery of thagi afforded the British 
once again an opportunity to take pride in their commitment to 
reforming a depraved Indian society. Yet thagi was never a coherent 
set of practices, nor could thags easily be differentiated from other 
armed robbers, who were known more generally as dacoits. What gave 
thagi its distinctive appeal was rather the way it enabled the British to 
give voice to their own enduring fears and anxieties. Uneasily depend- 
ent upon native intermediaries, whom they could not bring themselves 
to trust, but without whose collaboration the Raj could not function, 
the British saw deception and deceit everywhere in India. Thagi thus 
became a metaphor for the representation of what they feared most in 
India, the inability to know and control their colonial subjects. By 
projecting these fears outward onto thags, and then destroying this 
threatening conspiracy, the British could in some degree contain what 
they could not openly avow and hence reassure themselves of their 
mastery of India. Despite W. H. Sleeman’s acclaimed extirpation of 
thagi, this successful campaign did not put an end to a fear of ‘criminal 
communities’, nor did it eradicate apprehension of Indian duplicity 
and dishonesty. On the contrary, the fascination with thagi, and with 

10 Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New 
York, 1989), chapter 4, especially p. 117. 


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it the idea that there existed ‘deceivers’ who lived at the heart of Indian 
society, lived on, and found a place in novels, films, and the English 
language itself, where ‘thug’ came to mean a particularly nasty kind of 
ruffian or tough.!! 

The liberal remaking of India never involved, then, the simple 
transplantation of English values and institutions onto Indian soil. The 
vision of Indian ‘difference’, first articulated by Dow, Halhed and 
Jones, continued always to make its presence felt, and itself shaped 
much of the programme of reform. Nor could the exuberant optimism 
of the reformers of the 1830s be indefinitely sustained. By mid- 
century, in India and England alike, powerful currents of disillusion- 
ment had set in. Mid-Victorian British liberalism defined a consensus 
among a people buoyed up by pride and prosperity, and often brought 
Whigs, Peelites, and Radicals together in broad based coalition 
governments. It did so, however, at the cost of papering over latent 
contradictions and circumscribing the objectives of the liberal pro- 
gramme. Following Anthony Trollope and Walter Bagehot, who may 
be seen as representative figures of the age, mid-century liberals clung 
to the semi-reformed constitution, with its aristocratic bias, and 
embraced ideas of deference and dignity as appropriate safeguards 
against the feared tumults of mass rule. Even while elaborating the 
machinery of the modern state, they sought to avoid what Bagehot 
called ‘sweeping innovation’ as much as the ‘old tory way’ of keeping 
‘everything which is because it is’. 

Nevertheless, liberal ideals, although less apocalyptic in their expec- 
tations, continued into the 1850s to shape British perceptions of their 
imperial mission in India. Dalhousie’s years as governor-general can 
even be seen as constituting a ‘second age of Indian reform’; for 
Dalhousie at once consolidated British dominion over the sub- 
continent by his policy of annexation and set firmly in place the 
structures of the modern administrative state. To him India owes its 
railways and telegraphs, its central Public Works Department, its 
Legislative Council, and a commitment, confirmed by Sir Charles 
Wood’s education despatch of 1854, to a broader vernacular edu- 
cation. The confidence that India could somehow be made over in the 
image of Britain was never in subsequent years wholly to disappear. 

11 See Radhika Singha, ‘Providential Circumstances: The Thuggee Campaign of the 1830s 
and Legal Innovation’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 27 (1993), pp. 83-146. 


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But after 1857 such ideals had to contend with newly powerful, 
alternative visions of empire. 


On 10 May 1857 the sepoys of the Bengal Army, refusing to accept 
cartridges greased with pork and beef fat, rose in revolt throughout 
northern India. Within weeks the mutinous soldiery, who had seized 
Delhi and raised anew the standard of the Mughal Empire, were joined 
by disaffected groups in the countryside. Landlords and peasants, 
princes and merchants, Hindus and Muslims, each for their own 
reasons threw off the British yoke and sought their own independence. 
Large reaches of the country, above all in the Gangetic plain from 
Bihar to the Punjab, remained out of British control for a year and 
more. In the recently annexed province of Oudh, where opposition to 
British rule was nearly universal, as all classes fought on behalf of their 
sepoy brethren and recently deposed king, desperate fighting con- 
tinued until the very end of 1858. 

For the British the searing trauma of this revolt was but the first of a 
series of checks to the expectation of a slow but steady march of 
progress whose end point would be the triumph of liberal principles 
throughout the world. Eight years later, in 1865, a rising of former 
slaves took place at Morant Bay in Jamaica. Together these two 
uprisings raised troubling questions about how far the ‘blessings’ of 
British rule, and liberal reform with it, were appreciated by those upon 
whom they were conferred. Two years after the Jamaican rising, in 
1867, Benjamin Disraeli led Britain’s ‘leap in the dark’ to vastly 
extended male suffrage, and thus transformed British politics forever. 
The remaining sections of this chapter examine, firstly, the crisis of the 
Raj which the Indian revolt precipitated, and, secondly, the sub- 
sequent crisis of liberalism in Britain itself. The outcome was to be a 
conception of empire grounded ever more firmly in notions of Indian 
‘difference’, and a revitalized conservatism that gave that empire a 
central place in Britain’s vision of itself. 

As the victorious British armies moved on the rebel strongholds, the 
1857 revolt was ruthlessly suppressed. Sepoys, even if only suspected 
of mutiny, were blown from cannon; villagers were, on occasion, 
indiscriminately shot; while the erstwhile Mughal capital of Delhi was 
sacked, and its major monuments saved from destruction only by the 


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intervention of John Lawrence. The intensity of the punishment 
meted out reflected the vulnerability of the British in India, precariou- 
sly set over a vast land they barely comprehended. Desperate and 
fearful, they sought to quell by a vengeful terror the harrowing vision 
of the loyal sepoy or faithful bearer as a treacherous murderer. The 
rebel leaders, above all, were never conceived of simply as honourable 
opponents. To the contrary, men such as Nana Saheb, responsible for 
the massacre at Kanpur, were made into fiends and monsters. Above 
all, the murder of English women at his hands stirred a fierce hatred of 
those who seemed to put at risk the ‘purity’ of English womanhood, 
and left as an enduring legacy lurid tales of rape and molestation. 

Such a demonization of course made it easier for the British to 
obscure their own responsibility for the events of 1857, and thus to 
justify the continuance of the Raj. But it opened up as well a gulf 
between Briton and Indian that could not easily be closed again after 
the restoration of order. As G. O. Trevelyan noted in The Com- 
petition Wallah, ‘Men cannot at will cast aside the recollection of those 
times when all was doubt and confusion and dismay; when a great fear 
was their companion, day and night ... The distrust and dislike 
engendered by such an experience are too deeply rooted to be plucked 
up by an act of volition.’ From the rage, and fear, of 1857 emerged a 
new and enduring sense of the importance of the bonds of race, in 
contrast to those of culture.!? 

Despite the widespread expression of Indian hostility revealed by 
the events of 1857, Britain’s right to rule India went unexamined. 
Unlike the divisive debates over the future of South Africa that 
accompanied the Boer War a half-century later, at the time of the 
Indian Mutiny no one in Britain, or among the British in India, ever 
considered leaving India. To the contrary, with its fierce retribution 
against those who had had the temerity to rebel, the 1857 revolt 
evoked a cleansing sense of heroism and self-assertion. As Trevelyan 
wrote, the struggle ‘irresistibly reminded us that we were an imperial 
race, holding our own on a conquered soil by dint of valour and 
foresight’. Many officials, above all those whose reputations were at 
stake, sought by an exercise of denial to exculpate the Raj, and with it 
the work of the reformers, from complicity in the revolt. Dalhousie’s 
disciples, especially, insisted, with John Lawrence, that the cause of 

12 G.O. Trevelyan, The Competition Wallah (London, 1864), pp. 283-304; Thomas Metcalf, 
The Aftermath of Revolt: India, 1857-1870 (Princeton, 1964), chapter 8. 


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the Mutiny was to be found in the ‘cartridge affair and nothing else’; 
that the people had been ‘for the most part in our favour’; and that the 
revolt was consequently nothing more than an irrational panic on the 
subject of caste among credulous and superstitious sepoys. The endur- 
ing representation of the events of 1857 in British historiography as a 
‘sepoy mutiny’ reflected too this determination to preserve Britain’s 
reputation as an imperial power. 

Conservative critics like Disraeli, never an admirer of Dalhousie or 
of liberal reform, described the mutinous sepoys as ‘not so much the 
avengers of professional grievances as the exponents of general dis- 
content’, and insisted that the events of 1857 were ‘occasioned by 
adequate causes’. Among these Disraeli included the ‘destruction of 
Native authority’, the ‘disturbance’ of property rights, and the ‘tam- 
pering with religion’ of a government bent on reform of Indian 
society. Yet he never called into question the legitimacy of that 
government. He urged only a return to what he saw as the path of 
conciliation followed in the pre-reform era. In this recommendation, 
most liberals, despite their endeavour to deflect blame for the revolt 
from the government, joined with Disraeli. Even for the most enthu- 
siastic reformer the Mutiny was a sobering experience. As Charles 
Raikes, an officer in the North-Western Provinces, wrote in his Notes 
on the Revolt, “The fatal error of attempting to force the policy of 
Europe on the people of Asia... must be corrected for the future, as it 
has been atoned for in the past.’ In similar fashion, Sir Charles Wood, 
President of the Board of Control for much of Dalhousie’s governor- 
generalship, although he denied that the Mutiny had revealed the 
existence of any widespread popular hostility to British rule, neverthe- 
less, when again placed in charge of the India Office after 1859, 
acknowledged that the ‘mistake we fell into, under the influence of the 
most benevolent feelings, and according to our notion of what was 
right and just, was that of introducing a system foreign to the habits 
and wishes of the people’. Henceforth, he said, ‘we ought to adopt and 
improve what we find in existence and avail ourselves as far as possible 
of the existing institutions of the country’. Indians, in other words, 
were not like Englishmen, and it was fatal to treat them as though they 

As they assessed the character of the revolt, no one among the 

13 Metcalf, Aftermath of Revolt, chapter 2, especially pp. 72-79; Rudrangshu Mukherjee, 
Awadh in Revolt, 1857-58 (Delhi, 1984). 


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British took seriously, or even tried to comprehend, the complex 
forces that moved Indians to act. All behaviour during the rebellion 
was viewed through the lens of ‘loyalty’ and ‘rebellion’, and evaluated 
according to notions of how Indians ought to respond. In particular, 
the British endeavoured to ascertain the extent of ‘gratitude’ for 
benefits conferred. From this perspective the behaviour of the Oudh 
peasantry, above all, came as a rude shock. In keeping with the 
principles of liberal reform, the village communities of this mid- 
Gangetic state had been made the beneficiaries of its 1856 annexation, 
when both the nawab and the aristocratic taluqdars were set aside. 
Consequently the British had expected that these men would come 
forward in support of the government in its hour of need. Instead, the 
peasantry joined the rebellion, and even subjected themselves to their 
former taluqdari masters. As a result, frustrated and angry, the British 
considered themselves betrayed. As Lord Canning, looking back on 
the course of the revolt in Oudh, wrote in October 1858: 

Our endeavour to better, as we thought, the village occupants in Oudh has 
not been appreciated by them ... It can hardly be doubted that if they had 
valued their restored rights, they would have shown some signs of a willing- 
ness to support a Government which had revived those rights. But they have 
done nothing of the kind. The Governor General is therefore of opinion that 
these village occupants deserve little consideration from us. 

The behaviour of the Oudh peasantry during the uprising, and 
indeed that of their taluqdari superiors as well, cannot, of course, be so 
easily explained. Loyalty to the Oudh king and sympathy with the 
sepoys, many of whom came from Oudh, as well as a host of particular 
interests, not least a desire to secure themselves from plunder in a time 
of anarchy, impelled villagers to join the taluqdars. The British, 
however, saw none of this. As they had failed to live up to the 
expectations imposed upon them, the villagers had become, by defi- 
nition, rebels. Hence they deserved to be punished. As an embittered 
Lord Canning wrote, “Their conduct amounts almost to the admission 
that their own rights, whatever these may be, are subordinate to those 
of the talookdar; that they do not value the recognition of these rights 
by the ruling authority; and that the Talookdaree system is the 
ancient, indigenous, and cherished system of the country.’ In no way 
could the British accept any responsibility for the hostility of men 
upon whom they had themselves lavished benefits. That the annexation 


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itself, or the subsequent level of revenue assessment, might have had 
something to do with the behaviour of the villagers in 1857, was 
simply dismissed. '* 

As the participation of the taluqdars gave the revolt roots in the 
Oudh countryside, and indeed kept the rebellion alive for a full six 
months after the fall of the capital city of Lucknow in March 1858, it 
was not surprising that, as the British set out to restore their authority, 
they endeavoured to secure the cooperation of men whose power had 
been so visibly manifested. Yet the reinstatement of the taluqdars in 
their former estates found justification not only as an act of political 
expediency, but as the restoration of a legitimate authority. Canning 
had spoken of the taluqdari system as ‘ancient, indigenous, and cher- 
ished’; the Oudh chief commissioner in 1858, Robert Montgomery, 
for his part described the ‘superiority and influence of these talook- 
dars’ as ‘a necessary element in the social constitution of the province’. 
With Oudh rural society conceived of in such a fashion, the British 
obviously had no need for an uneasy conscience as they abandoned the 
villagers to their fate. 

Yet the use of such explanations inevitably called into question the 
underlying assumptions of the liberal enterprise. If the Oudh villagers 
did not, in the British view, pursue their own best interest, but 
obstinately clung to their traditional ways, then the liberal presump- 
tion that all men were inherently rational and educable fell to the 
ground, and with it the expectation that India could be transformed on 
an English model. In similar fashion, after the Mutiny, the conversion 
of India to Christianity ceased to evoke much enthusiasm. For 
evangelicals the Mutiny was a blow sent by God to humble Britain for 
its remissness in Christianizing India; and the evangelical party in 
Britain, together with a group of Punjab officials who saw God’s 
providence in the escape of their province from the uprising, urged 
renewed efforts at conversion by such measures as Bible classes in the 
government schools. But missionary zeal was fast waning in mid- 
Victorian Britain. Lord Derby in December 1857 even spoke of ‘what 
I own seems to be the somewhat hopeless task of Christianizing India’. 
In India, talk of conversion evoked a uniformly hostile response 
among the senior offficals of the government. In a phrase expressive of 
the growing British distaste for ‘fanaticism’ of all sorts Lord Canning 

'4 Thomas R. Metcalf, Land, Landlords, and the British Raj: Northern India in the 
Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, 1979), chapter 7. 


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dismissed the ardent Herbert Edwardes, commissioner of Peshawar, 
as ‘exactly what Mahomet would have been if born at Clapham instead 
of Mecca’. 

By the 1850s and 1860s Christianity was for most Englishmen 
increasingly a mark of their own difference from, and superiority to, 
their Indian subjects. The government’s expensive ecclesiastical estab- 
lishment, with its English bishops and ‘station’ churches, had nothing 
to do with conversion and meant little for the struggling community of 
Indian Christians. Tellingly, perhaps, when the Society for the Propa- 
gation of the Gospel in London proposed, as a memorial for the 
Kanpur massacre of 1857, that a church be erected for the use of the 
Indian residents of the city, with a missionary clergyman and prayers 
‘perpetually made for their conversion’, the local English community 
rebelled. ‘Feeling is unanimous’, wrote the commanding general of the 
garrison, that the memorial should take the form of a church ‘for the 
use of the soldiers and residents of the cantonment’, with tablets and 
windows on which would be inscribed the names of all those who had 
lost their lives in the tragedy. While acknowledging that Kanpur 
required no additional church accommodation, the Government of 
India still underwrote the construction costs for this ‘Memorial’ 
church. Despite the presence of dedicated missionaries throughout 
India, Christianity had become, as the Secretary of State Lord Stanley 
put it in 1858, to the consternation of his evangelical countrymen, ‘the 
religion of Europe’.!5 

Although abandonment of the hoped-for conversion of India 
undercut much of the logic that sustained liberal reform, still the new 
policy had room for other enduring liberal ideals. One was religious 
toleration, elevated after the Mutiny to a new place of pride. This was, 
above all, the message of the Queen’s Proclamation on the abolition of 
the East India Company. Although the Queen added to the draft 
proclamation drawn up by the Prime Minister Lord Derby the phrase 
‘firmly relying ourselves on the truth of Christianity’, the document 
made no reference to conversion. Rather it repudiated any ‘desire to 
impose our convictions on any of our subjects’, and enjoined absti- 
nence from interference with the customs or beliefs of the Indian 

15 Metcalf, Aftermath of Revolt, pp. 92-97; for Kanpur Memorial Church, see NAI Home 
Public Dept., 18 November 1859, No. 20-22; Home Ecclesiastical Dept., 4 December 
1863, no. 1-4. 


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In similar fashion the value of education remained unquestioned 
despite the trauma of the Mutiny. In part, of course, this was because 
the Western educated had remained loyal during the uprising. As the 
young Indian official George Campbell had appreciated as early as 
1853, ‘The classes most advanced in English education, and who talk 
like newspapers, are not yet those from whom we have anything to 
fear; but on the contrary they are those who have gained everything by 
our rule, and whom neither interest nor inclination leads to deeds of 
daring involving any personal risk.’ The challenge which the educated 
would pose to the Raj still lay in the future.'® 

Yet the effort to preserve elements of an ongoing liberalism within a 
conception of Indian ‘difference’ further accentuated the contra- 
dictions which had marked the course of reform since the 1830s. 
Although it was unthinkable to contemplate ending, or even curtail- 
ing, government support for an ever wider network of schools, an 
educational policy which embodied the Macaulayesque vision of an 
India transformed on a Western model consorted awkwardly with the 
vision of an India presided over by princely and aristocratic elites seen 
as ‘natural’ leaders of the people. The British were likewise unwilling 
to abandon altogether their perceived sense of responsibility for the 
well-being of the tenants and subjects of these newly favoured inter- 
mediaries. The result was the enactment of tenancy legislation, 
especially in Bengal and Oudh, that endeavoured to succour the 
peasantry, but without unduly antagonizing their landlord superiors. 
Not surprisingly, such measures satisfied neither party, while making 
ever more unlikely the capitalist transformation of India envisaged, 
though only half-heartedly encouraged, since Cornwallis’s time. The 
British in similar fashion paired the award of sanads, or patents, 
guaranteeing all India’s princes the right to adopt heirs, and so save 
their states from extinction, with a closer scrutiny of their succession, 
education, and rule. 

At the same time the Mutiny forced Britain to consider afresh the 
way it represented itself as an imperial power. Although the East India 
Company was not charged with responsibility for the uprising, the 
British government nonetheless took advantage of the occasion, 
twenty-five years after the Company had lost all commercial func- 
tions, but only five years after its charter had last been renewed, to 
bring this ancient corporation to an end. Even in its death throes, the 
16 George Campbell, India as It May Be (London, 1853), p. 410. 


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Company was not without supporters. John Stuart Mill, as examiner, 
fought tenaciously on its behalf, and he subsequently devoted a 
chapter of his Representative Government to arguing that a free people 
could best rule a ‘semi-barbarous’ one by delegating their authority to 
an ‘intermediate’ body composed of trained administrators devoted to 
the land which formed their ‘special trust’. 

Even though the Company could in this fashion be incorporated 
into the liberal scheme of empire, the continuing existence of this once 
commercial body as the governing power in India, together with the 
perpetuation of the Mughal emperor on his throne in Delhi, made it 
difficult for the British effectively to mark out their sovereignty over 
the subcontinent. Since Clive’s treaty of 1765, when the British 
secured the diwani [revenue management] of Bengal, the East India 
Company had acknowledged a ritual subordination to the king in 
Delhi. Its coins, for instance, continued to bear the Mughal emperor’s 
name until 1835, while the Company stopped the payment of an 
annual nazr, visibly denoting its tributary status, only in 1843. As the 
Mughal’s vassal, lacking a clear-cut sovereignty of his own, the 
governor-general could only with difficulty award honours or devise 
rituals of hierarchy and subordination. Before 1858 there existed, as 
Bernard Cohn, following F. W. Buckler, has argued, ‘an incom- 
pleteness and contradiction in the cultural-symbolic constitution of 
India’. The abolition of the Company ended this ambiguity, for the 
British Crown was now the uncontested centre of authority, ordering 
into a single hierarchy all its subjects, Indian and British alike.!” 

Complementing the abolition of the East India Company was the 
trial for treason of the king of Delhi, Bahadur Shah. Confined to his 
palace, the king had long ceased to exercise any effective power, yet his 
name kept alive the memory of the empire the British had pushed 
aside. For half a century the British had themselves endeavoured to use 
the power of that name to secure their own position, while in 1857 the 
rebel soldiery, in turn, forced their way into his fort in order to 
command that legitimate authority. Although the British could not 
legally try the king for treason, inasmuch as he was the king and they 
his vassals, nevertheless the trial, and Bahadur Shah’s subsequent 
17 Bernard Cohn, ‘Representing Authority in Victorian India’, in Eric Hobsbawm and 

Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 165-79; F.W. 

Buckler, ‘The Political Theory of the Indian Mutiny’ (1922), in M.N. Pearson (ed.), 

Legitimacy and Symbols: The South Asian Writings of F.W. Buckler (Ann Arbor, Michi- 
gan, 1985). 


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banishment to Burma, enabled the British at last to represent them- 
selves as the unquestioned rulers of India. A new order had begun. 

With the end of the East India Company, Lord Canning adopted 
the new title of viceroy, and toured India in the years after 1858 to 
make manifest the new relationship proclaimed by the queen. In a 
series of durbars, or assemblies, he distributed Indian titles, such as 
those of Raja, Nawab, and Rai Bahadur, as well as lands and money, to 
a number of loyal princes, notables, and officials. Yet uncertainty, and 
even contradiction, remained. In addition to the award of Indian titles, 
for instance, the government at the same time, in 1861, created a 
special English order of knighthood. Called the Star of India, it was 
restricted to the most influential princes and senior officials, and it at 
once became the most coveted of all the distinctions at the disposal of 
the viceroy. In similar fashion British building in India in the years 
immediately following the Mutiny remained wedded to classical and 
Gothic forms. From the early days of their rule the British had erected 
neo-classical buildings across the face of India. These, above all the 
imposing baroque Government Houses in Calcutta and Madras, 
expressed not only contemporary British taste, but the ideals of 
empire, for the ‘ordered beauty’ of classical architecture had long best 
fitted the European conception of how a worldwide empire ought to 
be represented in stone. As such, these buildings inevitably linked 
Britain’s empire not to India but to the world of ancient Greece and 
Rome. As William Hodges had written of Madras as early as 1781, its 
‘long colonnades, with open porticoes and flat roofs’ offered to the eye 
‘an appearance similar to that what we conceive of a Grecian city in the 
age of Alexander’. Britain’s celebratory construction of the early 1860s 
— from the Mutiny Memorial Hall in Madras to the Lawrence and 
Montgomery halls in Lahore — similarly evoked the conquests of 
Alexander and of Caesar, not those of Akbar. 

Such architecture, furthermore, by setting Europe’s building styles 
on Indian soil, at the same time held out to the Indian people the image 
of a modern world they might themselves aspire to join. A building 
such as Pachaiyappa’s Hall in Madras, modelled on the Athenian 
Temple of Theseus, announced, much as did the English style edu- 
cation that took place within its walls, the transformation of India’s 
society on a European model. Hence, despite the coming of Crown 
rule, the British had not yet by 1860 decided how far, and in what 
ways, their liberal ideals would accommodate the more forthright 


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assertion of empire, and the vision of an India seen as enduringly 
different, portended by the events of 1857. The late Victorian ideology 
of empire had still to be hammered out. 


Eight years after the Indian Mutiny, in 1865, on the opposite side of 
the globe, at Morant Bay on the West Indian island of Jamaica, a group 
of freed slaves, who had become peasant cultivators, rose in protest 
against their desperate economic condition. Though the rebels were 
few in number and possessed no armed force, the rising was ruthlessly 
suppressed by the governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, who instituted 
martial law, had hundreds of blacks killed, and executed a mulatto 
leader who had challenged his authority in the assembly. To be sure, 
the scale of these reprisals was far less than the indiscriminate murder 
of Indians undertaken by the British troops as they marched on the 
rebel strongholds during 1857 and 1858. But the justification too was 
far less, for the rebellion posed but little threat to British rule in 
Jamaica. Hence the outbreak, and the manner of its suppression, 
provoked an immense outcry in Britain. In the ensuing debate, 
although the enduring liberal ideals of Victorian Britain found cham- 
pions, the breadth and intensity of support for Eyre portended a shift 
in the conception of what empire meant, and how colonized peoples 
were to be governed. 

Among Governor Eyre’s critics, perhaps the most outspoken and 
influential was John Stuart Mill. Denouncing Eyre’s actions as the 
abandonment of the ‘rule of law’ for that of ‘arbitrary power’, Mill 
insisted that no one could be allowed to stand above the law. In so 
doing, Mill spoke for the enduring liberal tradition, in which the 
procedural guarantees of the law alone secured the legitimacy of the 
imperial enterprise. Mill was joined by a number of other mainly 
middle-class professional men, from John Bright and T.H. Green to 
Charles Lyell and T.H. Huxley, who together made up the Jamaica 
Committee, and who sought to prosecute Eyre for murder. Eyre, by 
contrast, argued that in a country occupied by a ‘mere handful of 
troops amidst a numerous and disaffected peasantry’ prompt and 
decisive measures alone could preserve order. Only the ‘dread of 
immediate and severe retribution’, he insisted, prevented the rebellion 
from extending itself throughout the island, and so vastly increasing 


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the amount of suffering and misery. Such rhetoric, with its appeal to 
colonial order, echoed throughout the empire as the British over the 
years sought justification for exemplary acts of punishment.!® 

As the prosecution marshalled evidence against Eyre, British 
opinion increasingly rallied not to Mill’s, but to his opponent’s side. 
Some of Eyre’s supporters, like Thomas Carlyle, had long distrusted 
what they saw as a ‘sentimental’ liberalism driven by a desire to ‘make 
the niggers happy’ even at the expense of Britain’s imperial responsi- 
bilities. For him Britain, and its empire, could only be saved by 
fashioning ‘heroes’ left free to act on its behalf. In similar fashion 
England’s Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson, harking back to 1857, 
argued that, “The outbreak of our Indian Mutiny remains as a warning 
to all but mad men against want of vigour and swift decisiveness.’ John 
Ruskin and Charles Dickens too, less concerned about the fate of 
Jamaican blacks than that of ‘white slaves’ in Britain’s factories, added 
their voices to the campaign on Eyre’s behalf. 

Common to all the arguments in support of Eyre was a sense of 
disillusionment with the results of slave emancipation. Jamaica’s black 
population, in this view, had repaid trust with hostility, and so 
deserved the treatment meted out to it by Governor Eyre. As The 
Times explained it, though a ‘fleabite compared with the Indian 
mutiny’, the Jamican uprising ‘is more in the nature of a disappoint- 
ment’. It had previously appeared, they said, ‘to be proved in Jamaica 
that the negro could become fit for self-government ... Alas for grand 
triumphs of humanity, and the improvement of races, and the removal 
of primeval curses ...’!? Carlyle, of course, since the writing of his 
provocative Occasional Discourse Upon the Nigger Question in 1849, 
had insisted that, without strong white supervision, blacks would 
revert to indolence, if not to savagery. The Morant Bay rising, follow- 
ing so closely after the 1857 revolt, appeared to vindicate Carlyle’s 
argument. Reform was pointless as well as dangerous. In the West as in 
the East Indies, so it appeared, colonized peoples, perverse and 
unreasoning, did not appreciate the benefits Britain chose to confer 
upon them. Whether black or brown, they were of necessity funda- 
mentally different from Europeans. 

One immediate consequence of the 1865 uprising was the disso- 

8 Bernard Semmel, The Governor Eyre Controversy (London, 1962), especially pp. 90-91, 
19 Cited in Christine Bolt, Victorian Attitudes to Race (London, 1971), p. 71. 


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lution of the white-dominated Jamaican Assembly, and the reversion 
of the island to Crown Colony governance. Far from opposing this 
action, the colony’s planter elite, fearful of black majority rule, had 
themselves initiated it. The result of this change was, however, to 
sharpen the distinction, growing ever more visible during the 1860s, 
between the constitutional position of colonies of predominantly 
white, and those of non-white, populations. The process had begun in 
the 1840s with the publication of the Durham Report, which awarded 
responsible government to Britain’s Canadian colonies. By 1867 
Canada had been confederated and responsible government extended 
to Australia, New Zealand, and the Cape. Such a process of encour- 
agement to colonial self-government was of course implicit in the 
liberal ideal. By mid-century, following such notions to their logical 
conclusion, some had even begun to contemplate the eventual separa- 
tion of these colonies from the imperial system altogether. For the 
most part, however, rigorous ‘Little Englandism’ of this sort was rare 
and confined to the radicals of the Manchester School. Most liberals, 
while encouraging settlers to govern themselves, sought continued ties 
of association with these colonies. The ideal was that of ancient Greek 
colonization, defined by Gladstone as the creation of ‘so many happy 
Englands’ united by bonds of ‘perfect freedom and perfect self- 
government’. The model for colonies of non-white settlement, by 
contrast, whether in Jamaica or India, was the empire of Rome. In 
these territories Britain, like its Roman predecessor, had imposed 
upon it the ‘duty and task and high privilege’ of extending the rule of 
law and ‘the great and glorious fabric of truly civilized society’ around 
the globe.?° 

At home, while the Jamaica Committee was trying to rally support 
for the prosecution of Eyre, working-class discontent erupted in the 
famous Hyde Park riots of July 1866. Although hardly revolutionary 
in its objectives, this demonstration exposed the vulnerability of 
England’s ‘respectable’ classes, and so, by extension, helped to 
increase sympathy for Eyre as he too, as they saw it, had endeavoured 
to control an unruly ‘rabble’. Whether the English working classes, 
Irish Fenians, or Jamaica’s blacks, all such labouring classes were 
inherently lazy, undisciplined, and potentially violent in their chal- 

20 C.C. Eldridge, England’s Mission: The Imperial Idea in the Age of Gladstone and 
Disraeli, 1868-1880 (Chapel Hill, 1973), chapter 2; Gladstone speech cited in Paul 
Knaplund, Gladstone and Britain’s Imperial Policy (London, 1927), pp. 202-6, 224-26. 


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lenge to established property relations; hence ‘ail rioting’, as Matthew 
Arnold put it, had to be ‘put down with a strong hand, or [the state] is 
sure to drift into troubles’.! 

But in 1866 in England, unlike Jamaica, it was no longer practical 
politics, as it had been even a quarter century before during the 
Chartist agitation, vigorously to suppress working-class ambitions. To 
the contrary, schemes of partial enfranchisement had been floated even 
before the Hyde Park riots. In mid-1866, following the death of Lord 
Palmerston, the Tory Party came into office under Lord Derby. 
Disraeli, as leader in the Commons, resolved that the Tories should 
themselves settle the franchise question by a comprehensive measure 
of reform. The outcome, following a series of complex parliamentary 
manoeuvres in which each party outbid the other, was the famed ‘leap 
in the dark’ which extended the franchise to all urban working men. 

This radical extension of the franchise carried with it the presump- 
tion that the English working classes had become sufficiently disci- 
plined and law abiding — had acquired, as it were, a sufficient stake in 
the constitution — to be safely trusted to share in the working of the 
country’s institutions. But the inclusion of the English working classes 
in the constitution inevitably altered the way the British perceived of 
themselves in relation to the world outside. No longer was it possible, 
as had been the case before, for Englishmen to conceive of the lower 
classes at home as in some measure equivalent to colonized peoples 
overseas: each subject to a state whose institutions ordered their lives, 
but allowed them no place in its deliberations. After 1867, apart from 
some feared ‘dangerous’ classes, isolated for the most part in such 
places as the East End of London, all English men (though not 
women) necessarily had to be considered as possessed of a ‘sound 
sense’, as Derby said in justification of the reform; and hence as 
participants together in the larger national enterprise. In so doing, 
however, the extension of the franchise, like the award of responsible 
government to the settlement colonies, further sharpened the distinc- 
tion between white and non-white, between those who were deemed 
fit for freedom and those who must remain subjects. The existence of 
such a dichotomy in turn provided what might be called a ‘common 
sense’ justification for the growing racial ideology of late Victorian 
Britain. So long as there was no visible evidence of non-white inclu- 
sion in a free political system, or of white exclusion (apart from the 

2! Cited in Semmel, Govenor Eyre Controversy, p. 134. 


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ambiguous case of Ireland, at once part of Britain and separate from 
it), a racial theory of politics was at once logical and appropriate. 

If the 1867 reform encouraged racial thinking, so too did this ‘leap in 
the dark’ strengthen an explicitly authoritarian strand within liberal- 
ism. The intellectual elite, especially, were fearful of the consequences 
as Gladstone, the ‘People’s William’, set out to reconstitute the Liberal 
Party on the basis of a mass franchise. For such critics, of whom the 
first was Robert Lowe, leader of the small band of liberal ‘Adullamites’ 
contesting the reform bill in parliament, nothing could be further from 
true liberalism than the rule of an uneducated majority, manipulated 
by wire-pullers and demagogues, and with no object in view apart 
from the satisfaction of its baser instincts. As Lowe put it during the 

Because I am a Liberal and know that by pure and clear intelligence alone can 
the cause of true progress be promoted, I regard as one of the greatest dangers 
with which this country can be threatened a proposal to subvert the existing 
order of things, and to transfer power from the hands of property and 
intelligence to the hands of men whose whole life is necessarily occupied in 
daily struggles for existence.?? 

This opposition to franchise reform drew upon a set of principles 
whose intellectual roots could be traced back to Hobbes and Bentham. 
Its flowering, however, was a response to the crises of the critics’ own 
day as they perceived them — alike on the plains of northern India, the 
shores of Morant Bay, and before the gates of Hyde Park. The result 
was to call into question as never before the reformist ideology 
associated with men like Macaulay and J.S. Mill. In its place was set a 
darker and more pessimistic view of human nature, and with it differ- 
ent ideals of governance. The empire provided at once cautionary 
lessons, and hope for the future. Lowe had lived in Australia for some 
eight years, and he saw its populist democracy as a political system to 
be avoided, while the India of the Raj now stood forth as a model not 
only for the empire but for Britain itself. 

The most outspoken exponent of this authoritarian liberalism was 
James Fitzjames Stephen, who on his return from his service as legal 
member of the viceroy’s Council published the manifesto of the new 
school, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873). At the heart of Stephen’s 

22 Speech of 3 May 1865, Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, cols. 1439-40; see also John 
Roach, ‘Liberalism and the Victorian Intelligentsia’, Cambridge Historical Journal, vol. 
13 (1957), pp. 58-81. 


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philosophy lay the Benthamite, and ultimately Hobbesian, conviction 
that the aim of government was to secure, not liberty, as J. S. Mill 
proclaimed, but the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Stephen 
further insisted that most men cared only for their own immediate 
interests; hence the state of nature was one of perpetual conflict and 
warfare. The judicious application of force, wielded by a powerful 
legislator, was thus in a fundamental sense its own justification. As 
expressed in the coercive sanctions of law, force was not an evil, 
Stephen maintained, but a necessary element in the creation of a 
civilized social order. This insistence upon the civilizing power of law, 
sustained by the coercive power of the state, Stephen shared of course 
with liberal reformers from Bentham onward. Like them too he saw 
the British as the representatives of a ‘belligerent civilization’, whose 
rule over India found its justification in the ‘superiority of the con- 
quering race’. As he wrote, with an almost evangelical fervour, British 
power in India was ‘like a vast bridge’ over which an enormous 
multitude of human beings were passing from a ‘dreary’ land of ‘cruel 
wars, ghastly superstitions, wasting plague and famine’, on their way 
to a country ‘orderly, peaceful, and industrious’, and which might be 
the cradle of changes comparable to those ‘which have formed the 
imperishable legacy to mankind of the Roman Empire’. 

Where Stephen parted company with the liberal idealism of men 
such as J. S. Mill was in his assertion that the propensity to seek one’s 
own selfish advantage was not curbed with the advance of civilization. 
Human nature was such, he insisted, his Benthamite views reaffirmed 
by the disillusioning experience of the crises of mid-century, that the 
bulk of the people would forever remain under the sway of passion, 
beyond the reach of rational discussion or improvement. Even in the 
modern parliamentary state, where compulsion was mild and dis- 
guised, the power of the sword still underlay the whole social fabric. 
To base any society on the ideals of liberty, or the presumption that 
men were other than ‘fundamentally unequal’, was a mirage. The 
common people required not universal suffrage but the disinterested 
rule of a gifted elite, able to command obedience and operate an 
efficient economical government. 

Never an apologist for the old social order, with its hereditary 
aristocracy, Stephen found his ideal ruler in the trained bureaucrat of 
the Indian civil service. The ‘best corrective in existence to the funda- 
mental fallacies of liberalism’, the Indian government, in his view, was 


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‘the only government under English control still worth caring about’. 
John Stuart Mill, as we have seen, had himself shrunk from a too ready 
application of the principles of On Liberty outside the British Isles, 
and had praised the East India Company’s government. But an 
imperial dominion, that for Mill was justified only by the larger 
transformation that was inevitably to follow, Stephen exalted as one 
the British need never be ashamed of. To the contrary, he urged the 
British not to shrink from the ‘ open, uncompromising, straight- 
forward assertion’ of their own superiority over the people of India. 
As Stephen’s disciple John Strachey put it, ‘the only hope for India’ 
was ‘the long continuance of the benevolent but strong government of 

Stephen called Liberty, Equality, Fraternity ‘little more than the 
turning of an Indian lantern on European problems’. His enduring 
objective was not to praise empire, but to remake England in the image 
of the Raj. In this endeavour, as democracy took hold in Britain, 
Stephen was bound to fail. Ever less comfortable in the Liberal Party, 
Stephen and his disciples deserted the Liberal banner in the mid-1880s 
to protest Gladstone’s attempt to extend the ideals of self-government 
to Ireland. Nevertheless, allied with a revived Tory Party, these 
Liberal Unionists, as they called themselves, secured for themselves an 
influential place in late Victorian political life. 

More importantly, through the rigour of his advocacy, Stephen 
forced the British to confront the fundamental contradiction, long 
evaded, that lay at the heart of the liberal conception of empire. As 
early as September 1857, during the height of the revolt, the Economist 
had told the British people that they had now to choose 

whether in future India is to be governed as a Colony or as a Conquest; 
whether we are to rule our Asiatic subjects with strict and generous justice, 
wisely and beneficently, as their natural and indefeasible superiors, by virtue 
of our higher civilization, our purer religion, our sterner energies ... or 
whether we are to regard the Hindoos and Mahomedans as our equal fellow 
citizens, fit to be entrusted with the functions of self-government, ripe (or to 
be ripened) for British institutions, likely to appreciate the blessings of our 
rule, and, therefore, to be gradually prepared, as our own working classes are 
preparing, for a full participation in the privileges of representative assemblies, 
trial by jury, and all the other palladia of English liberty.?* 

23 Stokes, Utilitarians, especially pp. 287-309; John Strachey, India (London, 1888), p. 360. 
24 The Economist, vol. 15 (26 September 1857), p. 1062. 


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Increasingly, as the 1860s and 1870s went by, although it could not 
secure much support at home, Stephen’s authoritarian liberalism, 
linked with parallel theories of scientific racism and historical juris- 
prudence, powerfully reshaped Britain’s imperial ideology. Under the 
influence of these ideas, buffeted by the crises of mid-century, John 
Stuart Mill’s vision of an emergent ‘similarity’ of Indian and Briton 
gave way to an insistence on India’s enduring ‘difference’. 


On 24 June 1872, speaking at the Crystal Palace, Benjamin Disraeli 
challenged the English people to choose between a ‘comfortable 
England, modelled and moulded upon continental principles’, and ‘a 
great country — an Imperial country’, able to ‘command the respect of 
the world’. As he sought to find a place for the Conservative Party in 
the new democratic era he had himself set in motion, Disraeli with this 
speech brought the empire for the first time into the heart of British 
politics. The invocation of empire was part of a larger redefinition of 
tory principles. In the new tory strategy, empire was to be set 
alongside the ‘maintenance of the institutions of the country’, which 
for Disraeli included, above all, the monarchy, the established church, 
and the House of Lords. Further, and central to Disraeli’s scheme, the 
Tory party would devote itself to the ‘improvement of the condition’ 
of the working classes. With the support of the workers, who were, 
Disraeli insisted, ‘conservative — proud of belonging to an Imperial 
country’, the Tories could put an end to the fear of ‘the caprice and 
passion of multitudes’ that so obsessed men like Stephen. By weaving 
together this alliance of Crown, empire, and working classes, Disraeli 
put not only the Conservative Party but the discourse on empire in 
British politics on a new footing. 

During his years in power, from 1874 to 1880, Disraeli did not 
embark on any plan of imperial conquest, though he was prepared to 
sanction campaigns in Afghanistan and South Africa; and these helped 
precipitate his downfall. Disraeli’s contribution to imperial ideology 
was rather to shift the focus of attention from the settlement colonies 
to India, from colonial self-government to the empire as a source of 
national pride, from a Grecian, as one might say, to a Roman imperial 
vision. In the process the ideals of mid-Victorian individualism, and of 
the liberal industrial order, were challenged for almost the first time 
since their inception. 


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The shift toward the ‘Eastern Empire’ was first revealed in Disraeli’s 
1875 purchase of the Suez Canal shares belonging to the bankrupt 
Egyptian Khedive. Altogether apart from any financial or commercial 
advantage, the purchase was, Disraeli told the House of Commons, 
‘necessary to maintain the empire’. From the control of this waterway 
it was but a short step, first to the annexation of the Mediterranean 
island of Cyprus in 1878, and then, by an anguished Gladstone in 
1882, to the occupation of Egypt itself. Disraeli’s imperial vision 
revealed itself most clearly, however, with the enactment in 1876 of the 
Royal Titles Bill, which secured for Queen Victoria the title of 
Empress of India. 

Making the monarch ‘Empress’ can be seen to some degree as the 
logical conclusion of the process, begun in 1858, of resolving India’s 
anomalous status within the empire. With the simultaneous abolition 
of the East India Company and the Mughal dynasty at Delhi, the 
British Crown had then become the country’s unquestioned sover- 
eign, so that the new title simply marked out visibly the new order. 
Further, Queen Victoria was anxious to have this additional title for 
herself; and Disraeli, ever anxious to please his sovereign, happily 
acquiesced. Far more was at stake, however, than the whim of the 
monarch, as the intense Liberal opposition to the bill soon made clear. 
Liberals feared that the change of title implied a more active role for 
the monarch in British politics — and the queen herself was not averse 
to being styled ‘Empress of Great Britain, Ireland, and India’ — but 
what roused the strongest hostility was the apparent identification of 
the British Crown in this fashion with the hated imperialisms of 
Napoleon III and the new German Empire. Though the British were 
proud of their own empire, as Robert Lowe reminded the House of 
Commons, ‘sentiment clothes the title of emperor with bad associ- 
ations’. The imperial ideal, in the liberal view, was that of the union of 
Britain with its own kin, and their descendants around the globe; it 
connoted loyalty and liberty, the ‘happy Englands’ of Britain’s settler 
colonies, not the despotisms of continental states. 

For the Liberal opposition neither the empire of Rome nor that of 
the Mughals offered attractive precedents for Britain’s imperialism. 
Both empires, Lowe pointed out, had frequently had as their sover- 
eigns men at once raised to the throne by military violence and sunk in 
debauchery. Lowe admitted, to be sure, that Britain had won India ‘by 
the sword’, and intended to retain it. But with Gladstone he insisted 


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that it would not be desirable to advertise the fact of conquest by 
giving the queen an imperial title. “Would it be wise or prudent in us’, 
he asked, ‘to confound our wise and beneficent government with that 
of the rulers who preceded us? Would it not be better for us to teach 
tke Natives of India that those men reigned for their own pleasure and 
gratification ... and that our object, on the contrary, is simply to do as 
much good as possible?’25 

As Disraeli sought to justify the new title, the larger implications of 
the change came into view. One was a determination to assert Britain’s 
equivalence as a major power with her European rivals. ‘Do not let 
Europe’, he said in closing the debate, ‘suppose for a moment that 
there are any in this House. who are not deeply conscious of the 
importance of our Indian Empire.’ The enforced restriction of the title 
to India alone further enhanced the growing dichotomy, increasingly 
conceived of in racial as well as cultural terms, between India and the 
white settler colonies. Although Disraeli insisted that the ‘amplifi- 
cation of titles’ was a universal way to ‘touch and satisfy the imagin- 
ation of nations’, still, as the change applied only to India, it inevitably 
furthered the notion that as ‘Orientals’, Indians were a different kind 
of people, who attached ‘enormous value to very slight distinctions’. 
‘What to us’, as Stafford Northcote explained it to the Commons, 
‘may appear exceedingly trumpery and trivial distinctions, are in their 
eyes of the greatest importance.’ The titles act debate thus forced the 
British to consider directly what it meant to be an imperial state and 
helped bring about a reversal, from negative to positive, of the value 
attached to the term ‘imperialism’. 

Furthermore, the new title made legitimate, and so reinforced, the 
idea of India as a land ‘of many nations’, and of ‘various and varying 
races’, as Disraeli described its peoples. It was a land also of princes 
and of an unchanging past. Many of India’s princes, Disraeli 
announced with hyperbole, ‘occupy thrones which were filled by their 
ancestors when England was a Roman Province’. These varied ‘princes 
and nations’, he assured his countrymen, would welcome a great 
imperial sovereign who could properly regulate their position as 
feudatories in a hierarchic order. In addition, Disraeli and the Con- 
servatives sought to exonerate both the Roman and the Mughal 
empires from charges of debauchery. The ‘happiness of mankind’, 

25 Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, 17 February 1876, cols. 413-18, and 3 September 1876, 
cols. 1719-37. 


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Disraeli insisted, was never so completely assured as in the age of the 
Antonines, while the retired Sir George Campbell rose to the defence 
of the Mughal Empire. It was, he said, though not perfect, still ‘very 
great and glorious, and in many respects an excellent and good 
Empire’. Praise of the Mughal Empire was essential for the success of 
the new title, for its supporters imagined Victoria as empress assuming 
‘in name as in effect, the position hitherto occupied by the Great 
Mogul in India’, and so standing in a direct line of descent from these 
predecessors. As Disraeli’s Viceroy Lord Lytton exulted in writing to 
the Queen, the new title would ‘place her authority upon the ancient 
throne of the Moguls, with which the imagination and tradition of 
[our] Indian subjects associate the splendour of supreme power’. The 
larger implications of the endeavour to define the Raj as ‘Mughal’, 
India’s princes as ‘feudal’ rulers, and its society as ‘medieval’, will be 
examined in subsequent chapters. 

In England too the change of title marked out a new vision of the 
monarch. It is perhaps not wholly a coincidence that Victoria, for the 
first time since the death some fifteen years before of her husband 
Prince Albert, opened parliament in person to announce the change in 
the royal title. In the early years of her reign Victoria, like monarchs 
before her, had actively intervened in British politics, and reaped the 
hostility such partisanship carried with it. Her lengthy seclusion, 
combined with her piety and the probity of her personal life, made 
possible the transformation of the monarchy that took place from the 
1870s onwards. In an arena dominated by mass politics and rival 
parties, the monarch could in any case no longer exercise effective 
political power. But the upheavals of the era at the same time made 
ever more urgent the creation of a symbolic figure at the head of the 
nation as a whole. Indeed, in such an age, the ‘preservation of anachro- 
nism’, as David Cannadine has argued, the deliberate, ceremonial 
presentation of an impotent but venerated monarch as a unifying 
symbol of permanence and unity became both possible and essential. 
Such a transformation gained legitimacy at the time from the writings 
of Walter Bagehot, who described the monarch as the ‘dignified’ 
element of a government whose ‘efficient’ elements lay elsewhere, 
with the Prime Minister and parliament. Once available to represent 
the nation, the monarch could by extension easily be conceived of as 
the embodiment of empire as well. From 1877 onward, every great 
royal occasion, culminating in the Diamond Jubilee of 1897, was also 


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an imperial occasion. In this fashion, by associating it with a cherished 
monarchy, the novelty of the new ‘imperialism’ could be to some 
degree concealed, and the empire given a place, as never before, at the 
heart of the national consensus.?¢ 

Formally of course the rehabilitation of the monarch as a ceremonial 
figurehead transcended party. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that 
Disraeli inaugurated the new regime, for the Conservatives stood to 
benefit the most from the ‘invention’ of a tradition that emphasized 
consensus, continuity, and deference. The ideology of the new conser- 
vatism further tapped a growing distaste in the later Victorian era for 
the liberal industrial order, its individualism and spirit of competition, 
with the ugliness of design that it was seen as having spawned. In its 
place there sprang up a powerful nostalgia for a pre-industrial arcadia. 
A vision of India as a land of abiding traditions and enduring artisanal 
crafts at once sustained, and itself gained strength from, this conserva- 
tive revival. 

Disraeli’s final contribution to the creation of a new ‘imperialism’ 
was to inform British foreign policy with its spirit. In 1877, as Russo- 
Turkish animosity flared into war in the Balkans, Disraeli devised a 
new strategy for the defence of Britain’s interests in the eastern 
Mediterranean. For decades Britain had sought to deter Russia by 
alliance with Ottoman Turkey, even to the extent of going to war in 
the Crimea. Now, however, with Turkey discredited among large 
sections of British opinion for its massacre of Bulgarian Christians, 
Disraeli sought to justify continued support of Turkey by a direct 
appeal to Britain’s own ‘imperial interests’. The British Empire, he 
argued, formed by the ‘enterprise and energy of our ancestors’, had 
given millions ‘justice and order’. As the defence of ‘provinces in every 
zone’ had been entrusted to Great Britain, so the foreign policy ‘of 
these islands’ had of necessity to be imperial in character; hence Britain 
had to be ready itself to counter such threats to the lifeline of empire as 
Russian expansion into the Mediterranean. To make visible this new 
determination Disraeli in 1878 dispatched 7,000 Indian troops to 
Malta and occupied Cyprus. 

Though the crisis of 1877-78 was ultimately resolved peaceably at 
the Congress of Berlin, by linking England’s honour and its interests 

26 David Cannadine, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British 
Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition”, c. 1820-1977’, in Hobsbawm and Ranger, 
Invention of Tradition, pp. 108-32. 


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with the defence of the empire, Disraeli further enhanced the political 
importance of the empire and of India. To be sure, the new imperial- 
ism aroused intense hostility. In his famous Midlothian campaign 
Gladstone passionately condemned an empire based on force and 
splendour, and his moral ardour helped bring about the Conservative 
defeat of 1880. Nevertheless, British patriotism was now inextricably 
bound up with the empire. By itself, one might argue, imperialism as 
an ideology never commanded more than limited support among the 
British populace. Those committed to the idea of ‘empire’ comprised 
powerful voices, including much of the intellectual elite, above all the 
Liberal Unionists, who thought of themselves as a ‘great governing 
race’. But beyond this narrow class it was not easy, as one student of 
British conservatism has written, ‘to wean people away from the 
specifically English patriotism of landscape and culture’. Still, as the 
British from Disraeli’s time onward defined their national interests 
ever more explicitly in imperial terms, the values of ‘patriotism’ came 
to encompass those of imperialism. Imagining in retrospect the words 
and associations that ‘marched in a grand chain, hand to hand’ through 
the heads of those attending George V’s 1910 coronation, Vita 
Sackville-West listed: ‘England, Shakespeare, Elizabeth, London; 
Westminster, the docks, India, the Cutty Sark, England; England, 
Gloucestershire, John of Gaunt; Magna Carta, Cromwell, England.’ 
The Raj, and the overseas trade that secured such dominion, had 
clearly found a secure place in England’s vision of itself.?” 

‘Jingoism’ also emerged from the upheavals of the Balkan crisis. A 
song sung in the music halls during 1878 celebrated British truculence 
with the chorus: ‘We don’t want to fight/Yet by jingo if we do/We’ve 
got the ships/We’ve got the men/And got the money too.’ During the 
subsequent decades of British imperial expansion, the term ‘jingoism’ 
was used to denote a blustering chauvinism which gloried in conquest. 
Jingoism did not imply any particular stance towards the empire, nor 
did it ever command a universal assent. At its core it was patriotic, not 
imperial, in its content, expressive of an exuberant sense of nation- 
alism. Nevertheless, by placing that patriotism at the service of empire, 
jingoism, like the more sedate patriotism of such events as the royal 
coronation, deepened the hold of empire over the British people. 

British patriotism, then, especially as it was mediated through the 

27 Hugh Cunningham, ‘The Conservative Party and Patriotism’, in Robert Colls and Philip 
Dodd (eds.), Englishness: Politics and Culture, 1880-1920 (London, 1986), pp. 292-301. 


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Crown, provided a reservoir of sentiment that undergirded what A. P. 
Thornton has called the ‘imperial idea’. The content of that imperial 
patriotism could of course be contested; it was not at the disposal of 
the Conservatives, or anyone else, to do with what they pleased, as the 
intense struggles at the end of the century over the Boer War and 
Chamberlain’s imperial preference scheme visibly revealed. It is not by 
chance, however, that the era of greatest imperial enthusiasm, from 
1885 to 1905, was also a period of Conservative predominance in 
British politics. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, a new 
imperialism sustained a new vision of India. No longer a land to be 
remade in Britain’s image, it was now the cherished ‘jewel in the 
crown’ of the queen-empress. 


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For the Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge in 1875, after his 
return from seven years as law member of the Viceroy’s Council in 
India, Henry Maine set out to explain “The Effects of Observation of 
India on Modern European Thought’. India shared with Europe, he 
said, as Sanskrit scholarship since the time of William Jones had 
revealed, a ‘whole world’ of Aryan institutions, customs, laws and 
beliefs. India was thus part of that ‘very family of mankind to which 
we belong’. Yet, he went on, those Aryan institutions had ‘been 
arrested in India at an early stage of development’. The country was, as 
a result, ‘a barbarism’, but it remained one which ‘contains a great part 
of our own civilisation, with its elements as yet inseparate and not yet 
unfolded’. India was implicated with Britain, somewhat paradoxically, 
in a common origin, and yet was fundamentally different. In much the 
same way, the British were, in Maine’s view, at once agents of ‘pro- 
gress’, charged with setting India on the road to modernity, and at the 
same time custodians of an enduring India formed forever in antiquity. 
As Maine put it in the conclusion to his Rede lecture, India’s rulers had 
to keep their watches set simultaneously to two longitudes. 
Throughout the later nineteenth century, as they constructed their 
‘India’, the British had always to negotiate this disjuncture: between 
an acknowledgement of similarity, and an insistence upon difference. 
The task was never to be easy, nor was the result to be a coherent 
ideology of rule.! 

For men like Maine, India was Europe’s past, or rather its various 
pasts. In India Europe could find, alive in the present day, its entire 
history. India was at once a land of Teutonic village ‘republics’; it was 
‘the old heathen world’ of classical antiquity; it was a set of medieval 
feudal kingdoms; in the coastal cities ‘something like a likeness of our 
own civilisation’ could even be discerned; and India was, of course, 
also an ‘oriental’ land forged by despotism. In the later nineteenth 

' Henry Maine, The Effects of Observation of India on Modern European Thought 
(London, 1875. Reprinted, Folcroft, Pa., 1974); and Henry Maine, Village Communities in 
the East and West (London, 1871). 


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century all of these various conceptions of India existed side-by-side 
with little sense of incongruity. Each, in its own context, represented 
the ‘real’ India; and each, as we shall see, served the needs of the Raj. 

The creation of varied pasts was not confined to India alone. For the 
Victorians, and indeed for Europeans more generally, history played a 
critical role in organizing the world around them. They used it, in 
particular, to create for themselves a national identity, even if often 
troubled and fractured, that brought together English, Scots, and 
(with difficulty) Irish in a ‘United’ Kingdom; and to constitute sets of 
relationships with the world outside that would position their own 
‘progressive’ society at the leading edge of the development of civili- 
zation. Though the varied British ‘histories’ of India might be incon- 
sistent with each other, they were united by this nineteenth-century 
‘historicism’. Together they shaped the way the British constructed 
the difference they ascribed to India. Above all, through a theory of 
‘decline’ that complemented Britain’s own ‘progress’, the history of 
India was made to accommodate not just the existence of the Raj, but a 
course of historical development that made the imposition of British 
rule its necessary culmination. 

The Victorians set out, in addition, to order and classify India’s 
‘difference’ in accordance with scientific systems of ‘knowing’. British 
progress could not be simply a matter of cultural pride. The study of 
India was thus made part of a larger scholarly enterprise in which the 
Victorians, as children of the Enlightenment, sought rational prin- 
ciples that would provide a comprehensive, and comprehensible, way 
of fitting everything they saw in the world around them into ordered 
hierarchies. The existence of empire, by imparting a sense of urgency 
to the process, spurred on this creation of knowledge, and at the same 
time the unequal power relationships of imperialism helped shape the 
categories within which that knowledge was constructed. No longer a 
product of mere assertion, in the manner of James Mill, Western 
pre-eminence was now demonstrated, or, more properly, assumed, as 
it underlay the scientific structures that grew up around it. Victorian 
science, like its historicism, thus necessarily if not always consciously, 
fitted India into a hierarchical relationship with Europe and provided 
the firm footing of legitimacy which the British sought for their Raj. 

This chapter will examine the persisting tensions between the claims 
of similarity and those of difference as they informed the ideology of 
the late Victorian Raj in the arenas of history, race, and gender. 


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Chapter 4 will assess how, in the light of their understanding of India’s 
past — and its present — the British devised structures for ordering its 


Maine is most widely remembered for his striking, aphoristic state- 
ment in Ancient Law (1861) that ‘the movement of progressive soci- 
eties has hitherto been a movement from Status to Contract’. In his 
Rede lecture he reiterated his conviction that civilization was ‘nothing 
more than a name for the old order of the Aryan world’ reconstituted 
around ‘several property’ in place of an earlier collective ownership. 
Indeed, he insisted fiercely, ‘Nobody is at liberty to attack several 
property and to say at the same time that he values civilisation.’ Such 
views expressed a concept of social progress whose roots went back to 
the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment. But Maine, with the 
other evolutionary theorists of his time, repudiated the utilitarian 
vision of an infinitely malleable human nature. Societies were differ- 
ent, and history had shaped the path each had followed. As John 
Burrow has written, in this view ‘mankind was one not because it was 
everywhere the same, but because the differences represented different 
stages in the same process’. And, he continued, ‘by agreeing to call the 
process progress one could convert the social theory into a moral and 
political one’. The superiority of Europe, and of private property, was 
thus preserved in an era when old certainties were fast disappearing.” 

In place of Benthamite deduction from the abstract principles of 
utility, Maine sought a scientific basis for his evolutionary social 
theory in what he called a ‘comparative’ and ‘historical’ method of 
analysis. By this reasoning India’s ancient institutions, linked to those 
of Europe by their common Aryan origin, became the germs out of 
which the social and political systems of modern Europe had emerged. 
They were not merely curious anachronisms, of interest only to 
antiquarians, but successive phases of one on-going process of devel- 
opment. The old Aryan institutions had persisted in India, Maine 
argued, partly because of the country’s geographical isolation, shut in 
by the Himalayas and the sea, and partly too because all subsequent 
migrations after that of the Aryans had affected Indian social organi- 

2 J.W. Burrow, Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory (Cambridge, 
1966), especially pp. 98-100. 


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zation to only a superficial extent. With the people insulated from 
outside influences, ‘Brahminical religion’ and the system of caste had 
preserved ‘in extraordinary completeness’ the society’s ‘old natural 
elements’, along with the institutions and ideas which were their 

Yet Maine’s theory was hardly coherent. Despite his commitment 
to an evolutionary concept of history, his use of the ‘comparative’ 
method had the effect of undermining the theory it was meant to 
sustain. In order to justify making inferences from India’s present to 
England’s past, Maine had inevitably to assume that India had had no 
history since the time of the early Aryan invasions. The result was to 
sharpen the distinctions the Aryan theory was meant to contain. As he 
gave India with one hand a history linked to that of England, with the 
other he took it away. The dichotomy between India’s static society 
and England’s progress ultimately overwhelmed any sense of parallel 
development. Similarity was necessarily subordinated to difference. 
To account for this difference, other contemporary thinkers, as we 
shall see, preferred to speak of India’s Aryan past not in institutional 
but in racial terms, and in the process devised yet other ways of 
explaining its unique history. 

Central to Maine’s analysis alike of India’s similarity and its differ- 
ence was his conception of the village community. By Maine’s time the 
notion of the ‘village community’ had already acquired an extended 
history both in India and in Europe. Building upon the writings of 
German Romantics, who sought their national origins in the Teutonic 
forests, Victorian liberals, anxious to discern the origins of Britain’s 
distinctive freedoms, conceived of the Saxon village community as the 
training ground for all subsequent self-government. From the Saxon 
freeman, these ‘Germanists’ argued, a line could be traced directly to 
the parliamentary system of their own era.3 

The idealized Indian village community, derived from the same 
Romantic imagination, was described in much the same language, but 
served purposes of a very different sort. The conquests of the first 
decades of the nineteenth century first brought the British face to face 
with the fortified villages of Maharashtra and the North Indian plains. 
In 1830 Sir Charles Metcalfe, defending the award of revenue collect- 

> J.W. Burrow, “The Village Community and the Uses of History in Late Nineteenth- 
Century England’, in Neil McKendrick (ed.), Historical Perspectives: Studies in English 
Thought and Society (London, 1974). 


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ing rights to these corporate village bodies, rather than to landlords or 
individual cultivators, wrote: 

the village communities are little republics, having nearly everything that they 
can want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations. 
They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty after dynasty tumbles 
down; revolution succeeds to revolution; Hindoo, Patan, Mogul, Mahratta, 
Sikh, English, are all masters in turn; but the village community remains the 
same ... If plunder and devastation be directed against themselves and the 
force employed be irresistible, they flee to friendly villages at a distance; but 
when the storm has passed over, they return and resume their occupations... 
This union of the village communities, each one forming a separate little state 
in itself, has, I conceive, contributed more than any other cause to the 
preservation of the people of India through all the revolutions and changes 
which they have suffered, and is in a high degree conducive to their happiness, 
and to the enjoyment of a great portion of freedom and independence.‘ 

As a Company official, Metcalfe’s objectives were in large part fiscal 
and administrative. It was easier to rule by incorporating rather than 
destroying such entrenched institutions. Yet Metcalfe’s romanticized 
vision of the village was difficult to reconcile with the community it 
purported to describe. Although the disruptions of the later eighteenth 
century had enforced a great degree of self-reliance upon the Indian 
village, it was at all times much less isolated, from state and market 
alike, and much less egalitarian than Metcalfe’s rhetoric implied, for 
the community of cosharers rarely encompassed the entire population. 
Nevertheless, Metcalfe’s text resonated through the years. Neither the 
decline of romanticism, nor that of the independent village community 
itself, which by mid-century had been incorporated into a system of 
law and a colonial economy that offered little scope for the exercise of 
its alleged virtues, much affected the way the village was perceived. 
Even the utilitarians, who disparaged the village community as an 
impediment to their plans for an agrarian revolution in India, spoke of 
it in terms that acknowledged its cohesion and independence.® 

In the later nineteenth century policy and theory together combined 
to embed the ‘village republic’ ever more deeply into the ideology of 
the Raj. With the shift after the Mutiny to a bulwarking of what were 
seen as traditional and stable elites, and the consequent desire to 

* Cited in Dewey, ‘Images of the Village Community’, pp. 296-97. 

5 Louis Dumont, ‘The “Village Community” from Munro to Maine’, Contributions to 
Indian Sociology, vol. 9 (1966), pp. 77-89; Dewey, ‘Images of the Village Community’, 
pp- 307-28; Ronald Inden, Imagining India (Oxford, 1990), pp. 137-42. 


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dampen the pace of social change, the ‘village community’ came to 
define an ordering of Indian society which was at once unchanging and 
unthreatening. Indeed, almost paradoxically, one might argue, as the 
village community altered to accommodate the requirements of an 
increasingly interventionist state, the simultaneous need for a secure 
agrarian order evoked an ever more urgent ideological assertion of its 
enduring permanence. At the same time, from the 1860s onward, with 
the growth of evolutionary thought, the Indian village community 
took on a new, and larger, meaning. In 1871 Maine published Village 
Communities in the East and West. In this work he described India’s 
villages, with their patriarchal clans and communal tenures, as marking 
out the earliest phase of an evolutionary process whose end point was 
to be found in contemporary England. India was, he insisted, ‘the 
great repository of verifiable phenomena of ancient usage and ancient 
juridical thought’; he went on to pronounce its present village com- 
munities ‘identical’ with the ‘ancient European systems of enjoyment 
and tillage’. Like Metcalfe’s vision of the ‘village republic’, Maine’s 
theory also had little place for the state or for caste; the latter, in his 
view, was ‘merely a name for a trade or occupation’. The institutions 
of the village thus embodied for Maine that which at once most 
intimately linked, and yet separated, India and Europe. 

Maine refused to let inconsistencies, whether in “Germanist’ theory 
or Indian practice, deter him from constructing a unilinear scheme of 
evolution for the village community. In large part this was because 
what mattered to him was in the end not India, but Europe. His 
principal objective was always to explain Europe’s historical develop- 
ment in a way that inextricably connected ‘civilization’, progress, and 
private property rights. Not surprisingly, in consequence, Maine’s 
views secured a wide and appreciative audience among Europe’s privi- 
leged classes. As time went on, however, alternative views emerged. 
By the 1880s agrarian reformers, determined to secure occupancy 
rights for Irish, and for Indian, tenants, turned Maine’s theory to their 
own purposes. They argued that the collective organization of prop- 
erty in these early communities justified placing restrictions on private 
property in their own day. Maine and his followers, in response, 
fearful of ‘communistic’ attacks on landed property, vigorously denied 
that joint property holding had ever existed in the early history of 
Europe, and so brought to an end the European career of the village 
community. At the same time in India, officials like B. H. Baden- 


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Powell, on the basis of the land settlement reports of the 1870s and 
1880s, insisted that the Indian village community had never enshrined 
communal ownership of land and indeed owed little to the country’s 
Aryan invaders. Patterns of landholding were, in this view, always 
heterogeneous, most often ryotwari, or household based; and they 
were shaped by the social requirements of indigenous Dravidian and 
aboriginal peoples. Still, the notion of the ‘immemorial’ village com- 
munity remained as a compelling sign of the ‘traditional’ India which 
the Raj sought to sustain. Eventually this idealized village was appro- 
priated in turn by India’s nationalists, who saw in these communities 
evidence for the antiquity of an indigenous concept of democracy. 

Insofar as he extended India’s ancient past up to the present, Maine 
had of necessity, despite his evolutionary schema, to deny that India 
had ever passed through a ‘feudal’ stage comparable to that of medieval 
Europe. He acknowledged the possibility of a ‘nascent’ feudal devel- 
opment, but his need to leap directly from India’s antiquity to its 
present foreclosed any further discussion. For many of Maine’s con- 
temporaries, however, India was par excellence a ‘medieval’, even a 
feudal society. The Indian official Alfred Lyall, for instance, in 1875, 
marching through Rajputana, wrote that ‘Barring Oriental scenery 
and decorations, the whole feeling of this country is medieval; the 
Rajput noblesse caracoles along with sword and shield; the small 
people crowd round with rags and rusty arms; the king and his 
principal chiefs are lords of the country, and the peasant is at their 
mercy.’® As one of the most philosophically and historically minded 
members of the Indian civil service, Lyall was to play a major role 
during his career in India in shaping an ideology for the late Victorian 

Much in the description of India as ‘medieval’ was simply an 
extension of the ‘picturesque’ vision, attracted by the colourful and the 
exotic, which found such comparisons to be the most satisfactory way 
of coming to terms with India’s difference from Victorian England. 
Nevertheless, the ‘medieval’ vision of India had much in common with 
that of the idealized village community. In each case one group was 
made to represent the whole: as the Jat community of the northern 
plains embodied the Indian ‘village’, so too did the princely states of 
Rajputana (now Rajasthan) personify a ‘medieval’ India. In the 

© Mortimer Durand, Life of the Right Hon. Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall (London, 1913), 
pp. 181-82. 


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princely state, as in the village, time stood still. The Rajput states, as 
Lyall wrote, had ‘managed to preserve unaltered much of their original 
structure, built up out of the needs and circumstances of primitive life’. 
No other ‘political fabric’ in Asia, he insisted, had changed so little in 
the preceding 800 years. In this way, as India’s princes were shaped to 
fit the needs of the Raj, India’s past was once again created anew.’ 

The idea that the Rajput principalities represented an Indian feudal 
order took shape along with the British conquest of this desert region. 
In the 1820s, as Colonel James Tod negotiated the treaties which 
brought the Rajput chieftains under British suzerainty, he ordered 
their past as well as their present. In his Annals and Antiquities of 
Rajasthan Tod laid out in over a thousand pages of print the customs 
and lore of all the major Rajput states, and he did so with such 
authority that nearly a century and a half later the old Brahmin guide 
taking tourists through the Chitor fort would refer to Tod as ‘our 
historian’. For Tod ‘the leading features’ of government among 
peoples in the ‘same stages of society ... must have a considerable 
resemblance to each other’. The ‘martial system’ of the Rajputs, with 
its feuds and rivalries, its ties of lordship and vassalage, was similar, he 
wrote, lumping all these peoples together as medieval, to that of the 
ancient German tribes, the Franks, and the Gothic races. Hence, the 
Rajputs too had to possess a feudal order. Indeed, anxious to turn 
aside the ‘contempt for all that is Asiatic’ which, he said, too often 
marked ‘our countrymen in the East’, he proudly insisted upon Rajput 
participation ‘in a system hitherto deemed to belong exclusively to 
Europe’. Despite ‘general decay’ during long periods of Muslim rule, 
Tod argued, much still remained of these ‘ancient institutions’, 
especially in such places as Mewar, which was ‘worthy of being 
rescued from oblivion’.® 

Other officials extended this ‘feudal’ analogy to princes outside 
Rajputana. George Campbell, for instance, compared the eighteenth- 
century Sikh states in the Punjab to the princes of medieval Germany. 
It was, however, he said, a ‘puzzle’ how these Sikh Jats, who had ‘for 
many hundred years’ never seen anything except their village commu- 
nities, should create a ‘complete and fully organized feudal system’. 
The only explanation Campbell could offer was that ‘the same feudal 
7 Alfred C. Lyall, Asiatic Studies, vol. 1 (London, 1884), p. 208. 
8 James Tod, Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, 2 vols. (reprinted, London, 1914), 

pp. 108-15, 155~58. 


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system which prevailed in Europe is a sort of natural instinctive habit 
of the Aryan race when they go forth to conquer’. Only a racial 
ideology could undo what the same ideology had created in the Aryan 
‘village community’!? 

One of the more attractive features of this Indian feudalism for the 
British was the way its dispersed sovereignty served as a check on 
‘Oriental despotism’. Lyall, for instance, contrasted the Maratha ruler 
Sindhia, ‘a despot of the ordinary Asiatic species, ruling absolutely the 
lands which his ancestor seized by the power of a mercenary army’, 
with the Rajput states, where the ‘feudal lords’ counterbalanced the 
sovereign power of the prince, ‘exactly as the barons of Europe did, 
and very effectively prevent him from becoming an arbitrary despot’. 
As a result, he said, although the peasantry were often reduced to near 
serfdom, the ‘feudal system of Rajputana’ was ‘the only free institution 
of India’. A system of government that could be described by analogy 
with that of Europe, even the Europe of the Middle Ages, was by 
definition superior to a system which was purely ‘Oriental’ in 

The ‘feudal’ view of princely India did not go wholly unchallenged. 
By the 1880s many officials, including Lyall himself, had determined 
that the political system of the Rajput states was shaped not by ties of 
vassalage but by those of kinship. The Rajput chief, Lyall argued, was 
‘the head of a clan which has for many centuries been lords of the soil 
which now makes up the State’s territory’. Critics pointed out that 
such central feudal elements as the fief and the manor, homage and the 
knight’s service, were all lacking in India. Although he emphasized 
Rajput participation in the larger feudal order, Tod was himself aware 
that in many of these states the ‘vassal chiefs’ claimed ‘affinity in 
blood’ to their sovereign. This ‘tribal’ ideology found its fullest 
expression, as we shall see later, in accounts of the society of the 
neighbouring province of the Punjab.!° 

The reconstruction of Indian ‘feudalism’ as a social order based on 
ties of blood and kinship inevitably implied that it was fundamentally 
different from any European form, and so called into question the 
possibility for India of any evolution, of the sort that had taken place 
in Germany, from a medieval to a fully modern state. Still, the notion 

9 George Campbell, Memoirs of My Indian Career, vol. 1 (London, 1893), pp. 46-47. 
10 Lyall, Asiatic Studies (1884), pp. 224, 244; Charles Lewis Tupper, Our Indian Protecto- 
rate (London, 1893), chapters 10-11; Tod, Annals, pp. 107-9. 


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of the Indian state system as medieval served important political 
purposes. Like the India of the idealized village community, a ‘feudal’ 
India lived in a past that extended into the present, yet one tied to 
elements of Europe’s own past; it possessed its own indigenous insti- 
tutions of self-government, yet needed the British to secure the larger 
order that warring principalities could not by themselves bring about. 

Not only India’s princes, but the Raj itself, so the British believed, 
exhibited ‘striking analogies’ to the medieval world. Such resem- 
blances were not accidental. They reflected the powerful appeal of the 
medieval ideal in Britain. A number of elements converged to create 
this enthusiasm for the Middle Ages: the search for the picturesque, 
the Romantic creation of a national past, the Anglo-Catholic religious 
revival, and the abandonment of classical for Gothic forms in architec- 
ture. All, however, expressed an overriding nostalgia for what has been 
called ‘the world we have lost’. In an age of industrialism and indi- 
vidualism, of social upheaval and laissez-faire, marked by what were 
perceived as the horrors of continental revolution and the rationalist 
excesses of Benthamism, the Middle Ages stood forth as a metaphor 
for paternalist ideals of social order and proper conduct. Though they 
had no intention of repudiating the material benefits which progress 
had brought to Britain, the medievalists looked to the ideals of chiv- 
alry, such as heroism, honour, and generosity, to transcend the selfish 
calculation of pleasure and pain, and recreate a harmonious and stable 

Not surprisingly, the medievalist conception of an ordered society, 
together with its idealization of character in contrast to mere material 
wealth or intellect, made it an attractive vision for both the landed 
classes in Britain and the civil servant in India. Indeed, as the public 
schools by mid-century were propagating the virtues of the chivalrous 
‘gentleman’, even people of middle-class origin could hope to join this 
elite. Whether at home or in the empire, and also in relations with 
women in the masculine world of Victorian Britain, like knights in 
armour, the noble were to protect, and cherish, the weak. Medievalism 
thus sustained the Raj not just by portraying India as itself a ‘medieval’ 
society of hierarchy and deference, but by holding forth an ideal of 
benevolent paternalism derived from ostensibly ‘medieval’ virtues. 

As this medievalist ideal helped shape Disraeli’s toryism, it is no 
surprise that in India the medieval fantasy reached its fullest flower in 
the 1877 Imperial Assemblage, when Disraeli’s creation of Victoria as 


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empress was proclaimed to India’s princes. The viceroy, Lord Lytton, 
a romantic medievalist and member as a youth of Disraeli’s Young 
England group, determined to use this occasion to give India’s ‘feudal 
nobility’ a firm institutional basis, and to secure for the British Crown 
as ‘the recognized fountain of honour’ a visible place ‘as its feudal 
head’. He sought to set up an Indian Privy Council which would bring 
together the ‘great ruling chiefs’ in a common body with the viceroy 
and high British officials, while he established a College of Arms at 
Calcutta to order the Indian ‘peerage’. In this way, Lytton argued, the 
‘Imperial supremacy of the British Crown’ could be associated with all 
hereditary ranks and titles. 

In addition, Lytton designed for the major princes large banners 
emblazoned with coats of arms. The armorial bearings, devised by a 
Bengal civil servant and amateur heraldist, embodied European 
notions of the ‘history’ of the various princely houses. The presen- 
tation of these banners to the attending princes formed the central 
event of the Imperial Assemblage. The decoration of the viceregal 
pavilion erected for the ceremony also invoked a lush Victorian 
version of the ‘medieval’ idiom. The shafts holding the canopy, for 
instance, were festooned with satin bannerets displaying the Cross of 
St George and the Union Jack, while the frieze hanging from the 
canopy displayed the rose, shamrock, and thistle, with the lion of 
India, embroidered in gold and silver. Silver shields, with strips of red 
and white satin, decorated with fleurs-de-lis and gilden lances, com- 
pleted the decorative ensemble. To open the Assemblage, announced 
by a fanfare from six trumpeters in medieval costume, the viceroy 
entered the arena to the strains of Wagner’s ‘March from Tannhauser’. 

Although the Assemblage represented India as having at once a 
feudal past and a medieval present, the organizing principles of the 
Assemblage were not consistently ‘medieval’. The selection of Delhi as 
the site for the event was shaped by a desire to create for the Raj a 
Mughal past, while the orderly layout of the British camp announced a 
strategy of colonial mastery whose message did not go unheeded. As 
Sindhia’s prime minister Dinkar Rao reported after viewing the 
imperial camp from Flagstaff Tower, anyone who notices ‘the method, 
the order, the cleanliness, the discipline, the perfection of the whole 
organization ... will recognize at once the epitome of every title to 
command and govern which one race can possess over others’. The use 
of banners also attracted Lytton, not only as a way of representing 


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India as a ‘feudal’ society, but as part of a larger “Orientalist’ strategy 
of rule. In his view the Indian peasantry were an ‘inert mass’ capable of 
being moved only by their native chiefs and princes, and these princes 
in turn responded most effectively to symbol and ‘sentiment’. The 
‘further East you go’, he wrote, ‘the greater becomes the importance of 
a bit of bunting’."! 

Lytton’s use of ‘feudal’ imagery nevertheless raised awkward ques- 
tions about the direction of India’s political development. The secre- 
tary of state, Lord Salisbury, warned Lytton, in making 
announcements about the proposed ‘native peerage’, to avoid the 
‘technical expressions applied to similar institutions in Western 
Europe’. The plan for a Privy Council, above all, he insisted, had to be 
abandoned. Such a body might evoke memories of the ‘great power’ 
once exercised by the English Privy Council and give rise to “expecta- 
tions’ which could not be realized. More generally, Salisbury argued, 
the ‘constitutional bodies’ of medieval England could not be intro- 
duced into India because they formed part of a ‘very different system 
of government’. India’s ‘feudalism’, in sum, was not, like England’s, to 
be a stage on the road to a modern nation state. Hence, Lytton had to 
be content with the naming of twenty “Counsellors of the Empress’ — a 
title with no meaning for a body which never met.!? 

The medievalist vision also found expression in the creation of 
orders of knighthood. In India, as throughout the empire, such orders, 
and with them the numbers of knights, grew throughout the later 
nineteenth century. Four years after the Mutiny, in 1861, as we have 
seen, the first Indian order, the Star of India, was created. By 1877 
there were several hundred holders, British and Indian, of its three 
ranks; and in 1878 it was joined by a new order, the Order of the 
Indian Empire, established on the occasion of the Imperial Assem- 
blage. For British officials in India the coveted knighthood repre- 
sented the capstone of a successful administrative career. Few among 
them, however, in keeping with the medieval ideal, could hope after 
the age of conquest to join the ranks of imperial heroes, or win a 
chivalric title in the manner of James Outram, whose tomb in West- 
minster Abbey proclaimed him the ‘Bayard of India’. Of necessity, 
‘1 For imperial assemblage, see Bernard Cohn, ‘Representing Authority in Victorian India’, 

in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, pp. 189-207; Lady Betty Balfour, 

The History of Lord Lytton’s Indian Administration (London, 1899), pp. 106-33. 

12 Lytton to Salisbury, 5 October 1876, Salisbury to Lytton, 20 November 1876, and 
address of 1 January 1877, in NAI For. Pol. A, December 1877, no. 286-496. 


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therefore, the princes, and above all the Rajputs in their desert fast- 
nesses, given knightly rank, were made to take up the role of ‘proud 
nobles’. In strikingly similar fashion, the Scottish Highlanders, newly 
bedecked in kilt and tartan, were created as a brave people with an 
ancient Celtic lineage. It is no accident that Victoria was herself drawn 
strongly to both the Highlands and to India’s princes." 

Yet, as in the case of Lytton’s proposed Privy Council, Indian 
membership of orders of knighthood on the British pattern forced 
India’s rulers once again to confront the question of what it meant to 
describe that society as ‘feudal’. Although the government endeav- 
oured to maintain a rough parity in numbers between the British and 
the Indian members of the Indian orders, Indian initiates were rarely 
‘dubbed’ as knights when they were invested with the insignia of the 
order. On this ground — and also because financial contributions were 
considered ‘quite unsuited to India and Indian ideas’ - the customary 
fees charged for the conferment of knighthood were remitted. But in 
consequence, as they were not properly ‘knights’, so officials such as 
H. M. Durand at the Foreign Office argued, the Indian members of 
these orders were not entitled to be called ‘Sir’. In the end such an 
invidious distinction between the races in the mode of address could 
not be sustained, and the Indians were addressed by the usual titles.'* 

Hostility to the incorporation of Indians in ritual forms derived 
from medieval Europe nevertheless persisted, and even grew more 
intense as time went on, as we shall see in a subsequent chapter. The 
British peerage, for instance, with only a handful of exceptions, 
remained at all times closed to Indians. As Curzon wrote when he was 
planning his own durbar in 1902, however ‘illustrious’ the Indian 
chiefs, their traditions did not require, for their conservation, ‘the 
varnish of a purely European invention’. I do not think, he continued, 
that ‘Maharajas or Rajas will be any the better or the happier for being 
converted into Dukes, Marquises, Earls and Barons’. Such titles, with 
coats of arms of the sort Lytton had devised, represented ideas that 
were ‘essentially foreign to Indian history and practice’. In similar 
fashion, Curzon eschewed a ‘medieval’ for what he regarded as a 

13 Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (New 
Haven, 1981), pp. 220-29; Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Invention of Tradition: The 
Highland Tradition of Scotland’, in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, 
Pp- 15-41. 

14 See note of H.M. Durand of 7 February 1889, and correspondence in NAI files For. 
Secret-I, March 1889, no. 56-76, and For. Intl-A, June 1887, no. 356-66. 


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Mughal, or ‘Saracenic’, decorative scheme for his durbar. As he wrote 
disdainfully of Lytton’s banners and flags, ‘so far as these features 
were concerned, the ceremony might equally well have taken place in 
Hyde Park’. In his view, Britain ought to represent its empire as 
Indian, not its Indian subjects as Europeans.!° 

Whatever its manifestations, medieval nostalgia was invariably shot 
through with irony. By its very nature it involved an effort to preserve 
that which the British were in the process of destroying, and indeed, as 
they built their empire, could not help but destroy. This destruction 
was visible, if with an ample measure of self-deception, to those 
engaged in the colonial enterprise itself. Tod, for instance, insisted that 
British ‘generosity’ had ‘rescued’ the Rajputs ‘from impending degra- 
dation and destruction’ at the hands of their Afghan and Maratha 
neighbours. Yet, he said, the British alliance was itself ‘pregnant with 
evil’, liable to ‘lay prostrate’ these ‘ancient relics of civilization’. Tod 
nevertheless maintained that by a scrupulous policy of non-interfer- 
ence in the internal affairs of these states it was possible to restore the 
‘harmony and continuity’ which had once existed, and so ‘perpetuate 
this oasis of ancient rule’. Lyall, fifty years later, in similar fashion 
spoke of British rule as having ‘rescued’ the Rajput states from the 
anarchy that had followed the decline of Mughal rule. He recognized 
as well that the ‘listless security produced by our protection’ had 
brought about a ‘rapid deterioration’ in the effective functioning of the 
Rajput states. Yet he too clung to the hope, if not the expectation, that 
these ‘ancient political structures’ could be preserved.'® 

At one level, of course, such yearning for the past, and the con- 
sequent desire to keep ‘the past’ alive in India in the present, repre- 
sented a disenchantment with Victorian British civilization itself. This 
was particularly evident, as we shall see in the next section, in patron- 
age of India’s crafts. Yet medievalism concealed as much as it revealed. 
No one was prepared, above all, to give up the ‘progress’ that had 
secured Victorian England its predominance, much less the Indian 
Empire itself, in pursuit of what can only be called a medieval fantasy. 
Renato Rosaldo has argued that ‘imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of 
“innocent yearning” both to capture people’s imaginations and to 
conceal its complicity with often brutal domination’.!” Medievalism 

'5 Minute of 11 May 1902, NAI For. Secret-I, September 1902, no. 1-3. 
16 Tod, Annals, pp. 100-5, 155-58; Lyall, Asiatic Studies (1884), pp. 204, 261-63. 
'7 Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth (Boston, 1989), chapter 3, especially pp. 68-74. 


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can perhaps best be seen as a form of theatre which was meant, 
through insistence upon the persistence of the past, to obscure, from 
the British themselves as much as from the Indians, the extent of 
change which occurred under British rule, and perhaps even the fact of 
colonialism itself. Certainly its theatrical character was readily appar- 
ent at the time to outside observers. As the painter Val Prinsep wrote 
with disgust of the arrangements for the 1877 Assemblage, ‘They have 
been heaping ornament on ornament, colour on colour ... They have 
stuck pieces of needlework into stone panels, and tin shields and 
battleaxes all over the place. The size ... gives it a vast appearance, like 
a gigantic circus.’ Of the ceremony itself he said, ‘it was what is called a 
splendid sight, but so was Batty’s hippodrome, and so is Myers’s 
circus’. At its conclusion, he wrote simply, “The curtain falls ... Turn 
down the lights.”!8 This grand assemblage, one might suggest, was not 
so different from the famous Eglinton Tournament of 1838, when a 
spectacular recreation of the Middle Ages, with armour, costumes, and 
horses, was brought to an abrupt halt by a downpour of rain that 
forced the knights to lower their lances and unfurl their umbrellas. 

Lytton’s ‘medieval’ India was not a sham in the manner of Eglinton, 
for the princes were being shaped to play a central role in the colonial 
order. What the British sought, one might say, was not to turn the 
clock back but rather to create a simulation of the Middle Ages, in 
which its institutions remained apparently intact even as they were 
fundamentally altered to suit the requirements of the new order. In so 
doing, perhaps, the British could convince themselves that they had 
bridged the gap between Maine’s ‘two longitudes’. In the end, 
however, medievalism illuminated only Britain’s present, not India’s 


Although the antiquity of India’s past had been brought to light by the 
Oriental scholars of Warren Hastings’s time, the process of recovering 
its rich and lengthy history was inevitably long drawn out. The 
path-breaking studies of the Sanskrit language undertaken by such 
men as Jones, Halhed, and Colebrooke in the 1780s and 1790s were 
followed in the first decades of the nineteenth century by exciting new 
discoveries. Among these were the decipherment of the Brahmi script, 
18 Val C. Prinsep, Jmperial India (London, 1878), chapter 3. 


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which revealed the existence of the third century nc Asokan era; the 
uncovering of Gandharan art in the northwest, which pointed to ties 
linking India and classical Greece; and the translation of the account 
by the Chinese pilgrim, Fa Hsien, of his tour in the fifth century ap, 
which, together with the discovery in 1819 of the Ajanta caves, gave 
historical depth to the Gupta Empire and the Buddhist experience in 
India. Although much remained unknown, above all the existence of 
the Harappan civilization, by the middle of the nineteenth century the 
major outlines of India’s history had been established. 

Confronted with this history, the British could not simply dismiss 
India as a land of ‘changeless’ villages and feudal principalities. India’s 
extended past had at once to be explained and made subservient to the 
needs of the Raj. The British could, of course, assert their own 
superiority, as James and J.S. Mill had done, by pointing to the values, 
such as individualism and liberty, embedded in Western culture. They 
could also recite evidence of their technological prowess. By this 
measure Britain’s superiority was palpable. The British had, after all, 
conquered India; and by the 1850s they were engaged in building 
railway and telegraph networks whose principles had been devised in 
Europe, not India. As Michael Adas has argued, this technological 
superiority was taken, even by such a sympathetic observer of indige- 
nous societies as the traveller Mary Kingsley, as a justification for 
imperial dominance. On her return from West Africa, Kingsley wrote 
that she was ready to embrace ‘the first magnificent bit of machinery’ 
she came across as ‘the manifestation of the superiority of my race’.!® 
Kipling too, despite his sympathy with much in Indian culture, in Kim 
proclaimed the ‘te-rain’ and even the museum keeper’s spectacles, so 
gratefully received by the lama, as evidence of the West’s superiority. 

Yet the mere celebration of technology provided no way of 
explaining the course of India’s history. Britain’s mastery of nature — 
so long as one chose to accept technology as the appropriate measure 
for judging the worth of cultures — could perhaps be seen as marking 
out differing levels of achievement between itself and India, but by 
themselves such differences gave no indication of why India had been 
left stranded so far behind. To explain this apparent discrepancy many 
Victorian theorists in the latter half of the century turned to the Aryan 
theory of race, which joined England and India in a compelling 
discourse at once of history and of science. Initially, as Sir William 
19 Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men (Ithaca, 1989), pp. 146-53, 175-77. 


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Jones conceived it, what was to become the Aryan theory amounted to 
no more than perceived affinities in certain key words and forms of 
grammar between Sanskrit and most European languages. On the 
basis of these similarities, Jones then speculated that the peoples who 
spoke these languages must have shared a common origin. But these 
speculations were no more ‘scientific’ in character, or widely accepted, 
than Jones’s other more fanciful theories linking the ancient Hindus 
with peoples as widely scattered as the Ethiopians and the Scythians.?° 

As a diffusionist, Jones insisted upon a common origin for all 
peoples; and he made no attempt to connect language with race. 
Nevertheless, over time, as comparative philology became more 
sophisticated, especially through the work of the German scholar Max 
Muller, Jones’s loosely linked language family took on a new ethnic 
coherence and was given an ancestral home in southern Russia, from 
which the Aryans (as they were now called) were believed to have 
spread out to conquer and colonize vast tracts of land from northern 
India to western Europe. In this process language, culture, and the 
physical biological features that distinguish race became inextricably 
linked; and the Aryans as a race became sharply demarcated from 
other races such as the Semitic and the black African. 

For the German Romantics who devised the theory, Aryanism was 
part of the search for the origins of the German Volk. They saw India 
as a land of ancient wisdom and the cultural cradle of mankind. In 
England, although many questioned the validity of Aryan racial cate- 
gories and were unhappy about the use of linguistic affinities to define 
biological descent, the Aryan theory still had a powerful attraction in 
that its ‘scientific’ character allowed the similarities and differences of 
the Indians and the English to be assessed systematically. As such, 
Aryanism participated in the growing appeal, from the 1850s onward, 
of racial theory in general. Yet it was fundamentally different in 
character from that ‘scientific’ racism which sought to measure anato- 
mical features such as the size of the brain and the shape of the head. 
To be sure, such classificatory schemes were not without adherents in 
India, for the Victorians, as their power came to encompass the entire 
world, sought to order that world in a coherent and ‘scientific’ fashion. 
H.H. Risley, census commissioner and ethnologist, for instance, 
denied the existence of any correlation between head size or shape and 
intelligence, but sought to demonstrate that the social status of the 
20 Marshall, Hinduism, pp. 15-16, 252-54, 260-61. 


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members of the various caste groupings varied ‘in inverse ratio to the 
mean relative width of their noses’. Nevertheless the greatest utility of 
such ‘sciences’ as craniometry lay elsewhere, above all in the effort to 
assess the racial characteristics of Africans, and blacks more generally. 
Africans, in the British view, were deemed to have no history at all, 
because they lacked written records and ancient monuments. Hence, 
they were regarded as mere ‘savages’, whose bodies alone could define 
their enduring nature. India’s extensive past could obviously not be 
treated with the disdain directed towards that of the African peoples. 
A place too had to be found in any racial theory for India’s similarity 
with, as well as its difference from, Europe. Hence, as the British set 
out to place India in a racial hierarchy, they used philology to consti- 
tute a history, not biology to constitute a ‘primitive’ state of being.?! 

Aryan racial theory was itself not free of troubling difficulties. If the 
Indians and the British were alike Aryans, then how could the Indian 
people be marked out as inferior? How, indeed, could the British Raj 
be justified? The answer was to be found in evolutionary theory. 
Unlike the properly Darwinian view, in which weaker species suffered 
extinction, among human races, with perhaps such exceptions as the 
Tasmanians, those who fell behind in the struggle for survival instead 
experienced racial degeneration. While the European branch of the 
Aryan peoples triumphed over those of other races, those who went to 
India, as the amateur ethnologist and civil servant George Campbell 
wrote, ‘lost their purity of race’ by ‘intermingling with the aboriginal 
races, and by the innate decay of enervation by the climate’. 

The notion of Aryan decline in India was of course wholly depend- 
ent upon the characterization given to India’s non-Aryan peoples. 
Victorian philologists categorized these people under the terms Tur- 
anian and Dravidian. The latter encompassed the major language 
grouping of southern India, first subjected to serious study by Robert 
Caldwell, in his Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South 
Indian Family of Languages (1856); while the term Turanian was 
loosely used as a way of describing speakers of non-Aryan and 
non-Semitic languages, especially those of Ural-Altaic derivation. 
From mid-century onward these categories, like that of Aryan itself, 
took on racial connotations; and Turanian especially, perhaps because 

21 For Aryan theory, see Joan Leopold, ‘British Applications of the Aryan Theory of Race 
to India, 1850-1870’, English Historical Review, vol. 89 (1974), pp. 578-603; Herbert 
Risley, The People of India (London, 1915; reprinted, Delhi, 1969), chapter 1. 


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of its inherent vagueness, was adapted to the need of creating within 
India a racial foil to the Aryan conquerors. Overlapping and incorpo- 
rating the Dravidian speakers, it defined those low caste aboriginal 
races who served, and had corrupted, their Aryan superiors. They 
were, as Risley put it, the oldest and ‘most primitive’ of India’s 
peoples; their ‘birthright’ was that of labour for those above them. 

As the Aryans settled in India, a few favoured communities, 
especially in the country’s northernmost reaches, were able to preserve 
themselves from this ‘intermixture’ with ‘Turanian blood’. The Jats, 
for instance, were described by George Campbell as ‘in no degree 
Tartar or Turanian, but on the contrary in every respect intensely 
Aryan in their features, in their figure, in their language, and par- 
ticularly in their institutions’. Risley too insisted that the Aryans of the 
Punjab and Rajasthan, with their ‘very light transparent brown’ skins, 
retained a ‘high degree of purity’ distinct from the bulk of the Indian 
people. For the most part, however, as the Aryan invaders migrated 
down the Gangetic valley, they came in contact with the Dravidians. 
The results were disastrous. As the ‘men of the stronger race took to 
themselves the women of the weaker’, the amount of ‘pure Aryan 
blood’ flowing through the veins of India’s peoples became ever less, 
until by the British colonial period it had become ‘infinitesimally 
small’. As we shall see, this racial distinction between those of the 
northern plains and those of the lower Ganges was to have its counter- 
part in the category of gender, which opposed the ‘martial’ peoples of 
the north to the ‘effeminate’ Bengali.?2 

An account of India’s evolution based on race created problems as 
well as solved them; for the Aryan thesis as applied to India’s social 
institutions, by such men as Henry Maine, was used to deny that 
change of any sort had ever taken place. Far from declining, as we have 
seen, India’s Aryan institutions, in Maine’s view, remained as power- 
ful at the end of India’s historical development as at its beginning. 
Nevertheless, a racial theory had the great advantage that it could 
provide not only a ‘scientific’ account of the diverging paths followed 
by India and England, but it could also order England’s ‘progress’ in 
relation to India’s ‘decline’, and so mark out the precise stages of 
India’s downward course. Despite the incompatibility of institutional 
‘changelessness’ with racial ‘decline’, each served important purposes, 
and so their theoretical contradictions had to be ignored. 
22 Campbell, Memoirs, vol. 1, pp. 59, 194-95. 


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Similarly, in their depreciation of racial ‘mixing’ the British were not 
always consistent. They took pride after all in the mixture of racial 
strains from across northern Europe which were supposed to have 
given the British themselves their exceptional vitality. Nor was India 
all that different. Campbell himself admitted that the ‘modern 
Hindoos’ were ‘in fact, taken as a whole, a mixed race like ourselves, 
with much the same varieties of features that are found in Europe’.? 
What was at issue, then, was clearly not race itself, but processes of 
history and culture for which ‘race’ was a convenient marker. These 
inconsistencies are readily visible in the history, at once racial and 
cultural, that the British constructed for India. 

For the racial theorists, the spirit of the Turanian or the Dravidian 
stood opposed in every way to that of the Aryans. The Turanian 
peoples, above all, had never declined, but rather, isolated in the 
jungles and hills of the south, they had ‘preserved their nationality 
pure and unmixed’. Furthermore, the coming of Buddhism, from the 
fifth century Bc, provided an occasion for these depressed peoples to 
rise up in opposition to Aryan, and Brahminical, domination. At the 
same time too, the era of Buddhist predominance, pre-eminently the 
two centuries before and after the coming of Christ, provided a new 
and attractive way of marking out India’s ancient greatness. Untainted 
by the associations of Hinduism with ‘superstition’ and ‘priestly 
despotism’, which contributed so much to its disparagement at the 
hands of the Victorians, Buddhism had at its core a ‘great teacher’, 
who converted by persuasion to a ‘rationalistic’ faith. Buddhist art too, 
as revealed in such monuments as Sanchi, approached a European 
aesthetic which celebrated simplicity of design and a ‘truthful’ repre- 
sentation of nature. Impressed by the values associated with this 
‘classical’ era, the British had to overlook the obvious paradox that 
those same people whom they had defined as racially inferior had 
created a religion, and an art, which represented the apex of India’s 
cultural achievement. 

The pre-eminence of the Buddhist era was further assured by the 
fact that one school of Indian Buddhist art, that of Gandhara in the far 
northwest, directly incorporated Western classical forms. As the art of 
European classical antiquity was for Victorians the measure of super- 
iority for all art everywhere, art influenced by it had by definition to 
be superior to other Indian art. Alexander Cunningham, for instance, 
23 Tbid., vol. 2, pp. 2, 133- 


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who as first director of archaeology focussed his attention primarily 
on the excavation of Buddhist sites and the decipherment of Bactrian 
Greek coins, was convinced of the central role of Greece in providing 
inspiration for the finest Indian work. Vincent Smith too, with other 
historians, until well into the twentieth century argued for the super- 
iority of the classically influenced Gandharan sculpture over that of 
Mathura and central India. In similar fashion, Alexander the Great’s 
brief invasion of the Punjab in 326 Bc was made the climactic moment 
of ancient India’s history.74 

The decay of Buddhism, together with the waning of Greek influ- 
ence following the fall of the Bactrian kingdoms, enabled the Aryans, 
by now thoroughly mixed with the indigenous peoples, to reassert 
their dominance. They did so, however, only by adopting as their own 
‘the absurd fables and monstrous superstitions’ of the Turanians. The 
result was the absorption of the ‘pure’ Vedic faith into these ‘abomi- 
nations’, and the subsequent emergence of the two predominant 
Hindu sects of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. These, wrote the archi- 
tectural historian James Fergusson bitterly, ‘brought God to earth, to 
mix and interfere in mundane affairs in a manner that neither the Aryan 
nor the Buddhist ever dreamt of, and so degraded the purer religion of 
India into the monstrous system of idolatry that now prevails in this 
country’. Nor did the enduring encounter with the Dravidians shape 
religion alone. As Risley put it, ‘By the stress of that contact caste was 
evolved ... and the whole fantastic structure of orthodox ritual and 
usage was built up.’ In this view, contemporary Hinduism, as both a 
religion and a form of social organization, was the product of racial 
mixing and Turanian superstition. It had nothing to do with the 
‘genius’ of the Aryan race. To be sure, some, with Fergusson, echoing 
Maine, insisted that the influence of Aryan ‘intellect’ remained 
‘powerfully impressed on every institution of the country’. Neverthe- 
less, its racial history made India a fundamentally different place from 
Britain. As a society whose Aryanism had been overwhelmed by too 
intimate a contact with debased Turanians, it could never hope to 
emulate on its own the achievements of Europe.”° 

India’s downward trajectory was most visibly manifested in its art 

24 Vincent A. Smith, ‘Greco-Roman Influence on the Civilization of Ancient India’, Journal 
of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 58 (1889), pp. 112-37. 
25 James Fergusson, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture (London, 1876; 2nd edn, 

1910), Pp. 10-12, 34-47. 


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and architecture. Unlike the obscure and difficult Sanskrit texts, 
whose study in Victorian times was confined primarily to German 
scholars like Max Muller, the looming temples and intricate carvings 
which the English found all about them in India were easily accessible, 
even, with the invention of photography, in Britain itself. As Fer- 
gusson put it, announcing his study of India’s monuments, they could 
be regarded ‘as a great stone book, in which each tribe and race has 
written its annals and recorded its faith’. Architecture, one might say, 
provided, with philology, another language in which could be read the 
story of India’s decline. The Turanians, in this view, though incapable 
of producing great literature, were ‘extensive and enthusiastic build- 
ers’, and so inaugurated India’s architectural traditions. The results 
were, however, as Fergusson described them, not very impressive. All 
the south Indian builder sought, he wrote, was ‘a place to display his 
powers of ornamentation, and he thought he had accomplished all his 
art demanded when he covered every part of his building with the 
most elaborate and difficult designs he could invent’. Nowhere was 
there to be found ‘those lofty aims and noble results which constitute 
the merit and greatness of true architectural art’. The logic of decline 
further demanded that later structures be more ‘degraded’ than those 
of earlier times, so that the seventeenth-century Madurai temple 
became ‘the most barbarous, it may be said the most vulgar’ building 
to be found in India. Nor, in this degenerate period, could even 
borrowing from the West, of the sort undertaken by the later nawabs 
of Avadh, redeem Indian design. The Western forms would them- 
selves only be tainted by, and so further degrade, a “dying art’.?¢ 
These judgements were informed not only by a theory of history, 
but by arguments drawn from the science of aesthetics. From the time 
of the Renaissance onward, Europeans had conceived that there 
existed a universally valid aesthetic shaped by certain principles of 
balance and proportion. By this standard India’s architecture, above 
all such structures as South India’s temples, were judged wanting. 
Instead of a ‘tall central object to give dignity to the whole’, most of 
them possessed lofty gateways surrounding inconspicuous central 
shrines. Such an arrangement of architectural elements was, as Fer- 
gusson asserted flatly, ‘a mistake which nothing can redeem’. In the 
end, the lessons of science and of history were the same: temples that 

26 Fergusson, History, pp. 323-24, 341-42, 362-65, 604; see also Thomas R. Metcalf, An 
Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain’s Raj (Berkeley, 1989), chapter 2. 


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housed the deities of a ‘degraded’ faith were, not surprisingly, con- 
structed according to ‘false’ principles, while the use of a ‘false’ 
architectural design testified to the existence of a ‘degraded’ civili- 

Nor was architecture alone seen as flawed. George Birdwood, the 
premiere patron of India’s arts in late-nineteenth-century Britain, 
argued that while the creative spirit had flourished in the era of India’s 
‘archaic beginnings’, it had then been stifled by Turanian influence. As 
a result, the ‘nobler lovelier forms of flowers and trees’ inherent in the 
Aryan ‘love and worship of nature’ were discarded in favour of a 
meaningless elaboration of form. Only on those rare occasions, above 
all during the Buddhist era and subsequently during the years of 
Islamic predominance, when the artist was free of the ‘trammels’ of 
Puranic mythology, could India’s art escape what John Ruskin in 1858 
called its wilful and resolute opposition to ‘all the facts and forms of 
nature’. Yet the accurate representation of ‘Nature’ was hardly the real 
issue. What was at stake, in the discussion of art as much as of 
architecture, was not aesthetics, but politics. Neither India’s art, nor 
the larger culture in which it was embedded, could be allowed to 
challenge Britain’s, and Europe’s, predominance. 

In this historiography only intervention from without could halt 
India’s spiral of decline. ‘Ex Occidente Imperium’, as Risley put it, ‘the 
genius of Empire in India has come to her from the West.’ This was the 
‘determining factor’ both of India’s ethnology and its history. Yet no 
set of invaders could for long remain aloof from India’s peoples, and 
its institutions. ‘As each wave of conquerors’, Risley wrote, ‘Greek, 
Scythian, Arab, Moghul, that entered the country by land became 
more or less absorbed in the indigenous population, their physique 
degenerated, their individuality vanished, their energy was sapped, 
and dominion passed from their hands into those of more vigorous 
successors.’ Even those warriors who seemed to emerge from within 
India, like the Marathas, could claim their ‘individuality of character 
and tenacity of purpose’ only as part of an inheritance which had come 
to them from supposed ‘Scythian ancestors’.?8 

India’s Muslim conquerors, above all, were made to share with the 
Aryans the task of revitalizing a decadent society. To be sure, these 

27 Partha Mitter, ‘Western Bias in the Study of South Indian Aesthetics’, South Asian 
Review, vol. 6 (1973), pp. 125-36. 
28 Risley, People of India, pp. 53-61. 


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men were ‘Oriental despots’, subject to the ‘effeminacy and corrup- 
tion inherent in Eastern dynasties’; so that each of the Muslim states of 
India, despite a ‘brilliant beginning’, gradually sank into ‘inevitable 
decay’. Still, as both Muslims and conquerors, their perceived role in 
shaping India’s history was markedly different from that of the indige- 
nous Hindus. For Europeans, as we shall discuss more fully in chapter 
4, Muslims were always, unlike Hindus, a worthy adversary. As Lord 
Napier insisted, ‘the progress of Mahomedanism was not entirely 
destructive’. Throughout the Muslim world its rulers, he argued, 
despite conquest and rapine, discovered ‘generous abilities and tastes’, 
which made their courts centres not only of warfare but of artistic 
patronage. These men adhered as well to a rigorous monotheism that 
was ‘no vain superstition, but a true religion’, and hence was deserving 
of respect. 

The Mughal dynasty which preceded the British conquest was 
accorded an exceptional status. It contained ‘liberal and humane’ 
rulers such as the emperor Akbar; and these men constructed such 
buildings as the Taj Mahal, an architectural ‘jewel’ Fergusson con- 
sidered almost, though not quite, on a level with that masterpiece of 
Western art, the Parthenon. Yet precisely because it had reached such 
_ illustrious heights the collapse of the Mughal Empire was all the more 
devastating. As Alfred Lyall wrote, ‘assaulted by foreign invaders 
from outside, and distracted by internal revolts, it fell with a crash, and 
was torn to fragments by usurpers, successful rebels, and military 
adventurers’. In the ‘anarchy’ that resulted during the eighteenth 
century the Indian people were left a ‘masterless multitude swaying to 
and fro in the political storm, and clinging to any power, natural or 
supernatural, that seemed likely to protect them’. In short, Lyall 
concluded, ‘the people were scattered without a leader or protector; 
while the political system under which they had long lived was 
disappearing in complete disorganization’. Eventually, as the Viceroy 
Lord Lytton told the Imperial Assemblage in 1877, ‘Providence’ called 
upon the British to ‘replace and improve’ the ‘constantly recurrent’ 
anarchy of its strife-torn predecessors. India, in other words, had to be 
saved from itself.?? 

Critically important in this creation of a history for India was not, 
of course, the mere fact of decline. What mattered, and what set the 

29 Alfred Lyall, The Rise and Expansion of the British Dominion in India (London, 1894; 
reprinted, New York, 1968), pp. 62-65. 


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late-Victorian theorists apart from those, say, of the eighteenth 
century, was the description of this decline in racial, rather than 
environmental or cultural, terms. This alternative mode of explanation 
had far-reaching consequences. As the effects of racial degeneration 
could never be eradicated, India’s peoples, even though Aryan in 
origin, had now to remain forever distinct, different, and inevitably 
inferior. Asserting ‘difference’ in such terms provided powerful theo- 
retical underpinning for the larger post-Mutiny disillusionment with 
liberal idealism. Science and history together, so this ideology seemed 
to say, made all thought of reform pointless. Such ideas, in particular, 
reaffirmed the sense of Christianity, not as a faith to be shared with the 
world, but as a sign of England’s intrinsic superiority. This took 
visible form in Indian church architecture. Even as the British were 
devising an architecture that endeavoured to represent the Raj as 
Indian, through the use of ‘Saracenic’ forms, church architecture 
remained rigidly confined within European, and particularly English 
Gothic, styles. The few attempts to create structures for Christian 
worship adapted to Indian forms, such as that of F.S. Growse in 
Mathura or the Cambridge Brotherhood in Delhi, provoked only a 
fury of opposition. As one correspondent wrote, criticizing the Delhi 
college of the Cambridge Mission, ‘I cannot but regard as fatal the idea 
of carrying on Christian teaching in a building entirely surrounded 
with symbols, suggestions and associations which are opposed to 
Christianity.’ The parallels the British delighted to find between them- 
selves and the Romans were also shaped to the same end. Few of the 
British by the 1870s and 1880s expected what they called the ‘ancient 
polytheism’ of India to give way, as had occurred in the Roman 
Empire of antiquity, to Christianity. As Alfred Lyall put it, ‘the 
seasons and the intellectual condition of the modern world are 
unfavourable to religious flood-tides’. In practice, Christianity was a 
faith meant for Europeans, to be housed in European-styled struc- 
tures. In the India of the Raj, race and faith went hand in hand. India 
had to be accepted, and ruled, as it was.*° 

India’s decline from an ancient Aryan glory did not, in the view of 
the late Victorians, degrade all elements of its culture. To the contrary, 
as men such as John Ruskin and William Morris argued, India kept 
alive in its crafts, as in its villages, cherished values of a shared past. 
Fergusson exulted that India’s architecture was a ‘living art’ practised 
30 Lyall, Asiatic Studies (1884), pp. 159-60; Metcalf, Imperial Vision, pp. 98-104. 


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on the principles which caused its ‘wonderful development in Europe 
in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries’, while Morris praised India’s 
art works for being ‘founded on the truest and most natural prin- 
ciples’. In so doing these men expressed a growing British disil- 
lusionment with the fruits of the industrial revolution. Although its 
industrial might had raised Britain to the position of the most 
powerful nation on earth and secured their own prosperity, it had at 
the same time, the crafts enthusiasts argued, enshrined the making of 
money, degraded English taste with its mass-produced ugliness, and 
isolated the labourer from pride in his work. ‘Degrading’ labour, as 
Morris wrote, must be replaced with work conceived in the spirit of 
the village blacksmith or carpenter. In its condemnation of Victorian 
individualism the crafts movement inevitably participated in the larger 
‘medievalist’ critique of contemporary society. Although Morris as a 
socialist sought a revolution to usher in a new communal society, his 
romantic and backward-looking vision brought him close to those 
who sought to preserve distinctions of status and custom, and to 
assert the authority of the Crown, the landed elite, and the state. 

The crafts enthusiasts’ vision of India’s past closely paralleled that of 
men like Henry Maine. The art critic Birdwood, in opposition to 
Maine, insisted that the perpetuation of the past in India was not a 
product of the growth of unwritten custom, but arose directly from 
the Code of Manu. This body of ancient Sanskrit law, in Birdwood’s 
view, established both the caste system and the enduring village 
communities. Yet the end result was identical. Caught up in an 
ordered system which provided ‘place and provision’ for everyone, 
India’s craftsmen had no ‘stimulus to individual exertion’, and so had 
handed down the industrial arts of antiquity ‘through 5,000 years to 
modern times’. India was a land which had escaped an unattractive 
industrial order, yet remained confined within an ‘invincible immobil- 
ity’ that disabled the country from participating, like England, in the 
‘advancement of art’.?! 

Despite their hostility to industrialism, the crafts enthusiasts in no 
way emancipated themselves from the fundamental assumptions that 
sustained the imperial enterprise. They fully accepted the Victorian 
belief that the ‘whole organization of social life in India’, as Birdwood 
put it, was ‘theocratic’ in character, with, at its centre, the ‘monstrous 

3! George Birdwood, The Industrial Arts of India (London, 1880), pp. 136-40; Metcalf, 
Imperial Vision, chapter 5. 


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shapes’ of Hindu idolatry. Imbedded in this religion, India’s art 
inevitably expressed its values. Truly creative art was therefore 
inconceivable. In 1910, reflecting on his ‘experience of seventy-eight 
years’ in the study of Indian art, Birdwood asserted that he had never 
found any work that sought to give ‘perfected form to the artist’s own 
ideals of the good, the beautiful and the true’; and he went on, in a 
memorable phrase, to compare an image of the Buddha to a ‘boiled 
suet pudding’, For Ruskin and his associates, as much as for their 
opponents, aesthetics remained bound to the service of politics. No 
matter how much they might criticize their own society, the crafts 
enthusiasts were never prepared to abdicate their moral superiority, 
and with it the predominance of Europe. The work of the artisan 
craftsman alone, safely contained within the village order, posed no 
threat to the supremacy of the Raj, and so could secure unstinting 
praise. Everything else — whether of art or architecture — of necessity 
expressed only the ‘barbarism’ of a debased land. 

Whether India’s history was described in terms of ‘decline’ or of 
‘invincible immobility’, in either case, then, the outcome was the same. 
Contradictions within the ideologies of race and language were 
ignored; the similarities demanded by the Aryan theory were 
accommodated; while difference was accentuated and shaped to insure 
a space in India for the Raj. Invariably, India was linked to Europe’s 
past only in antiquity, and only where the ties to Europe were 
constituted within an unthreatening village society. The creation of an 
enduring ‘traditional’ India, in its crafts as in its village communities 
and among its princes, as we shall see later, carried with it as well a 
rigorous enclosure of the ‘native’ within this ‘traditional’ space. As the 
prince had to play the role of feudal ‘vassal’, so too did the craftsman 
have to work within what the British ‘experts’ who controlled the 
Schools of Art and the lavish Journal of Indian Art had determined 
was a properly ‘traditional’ style. In no way did the preservationist 
ideal simply involve the preservation of what existed. 


The British conceptualized the difference between Great Britain and 
India in terms not only of history and race, but also gender. Such 
distinctions had a long history. As far back as the 1750s, Robert Orme 
had entitled a chapter of his account of India, ‘Effeminacy of the 


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Inhabitants of Indostan’. As he wrote, ‘we see throughout India a race 
of men, whose make, physiognomy, and muscular strength convey 
ideas of an effeminacy which surprizes when pursued through such 
numbers of the species, and when compared to the form of the 
European who is making the observation’.*? With the growth of 
empire, gender, like race, helped define the contrast between ruler and 
ruled, and so provided a way to order Britain’s relations with its 
Indian subjects. Throughout, though the two are not identical, the 
categories of gender intersected with those of race. As a result, British 
men, British women, Indian men and Indian women were all fitted for 
distinct roles within the ideology of the Raj. Together they were made 
to enact a set of gendered notions of India’s ‘difference’. Yet these 
distinctions could be sustained only by rigorously containing, even 
disowning, the similarities of gender, of male and female, that cut 
across the hierarchy of race and rule. 

Distinctions based on gender gained an avowedly ‘scientific’ rigor 
with the growth of a powerful domestic ideology in Britain during the 
early nineteenth century. According to this theory, innate and demon- 
strable biological differences defined a fundamental difference 
between male and female. By their very nature women were fragile, 
passive, and emotional, in contrast to men, who were held to be 
strong, active, and intellectual. These differences in the structuring of 
the body, in turn, dictated differing patterns of behaviour for men and 
women. Men were to be active in the public world, competing against 
each other for power and wealth; while women, from the sanctuary of 
the home, were to nurture their husbands and children, and so uphold 
the society’s values. Women possessed great power, for their task was 
the moral regeneration of society; but it was a power that made itself 
felt indirectly, by shaping the consciences of men. 

The existence of empire sharpened these distinctions of gender. By 
its very nature the British imperial experience, as Ashis Nandy has 
written, brought into prominence the ‘masculine’ virtues — such as 
control, self-discipline, and the like - and de-emphasized the ‘femin- 
ine’ virtues, such as tenderness and feeling, which were expressive of 
‘the softer side of human nature’. The everyday life of the British in 
India, with women for the most part secluded, though, as we shall see, 
by no means inactive, in darkened bungalows, and with men engaged 

32 Robert Orme, ‘Effeminacy of the Inhabitants of Indostan’, in Of the Government and 
People of Indostan, pp. 42-43. 


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in the work of empire in court and camp, reinforced the distinctions 
between home and the world, and between the private and the public, 
which lay at the heart of the British domestic ideology. The experience 
of the British in India under the Raj in this way reinvigorated dichoto- 
mies of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which then returned to England to 
nourish further the ideology of separate spheres.*5 

Although domestic ideology defined coherent, if contested, gender 
roles in Britain, the construction of gender within the empire did not 
take shape in any explicit formulation. Rather, theories of gender, 
though forming a consistent set of assumptions and expectations, were 
embedded in the ideology of the Raj in a variety of often only 
half-recognized ways. Hence, each must be examined separately. It is 
necessary to look in turn at British ideas of their own masculinity as 
they sought to ‘rescue’ India’s ‘degraded’ women; at the notion of 
India as a ‘feminized’ land, at once seductive and dangerous; at the 
presumed effeminacy, as Orme described it, of Indian men; and at the 
ambiguous role of the white woman, caught up in the centre of the 
hierarchies of race and gender. For the most part, for obvious reasons, 
the voice that enunciated this vision was not only British but male. 

For the Victorians, as heirs of the historical anthropology of the 
Scottish Enlightenment, the distinctive gender roles of their own 
domestic ideology were markers by which progress in civilization 
everywhere could be measured. The more ‘ennobled’ the position of 
women in a society, the ‘higher’ its civilization. By this measure, not 
surprisingly, India lagged far behind Britain. In contrast to the ‘pure’ 
and ‘modest’ demeanour presumed to define English women, India’s 
women were not ‘ennobled’ by their men but instead ‘degraded’. This 
state of moral degeneration, as we will see, was visibly represented by 
the zenana and the veil. Confined to a life of languid idleness in closed 
rooms, hidden from view, India’s women were seen as suffused with 
an unhealthy sexuality and a disabling passivity. As India’s men, so the 
British conceived, did not properly order their households — much as 
the country’s previous rulers had failed to provide proper governance 
for the society as a whole - the British determined that they themselves 
should act as the protectors of India’s women. In so doing they could 
not only, as they saw it, ‘rescue’ these unfortunate creatures; they 
could also make manifest their own ‘masculine’ character and proclaim 
their moral superiority over the Indian male. 

3 Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy (Delhi, 1983), pp. 31-34. 


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3 Lord William Bentinck, by Richard Westmacott (1835). This full length 
bronze statue of Bentinck, portrayed as aloof and serenely self-confident atop 
a circular drum, announces Britain’s new commitment, recorded in an inscrip- 
tion on the rear of the base, to ‘elevate the moral and intellectual character’ of 
its Indian subjects. In the sati scene an Indian woman, oblivious to the cries of 
her children, is shown as she prepares to mount the pyre. 


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Few of their activities in India gave the British greater satisfaction 
than this vision of themselves as the reformers of Indian morality, 
which left as its legacy a range of enactments from the abolition of sati 
in 1829, through the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, to the 
Age of Consent Act of 1891, and beyond. Though these acts were very 
different in character, none of them immediately affected large 
numbers of people. Satis, for instance, when enumerated in Bengal 
during the 1810s and 1820s, though sufficiently numerous to be 
readily visible at 500 or 600 a year, involved only an infinitesimal 
fraction of the millions of people in that province alone; while 
enforced widowhood and child marriage remained at least as prevalent 
after the enactment of British reform legislation as before. Yet the 
dramatic representation of these ‘evils’ was essential to the self-image 
of the Raj. The statue of Bentinck, for instance, erected soon after his 
departure from India in 1835, praised him for ‘abolishing cruel rites’; 
on the base is depicted an affecting bas-relief of a half-clothed 
woman, her baby pulled from her exposed breast, being led to the 
funeral pyre. (See fig. 3.) None of Bentinck’s other achievements, 
which include the introduction of Western education, gained such 
graphic representation. 

From the earliest days of the Raj sati compelled widespread atten- 
tion. Despite its infrequent occurrence, the fascination with this event 
is not surprising. With its immolation of a living woman in a raging 
fire, sati, even more than the public execution, catered to the English 
obsession with death as spectacle. In the British imagination the event 
was also highly sexualized. The scene on Bentinck’s statue evoked a 
salacious mixture of sex and violence, for it showed the woman’s sari 
slipping from her hips and her bare breasts, now rubbed smooth, 
pushing forward on the curved pedestal at the centre of the com- 
position, while the governor-general presided majestically above. It 
was easy, as well, to conceive of sati as emblematic of much that was 
wrong with Indian society. Whether the widow walked by herself in a 
trance-like state onto the pyre or was pushed from behind by relatives 
and priests, the act of sati represented the Indian woman as the helpless 
victim of a blood-thirsty and superstitious faith. India, sati seemed to 
say, was at once an exotic and a barbarous land. 

Yet the representation of sati as an embodiment of India’s difference 
could succeed only by the suppression of similarity. This was not an 
easy task. In the late eighteenth century, and in the first years of the 


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pie anita a 5g fos!” i Sense preren /Cmvenete: 



Ce te eis 

errs eres 

os Aurving bb Y . ) 
onthe ¢ Veatch of her 

— HusBanD. 
» ee = 

SS a 

Pbbached by Mex” Hoge Nt Poternacter Sve kewtove 

4 An Indian Woman Burning Herself on the Death of her Husband (date 
and author unknown, but probably c. 1810). A product of the late eighteenth 
and early-nineteenth-century romanticized depiction of the Hindu widow’s 
self-immolation as a heroic act, this drawing shows the widow, as the funeral 
pyre is lit, pouring oil over herself, while three British officers calmly watch 
from on horseback. 


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nineteenth, the British had frequently romanticized, as an ideal of 
conjugal fidelity, the self-sacrifice of the bereaved widow who selfles- 
sly braved the flames. Several paintings even show the widow as a 
heroic figure nobly transcending death in the manner of Captain Cook 
in Hawaii. (See fig. 4.) Nineteenth-century domestic ideology too, as it 
took shape in the 1810s and 1820s, presented the ideal woman as not 
only moral and innocent, but imbued with a spirit of self-renunciation. 
She was not to think of ‘self-development’, but was meant to sacrifice 
herself for her ‘high and lofty mission’ in society. For the British 
themselves, however, such female ‘self-renunciation’ was not meant to 
be that of the sati who followed her husband onto the pyre. From this 
act the British recoiled in horror. It was, nevertheless, as the ultimate 
‘self-sacrifice’, not so far removed from the ‘self-abasement’ or ‘self- 
annihilation’ that, especially for feminist critics, defined the core of the 
domestic ideology. In a Britain where gender roles were contested, the 
existence of a connection between Indian self-immolation and the 
ideals of domesticity could not be avowed. To the contrary, only a 
vigorous attack on sati could effectively deny such similarities by 
displacing them onto an India seen as barbaric and inhumane. The 
suppression of sati had to be made an affirmation of Britain’s superio- 
rity, and with it that of Christian civilization. Such a task fell with 
special urgency upon evangelicals, for they had played a central role in 
creating the notion of women as morally pure and self-sacrificing. 
Hence, from the outset, they took the lead in the campaign against sati, 
and they used the representation of its ‘horrors’ to induce English 
audiences to support evangelicalism. In time, as a ‘moral’ India was 
constructed in accordance with the ideals of Victorian liberalism, its 
women would presumably adopt an ‘appropriate’ mode of self- 
sacrifice — as ‘angels in the house’, not as victims upon the pyre. 
Among British officials in India a different perspective informed the 
campaign against widow burning. Unlike the British at home, they 
sought to challenge sati from within Indian tradition, and so make 
themselves the masters of that tradition. In India sati’s opponents and 
supporters alike accepted the assumption, a product in large part of 
late eighteenth-century Orientalist scholarship, that India was a 
society ruled by ‘scripture’ and the self-interest of Brahmins, and that 
its people were so tightly bound by the constraints of religion that 
they possessed little independent agency. Thus, on the one hand, those 
who opposed the abolition of sati argued that the practice was a 


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cherished element of the Hindu religion with which it would be 
unwise, if not foolhardy, to interfere; while those who supported 
abolition equally denied any intention of introducing into India 
‘modernizing’ notions of ‘individual rights’. Instead of imposing out- 
right their own ideals, so Bentinck and his supporters argued, they 
sought only to establish a ‘purer morality’ within forms of legitimation 
shaped by a vision of Britain as an indigenous Indian ruler. As 
Bentinck said, disavowing any intent to convert Indians to Chris- 
tianity, ‘I write and feel as a legislator for the Hindus and as I believe 
many enlightened Hindus think and feel.’ Authority for suppression 
had thus to be found in Brahmanic ‘scripture’. The British approached 
various pandits, and from them secured interpretations of selected 
Sanskrit texts which they used to support a claim that sati was not an 
essential part of the Hindu religion. In either case, the will of the 
widow mattered not at all; what was ‘proper’ was what could be 
defined as ‘scriptural’. Bentinck’s decision to outlaw sati was there- 
fore, as he saw it, a ‘restorative act’ meant to enable Indians to act 
according to the ‘purest’ precepts of their religion. In practice, of 
course, this ‘restoration’ involved the introduction of ‘modern’, which 
is to say colonial, notions of the country’s past and its religion. In the 
process too, not surprisingly, Hinduism was meant to give way to a 
‘higher’ religion.*4 

The central assumptions of the sati debate continued in the later- 
Victorian era to inform legislation for the reform of Indian morals. 
Always, as in the case of sati, discussion of the condition of Indian 
women involved an outraged expression of horror at Indian degra- 
dation, and the consequent need for the British to save the Indians 
from themselves. The 1891 Age of Consent Act, for instance, which 
prohibited the consummation of marriage for girls below the age of 
twelve, provided an opportunity, as Mrinalini Sinha has written, for 
the British to ‘demonstrate their liberal intentions in the face of the 
“uncivilized” and “‘unmanly”’ practices of the Bengalis’.>> Similarly, in 
these later discussions, whether of widow remarriage or the age of 
marriage, ‘scripture’ always mattered more than custom, with the 
oldest texts accorded the greatest authenticity. At the same time, while 

34 Lata Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, in Kumkum 
Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (eds.), Recasting Women (New Delhi, 1989), pp. 88-126. 

35 Mrinalini Sinha, ‘The Age of Consent Act’, in Tony Stewart (ed.), Shaping Bengali 
Worlds, Public and Private (East Lansing, 1989). 


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religion was seen as permeating Hindu society, those practices the 
British sought to discountenance were defined as marginal to, if not 
wholly outside, its core traditions. As the viceroy, Lord Lansdowne, 
told the legislative council in the Age of Consent debate, early con- 
summation of marriage was not one of the ‘great fundamental prin- 
ciples’ of the Hindu religion, but one of a number of ‘subsidiary beliefs 
and accretionary dogmas which have accidentally grown up’ around it. 

Much in this reformist ideology was internally inconsistent, if not 
contradictory. Although the British looked to ancient texts to define 
their ideal Hindu society, in fact the practice of the courts, inasmuch as 
they enforced Brahminical norms, encouraged precisely the kind of 
behaviour, such as avoidance of widow remarriage, that the govern- 
ment sought to discourage through its legislation. Similarly, although 
not accorded an independent voice of their own, Indian women were 
viewed at one and the same time as the passive vessels of ‘tradition’, 
and the site on which colonial officials, and with them upper-caste 
Hindu reformers, proposed to constitute a reformed society more 
closely fitted to Victorian ideals. Despite their avowed concern to 
avoid unsettling Indian religious belief, British reformers were in no 
doubt that there existed an absolute standard of ‘morality’, and that 
where, as Lansdowne insisted in the debate on the Age of Consent act, 
‘religion’ and ‘morality’ were in conflict, the former had to give way. 
In their vision of themselves as moral reformers, as in their attitude 
towards Indian society more generally, the British could not escape 
the enduring contradiction between their self-imposed ‘civilizing 
mission’, with its ideal of an India remade in Britain’s image, and their 
insistence upon maintaining an imagined India of enduring ‘differ- 

As India’s Hindu women, so the British conceived, were degraded 
by their sexuality and their vulnerability to priestly influence, so too 
was their religion itself feminized in its character. Above all, the 
British looked on in horror at a Hinduism that venerated female deities 
imagined as vicious and licentious in nature, such as Kali. Further, 
many Hindu devotional practices, especially those of India’s 

36 Rosalind O’Hanlon, ‘Issues of Widowhood: Gender and Resistance in Colonial Western 
India’, in D. Haynes and G. Prakash (eds.), Contesting Power (California, 1991), 
pp. 62-108; Lucy Carroll, ‘Law, Custom, and Statutory Social Reform: The Hindu 
Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol. 20 
(1983), pp. 363-88; Proceedings of the Imperial Legislative Council, vol. 30, 19 March 
1891, pp. 146~50. 


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peasantry, were stigmatized as ‘mother goddess’ cults. Drawing on the 
gender stereotypes of Victorian England, M. Monier-Williams 
described such ‘guardian mothers’ as ‘more easily propitiated by 
prayer, flattery, and offerings’, yet ‘more irritable, uncertain, and 
wayward in her temper’ than male salvation gods. At the same time, 
such deities, related, some thought, to Mesopotamian mother- 
goddesses, expressed the innate degeneracy characteristic of Dravidian 
peoples. Together, these characterizations, as they linked the discour- 
ses of race and gender, defined for the British a religion of unashamed 
sensuality and shallow emotionalism. This system of belief, by its very 
nature, stood in sharp contrast to the Protestant British conception of 
Christianity. Lacking the coherent belief and principled conviction 
that was taken to mark Christianity, Hinduism was of necessity 
effeminate because it was degraded, and degraded because it was 
effeminate. The Brahmin priesthood alone exercised authority within 
the religion. But theirs was not the self-mastered command of the 
properly masculine elite. It was only the guileful concealment and 
dissimulation of the weak.*” 

The contrast between India’s degraded sensuality and the masterly 
redemption of the British nourished a larger, enduring, opposition 
between an ordering Europe and a feminized ‘Orient’. Such an Orient, 
with its erotically charged excitation, was perhaps most visibly 
manifested in the French painting of the imagined world of the harem 
and the shapely figure of the odalisque. Though John Frederick Lewis 
created such scenes for English audiences, he, with the French ‘Orien- 
talist’? painters, worked almost exclusively in the Middle East. In 
paintings of India, though the landscape was often evoked in soft and 
yielding tones, representations of the erotic were infrequent, and 
confined for the most part to scenes of the ‘nautch’, or dance. Colonial 
officials, especially in the early years of British rule, participated as 
observers in dance performances given by Indians; and to some degree 
the ‘nautch’ dancer in colonial painting can be seen as a sexual being 
presented for the privileged, and controlling, gaze of the European 
male viewer. Yet the British response to Indian dance, particularly in 
Victorian times, was ambivalent. Many, like G.O. Trevelyan, found 
the nautch ‘extravagantly dull’, while others reported that the dancers 
were, ‘as usual, ugly’. At best, as one observer recounted a visit to 
Lucknow, ‘the dancer slinks to and fro with panther steps on her white 

37 Inden, Imagining India, pp. 115-22. 


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cloth, raises her eyes to the heavens before closing them to smack her 
lips together, and sings verses from a sleepy lullaby, sways beneath her 
veils, stretches out her arms, writhing like a serpent in paradise until 
the highlight of her act is over, and another girl, more supple even than 
her ... takes her place and sways to and fro in her turn’.>8 

In the creation of a feminized India the figure of the prostitute took 
centre stage. For the British, the prostitute, alluring and dangerous, at 
once symbolized India’s degradation and generated a set of practical 
problems of regulation and control. As a result, in contrast to the 
voyeurism common to the male European vision of the Middle East, 
where the British, on the outside looking in, were free of the day-to- 
day responsibility of maintaining order, in colonial India the play of 
male erotic fantasies had for the most part to be contained within the 
confines of a moralized imperial authority. Even so, an India seen as 
suffused with sensuality offered ample scope for the imagination; and 
the imagination, in its turn, often shaped administrative action. One 
arena, not surprisingly, in which the existence of prostitution revealed 
itself was the Hindu religion. There it took the shape of the devadasis, 
women married to a god and dedicated to his service in the temple. 
Unable, or unwilling, to conceive of a religious system in which the 
erotic and the spiritual could be joined together, the British called this 
practice ‘temple prostitution’. Through the use of such a term the 
unimaginable could be contained, and so controlled, and appropriate 
righteous indignation mounted against its existence. Even though a 
Hindu petitioner in Madras claimed that girls dedicated to a temple 
lead a life ‘very similar with that class of females called nuns in Roman 
Catholic churches’, while British critics from their side captiously 
compared the ‘immorality’ of such women with that of ‘ballet-girls’ on 
the London stage, the Indian authorities insisted on India’s essential 
difference. Temple prostitution, they argued self-righteously, was 
‘equally immoral and immemorial’. Unlike English ballet girls, who 
sometimes ‘preserve their virtue in spite of trials and temptations’, in 
‘the case of the pagoda girl prostitution is the object of her dedication 
to the temple, and practice it she must to the end of her existence’.*” 

Anxiety about the prostitute loomed largest in connection with the 
military. As British troops in India were not allowed to marry, and the 

38 Sten Nilsson and Narayani Gupta (eds.), The Painter’s Eye: Egron Lundgren and India 
(Stockholm, 1992), p. 128. 
39 See correspondence in NAI Home Judl.-B, May 1874, no. 169-74. 


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scourge of venereal disease regularly incapacitated large numbers of 
soldiers, the military authorities endeavoured to make available in 
cantonments a supply of prostitutes subject to medical inspection. 
This policy, formalized in the Contagious Diseases Act of 1868, 
modelled upon that in force for British ports, brought down upon the 
government the wrath of moralists at home, who disliked the official 
recognition of prostitution which these acts implied. Their opposition, 
together with that of British feminists, secured the reluctant repeal of 
both the British and the Indian Acts by 1888, although the Indian 
military authorities, ever anxious to contain the spread of venereal 
disease, managed to circumvent much of the effect of repeal by the 
promulgation of ‘sanitary’ regulations for cantonment areas.‘° 

More was at stake in these controversies, however, than the simple 
provision of prostitutes for soldiers. Especially when contrasted with 
the comparable British acts, the Indian regulations make clear how the 
treatment of Indian prostitutes at once constituted, and was informed 
by, assumptions about enduring Indian ‘difference’. In Britain, for 
instance, moral reformers, with their feminist allies, fought for the 
right of women, even as prostitutes, to be free of coerced bodily 
searches and registration; and they endeavoured to ‘rescue’ ‘fallen 
women’ by exhortation and recuperative treatment. No such concern 
for women’s civil liberties cumbered the Indian debates, nor was there 
talk of redemption or ‘rescue’. The Indian reformers were concerned 
only to secure an appearance of ‘purity’ in the behaviour of the British 
themselves. Prostitution itself mattered only where European women 
were involved, for their ‘immoral’ behaviour, by inverting the ‘proper’ 
hierarchies of race and gender, would bring discredit on the Raj. The 
fate of the common Indian prostitute evoked no interest. Prostitution 
was, after all, so the British commonly believed, an hereditary caste 
profession, recognized in the Hindu law books. 

Furthermore, the Indian acts extended to major urban areas 
throughout the country, not just to selected ports, and hence implied 
that prostitution was a widely spread menace to the security of the Raj. 
While ‘respectable’ British women might openly traverse the city 
streets, if only in certain times and places, no such secure public arena 
existed for her Indian counterpart. Almost any Indian woman outside 
the seclusion of the zenana could thus potentially be suspect as a 

4° Kenneth Ballhatchet, Race, Sex, and Class Under the Raj: Imperial Attitudes and Policies 
and their Critics, 1793-1905 (London, 1980), especially chapters 1-3. 


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prostitute, and a bearer of disease. As Lord Kitchener, the com- 
mander-in-chief, warned his troops in 1905, ‘the common women as 
well as the regular prostitutes in India are all more or less infected with 
disease.’ Venereal disease in India was regarded, moreover, as not just 
an unfortunate infection, but rather as a symptom of a ‘diseased’ 
society. As Kitchener wrote, ‘Syphilis contracted by Europeans from 
Asiatic women is much more severe than that contracted in England.’ 
It assumes, he continued, ‘a horrible, loathsome and often fatal form’; 
and he proceeded to list an array of frightening symptoms, above all 
that of the body rotted and eaten away by ‘slow, cankerous, and 
stinking ulcerations’. India was a land in which sexuality, disease, and 
degradation were linked together, and inscribed on the bodies of its 

The notion of a sexualized India was not, of course, exhausted by 
the figure of the prostitute. As we shall see later, in discussing Rudyard 
Kipling’s Indian stories, the seductive attraction of India was by no 
means wholly contained by its enmeshment in the administrative 
concerns of the Raj. Furthermore, the contradiction between the 
vision of the prostitute as a contaminated being, and the urgency with 
which the government endeavoured to make prostitutes available to its 
soldiers, pointed to another fear, unacknowledged but haunting — that 
of homosexuality. Such an ‘effeminate’ pattern of behaviour among 
the members of the ruling race had to be avoided at all costs. Never- 
theless, in the hyper-masculine society of the Raj, a barely suppressed 
homosexual tension can be seen shaping much of the erotic attraction 
of India. Such was the case, above all, in the British association with 
the ‘martial’ tribes of the Frontier. There alone, one might argue, did 
the British find in India a sense of excitement comparable to that 
aroused by the veil and the harem of the Middle East. 

A society defined by sensual indulgence created, in the British view, 
‘effeminate’ men as well as ‘degraded’ women. Indeed, the very oppo- 
sition of a ‘feminized’ India to a ‘masculine’ Britain had as a central 
object the devaluing of the Indian male. Insofar as the British claimed 
for themselves the right to protect Indian women from the evil effects 
of ‘tradition’, Hindu males, denied a claim on ‘masculinity’, were 
reduced to a helpless ineffectuality. The growth of the idea of Indian 
‘effeminacy’ can be traced in part to eighteenth-century theories of 

41 Philippa Levine, “Venereal Disease, Prostitution and the Politics of Empire: The Case of 
British India’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 4 (1994), pp. 579-602. 


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climatic determinism, in which heat and humidity were seen as con- 
spiring to subvert manliness, resolve, and courage. As Orme wrote, 
‘Satisfied with the present sense of ease, the inhabitant of Indostan has 
no conception of anything salutary in the use of exercise.’ Diet 
reinforced this preference, for the Indian, in Orme’s view, ate only 
rice, which was an ‘easily digestible’ food, obtained with little labour, 
and thus ‘the only proper one for such an effeminate race’. The most 
famous depiction of the debilitating effect of India’s climate is surely 
that of Macaulay, who wrote of the languor and indolence produced 
by the ‘constant vapour bath’ in which the Bengali spent his days. The 
result, not surprisingly, was that his ‘physical organisation’ was ‘feeble 
even to effeminacy’. There had never perhaps existed, Macaulay tellin- 
gly concluded, ‘a people so thoroughly fitted by habit for a foreign 
yoke’. Reprinting this passage in his authoritative India some fifty 
years later, John Strachey concurred. Bengal remained as Macaulay 
had represented it.* 

The experience of Bengal, the area which they conquered first and 
knew best, powerfully shaped British views of Indian effeminacy. Not 
only the climate, but much in Bengali dress and customs confirmed 
this stereotype. The Bengali male’s voluminous dhoti could easily be 
deprecated as a woman’s dress; Bengalis, perhaps more than those of 
other regions, were devoted to female deities, among them Kali and 
Radha; and male devotees sometimes assumed the dress and demea- 
nour of women as a mark of their submission to the god. In all of this, 
of course, the British, knowing little and caring less about Bengali 
belief, saw what they wished to see. Conquest itself reinforced this 
gender stereotyping. If not a land of women, for the ‘sturdy’ peasant 
gained British respect, India was a land ruled by women, or rather 
womanly men, who ran from battle, and so deserved their subjugation. 
To be sure, as their conquests reached northern India, the British 
encountered groups whom, as we shall see in chapter 4, they called 
‘martial races’. But praise of Punjabi ‘manliness’ did not eradicate the 
stereotype of Indian effeminacy. It only carved out an exception, 
which cast the larger Indian, and especially Bengali, ‘effeminacy’ ever 
more sharply into relief. 

Within Bengal the British detested, above all, the English-educated 
Indians, known collectively as ‘babus’. This term of respect among 
Indians, comparable to that of ‘gentleman’ in Britain, became in 
42 Orme, People of Indostan, pp. 42-45; Strachey, India, pp. 334-35. 


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British usage a title of disparagement denoting those, unworthy of 
respect, who sought to ape British ways. Behind this condescension 
lay unvoiced, anxious fears. By his mimicry of English manners, the 
babu reminded the British of a similarity they sought always to 
disavow; and, steeped in English liberalism, he posed by implication, if 
not by outright assertion, a challenge to the legitimacy of the Raj. As 
the seductive female had to be repudiated, so too, even more urgently, 
had the educated Indian male to be contained within the gender 
stereotype that portrayed him as no more than a caricature 
Englishman. He might be, as Kipling wrote in his story “The Head of 
the District’, filled with ‘much curious book-knowledge of bump- 
suppers, cricket-matches, hunting-runs and other unholy sports of the 
alien’; but his ‘extraordinary effeminacy’ made it unnecessary to treat 
seriously his ‘political declamations’. Possessed of manly self-control, 
the Englishman alone stood apart from, and so could legitimately rule, 
the peoples of India. 

Characterization of the Indian male, especially the English-educated 
Bengali, as ‘effeminate’ gained further strength from Indian opposition 
to such measures as the Age of Consent Act. While many educated 
Indians, from Rammohun Roy onward, had joined the British in 
seeking reformation of Hindu society, others, as early as the time of 
the sati debate, sought to exclude the colonial government from what 
they regarded as their domestic and religious affairs so that they might 
carve out an autonomous arena which they could call their own. At the 
same time, educated Indians often accepted the British insistence upon 
a connection between the ‘status of women and that of the country in 
general’. The Hindu of Madras was even prepared to admit, as its 
editors announced on 15 September 1890, that Britain’s ‘power and 
prosperity’ dated from ‘the time when women were accorded a higher 
status than is implied in the present Hindu conception of women’s 
privileges and rights’. Hence, questions of the proper role for women, 
and of men’s responsibilities toward women, evoked strong feelings 
on all sides. 

By 1890, with the proposal to prohibit consummation of marriage 
for girls under the age of twelve, hostility to British interference had 
spread across India from Maharashtra, where the nationalist leader 
B.G. Tilak took the lead in mobilizing public opinion, to Bengal. 
Opposition was most intense in Bengal because the educated classes 
there commonly practised, in the garbhadan ceremony, consum- 


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mation of marriage at the time of a girl’s puberty. Appalled, the British 
sought explanations for this ‘debased’ sexual behaviour in a variety of 
racial and climatic factors, including most prominently, as the secre- 
tary of the Calcutta Public Health Society put it, the fact that Bengalis 
were not, like the residents of northern India, a ‘more purely Aryan 
population’. Whatever the cause, however, for the British the effects of 
this early sexual activity were readily apparent in the ‘degeneracy and 
deterioration’ of Bengali society. Hence, opposition to raising the age 
of consent only strengthened their conviction that Indian men, above 
all Bengalis, were weak and ‘voluptuous’, and lacked ‘manly self- 
control’. The argument was, of course, circular: for not only were 
effeminate men prone to premature sexual intercourse, but effemi- 
nacy, and with it the larger ‘enervation’ of the people, was itself a 
product of ‘unnatural’ early sexuality. In any case, such ‘unmanly’ 
men, like women, required the protection of a paternal superior. 

The British refused to accept as legitimate not only arguments based 
on the character of the garbhadan as a religious ceremony, but those 
grounded in the belief, widespread among Indian men, that female 
sexual desire, if not satisfied within marriage immediately after 
puberty, would seek ‘some other course’ to satisfy its needs. For the 
British, female sexuality, at least among respectable women, simply 
was not supposed to exist. Similarly, Bengali protests that their ‘male 
honour’ was challenged by British infringements on their rights as 
husbands had to be ignored: not, of course, because the British refused 
to accept the notion of male superiority, but because the Bengali could 
not be allowed to claim more than a ‘caricature’ of masculinity. Even 
though it was clear from the outset that the Age of Consent Act could 
not be effectively enforced - the government openly acknowledged 
that its effect would be ‘mainly educative’ — this enactment neverthe- 
less enabled the British effectively to display their superiority as rulers 
who were at once ‘masculine’ and moral. 

The discourse on gender in colonial India had to accommodate 
English women as well as English men. Although women had no 
formal place as rulers in the colonial order, Victorian ideology, with its 
exaggerated opposition of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, shaped a central 
place for them, as sign and signifier, in the discourse of colonialism. 
Pure and virtuous, superior to ‘degraded’ colonial races of either sex, 

43 Sinha, ‘Age of Consent Act’; and Correspondence relating to the Act in NAI Home Judl., 
October 1890, no. 210-13, and January 1891, no. 1~42. 


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5 The Magistrate’s Wife, from G. F. Atkinson, Curry and Rice ... or the 
Ingredients of Social Life at our Station in India (1859). This drawing 
represents the enduringly popular vision of the English woman in India, 
surrounded by servants, as idle and self-indulgent. 

the Englishwoman was meant to enact Britain’s moral superiority. In 
so doing, her ‘true’ femininity showed forth most visibly in contrast to 
that of the Indian zenana woman. Hardly less than a prostitute, so the 
British conceived, the secluded woman of the zenana typified India’s 
moral degeneracy in her behaviour. Not only did she live a life of 
idleness in closed and unhealthy rooms, but her entire existence was 
seen by many observers as suffused with sensuality. The ‘sexual 
function’, as Flora Annie Steel wrote, was necessarily ‘the central topic 
of lives confined to twelve square feet of roof’.“4 Ironically, even the 
Indian woman’s veil, which for her male relatives signified her inviola- 
bility, and for the woman herself, as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had 
appreciated long before, made possible an exhilarating freedom of 

4# Flora Annie Steel, The Garden of Fidelity: The Autobiography of Flora Annie Steel, 
1847-1929 (London, 1930), pp. 246-47. 


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movement, suggested to the British what it was meant to hide — her 
sexuality. The English woman, by contrast, veiled in modesty, 
remained vigorous but delicate, active but demure. (See fig. 5.) 

In these circumstances British women established space for them- 
selves in a variety of ways — by writing, by travelling, and, most 
commonly, by undertaking religious and philanthropic activity. Such 
activity, seen as helping their ‘degraded’ colonial sisters, appealed 
especially to liberal Victorian feminists, for it gave them scope for 
independent action, without presenting a frontal challenge to the 
ideologies of either domesticity or empire. Nonetheless, such activity 
inevitably blurred gender roles. The ‘lady missionary’, or the ‘lady 
doctor’, was needed because she alone could visit the women’s quar- 
ters of Indian homes and care for Indian women. Yet she ran the risk 
by virtue of her independent movement of being implicated in ‘indeli- 
cate’ behaviour with men, or simply of being seen as acting ‘improp- 
erly’. The negotiation of such conflicting demands was never easy. 
Most successful perhaps was Florence Nightingale, who, as she 
created a nursing corps, acted out a dominant ‘masculine’ role in the 
imperial arena, yet as the nurturing ‘lady with the lamp’ participated in 
the creation of a ‘mythic’ figure compatible with Victorian domestic 
ideology. In the process she could further represent an aggressive 
English imperialism in the guise of a mother’s curative care for the 
‘sickly child’ that was India.*° 

Even the English woman who did not venture outside her bunga- 
low, as we shall see later, could not wholly escape a similar conflict. 
While embodying the ideals of Victorian womanhood, she had also in 
practice to enact within the bungalow a role similar to the one her 
husband played outside — that of a masculine assertion of ordering 
rationality in the face of an India where disease and disorder raged 
unchecked. This was especially evident in the disciplining of Indian 
servants, who, ‘accustomed to it for thousands of years’, as Flora 
Annie Steel wrote, needed to be treated firmly. By pitting against each 
other the extremes of decorative seclusion and vigorous activity, the 
female roles set out within the Raj enforced upon the white woman 
exceptional tensions of race and gender. Caught between masculine 
assertion and feminine modesty, between identification with English 
men and with Indian women, the English woman, within the private 

45 Mary Poovey, Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian 
England (Chicago, 1988), chapter 6. 


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sphere she presided over, bore the unenviable responsibility — what 
one may call the ‘white woman’s burden’ — of both representing the 
virtues of domesticity and extending the authority of the Raj. 

Some few English women sought to create a space for female 
authority within an India free of colonial domination. The arena in 
which this took place was the practice of spiritualism. Although 
English spiritualists sought to portray themselves as properly ‘femin- 
ine’, still by its very nature female mediumship, or spirit possession, as 
Alex Owen has put it, ‘effected a truly radical subversion’ of nine- 
teenth-century femininity.*¢ Such ‘subversion’ came to encompass 
India with the founding in 1875 of the Theosophical Society. Through 
a set of occult practices drawn in large part from Hinduism, women 
like Madame Blavatsky, and subsequently Annie Besant, defiantly 
asserted a power of their own. Building upon, but inverting, the 
stereotypes which depreciated India as a ‘spiritual’ land, and women as 
‘religious’, they challenged the accepted discourses of both empire and 
gender. Establishing the headquarters of the Theosophical Society at 
Adyar, near Madras, Blavatsky openly consorted on an equal footing 
with Indian males, whom she accepted as disciples; while Besant, with 
her support of Home Rule in the early decades of the twentieth 
century, extended the challenge from the realm of the spirits to that of 
nationalist politics. In so doing these women gave the creation of 
‘difference’ a new meaning — as a set of values that could be used 
against the Raj as well as on its behalf. Nor was it long before Indians 
were to do the same, above all under the leadership of Gandhi, as he 
appropriated for the purposes of the freedom struggle the ‘feminine’ 
virtues assigned to India by the Raj. Such strategies of inversion 
nevertheless invigorated, rather than overturned, the gendered 
assumptions that had fortified the Raj. 

Together with the construction of a distinctive history that sus- 
tained them, ideas of gender and race, then, were employed to consti- 
tute a set of fundamental differences between India and England. 
There existed a ‘changeless’ India inhabiting a past that endured in the 
present; an India of racial ‘decline’ marked by the triumph of Dravi- 
dianism and the anarchy of the eighteenth century; and an India of a 
gendered ‘effeminacy’ which made its women and men alike depend- 
ent on a benevolent British ‘masculinity’. Each of these descriptions of 
India’s difference had its own theoretical, even ‘scientific’, rationale; 
46 Alex Owen, The Darkened Room (Philadelphia, 1990), chapters 1 and 8. 


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each too was rent with deep contradictions both within itself, and in 
relation to the others. Above all, race and gender provided expla- 
nations of very different sorts for India’s plight. The theory of racial 
decline announced a process of irreversible physical deterioration 
brought about by the mixing of blood, while the degeneracy defined 
by effeminacy was one of character and morals. 

In each case the creation of difference involved an acknowledge- 
ment, either avowed or implicit, of similarity as well as of difference. 
These similarities were then reconstituted to secure the results which 
the British required of them. Least troubling was Aryan racial theory. 
Though it implicated the British with the Indians in a common origin, 
the similarities were sufficiently distant, and India’s subseqent history 
of ‘decline’ sufficiently convincing, that, whether examined in terms of 
language, architecture, or religion, India’s racial history clearly stood 
apart from that of Britain. This distance was less apparent in the 
context of the village community and Indian feudalism. The ideal of 
the village community, in particular, resonated with nostalgia for the 
‘world we have lost’. Medievalism too was an English category 
imposed upon India to serve the requirements of English nostalgia as 
much as those of empire. Hence, this vision of India’s past could not 
escape being caught up in a conflict between the need to ‘civilize’ 
India, and the opposing desire to preserve a still ‘medieval’ land. As the 
elements of this ‘traditional’ India were fitted into the working of the 
Raj, as we will see in chapter 4, they consorted uneasily with a 
commitment to progress which could not be disowned without disa- 
vowing the empire itself. 

The British were much less willing to accommodate similarities of 
gender than of race or history. In part this was because gender 
distinctions were tangled in deeply seated British self-perceptions. 
Unlike Aryan racial theory, where similarities could be acknowledged 
and then shaped to the needs of empire, contested notions of women’s 
roles in Britain, shaped by ideals of purity and domesticity, made 
impossible any acknowledgement of a shared female sexuality or the 
larger implications of women’s self-sacrifice. Similarly, the reluctance 
of British men to acknowledge the feminine side of their own nature, 
or to accord Indian men more than a caricatured masculinity, meant 
that similarities of gender among males were consistently masked or 
denied. At once psychologically and politically threatening, any 
avowal of such shared ties was unthinkable. Conceptions of gender 


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therefore found expression not so much in a coherent ideology as in 
the ways they were enacted in British relations with their Indian 
subjects. Despite their inherent contradictions, however, all these 
varied notions of Indian ‘difference’ were made to fit together; and all 
alike helped to define the British as a ‘superior’ race. Sustained by 
Victorian ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ virtues, they possessed an incon- 
testable right to rule over India’s peoples. 

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The strategies devised by the British to comprehend India were never 
simply intellectual exercises, nor were they meant only in some general 
way to justify British rule over the subcontinent. Always these the- 
ories, whether of race or gender, of an unchanging or of a feudal India, 
found meaning as they were used to order India’s peoples and their 
past. Through them what the British conceived of as India’s enduring 
difference was given shape in administrative practice. This process of 
ordering India was not driven wholly by political objectives. It was 
also part of the larger Enlightenment endeavour, by observation and 
study, to understand the world outside Europe, as Europeans came to 
know it more fully. A relentless need to count and classify everything 
they encountered defined much Victorian intellectual activity. For the 
most part too, as they set out to order the peoples who inhabited their 
new Indian dominion, the British sought to fit the categories they used 
to the society they purported to describe. Indeed, Indians themselves, 
especially the Brahmin informants and assistants who worked with the 
British, by the information they provided shaped much of the ethno- 
graphic project. Still, under the Raj the knowledge the British amassed 
can not be separated from its role in the successful working of colonial 
rule. India was ‘known’ in ways that would sustain a system of 
colonial authority, and through categories that made it fundamentally 
different from Europe. 

The theories of ‘difference’ the British devised, as we have seen, 
despite their claims to scientific precision, were never wholly coher- 
ent, nor were they free of internal contradiction. As they were 
deployed by India’s colonial administrators, these contradictions 
became ever more difficult to contain. Often mutually inconsistent 
theories were cobbled together to achieve particular political purposes, 
and controversy frequently erupted over how best to fit the ungainly 
facts of India’s social order into the ‘proper’ modes of explanation. 
Inevitably, the endeavour to create a coherent social order involved the 
creation everywhere of what could only be called ‘exceptions’. 
Furthermore, as the colonial sociology of India was tied to a system of 


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power, the British necessarily eschewed at once those categories which 
would announce India’s similarity to Britain and those which might 
threaten the colonial order. To be sure, classificatory schemes familiar 
to the British at home were not entirely absent. Occupation, for 
instance, played an important role in the British ordering of Indian 
society. Nevertheless, categories meant to denote India’s difference, 
above all those of caste, community, and tribe, were placed at the heart 
of the country’s social system. Class, by contrast, which Victorian 
Englishmen regarded as the great divide in their own society, was 
nowhere to be found in British accounts of India’s peoples. Despite its 
inconsistencies and its subordination to the needs of colonial rule, the 
British ethnographic enterprise had far-reaching consequences, for 
these various categories — of caste and community, of race and sect — 
informed the ways in which the British, and in time the Indians 
themselves, conceived of the basic structures of their society. 


Initially, as they first came to know India in the late-eighteenth and 
early-nineteenth centuries, the British described its peoples through a 
variety of classificatory systems in which occupational and caste rank- 
ings jostled with one other. There was unanimity on little more than 
the superior position of the Brahmin. Such views gained force from the 
textual studies of the early Oriental scholars, who adopted as their 
own the Brahminical view of India as a land whose peoples were 
forever fixed into positions defined by the four great varna categories 
of Brahmin, ksatriya, vaisya, and sudra, with the untouchables set 
beneath them all. By the turn of the nineteenth century, however, 
above all in the wake of the conquests of Lord Wellesley, when the 
British began to make their way into the Indian countryside, direct 
observation began to assume greater importance in the gathering of 
information on Indian society. The extensive tours of Francis Bucha- 
nan through Mysore and eastern India, and of Colin Mackenzie 
throughout southern India, can be said to have inaugurated the era of 
‘scientific’ understanding of India based on detailed local knowledge. 

Both Buchanan and Mackenzie amassed vast amounts of infor- 
mation on the working of Indian society. In his survey of Bihar, 
Buchanan collected statistics on housing, health, occupation, family 
size, and education, among other subjects, and even attempted to 


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6 Detail from A Company Officer About to Sketch a Ruined Temple, in the 
collection of Colin Mackenzie, c. 1810. Emblematic of the British determi- 
nation to master India, this drawing shows a massive, once richly ornamented 
temple, now in ruins, with a tree rending the stone structure. A British officer, 
perhaps Mackenzie, with native assistants bearing a portfolio, ink, and a chair, 
has come to draw the ruined temple and so preserve it from India’s inexorable 

estimate standards of living for various classes of labourers. So detailed 
are his statistics that modern researchers have sought to use them as a 
baseline from which to measure changes in economic well-being in the 
subsequent colonial era. In similar fashion, with the help of Brahmin 
assistants, Mackenzie collected local histories, religious and philo- 
sophical texts, coins, images, and antiquities, and made extensive plans 
and drawings wherever he went. Mackenzie’s collecting enthusiasms 
far exceeded even the requirements of the colonial state, which 
remained always dubious of the value of his vast hordes of material. 
Although his collections announced Britain’s control over India, 


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Mackenzie’s activities participated as much in the omnivorous empiri- 
cism characteristic of nineteenth-century British amateur science. (See 
fig. 6.) 

Neither Buchanan nor Mackenzie, as they toured India, paid much 
attention to what was later to define India’s distinctiveness — the caste 
system. References to caste in the work of both men are haphazard and 
unsystematic. For Buchanan occupation largely defined the nature of 
caste, while Mackenzie’s local histories for the most part recount the 
origins and doings of the chiefs and rajas of southern India, not its 
castes. The British in India in these years of discovery also commis- 
sioned extensive collections of drawings of various castes and peoples 
of India. But these too, informed by romanticism and the cult of the 
picturesque, sought primarily to capture the likenesses of colourfully 
dressed soldiers and courtiers, itinerant merchants, and exotic holy 
men, as well as those, identified by occupation, with whom the British 
came into daily contact, such as their own vast array of household 
servants. These lists and drawings were, moreover, highly idiosyncra- 
tic. No attempt was made to organize them into a coherent caste 

The lack of interest in a systematic ordering of caste during the early 
decades of the nineteenth century was not surprising. Engaged as they 
were in conquering the country, the British sought, above all else, 
immediately useful information about India’s resources and the char- 
acter of those chieftains whom they were endeavouring to subdue into 
revenue-paying subjects. While the drawings in such collections as 
Mackenzie’s made India’s ‘difference’ readily visible, British notions 
of the character of that ‘difference’ were not as yet clearly established, 
so that caste existed as no more than an ethnographic curiosity. Insofar 
as it claimed any meaning for the men of the generation of Macaulay 
and Trevelyan it was as an emblem of India’s degradation, and as a 
barrier to its improvement. 

As British rule by mid-century became increasingly secure, and as 
the reforming impulse waned, the colonial search for knowledge took 
on a new shape. After the Mutiny, anxious to rule India without 
disrupting its established social institutions, and driven by an ever 
more compelling commitment to ‘scientific’ understanding, the British 
set out to reduce to a comprehensible order what they saw as the 
baffling variety of India’s myriad peoples. By the 1860s, as we saw in 
chapter 3, ideas of ‘difference’ defined an India that had become a 


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‘laboratory of mankind’ or ‘living museum’, where ancient customs, 
habits, and practices endured up to the present. Denied a history of 
their own, the peoples of India were defined by unchanging racial and 
cultural identities. The most important of these, by far, was caste. As 
Bernard Cohn has written, for late Victorian anthropologists ‘a caste 
was a “thing”, an entity which was concrete and measurable; above all 
it had definable characteristics - endogamy, commensality rules, fixed 
occupation, common ritual practices’; and these ‘things’ could be 
ascertained and quantified for reports and surveys. Once fitted 
together in an organized hierarchy, this ‘system’ could be taken as 
providing a comprehensive and authoritative understanding of Indian 
society. India was, in this view, no more than the sum of its parts, and 
the parts were castes. Of course, as we shall see, the apparent rigor was 
deceptive, for this ‘system’ had to accommodate kinship and ‘tribe’, 
and at times ‘religion’ as well.! 

This increasing systematization of caste was intimately connected 
with the development of photography. As much of the effort of 
ethnological classification was directed by a search for ‘scientific’ 
precision, the recording of ‘exact’ images by photography logically 
complemented the compiling of statistical information. Insofar as 
different castes were conceived of as representing distinct racial types, 
a photograph of a ‘typical’ member of an ethnic group could be used to 
identify the precise characteristics, of physiognomy, dress, and 
manners, that defined the group as a whole. Although photography 
had been used to record the ‘ethnic types’ of India from the early 
1850s, the first full scale compilation was The People of India, an eight 
volume work of 468 photographs published by the Government of 
India in 1868. Initially conceived by the governor-general, Lord 
Canning, and his wife as a collection of souvenirs for their own 
personal use, the work was transformed by the Mutiny of 1857, with 
its challenge to Britain’s presumed knowledge of India, into an official 
project. Accurate information about India’s peoples now mattered as 
never before. 

Although The People of India, like earlier collections, idiosyncra- 

tically mixed caste, varna, and occupational categories, and occasionally 
1 Bernard Cohn, ‘Notes on the History of the Study of Indian Society and Culture’, in 
Milton Singer and Bernard Cohn (eds.), Structure and Change in Indian Society (Chicago, 
1968), pp. 3-25, especially pp. 15-16; Nicholas Dirks, ‘Castes of Mind’, Representations, 

no. 37 (Winter 1992), pp. 56-78; and his ‘Colonial Histories and Native Informants’, in 
Breckenridge and Van der Veer (eds.), Orientalism, pp. 279-310. 


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7 Brinjara and Wife, from J. Forbes Watson and J. W. Kaye, The People of 
India (1868). 


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betrays what Christopher Pinney calls the ‘moral preoccupations’ of 
the reforming era, for the most part the work marked out a stage in the 
transformation of ethnological curiosity into ‘a structured framework 
~ the sort of “grid” to be found in museums and exhibitions — in which 
scientific theory and normalizing judgment predominate’. In its initial 
request for photographs, for instance, the Foreign Department asked 
the provincial governments to supply likenesses of ‘characteristic 
specimens’ of each tribe within their jurisdiction, and to include for 
each not only the ‘peculiar characteristics of costume’ but ‘the exact 
tint of their complexion and eyes’. Nor did the photographs stand 
alone. Each was accompanied by a brief account of what purported to 
be that group’s essential character. Gujars, for instance, were 
described as ‘given to indiscriminate plunder in times of disturbance’, 
while Banjaras had ‘a reputation for perfect honesty’. (Consistency, 
however, was always elusive, for the Banjaras were later classified as a 
‘criminal’ tribe.)? (See fig. 7.) 

Those, above all the educated Indians, who rejected the notion of 
their country as an ethnographic ‘museum’, vigorously endeavoured 
to distance themselves from this collection. Shown the volumes in the 
India Office in 1869, Sayyid Ahmad Khan was horrified to see his 
countrymen portrayed as ‘the equal of animals’. With considerable 
embarrassment, his son Sayyid Mahmud told an inquiring official that, 
while he was a Hindustani, he was ‘not one of the aborigines’. What, 
Sayyid Ahmed reflected sadly, could the young English official on his 
way to India think ‘after perusing this book and looking at its pictures, 
of the power or honour of the natives of India?’3 

As time went on Indian ethnography asserted ever more rigorously 
its scientific claims. Its categories, embedded in censuses, gazetteers, 
and revenue records, became ever more closely tied to the administra- 
tive concerns of the colonial state. At the heart of this ethnography 
remained always the study of caste. As H.H. Risley pronounced with 
vigour, in his own account of The People of India, caste ‘forms the 
cement that holds together the myriad units of Indian society’. Were 

? Christopher Pinney, ‘Classification and Fantasy in the Photographic Construction of 
Caste and Tribe’, Visual Anthropology, vol. 3 (1990), pp. 259-88; and C.A. Bayly (ed.), 
The Raj: India and the British 1600-1947 (London, 1990), p. 254-55; see also the 
correspondence in NAI For. Dept. Part A, June 1861, no. 278-79, and Home General A, 
December 1861, No. 43-45. 

3 G.F.I. Graham, The Life and Work of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1885. Reprinted, Karachi, 
1974), p- 129; and David Lelyveld, Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British 
India (Princeton, 1978) pp. 4-6. 


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its cohesive power withdrawn or its essential ideas relaxed, he con- 
tinued, the change ‘would be more than a revolution; it would resem- 
ble the withdrawal of some elemental force like gravitation or molecu- 
lar attraction. Order would vanish and chaos would supervene.”* 

Despite this general agreement on the centrality of caste as an 
organizing principle for Indian society, what caste actually consisted 
of remained always a source of controversy. Several ethnographers, 
among them J.C. Nesfield and William Crooke, argued that castes 
were defined by the occupations pursued by their members. Others, 
most notably Risley, insisted on a physical basis for caste. In his view, 
by contrast to other areas such as Europe, where ‘anthropometry has 
to confess itself hindered, if not baffled, by the constant intermixture 
of types obscuring and confusing the data ascertained by measure- 
ments’, in India ‘the process of fusion has long ago been arrested, and 
the degree of progress which it had made up to the point at which it 
ceased to operate is expressed in the physical characteristics of the 
groups which have been formed’. Caste, that is, like race, was immuta- 
bly inscribed on the bodies of India’s peoples, and could be ascer- 
tained, so Risley argued, by measuring the nasal index. If, he said, ‘we 
take a series of castes ... and arrange them in order of the average nasal 
index, so that the caste with the finest nose shall be at the top, and that 
with the coarsest at the bottom of the list, it will be found that this 
order substantially corresponds with the accepted order of social 

While few were as confident as Risley of the explanatory value of 
particular measures such as the nasal index, most late-nineteenth- 
century ethnographers, in India as elsewhere, accepted the notion that 
anthropometric research had some value. Almost all measured skulls — 
if only, as the case of Crooke, to contest Risley’s more extravagant 
claims - took casts and photographs, and developed techniques of 
fingerprinting to identify criminals. In similar fashion, British ethno- 
graphers universally insisted that, whatever their defining character- 
istics, castes were discrete and distinct; and until after the First World 
War their mapping remained an enduring preoccupation. Neverthe- 
less, despite the enthusiasm which drove forward the process of 

4 Risley, People of India, p. 278. 

5 Ibid., pp. 25-29; for William Crooke’s criticism of Risley’s views, see his introduction to 
the second edition, pp. xvi-xxii, and his own Tribes and Castes of the Northwest Provinces 
and Oudh, 4 vols. (Calcutta, 1896). 


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measurement, in administrative practice caste proved to be an 
awkward and unwieldy classificatory category. Even the mere 
enumeration of castes in the decennial census was a project of for- 
midable difficulty. Constant efforts had to be made to reduce the 
bewildering array of caste names returned by individuals to a consist- 
ent order, and to fit all enumerated individuals properly into the 
assigned categories. Nor was it a simple matter to devise systems of 
classification which could contain the vast array of caste data.® 

Most controversial was the effort to arrange castes hierarchically by 
‘social precedence’. In the various provincial ‘Castes and Tribes’ 
volumes, the authors sidestepped this nettlesome question by arrang- 
ing the entries alphabetically. The 1891 census made some effort 
within larger occupational categories to list groups in accordance with 
their ‘social estimation’, but the self-confident Risley, as census com- 
missioner a decade later, determined to secure an accurate ranked 
listing. To aid his own research, and to insure that his lists accorded 
with ‘native public opinion’, he even consulted a wide array of Indians. 
The prescriptions found in Sanskrit legal textbooks, together with the 
opinions of Brahmin pandits, shaped the responses of most of these 
informants; while the whole enterprise generated a vast outpouring of 
claims to higher status, especially among the members of middling 
castes such as Kayasthas and Khatris who felt entitled to rank as 
ksatriya. Risley, however, had long since made up his own mind. What 
mattered was race. On the first page of the Tribes and Castes of 
Bengal, Risley illustrated a stone panel from the Buddhist stupa at 
Sanchi depicting three women at prayer in front of an altar. In the 
background ‘four stately figures ... of tall stature and regular features 
... look on with folded hands in apparent approval’. The whole shows 
us, as Risley interpreted the scene, the ‘higher’ Aryan race on friendly 
terms with the ‘lower’ Dravidian, but ‘keenly conscious of the essen- 
tial difference of type’. ‘Race sentiment’, he concluded, resting upon a 
‘foundation of fact which scientific methods confirm’, at once ‘shaped 
the intricate grouping of the caste system, and has preserved the Aryan 
type in comparative purity throughout Northern India.’” 

6 Bernard Cohn, ‘The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia’, Folk, vol. 
26 (1984), pp. 25-49; Frank Conlon, ‘The Census of India as a Source for the Historical 
Study of Religion and Caste’, in N. Gerald Barrier (ed.), The Census in British India 
(Delhi, 1981), especially pp. 107-17. 

7 Herbert Risley, Tribes and Castes of Bengal, vol. 1 (Calcutta, 1891), pp. i-ii; Risley, People 
of India, pp. 5, 109-20. 


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The persistence of fragmented ethnic identities at the heart of Indian 
society, in the view of most British ethnographers, foreclosed any 
effective unity amongst the country’s peoples. Risley certainly was in 
no doubt about the political implications of a racially based caste 
system. Because castes, he insisted, were in India so sharply demar- 
cated from each other, there existed ‘no national type and no nation or 
even nationality in the ordinary sense of these words’. Risley never- 
theless endeavoured to define a way by which India’s castes could be 
reshaped so that they would play a role in the country’s future political 
development. It may be said, he wrote, that the caste system ‘with its 
singularly perfect communal organization, is a machinery admirably 
fitted for the diffusion of new ideas; that castes may in course of time 
group themselves into classes representing the different strata of 
society; and that India may thus attain, by the agency of these indige- 
nous corporations, the results which have been arrived at elsewhere 
through the fusion of individual types’. The caste system, in this 
vision, could constitute a kind of civil society for India, which taught 
its peoples to work together. Ultimately, unlike the English language, 
confined to a tiny elite, caste might even help form a larger structure of 
shared values for the subcontinent. But Britain’s presence would be 
needed for the foreseeable future to provide unity and leadership. In 
the end, of course, as the British patronage of caste helped embed it 
within Indian politics, Risley’s vision found substantial realization in 
what has increasingly become independent India’s caste-based poli- 
tical system.® 

The valorization of caste difference as fixed and immutable found 
perhaps its most striking expression in the creation of the two opposed 
groups of ‘criminal tribes’ and ‘martial races’. The notion that certain 
caste groups practised crime as a hereditary profession — that, as one 
British official wrote, ‘crime is their trade and they are born to it and 
must commit it’ — followed logically from the assumptions that sus- 
tained the British view of the caste system, and more generally of 
Indian society. As there existed those destined to be carpenters or 
cultivators, so too were there those ‘destined by the usage of caste to 
commit crime and whose dependents will be offenders against the 
law’. Many of these so-called criminal tribes, furthermore, as 
wanderers and vagrants, were outside the normal networks of seden- 
tary society; hence they were believed to challenge British efforts to 
8 Risley, People of India, pp. 26, 278-301. 


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order and control their Indian dominion. The outcome was the Crimi- 
nal Tribes Act of 1871. 

The notion that there existed groups in India predisposed to crime 
originated in the campaign against the thags during the 1830s. The 
thags, as we have seen, with their mysterious rituals of murder and 
worship directed to the goddess Kali, exerted a powerful fascination 
for the British, and so came to embody the ‘mysterious’ East. Inas- 
much as thags were conceived of as being fundamentally different 
from ordinary criminals, W.H. Sleeman, as he set out to eradicate 
thagi, decided that no effort need be made to prove that a given 
individual had committed a particular crime. On the basis of thag 
genealogies which he put together, he argued that thagi was hereditary. 
Hence, it was sufficient for conviction to prove that an individual was 
a member of a thag gang. Although Sleeman successfully demon- 
strated the ability of the Raj to extirpate such gangs, largely through 
the use of informers’ testimony, in the process the notion of distinct 
‘criminal communities’, with its challenge to liberal ideas of individual 
responsibility and the procedural guarantees of the ‘rule of law’, 
became embedded in the legal framework of British India.? 

In the wake of the 1857 uprising, the British determined to subdue 
all remaining low-status, wandering groups. Such concerns were not 
of course unique to India, for European governments had long been 
suspicious of gypsies and wandering vagabonds of all sorts. But for the 
Raj of the 1860s it was a matter of special urgency, as only a settled 
village society, wholly under the supervision of a conservative landed 
elite, could guarantee the British the security they required. In the 
process, the spectre of thagi was revived and blown up to ever greater 
proportions. As the inspector-general of the North-Western 
Provinces Police wrote in 1867, ‘It must be remembered, in dealing 
with the wandering predatory tribes of India, that the fraternities are 
of such ancient creation, their number so vast, the country over which 
their depradations spread so vast, their organization so complete, and 
their evil of such formidable dimensions, that nothing but special 
legislation will suffice for their suppression and conversion.’ Now, 
however, as part of the new ethnography, caste affiliation, not the 
fictive kinship of gang membership, defined collective criminality. The 
9 Sandria Freitag, ‘Crime in the Social Order of Colonial North India’, Modern Asian 

Studies, vol. 25 (1991), pp. 227-41; Radhika Singha, ‘Providential Circumstances’, 

pp. 83-146. 


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1871 act listed four tribes as criminal, out of some twenty-nine pro- 
posed by the police, and provided a mechanism through which addi- 
tions could be, and were, made to their numbers in subsequent years. 
The members of such tribes were registered, and their movements 
restricted by a system of passes and roll-calls. Those found outside 
their prescribed place of residence were liable to arrest without a 

This effort to define specific ‘criminal tribes’ did not escape criti- 
cism. Several officials, among them the judges of the Punjab Chief 
Court, committed to the procedure of the ordinary criminal law, with 
its denial of Indian ‘difference’, urged that only individuals should be 
registered, and then restricted in their movements only when charged 
with crimes actually committed. Others pointed to the likelihood that 
such legislation would confound the innocent with the guilty, and 
might even drive those deprived of their customary livelihood to take 
up crime, as well as offering the police great opportunities for abuse of 
their power. Further, the avowed goal of reforming these criminals by 
settling them in special colonies under surveillance stood sharply at 
odds with the theory, underlying the act, of a hereditary predispo- 
sition to commit crime. Nevertheless, as time went on, the act was 
extended to include ever more ‘tribes’, and was finally repealed only 
after independence. 

The ideology sustaining the notion of ‘criminal tribes’ was not 
wholly a product of the colonial environment. Even in Victorian 
Britain the government feared the so-called ‘dangerous’ classes, who 
were conceived of as threatening public order. Hence in 1869, while 
discussions regarding the 1871 act were underway in India, the Habi- 
tual Criminals Act incorporated into English law exceptional powers 
for the surveillance and control of those denominated ‘habitual 
offenders’. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, during 
the unsettled decades from Peterloo to Chartism, fear of the lower 
orders as inherently revolutionary was widespread among the 
members of ‘respectable’ society. By the 1860s, with the extension of 
the franchise, as we have seen, the regularly employed working class 
began to be brought into the constitution. There remained only the 
10 NAI Home Judl., April 1870, no. 9-14, and July 1870, no. 55-59; Legis. Dept. Papers 

Relating to Act XXVII of 1871. For a full account, see Sanjay Nigam, ‘Disciplining and 

Policing the “Criminals by Birth”, Part 1: The Making of a Colonial Stereotype - The 
Criminal Tribes and Castes of North India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 

vol. 27 (1990), pp. 131-64. 


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‘habitual offenders’. Conceived of as a separate criminal class, perhaps 
even biological degenerates born to a life of crime, these men required 
a separate coercive apparatus for their control. Yet the category of the 
‘habitual offender’ remained always sharply differentiated from its 
Indian counterpart. Despite the notion of a genetic predisposition to 
criminal behaviour, the English legislation encompassed only those 
already convicted of a crime, and never their children. It involved, that 
is, the identification of individuals, not the proscription of defined 
‘tribes’. Even the assertion that criminal behaviour was ‘racially’ 
grounded was far removed from the stigmatizing of everyone in a 
‘racial’ group as a criminal. Despite the superficial similarity of the two 
enactments, the Indian Criminal Tribes act marked out a distinctively 
colonial ethnography. Even India’s criminals were not similar to 

Incongruous though it might appear, the 1871 act included among 
the ‘dangerous’ classes not only the so-called criminal tribes, but 
eunuchs as well. James Fitzjames Stephen, as Law Member drafting 
the act, insisted that there existed ‘an organized system of sodomitical 
prostitution, of which these wretches are the managers’, and that no 
measure to force them to adopt ‘honest pursuits’ would be too severe. 
Although the subsequent discussion on the bill evoked much right- 
eous indignation with regard to the eunuchs’ alleged kidnapping and 
castration of children, what clearly disturbed the government as much 
as criminal behaviour, and what the act forbad, was the practice of 
eunuchs appearing in public dressed in female attire. Everyone, so the 
act implied, had not only to adopt a settled livelihood, but to conform 
to accepted gender roles. Sexual ambiguity could no more be tolerated 
than a life of ‘wandering without leave’.!! 

Far more consequential were India’s ‘martial races’. Although these 
groups never achieved full statutory definition, in the years after the 
Mutiny a perceived sense of a distinctive martial fitness came to 
distinguish various peoples of northern India from those elsewhere, 
above all in Bengal. This process was driven by the imperatives of the 
military, who sought an army organized ‘with a view to the full 
development of race efficiency.” Inbred martial skill, as G. F. 
MacMunn wrote in his definitive study of India’s armies, defined one 
of the “essential differences between the East and the West’. In the 

1 Stephen, Note of 4 July 1870, Home Judl., July 1870, no. 55-59; and Papers Relating to 
Act XXVII of 1871. 


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‘East’ only ‘certain clans and classes can bear arms; the others have not 
the physical courage necessary for the warrior’. In Europe, by con- 
trast, ‘every able-bodied man, given food and arms, is a fighting man 
of some sort’, and hence capable of serving his country in time of 

Initially, as Clive and his successors recruited an army for the East 
India Company, considerations of racial ability mattered little. Many 
regiments, especially in the southern armies, accepted all recruits and 
intermixed them without concern for caste or religion. The Bengal 
Army after 1800 in large part confined its recruitment to the higher 
castes, above all Brahmins and Rajputs, whose customs the British 
took care to conserve, and it drew the bulk of its soldiery from rural 
Oudh and Bihar. Though the upper castes, regarded as generally 
superior within Indian society, might be presumed to be better 
soldiers, and though ‘a fine physique and martial appearance’ might 
gain an individual the attention of the recruiting officers, no attempt 
was made to portray the men of these castes or regions as inherently 
better suited than others for military service. 

After 1857 the mutinous Bengal regiments were disbanded, and the 
recruiting grounds shifted to the north, to the area from Delhi across 
the Punjab to the frontier. Simultaneously, mixed regiments were 
largely abandoned in favour of those organized on a systematic group- 
ing of men by ‘race and sept and clan’. This transformation was not the 
result of any historical experience, apart from the Mutiny itself, nor 
was it wholly a matter of tactical considerations of ‘divide and rule’. 
Madrasis, Marathas, and the sepoys of the Bengal Army had fought 
well, both for the Company and against it, over the preceding half- 
century; and even during the upheaval of 1857 the mixed regiments of 
the southern armies had remained loyal. As a result, following the 
recommendations of the Peel Commission in 1859, many officers 
argued for a mixture of castes within units in order to avert exclusive 
combinations that might once again lead to mutiny. Yet so compelling 
was the logic of ‘martial races’ that by the 1880s almost the entire army 
was organized into units based on caste or ethnicity. 

The notion of ‘martial races’ drew sustenance from a variety of 
elements in the cultural baggage of late Victorian England. As the 
Aryans had once conquered northern India, it was assumed that those 
races descended from them possessed superior military capabilities. 
12 G.F. MacMunn, The Armies of India (London, 1911), pp. 2, 129. 


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The Dogras, isolated in the hills, for instance, were presumed to retain 
the ‘old Aryan Hindu stock’. Other groups, such as the Afridis, with 
close cropped fair hair and blue eyes of a ‘distinctly European appear- 
ance’, could well, so MacMunn reasoned, have kept intact ‘traces’ of 
Alexander’s Greek soldiers. Where race failed — for MacMunn 
acknowledged that most ‘martial’ groups had lost their distinguishing 
racial characteristics — environment supplied an alternate explanation. 
Their ‘hardy, active, and alert life’ in a land of cold winters and often 
rugged mountains had ‘inured’ these northern peoples to hardship and 
thus fitted them for military life. A presumed camaraderie along the 
frontier, which we shall soon discuss more fully, also mattered. As 
MacMunn wrote of the Pathans, ‘to the best type of Englishman their 
open, irresponsible manner and delight in all exercise and sport, with 
their constant high spirits, appeal greatly’. Whether defined by race, 
climate, or personality, ‘martial races’ were those who most closely 
resembled what the British imagined themselves to be. In similar 
fashion, ‘martial races’ existed in contrast to the Bengalis. Indeed, one 
might argue, the ‘extraordinary effeminacy’ of the Bengali, whom ‘no 
necessity would induce to fight’, alone gave meaning to the notion of 
‘martial races’. They were what the Bengali was not." 

In keeping with the larger principles informing the British idea of 
the caste system, each ‘martial’ race was conceived of as possessing its 
own distinctive set of characteristics — Jats, for instance, were ‘prover- 
bially thick in the uptake, but have served with distinction’ — and these 
traits were all meticulously detailed in the various regimental recruit- 
ing handbooks. One group, however, that of the Sikhs, was not merely 
enrolled in the list of ‘martial races’, but came to predominate in the 
army, and in the process found their community transformed. As 
Richard Fox has made clear in his study of the ‘Lions of the Punjab’, 
the British, from the very outset, determined that only ‘pure’ Sikhs 
should be recruited. The British ‘laboured hard to insure the religious 
conformity of the Sikh recruit’, and not just to any version of Sikhism, 
but to what the British conceived was proper Sikh belief and practice. 
Potential recruits had to be baptised into the Sikh faith, while regi- 
mental commanders insisted upon a strict observance of those customs 
associated with reformed monotheistic Sikhism, among them unshorn 
hair, the wearing of the dagger and steel bangle, and taking the name of 

13 [bid., Armies, chapter 5. 


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‘Singh’, or lion. As MacMunn acknowledged, it was the ‘British officer 
who has kept Sikhism up to its old [sic] standard’. 

By distinguishing a select group of Sikhs in this way, the British 
believed they could keep Sikhism free of contamination by ‘unortho- 
dox’ forms of Sikh belief and, more generally, by Hinduism. Sikhism, 
after all, as they saw it, was a religion distinct from Hinduism, and, as a 
monotheistic faith, superior. Hence, as one official wrote, ‘with the 
relapse into Hinduism and readoption of its superstitious and vicious 
social customs, it is notorious that the Sikh loses much of his martial 
instincts and greatly deteriorates as a fighting soldier’. This ‘colonially 
constituted Sikhism’, as Fox describes it, was ostensibly marked out 
by religious belief, for in principle anyone could be baptised. Yet in 
practice it embodied British racial ideas as well. Only ‘true’ Sikhs, men 
of proper ‘stock’, which usually meant those of certain prescribed 
regions and classes, possessed the necessary martial skills; others, of 
lower class background or recent conversion to the faith, were of 
inferior or ‘deteriorated’ stock, and so, with a few exceptions, such as 
the Mazhbis, were not recruited into the army. As the British endeav- 
oured to put their ideology into practice, in the army as elsewhere the 
categories by which Indian society was ordered inevitably became 

The British did not view Indian society only through the prism of 
race and caste. Descent, or ‘tribal’ affiliation, mattered as well. For the 
most part such genealogical connections were important insofar as 
they facilitated the resolution of disputes over landholding and 
inheritance among individual families. Settlement officers, and the 
courts, needed to know the principles by which estates were to be 
apportioned among heirs or princely thrones awarded to claimants. In 
the Punjab, however, the British made kinship the organizing prin- 
ciple of the entire society. This reflected, in part, their perception that 
in a province with a Muslim majority, ‘caste’, as an inherently Hindu 
phenomenon, could not by its very nature appropriately order rural 
society. In part, too, the constitution of Punjabi society on a unique 
basis was a logical continuation of the ‘Punjab school’ style of 
governance, based on direct and personal rule, and with it the use of 
local customary law, rather than the Bengal regulations, with their 

4 Richard G. Fox, Lions of the Punjab: Culture in the Making (Berkeley, 1985), chapter 8, 
especially pp. 140-52; MacMunn, Armies, pp. 133-40. 


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Sanskritic uniformities, for the adjudication of disputes. This deter- 
mination to rule, so far as possible, in accordance with indigenous 
principles gained further strength from the unsettling experience of 
the 1857 rising, from which the Punjab had for the most part been 
exempt. Many officials, indeed, attributed this fortuitous escape from 
rebellion to the province’s unique system of rule. As the British in 
the 1860s and 1870s studied the organization of Punjab society, the 
‘native institution’ they found at its heart, as C. L. Tupper argued, 
while preparing his compendium of ‘Punjab Customary Law’, was 
the ‘tribe’, which he defined as a patrilineal descent group encom- 
passing those who preserved the memory of a common ancestor. The 
British set out accordingly to define and systematize this ‘tribal 
system’, and so build it into their own imperial order. In so doing, so 
they believed, they could not only present themselves as legitimate 
indigenous rulers, presiding over an unaltered ‘traditional’ society, 
but they could also harness the Punjab’s distinctive social forms, 
above all in the settlement of canal colonies, to the creation of a 
prosperous land. 

Much in this endeavour involved an effort at self-delusion, for 
tradition, once systematized and enforced as ‘tradition’ in the courts, 
defined a new mode of governance far different from that which had 
gone before. Furthermore, even though the notion of a ‘tribally’ based 
Punjab was self-consciously grounded in British perceptions of local 
practice, it did not wholly accord with the social realities it purported 
to describe. Structures of descent varied across the face of the Punjab, 
as they did elsewhere; while few of the so-called ‘tribes’, especially in 
the central and eastern Punjab, had managed to preserve recognized 
traditions of leadership in the face of hostile Mughal and Sikh rulers. 
As a result, to provide an institutional footing for local leadership the 
British created the administrative unit of the zail, a grouping of five to 
forty villages found only in the Punjab. Zaildars, as heads of these 
local units, were meant to be simply existing leaders of locally domi- 
nant ‘tribes’ and ‘clans’, but in practice they were often created as the 
British sought to make Punjab society resemble the ideology that 
informed their conception of it. Nevertheless, by the end of the 
century, building upon existing patterns of contiguous settlement, 
grounded in bonds of solidarity among local kin groups, and reinforc- 
ing them where necessary by institutional means, the British had 
successfully brought into being a rural elite whose influence, as David 


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Gilmartin argues, ‘was tied to the “ideology” of imperial authority on 
which the British had built their regime’.'® 

The final stage in the creation of a distinctive ‘tribal’ Punjab took 
place with the creation of the category of ‘agricultural tribes’ in the 
Land Alienation Act of 1900. The problem of land alienation, or, more 
precisely, the sale of land for debts owed to moneylenders, perceived 
as ‘outsiders’ in village society, had long concerned the British, in the 
Deccan and the Gangetic valley as well as in the Punjab. Though 
recent research has brought into question the scale and character of 
such transfers, their existence forced upon the British at the time an 
agonizing choice between, on the one hand, the ‘modernizing’ ideol- 
ogy of an India transformed by the free working of natural economic 
laws, which encouraged the transfer of property from the hands of 
‘unenterprising’ owners, and, on the other, the ideal of a stable agrar- 
ian order kept in place by ‘traditional’ elites. In the Punjab there was 
little dissent from the notion that this strategic border province and 
recruiting ground for the army had to be preserved from agrarian 
upheaval. Hence, in a far-reaching assault on the privileges of those 
whom they saw as outsiders, the British prohibited the sale of land to 
anyone other than a member of a registered ‘agricultural tribe’. 

With the passage of the Land Alienation Act the British transformed 
the ‘tribal’ structure they had built up during the previous half- 
century. Grouped together into a single unit for the entire province, 
the ‘agricultural tribes’, as Gilmartin has pointed out, denoted no 
social reality, as each did to some degree in its own locality, but only a 
category which the British used to define who would have the right to 
own land, and hence the right to wield power within the colonial 
order. Despite its highly artificial character, however, the notion of 
‘agricultural tribes’ soon took on a life of its own. Under the banner of 
the Land Alienation Act the province’s rural elite, in cooperation with 
the British, successfully controlled Punjab politics throughout the first 
half of the twentieth century. Both the organization of the Unionist 
Party and the Punjabi response to Muslim nationalism before 1947, 
and even afterwards in Pakistan, demonstrated the enduring power of 
the ideology of a ‘tribal’ Punjab. No more than that of ‘caste’ could the 
notion of ‘tribe’ be contained within the colonial ideology that had 
originally shaped it. 

18 David Gilmartin, Empire and Islam (Berkeley, 1988), chapter 1. 


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8 Monument to Warren Hastings, by Richard Westmacott (1830). 


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Richard Westmacott’s 1830 statue of Warren Hastings, now in the 
Victoria Memorial, shows him accompanied by two Indians, who 
flank him on either side, but stand well below the toga-clad imperial 
ruler. (See fig. 8.) One of the flanking figures, a tall, classically 
proportioned Brahmin with a shaven head and topknot, represented 
Hinduism; the other, a seated munshi or scribe, bearded and tur- 
baned, and gazing thoughtfully at a book, was meant to stand for 
India’s Muslim peoples. Both figures, garbed as scholars, were 
treated respectfully, and so reflected Hastings’s sympathetic view of 
India’s culture and its religious traditions. Yet they also announced 
what was to be Britain’s enduring insistence that India was divided 
into two religious communities — those of Hinduism and of 

Division of India’s people into Hindu and Muslim was not of course 
new in Hastings’s time. The earliest British travellers even in Mughal 
times had been struck by the distinctive characteristics of the adherents 
of what they then called the ‘Gentoo’ faith. As Ralph Fitch, Queen 
Elizabeth’s emissary to the emperor Akbar in 1584, wrote of the 
Hindus, “They be the greatest idolators that I ever sawe.’ Nor was his 
perception at all sympathetic; the idols, he declared, were ‘blacke and 
evill favoured, their mouthes monstrous, their eares gilded, and full of 
jewels’. Such perceptions went back even further in time, to Marco 
Polo, who toured southern India, and to Alberuni and the medieval 
Muslim conquerors, as they contemplated the difference between 
themselves and those over whom they ruled. Yet the term ‘Hindu’, 
though of Perso-Arabic origin, was not used in Muslim texts to mark 
out a religion, but rather referred generally to the inhabitants of the 
Indian subcontinent, the lands across the Indus river. Even when the 
term ‘Hindu’ was used to set off those adhering to a non-Islamic faith, 
the perception each group had of the other, as Romila Thapar has 
written, ‘was not in terms of a monolithic religion, but more in terms 
of distinct and disparate castes and sects along a social continuum’. 
From the Indian, or Hindu, side, the Central Asian invaders were 

‘6 For British statuary, see Barbara Groseclose, ‘Imag(in)ing Indians’, Art History, vol. 13 
(1990), pp. 488-515. 


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demonized, but, Sheldon Pollock has pointed out, as incarnations of 
the evil Ravana, or as Turks, not as Muslims.!7 

Only with the coming of British rule, from the late eighteenth 
century on, did the notion that there existed distinct ‘Hindu’ and 
‘Muslim’ communities in India take on a fixed shape. In part this was 
simply a product of administrative convenience, as the British sought 
to devise comprehensive systems of law that would at once respect the 
customs of their new subjects and yet reduce them to a manageable 
order. It is altogether appropriate that Hastings, who set on foot the 
codification of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ law, should be commemorated 
by a statue showing him with a Brahmin pandit and a Muslim munshi. 
Yet from the outset distinctions of religion were seen as shaping those 
of character. Dow and Orme, as we have seen in chapter 1, had defined 
the basic differences demarcating the two religious groupings: 
Muslims were violent, despotic, masculine; Hindus were indolent, 
passive, effeminate. One fought by the sword; the other by cunning 
and litigation. However much William Jones and James Mill may have 
disagreed in evaluating the accomplishments of India’s peoples, 
together they accepted without question their division into Hindu and 
Muslim. By the early nineteenth century authoritative conceptions of 
the two faiths, and the character of their adherents, had been set firmly 
in place. 

More importantly, the British came to believe that adherence to one 
or the other of these two religions was not merely a matter of belief, 
but defined membership more generally in a larger community. To be 
Hindu or Muslim by itself explained much of the way Indians acted. 
Riotous behaviour, for instance, no matter what its actual character, as 
Gyan Pandey has made clear in his account of British reportage on 
riots in Banares, was often made to express enduring antagonisms 
between two opposed and self-contained communities.'® In early 
nineteenth-century Britain too, of course, religious affiliation mat- 
tered intensely. Anglicans, Dissenters, and Catholics, from the time of 
the Reformation onward, had been set apart from each other by 

17 W. Foster (ed.), Early Travels in India, 1583-1619 (New York, 1921), especially 
pp- 14-23; Romila Thapar, ‘Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the 
Modern Search for a Hindu Identity’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 23 (1989), pp. 209-31; 
Sheldon Pollock, ‘Ramayana and Political Imagination in India’, Journal of Asian Studies, 
vol. 52 (1993), pp. 261-97. 

18 Gyanendra Pandey, ‘The Colonial Construction of “Communalism”’: British Writings 
on Banares in the Nineteenth Century’, in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies VI 
(Delhi, 1989), pp. 132-68. 


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Sabbath observance, attitudes to liquor, marriage networks, and edu- 
cation, with each community maintaining its own schools. Until well 
into the nineteenth century the state awarded the right to vote on the 
basis of religious affiliation, and even the 1870 act, which committed 
the state to support of education, authorized only the disbursal of 
funds to religious bodies. Yet, however much religion may have 
informed British life, it was never imagined, apart from the exceptional 
case of Ireland, as having the power to shape the entire society into 
opposed ‘communities’. Symptomatic perhaps of the difference was 
the prominence given to religious affiliation as a ‘fundamental cate- 
gory’ in the Indian census, while in Britain the census, apart from one 
survey in 1851, never recorded data on religion. The centrality of 
religious community, along with that of caste, for the British marked 
out India’s distinctive status as a fundamentally different land. 

British ‘understanding’ of Hinduism, unlike that of Islam, devel- 
oped only with the discoveries of the Oriental scholars in the late 
eighteenth century. Whereas Europeans had since medieval times 
created a rich descriptive tradition for Islam, perceived as an enemy 
and an alternate religious system known from bitter experience, Hind- 
uism long remained obscure, a mysterious faith of ‘idols’ and ‘mon- 
strosities’. Furthermore, as the British scrambled to understand Hind- 
uism, they created for that religious system a degree of coherence that 
it had not possessed before. Indeed, one might almost say, by impos- 
ing their ‘knowledge’ upon it, the British made of Hinduism, pre- 
viously a loosely integrated collection of sects, something resembling a 
religion — although, as they saw it, a religion that was not a ‘proper’ 
religion. To the present day scholars of religion still remain at odds 
over the extent to which the Hinduism of pre-colonial India can be 
described as a ‘religion’, with an orthodoxy that defines the faith of a 
set of believers, as distinct from a set of beliefs and practices embedded 
in India’s larger social order. 

Initially, the British sought an organizing principle for Hinduism in 
the Brahmin community. As the highest caste, as priests, and, in 
Jones’s time, as collaborators in the study of the ancient Sanskrit texts, 
Brahmins were naturally perceived as the focal point of the faith, and 
with it of the Hindu community. Ever since Fitch’s time commen- 
tators had singled out for notice the habits and customs of the Brah- 
mins, whether their wearing of the sacred thread or, as Fitch 
announced, that they ‘eatt no flesh, nor kill any thing; they live of rice, 


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butter, milke, and fruits’. For James Mill, the Brahmins, creators of the 
caste system, were a primary cause of the country’s ‘degradation’. ‘By 
a system of priestcraft’, he wrote, ‘built upon the most enormous and 
tormenting superstition that ever harassed and degraded any portion 
of mankind’, the minds of the Hindus ‘were enchained more intoler- 
ably than their bodies’. In all such descriptions of Hinduism, Victorian 
commentators, steeped in Protestantism, turned inevitably to Catholi- 
cism, with its practices ranging from ‘popery’ to saint worship, as 
providing a European parallel, and an appropriate vocabulary through 
which the Hindu faith might be understood. 

As time went on Europeans extended and refined their knowledge 
of the texts that embodied the Hindu faith. Much of this was the work 
of German Indological scholars, from the philospher Hegel and the 
Romantic idealist Friedrich Schlegel to the Sanskritist Max Muller. 
Together these men fitted India’s ancient philosophical texts into a 
larger vision in which, as Ronald Inden has indicated, Mill’s ‘more or 
less disconnected examples of Hindu irrationality and superstition’ 
gave way toa view of Hinduism as a system of ‘dream-like knowledge’ 
dominated by a ‘creative imagination’. These German scholars did not, 
of course, construct their philosophical systems with the aim of 
advancing the administrative objectives of the Raj. Nevertheless, as 
their world view made of the Indian mind, ‘imaginative and pas- 
sionate’, a foil for Christian and Western ‘rationality’, it necessarily 
carried with it the assumption that the Hindus, unable to supply this 
element themselves, required an externally imposed ‘rationality’ to 
order their day-to-day lives. Hence, Germanic Indology, though 
never directly a part of the ideology of the Raj, by creating a coherent 
vision of the ‘Hindu mind’ that at once incorporated it into a larger 
ordering of the world and yet subordinated it to the West, played a 
critical role in sustaining the intellectual assumptions that bulwarked 
Britain’s Indian Empire. The vision of a ‘spiritual’ India, in contrast to 
a ‘materialist’ West, was never incompatible with the existence of the 

Simultaneously, during the middle decades of the nineteenth 
century, the British in India endeavoured to come to terms with the 
variety of Hindu religious experience they were encountering on the 
ground. The attempt to comprehend contemporary Hinduism was, 
however, a frustrating enterprise. Alfred Lyall, one of the more careful 
'9 Inden, Imagining India, chapter 3, especially pp. 89-96. 


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students of Indian religion in the government, came close to throwing 
up his hands in despair. We can scarcely comprehend, he wrote, ‘an 
ancient religion, still alive and powerful, which is a mere troubled sea, 
without shore or visible horizon, driven to and fro by the winds of 
boundless credulity and grotesque invention’. The range and diversity 
of worship, with beliefs undergoing ‘constant changes of shape and 
colour’ within an ‘extraordinary fecundity of superstitious sentiment’, 
made Hindu India, in his view, unlike anywhere else in the world.?° 

The British sought to make sense of this ‘religious chaos’ in two 
ways. First, rather like Maine’s account of the village community, the 
British saw in Hinduism a ‘survival’ of the ancient world. Even Mill 
had argued that, ‘by conversing with the Hindus of the present day, 
we, in some measure, converse with the Chaldeans and Babylonians of 
the time of Cyrus; with the Persians and Egyptians of the time of 
Alexander’. For Lyall the popular Hinduism of his day was very 
similar to the polytheism of the Roman Empire. Indeed, he wrote, ‘We 
perceive more clearly what classic polytheism was by realizing what 
Hinduism actually is.’ The second strategy was to insist upon the 
centrality of ‘Brahmanism’ as the historic core of the Hindu faith, and 
to regard so-called popular, or devotional, Hinduism as a ‘whole 
vegetation of cognate beliefs sprouting up in every stage of growth 
beneath the shadow of the great orthodox traditions and allegories of 

But why had Hinduism not progressed beyond ancient polytheism 
to a ‘true’ monotheism? To some extent men like Lyall found an 
answer in the absence of a central ecclesiastical structure capable of 
disciplining popular practice. But for a larger explanation the British 
turned to Aryan racial theory. Popular Hinduism, in this view, was the 
inevitable outcome of the settling of the Aryan invader in a tropical 
land, where his ‘pure’ faith became mixed with the fertility cults and 
superstitions of the subcontinent’s aboriginal peoples. Contemporary 
Hinduism was, as the Sanskrit scholar Monier-Williams described it, 
using the metaphor of the jungle, “Brahminism run to seed and spread 
out into a confused tangle of divine personalities and incarnations. The 
one system is the rank and luxuriant outcome of the other.’ Lyall in 
similar terms compared religious practice in India to the ‘entangled 
confusion of a primeval forest, where one sees trees of all kinds, ages, 
and sizes interlacing and contending with each other’. Above the tree 
20 Lyall, Asiatic Studies (1884), chapter 1, and the revised edition (London, 1904), chapter 5. 


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tops a ‘glimpse of blue sky’ symbolized the ‘illimitable transcendental 
ideas’ of Brahmanic speculation above and apart from earth-born 
conceptions. India’s essential Dravidianism, its ‘femininity’, and its 
popular Hinduism, were all the same and interchangeable; and 
together debarred forever any recovery of its former Aryan self.?! 

Such attempts at ordering Hinduism achieved only a partial success. 
Even Lyall’s detailed account of the ‘religion of an Indian province’, 
that of Berar, where he had served in the 1860s, though it served as a 
model for subsequent studies of popular Hinduism, did little more 
than catalogue some eleven modes of religious practice, ranging from 
the worship of stones and animals to that of deceased persons and local 
heroes. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with the 
Brahmins as collaborators, and the ancient texts to guide them, the 
British, and subsequently the German Indologists, had constructed a 
coherent notion of Hinduism, and of a Hindu community, that took 
shape in the codes of Hindu personal law. A century later, their 
knowledge of Hinduism no longer confined to a tidy set of texts, the 
British instead found themselves confronted with Lyall’s ‘tangled 
jungle of disorderly superstitions’. In such circumstances, to deploy 
the term ‘Hindu’, even as an overarching category, was always diffi- 
cult. The decennial censuses, which from 1881 onward marshalled the 
members of India’s religions into ‘communities’, mapped, counted, 
and above all, as Kenneth Jones has noted, compared each with its 
rivals. Yet, even so, the category ‘Hindu’ remained exceptionally 
elusive. As the Punjab census commissioner reported in 1881, ‘Every 
native who was unable to define his creed, or who described it by any 
other name than that of some recognized religion ... was held to be 
and classed as a Hindu.’ 

In many ways it suited British purposes not to press forward too 
vigorously with the consolidation of Hinduism. The adherents of that 
faith, after all, a majority of India’s population, if accorded an autono- 
mous sense of identity, posed a potentially menacing alternative to the 
Raj. The British thus turned instead to local custom and caste as more 
useful categories through which to make sense of Indian society. 
Though the codes of Hindu law still embodied the ideology of 
Hastings’s time, more localized identities informed much of legal and 

21 Tbid., (1904), p. 318; Inden, Jmagining India, pp. 109-22. 
22 Kenneth W. Jones, ‘Religious Identity and the Indian Census’, in Barrier (ed.), The 
Census, pp. 73-101. 


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administrative practice outside Bengal. This process was perhaps most 
visibly manifested in the recording and codification of Punjab custom- 
ary law. Here overarching religious identities, whether of Hinduism 
or Islam, as we have seen, were set aside in favour of principles drawn 
from the secular ordering of kin and clan. Caste, in particular, was 
convenient, for it afforded (or so the British thought) a precise way of 
knowing, and so controlling, Indian society at the local level, and it 
could be seen in any case as incorporating much that was distinctive 
about Hinduism. With the rare exception of such reformist groups as 
the Brahmo and Arya Samaj, seen as hopeful portents of a ‘purer’ faith, 
the late-nineteenth-century ethnographic enterprise was based upon 
caste, rather than sect. In many reports and statistical tables a com- 
monly used heading was ‘Caste if Hindu, otherwise religion’. The 
shaping of a compelling sense of ‘Hindu’ identity was to be a product 
only of the twentieth century, and the work of Hindus themselves. 
Islam, by contrast, possessed for the British (if not always for its 
adherents) an established coherence. The long and intimate connection 
of Islam with Europe, from the time of the Crusades onward, had 
provided Europeans with an assured sense of ‘knowing’ Islam, and 
Muslims, that did not exist as they endeavoured to understand Hindus 
and Hinduism. As James Mill noted, ‘With the state of civilization in 
Persia the instructed part of European readers are pretty familiar.’ This 
contrasted sharply with the ‘mysterious, and little known’ state of 
civilization among the Hindus. One might argue that in India two 
different Orientalist discourses met: one derived from the European 
encounter with the Muslim Middle East; the other an attempt to 
describe distant Asian lands where a tropical climate shaped passive 
and effeminate peoples. Insofar as India’s pre-colonial states were 
frequently constituted as Islamic polities, and Muslims provided the 
dominant elite within them, it was easy to project the stereotypes 
constructed in the Middle East upon India’s Muslims. In so doing, 
Muslims were inevitably distinguished sharply from their Hindu 
neighbours, and included within the alternate set of Orientalist 
notions of the ‘East’. Shaped by these two contrasting discourses, the 
two communities found themselves counterposed, at first imagin- 
atively and then in the strife of ‘communalism’, one against the other.” 
The distinguishing features of India’s Muslims, as we have seen, 

23 Mill, chapter ro, esp. p. 304; see also Ronald Inden, ‘Orientalist Constructions of India’, 
Modern Asian Studies, vol. 20 (1986), especially pp. 404-8, 423-24. 


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were laid out by Dow and Orme in the mid-eighteenth century. With 
‘despotism’ as the central representational mode, the country’s 
Muslims not surprisingly were depicted as fierce invaders, who as 
rulers alternated arbitrary violence with indolence and self-indulgence. 
While the Mughals, perceived as ‘mild and humane’ rulers, were 
largely exempted from severe criticism, such was not the case with 
their eighteenth-century successors. These, whom the British set out 
to supplant as they extended their own rule, had to be painted in the 
darkest colours. The archetypical representative of Islam in this period 
was unquestionably Tipu Sultan of Mysore (ruler from 1782 to 1799). 
As both a Muslim sovereign and an implacable opponent of the British 
Raj, he was portrayed (with no factual basis) as a man driven by a 
zealous fanaticism, while his regime was described as ‘the most perfect 
despotism in the world’. In keeping with the differing characteri- 
zations projected onto Muslims and Hindus, his ‘Mahommedan 
tyranny’ was contrasted unfavourably with the ‘ancient Hindoo 
constitution’ allegedly enjoyed by Mysore before Tipu’s father Haider 
Ali took over the throne in 1761. Tipu’s fall at Seringapatnam in 1799 
unloosed an orgy of self-congratulation among the British at their 
triumph, and seemed to justify alike British rule over India and the 
depiction of Muslims enunciated a half-century earlier by men like 
Alexander Dow.”4 

As Britain’s Muslim opponents in India were either displaced or 
reduced to the status of pensioners, condemnation of their ‘despotic’ 
rule receded into the background, where it took its place as a part of 
the larger historiography of the ‘misrule’ and ‘decadence’ of the 
eighteenth century. Suspicion nevertheless continued to shape much 
of the way the British conceived their Indian Muslim subjects. 
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the British 
remained convinced that resentment at their supersession as rulers had 
generated among Muslims an inevitable and implacable hostility 
toward their successors. Hence, the 1857 revolt, though it originated 
in the army and found supporters among Hindus and Muslims alike 
throughout northern India, was widely viewed as a product of endur- 
ing Muslim animosity. The young Alfred Lyall, less than two years in 
India at the time, in the midst of the uprising wrote that ‘the whole 
insurrection is a great Mahometan conspiracy, and the sepoys are 
merely tools in the hands of the Mussulmans’. He went on to differen- 
24 For British representations of Tipu, see Bayly, Raj, pp. 152-60. 


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tiate between the behaviour of Muslim and of Hindu rebels. For 
Hindus ‘plunder always seems to be their chief object, to attain which 
they will perform any villainy, whereas the Mahometans only seem to 
care about murdering their opponents, and are altogether far more 
bloody minded’. These last, he insisted, ‘hate us with a fanatical hate 
that we never suspected to exist’.? 

Such hostility was not, however, so the British conceived, simply a 
product of the grievances of former rulers. As Lyall concluded of 
India’s Muslims, ‘there is something in their religion that makes 
warriors of them’. In similar fashion John Lawrence spoke of the 
Muslim mutineers as possessing ‘a more active, vindictive, and fanatic 
spirit’ than their Hindu compatriots; but, he argued, this was only to 
be expected, for these traits were ‘characteristic of the race’. Such 
behaviour, that is, had its origin in the very nature of Islam as a 
religion, and it could be traced back to the religion’s beginnings in 
Arabia. As William Muir, later author of a life of Muhammad, wrote in 
October 1857, among Muslims ‘all the ancient feelings of warring for 
the Faith, reminding one of the days of the first Caliphs, were resus- 

Such views did not dissipate with the suppression of the uprising. 
Into the 1860s and 1870s this aura of suspicion remained a powerful 
force shaping British conceptions of their Muslim subjects. Constantly 
on the alert for outbreaks of violence, the British saw above all in the 
so-called ‘Wahabi’ movement, which sought a return to a purified 
Islam, evidence, as the Punjab government wrote in 1862, of the 
gathering together of ‘the tribes of Islam’ to ‘wage a holy war against 
the Faringhi’. Increasingly, however, monolithic notions of Muslim 
hostility gave way, in part because the British began to enter into 
dialogue with Muslims themselves, and in part also because varied 
notions of who the Muslims were, and what interests they represented, 
began to emerge. The result was an ambivalence which at once 
revealed the contradictory visions of Islam the British themselves 
possessed, and opened the way to one of the more enduring imperial 
myths ~ that of the ‘Frontier’. This re-evaluation was provoked by the 
publication in 1871 of W.W. Hunter’s The Indian Mussalmans, a 

25 Letters to his father, 11 July and 30 August 1857, in IOL MS. Eur. F132/3. 
26 Cited in Peter Hardy, The Muslims of British India (Cambridge, 1972), chapter 3, 
especially pp. 62-63, 71-73. 


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volume which posed in stark terms the question of whether these 
British subjects were ‘bound to rebel against the Queen’. 

Hunter opened his account with a stirring vision of seething dis- 
content among India’s Muslims. For years, he said, ‘a Rebel Colony 
has threatened our Frontier; from time to time sending forth fanatic 
swarms, who have attacked our camps, burned our villages, [and] 
murdered our subjects’. From this ‘hostile settlement’, he continued, 
‘a network of conspiracy has spread itself over our Provinces’, so that 
‘the bleak mountains which rise beyond the Punjab are united by a 
chain of treason depots with the tropical swamps through which the 
Ganges merges into the sea’. This ‘fanatic colony’, Hunter asserted, 
owed its origin to the reformer Saiyyid Ahmad Barelvi, whose preach- 
ing of a purified Islam during the 1820s, after his return from the 
pilgrimage to Mecca, had roused ‘frantic enthusiasm’ among those 
‘most turbulent and most superstitious of the Muhammadan Peoples’, 
the Pathan tribesmen of the northwest. No one could predict, he 
wrote, ‘the proportions to which this Rebel Camp, backed by the 
Musalman hordes from the Westward, might attain, under a leader 
who knew how to weld together the nations of Asia in a Crescentade’. 
Here, within his first pages, Hunter evoked a number of what were 
subsequently to become central elements in British imagery as it 
related to India’s Muslims: an obsession with ‘conspiracy’, an 
acknowledgement of the power of reformist preaching, and an asser- 
tion of a unique character setting off the Pathans from the other 
Muslim peoples of the subcontinent. 

The central objective of Hunter’s work was to urge upon the 
government a policy toward Muslims less unyieldingly hostile than 
the condemnation that had marked the period from Tipu Sultan to 
the Mutiny. In so doing Hunter sought to distinguish between the 
‘fanatical masses’, and the ‘landed and clerical interests’. The latter, 
he insisted, ‘bound up by a common dread of change’, had no 
interest in the reformist enthusiasms of the Wahabi movement, for 
such ‘dissent’ was necessarily ‘perilous to vested rights’. Hence by a 
more equitable treatment of these classes, especially in Bengal where 
a century of dispossession had stored up a host of grievances, they 
could be prompted to support the British government. More gen- 
erally, Hunter urged upon the government a broad support for 
Muslim education, and held out the vision of a ‘rising generation’ of 
Muslims, no longer ‘imbued solely with the bitter doctrines of their 


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own medieval Law, but tinctured with the sober and genial knowledge 
of the West’. 

Despite its obsession with ‘conspiracy’, Hunter’s The Indian Muss- 
almans \aid out a new policy initiative that, pushed forward by the 
successive viceroys Mayo and Northbrook, was to lead to a new 
alliance with India’s Muslim elites, above all with men such as Sayyid 
Ahmad Khan, whose Cambridge-styled Aligarh college gave visible 
shape to Hunter’s vision. Yet this vision was not itself free of ambi- 
valence. Though Hunter sought an alliance with the ‘comfortable 
classes’, those ‘of inert conviction and some property’, for he appreci- 
ated that the support of these men was essential for the stability of the 
Raj, at the same time he could not shake off a sympathy for the 
Frontier reformers themselves. As representatives of ‘the bravest races 
in the world’, they had from their mountain fastnesses time and again 
successfully defied the ‘combined strategy and weight of a civilized 
Army’ sent to subdue them. It was, he said, ‘inexpressibly painful’ that 
these, ‘the best men’, were not ‘on our side’. Nor was their religious 
zeal, with its cry for a purification of Islamic practice, wholly unattrac- 
tive. In Hunter’s view the Wahabi faith was a ‘simple system of 
puritanic belief’, whose adherents devoted themselves to bringing their 
countrymen to a ‘purer life and a truer conception of the Almighty’. 
Expressing his own Protestant sympathies, Hunter compared the 
Wahabis, engaged in the ‘great work of purifying the creed of Muham- 
mad’, to Hildebrand’s monks, who had ‘purged the Church of Rome’. 

Islamic reform, then, represented an ideal both of faith and of 
practice toward which, even as they denounced it, the British found 
themselves drawn. In part this attraction involved a romantic yearning 
for a simpler life of the sort they imagined to have existed in the ‘merry 
England’ of old, and which they sought now, as we shall see presently, 
to reconstruct on the Frontier. But Islam exerted an appeal of its own. 
The spread of Western education would, to be sure, help make 
Muslims ‘less fanatical’, and so propel them away from a ‘mistaken’ 
religion to a ‘higher level of belief? in Christianity. Yet it also would 
mean, as Hunter saw it, that the Islamic faith, like that of his own 
Christian contemporaries, would become ‘less sincere’, with the edu- 
cated sons ‘less earnest’ in their belief than their untutored fathers. 
Such a transformation was an occasion not only for rejoicing but for 
regret; for among late-Victorian Englishmen, who doubted their faith 
but still wished to believe, the rigorous monotheism of the Wahabi 


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preacher offered a reassurance they could no longer find in themselves. 
As Alfred Lyall wrote, “The Mahomedan faith has still at least a 
dignity, and a courageous unreasoning certitude, which in western 
Christianity have been perceptibly melted down ... by long exposure 
to the searching light of European rationalism.’ The ‘clear, unwavering 
formula of Islam’ by contrast ‘carried one plain line straight up toward 
heaven like a tall obelisk pointing direct to the sky’.?” 

Lyall was critical of Hunter’s insistence that British policy had 
antagonized India’s Muslims. The Muslims were, he argued, by the 
very nature of their faith ‘distinctively aggressive and spiritually des- 
potic’, prejudiced against Christians by ‘the religious rivalry of a 
thousand years’. For this reason there was no point, as Hunter had 
suggested, in endeavouring to conciliate them. All that the British 
could profitably do was ‘to keep the peace and clear the way’ for the 
‘rising tide of intellectual advancement’. As for himself, Lyall never 
ceased being mistrustful of Muslims. As he wrote in his poem ‘Bad- 

Near me a Mussalman civil and mild, 
Watched as the shuttled cocks rose and fell; 
And he said, as he counted his beads and smiled, 
“God smite their souls to the depths of Hell.’ 

Still, unlike the effeminate Hindus, the Muslims were ‘worthy’ oppo- 
nents. Hence, despite his administrator’s pride in the ‘progress’ the Raj 
had brought to India, Lyall could not resist the romanticized vision of 
the ‘sturdy’ Muslim who defied Hindu and Christian alike. In “The 
Pindaree’ he expressed this enduring tension through the voice of an 
old warrior who had fought the British in Central India, but who 
now saw his children in school and the ‘Settlement Hakim’ come ‘to 
teach us to plough and to weed’. As Lyall wrote in the final verse of the 

And if I were forty years younger, with my life before me to choose, 

I wouldn’t be lectured by Kaffirs, or bullied by fat Hindoos; 

But I’d go to some far-off country where Musalmans still are men, 
Or take to the jungle, like Cheetoo, and die in the tiger’s den. 

Others too, as they confronted Islam, found themselves torn 
between condemnation and admiration. Sir Richard Temple, for 
instance, described Islam bitterly as a religion that ‘withers human 
27 Lyall, Asiatic Studies (1904), p. 289. 


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character as with a blight, warps all the feelings and sentiments ... and 
rivets all customs and opinions in a groove’. Still, he acknowledged, 
‘there remains something of grandeur about it’. Though ‘really 
opposed to human progress’, he wrote, echoing Hunter and Lyall, ‘yet 
it reigns in the affections of many millions of bright-eyed and strong- 
handed men’. Above all, it had not ‘the many absurdities about it 
which Hinduism has’.28 Thus this faith, and its adherents, were 
inevitably set apart, with Christianity, from the ‘vast swamp’, as Lyall 
called it, of Indian religious belief. Islam in the end was a religion 
which commanded respect, even a covert envy, among the British in 
India. From the views of men like Lyall it was but a short distance to 
the Islamic enthusiasms of Sir Richard Burton and Wilfred Scawen 

As Hunter urged upon the government a policy of conciliation 
toward India’s Muslim elites, at the same time his writing gave new life 
to the idea of the Frontier as a land set apart, where conspiracy and 
‘fanaticism’ flourished. To be sure, this vision of ‘conspiracy’ was 
grounded in the reality of a frontier always hard to control. Many 
frontier districts, left in the hands of tribute-paying chiefs, were never 
fully subdued, and two Afghan wars, in 1838-42 and 1879-80, had 
cost Britain dearly. Very rarely, however, did Islamic movements by 
themselves, even that of the Wahabis, pose a significant threat to the 
Raj. As James Fitzjames Stephen observed, by the time Hunter’s book 
was published the Wahabi movement had been in existence ‘for forty 
years more or less and would probably become formidable only if it 
came to be connected with other causes of disaffection’. Yet, as he 
pointed out, on the one recent occasion when their participation might 
have made a difference, that of the 1857 Mutiny, these ‘conspirators’ 
had remained aloof.?? Nevertheless, the romanticized ‘myth’ of the 
Frontier grew ever more compelling as the years went by. The young 
Winston Churchill, for instance, described the origin of the 1897 rising 
in the following terms: ‘Messengers passed to and fro among the 
tribes. Whispers of war, a holy war, were breathed to a race intensely 
passionate and fanatical.” Curzon too spoke of the frontier tribes as 
‘inured to religious fanaticism and hereditary rapine’.>° 

28 Richard Temple, Oriental Experience (London, 1883), pp. 147; 315. 

29 Cited in Hardy, Muslims, p. 87. 

3° David B. Edwards, ‘Mad Mullahs and Englishmen: Discourse in the Colonial Encounter’, 
Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 31 (1989), pp. 649-70; Curzon of 


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Behind the fascination with the Frontier lay of course the looming 
menace of a Russian advance into Central Asia, and the consequent 
necessity to secure a friendly Afghanistan as a buffer state. Yet, even in 
Tashkent, the Russians were far away, separated from India by the 
towering Hindu Kush mountains. Considerations of strategic rivalry 
alone therefore cannot wholly account for the imaginative appeal of 
the Frontier. Rather, one might argue, the Frontier embodied, in 
compelling fashion, the enduring tension between the ideas of simi- 
larity and difference that shaped the British vision of India. This 
tension is perhaps most clearly captured in Kipling’s famous poem 
‘The Ballad of East and West’. The opening stanza insists on differ- 
ence, and yet, in the context of the Frontier, on similarity as well: 

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, 

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat, 

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, 

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the 
ends of the earth! 

The poem goes on to describe the pursuit of an Afghan horse thief by a 
young British officer. Led deep into rebel held territory, the officer is 
spared by his antagonist, who in turn entrusts his own son to his 
charge. In the end: 

They have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no 

They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on leavened bread 
and salt: 

They have taken the Oath of the Brother-in-Blood on fire and fresh-cut 

On the hilt and the haft of the Khyber knife, and the Wondrous Names 
of God. 

Upon this imagined Frontier the Pathan, while continuing to 
express much of the religious zeal the British saw as characteristic of 
Islam, was made also to play a distinctive role as a foil to the British 
themselves. Initially, in the years immediately after conquest, the 
Pathans, their hardy defiance sustained by remote mountain retreats, 
were portrayed as ‘bloodthirsty, cruel, and vindictive’, or as Richard 
Temple put it, ‘thievish and predatory to the last degree’; and they 

Kedleston, Speeches on India Delivered while in England in July-August 1904 (London, 
1904), pp. 8, 16. 


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were granted only a grudging recognition of their ‘courage and gal- 
lantry’. Soon, however, the positive elements in this ‘mixture of 
opposite vices and virtues’ came to be ever more enthusiastically 
embraced. As men moved by passion rather than reason, the Pathans 
might possess the qualities belonging to ‘savages’, but they were a type 
of the ‘noble savage’. If the Bengali, as Lewis Wurgaft has argued, was 
the ‘spoiled child’ of British India, the Pathan was, by contrast, the 
‘natural’ child. In his ‘barbarity and utter disregard for instinctual 
limitations’ he embodied a ‘fierce and admirable independence of 
spirit’. On the Frontier, so the British believed, they and their oppo- 
nents, like the British officer and the Afghan of Kipling’s poem, could 
look each other in the eye, and, moved by codes of heroism and 
honour, fight as men. Whereas the Bengali threatened the Englishman 
by caricature, the Pathan was an idealized alter-ego, the ‘half- 
barbarian’ warrior lurking in himself.*! 

This insistence on the Frontier’s unique character, set apart from 
India, extended to the landscape itself. At once harsh and beautiful, 
‘indescribeable in its clarity and contrast with the barren emptiness 
that went before’, its climate marked by ‘sharp, cruel’ extremes, this 
land, ‘woven into the souls and bodies of the men who move before it’, 
as the Frontier governor Olaf Caroe wrote, moved the British by its 
contrast with a ‘soft’ and ‘civilized’ India. As much of the attraction of 
Islam was its similarity to the faith they wished they still possessed, so 
too did the Frontier, even as the British denounced its ‘savageness’, 
evoke a romantic ideal of simplicity, together with an untrammelled 
masculinity. On the Frontier it was possible to escape the confining 
life of rules and regulations, of artifice and effeminacy, of the India of 
the plains. The ‘clean, manly, vigorous life’ of the frontier, as Wurgaft 
has put it, where women were altogether absent, and where 
Englishman and Pathan confronted each other in open warfare, 
‘allowed the most unconflicted expression of male aggressiveness’. At 
the same time, away from the ‘dust and stink’ of an India suffused with 
a debilitating female sexuality, the Frontier provided an arena where a 
suppressed homoerotic excitement might find an outlet. 

The purely male world of the Frontier evoked too for the British the 
days of their boyhood. The Frontier, so they believed, like the public 
school, ‘tested the man’. Its encounters, in this view, were like games, 

31 Lewis Wurgaft, The Imperial Imagination: Magic and Myth in Kipling’s India (Middle- 
town CT, 1983), chapter 1. 


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in which one fought to win, but in which there was no malice when the 
whistle blew and the game was over; it was ‘our chaps’ versus ‘your 
chaps’. On a larger scale, involving the Afghans and the Russians, the 
Frontier was of course the locale of the ‘Great Game’, of which 
Kipling wrote so evocatively in Kim, and whose ideal Pathan was 
Mahbub Ali the horsetrader, wild yet tamed to the service of the Raj. 
The Pathan’s own code of behaviour, as the anthropologist Akbar 
Ahmed has shown, was of crucial importance in facilitating the enact- 
ment of these schoolboy fantasies; for the concepts of honour, 
courage, and loyalty which shaped Pathan life were not wholly at odds 
with those the British cherished themselves. Hence it was possible to 
conceive of the Pathans as ‘someone not at your school but who could 
take a beating in the boxing ring or rugger without complaining, who 
could give as good as he got’. For the Pathans, however, the colonial 
encounter was no game, but a struggle for survival. They did not play 
it as a matter of choice.>? 

Even for the British, the “Great Game’ was never just a game, for 
death was always possible on the recurrent border raids. Apart from 
the two deadly Afghan Wars, however, there was never desperate 
combat on the frontier. Fantasies could thus be safely indulged, 
conspiracies imagined, and tribal risings confronted with a display of 
manly heroism. The Muslims, eternally plotting on the border, even 
the occasional raids themselves, provided a frisson of excitement not to 
be found in the dull round of life in court and camp. They provided a 
distraction too from the onerous task of coming to terms with the 
challenge posed from within, after the 1880s, by the educated Indians. 
One might argue that the existence of a safely distant threat gave the 
British a necessary sense of duty, validating the Raj in its self-appoin- 
ted task of securing the peace of the subcontinent. 

At once opponents and allies, a romanticized Self and a threatening 
Other, the Muslims were, during the later decades of the nineteenth 
century, shaped into a community strikingly different from India’s 
Hindus. This vision was never free of ambivalence, nor did it accord at 
all closely with that of the Muslims themselves. While Hunter saw in 
the Wahabi reformers men of a ‘pure’ faith, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, as a 
self-styled ‘cosmopolitan’ Muslim, found nothing attractive in these 
32 Akbar S. Ahmed, ‘The Colonial Encounter on the North-West Frontier: Myth and 

Mystification’, Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, vol. 9 (1978), 

pp. 167-74. 


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‘wild denizens of the hills’, worshippers of tombs and saints. Muslims, 
he insisted, should work peaceably alongside the British as they 
‘purified’ their faith. Yet Sayyid Ahmad, with Hunter and the British, 
accepted as fact the existence of enduring differences between ‘the two 
races’ of Hindus and Muslims. By the end of the nineteenth century, 
this insistence that India was divided into two opposed religious 
communities shaped the way not only the British, but increasing 
numbers of Indians, viewed their society. Nor did even those liberal 
dissenters who refused to abandon the ideals of an India remade ever 
question the country’s division into Hindu and Muslim, or challenge 
the stereotypes defining these communities. For E.M. Forster, as 
much as for Lyall or Hunter, Hindus and Muslims were set apart from 
one another. The characters of Dr Aziz and Godbole in A Passage to 
India represented conventions of descriptive writing about the two 
communities whose origins could be traced back to Alexander Dow. 


As part of their larger project of defining the enduring elements of 
India’s society, the British set out to order its past, and its present. It 
was not enough simply to assert the existence of a continuing ‘decline’ 
from antiquity, nor to insist upon the recurrence of ‘anarchy’ 
whenever the strong hand of the invader was lifted. The British were 
determined not only to recover India’s past, as part of the larger 
Victorian fascination with the ancient world, but to order this past into 
a coherent narrative that extended up to the present. In so doing, the 
British could, or so they imagined, create a secure and usable past in 
India for themselves. They were to be at once invaders from outside, 
and rulers from within. India’s history was to comprehend alike the 
stupa of Sanchi and the ruins of the Lucknow Residency, India’s 
enduring ‘difference’ and Britain’s ‘civilizing’ mission. 

At the heart of this enterprise was a massive archaeological survey in 
which all of India’s ancient sites and monuments were to be authorita- 
tively described, evaluated, and related to each other. The earliest 
archaeological work, in the years before the Mutiny, was at once 
haphazard and driven largely by individual expectations of unearthing 
objects of rarity and value. Likely looking mounds were dug open, 
while coins and statues were removed to private collections even by 
British officials. The East India Company’s government, preoccupied 


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with conquest and administration, paid little attention. As the viceroy, 
Lord Canning, wrote in 1862, when establishing the post of archaeo- 
logical surveyor, the Indian government had neglected the ‘duty’ of 
‘placing on record, for the instruction of future generations’, the ‘early 
history of England’s great dependency’. It will not be to our credit, he 
argued, ‘as an enlightened ruling power, if we continue to allow such 
fields of investigation as the remains of the old Buddhist capital in 
Behar, the vast ruins of Kanouj, the plains round Delhi, studded with 
ruins more thickly than even the Campagna of Rome, and many 
others’, to remain unexplored and unprotected. During the sub- 
sequent four years, until 1865, Alexander Cunningham, military 
officer and self-made archaeologist, undertook the series of tours 
which marked the beginning of organized archaeological activity in 

On his tours Cunningham determined to ‘follow the footsteps’ of 
Alexander the Great and the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Huen Tsiang, 
who travelled in India in the seventh century ap. For the first two 
years, starting at Mathura, Cunningham followed Huen Tsiang down 
the Gangetic valley; then in 1863-4 he began in the western Punjab 
near the Indus river, and gradually ‘worked my way to the eastward in 
company with the Macedonian soldiers of Alexander’. Cunningham 
justified this selection of routes by arguing that they would lead him 
directly to the great sites of antiquity. Yet in following Alexander he 
clearly sought as well to associate the British, though they had con- 
quered India from the east and south, with the historic invaders of the 
subcontinent, who, in his view, had brought it enlightenment and 
order, and had ‘entered India from the West’.*3 

In retracing these ancient routes Cunningham inevitably let the 
Chinese pilgrim and the Greek conqueror determine the places of 
historic importance in northern India. As he wrote of the Punjab, the 
‘most interesting subject of enquiry’ was ‘the identification of those 
famous peoples and cities whose names have become familiar to the 
whole world through the expedition of Alexander the Great’. In 
similar fashion, he argued, the ‘travels of the Chinese pilgrim’ hold ‘the 
same place in the history of India which those of Pausanias hold in the 
history of Greece’. The sites visited by these two ancient travellers, 
and thus described by Cunningham, were largely those associated 

33 Archeological Survey of India, Four Reports Made During the Years 1862, 1863, 1864, 
and 1865 by Alexander Cunningham, z vols (reprinted, Delhi, 1972). 


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with the era of Buddhist predominance in India. Cunningham’s pre- 
occupation with such sites was, however, not surprising; for, as we 
have seen, the great Buddhist monuments, especially those of the far 
northwest influenced by Greek aesthetic ideals, defined for the British 
of the Victorian era the high point of ancient India’s civilization. The 
Buddhist monuments too, as the Harappan civilization was as yet 
unknown, marked out the oldest sites to be found in India, and hence 
claimed the attention of a British public fascinated by the search for 

After his 1865 tour Cunningham was dismissed and sent home by a 
government, that of John Lawrence, loath to spend money on such 
pursuits. During the subsequent few years the provincial governments 
sponsored photographic tours by various amateurs, such as Captain 
Edmund Lyon in Madras, and drew up extensive lists of ‘ancient 
architectural structures or remains’ within their territories. During 
these years too the government sought to make available for the 
British public the finest of India’s antiquities. From among the ruins of 
Sarnath, for instance, some sixty-five objects, deemed to ‘possess the 
greatest interest and throw the most light on the manners and habits of 
former ages’, were set aside for shipment to England by the East India 
Company directors in 1858. Enterprising officials devised schemes as 
well to take casts of the largest monuments. Most ambitious was the 
complete casting of one of the massive gates of the Sanchi stupa. 
Bearing orders from three British museums and the French and 
Prussian governments, Lt. H. H. Cole came to India in 1869 accom- 
panied by some 28 tons of gelatin and plaster of paris. From Jabalpur, 
at the end of the railway line, the material was conveyed to Sanchi in 60 
carts, and the whole casting, when completed, consisted of 112 separ- 
ate pieces. The subsequent year Cole returned to India with the aim of 
casting portions of the Qutb Minar at Delhi and the sculpture of 
Fatehpur Sikri, but the Government of India refused to support the 
project. The government also denied Cole permission to take away to 
England the gates of the temple of Somnath, which had been retrieved 
from their previous Muslim captors with great fanfare by Lord Ellen- 
borough, but were then left to languish in the Agra Fort. Henceforth 
India’s antiquities were to remain in India, where, displayed in 
museums newly established from Calcutta to Lahore, they announced 
Britain’s mastery over the country’s past. 

In 1871 the archaeological survey was re-established with profess- 


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edly scientific objectives. As the Government of India told Cunn- 
ingham, appointing him to the permanent post of director-general, he 
was to undertake a ‘complete search over the whole country’ and to 
compile a ‘systematic record and description of all architectural and 
other remains that are remarkable either for their antiquity, or their 
beauty, or their historical interest’.>+ This survey was of course hardly 
shaped by scholarly concerns alone. Above all, these monuments, 
preserved in a state of arrested decay, testified to Britain’s self- 
proclaimed role as guardian of India’s past. Indeed, as Lord Curzon 
put it in a speech to the Asiatic Society in 1900, ‘a race like our own, 
who are themselves foreigners, are in a sense better fitted to guard, 
with a dispassionate and impartial zeal, the relics of different ages, than 
might be the descendants of warring races or the votaries of rival 
creeds’. Even the palace of the Burmese kings at Mandalay, less than 
half a century old, had to be preserved, as at once a mark of respect for 
Burma’s past sovereignty and a ‘reminder that it has now passed 
forever into our hands’. Mute witnesses to a past whose achievements 
had been superseded by those of the Raj, India’s antiquities could not 
be allowed to crumble into oblivion; nor, despite Lord Napier’s 
endeavour to install district offices in the Tirumal Naik palace at 
Madurai, and so make it a ‘machine of civilized administration’, were 
they meant to be put to use by the British government. 

The British conceived that India’s buildings provided the best, if not 
the only, book from which long periods of its history could ‘satisfac- 
torily be read’. These structures, as the Royal Asiatic Society put it, 
told of ‘the rise and fall’ of the different religions of India, of the 
‘ethnological relations’ of its various tribes and races, and of the ebb 
and flow of power as the north and south contended for mastery. Not 
surprisingly, the British insisted always that India’s historic architec- 
ture, like its peoples, were ‘naturally’ divided, as Cunningham put it, 
into ‘the two great classes of Hindu and Muhammadan, which are 
widely distinct from each other’. The first for Cunningham com- 
prehended Buddhist and Jain, as well as Brahmin, structures; the 
Buddhist among them, as the ‘earliest specimens of Hindu architec- 
ture’, deserved complete protection. Among the Muslim buildings he 
singled out for recognition the imposing structures of the great capital 
cities of medieval India. The ‘majestic beauty’ of the Qutb Minar, the 

34 See NAI Home Public, 28 May 1870, no. 88-89, and 18 February 1871, no. 28-29. 


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‘stern grandeur’ of Tughlaqabad, the ‘elegance’ of the Taj Mahal, all 
commanded the attention of the new archaeological survey.>> 

More than antiquity or ‘elegance’ was, however, at stake in these 
discussions. Each site had its role to play in the drama whose final act 
was the coming of the British Raj. Delhi’s Qutb Minar, for instance, 
told of the ‘bold and daring’ ‘first Mussalman conquerors’, who 
endeavoured by constructing this ‘lofty column’ to ‘humble the pride 
of the infidel ... and to exalt the religion of the prophet Muhammad’. 
The Asoka pillar in the Firoz Shah Kotla provided Cunningham with 
an occasion for a tirade against what he saw as ‘the unblushing 
mendacity’ still too common in India. ‘Almost everywhere’, Cunn- 
ingham wrote, ‘I have found Brahmins ready to tell me the subject of 
long inscriptions of which they could not possibly read a single letter.’ 
Always the triumphs of Indian art were ascribed to the influence of 
foreign invaders. Curzon, for instance, insisted in his speech to the 
Asiatic Society that the ‘majority’ of Indian antiquities, those of 
medieval times as well as those of the Buddhist era a thousand years 
before, were ‘exotics, imported into this country in the train of 
conquerors, who had learnt their architectural lessons in Persia, in 
Central Asia, in Arabia, in Afghanistan’. Echoing Cunningham forty 
years before, he saw the British themselves, ‘borne to India upon the 
crest of a later but similar wave’, as the agents of a similar process of 
architectural transformation.*° 

Despite their insistence on classifying India’s historic architecture in 
communal terms, as ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’ or ‘Buddhist’, the British did 
not in practice always find it easy to fit these categories to the buildings 
they were meant to describe. The architecture of north India’s rulers 
from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, above all, created 
intractable problems of classification. As many of the buildings in the 
Mughal emperor Akbar’s capital at Fatehpur Sikri were, so British 
critics argued, ‘thoroughly Hindu’ in outline and details, so too, by 
contrast, were the structures erected by the Hindu rulers of the 
surrounding region powerfully influenced by contemporaneous 
Mughal architecture. Difficulty of classification, as in the simultaneous 

35 See NAI Home Public, 30 July 1870, no. 204-16, and June 1874, no. 10-13. 
36 Archeological Survey, Four Reports ... 1862-63 ... Cunningham, pp. 163, 195; Curzon 
speech of 7 February 1900, in Sir Thomas Raleigh (ed.), Lord Curzon in India (London, 

1906), pp. 182~94. 


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effort to order India’s castes, bred controversy. While some, like 
Richard Temple, insisted, for instance, that the eighteenth-century 
palace of the Jat rajas of Dig, despite its ‘Mohammedan’ borrowings, 
was nevertheless a “Hindoo’ structure, others, with Cunningham, 
argued that the palace was in its architectural style ‘purely Mahome- 
dan’, with ‘very little if any trace of the real Hindu architecture about 
it’. For the most part, commentators like Fergusson, though with 
reluctance, classified these buildings as ‘Hindu’ because of the relig- 
ious faith of their builders. Throughout these controversies no one 
ever questioned the assumption, so deeply embedded in the ideology 
of the Raj, that, as religious affiliation shaped India’s society, so too 
must it — in timeless fashion — inform the elements of the country’s 

Alone among India’s viceroys, Curzon devoted substantial energy 
to archaeological preservation. He reorganized the Archaeological 
Survey into an efficient administrative body and tirelessly toured 
India’s ancient monuments. He was the first governor-general in 
eighty years to visit Gaur, Bengal’s historic capital, and one of only 
two in a century of British rule ever to tour the Hindu shrines of 
Brindaban. Curzon’s obsession, however, was the Taj Mahal, which 
he visited six times during the course of his viceroyalty. Convinced 
that the local engineers were ‘destitute’ of the ‘faintest artistic per- 
ception’, he set on foot a number of restoration projects, which he 
then supervised with a single-minded devotion to detail. Behind this 
commitment to precision lay, however, a world of ‘Oriental’ fantasy. 
Curzon dressed the hereditary custodians of the tomb, for instance, 
in the white suits and green scarf that he had decided was ‘the 
traditional garb of Mogul days’; he ordered the removal of the ‘garish 
English flowers’ from the gardens and their replacement by a row of 
cypress trees framing the Taj at the end; and he determined to 
procure a hanging lamp for the domed chamber above the cenotaphs. 
As the style of the Taj was, in his view, Indo-Saracenic, ‘which is 
really Arabic’, he asked Lord Cromer, British proconsul in Egypt, to 
design a lamp for him modelled on those still to be found in the 
mosques of Cairo. Dissatisfied with Cromer’s suggestion, Curzon 
then sought, unsuccessfully, to locate a copy of his childhood illus- 
trated edition of “The Arabian Nights’ as a source for suitable 
designs. Finally, during his trip back to England, upon his retirement 
from the viceroyalty, he stopped in Cairo, where he selected the 


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design for the lamp, installed in the Taj in 1906, which still hangs over 
the tomb chamber.°” 

Although the Taj always stood forth for the British as, so Curzon 
put it, a ‘vision of eternal beauty’, nevertheless even this great 
monument had to be made to fit into the appropriate categories of the 
British discourse on India’s past. As the Taj was by definition a 
‘Saracenic’ design, a lamp from Cairo — or even one drawn from a 
Victorian illustrator’s ‘Arabian Nights’! — could alone suitably com- 
plement its soaring domes and arches. What mattered was not the 
Indian reality of shared architectural forms, but an ‘Orient’ consti- 
tuted of opposed ‘Saracenic’ and ‘Hindw’ elements. In its majesty the 
Taj evoked too the grandeur of empire, against which the British 
sought always to measure themselves. Although Curzon insisted, 
when he set out to build the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, that there 
could be ‘no greater rashness than to attempt a modern Taj’, and 
though he scrupulously avoided elements of ‘Saracenic’ design, still at 
every stage of construction the Taj remained his animating ideal. 
Sometimes it presented an unreachable goal - he could not, he 
admitted, aspire to the eighteen-foot-high terrace of the Taj. Yet he 
took pride in the fact that he had made the Queen’s Hall larger than 
the tomb chamber of the Taj, and he insisted, despite objections on 
grounds of cost, that the marble for Victoria’s memorial be taken from 
the same quarry as Mumtaz Mahal’s. 

It was not always easy to secure the preservation of India’s ancient 
monuments in the proper state of arrested decay. Curzon bemoaned 
the use of whitewash on the medieval mosques and tombs of Bijapur 
and the unwillingness of the British military to vacate the Delhi and 
Lahore forts. Climbing up a ladder outside the temple of Bhubanesh- 
war to inspect the restoration work for which his government was 
paying, he denounced the ‘supposed prejudices’ of its guardians, who 
excluded, as they still do, non-Hindus from the shrine. Where relig- 
ious structures had already come into the possession of government, 
he determined not to ‘hand them back to the dirt and defilement of 
Asiatic religious practices’. Where worship had to be permitted, the 
devotions should be of a sort appropriate, as the British saw it, to the 
history and character of the site. At Bodh Gaya, the place of the 
Buddha’s enlightenment, the government was determined to restore 

37 For Curzon’s architectural activities, see correspondence in IOL Curzon Papers MS. Eur. 


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the main temple to what it ‘is undoubtedly, and always has been 
primarily, a Buddhist temple’. That the site had been in the control of a 
Hindu mahant since 1727 the Bengal authorities dismissed with the 
assertion that his religious observances were ‘unreal and unorthodox’. 
Still, when the mahant obstinately refused to vacate, Curzon backed 
down. As the British found themselves, Curzon wrote in 1904, 
involved in ‘so many sources of somewhat sharp disagreement with 
the native community in Bengal (arising out of our Universities Bill, 
the Official Secrets Act, and the suggested partition of Bengal), it did 
not seem to be worthwhile to add another to their number, or to 
provide a possible handle for a religious agitation’. 

Despite this setback, the ideas which informed the challenge to the 
Bodh Gaya mahant remained compelling. History, so the British 
insisted, should determine what Curzon called the ‘proper conduct of 
worship’, and hence the oldest, or original, form of religious devotion 
ascertained to have taken place in any structure possessed an overrid- 
ing claim to it. Taken up in the late twentieth century by the Indians 
themselves, this colonial ideology now informs, not a challenge to the 
mahant of Bodh Gaya, but the insistent demand that later, Muslim, 
religious structures must give way to presumably earlier, Hindu, ones. 
Based in large part on British archaeological excavations dating back to 
Cunningham’s time, these claims sustained the long assault on the 
sixteenth-century Babur mosque in Ajodhya, culminating in its final 
tragic demolition by crowds of Hindu activists in December 1992. 
Alleged to be set on the ancient site of the birthplace of Ram, it could 
not be allowed to stand. The colonial notions of India’s enduring 
division into Hindu and Muslim, and of ‘history’ as a mode of 
validation for one’s actions in the present, had borne bitter fruit. 

As the British defined India’s past, they sought always to make 
room in it for themselves. The massive six volume Cambridge History 
of India can be seen in particular as a complementary enterprise to the 
archaeological survey, as it sought to comprehend all of India’s past in 
a single narrative that led inevitably to the Raj. As we have seen in 
chapter 3, in this historiography the past was always the present. The 
ancient empires, as Ronald Inden has indicated in discussing the work 
of the historian Vincent Smith, were seen as the product of an ‘active 
male and Aryan rationality’ that arrived by conquest and imposed its 
order on an inherently divided non-Aryan populace. Following in the 
footsteps of these imperial rulers, the British, in this view, could take 


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pride in having erected a polity in India that ‘was not only true to 
India’s history, but even an improvement on it’. By contrast, in 
Smith’s account, India’s medieval history, with its petty warring 
kingdoms, was not just a story of decline, but ‘a parable of the future, 
of what would happen in India if the British withdrew’.*8 

As they approached their own time, the British sought to define the 
Raj as itself truly Indian, while yet retaining a conception of them- 
selves as Western, and the bearer of the values of ‘civilization’. The 
history, the architecture, and the ritual of the Raj alike bore witness to 
this endeavour. The events of the Mutiny, for instance, in such 
monumental works as J.W. Kaye’s three-volume History of the Sepoy 
War (1867) were cast in heroic form to create a ‘mythic’ triumph. For 
Kaye the British themselves, by their ‘over-eager pursuit of Humanity 
and Civilization’, what he calls the ‘progress of Englishism’, provoked 
the uprising; yet that same English ‘self-assertion’ alone made possible 
a victorious outcome. At the same time the monuments associated 
with the events of 1857 were organized in a sacral way, linking the 
Residency at Lucknow with the well at Kanpur and the Ridge at Delhi. 
Marked with British blood, these sites defined a landscape that for the 
British indelibly connected their Raj at once to an Indian past and to 
their successful mastery of an India stained by ‘treachery’ and 

The endeavour to mark out the distinctive character of the Raj took 
shape most visibly in the buildings the British themselves put up in 
India. As we have seen, during the era of Company rule most British 
building in India was fitted to the forms of European classicism. Such 
‘eternal’ forms, with their origins in ancient Greece, asserted an aes- 
thetic perfection that stood above the vagaries of time; while at the 
same time they proclaimed for all to see what were regarded as 
universal values of law, order, and proportion. The adoption of Euro- 
pean classical forms did not, however, resolve the problem of repre- 
senting Britain’s empire as Indian. So long as a mercantile company 
controlled the government, and the Mughal emperor sat on his throne 
in Delhi, the British had but little choice other than to use a European, 
and largely classical, idiom in their imperial building. After the 
Mutiny, however, with the transfer of power to the Crown and the 
banishment of the Mughal ruler, the British began to construct for 
themselves a notion of empire in which they were not merely foreign 
38 Inden, Imagining India, chapter 5, especially pp. 180-88. 


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9 The Madras Law Courts, designed by J. W. Brassington and H. C. Irwin 
(1889-92). The structure, in the characteristic manner of the British Indo- 
Saracenic, joined together features, most notably arches and domes, from a 
variety of Indian styles, and incorporated as well arcaded verandas, colon- 
nades, and a tower in the shape of a minaret containing a light to guide ships 
toward the nearby harbour. From /ndian Engineering, 7 September 1895. 

conquerors, like the Romans, but legitimate, almost indigenous rulers, 
linked directly to the Mughals and hence to India’s own past. Part of 
this endeavour took the shape of the proclamation of Victoria as 
Empress of India. In architecture it involved the creation, from the late 
1860s onward, of a new style, known as the ‘Indo-Saracenic’. 

As the British set out to incorporate Indic features into their archi- 
tectural work, they were drawn especially to the forms, above all those 
of the arch and dome, that made up what they conceived of as the 
‘Saracenic’ style. As they disdained the ‘idolatrous’ Hindu religion, so 
too did they disdain the architectural styles that, in their view, 
expressed its values in stone. Unlike the heavy, dark forms of post and 
lintel construction that informed Hindu temple architecture, the arch 
and dome were, as Lord Napier, governor of Madras, put it, ‘the most 
beautiful, the most scientific, and the most economical’ way of cover- 
ing large spaces. Central to the appeal of that style, however, were its 


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political implications, for the Saracenic was the style associated with 
the Mughal Empire, whose power and majesty the British now wished 
to claim as their own. Indeed, Napier argued, the Government of India 
would ‘do well to consider whether the Mussulman form might not be 
adopted generally as the official style of architecture’. 

In the end, late-nineteenth-century British builders in India adopted 
Indian design elements in a highly eclectic fashion. (See fig. 9.) R. F. 
Chisholm, who inaugurated the new architecture with his ‘Saracenic’- 
styled Revenue Board buildings in Madras (1870), in subsequent 
designs borrowed features from the architecture of Travancore, 
Bijapur, Ahmedabad, and elsewhere. Similarly, Major C. Mant’s 
Mayo College, Ajmer (1875), mixed Rajput and Mughal forms in a 
striking design capped with an ornate clock tower. Nor did British 
builders confine themselves to Indian forms. Chisholm incorporated 
Byzantine elements in his Madras University Senate House; while, as 
William Emerson wrote of his design for Muir College, Allahabad, he 
had ‘determined not to follow too closely Indian art, but to avail 
myself of an Egyptian phase of Moslem architecture, and work it up 
with the Indian Saracenic of Beejapore and the northwest, confining 
the whole in a western Gothic design’.>? 

The mingling of elements from across India ideally suited the British 
vision of their role as colonial rulers. By drawing together forms 
distinctly labelled ‘Hindu’ and ‘Saracenic’, the British proclaimed 
themselves the masters of India’s culture, able to shape a harmony the 
Indians, divided by caste and community, could not themselves 
achieve. This eclecticism reflected also, and itself constituted, British 
notions of India’s enduring ‘difference’. As India’s society was 
unchanging, traditional, in a word ‘Oriental’, the elements of its 
architecture were, at the deepest level, similar and interchangeable. For 
the colonial builder its forms represented, not an on-going tradition 
within which he worked, but rather colours on a palette from which he 
could pick and choose to create the image he desired: that of order 
imposed on a backward and divided society. 

At no time was Indo-Saracenic design ever conceived of as an 
exercise in antiquarianism. Central to its conception was always a 
combination of ‘European science’ and ‘native art’, of ‘traditional’ 
forms and ‘modern’ functions. The buildings constructed in this style 
were meant to advance the novel objectives of the Raj, and they 

39 Metcalf, Imperial Vision, chapter 3. 


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included a wide array of public structures, from law courts and post 
offices, railway stations and banks, to colleges and museums. Indeed, 
Indo-Saracenic architecture expressed within itself the enduring 
tension between a British commitment to a ‘civilizing’ enterprise, with 
its vision of an India transformed, and an insistence, announced in the 
facades these structures presented to the public, that India remained of 
necessity a ‘traditional’ Oriental society. 

James Fergusson, with his History of Indian and Eastern Architec- 
ture (1876), had begun the extended process of ordering, labelling, and 
classifying India’s historic architecture. This sense of mastery culmi- 
nated with Swinton Jacob’s Portfolio of Indian Architectural Details 
(1890). Comprising six massive volumes, containing some 375 plates 
of detailed architectural drawings — of brackets and capitals, arches and 
plinths — from historic buildings across northern India, this portfolio 
of ‘working drawings’, so Jacob announced, would enable the archi- 
tect to take full advantage of features ‘so full of vigour, so graceful and 
so true in outline’. The volume announced as well that the British had 
now made India’s architectural heritage their own. No longer would 
the builder have to ‘copy piecemeal and wholesale’ structures of the 
past; rather, having mastered ‘the spirit which produced such works’, 
he could ‘select, reject, and alter the forms to suit the altered con- 

By 1900, then, alike in ethnography, archaeology, and architecture, 
the British had, or so they thought, ordered, and so mastered, at once 
India’s past and its present. Informed by an ideology that announced 
India’s enduring ‘difference’, yet uneasily insistent upon communicat- 
ing the ‘principle of progress’ to India, they had fashioned for India a 
past linked to a vision of empire in which, as the viceroy, Lord Lytton, 
told the Imperial Assemblage in 1877, ‘Providence’ had called upon 
the British to ‘replace and improve’ the ‘constantly recurrent’ anarchy 
of its strife-torn predecessors. The ordered India which the British 
had created could not, however, wholly obscure the contradictions 
that underlay its divergent elements, nor could an insistence upon 
‘difference’ forever keep at bay the challenges posed in the name of 
‘similarity’, above all by the educated Indian. 


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Throughout, as the British put together an ideology for the Raj, they 
had to contend with the internal contradictions that bedevilled it, 
above all those between an insistence on India’s difference, and a 
similarity they could never entirely repudiate. As time went on, these 
tensions grew ever more unmanageable. By the later decades of the 
nineteenth century an educated elite, organized in the Indian National 
Congress, asserted their equivalence to their rulers, and so claimed the 
rights they felt entitled to as British subjects. Medical researchers in 
the field of parasitology made discoveries at the same time which 
revealed that all bodies were inherently the same in their susceptibility 
to disease. The British did not readily embrace either the political or 
the medical parallels between themselves and the Indians. On the 
contrary, in the later years of the century, especially with the outbreak 
in the 1890s of famine and plague, India was ever more visibly 
imagined as a land set apart, a land of disease (or of ‘dis-ease’) and 
disorder. The legacy of the Mutiny in particular contributed to a 
growing fearfulness that could never wholly be quelled. There 
remained always a remembrance of a time, evoked in fiction and 
memoirs for half a century afterward, when all Englishmen, and 
especially English women, were at risk of dishonour and death. 

This sense of vulnerability, of anxiety existing side-by-side with a 
self-proclaimed ‘mastery’ over an ordered India, found an imaginative 
centre in Calcutta. Once a ‘city of palaces’ in which the British had 
taken pride, Calcutta had by the end of the century become the ‘city of 
dreadful night’. Seen as overrun with sewage, home to endemic 
disease, and given over to the despised babu, who controlled the 
Calcutta Corporation, the city nonetheless assumed for the British the 
shape of a glittering capital, illuminated by the commanding presence 
of such figures as the viceroy, Lord Curzon. Within it all the contra- 
dictions of the Raj converged. 

To keep this ever more threatening India at bay the British devised a 
strategy built upon distancing and denial. The late nineteenth century 
marked the high point of the British retreat into the club and the hill 


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station, and with it the insistence that, as Kipling wrote in “Beyond the 
Pale’, one must let ‘the White go to the White and the Black to the 
Black’. Yet evasion could never be wholly successful, for much in 
India remained seductively attractive, while the contamination of 
India inevitably seeped into club and cantonment with servants and 
disease. Nor could the British forever ignore, and so dismiss, the 
demands of the educated for increased political participation. Increas- 
ingly, British fearfulness was propelled by political anxieties, by the 
challenge of a ‘new’ India, as well as by the enduring unease of an 
ideology that suppressed complicitous similarity. This chapter 
explores the British response to the crisis of the Raj in the late- 
Victorian and Edwardian era. It begins, in its first two sections, with a 
discussion of the cultural and psychological mechanisms the British 
used to cope with a land of both danger and desire. The last two 
sections, returning to politics, look first at the construction of con- 
stituencies meant to bulwark a vulnerable Raj, and then at a frontal 
assault, from within the ideals of British liberalism, upon the ideology 
of difference itself. 


In his Indian stories, as well as in his own early life, Rudyard Kipling 
made visible the psychic tensions that lay hidden beneath the seemin- 
gly placid surface of the late Victorian Raj. Born in Bombay in 1865, 
Kipling looked back upon his early years, speaking Hindustani in the 
care of his Indian ayah, as a time of ‘light and colour and golden and 
purple fruits at the level of my shoulder’. This seductive India con- 
tinued to attract him twenty years later as a young reporter, when he 
spent the stifling summer nights roaming the streets and bazaars of 
Lahore. Kipling subsequently recreated this idyllic past in the carefree 
Kim, the ‘friend of all the world’, conversant with everyone and at 
home everywhere. Yet this childhood fantasy of an India where racial 
boundaries did not matter could not be sustained into adult life. Then 
the powerful attraction of a sensual India had always to be held in 
check by the stern demands of imperial duty. In Kipling’s story 
‘Without Benefit of Clergy’, the hero, John Holden, was caught up in 
an illicit relationship, with his beloved Ameera, that provoked in him 
feelings of ‘riotous exultation’. After participating in a ritual sacrifice 
meant to secure the life of his new-born son, he admitted that ‘I never 


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felt like this in my life.’ Yet he could not give way to such feelings. 
At once, ‘eager to get to the light and the company of his fellows’, he 
decided, ‘I’ll go to the club and pull myself together.’ Later, when 
his Indian son died, ‘one mercy only was granted to Holden’. He 
rode to his office and ‘found waiting him an unusually heavy mail 
that demanded concentrated attention and hard work’. For Kipling 
too the streets at night stood always in tension with the club, a 
sanctuary where work and duty were necessary to ward off ‘riotous 

Such love affairs as Holden’s embodied an enduring vision of India 
as temptress and seductress. For Kipling, whose wide popularity 
attests to the imaginative power of his writing, this was a central 
representational mode. In his stories Indian women were almost 
invariably defined by their sexuality - whether the prostitute Lalun, 
who by her intrigues shook the stability of the Raj, or the beautiful 
young Bisesa and Ameera, who drew British officers into doomed love 
affairs. The greater the erotic attraction, the more such sensuality was 
linked to danger and to death, and more generally to the heat and 
disease which for the British typified so much of India. In Kipling’s 
‘Beyond the Pale’, once the affair was discovered, Bisesa held out her 
arms to her lover in the moonlight to reveal both hands cut off at the 
wrists, while the Englishman Trejago was at the same time wounded 
by a thrust to the groin delivered by an unseen assailant. In ‘Without 
Benefit of Clergy’ Holden’s infant son and his Ameera alike died of 
disease. The death of the latter was part of a vast cholera epidemic 
speading across India ‘from all four quarters of the compass’. When 
finally the rains came to end the epidemic they left the lovers’ house so 
dilapidated that it was torn down. In the end, Kipling concluded, in a 
parable of colonialism, the municipality made a ‘road across, as they 
desire, from the burning-ghat to the city wall, so that no man may say 
where this house stood’. 

The very streets where these Indians lived were at once mysterious 
and forbidding. Bisesa, for instance, lived at the end of a gali, behind a 
‘dead wall pierced by one grated window’. Nor was Kipling himself 
comfortable even in the palaces of Rajasthan, with their ‘cramped and 
darkened rooms, narrow smoothwalled passages with recesses where a 
man might wait for his enemy unseen, the maze of ascending and 
descending stairs leading nowither, the ever present screen of marble 
tracery that may hide or reveal so much’. In these dark confines not 


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even sexual identity was secure. Trejago went each evening to meet his 
Bisesa, between the ‘sleeping cattle and the dead walls’, clad in a burqa, 
‘which cloaks a man as well as a woman’. He threw off the burga only 
after the attack, when he fled that quarter where ‘each man’s house is 
as guarded and unknowable as the grave’. 

Similar themes informed the writing of many of Kipling’s con- 
temporaries. In Flora Annie Steel’s novel of the Mutiny, On The Face 
of the Waters (1896), for instance, the hero Jim Douglas enjoyed with 
his mistress Zora, whom he had set up in a ‘cool scented retreat’ above 
a ‘rabbit warren of dark cells crushed in on each other’, an ‘idyl’ of 
some eight years only to watch her die, ‘as so many secluded women 
do, of a slow decline’. Returning later to this ‘peaceful garden’, 
Douglas found it, and with it Indian sensuality, ‘oppressive’. The 
Indian woman’s ‘eternal cult of purely physical passion’, so Steel 
wrote, her ‘eternal struggle for perfect purity and constancy, not of the 
soul, but the body’, and her ‘worship alike of sex and He who made it’ 
was simply ‘incomprehensible’. In such writings, which define the 
colonial encounter in terms of the possession of a feminine India by a 
masculine Britain, sexual imagery was used to represent not control, 
but fear of the loss of control. Cast as a seductive, sometimes castrat- 
ing, female, India embodied the overwhelming of the rational by the 

In this vision of a sensual India the English woman, was, as we have 
seen, made to play a distinctive role as the embodiment of the virtues 
of domesticity and moral purity. However much she might amuse 
herself, as in Kipling’s ‘Plain Tales from the Hills’, with gossip and 
flirtation, the English woman of necessity existed as something 
approaching a sacralized figure. The crisis of the Mutiny, therefore, as 
it exposed Britain’s vulnerability, not surprisingly generated a near 
obsessive fear of savage Indian men raping helpless English women. 
Even though the evidence available even at the time made it clear that 
no British women were sexually violated before being killed, tales of 
systematic rape, torture, and mutilation began to circulate among the 
British before the revolt had been suppressed. Even Harriet Tytler, 
who had been present at the seige of Delhi, conjured up a vision of ‘so 
many poor women’ who had had to face a ‘worse death’ than mere 
killing. These stories served at once to reassure the British of their 
right to rule India, and affirmed afresh the image of English women as 
virtuous and innocent. (See fig. 10.) 


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10 Miss Wheeler Defending Herself Against the Sepoys at Cawnpore, from 
Charles Ball, History of the Indian Mutiny (1858). When British women were 
depicted as acting heroically, as at the time of the famous Kanpur massacre in 
July 1857, commentators represented them as doing so in order to protect 
their moral purity from dishonour at the hands of licentious Indians. Miss 
Wheeler, daughter of the commanding general at Kanpur, was reported at the 
time to have thrown herself into a well after shooting a number of sepoys. In 
fact, her fate is not known. 

British Indian fiction for half a century after 1857, in a way that had 
not been the case before, as Nancy Paxton and Jenny Sharpe have 
made clear, continued to retell tales of rape, and more importantly, of 
English women as martyrs for the empire, killed while resisting disho- 
nour. In so doing these writings at once kept alive the memory of the 
Mutiny, and nourished enduring racial and sexual anxieties that, as we 
shall see, gained renewed power with each recurring crisis. Occa- 
sionally these works, as in the case of Steel’s On The Face of The 
Waters, present English women as resourceful, even sensual; in this 
novel too the heroine, Kate Erlton, preserves her honour not by facing 
death, but by staging a mock abduction, in which, thrown across the 
horse’s saddlebow, she pretends that her English rescuer Douglas, 
disguised as a marauding Afghan, is about to rape her. By thus 


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undercutting the classic imagery of female self-sacrifice, Steel adopts a 
stance to some degree critical of the imagined Victorian role for 
women. Steel also acknowledges a sympathy with Indian customs. 
When Kate wrapped herself in a veil to avoid detection in the city, she 
reflected that, unlike in England, ‘where a lonely woman might be 
challenged all the more for her loneliness’, in ‘this heathen land the 
down-dropped veil hedged even a poor grass-cutter’s wife about with 
respect’. Subsequently, hiding from the mutineers in Delhi, Kate is 
portrayed as content in her seclusion, wearing Indian dress, even the 
gold bangles of Douglas’s former mistress. Yet Steel never called into 
question the larger values that sustained the Raj. Despite her content- 
ment, Kate rejoined the British camp, and urged on the troops to 
‘revenge’ the ‘wrongs’ done to English women. By the end of On The 
Face of the Waters, Kate and Jim Douglas, married, are settled in 
Scotland. Neither in the way they were represented, nor in their own 
lives, did English women in India pose any fundamental challenge to 
the dominant ideologies of race and gender.! 

The fears triggered by the events of 1857 were not confined wholly 
to fantasies of the violation of innocent women. A writer like Kipling 
could imagine even, in the chilling tale of “The Strange Ride of 
Morrowbie Jukes’, the English placed at the mercy of their Indian 
subjects. In this story the English officer, Jukes, fell into a desolate 
sand crater inhabited by Indians, among them an English-speaking 
Brahmin and former government servant, who had survived a cholera 
epidemic. Treated with the ‘most chilling indifference’, this ‘repre- 
sentative of the dominant race’ lay ‘helpless as a child’ amidst his 
former subjects, who announced that ‘we are now a Republic’, and 
invited Jukes to partake of his ‘fair share of roasted crow’. The story 
sharply marks out the contrast between, on the one side, the educated 
Gunga Dass, who spent his time, ‘in a deliberate lazy way’, torturing 
Jukes ‘as a schoolboy would devote a rapturous half-hour to watching 
the agonies of an impaled beetle’, and, on the other, the faithful servant 
Dunnoo, who looked after Jukes’s dogs, and who came to his rescue 
by letting a rope down over the edge of the crater. 

By the last decades of the century such fears had become focussed 
with a renewed intensity on the figure of the educated Bengali. At once 

1 Nancy Paxton, ‘Mobilizing Chivalry: Rape in British Novels about the Indian Uprising of 
1857’, Victorian Studies, vol. 36 (1992), pp. 5-30; Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire: The 
Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text (Minneapolis, 1993). 


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a political threat to the stability of the Raj, and a parody of the 
Englishman himself, the babu, no longer simply a stock figure of 
caricature, was, in the hands of men like Kipling, the object of a hatred 
informed by mockery and derision. Throughout the writings of his 
Indian years Kipling denounced the educated ‘native’ with bitter 
satire. In his sketches for the ‘City of Dreadful Night’, for instance, 
Kipling linked Calcutta’s inadequate sanitation directly to its system 
of municipal self-government. ‘In spite of that stink’, he wrote, ‘they 
allow, even encourage, natives to look after the place! The damp, 
drainage soaked soil is sick with the teeming life of a hundred years 
and the municipal board list is choked with the names of natives —- men 
born in and and raised off this surfeited muck heap!’ 

Not only in Calcutta, but at the opposite end of the country, on the 
Northwest frontier, the hapless and ineffectual Bengali was made the 
butt of ridicule. In Kipling’s story “The Head of the District’, when the 
respected deputy commissioner, Yardley-Orde, dies suddenly, the 
viceroy, determined to advance the principles of the ‘New India’, 
appoints as his successor Grish Chunder De, MA, a Bengali ‘more 
English than the English’, who is ‘crammed with code and case law’, 
but wholly incapable of rule. The tribesmen refuse to accept this ‘fat, 
black eater of fish’ as their ruler, and so rise in rebellion. Stammering 
that he had not yet taken official charge of the district, Chunder De 
contrived to ‘fall sick’ and fled, leaving his British assistants to quell 
the uprising. Facing the defeated hillmen, the assistant Tallantire 
assured them that next time the government would ‘send you a man!’ 
The hillmen were, of course, in Kipling’s opinion, no more capable of 
self-rule than the Bengali. Though ‘strong men’, they remained cap- 
tives of their own impulsiveness. They were, as Orde told them on his 
deathbed, ‘children’; hence they, as much as the effeminate Bengali, 
required the ordering presence of the Raj. 

One might argue that Kipling’s visceral animosity toward the edu- 
cated Bengali had deeper roots than simply the desire to sustain the 
British Raj. As Wurgaft and Nandy have alike pointed out, the 
so-called effeminacy of the Bengali, together with the attraction these 
men expressed for English learning, brought a man like Kipling, a 
writer and literary figure, face to face with a side of his own personal- 
ity he could not openly avow in the hypermasculine society of late 
Victorian India. Only by a vigorous repudiation of everything connec- 
ted with the babu and his culture could he effectively contain those 


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elements he saw, and despised, within himself, and so retain a place 
amongst his Anglo-Indian peers. Oddly, and revealingly, years later, 
after he had left India for good, Kipling was able, in the character of 
Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, to craft a figure who mocked not just the 
educated Bengali but the colonial stereotype itself. For the ‘hulking 
obese Babu’ in Kim, so incongruous in the masculine arena of the 
Great Game, was one of its most skilled practitioners. His actions, as 
he took on the task of instructing Kim in the ways of espionage and led 
two Russian spies to their undoing across the trackless wastes of the 
Himalayas, stood always in ironic contrast to his derogatory descrip- 
tion of himself as a ‘very fearful’ man.? 

Connected to the insistent denial of any complicity in Bengali 
effeminacy was an equally strong repudiation of the homoerotic. As 
India presented the seductive image of the feminine to the Englishman, 
so too did it open up for him a field of homoerotic possibilities. They 
could never be acknowledged, but, as Sara Suleri has argued, homoer- 
oticism, as much as the classical Orientalist imagery of rape, defined 
the sexual appeal of India for the British. In her view, indeed, the 
imperial dynamic was shaped more by a “dialogue between competing 
male anxieties’ than by the ‘traditional metaphor of ravishment and 
possession’. However India’s attraction made itself felt, the tensions it 
generated — between mastery and submission, denial and desire, an 
insistence upon difference and the perception of sameness — could not 
easily be reconciled. Kipling sought some resolution by insisting on 
the value of steady and unreflecting hard work. His hero was the 
district officer, a man such as Orde, riding hard in the saddle, or the 
bridge-builder Findlayson who subdued the raging Ganges. The ‘still 
small voice of fact’ could to some degree quell doubt and uncertainty, 
and carve out a space of order amidst the chaos of India.? 

As anxiety mounted, the British turned for reassurance to a ringing 
show of self-confidence. After all, the turn of the century was the 
heyday of imperialism — of the partition of Africa and the Boer War — 
and European supremacy throughout the world, sustained by the 
theories of social darwinism and scientific racism, seemed assured. 
Curzon, especially, excelled as viceroy in giving voice to the ideals, 
and the ideology, of the Raj. As he so forcefully put it in his last speech 

2 Wurgaft, The Imperial Imagination, pp. 132, 142; Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, 
PP. 37-38, 69-70. ; . 
3 Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India, especially pp. 16-17, 77. 


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before leaving India, in Bombay in November 1905, the purpose that 
sustained the empire was 

to fight for the right, to abhor the imperfect, the unjust or the mean, to swerve 
neither to the right hand nor to the left, to care nothing for flattery or applause 
or odium or abuse ... but to remember that the Almighty has placed your 
hand on the greatest of his ploughs ... to drive the blade a little forward in 
your time, and to feel that somewhere among these millions you have left a 
little justice or happiness or prosperity, a sense of manliness or moral dignity, 
a spring of patriotism, a dawn of intellectual enlightenment, or a stirring of 
duty, where it did not before exist. 

‘That,’ Curzon concluded, ‘is enough, that is the Englishman’s justi- 
fication in India.”4 

Such extravagant language could nevertheless not wholly obscure a 
defensive sense of unease. Curzon insisted, when he spoke at the 
London Guildhall in 1904, that the Indian Empire ‘is not a moribund 
organism. It is still in its youth, and has in it the vitality of an 
unexhausted purpose.’ ‘Let no man’, he concluded, ‘admit the craven 
fear that those who have won India cannot hold it ... That is not the 
true reading of history. That is not my forecast of the future. To me 
the message is carved in granite, it is hewn out of the rock of doom — 
that our work is righteous and that it shall endure.’ The impassioned 
character of these denials — protesting, one might say, too much — 
surely reveals a good deal more than the words themselves. A fearful- 
ness had taken hold of the Indian government at its highest level.5 

In similar fashion much British building in India during Curzon’s 
time, and in the years following, shouted forth an overwhelming 
magnificence. By its vast size, with tesselated marble paving, soaring 
domes, and Renaissance styling, a building such as the Victoria Mem- 
orial in Calcutta sought to reassure the British, and indeed their newly 
powerful European rivals as well, that the British Empire still mat- 
tered. (See fig. 11.) To be sure, in Curzon’s vision, the memorial was 
meant also to bind the educated Indian to the Raj, but, as his advisors 
warned him, in the absence of any genuine sharing of power, this was a 
hopeless task. The building’s memorials in the end celebrated only 

* Lord Curzon, Speech at the Byculla Club, Bombay, 16 November 1905, in Thomas 
Raleigh (ed.), Curzon in India p. 589. 

5 Lord Curzon, speech upon receiving the Freedom of the City of London in the Guildhall, 
20 July 1904, Speeches on India Delivered while in England in July-August 1904, 
pp. 20-21. 


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11 Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, designed by William Emerson (1905-21). 

Clive, Hastings, and other ‘heroes’ from whose exploits the British 
could convince themselves that their past in India had been ‘glorious’. 

The use of European classical forms, rather than the Indo-Saracenic 
styles characteristic of British building during the preceding fifty 
years, further indicated a loss of the self-confident mastery of India 
and its past that had shaped the designs of such men as R. F. Chisholm 
and Swinton Jacob. These builders, as we have seen, conceived of 
themselves as manipulating enduring elements of India’s architectural 
heritage to shape a harmonious social order Indians themselves could 
not achieve. Although Indic elements were incorporated into the 
design of the buildings for the new capital at Delhi in the years after 
1912, by the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, they were 
carefully subordinated to the forms of European classicism, while the 
buildings themselves were set within an overall urban layout informed 
by the dictates of beaux-arts formalism. Lutyens’ reinterpretation of 
Indic forms in the viceroy’s house was stunning in its imaginativeness. 
But the dominant features of the design were the immense size of the 
building, its huge dome, and its seemingly endless ranks of massive 


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12 Viceroy’s House, New Delhi (now Rashtrapati Bhavan), designed by 
Edwin Lutyens (1913-31). Note the use, together with the European-styled 
colonnade, of such Indic forms as the horizontal overhanging chajja, clustered 
chattris (cupolas), and a dome and encircling railing modelled on the ancient 
Buddhist stupa at Sanchi. 


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columns. Together they announced to an increasingly anxious British 
public that their empire, its buildings around the world sharing fami- 
liar classical forms, was still one on which the sun never set. (See 
fig. 12.) 

Despite the apparent security of the early-twentieth-century Raj — 
its self-assurance defiantly asserted, its strategies for governance fully 
elaborated, its authority sustained by the best science of the day - men 
like Kipling, and even Curzon, uneasily, perhaps at times unwittingly, 
revealed an inner core corroded by doubt, uncertainty, and a fearful- 
ness that could not be wholly kept from view. 


From the beginning the British conceived of India as a land of dirt, 
disease, and sudden death. While not perhaps quite a ‘White Man’s 
Grave’, like the coast of West Africa, still India in the eighteenth 
century was viewed as a place where fortunes might be made quickly, 
but where the Englishman was not likely to enjoy a long and healthy 
life. The towering tombs of the Park Street cemetery bear silent 
witness to the suddenness of death among the ‘Nabobs’ of early 
Calcutta. Nor did medical theory offer much hope for ameliorating 
the effects of residence in India. From the time of the ancient Greeks 
onward, health was perceived to be linked widely to an array of 
topographical and environmental factors. The elevation of the ground, 
the condition of the soil, the humidity of the atmosphere, and above all 
the extent of marshes and wet ground, determined the occurrence of 
epidemic disease. This environmental theory of disease marked out 
India, with its unfamiliar plant and animal life, its excessive heat and 
numerous ‘miasmatic’ fluxes, as an exotic, and dangerous space. Of 
course, in climate, as in so much else, what the British called ‘India’ 
was in fact shaped by their experience of Bengal, the area they knew 
best. The furthest from the norms of northwestern Europe, marshy 
humid Bengal, with its presumably disease-generating ‘miasmas’, most 
fully realized for the British the ideal of a ‘tropical’ climate. Always, 
Bengal embodied the vision of India as a land of peril. 

To be sure, England too, in the eighteenth century, and into the 
early industrial era, was a land of cities laden with filth, of poverty 
among the working classes, of lives cut short by diseases for which 
medical science had no cure. Britain was even subject to occasional 


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waves of devastation, such as the great cholera epidemic of 1831, that 
struck suddenly and killed without warning. Nevertheless, although 
some few diseases, such as smallpox, were recognized as largely free of 
environmental influences, the great majority of what early Victorian 
medicine classified as ‘fevers’, from malaria and typhoid to cholera and 
hepatitis, were at once, by contrast with England, far more prevalent 
in India, where they ravaged the health of vulnerable and ill-adapted 
Europeans, and, more importantly, were perceived as the product of 
India’s ‘tropical’ climate. 

Hot climates brought with them not just discomfort and disease, 
but, in British thinking, an enduring degeneration of mind and body. 
Indians, so this medical theory insisted, having adapted to the tropical 
environment, were invariably lethargic, while Europeans, once trans- 
planted from their native soil, lost their accustomed vigour, and 
gradually declined. In such climates too, as we have seen in our 
accounts of the writings of Dow and Orme, despotism and fatalism 
invariably triumphed over self-reliance. Each climatic region thus 
shaped the human ‘constitution’ most suited to it. Europeans took up 
residence in the tropics at their peril. Nevertheless, once committed to 
the rule of India, the British devised, as we will see, strategies thought 
to insure a greater degree of survival in its climate, while increasingly 
they sought to blame India’s disease-ridden character not just on its 
climate but on Indian fatalism, inertia, and superstition. The environ- 
ment comprehended the character of the people it had shaped, as well 
as the physical elements of humidity and topography. Climate made 
the Indian and the British ‘constitutions’ fundamentally different, but 
Britain’s moral superiority, and medical knowledge, made it possible 
for the British to blunt the impact of Indian disease upon themselves, 
and even, so they believed, to instruct their Indian subjects in how 
better to preserve their own health. In place of ‘medical doctrines 
which would disgrace an English farrier’, as Macaulay put it in his 
Minute on Education, the British had the obligation, as the possessors 
of a higher civilization, to spread ‘full and correct information 
respecting every experimental science’. 

Though seen as a land of pestilence, India was not at the outset 
reviled as a land of filth and dirt. The English also lived amidst 
excrement and sewage; even the Thames sometimes stank so badly that 
the windows had to be shut in the Houses of Parliament. Until the 
1840s, though observers might decry the state of its sanitation, 


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England was not set apart from India by its smell, or its drains. For the 
early-nineteenth-century Englishman, what made India pestilential 
was its climate, not the sewage in its streets. By the middle decades of 
the century, however, as Edwin Chadwick’s sanitary movement took 
hold with the coming of the Victorian administrative state, filth, and 
the epidemic diseases linked to it, were increasingly brought under 
control in Britain. Despite much popular resistance to such govern- 
ment interference, in 1848 the first Public Health Act began the 
process of cleaning the cities and rivers of Britain, providing safe 
drinking water, and establishing compulsory vaccination. Similar 
measures, only fitfully enacted and rarely enforced, were less success- 
ful in India, so that as time went on the difference between Britain and 
India grew ever more palpable. In a process similar to that which 
brought the English working classes into the constitution after 1867, 
and so definitively marked off the British from colonial peoples 
politically, by the 1890s, apart from a few exceptional areas such as 
Glasgow, Britain was set apart from its Indian dependency as deci- 
sively in its health and sanitation. Calcutta, one might say, became 
filthy only as London became clean. 

India’s disease and dirt thus became markers of its enduring ‘differ- 
ence’, and so helped sustain the larger ideology that undergirded the 
Raj. At the same time, this notion of India as a land of disease became 
inextricably bound up with the parallel notion of India as a sensual 
society lacking proper self-control. The ‘tropics’, that is, gendered 
feminine, were the kind of place, subject at once to indolence and 
passion, where disease and sexuality alike flourished. Indeed, the two 
complemented each other. As the one represented India as an alluring 
land of desire, the other revealed the horrifying attraction of disease, 
and ultimately of death. Connected to this was the obsessive yet 
ineffectual British concern with Indian sanitation. From Dr Bonavia’s 
hapless endeavour in the 1860s to put an end to public defecation 
among the citizens of Lucknow to the fierce denunciations, continued 
up to the present, of ‘filthy drains’ and ‘stagnant cesspools’, India’s 
sanitary shortcomings distinguished it as a land of squalor and of 
indulgence, of bodies that were out of control.® 

This sinister India took shape above all in the menacing figure of 

6 Veena Talwar Oldenburg, The Making of Colonial Lucknow, 1856-1877 (Princeton, 
1984), pp. 96-144; also see V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (London, 1964), for classic 
statements on dirt and disease in India. 


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cholera. By the mid-nineteenth century, this disease had become a 
symbol for much that the West feared about a society so different 
from its own. In part this was simply because the major nineteenth- 
century cholera epidemics, beginning with that of 1817-21, had 
spread across the globe from India, where the disease had its 
homeland in the ‘miasmatic’ paradise of the lower Ganges basin. It 
was as visibly Indian as it was threatening. Furthermore cholera, to 
some degree like smallpox, was intimately bound up with Hindu 
‘superstition’. Hinduism gave rise, especially at the village level, to 
disease goddesses, and even human ‘avatars’, who represented and 
warded off the disease for their devotees. In the British view the exist- 
ence of such goddesses, ‘disgusting’ examples of Hindu fatalism, 
stood in stark contrast with European rationality and the presumed 
scientific control of disease.’ 

Especially disturbing to the British was the link between pilgri- 
mage, both Hindu and Muslim, and the spread of disease. Belief in 
such a connection was not without foundation, for pilgrimage 
brought large bodies of people together in close proximity, but in the 
British imagination these gatherings assumed terrifying proportions. 
The Jagganath temple at Puri, for instance, with its car festival in 
which devotees were said to be crushed under the wheels, represented 
for evangelical Englishmen the ultimate horror of Hinduism. ‘Prob- 
ably no spot on earth’, as one missionary wrote in 1828, ‘represents, 
within so small a compass, such complicated scenes of misery, cruelty, 
and vice, as are presented to view round the temple of Juggernaut.’ At 
the same time its concentrated masses of worshippers made this city a 
central point for the spread of epidemic cholera. Hence it is not sur- 
prising that, in Western eyes, as David Arnold has written, Puri epito- 
mized all that was obscene, degrading, and epidemiologically danger- 
ous about Hindu India. Frequently, indeed, moral and medical 
condemnation was mixed together. In a report of 1868 Dr. David 
Smith, the Bengal sanitary commissioner, contrasted the pilgrims’ 
view of Puri as a holy city where they would be freed of their worldly 
sins, with the sanitarian’s view of it as anything but ‘heaven on earth’, 
containing in its many tanks ‘the waters of death and not those of 
immortality’. The image of the god, Smith wrote, ‘terrible in its innate 

? David Arnold, ‘Cholera and Colonialism in British India’, Past & Present, no. 113 (1986), 
p. 132. 


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hideousness’, was ‘yet more terrible in its connection with all the 
surrounding circumstances’ of disease and filth.® 

The link between Indian religion and disease was further reaffirmed 
at an international sanitary conference held at Constantinople in 1866. 
The European powers here sought to cordon off India, and pointed an 
accusing finger at both Hindu pilgrimages and the Muslim pilgrimage 
to Mecca. Such pilgrimages they declared to be ‘the most powerful of 
all the causes which conduce to the development and propagation of 
cholera epidemics’. What lay behind such intense anxiety was nothing 
less than fear of Europe’s vulnerability. “The squalid pilgrim army of 
Jagannath’, as: W. W. Hunter wrote apprehensively in his history of 
Orissa (1872), ‘with its rags and hair and skin freighted with vermin 
and impregnated with infection, may any year slay thousands of the 
most talented and beautiful of our age in Vienna, London, or Wash- 

By the later decades of the nineteenth century, the discoveries of 
parasitology began to call into question the environmentalist expla- 
nation of not just cholera but all so-called tropical diseases. Commit- 
ted to the “Orientalist’ view that Indians were fundamentally different 
from Europeans, the senior British medical establishment, as David 
Arnold has argued, clung tenaciously to a climatic, and with it a racial, 
determinism. India had to be as distinct epidemiologically as it was 
racially and culturally; India’s diseases had somehow to be connected 
to the soil and people of the land: Nevertheless, by the 1890s research- 
ers in the Indian Medical Service, with Patrick Manson in China, had 
elaborated in convincing detail what has become known as the ‘germ’ 
or ‘contagionist’ theory of India’s most deadly ailments, among them 
malaria, plague and cholera. Although, as Douglas Haynes has shown, 
much of this research was driven by narrowly professional motives, as 
medical officers in the colonial world sought to advance their careers at 
home by contributing to the advance of a universal medical science, 
still the new bacteriological explanation of disease inevitably chal- 
lenged the whole ideology of ‘difference’. From the ‘contagionist’ 
point of view all bodies were the same, and all equally susceptible to 
the attack of disease-carrying fleas, mosquitoes, or other vectors. A 
8 Ibid., pp. 138-41. 

9 W.W. Hunter, Orissa, vol. 1 (London, 1872), pp. 166-67. The Indian government objected 
to the quarantine policy on political and economic grounds. See Mark Harrison, ‘Quaran- 

tine, Pilgrimage, and Colonial Trade: India 1866-1900’, Indian Economic and Social 
History Review, vol. 29 (1992), pp. 117-44. 


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universalistic science by its very nature had no room, except in a few 
special situations such as sickle cell disease among Africans, for racial 
immunities or any sort of special vulnerability.!° 

India, and with it the ‘tropics’ more generally, nevertheless 
remained a place set apart, and one no less threatening. The humid 
marshes of Bengal, and the open drains of Calcutta, might no longer be 
the source of pestilential ‘miasmas’, but they were still the primary 
breeding grounds of the organisms that transmitted disease. It was in 
India, and similar hot climates, that malaria, cholera, and other such 
fearful diseases were most often to be found. The discoveries of the 
end of the century, far from putting an end to the notion of the 
‘tropics’, helped give it an institutional base with the founding in 1899 
of the London School of Tropical Medicine. Notions of European 
superiority also remained firmly set in place. Not only had European 
modes of scientific inquiry made possible the great advances of the 
1890s, but Europeans alone, as the officers of the Indian Medical 
Service, possessed the knowledge that permitted diagnosis, treatment, 
and eventual eradication of disease. 

The result was a sharpening of the tension which since the 1830s had 
bedevilled the British as they contemplated Indian disease. On the one 
hand, the ideology of difference, grounded in environmentalism, com- 
bined with a lack of knowledge of the causes of disease, had justified a 
largely non-interventionist medical strategy. On the other hand, 
enthusiasm for what was seen as superior Western science had from 
Macaulay’s time driven an interventionism which had taken shape 
most visibly in the appointment after 1864 of sanitary officers for the 
various provinces. But lack of funds and fear of popular antagonism, 
especially where illness was so closely tied to religion, had checked 
government action except in areas of substantial European settlement 
such as the presidency cities. The new medical knowledge of the end of 
the century prompted a renewed interventionism. Above all, drastic 
measures of quarantine were taken in the plague epidemic of the late 
1890s, and measures for cholera inoculation and smallpox vaccination 
were slowly introduced over the subsequent decades. But funds 
remained limited, and public suspicion of the government and its 

10 For British tropical medicine during this period, see Douglas Haynes, ‘From the Peri- 
phery to the Center: Patrick Manson and the Development of Tropical Medicine as a 
Medical Specialty in Britain, 1870-1900’ (University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. 
Dissertation, 1992). 


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motives did not easily dissipate. Most dramatic, of course, was the 
assassination of the plague commissioner W. C. Rand in 1897, as a 
result of the insensitive policy of search and quarantine carried out by 
military personnel in Poona. 

Hence ideas of difference, and of separation, among the British in 
India did not vanish with the coming of a more universalistic medical 
theory. One might argue that at best a shift in emphasis occurred. One 
now sought to avoid not ‘miasmatic’ fluxes, but Indian bodies, the 
filthy carriers of contagious disease. The last decades of the nineteenth 
century, and the first two decades of the twentieth, thus saw the fullest 
elaboration of what may be called an ideology of ‘distance’, built upon 
a still enduring sense of difference. The security provided by this 
distancing was of course always more apparent than real, for the 
British had to drink Indian water, eat food grown in India, and breathe 
Indian air, and they always admitted Indian servants to their homes. 
Hence the strategy of ‘distance’ itself reinforced precisely the uneasy 
sense of vulnerability it was meant to combat. The forms this ‘distance’ 
took can perhaps best be imagined as a set of nested boxes, each walled 
off from the larger Indian world outside. The three most important 
were the bungalow residence, the civil lines (or cantonment), and the 
hill station. 

The bungalow as a building style for the British in India dated back 
to the late-eighteenth century. Derived from the thatched roof Bengali 
hut (hence the name), but now constructed of masonry and elaborated 
to include a high ceiling, several rooms, and a verandah, the bungalow 
spread rapidly throughout the interior of British India. The style 
served a number of purposes. (See fig. 13.) Among them was protec- 
tion from the hot climate, for the enclosed inner rooms and high 
ceiling kept the outside glare and heat at bay while allowing hot air to 
rise well above the heads of the occupants. The roofed verandah, 
sometimes surrounding the whole building, provided further protec- 
tion for the interior, while affording a pleasant site for relaxation or 
work during the cool of the morning and evening. Its siting in a 
spacious compound, away from the reflected heat of other buildings, 
further enhanced the comfort of the structure. The bungalow, 
however, with its compound, also secured the important objective of 
keeping its English inhabitants at a safe distance from the surrounding 
noise, dust, and disease of India. Indeed the size of the compound, 
together with its wall, gate, guard, and long entry drive, served to 


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13 Bungalow, Allahabad (1866). Note the expansive thatched roof, encir- 
cling verandah, and placement in the centre of a large compound with curving 

entry way. 

impress Indians with the power and authority of the British, while at 
the same time affording a way of regulating entry. Indians were almost 
never allowed beyond the verandah, where much business was trans- 
acted, and they were at all times at the mercy of uniformed chaukidars 
and chaprassis who protected the British residents from unwelcome 
visitors (and themselves often profited in the doing)." 

In the endeavour to make the bungalow an island of Englishness, 
secure from a noxious India, the English woman, or memsahib, played 
a critical role. Not just a decorative figure meant to signify purity and 
domesticity, the memsahib had actively to enforce within the house, 
and its surrounding compound, the ideals of cleanliness, order, and 
industry. She had, that is, within the British Indian household, to take 
on the role her husband played outside: that of a masculine assertion 
of ordering rationality in the face of a feminized India where disease 

't Anthony King, The Bungalow: The Production of a Global Culture (London, 1984). 


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and disorder raged unchecked. The home might be, as in England, a 
female refuge, and a place where the man could find emotional suste- 
nance, but it was also the front line of a battlefield whose commanding 
officer was its British mistress. The task of keeping India at bay was 
made doubly difficult by the universal reliance upon Indian domestic 
servants, for their presence breached the barriers the bungalow com- 
pound was meant to throw up. Hence the battle against dirt, disease, 
and depravity had to be fought within the home as well as outside. 
Numerous household guides warned the Anglo-Indian housewife that 
she must ever be on the alert, and must exercise a careful surveillance 
over the habits and customs of her staff. As Flora Annie Steel wrote in 
The Complete Indian Housekeeper (1904), ‘We do not wish to advo- 
cate an unholy haughtiness; but an Indian household can no more be 
governed peacefully, without dignity and prestige, than an Indian 
Empire.’ Servants were meant, above all, to live within the bungalow 
compound, where they could be kept apart, along with its British 
residents, from the dirt and squalor of the ‘native’ city. The menace 
posed by the English woman’s continuing intimate association with 
male servants was contained by desexualizing these men. Always 
portrayed as children, they ceased to be threatening, and so could 
safely be chastised, and guided, by a benevolent maternalism. 

From the middle decades of the nineteenth century British bunga- 
lows in each locality (or ‘station’) were commonly grouped together in 
a spacious quarter known as the ‘Civil Lines’, or, where the military 
predominated, a cantonment. Such grouping set the British residential 
area sharply apart from the congested bazaar or ‘native’ city. Segre- 
gated residential areas could be found in some of the earliest British 
settlements in India, most notably in Madras, where from the late 
eighteenth century English garden villas encompassed a vast suburban 
tract set apart from the ‘Black Town’ of Indian trade and residence 
near the port. But until the mid-nineteenth century European resi- 
dential areas were rarely planned in a coherent fashion, and segre- 
gation did not exist everywhere. Before the Mutiny, for instance, 
though the ridge to the north was being developed as a European 
residential area, the British inhabitants of Delhi mostly lived inside the 
walled city. 

The Mutiny, however, initiated as it was by the massacre of all 
Delhi’s English residents, so frightened the British that in the years 
immediately afterward the major cities of northern India were laid out 


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anew with juxtaposed, but separate, British and Indian sectors. Con- 
siderations of military security, not surprisingly, dictated much of this 
planning enterprise. In the city of Allahabad, for instance, after 1858 
the capital of the North-Western Provinces, the Civil Lines, laid out in 
1858, were placed to the north of the old city and separated from it by 
the main line of the Calcutta—Delhi railway, which was constructed at 
the same time. Access from one part of the city to the other existed 
only at a handful of manned level crossings. (The Grand Trunk Road 
by contrast, the main artery of northern India before the coming of the 
railway, went through the heart of the old city.) Lines of railway 
similarly demarcated British and Indian areas in other major cities such 
Lucknow, while in Delhi the line was driven through the heart of the 
old city to break up its congested mass. In Lahore the station itself was 
designed as a fort in which the European population could take refuge 
in case of insurrection. To further reassure a fearful British populace, 
in larger cities, Lucknow and Allahabad among them, military canton- 
ments were placed adjacent to the civilian residential areas. 

The contrast in appearance between city and civil station in a town 
such as Allahabad could not be more striking. In 1868, as J. B. 
Harrison has written, the old city had two or three main streets of fair 
width, but from these a labyrinth of ever smaller lanes led off into the 
interior of the various muballas (neighbourhoods), many of which still 
had gates to seal off the whole block at night. The houses, mixed 
together with shops and warehouses, looked inward, and with space 
limited grew slowly upward. The civil station by contrast was a 
gridiron of broad metalled roads, with newly planted avenues of trees 
framing bungalows which stood in lush 2, 3, and even 10 acre com- 
pounds. The main avenue, Canning Road, encircled the cathedral, and, 
after passing through the European shopping area, terminated at the 
Government House. Even roo years later, in the 1960s, apart from the 
growth of suburbs and the dilapidation of the old British bungalows, 
little had changed - the contrast was as marked as before.'? 

Considerations of security may have determined much of the layout 
of these British urban settlements, but sanitary fears were no less 
prominent. Initially segregation on sanitary grounds was a matter of 
concern primarily for the military. Among British soldiers in India the 

12 J.B. Harrison, ‘Allahabad: A Sanitary History’, in Kenneth Ballhatchet and J.B. Harrison 
(eds.), The City in South Asia (London, 1980), p. 176; Anthony King, Colonial Urban 
Development (London, 1976), especially chapters 5 and 8. 


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death rate from disease, even during 1857, as in the Crimea a few years 
before, was far higher than on the battlefield. Overall, during the 
half-century preceding the Mutiny, the mortality rate among the 
British military in India was 70 per 1,000, as compared with 17 per 
1,000 at home. It was of course impossible to separate British from 
Indian troops posted to the same station, and every cantonment 
employed a large number of Indian servants as well. The cantonment 
bazaar, with its prostitutes whom the military authorities sought 
vainly to register and inspect, was a further source of potential infec- 
tion. Nevertheless, especially after the 1863 report of the Royal Com- 
mission on the Health of the Army, which pointed to the connection 
between health and sanitation, the government sought to isolate the 
troops, and with them the civilian British population, so far as possible 
from areas of dense urban settlement. After all, as the commission 
insisted, ‘the habits of the natives are such that, unless they are closely 
watched, they cover the whole neighbouring surface with filth’, or 
what one medical officer called a ‘daily offering of impurity exposed 
on the surface of the earth’.!3 

Although cantonments could not be wholly secluded, still they were 
commonly protected by a wide band of open land, ideally 1 to 2 miles 
in depth, as a cordon sanitaire. Irrigation and cultivation were prohi- 
bited in this area, and Indian villages were even, as in Allahabad, 
forcibly uprooted from within this tract in order ‘to preserve the 
health and life of the remaining and more important section of the 
community’. In similar fashion resources were disproportionately 
lavished on the European residential areas at the expense of the Indian. 
As the sanitary commissioner wrote so early as 1868, while the 
Allahabad civil station, ‘inhabited by the European community, has 
been covered in all directions with very good roads, and its drainage 
has been carefully attended to’, many of the roads in the city were of 
dirt, badly drained, and ‘almost impassable in the rains’. Respectable 
British women, especially, avoided at all cost the narrow dark streets, 
evil-smelling courtyards, and polluted open drains of the ‘native’ 

Short of leaving India altogether (which the British had no intention 
of doing), the most effective way of securing a suitable distance from a 
hot disease-ridden land was to escape to the hills. There, in the cool 
heights of the Nilgiris and Himalayas, the British constructed an 
13 Harrison, ‘Allahabad’, pp. 173, 178. 14 Thid., 177-78. 


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arcadian idyll where the fears and anxieties of colonial rule could be 
kept at bay in a landscape of exceptional beauty. The British first 
began to explore the hills in the 1820s, and the three major resorts of 
Ootacamund, Darjeeling and Simla were established by the mid- 
1830s. Until mid-century, however, the hills were used mainly as 
convalescent retreats for British troops, with only occasional and 
irregular visits by civil officials. After 1865, when John Lawrence 
made Simla the regular summer capital of British India, and railroads 
facilitated access, the hill station loomed ever larger in the British 
imagination. The ideology of ‘difference’ can be visibly read in the 
landscape in the opposition of ‘plains’ and ‘hills’. 

The presumed health benefits of residence in the hills did not 
depend upon either of the competing theories of tropical disease, nor 
were they linked to any particular diseases. Almost by definition the 
hills were seen as providing protection against diseases thought to be 
caused by ‘miasmatic’ fevers. In similar fashion, when contagionist 
theories came into vogue, the thin populations of the hill areas, and the 
scarcity of breeding mosquitoes at high elevations, were shown to be 
decisive in reducing infection from diseases such as cholera and 
malaria. Cholera outbreaks did, however, take place in the hills, and of 
course malaria could be brought there by travellers passing through 
the highly malarious Tarai foothills on the way. In the end the health 
benefits of hill residence were largely defined by the logic of social 
distance. Those who derived most benefit from the hills, as several 
medical officers put it, were those ‘who labour under no organic 
disease, but suffer from general debility, the result of a residence in the 
low country; these cases rally wonderfully and rapidly’. 

Behind the enthusiasm for the hills lay the ever-present fear of 
‘degeneracy’. Too long a continued residence in the hot Indian climate 
would inevitably, so the British were convinced, lead to an enfee- 
blement announced by languor, irritability, and depression. Such 
maladies were often described by vague medical terms such as ‘neur- 
asthenia’, and their symptoms were not always easily distinguished 
from other tropical ailments. The British sought to counter such 
degeneration above all by avoiding life-long residence in India. 
Whenever finances permitted, children were sent to England for 
schooling and the colonial British themselves returned ‘home’ for 
retirement. But the hills too could help restore ‘Saxon energy’. The 
prescription for a ‘change of climate’ in such cases involved nothing 


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less than the flight of a vulnerable English body to a world that was 
secure and comforting from one perceived as oppressive and threaten- 
ing. For nearly eighty years, from the 1860s until the early 1940s, 
following the senior officers of government, British women and chil- 
dren journeyed regularly to the hills each summer, while their hus- 
bands soldiered on below, ever on the lookout for an excuse that 
would bring them for a short time at least to the cool heights. 
Missionaries, and even Indian princes, following the lead of the 
government, created hill stations of their own, in such places as 
Mussoorie and Kodaikanal, Murree and Mt Abu. Schools too 
flourished in these settlements, where they drew a clientele of mixed 
race Eurasians and less affluent Europeans unable or unwilling to send 
their children to boarding schools in England. 

The British made of the hills not only a sanctuary from India, but an 
idyllic England defined as India’s exact opposite. Imbued with an 
attraction for the ‘picturesque’, derived from late-eighteenth-century 
aesthetic sensibility, the British sought to create in India’s mountains a 
vision of flowers and gardens, lakes and crags, nourished in such places 
as the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. Outside the rolling 
hills of the Nilgiris this was not an easy task. The Himalayas, soaring 
dramatically to the eternal snows, bore no resemblance to British 
landscapes, and were indeed most commonly described, in accordance 
with the conventions of contemporary aesthetics, as ‘sublime’; not just 
wild and untamed, they were, even more than the vistas found in the 
Alps, awe-inspiring, even overwhelming in their gigantic scale. In the 
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in the days of William 
Hodges and the Daniells, the Indian ‘picturesque’ was sought, not in 
the mountains, but in reassuringly domestic vistas along the banks of 
the Ganges, in peaceful pastoral landscapes, and among the ruined 
monuments scattered across the plains. 

As the British moved into the hills they adopted various strategies to 
fit these mountains into the descriptive conventions of the pictur- 
esque. One was simply to reduce them in size by referring to them as 
‘hills’ rather than the mountains they so obviously were. Another, in 
writing and illustration, was to focus upon the more tractable Nilgiris, 
which because of their accessibility had gained an early and enthusias- 
tic recognition. Visitors from Bentinck and Macaulay to Lytton in the 
1870s waxed rhapsodic over the beauty of the area around Ootaca- 
mund. “The afternoon was rainy and the road muddy’, Lytton wrote; 


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‘but such beautiful English rain, such delicious English mud. Imagine 
Hertfordshire lanes, Devonshire downs, Westmoreland lakes, Scotch 
trout-streams, and Lusitanian views!’!5 

Taming or ‘domesticating’ the Himalayas was a lengthy process, 
and took shape primarily within the hill towns themselves. The 
English dwelling in the hills, in sharp contrast to the regimented 
bungalow of the plains, was designed on the model of the English 
country cottage, or, more grandly, that of the decorated Swiss chalet. 
Each was meant to express the personality of its owner, and, like an 
English country house, each was given a distinctive name that denoted 
its picturesque site or nostalgia for an England left behind. Each too 
was surrounded by imported English flowers, with English fruits and 
vegetables grown in nearby gardens. A bandstand, Gothic church, and 
Mall, its buildings often constructed in Elizabethan half-timbered 
style, completed the illusion, even though set amongst looming peaks 
and precipitous gorges, of an English country town. The hill station 
arcadia was, for the inhabitants of “Woodacre’ or ‘Myrtle Cottage’, a 
repudiation at once of a feared India and a disdained urban industrial 

Not only the landscape but the peoples of the hills were shaped to fit 
the requirements of the new colonial order. As Dane Kennedy has 
pointed out, although the Nilgiri Todas, the Paharis of the Simla hills, 
and the Lepchas of Darjeeling, separated each from the other by a 
thousand miles, had almost nothing in common, the British fashioned 
them all into simple people, formed by such qualities as gentleness, 
openness, and innocence. In the British view these mountain peoples, 
‘noble guardians of edenic sanctuaries’, conveniently lacked almost all 
the vices that marked the Indians of the plains. Less indolent, less 
enmeshed in caste and “degrading superstitions’, they had even almost 
escaped India’s pervasive sensuality. As one officer wrote, ‘I have seen 
some beautiful and sinless little hill girls of grace and air so innocent, 
so pure, so cherub-like, that it seemed impossible that ... they should 
have within them the seeds of lasciviousness and guilt.’ These hill 
peoples contrasted sharply not only with the residents of the plains but 
with those other hill dwellers, such as the Gurkhas and the Pathans, 
whom the British had fashioned into ‘martial races’. Whereas the fierce 
Pathan was meant to test the manly qualities of the British officer, the 

15 Lady Betty Balfour, The History of Lord Lytton’s Indian Administration (London, 1899), 
p. 220. 


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gentle Pahari was meant to guard his women and children. Modest, 
harmless, and submissive, the hill peoples were presumed to harbour 
no surprises and pose no threats to the British Raj. As such they were 
the ideal complement to the ideal of separation that lay at the heart of 
the opposition of hills and plains.'¢ 


Throughout the years of their rule over India the British sought 
always, like imperial rulers everywhere, to mobilize supporters from 
among their subjects. The process of defining and labelling the peoples 
of India, discussed in chapter 4, had as one of its major objectives the 
identification of groups who might be shaped to the service of the Raj. 
After 1858, anxious and apprehensive, the British redoubled their 
efforts to mobilize support from within India, and so counter the 
challenge posed by the rebels of 1857. By the later decades of the 
century, as they were thrown on the defensive by the demands of the 
fledgling Indian National Congress, the British turned, with increas- 
ing desperation, to the devising of a political ideology that would at 
once accommodate Indian participation in a public arena, and yet 
secure power firmly in British hands. This process of definition was 
not an easy task, for it involved the extension to India of the Victorian 
liberal ideals of public discourse and representative government, and 
yet sought to confine them within the ideology of ‘difference’. It was 
never possible to reconcile educated Indians to the assumptions that 
underlay this ideology, nor to stay the growth of nationalism. Never- 
theless, like the demarcation of spaces meant to separate the British 
from the Indian people, the creation among those people of pliable 
‘constituencies’ helped to contain, though it could never eradicate, a 
growing sense among the British of vulnerability and unease. 

To secure the cooperation of their Indian subjects the British made 
use of an array of devices, from the membership of boards and 
councils to the award of titles and honours. Some, above all the 
concepts of election and representation, were drawn from British 
experience, informed by the ideas of liberalism; others, especially the 
imperial durbar, had Indian roots. All, however, were transformed as 
the British endeavoured to fit them to what they conceived of as the 

16 Dane Kennedy, ‘Guardians of Edenic Sanctuaries: Paharis, Lepchas, and Todas in the 
British Mind,’ South Asia, ns vol. 14, no. 2 (1991), pp- §7-77- 


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distinctive character of Indian society. Most importantly, when elec- 
tion was selected as the method of representation, constituencies were 
almost never defined, as they were for the most part in Britain after 
1832, on the basis of territory, in which all the electors of a certain area 
jointly elected their representatives. In India, as we have seen, the 
British insisted that its society consisted of a large number of par- 
ticularistic ‘communities’ held in place by the structure of the imperial 
state. As people existed in India only in and through these groupings, 
each of which was presumed to have enduring and essential character- 
istics of its own, representation inevitably took the form of drawing 
the more important of these ‘communities’ into the structure of the 
colonial order. As David Gilmartin has written, to be a Muslim for 
electoral purposes involved no particular statement of principle or 
belief. ‘Instead, ‘objective’? census considerations, by far the most 
important of which was descent, determined who would count as a 
Muslim.’ The classificatory system of the Raj was thus transformed 
into a political system.'” 

Whether representation was accomplished by nomination or elec- 
tion, the objective was to secure the participation of those whom the 
British considered the ‘natural leaders’ of each group. These were men 
whom the British regarded as having traditional status, usually local, 
personal, and inherited, that set them apart from upstarts and self- 
made men. By its very nature the use of such a representational 
strategy ignored the differing interests and the rivalries among those 
whom the British had bundled together in a single ‘community’, and 
denied representation altogether to other groups. The urban society of 
Surat, for instance, in the view of nineteenth-century British admini- 
strators, as described by Douglas Haynes, comprised four communi- 
ties defined by religious belief: the Hindu-Jains (treated as a single 
entity), the Parsis, the Muslims, and the Daudi Bohras. These commu- 
nities collectively had at their head some dozen local families who had 
gained recognition as ‘natural leaders’ from the British. Other impor- 
tant local leaders, among them the heads of occupational mahajans and 
caste panchayats, together with all petty traders and artisans, were 
excluded from any direct access to the British authorities. Such exclu- 

17 Anil Seal, ‘Imperialism and Nationalism in India’, in J. Gallagher, G. Johnson and Anil 
Seal (eds.), Locality, Province and Nation: Essays on Indian Politics, 1870-1940 (Cam- 
bridge, 1973), especially pp. 6-15; David Gilmartin, ‘Democracy, Nationalism and the 
Public: A Speculation on Colonial Muslim Politics’, South Asia, ns vol. 14 (June 1991), 

pp. 123-25. 


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sions were not accidental, but rather expressed an underlying phil- 
osophy that sought at once to bring together and to keep separate 
India’s peoples.'8 

These various ‘communities’ participated with the imperial rulers in 
a distinctively colonial public arena. In Europe, according to Jurgen 
Habermas’s influential formulation, ‘public opinion’ and the ‘public 
sphere’ functioned within an intermediary realm between the ‘state’ 
and the ‘people’, and so provided a locus of legitimacy and authority 
independent of, and exercising surveillance over, the state. An 
expanding print media, with public meetings and voluntary associ- 
ations, gave expression to this autonomous public discourse. In 
colonial India, to be sure, a fledgling ‘native’ press and a certain 
number of voluntary associations did come into being over time. But 
they remained severely limited in their scope and responsibility. For 
the most part the state itself at once created and defined the ‘public’. 
The growth of electoral representation, above all, as we have seen, did 
not emerge, as in England, in the context of a developing public 
sphere, but rather as a mechanism by which the state could encompass 
more effectively a society composed of a number of particularistic 
local communities. More generally, by creating channels through 
which the Indian ‘public’ could make itself heard, the state set itself up 
as the sole arbiter of which public discourse was legitimate, and which 
illegitimate, and so delimited the ‘public’ from the ‘private’ in India.!9 

In the British view, although the various communities themselves 
were included as actors in the public arena, most of what their 
individual members did was defined as ‘private’, or as the internal 
affair of the group, and so outside the realm of the ‘public’. These 
‘private’ matters included not just marriage and family life, but the 
practice of religion. Even though religious belief might define mem- 
bership in a community, unlike England where church and state were 
joined, in India the British endeavoured to confine religious observ- 
ance to a distinct ‘private’ sphere which Indians were meant to manage 
on their own (although the British intruded into it at every turn 
through the actions of their law codes and courts). By their very 
nature, so the British implied, Indians were incapable of constructing 

18 Douglas E. Haynes, Rhetoric and Ritual in Colonial India (Berkeley, 1991), pp. 101-11. 
19 For a broader discussion of these issues, see Sandria Freitag, ‘Introduction’ and “The 
Changing Nature of “the Public” in British India’, South Asia, ns vol. 14, no. 1 (June 

1991), Pp. I-13, 65-90. 


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the universalistic ‘public’ sphere characteristic of bourgeois Europe. A 
people dominated by passion and emotion, they lacked the rational 
sensibility that alone made such civic discourse possible. Curzon made 
such views explicit when he wrote that Indian political activity was 
marked by an ‘utter want of proportion, moderation or sanity’. 
Indeed, he further insisted, as he rather provocatively told Calcutta 
University graduates in 1905, ‘the highest ideal of truth is to a large 
extent a Western conception’.?° That there might be a contradiction 
between such assertions and the incorporation of Indians in the poli- 
tical order went unperceived. 

Disabled by their fundamentally different character, Indians had by 
themselves no way of transcending the particularistic interests of their 
individual communities. No one, that is, could claim to represent any 
‘people’ other than those constituting their own community. In a 
manner reminiscent of the unreformed eighteenth-century English 
constitution, with its narrow constituencies and ideas of ‘virtual’ 
representation, there existed no conception of a larger ‘public’ deserv- 
ing of representation apart from the classificatory system of the Raj. 
The colonial state itself could alone overcome particular ties to create a 
rationalized whole concerned with ‘general’ interests. By definition, 
therefore, no activity undertaken by self-appointed leaders, or self- 
defined communities, could be legitimate. The rhetorical claims of the 
Indian National Congress to represent the ‘people’ of India were on 
these grounds from its very foundation dismissed as preposterous by 
most British officials. As John Strachey put it in his authoritative 
India, there is not, and never was, an India possessing ‘any sort of 
unity, physical, political, social, or religious; no Indian nation, no 
“people of India”, of which we hear so much’.?! 

As there could be no self-defined leaders in the public arena of the 
colonial world, so too was the expression of opinion in this arena to be 
confined to the institutions established for it. Above all, the ‘public’ 
arena did not extend to the streets and bazaars of India. As in 
eighteenth-century Britain, where the government sought to curb 
popular demonstrations such as those of John Wilkes, the streets were 
an especially feared site of disorder. The government could not, 
without intruding on the presumably ‘private’ sphere of religion, deny 
Indians the right to organize the ceremonial processions connected 
with religious observance. But these were not, so the British insisted, 
20 Raleigh, Curzon in India, p. 491. 21 Strachey, India, p. 5. 


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occasions where public opinion could properly find expression. From 
the time of the 1893 cow protection movement onward, all unau- 
thorized public activities were presumed to be ‘unlawful’, if not 

To contain the potential for disorder, the British insisted always that 
ceremonial observances be confined to that which could be regarded as 
sanctioned by ‘tradition’. As an official wrote at the time of the 1911 
Ramlila festival, the government had to ‘enforce the principle that 
innovations must be prevented’. Current usage was thus frozen as 
time-honoured ‘custom’, and validated as ‘history’. Any complainant, 
as Katherine Prior describes the process, had to prove that ‘he had 
precedent on his side, that what he and his co-religionists claimed as 
their rights now was justified by the practices of their ancestors ten, 
twenty or even more years ago’. Inevitably, of course, as time went on, 
the British found it ever more difficult to insist upon a vision of 
permissible activity so much at odds with their ideals of religious 
freedom, or to deny legitimacy to leaders thrown up in the tumult of 
political agitation. Nevertheless even so late as the Kanpur mosque 
incident of 1913, when the siting of a road and the relocation of a 
bathing place provoked widespread protests, the government ada- 
mantly insisted that, because the protestors had expressed their griev- 
ances through open public activities, instead of through the ‘natural 
leaders of the Muhammedan community’, their actions were illegiti- 
mate. The ‘great danger’, as a Punjab administrator wrote a year later, 
‘lies in the mob throwing its leaders overboard’.?2 

Over time Indians at once assimilated and turned to their own 
advantage these British categories. Because domestic life and religious 
observance were defined as ‘private’, and hence outside the public 
sphere, they could be constructed as a space ‘safe’ from British inter- 
ference. In the home especially, notions of domesticity, defined by 
proper female behaviour, could be nurtured to express an idealized 
‘Indian’ personality distinguished from the anglicized world outside. 
Even though these ideals were often derived from Victorian notions of 
women’s role, Bengali men especially found in them a satisfactory 

resolution of the tensions generated by the colonial encounter. Simi- 

22 Sandria Freitag, Collective Action and Community: Public Arenas and the Emergence of 
Communalism in North India (Berkeley, 1989), chapter 2, especially pp. 62-75; 
Katherine Prior, ‘Making History: The State’s Intervention in Urban Religious Disputes 
in the North-Western Provinces in the Early Nineteenth Century’, Modern Asian 
Studies, vol. 27, part 1 (February 1993), pp. 179-203. 


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larly, in large part because the natural development and adjustment of 
religious observance was constrained by the British insistence on the 
freezing of past practice, contentious religious display offered an arena 
in which new political figures, and new ideologies could find a footing, 
and from which they could challenge established institutions and the 
dominance of old elites. In the end, ironically, the British endeavour to 
stifle religious innovation had the effect of only promoting it. 
Repudiating alike the urban ‘mob’ and Congress’s claims to repre- 
sent an India-wide constituency, the British sought out communities 
perceived as stable and unthreatening, securely under the control of 
‘natural leaders’. Similarly, in their view, the appropriate arenas for 
public discourse were the institutions established by the government 
for that purpose. These existed at various levels, and grew both in 
number and in power as the British widened the circle of those 
incorporated into the political system of the Raj. The Councils Act of 
1861 first announced the principle that Indians ought to be members 
of India’s highest legislative body, and with it of provincial legislative 
councils as they in turn were established in the subsequent two to 
three decades. Municipalities meanwhile had been founded in some 
cities in the 1850s and 1860s, but they remained under the control of 
the district collector until Ripon’s local self-government acts of 1882 
set Indian controlled district and municipal boards in place across 
British India. The Councils Acts of 1892 and 1909, as we shall see in 
the next chapter, further extended Indian membership in the provin- 
cial and imperial legislative bodies, and recognized election as the 
normal and appropriate means of securing Indian representatives. 
Neither the composition nor the powers of these various bodies, 
before 1919, challenged British control of the levers of government. 
Side-by-side with the growth of Indian membership in the institu- ’ 
tions of government went the elaboration of honours and titles, and 
the regular enactment of ritual observances at all levels, from that of 
the district collector to that of the viceroy and king-emperor. Such 
ritual played a central role in the integration of Indian elites into the 
imperial order, especially those, like the princes, who as rulers of 
quasi-independent states had no recognized position in the 
institutional structures of British India. Though based upon Mughal, 
rather than British, precedents, these rituals were under the British 
radically transformed. As Bernard Cohn has shown for the imperial 
durbar and Douglas Haynes for civic ritual in Surat, in place of the 


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affirmation of personal ties of patron and client, defined by the 
exchange of offerings and honours, colonial rituals became a ‘vehicle 
for rendering deference to the imperial overlords and for demon- 
strating that the notables shared a common ethical ground with their 
rulers’. Participation in even the least consequential civic ceremony 
enabled local notables at once to lay claim to a high status as public 
leaders and to acknowledge the authority of the Raj which sustained 

In principle any group, so long as it was sufficiently influential, 
might be incorporated into the imperial order. Even the English- 
educated ‘Indians’ were often included, for, although, as the British 
saw it, they ‘represented no one but themselves’, they were still after 
all an important constituency. From the British point of view, 
however, by far the most attractive participants were India’s ruling 
princes and landlords. These men comprised the overwhelming pro- 
portion of those invited to the great imperial durbars, and, when 
residents of the British Indian provinces, and so eligible for mem- 
bership, they were disproportionately represented on the various 
legislative councils. They secured in addition various special privileges, 
from guarantees of their thrones to assistance in paying off their debts. 
Much of this was a matter of straightforward political expediency, a 
reward for the support which the princes, ‘breakwaters to the storm 
which would otherwise have swept over us in one great wave’, as 
Canning put it, had given the British during 1857. But even those who 
joined the revolt, as we have seen in chapter 2 above, impressed the 
British with their ability to command the loyalty of their followers and 
tenants; hence these men also deserved recognition and reward. More 
than mere allies of a vulnerable Raj, India’s landlords and princes had 
now become an ‘ancient, indigenous, and cherished’ elite, whose 
superiority was a ‘necessary element’ in the country’s social consti- 

Although the British after 1858 encouraged India’s landlords to be 
like the English gentry, that is, to patronize agricultural improvement, 
modern education, and such philanthropies as famine relief, and 
awarded them the powers of honorary magistrates in their districts, 
the landlords had little interest in such activities beyond a conspicuous 

23 Haynes, Rhetoric and Ritual, pp. 126-137; Bernard Cohn, ‘Representing Authority in 
Victorian India’, in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, especially 
pp. 168-74. 


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show for the benefit of their rulers, and the British, though often 
frustrated by their indifference, did not care to push them. India’s 
gentry was instead being fitted for another role altogether: that of 
leaders of a caste-bound society, ‘equally incapable of development 
and impervious to decay’. The ‘visible and outward embodiment of 
Hindu secular power’, the ksatriya raja, even when stripped of his 
kingly powers, retained, in this view, along with the Brahmin priest, 
his ‘old world claim and grasp upon the reverence of Hindus’. As 
Harcourt Butler, author of two influential pamphlets on ‘Oudh 
Policy’, and subsequently lieutenant-governor of the United 
Provinces, put it in 1907, though the raja may be 

over-bearing, often cruel [his people] live at his gate, where his horses and 
cattle and elephants are stalled, and there is a strong bond of common 
humanity between them. It is the old idea, “You shall be my people and I will 
be your God.’ Their lives are dull; their outlook is tinged with the deepest 
pessimism; when the day’s work is over they long to huddle together under 
the blanket of common humanity. This feeling comes to all ... It is in the 
eastern air.?* 

Butler’s vision of a contented peasantry under their ‘old world’ raja 
did not go wholly unchallenged. A number of officials protested the 
denial of class antagonism in the countryside, and insisted that India’s 
gentry, uninterested in agricultural improvement, and stripped of their 
former powers as rajas, no longer played any useful role in society. 
Britain’s duty, as men like H.C. Irwin passionately argued from his 
post in Oudh, was to ‘uphold the cause of the poor and of him that 
hath no helper’. But such protests had little impact on the settled 
‘aristocratic’ policy, and in any case the dissidents made no attempt to 
counter the underlying ideology of Indian ‘difference’. For men like 
Irwin the peasantry served only to remind the British of their imperial 
responsibilities. Children in need of succour, they were not expected 
to initiate change in rural society.75 

As part of the larger colonial project of ordering the whole of India’s 
society, its princes and landlords, like its castes and tribes, were set 
into a ‘scientifically’ structured hierarchy. As ‘natural leaders’, situated 
at the top of society, however, these men were the beneficiaries of an 

24 Cited in Metcalf, Landlords, pp. 191-99, and chapter 11; see also P.D. Reeves, Landlords 
and Government in Uttar Pradesh (Bombay, 1991). 

25 H.C. Irwin, The Garden of India (London, 1880), pp. 184-95; see also C.W. McMinn, 
‘Introduction to the Oudh Gazetteer’ (1873) (proof copy in the India Office Library). 


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exceptionally precise and careful exercise in marking out their rank 
and status. Only after they had been properly ranked and labelled, and 
so frozen into place, so the British believed, could they exercise their 
‘traditional’ authority. Yet, obsessed with a desire to tidy up all 
ambiguities, the British inevitably constructed constituencies among 
the landed and princely elite whose coherence, far from being 
‘natural’, was highly artificial. Sustained by administrative fiat, these 
men had little in common with their forebears under the Mughals, and 
resembled even less the English landed gentry. 

The treatment of one major group of landlords, the Oudh taluqdars, 
may usefully illustrate the larger processes at work. For these men the 
process of definition began with the restoration of their estates, and 
the award of sanads, after the Mutiny. By contrast with the days of the 
Nawabs, when the title ‘taluqdar’ was applied loosely to those who 
had succeeded in the struggle for power in the countryside, and so 
could claim the right to engage for the revenue of an agglomeration of 
villages, the British set an arbitrary minimum limit of a revenue 
assessment of Rs. 5,000. They then at once proceeded to introduce an 
array of exceptions. Sole proprietors, for instance, and those whose 
estates succeeded by primogeniture, were sometimes given sanads 
even when their assessments fell below the minimum, while cosharers 
in larger undivided properties were often turned away. The British 
also gave the lands and status of taluqdar to favourites of their own 
who had had no previous connection with Oudh, including Sikhs, 
Europeans, and a Bengali babu. The process of definition was brought 
to a close by the enactment of Act I of 1869. This act promulgated a list 
of some 276 individuals entitled to the status of ‘taluqdar’. Thereafter a 
taluqdar was a person whose name appeared on this list, or an heir of 
such a person; and no one else. No amount of opulence could hence- 
forth gain a newcomer admission, nor would penury, so long as even a 
tiny amount of land remained, lead to the removal of a member’s name 
from the list. 

A similar obsession with order and tidiness shaped British relation- 
ships with India’s ruling princes. Here too the award of adoption 
sanads after the Mutiny was but the first step in a minute process of 
ordering and ranking that took shape in such documents as the 
alqabnamah register. This list, first compiled in 1865, provided for 
every prince not just his name, titles, and state, but the form of address 
to be used in Persian and in English, the number of gun salutes to 


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which he was entitled, the official of the Indian government with 
whom he was allowed to correspond directly, and even such details as 
the colour of the crest to be used on paper employed for correspon- 
dence with him. The 1889 edition of this list covered some forty-four 
pages of small print. Yet even so, consistency remained elusive. 
Despite an effort to link a salute of ten guns, and the address of ‘His 
Highness’, with the right to correspond directly with the viceroy, 
exceptions could not be eliminated. The Maharaja of Darbhanga, for 
instance, a large landlord in Bihar, possessed the right to direct corres- 
pondence with the viceroy even though his name did not appear at all 
in the alqabnamah. 

These untiring efforts to achieve order encompassed the award of 
titles as well. Although the British had awarded titles to their Indian 
subjects since at least the 1820s, their own ambiguous status as rulers, 
as Bernard Cohn has pointed out, made it difficult for the governor- 
general to act as a ‘fountain of honour’. After 1858, with the estab- 
lishment of Crown rule, the British set out to regularize the award of 
honours. In 1861, as we have seen, they established the Star of India as 
the first Indian order of knighthood. Its organization and mode of 
address, placing the holder among the knights of Britain, made mem- 
bership in this order attractive. It was, however, together with the 
companion Order of the Indian Empire, instituted in 1877, the only 
European-style honour most Indians could expect to receive; mem- 
bership in other British orders, and in the hereditary English peerage, 
was accorded to only a handful of Indians, and as a matter of policy 
was officially discouraged. At the same time the government deter- 
mined to devise uniform criteria for the award of Indian titles. Above 
all, in keeping with the overriding importance accorded to religious 
affiliation, they announced that ‘titles to be conferred on the Mahome- 
dan subjects of the British Empire in India will be ordinarily those of 
Khan Bahadoor and Nawab’, while Hindus should receive those of 
‘Raee, Rajah Bahadoor, and Maharajah Bahadoor’. In addition, titles 
of the ‘higher grade’, above all maharaja, were to be ‘reserved for the 
sovereigns of feudatory and dependent states except in cases of extra- 
ordinary merit’.”° 

In practice, however, when awards were to be made, the artificiality 
of these distinctions became apparent. The Bombay government in 
1870, for instance, conferred the ‘Mahomedan title’ of Khan Bahadur 
26 See NAI Home Public, 15 January 1858, no. 9-10. 


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on a Parsi over the objection of the Indian government, who protested 
the grant as ‘somewhat incongruous’. The foreign department, on 
similar grounds, opposed the award in the following year of the 
‘Hindu’ title of ‘raja’ to two Muslim taluqdars. The chief commis- 
sioner insisted that such awards were nevertheless a ‘very common 
custom’ in Oudh. ‘If the British Government give Native titles’, he 
argued, ‘it hardly seems incongruous ... to bestow such titles accord- 
ing to established native custom.’ While admitting that it did ‘appear a 
strange practice certainly’, he acknowledged that the taluqdars ‘them- 
selves prefer the title of Raja to that of Nawab’. Consistency in the 
style of honours was a British, not an Indian, obsession. 

The award of titles also raised the awkward question of whether 
such awards were meant simply to recognize, and honour, the estab- 
lished eminence of the ‘natural’ leaders of Indian society, or whether 
they should be held out to all as a way to encourage a spirit of liberal 
reform. When the Punjab government proposed, for instance, that the 
title of Khan Bahadur be bestowed upon a sub-assistant surgeon who, 
they claimed, had ‘done more than anyone else to overcome the 
prejudices of the natives of the Punjab to European medical science’ 
both by his practice and by translating and publishing medical works, 
some of the local officials, like the Amballa commissioner, applauded 
the decision on the ground that titles were ‘cheap incentives to exer- 
tion and to the adoption of a higher tone of morality’; others by 
contrast insisted that such awards should be ‘confined to persons of a 
certain social rank and eminence’. For the most part, only lesser titles, 
such as Rao Saheb and Rai Bahadur, were awarded to those distin- 
guished chiefly for civic, educational, and philanthropic activities. 
Overall, titles were meant to solidify loyalty more than to trigger 
social change.?’ 

The imperial durbar, as the arena where titles were awarded and 
homage offered, gave a visible, institutional shape to the late- 
nineteenth-century ideology of ‘difference’. While the other institu- 
tions which defined India’s ‘public’ space, such as the legislative 
councils, were drawn from English precedents, and so carried with 
them, at least implicitly, and for Indians often explicitly, expectations 
of liberal reform, the durbar sought to define Britain’s relations with 
its subjects in Indian terms. Presiding over the durbar, surrounded by 

27 For controversy over titles, see correspondence in NAI For. Pol. A files of October 1870, 
no. 110-12; May 1871, no. 83-92; and March 1872, no. 252-58. 


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his loyal subjects, the viceroy easily imagined himself as the successor 
of the Mughal emperor Akbar, ordering a harmonious world where 
nothing ever changed. 

The ‘durbar’ model especially suited India’s ruling princes, for as the 
sovereigns of states linked to the Indian political order only through 
the exercise of British ‘paramountcy’, they possessed no way of 
participating in the European-style public arena of courts and coun- 
cils. Further, this ‘Indian’ strategy of rule complemented the fantasies 
of medievalism discussed in chapter 3. The viceroy could be Henry II, 
as well as Akbar; and, as we have seen, Lytton designed the Imperial 
Assemblage of 1877 to represent a medieval vision of the monarch 
surrounded by his loyal feudatories. Butler’s fantasy, of the raja with 
his people and cattle at his gate, carried overtones too of the medieval 
baron and his serfs. 

Yet medievalism was not a wholly satisfactory mode for repre- 
senting Britain’s relations with India’s princes. As men like Salisbury 
pointed out even in 1877, medievalism could be conceived of as a stage 
on the road to modernity; and as such it inevitably called into question 
the idea of India’s enduring difference. Hence medieval, and feudal, 
terminology gave way over time to a more explicitly ‘Indian’ repre- 
sentational mode. The tension between the two, and the endeavour to 
reconcile them, can be seen clearly in a work such as Charles Tupper’s 
Our Indian Protectorate (1893). For Tupper the Indian Empire 
derived ‘from its Oriental surroundings’ many of its ‘most important 
principles of life and growth’, so that ‘we are the heirs of the Moghals’. 
Yet at the same time there were ‘many tendencies making for 
feudalism in the India of our predecessors’, and ‘our protection has 
been sought in India as vassals sought the protection of their lord’. 
Hence the Indian protectorate took on the shape of a ‘feudal system’, 
but one which ‘rests on ideas which are fundamentally indigenous’. 
Indeed the British had not only established a ‘reconstituted Delhi 
Empire, greatly improved and strengthened’, for their Raj was ‘much 
more largely moulded on modern ideas of political morality’, but, in 
this way as so many others, Britain’s empire resembled that of the 
ancient Romans, who had ‘reverenced law’ as they adapted their 
institutions to local custom and tradition. 

In his Coronation durbar of 1902 Lord Curzon explicitly rejected a 
‘medieval’ in favour of an ‘Indian’ mode of representation for British 
rule in India. Lytton, he pointed out, had designated his durbar an 


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‘Imperial Assemblage’ to emphasize its novelty. He himself had 
decided, however, to revert to ‘the older and more familiar form, 
because the Mogul and other sovereigns invariably held durbars to 
celebrate their accession’. The ritual of the durbar was, Curzon 
insisted, ‘something familiar and even sacred’ in ‘the East’; hence it 
was altogether appropriate, as the British now sought ‘to step into the 
shoes of the Great Moghul’, for them to adopt ‘some at least of the 
time honoured features of Indian durbars’. Curzon was especially 
careful, even though his ceremony took place on the same ground as 
Lytton’s, to distinguish it from its predecessor. Insisting that there was 
nothing ‘suggestive of the East’ in the banners and shields of Lytton’s 
Assemblage, Curzon had a ‘Saracenic dome’ set above the dais of his 
amphitheatre, while ‘small kiosques and ornaments borrowed from 
the Mogul architecture’ embellished the structure. As he proudly 
proclaimed, the entire arena was ‘built and decorated exclusively in the 
Mogul, or Indo-Saracenic style’. 

These architectural forms, with their illusion of an enduring Mughal 
order, provided an appropriate stage on which Curzon enacted the 
rituals he constructed to mark out his durbar as ‘Indian’. As we have 
seen, as rulers the British had radically changed the meaning of Mughal 
ritual, and Curzon made no attempt to recover its original intent. He 
refused, for instance, to sanction an exchange of presents. He dis- 
dained as well anything that might suggest an equivalence between the 
Indian princes and the English aristocracy, such as the creation of an 
Indian peerage or the award of coats of arms of the sort Lytton had 
devised. But Curzon was anxious to secure the active participation of 
the leading princes in the ceremony. He did this by having each prince 
in turn mount the dais and offer a message of congratulations to the 
king-emperor. In place of the presentation of nazrs, Curzon simply 
shook hands with each ruling chief as he passed by. Some such 
interchange of ‘homage and courtesy’, so Curzon insisted, despite the 
obviously European inspiration of so much of it, had ‘been an immem- 
orial feature of Indian Accession Durbars’.?8 

Curzon did not wrap the Raj in Indian ritual as a way to elaborate a 
theory of indirect rule, such as Lord Lugard was simultaneously 
devising in Africa. Rather the durbar was meant above all to manifest 
the power and majesty of the British Raj. Never before, Curzon 

28 For durbar arrangements, see Curzon Minute of 11 May 1902 in NAI For. Secret-I, 
September 1902, no. 1-3. 


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exulted, had there been a gathering of the ‘Asiatic feudatories of the 
British Crown’ from such a ‘sweep of territory’, extending over 
‘fifty-five degrees of longitude’ from Aden to Burma. By bringing 
together this vast array of peoples Curzon hoped to give India’s ruling 
elite a sense of ‘common participation in a great political system and of 
fellow citizenship of the British Empire’. 

Yet the British had no coherent place for the princes in their 
imperial ideology. The durbar ideal implied that they were to form a 
constituency frozen in time and space, integrated into the larger 
imperial system only through ritual acts of subordination. Carefully 
kept apart from each other, each meant to enact in his own state alone 
the role of ‘natural’ leader, the princes possessed no common institu- 
tions until the formation of the Chamber of Princes in 1918. Whether 
turned to political advantage, as the British sought to use princely 
influence for imperial purposes, or simply displayed for all to see, 
these ‘traditional’ rulerships served the purpose of announcing India’s 
enduring ‘difference’. The states, as Curzon said in 1902, ‘keep alive 
the traditions and customs, they sustain the virility, and they save from 
extinction the picturesqueness of ancient and noble races’. 

Yet the British were never content to leave the princes to exercise 
their loudly trumpeted ‘traditional’ authority as they saw fit. The 
prince was meant to be, as Curzon told Maharaja Ganga Singh of 
Bikaner, ‘at the same time a Liberal and a Conservative’, to ‘combine 
the merits of the East and West in a single blend’. Trained and 
educated in Western ways, but ruling their states ‘upon Native lines’, 
they were to be not ‘relics’ but rulers; not puppets, but ‘living factors 
in the administration’. The Mayo College, where an elaborate Indo- 
Saracenic facade enclosed rooms in which young princes were to study 
English, history, and geography, perhaps most vividly represented 
Britain’s inconsistent visions of princely India.?? 

Baffled by these contradictory demands, unable to wage war or 
extend their territories, yet secure on their thrones, the princes had 
little incentive to govern their states in any particular way, or indeed at 
all. Even the British Residents assigned to their courts had but limited 
space in which to direct their activities. Nicholas Dirks has described 
the princely rulership as that of a ‘theatre state’. What the British 

29 Curzon of Kedleston, Speeches by H.E. the Lord Curzon of Kedleston, vol. 3 (in Curzon 
Papers, IOR MS Eur. F. 111/559), pp. 60-67; Curzon of Kedleston, Speeches on India 
Delivered while in England in July-August 1904, pp. 14-15. 


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wanted, he says, was ‘a fiction’ that pretended to be the preservation of 
the old regime. What they got was a diverse and unpredictable array of 
behaviour, which they could rarely control as they wished, from the 
‘model’ prince of Bikaner to the ruler of Pudukkottai who, after being 
carefully educated as a minor, married an Australian woman and 
abandoned his state altogether. The British had hollowed out the 
crown of princely sovereignty. But that the crown was hollow mat- 
tered less than that it existed.°° 


The ideology of liberalism, with its optimistic assumption that India 
could be transformed on a European model, did not wholly disappear 
during the later decades of the nineteenth century. Many of its claims 
still remained embedded in the larger currents of imperial thought and 
practice, for they expressed cherished British values. The idea of 
equality, for instance, despite the ideology of difference, could not be 
explicitly repudiated. In the 1858 Proclamation introducing Crown 
rule, the queen solemnly pledged her government not only to an ‘equal 
and impartial’ legal system, but assured her Indian subjects of equal 
access to employment in the government of their country. Western 
education, above all, though its products might be derided and carica- 
tured as babus, could not be denied a place in the late Victorian Raj. By 
its very nature the patronage of Western education implied that the 
transformation of India was not only possible, but an appropriate and 
desirable objective for the British in India. Insofar as they saw it as 
their task to introduce ‘civilization’, defined in British terms as ‘pro- 
gress’ or ‘improvement’ — and much of their justification for empire 
after all hinged upon such claims - the British could not rest content 
with the notion of themselves as Mughal emperors surrounded by 
loyal feudatories. They had at once to create, and to nurture, a 
constituency of Indians committed to the transformation of their own 

For the most part, as we have seen in chapter 2, the British endeav- 
oured to contain the contradictions within their imperial ideology by 
insisting that Indians, like children, required a long process of tutelage 

3° Nicholas B. Dirks, The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom (Cambridge, 
1987), chapter 13; for a full discussion of the princes, see Ramusack volume forthcoming 
in this series. 


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before they could participate in the governance of their country. The 
tasks of the schoolmaster could, of course, be so broadly defined, and 
the level of competence for the pupil set so high, as to leave little scope 
for change. It was not difficult to find reasons why any proposed 
reform was premature, or unsuited to India. Still, there were dissidents 
committed to the ideals of liberalism, who endeavoured to find ways 
forward, and who from time to time gained an ascendancy within the 
Indian government. On such occasions, above all during the 
viceroyalty of Lord Ripon (1880-4), the British were forced to con- 
front the contradictory assumptions that underlay the Raj. Late 
Victorian liberals were, however, at all times cautious in their commit- 
ment to reform. Indians, in their view, were still hardly more than 
toddlers, learning how to walk, while liberals incorporated unques- 
tioningly into their ideology many of the caste and communal cate- 
gories that had been devised to master Indian society. The exuberant 
enthusiasms of the Macaulay era, when the concession of political 
power to Indians was only a visionary dream, had long vanished. As 
conservative imperialists could not repudiate the idea of ‘progress’, so 
too did liberal imperialists inevitably embed notions of India’s ‘differ- 
ence’ in their thinking. 

Liberal ideology first took institutional shape in Indian local 
government. During the 1860s and 1870s municipalities with elected 
members were conceded to most major Indian cities, though only in 
Calcutta and Bombay did elected Indians control the corporation. 
These reforms were, however, the product of fiscal as much as of 
political calculation. Local bodies could raise local taxes, and so 
increase government revenue while diffusing popular animosity. They 
also aided the British as they sought to integrate local constituencies 
more tightly into the Raj. As Anil Seal has written, these boards 
‘enabled the government to associate interests in the localities more 
widely, and balance them more finely, than had the old rule of thumb 
methods of the Collector’. In most municipalities seats were appor- 
tioned among precisely defined trading and religious communities.*! 

As a Liberal appointed to the viceroyalty by Gladstone, Ripon 
introduced for the first time into Indian local government the objective 
of training Indians for self-rule. He was prepared even to sacrifice 
administrative efficiency for this purpose. As he put it in the 1882 

31 Anil Seal, ‘Imperialism and Nationalism’, pp. 12-13; Hugh Tinker, The Foundations of 
Local Self-Government in India, Pakistan and Burma (New York, 1968), chapter 2. 


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Resolution which proposed the establishment of municipal and dis- 
trict boards throughout India, ‘It is not primarily with a view to 
improvement in administration that this measure is put forward and 
supported. It is chiefly designed as an instrument of political and 
popular education.’ Introducing the new reforms into the Bombay 
legislature, J. B. Peile echoed the same liberal sentiments: ‘It may not 
seem a very lofty employment to teach the people ... of country towns 
how to manage local conservancy, primary schools and dispensaries, 
but it is the underlying growth of social organization which is really 
important, and I think it is not unworthy of the best abilities and the 
highest ambition to build up in one’s people with unpretentiousness 
and patient assiduity, the first foundations of a national spirit.’ In this 
way, with proper guidance, India could be prompted slowly along the 
same path of development which Britain had taken.?? 

Much in the constitution of these boards continued earlier practice. 
Above all, Ripon made no attempt to challenge the notion of India as a 
society of diverse interests, each entitled to representation. ‘I am 
inclined to think’, he wrote, ‘that election by caste or occupation 
would in many cases be more consonant with the feelings of the 
people.’ Hence Ripon’s local self-government reforms inaugurated a 
vast proliferation of communal electorates, and laid the groundwork 
for much that was to follow at the provincial and national levels. The 
ideology of municipal reform too was permeated with a condescend- 
ing paternalism. ‘You have to prove’, the district collector told the 
Surat council in 1894, ‘that you can, like the men of the West, lay 
down a thoughtful policy and follow it with resolution ... The habit of 
sacrificing present advantages for the attainment of a distant object or 
for the benefit of generations yet unborn is the essence of national 
greatness.’ Nevertheless, the new municipal and district boards 
announced a reaffirmation of liberal ideals, and opened up new oppor- 
tunities, which they were not slow to take advantage of, for what 
Ripon in 1882 called the ‘intelligent class of public-spirited men’ 
rapidly growing up with the spread of education. In 1892 the Councils 
Act made these local boards electoral colleges for the provincial 
legislative councils, and so further extended the arena in which the 
English-educated could enact their role of representatives of an Indian 

32 Haynes, Rhetoric and Ritual, p. 105; Tinker, Foundations, chapter 3. 
33 For developments in Surat, see Haynes, Rhetoric and Ritual, pp. 115-21. 


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Ripon’s reforms obviously called into question the idealization of 
‘efficiency’ that sustained the civil service, and they posed a challenge 
as well to the idea that India should only be accorded representation 
through its proper ‘natural’ leaders. Not surprisingly, as a result, the 
measures evoked widespread and intense hostility. This was most 
marked in Bengal, where the Calcutta Corporation possessed an 
elected Indian majority, with two-thirds of the members chosen, not 
on the basis of community, but by the ratepayers of some twenty-five 
territorial wards. For the British this institution, dominated by edu- 
cated Bengali Hindus, foreshadowed precisely the horrors they had 
long feared. In it indeed they could see embodied the ‘idea of a Bengali 
Parliament’. As the Bengal lieutenant-governor disparagingly put it in 
1898, the Calcutta Corporation ‘gives the fullest expression to the 
demoralizing doctrine that practical considerations are to be subord- 
inated to the supposed educational influences of Local Self-Govern- 
ment’. Nor was animosity confined to Bengal. In the North-Western 
Provinces the lieutenant-governor, Auckland Colvin, complained of 
the rise of ‘new men’ through municipal elections, at the expense of 
Muslims and the majority of conservative Hindus; such innovations 
were, he said, but a further illustration of the ‘levelling’ of Indian 
society brought about by British rule. 

Curzon as viceroy fully shared these sentiments. For him, as for so 
many British officials, Calcutta, at once the ‘city of dreadful night’ and 
the capital of British India, played a powerful imaginative role as the 
exemplar of the ill effects of Ripon-style liberalism. The city’s sanitary 
shortcomings, its governance by a large deliberative body ‘apt to 
diffuse [its] force in vague and vapid talk’, and the control of that body 
by the ‘minute minority’ of the so-called ‘Baboo Party’, were all, in his 
view, inextricably linked together. Hence as viceroy he determined at 
one blow to ‘cut the Baboo down to size’, and to restore ‘efficiency’ to 
Calcutta’s local government, by drastically reducing the electoral 
element in the corporation. “Were I Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal’, 
he arrogantly told the secretary of state, ‘I would undertake to bring 
about a revolution in the sanitation and hygiene of the city in five 

With twenty years’ experience of the Ripon reforms behind them, 
men like Curzon repudiated election above all because it secured the 

34 Chris Furedy, ‘Lord Curzon and the Reform of the Calcutta Corporation, 1899’, South 
Asia, ns, vol. 1 (1978), pp. 75-89. 


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‘wrong’ kind of representative. As H. H. Risley put it, in a telling 
fishing metaphor, ‘it selects those who rise to the surface — the men 
who talk and canvass and agitate — but it does not reach the silent 
depths of the stream. It does not give us ... the genuine, representative 
Hindus, the men we really want.’ In a rehearsal for the subsequent 
partition of Bengal, Curzon forced through his reform of the Calcutta 
Corporation over bitter opposition. Yet he could not eradicate the 
electoral principle, which, even though hedged round by communal 
constituencies, took on even greater importance in Indian politics with 
the enactment of the Morley—Minto reforms in 1909. 

English-educated Indians not surprisingly learned to manipulate the 
system of local government to their advantage. Not only were they 
able to secure their own election to municipal councils, but they 
successfully laid claim to the ideology that underlay the Ripon 
reforms. They declared themselves committed to the ‘common good’ 
and to ‘progress’; they insisted that they, not the aristocratic notables 
tied to parochial constituencies, represented the larger urban ‘public’; 
indeed, as Haynes has pointed out, they adopted as their own the 
moral hierarchy embodied in the evolutionary conception of history, 
and so argued that as their political ideas were more advanced than 
those of the feudal ‘notables’, they were more worthy of Britain’s 
trust. Masters of the liberal idiom of civic reform, educated Indians 
made it difficult for the British to repudiate them without repudiating 
the ideals of ‘progress’ as well. By the early years of the twentieth 
century the British found that they could no longer deny these new 
politicians an important collaborative role in the empire.°° 

By far the most momentous clash of ideologies in British India was 
that which took place in 1882-3 over the Ilbert Bill. At stake in this 
piece of legislation, which sought to empower Indians acting as magis- 
trates in the countryside to try European British subjects, were con- 
tending views of the nature of the Raj that cut to the core of the British 
justification for their presence in India. In the course of this con- 
troversy, which grew ever more embittered until its final ambiguous 
resolution, the British were forced as never before to choose between 
fundamental principles of imperial governance. On the one side were 
ideals dear to the hearts of liberals: equality before the law, and the 
transformative power of education. Indians and Britons, supporters of 
the bill insisted, must, when similarly qualified, be accorded equal 
35 Haynes, Rhetoric and Ritual, chapter 8, especially pp. 152-53, 165. 


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treatment. On the other side stood the bill’s opponents, who insisted 
on the essential difference of race, and argued for a legal system that 
would accommodate that difference. One was a vision of eventual 
‘sameness’, the other of enduring ‘difference’. Between these views — 
of an empire founded on equity, and one avowedly grounded in force 
— the alternatives were starkly posed. Hence it is worth examining the 
Ibert Bill debate with some care. 

From the days of the Company, Europeans in India had been 
accorded preferential treatment in the courts. Above all they possessed 
the right, confirmed by the 1861 code of criminal procedure, to a jury 
trial in the High Courts located in the presidency cities of Calcutta, 
Bombay, and Madras. Because of the delay and expense involved in 
bringing European defendants and Indian plaintiffs distances of up to a 
thousand miles for trial, in 1872 the government accorded district 
magistrates limited powers of imprisonment and fine over European 
British subjects. The question at once arose as to whether Indians were 
entitled to possess these powers. As we have seen, the Queen’s Procla- 
mation of 1858 authorized ‘our subjects of whatever race or creed [to] 
be freely admitted to offices in our service, the duties of which they 
may be qualified by their education, ability, and integrity duly to 
discharge’. Under the authority of this pronouncement, informed as it 
was by mid-Victorian liberal idealism, scattered Indians, mostly Ben- 
galis, had managed during subsequent years to pass the examination 
for entry into the covenanted service. Others, after 1878, gained entry 
to the so-called statutory civil service established by Lord Lytton as an 
alternative to the onerous journey to London and uncertain prospects 
of passing an examination confined by a maximum age limit initially of 
25 years, then reduced to 21. 

In 1872 there were only four Indians in the civil service, and all were 
relatively junior. Nevertheless, anticipating the eventual promotion of 
these men to higher positions, the government sought to amend the 
criminal procedure code so that Indian, as well as European, members 
of the service could try British subjects in the interior. The measure 
was, however, defeated in the imperial legislative council by the 
narrow margin of 7 votes to 5. The non-official British members of the 
council, with the law member James Fitzjames Stephen, contributed 
the deciding negative votes. The subject then lay dormant until 1882, 
when one of the Indian members of the service, Behari Lal Gupta, was 
due for promotion to the post of sessions judge in upper Bengal. 


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Thirty-two other Indians, though none were so senior in rank, had by 
that time also secured appointments in the service. The question of the 
exclusion of Indians from jurisdiction over Europeans could therefore 
no longer be evaded. Indeed, the anomaly was the more intensely felt 
in Gupta’s case for his promotion would deprive him not only of 
powers enjoyed by his English deputy, but powers which he had 
himself exercised in his previous post in Calcutta, for Indian judges in 
the presidency cities, by contrast with the interior districts, had long 
possessed the right to try Englishmen. Hence the proposed bill, 
brought forward by C.P. Ilbert, the law member, sought to remove 
from the statute book all judicial disqualifications based on race. 

Supporters of the bill, who included most of the senior officials of 
the Indian government, above all Lord Ripon himself, argued simply 
that equity and fairness demanded the removal of all ‘invidious 
distinctions’ in the law. As Ibert put it: 

with the removal of these disqualifications would disappear the arguments 
resting on privilege — arguments which are as unsound as they are invidious. 
The theory that an Englishman is entitled to the privilege of being tried 
exclusively by Englishmen, has to the best of my knowledge, been manufac- 
tured expressly for consumption in the Indian market. Imagine its being 
suggested to a Parisian magistrate on behalf of an English pick-pocket! 

Ilbert’s ‘Parisian’ analogy nevertheless revealed assumptions far 
beyond the mere removal of administrative anomalies. It implied that 
India, and Indians, were in some fundamental sense equivalent in 
status to England and the English, and that the law should express this 
equivalence. Britain’s claim to rule India, in this view, rested upon a 
perceived reputation for fairness, and this in turn required uniform 
application of the law in all cases. It was precisely this equivalence that 
opponents of the bill contested.*¢ 

Insistence upon legal uniformity was a fundamental element of the 
liberal programme. From the 1830s onward, as we have seen in chapter 
2, a fierce Benthamite assertion of the importance of uniformity had 
informed the process of Indian legal codification. Indeed, the first 
attempt to roll back the legal privileges of Europeans in India had 
taken place as far back as 1836, when Macaulay as law member had 
introduced legislation that would subject British residents in the 
country to the regular Company courts, with an appeal to the Sadr 

36 Memo by Ilbert of 4 September 1882, NAI Home Judl., September 1882, no. 219-39. 


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Diwani Adalat, rather than, as before, placing them under a separate 
jurisdiction with a right of appeal to Crown courts. This so-called 
‘Black Act’ had evoked a fierce opposition among the British in India, 
but Macaulay, anticipating Ilbert’s ‘Parisian’ analogy, argued that it 
would be ludicrous to expect an Englishman trading in France to be 
allowed to settle his contractual differences according to English law. 
John Stuart Mill likewise insisted in his Minute on the “Black Act’ that 
legal distinctions maintained on racial grounds would ‘destroy the 
prestige of superior moral worth and justice in dealings which now 
attaches to the British name in India’. In the minds of liberals, equity 
and justice alone gave expression to Britain’s superiority. 

Opponents of the Ibert Bill believed themselves to be moved not by 
unthinking racial prejudice, but by principle. They drew upon a 
theory of India’s ‘difference’ whose origins could be traced back to 
Warren Hastings’s elaboration of codes of Hindu and of Muslim 
personal law. The most outspoken advocate of this view was James 
Fitzjames Stephen. Though nominally a Liberal, and a utilitarian, 
Stephen insisted that India, in its social organization, was funda- 
mentally different from Europe. Hence it was absurd to try to enforce 
European legal principles in India. As he told the legislative council in 
opposing the 1872 reform: 

In countries situated as most European countries are, it is no doubt desirable 
that there should be no personal laws; but in India it is otherwise. Personal, as 
opposed to territorial laws, prevail here on all sorts of subjects... I think there 
is no country in the world, and no race of men in the world, from whom a 
claim for absolute identity of law for persons of all races and habits comes 
with as bad a grace as from the Natives of this country, filled as it is with every 
distinction which race, caste, and religion can create, and passionately tena- 
cious as are its inhabitants of such distinctions. 

As the system of administering justice in India inevitably must differ 
‘in its characteristic features’ from the English system, there could be, 
so Stephen argued, no reason why the English residents of India 
should be obliged to surrender privileges to which they attached ‘the 
highest possible importance’.>” 

Stephen’s critics countered with a vision of the Raj as a government 
committed to the steady ‘whittling away’ of all such privileges. The 
history of Anglo-Indian legislation, as W. W. Hunter described it, was 

37 Speech of 16 April 1872, India. Proceedings of the Imperial Legislative Council, 
PP 398-99. 


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‘the history of the absorption of these personal laws peculiar to classes 
into a common system of law applicable to all’. The curtailment of 
‘class distinctions’ proposed by the Ibert Bill was thus ‘no isolated 
act’, but ‘one of a long series of measures absolutely inevitable in 
moulding the laws of the various races ... into a common body of law 
applicable to them all’. In contrast to Stephen’s perpetuation of differ- 
ence, for Hunter India’s legal system would in time become like 
England’s. This ‘whittling away’ of class privilege could take place, so 
Hunter argued, because the Indian members of the ICS were them- 
selves becoming more and more like its British members. They had 
had, he reminded his fellow legislators, to “overcome the inertia of 
climate and the prejudices of their race to partially re-educate them- 
selves on a foreign model’, and they had had to succeed in an examin- 
ation framed to suit the British, not the Indian, educational system. 
‘Many of the Native Civilians thus selected’, he concluded rather 
extravagantly, ‘are more English in thought and feeling than 
Englishmen themselves.’ Lyall argued in similar fashion that their 
education and training had made the Indian members of the civil 
service comparable in ability to Europeans, and hence ‘as a class 
capable of exercising impartially the judicial powers’ regularly exer- 
cised by their British colleagues.>8 

But matters could not be so easily resolved. Both Stephen’s insist- 
ence upon ‘difference’ and Hunter’s promise of ‘sameness’ raised 
troubling questions about the nature, even the existence, of the Raj 
itself. To be sure, men like Ilbert sought only the removal of ‘anomal- 
ies’ in the interests of ‘equity’. Nevertheless, insofar as they justified 
ruling India by an ideology based upon legality and equity, they made 
the practice of that governance increasingly difficult. It was, that is, no 
easy matter at once to treat Indians and Europeans equally, and then to 
claim the right to rule a conquered India. The opponents of the Ibert 
Bill lost no time in bringing this contradiction before the public. In a 
letter to The Times of 1 March 1883, Stephen pointed out that, ‘If the 
Government of India have decided on removing all anomalies from 
India, they ought to remove themselves and their countrymen.’ 
Echoing Stephen, the Tory, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, developed the 

same theme more fully in the House of Commons: 

38 Speech of 9 March 1883, India. Proceedings of the Imperial Legislative Council, 
pp. 188-97. 


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Once begin to base your Indian legislation and policy on the removal of 
anomalies, and you enter upon a course fatal to your dominion in India, fatal 
to the prosperity and wealth of these kingdoms. The removal of anomalies 
indeed! ... if this be your principle the greatest anomaly of all is the presence 
of Englishmen in India at all. Will the right hon. Gentleman [Gladstone] and 
his Viceroy prepare to drive his countrymen, bag and baggage, out of the 
country they have rescued from war, from tyranny, and cruel devastation? ... 
This bill does not extinguish anomalies. It only brings them out in clearer 

Men like Hunter and Lyall, with the other members of the Indian 
civil service who conceived of themselves as liberals, preferred to avert 
their faces from these larger questions. Confronted by increasingly 
clamorous Indian political demands, they could not so easily join 
Macaulay in celebrating a transformed India, and with it the end of the 
Raj. Most of those consulted by Ripon about the Ilbert reforms were 
reluctant to concede more than a limited award of judicial authority to 
selected Indian members of the service. They especially disliked, as 
Lyall put it, having India ‘stirred up by all these controversies’, for 
‘government will not hereafter be so simple a matter as it has been 
hitherto’. They insisted too, in terms of expediency, that incorporating 
Indians into the government of their country would help secure the 
loyalty of these men, and so strengthen the hold of the Raj. Almost 
none among them had any sympathy for what Lyall called the ‘sham 
democracy of the crude Bengalee who had no strength behind his 
words’. Yet, for all this, they refused to disavow the ideals of liberal- 
ism. Some two generations after Macaulay, the claims of those whom 
the British had themselves brought into being had now to be acknowl- 
edged. Hunter insisted, in two successive letters to The Times, that 
Britain could not repudiate the principles embodied in the Ilbert Bill, 
for that would be to draw back from a ‘long series of pledges’, above 
all that of the Queen’s Proclamation, deliberately given to the Indian 
people. Guarantees, once made, had to be fulfilled. The empire had to 
stand, or fall, on principles of equity. No other base was conceivable.*° 

Similar sentiments informed the views of men like Hunter and Lyall 
towards education. It lay at the heart of Britain’s mission in India, and 
so could not be repudiated, despite their own deep ambivalence. As a 
young man in 1859 Lyall had pondered the paradoxes implicit in the 

3° Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, 22 August 1883, col. 1678. 
40 The Times, 2 October and 10 December 1883; Durand, Lyall, pp. 165, 261, 278-83. 


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combination of education and empire. ‘Having civilized them’, he 
wondered, ‘and taught them the advantage of liberty and the use of 
European sciences, how are we to keep them under us, and to persuade 
them that it is for their good that we hold all the high offices of 
Government?’ By the 1880s his enthusiasm for education had waned. 
The 1882 Education Commission, which sought to enlarge the scope 
and extent of education, and which Hunter chaired, Lyall derided as 
‘dressing up a subject artistically, trotting it out, and generally making 
the most of it, as of a horse for sale’. As for himself, he said, ‘I have no 
belief in it in Indian politics except as likely to add to our eventual 
difficulties.’ Nevertheless, he continued, ‘as education is a thing that 
can’t be refused, and that I would not if I could refuse, to the native, I 
don’t mind its ultimate effects’.*! 

Stephen, steeped in James Mill’s utilitarianism, dismissed as mere 
‘sentiment’ all talk of India’s eventual transformation. But he too, and 
the other opponents of the bill, had to fashion a firm basis of ideology 
in order to justify their position. In 1883 Stephen reiterated his 
insistence that India’s variety of personal laws constituted an equiv- 
alent to the English demand for privileged treatment in the courts. The 
judges of the Calcutta High Court concurred. “The entire structure of 
Indian society and the British administration’, as they wrote, in a 
statement published in The Times of 1 August 1883, ‘rests on personal 
laws, under which particular classes or individuals enjoy special rights 
apart from the general law applicable to the entire community.’ The 
judges further argued that it was unwise to allow natives of India to 
exercise the powers of police and magisterial inquiry which were 
commonly combined with those of district magistrate. The present 
law, they said, unlike the proposed amendment, ‘protects European 
British subjects from the exercise of this dangerous combination of 
duties by anyone but their own countrymen’. A European alone, in 
other words, could be trusted with the powers of a ‘petty despot’ in 
the countryside. 

Though Stephen refused to acknowledge it, the concession of 
special privileges for Englishmen on the ground of personal law was 
more than a little disingenuous. After all, India’s differing personal 
laws for the most part related to matters of substantive civil law such as 
inheritance and the like. Where the British sought uniformity, and 
where they prided themselves on securing an impartial ‘rule of law’ in 
41 Durand, Lyall, pp. 89, 266. 


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India, was, as we have seen in chapter 2, in the area of procedure. 
Hence to create special exemptions for British subjects in the way the 
law was administered was to set them apart, not as one among several 
communities in India, each with its own body of laws, but as a 
privileged ruling race. Stephen’s proud boast that the law was Britain’s 
‘gospel’, the ‘sum and substance of what we have to teach’ to India, 
was hardly compatible with an award, to the English alone, of the right 
of refusing trial in a properly constituted tribunal solely on the 
grounds of the racial origin of the presiding judge. 

Only by reaching outside the framework of law could this special 
privilege find justification. As Stephen put it, provocatively, in his 1 
March 1883 letter to The Times, legal distinctions between European 
and Indian were inherent in the nature of the Raj itself. The British 
Indian government, he wrote, 

is essentially an absolute government, founded, not on consent, but on 
conquest. It does not represent the native principles of life or of government, 
and it can never do so until it represents heathenism and barbarism. It 
represents a belligerent civilization, and no anomaly can be so striking or so 
dangerous as its administration by men who, being at the head of a govern- 
ment founded upon conquest, implying at every point the superiority of the 
conquering race, of their ideas, their institutions, their opinions, and their 
principles, and having no justification for its existence except that superiority, 
shrink from the open, uncompromising, straightforward assertion of it, seek 
to apologize for their own position, and refuse, from whatever cause, to 
uphold and support it. 

The Ibert Bill, he concluded, was nothing less than a ‘determination to 
try to govern India upon principles inconsistent with the foundations 
on which British power rests’. 

Stephen thus repudiated the liberal position that Britain’s superio- 
rity derived ultimately from its reputation for fairness, its ‘superior 
moral worth’ as lawgiver, in favour of an insistence upon the inherent 
superiority of a conquering people. This superiority had to be visibly 
represented for it to be effectual. As Ashmead-Bartlett argued in the 
House of Commons, ‘It is not by force alone that British rule in India 
is maintained. The 60,000 British bayonets that garrison that vast 
country are but a drop among the teeming myriads by whom they are 
surrounded. It is the repute, the prestige, the innate sense of superio- 
rity that makes that little band of soldiers and administrators respected 
and obeyed by the masses around them.’ If an Indian were to see an 


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Englishman tried and sentenced by one of his own race, he would soon 
‘lose the natural respect which at present is felt for an Englishman, and 
will begin a course of encroachment which can only end in trouble and 

Unlike the liberals, who were willing at least to contemplate that 
Indians would someday become like Englishmen, hence entitled to 
control their own government, the opponents of the Ilbert Bill 
recoiled from that now visible, even if still distant, prospect. The 
frankness, the ‘belligerence’ of their language, was an expression of an 
increasing fearfulness, linked to a newly perceived vulnerability. As 
the distinctions between colonized and colonizer were becoming 
blurred, it was necessary ever more insistently to proclaim India’s 
inherent difference. Men like Stephen thus helped legitimate, and so 
gave voice to, a host of anxieties and insecurities widely spread among 
the British in India. As we have seen in our discussion of Kipling’s 
stories, written in the years just after the Ilbert controversy, these fears 
ranged widely over the alleged inadequacies of Indian character, relig- 
ion, and society, and extended even to the control of India’s past. In 
the Ilbert struggle all the stereotypes that marked out India’s 
inferiority were marshalled afresh and with a renewed intensity. Not 
surprisingly the non-official English in India, fearful of their loss of 
influence over a govenment they saw as their own, fought most 
tenaciously — through their newspapers, above all The Englishman of 
Calcutta, by petitions, and by monster protest meetings. In the end 
many officials, including the Viceroy Lord Ripon himself, acquiesced 
in the gutting of the bill in order to quell the fierce hostility of their 
own countrymen. Under its provisions as finally enacted in 1884, 
accused Europeans secured the right to claim a trial by jury, at least 
half of whose members were to be themselves European. 

Throughout these debates no aspect of the ‘difference’ between 
Indian and Briton obtained greater prominence than that relating to 
gender. For many, indeed, the bill was pre-eminently about the 
treatment of women. As Kipling wrote in his autobiography, describ- 
ing his own initial perception of the proposal, ‘Just then, it was a 
matter of principle that Native judges should try white women. Native 
in this case meant overwhelmingly Hindu; and the Hindu’s idea of 
women is not lofty.’ The enduring opposition of the ‘sensual’ Indian 
male and the ‘sacralized’ white woman, given powerful form by the 
42 Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, 22 August 1883, col. 1684. 


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rape tales of the Mutiny, now focused upon images of ‘pure and 
passionless’ white women placed at the mercy of lascivious native male 
judges. Even though the Ibert Bill said nothing about women, and the 
educated Indian elite were at no time implicated in any of the occa- 
sional assaults which did take place, the defeat of this measure, so the 
British convinced themselves, could alone protect the ‘defenceless’ 
white woman, and so secure the superiority of the ruling race. 

On this occasion, however, the British women residents of India did 
not simply rely upon the ‘chivalric’ sentiments of their male protec- 
tors. Instead, they participated actively in the campaign against the 
Ibert Bill, and even took the lead in linking the ‘unmanly’ sensuality 
of the Indian male with judicial unfitness. Those who degraded their 
own women, so these English women claimed, disqualified themselves 
from sitting in judgement on a more ‘civilized’ race. Most outspoken 
perhaps was Annette Akroyd Beveridge, wife of Henry Beveridge, 
one of the most liberal members of the Indian civil service and himself 
a supporter of Indian political advance. In a controversial letter to the 
Englishman, Annette Beveridge condemned the bill as a ‘proposal to 
subject civilized women to the jurisdiction of men who have done little 
or nothing to redeem the women of their race, and whose social ideas 
are still on the outer verge of civilization’. Pressed by liberal friends to 
justify her position, she insisted that, ‘speaking as an English woman’, 
she could not but ‘call uncivilised a people which cares about stone 
idols, enjoys child marriage and secludes its women, and where at 
every point the fact of sex is present to the mind’. Ironically, in 
presuming, on the grounds of the ‘pride of womanhood’, to defend 
Indian women, Annette Beveridge only set herself apart from them. 
As Mrinalini Sinha has pointed out, ‘the native female’s own experi- 
ence of the gender and racial hierarchies of colonial society ... found 
no place in Akroyd’s woman-centred outrage against the bill’. By 
celebrating ‘difference’, Annette Beveridge, despite her protestations 
to the contrary, inevitably made gender subservient to race, and so to 

Anger at the Indian claims to equality expressed in the Ilbert Bill 
controversy informed even British scholarship on India’s ancient past. 

43 Lord Beveridge, India Called Them (London, 1947), pp. 227-28, 248; Mrinalini Sinha, 
‘Chathams, Pitts, and Gladstones in Petticoats: The Politics of Race and Gender in the 
Ilbert Bill Controversy, 1883-84’, in Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (eds.), 
Western Women and Imperialism (Indiana, 1992), pp. 98-116, 


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Though not a member of the Indian civil service, Babu Rajendralal 
Mitra was a distinguished Indian scholar; during the 1870s he had, 
with the support of the Indian government, undertaken the first 
detailed archaeological survey of Orissa. Such pretension threatened 
those like James Fergusson, who in such works as the History of 
Indian and Eastern Architecture (1876) had long claimed the right 
authoritatively to define the nature of India’s past. Hence Fergusson 
set out to put the upstart Mitra in his proper place. He did so not 
simply by a scholarly critique of Mitra’s evidence and interpretations, 
but by disparaging his ability, as an Indian, to undertake such a study 
at all. The British, he argued, by their policies had weakened the 
influences of caste and religion, which had given stability to Indian 
society. In its place ‘we have tried to substitute an education, which 
they [the Indian people] cannot assimilate, and which in consequence 
remains, in almost all instances, a useless and empty platitude’. For 
Fergusson, Mitra was a ‘typical specimen’ of that educated class whom 
the Ilbert Bill sought to empower as ‘governors’ of the country. The 
‘real interest’ of his scholarly work, therefore, Fergusson continued, 
‘in these days of discussions of Ilbert Bills’, lay in the evidence it 
supplied ‘as to whether the natives of India are to be treated as equals 
to Europeans in all respects’. The answer was decisively negative. ‘If, 
after reading the following pages’, Fergusson wrote, with a bold leap, 
in the introduction to his critique of Mitra’s scholarship, ‘any Euro- 
pean feels that he would like to be subjected to his [Mitra’s] jurisdic- 
tion, in criminal cases, he must have a courage possessed by few.’4 
The insistent assertion of British privilege at the time of the Ilbert 
controversy, then, caught up not only such obvious arenas of conten- 
tion as the preferential treatment of Europeans in the courts, but the 
control of India’s past and the distinctions of gender which portrayed 
Indian men as sensual and unmanly. The claims alike of Annette 
Beveridge and James Fergusson announced that neither scholarship 
nor the ‘pride of womanhood’ were exempt from the demands of 
empire. Above all, this controversy revealed how the hierarchies of 
race and gender conspired together to sustain the dominant ideology 
of ‘difference’. For women like Annette Beveridge, despite a commit- 
ment to English feminism, the Raj involved not the rule of men over 
women, or even of ‘masculine’ men over ‘effeminate’ men, but rather 

44 James Fergusson, Archeology in India, with Especial Reference to the Works of Babu 
Rajendralal Mitra (London, 1884), pp. vi-vii, 4. 


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an avowal of inherent superiority on the part of English men and 
women together. By the last years of the nineteenth century, however, 
such claims required a vigorous denial to keep the opposing claims of 
equality at bay. 


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The British Raj in India did not of course exist by itself, or solely in its 
relationship to Great Britain as the metropolitan power. It participated 
as well in a larger network of relationships that defined the entire 
British Empire. Ideas and people flowed outward from India, above all 
to East and South Africa and to Southeast Asia, while the admini- 
strators of the Raj had in turn to take into account events that occurred 
in Africa, and even in Canada and Australia. Participation in this larger 
arena opened up fresh territories in which the ideologies of the Raj 
were to find expression. Such notions as ‘indirect rule’ through com- 
pliant princes, and the demarcation of communities on the basis of 
ethnicity and religion, shaped the working of the British Empire from 
South Africa to Malaya. In addition, the ties to the larger empire both 
reinforced India’s ‘distinctiveness’ as a land set apart, above all from 
white settler dominated colonies, and yet made possible an assertion of 
India’s membership in a community which secured all of its members 
equal rights of movement and citizenship. The existence of the British 
Empire thus forced the British to confront once again the tensions 
between the two enduring ideals that shaped their rule of India. Was 
the ideology that sustained the Raj meant to link India as an equal with 
Britain’s other colonial territories, including those of British settle- 
ment, or to reaffirm its ‘difference’? 

This controversy found expression most prominently in the move- 
ment of Indian traders and indentured labourers to an array of British 
colonial territories around the globe. Throughout the nineteenth 
century, as the extension of empire provided security and opened trade 
routes, especially between India and Africa, Indian traders and 
businessmen followed behind the British flag. In addition, the British 
saw in India a source of labour, initially to replace that of slaves on the 
plantations of such colonies as Mauritius, and then, more generally, to 
develop the resources of the tropical empire. These ‘warmer’ British 
possessions, as Lord Salisbury put it in 1875, only ‘want population by 


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an intelligent and industrious race to whom the climate of those 
countries is well suited, and to whom the culture of the staples suited 
to the soil, and the modes of labour and settlement, are adapted’. The 
result was the adoption from the 1840s onward of a system of inden- 
tured labour recruitment in India that ultimately brought Indians to 
colonies as widely spread as Trinidad, Natal, and Fiji. Although the 
various colonial governments through agents in India carried out the 
recruitment of potential labourers, the Government of India 
appointed Protectors of Emigrants at the ports to supervise their 
activities, while protectors in the colonies were charged with oversee- 
ing the conditions of labour for indentured workers on the plan- 

Although the Indian labourers were often harshly treated ~ indeed, 
one author has described the indenture system as ‘A New System of 
Slavery’ — the Indian government still believed that through the 
appointment of the protectors it had discharged its responsibilities to 
its subjects in a way consistent with the paternal vision of empire. The 
British conceived further that emigration offered an opportunity for 
India’s ‘surplus’ population to obtain more ‘lucrative employment’, 
and hence a better life, than they could at home. Although free 
passages back to India were made available to indentured labourers, 
few took advantage of them, as they preferred instead to remain in 
their new homes after the expiry of their period of indenture. For 
many years few objections were voiced, either in India or the colonies, 
to the working of the indenture system. With the award of self- 
government to colonies such as Natal, where an Indian and a white 
settler population uneasily coexisted, the British were, however, 
brought face to face with the question of India’s, and the Indians’, 
proper position within the larger empire.! 

As we have seen in chapter 2, mid-Victorian liberal imperialism set 
off the white settler colonies, on the path to becoming self-governing 
dominions, from an autocratically ruled India and the tropical depend- 
encies. One of the smaller settler colonies, Natal received responsible 
government only in 1893, with a franchise restricted to whites. Its 
white and Indian populations nearly equal, at 50,000 each, set amidst 
some half-million Africans, Natal immediately set out to check the 
growth in the number of its Indian residents, seen as rivals in trade, 

1 See Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 
1830-1920 (London, 1974). 


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and to confine the Indian to what they considered his proper role, that 
of plantation labourer. To secure this objective, stringent literacy 
requirements for admission to the colony were imposed, trading 
licences were restricted, and an annual £3 tax was placed upon free 
Indian residents. 

Confronted with this series of restrictive measures, the British, at 
once in India and in London, insisted that Indians in Natal, like British 
subjects anywhere within the empire, were entitled, as the Indian 
Secretary Lord George Hamilton put it, to ‘fair and equitable 
treatment, involving complete equality before the law’. Such notions 
accorded with those ideals of the rule of law upon which the Indian 
Empire was itself grounded, and expressed the larger concept of an 
imperial system bound together by common principles. Even race 
could be used to support a system of equal rights for Indians. As the 
retired Indian civil servant Lepel Griffin observed, the Indian ‘is, like 
the Englishman, of an ancient Aryan stock, a fellow subject of the 
Queen, and an industrious and law abiding citizen’. Indeed, he urged, 
the white and brown inhabitants of Natal ought to make common 
cause against the ‘rapidly increasing and dangerous Kaffir population’. 
Indians should not in any case, so Curzon’s government insisted, be 
included in the same category with the black African, for the African 
stood ‘far below them’ in the ‘grades of humanity’. The ideology of 
Indian ‘difference’ was never the same as that which defined the 
distinctions between European and African. 

A deep ambivalence nevertheless remained. Some repudiated the 
whole attempt to enforce an equality between the Indian and Euro- 
pean. In a manner reminiscent of Stephen’s attack on the Ilbert Bill, 
J. Westland, the finance member of the Indian government in 1897, 
insisted that he could not ‘see any reasonable foundation for the 
doctrine that when we conquer a race or a nation by the force of our 
arms, the people of that nation acquire rights as against members of the 
conquering race who happen to have cast their lot in tropical or 
subtropical colonies’. More pragmatically, Indian officials such as Sir 
John Woodburn acknowledged their sympathy with the British 
working-class emigrant, who sought, as he said, to ‘exclude Indians 
and Chinese, accustomed to a lower standard of living’, from those 
few places, Natal among them in their view, where he could ‘work 
with his hands’. “We must’, Woodburn said, ‘recognise this and allow 
for it. It is selfish; it isn’t magnificent and it isn’t magnanimous but it is 


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human nature.’ We say India for the Indians, he went on; ‘It is just and 
right and our bounden duty. It is their country. But just in the same 
way there are certain tracts, for which the Britisher can as fairly claim 
the colonies for the colonist.’? 

Much of the enthusiasm for the Indian cause in South Africa 
reflected calculations of political advantage within India. As Curzon 
delicately phrased it, the educated classes in India, who most resented 
the treatment of Indians in Africa, attached great value to ‘those 
principles of freedom and equality which they have learnt to regard as 
the right of a British subject; and though not without its inconve- 
niences, which are indeed daily becoming more obvious, it constitutes 
almost the only basis upon which an active loyalty to the rule of an 
alien conqueror is likely to be developed’. Support of Indian rights 
overseas, in this view, marked out less an enduring commitment to 
equality than a device to contain, and safely channel onto less conten- 
tious ground, the challenge these ideals posed to British supremacy in 

Curzon, even so, took care to limit his claims on behalf of his Indian 
fellow subjects. ‘We do not for one moment suggest’, he told the 
Indian secretary, ‘nor do we regard it as possible, that Indians should 
enjoy in an African colony an absolute equality of rights with the 
white colonists, for such equality does not exist even in India. We do 
not, for instance, claim for them admission to the franchise, or inclu- 
sion on the general jury roll, for these institutions are foreign to their 
ideas.’ Similarly, Curzon was not prepared to accept the view that “all 
citizens of the Empire, independently of colour or origin, ought to be 
at liberty to live and labour in all parts of it on the same footing, 
unhampered by any racial disabilities or social and economic restric- 
tions’. Britain’s Indian subjects might be for Curzon ‘our people’, 
whose rights he stood ready to defend, but such rights remained 
always hedged round by an insistence on difference.? 

Only in England itself, where several Indians won election to 
parliament during the 1890s, were Indians able to make good a claim 
to full political rights, and to secure unfettered rights of immigration. 
Yet even there, as Sir Arthur Lawley, the Transvaal lieutenant gover- 
nor, presciently pointed out, ideals of equality flourished only because 

2 Notes of 15 March 1897 and 26 October 1897 in NAI Emigration Proceedings, November 
1897, no. 17-20; also Emigration Proceedings, July 1898, no. 1-4. 
3 For Curzon’s views, see NAI Emigration Proceedings, May 1903, no. 36-39. 


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Indian migration posed no threat to the livelihood of the English 
people. ‘As India is protected by her climate against Europeans’, he 
wrote, ‘so England is protected by the same agency against the 
invasion of the Asiatic, to which this country [South Africa] is subject. 
But if it were not so, would the faith of those pledges [of equal 
treatment] be held to entitle the Indian shop-keeper to eliminate from 
English society the small shop-keeper and farmer?’ Fifty years later 
British race riots and immigration restrictions made evident the accu- 
racy of this observation. 

The Indian government, responding in large part to the protests of 
educated Indian opinion, ended indentured migration to Natal in 
1911. By that time, however, the vision of an empire in which all of its 
members shared equally in its rights and privileges was no more. In the 
previous year South Africa’s Indian residents were abandoned to their 
fate, when the country was handed over to the defeated Boers, who 
were left free to implement whatever restrictive legislation they chose. 
An act presented to the British public as the triumph of a generous 
liberal imperialism, the creation of the self-governing Union of South 
Africa in fact concealed an acknowledgement that Indians and Afri- 
cans alike had no claim within the empire upon a ‘complete equality 
before the law’. Where Indians were after 1910 not denied residence 
altogether, as for the most part in Australia and Canada, their racial 
‘difference’ consigned them only to the status of subject peoples. 
Imperial federation as an ideal could not contend successfully with a 
colonial nationalism determined to secure the right of the fledgling 
dominions to control their own immigration as well as fiscal and, after 
1920, defence policies. 

Other institutions linking India with the larger empire also forced 
the British to confront the contradictions in their imperial ideology. 
One small but telling instance was that of Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts. 
Shaped by the experience of the Boer War, the scout movement, 
founded in 1908, was meant to nourish discipline and self-reliance 
among boys in a Britain which was seen as increasingly weak and 
vulnerable. Suffused with patriotic and imperial sentiment, especially 
in the years before the First World War, the movement sought to 
insure that its young members would ‘be prepared’, above all, to serve 
their country, and its empire, in its time of need. Yet at the same time, 
the scout movement set forth an ideal of comradeship founded upon 
universal values of brotherhood and mutual understanding. As 


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scouting spread to India, this tension between the notion of an 
‘imperial race’, with its implied contempt for ‘natives’, and the liberal 
ideals of multi-racial harmony, placed the government, and Baden- 
Powell himself, in an awkward dilemma. Unable to decide what to do, 
the Indian government at first discouraged scouting on the ground that 
it would expose Indian boys to potentially seditious ‘evil influences’, 
only to change in 1921 to a policy of patronizing the movement as a 
way of checking the growth of rival organizations under the control of 
Indian nationalists. 

The issue throughout was that of ‘Character’. For Baden-Powell, 
Indian boys were ‘singularly without character by nature’. Nor was 
there in their training, he insisted, in keeping with the enduring British 
deprecation of Indian masculinity, ‘as yet any discipline or any 
attempt to inculcate in [them] a sense of honour, of fair play, of 
honesty, truth, and self-discipline and other attributes which go to 
make a reliable man of character’. They were ‘merely crammed up 
with knowledge and visionary ideas till their heads become too big for 
their hats’. How far such people — ‘not possessed of the same ideas and 
minds as white men’ — could be transformed by scouting remained for 
Baden-Powell, as for the British more generally, an uncertain pros- 
pect. Though scouting flourished in India during the 1920s and 1930s, 
Baden-Powell insisted to the end that Indians possessed no notion of 
‘honour’, the ‘keystone to character’, for in his view no equivalent 
word expressive of this concept existed in the Hindustani language. 
Hence Indians could not fully appreciate the ideals of the Boy Scout 
movement. In 1938 a discouraged Indian scout movement severed its 
ties with imperial headquarters.* 

As the British in the early twentieth century struggled to construct a 
vision of an empire united by a shared attachment among its diverse 
peoples, they did so in part by devising new symbolic centres. One 
was the celebration of Empire Day. Invented by the imperial enthu- 
siast Lord Meath in 1904, Empire Day was meant to evoke a spirit of 
patriotism and devotion, and so to create an imperial race “worthy of 
responsibility, alive to duty, filled with sympathy towards mankind 
and not afraid of self-sacrifice in the promotion of lofty ideals’. The 

4 Michael Rosenthal, The Character Factory (New York, 1984), chapter 9; and Allen 
Warren, ‘Citizens of the Empire: Baden-Powell, Scouts and Guides, and an Imperial 
Ideal’, in John MacKenzie (ed.), Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester, 1986), 

pp. 232-56. 


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holiday was celebrated on Queen Victoria’s birthday, 24 May, with 
the ritual observance primarily focussed on lectures and parades for 
schoolchildren. Canada and Australia almost at once adopted this 
holiday, as a way of showing their enthusiastic participation in the 
larger imperial system. The British themselves, oddly, in part because 
of Liberal and socialist opposition, and in part too perhaps because 
many took the empire for granted, did not officially recognize the 
holiday until 1916, when the war provoked a fresh appreciation of the 
value of the empire. 

In India the celebration of Empire Day had to contend with the 
contradictions that bedevilled the underlying ideology of empire, for it 
was difficult for the British to conceive of Indians as patriotic members 
of an ‘imperial race’. Hence the Indian government sought to sidestep 
the issue by cultivating instead a feeling of ‘personal loyalty’ to the 
sovereign. As the director of public instruction in Bengal wrote, ‘I 
think that the keynote of all the Empire Day addresses should be the 
personality of the King-Emperor as the centre of the British Empire 
and not an insistence on the benefits of British rule in India or the vast 
resources of the British Empire.’ The British had imagined, going back 
to the award of the title of Empress of India to Queen Victoria, that 
Indians as ‘Orientals’ were especially susceptible to ‘sentiment’ and 
with it to personal distinctions of rank and honour. Hence a focus on 
the monarch was ‘the only way’, as one secretariat official argued, in 
which an Empire Day could be made ‘to appeal to the sentiments of 
the Indian race’. Practical political concerns intruded as well, for the 
government wished to avoid ‘misrepresentation and attacks’ by a 
resurgent Indian nationalism not easily able to accommodate itself to 
the sentiments underlying Empire Day.® 

As a result, Indian celebrations carefully avoided the date of 24 May, 
which in any case fell in the height of the hot weather during school 
vacations, and with it the term ‘Empire Day’. Instead the government 
strove whenever possible to turn to advantage the undoubted prestige 
of the king-emperor. The most prominent such occasion was the Delhi 
durbar of 1911, when King George V came to India to celebrate his 
own coronation, and at the same time, conceding the new found 
power of Indian public opinion, to announce the reversal of Curzon’s 

5 For the discussion, see NAI Home Public, August 1907, no. 45; for the larger issues, see 
J.A. Mangan, ‘The Grit of our Forefathers: Invented Traditions, Propaganda and 
Imperialism’, in MacKenzie, Imperialism and Popular Culture, pp. 113-39. 


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bitterly opposed partition of Bengal. Pictures of the monarch, with the 
durbar proclamation printed on the back, were distributed to every 
village in the UP, and the headmen were instructed to read out the text 
to the assembled villagers. In subsequent years, although the king- 
emperor’s birthday was observed as a formal public holiday 
throughout India, for the average schoolchild, as Prakash Tandon 
remembers it, that day, and similar events such as the visits of high 
British dignitaries, meant little more than an occasion for the distri- 
bution of sweets.® Increasingly, as time went on, Indians insisted upon 
defining for themselves their links to an empire that made little 
provision for their inclusion as equal members with full rights of 


With the coming of the twentieth century, the British in India had to 
confront an increasingly powerful and well-organized nationalist 
movement. Even before the rise of Gandhi, Indian nationalists, in the 
streets as well as the legislative arena, had forcefully challenged British 
predominance — from Tilak’s ‘swaraj’ campaign, to the struggle against 
the 1905 Bengal partition, to Annie Besant’s Home Rule movement. 
Nevertheless, only in 1917, with the Montagu Declaration, and the 
Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms two years later, were the set of 
assumptions that underlay the Raj called into question. Even then 
constitutional change came linked with the explosive upheaval of the 
1919 Amritsar massacre and lingering doubts, especially among British 
conservatives, that persisted through the 1920s and 1930s. The Indian 
independence portended in August 1917 eventually took place only 
thirty years later, in August 1947. 

As we have seen in the previous chapter, the Ilbert controversy 
forced the British for the first time seriously to consider how they 
should accommodate the demands of India’s educated for a share of 
political power. Previously such questions, outside the realm of practi- 
cal politics, could be ignored in discussions of the nature of the Raj. 
During 1883, by contrast, as they debated the Ilbert Bill, the British 
found themselves unable any longer to evade the issue of India’s 
political advance. The strategies hammered out on that occasion, 
whether by supporters or opponents of the bill, defined the nature of 
6 Prakash Tandon, Punjabi Century (California, 1968), pp. 119-20. 


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the British response to Indian nationalism in the years that followed. 
Each crisis in turn was met by a reiteration of the opposed ideologies 
that had emerged from the debates of 1883. Furthermore, despite the 
triumph of the bill’s opponents in gutting the reform, the Ibert 
debates did not put an end to anxiety and ambivalence. Indeed, as the 
political conflict intensified, so too did the contradictions underlying 
Britain’s vision of the Raj become harder to contain. Insistence upon 
India’s ‘difference’ uneasily coexisted with measures whose only justi- 
fication was to be found in the presumption of ‘similarity’. 

The tension was most evident in the so-called Morley—Minto 
reforms of 1909. These reforms, in large part a response to the intense 
agitation triggered by the Bengal partition, vastly extended the range 
of Indian participation in the governance of their country. The various 
legislative councils were dramatically increased in size, with non- 
official members predominating in the provincial councils and only a 
small official majority retained at the centre. Election, although often 
by special constituencies, was made the usual method of selecting 
members, and the powers of the councils were enhanced by award of 
the right of interpellation of ministers and approval of the budget. All 
of these changes, in line with British procedure and parallel with those 
adopted in the white settler colonies just before the award to them of 
responsible government under the Durham reforms, anticipated a 
transition in time to full parliamentary self-government for India as 
well. As Edwin Montagu, the Indian secretary a decade later put it, 
these reforms constituted ‘a decided step forward on a road leading at 
no distant period’ to a consideration of responsible government for 
India. Such an expectation was further enhanced by the fact that one of 
the authors of the reforms, John Morley, the Indian secretary in 
London, was a Liberal schooled under Gladstone. 

Yet at the same time, Morley, now aged and cautious, and with him 
the viceroy, Lord Minto, insisted that these reforms involved no 
change in the fundamental assumptions on which the Raj had been 
established during the preceding half-century. Minto had come to 
India in 1906 convinced of the ‘hard fact’ that Western forms of 
government were ‘unsuited’ to India, and that ‘we must be physically 
strong or go to the wall’. He developed the same ideas more fully in 
sending the reform scheme home to London for approval. Representa- 
tive government, he argued, ‘could never be akin to the instincts of 
the many races composing the population of the Indian Empire’. ‘A 


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Western importation unnatural to Eastern tastes’, it was wholly 
opposed to Asian styles of government, which ‘from time immemo- 
rial’ had ‘rested in the hands of absolute rulers’. Hence the sovereignty 
of India had to remain in British hands. In Minto’s view, what India 
required was a ‘constitutional autocracy which binds itself to govern 
by rule’, and which invites to its councils ‘representatives of all the 
interests which are capable of being represented’. None of this was, of 
course, at all original. Rather, it expressed enduring British views of 
Indian ‘difference’, and of the nature of the Raj itself. Consultative 
constituencies ranged around an autocratic centre was a logical exten- 
sion of ideas that had long informed British policy.” 

The Morley—Minto reforms did, however, embed deeply in Indian 
life the idea that its society consisted of groups set apart from each 
other. Most portentous was Minto’s conception of India’s Muslims as 
a distinct community who deserved representation on their own. By 
Minto’s time, community based electorates had become ever more 
visibly a device to secure a base of support for the Raj in the face of an 
increasing nationalist challenge. Minto’s 1906 creation of special 
Muslim constituencies was hailed as ‘nothing less than the pulling back 
of sixty-two millions of people from joining the ranks of the seditious 
opposition’. Yet such electorates could still be justified as a necessary 
accommodation to India’s inherent diversity. As Minto put it, ‘any 
electoral representation in India would be doomed to mischievous 
failure which aimed at granting a personal enfranchisement, regardless 
of the beliefs and traditions of the communities composing the popu- 
lation of this continent. The great mass of the people of India have no 
knowledge of representative institutions.’ 

The creation of special Muslim electorates implied no enthusiasm 
for Islam as a religion, nor for a populist Muslim politics. Indeed the 
British endeavoured to keep religion out of politics by defining as an 
unfair electoral practice appeals to voters based on threats of “divine 
displeasure’ or ‘spiritual censure’. As David Gilmartin has written, 
within the structure of the colonial political system, religion was 
defined as a form of ‘ethnic identity’, fixed, identifiable, and uncon- 
nected with the assertion of any principles of belief or political action. 
Such restrictions were of course in practice impossible to enforce. By 

7 Mary, Countess of Minto, India Minto and Morley, 1905-1910 (London, 1934), pp. 29-39, 

8 Ibid., pp. 45-48. 


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marking off a Muslim community and instituting elections within it, 
the British inevitably created arenas for ritual competition in which 
over time personal commitment to Islam melded with public asser- 
tions of religious solidarity to create a newly politicized vision of 
community. The result was the flowering of a new communal rhetoric, 
and, ultimately, of the Pakistan movement.’ 

Reconsideration of the fundamental nature and objectives of the Raj 
emerged ultimately from the dislocation, and discontent, of the First 
World War. By late 1916 a newly revitalized nationalist movement had 
brought together the Muslim League and the Congress in support of a 
joint demand for Home Rule for India. In response, the new liberal 
Indian secretary, Edwin Montagu, on 20 August 1917 issued the 
famous declaration that the British government’s objective was to 
bring about the ‘increasing association of Indians in every branch of 
the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing 
institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible 
government in India as an integral part of the Empire’. This ‘momen- 
tous utterance’, as Montagu subsequently described it, marked out, in 
his view, ‘the end of one epoch and the beginning of a new one’. To be 
sure, the Conservatives in the British wartime coalition government 
sought to contain the declaration within the framework of the old 
policy. Balfour spoke of parliamentary government as a peculiarly 
British system, which could not be adapted to Indian conditions, while 
Curzon insisted that never ‘in the wildest of dreams’ could India 
become a self-governing dominion like Canada or Australia. He envis- 
aged instead a ‘closer and more responsible co-operation’ between 
Indian and Briton, with self-government put off to a distant future in 
which India’s political unity might have disintegrated into new and 
different shapes.'° 

The contradictions within the old ideology had, however, been 
stretched beyond the breaking point. In their report of March 1918 
Montagu, joining with the Indian viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, openly 
expressed, for the first time at the highest levels of government, the 
notion that India could be reshaped in the image of England, that 
responsible government, as ‘the best form of government that they 

? David Gilmartin, ‘Divine Displeasure and Muslim Elections: The Shaping of Community 
in Twentieth-Century Punjab’, in D.A. Low (ed.), The Political Inheritance of Pakistan 
(New York, 1991), especially pp. 107-11. 

10 Carl Bridge, Holding India to the Empire (New York, 1986), chapter 1. 


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[the English] know’, should be extended to India. Developing and 
extending the implications of the Ibert Bill, Montagu and Chelmsford 
systematically set out to demolish the barriers that the theory of 
‘difference’ had for so long placed in the way of India’s political 
advance. Despite its divisions of caste and sect, they insisted, India’s 
sense of unity was growing; its ‘inarticulate’ peasant voters could over 
time learn to shoulder their political responsibilities; and, more gen- 
erally, the ‘helplessness’ of India’s peoples could be transformed into 
self-reliance by the exercise of responsibility, which would ‘call forth 
the capacity for it’. Above all, they argued insistently, India’s educated 
were not an irritant whom a strong government must push aside, but 
‘intellectually our children’, who have ‘imbibed ideas which we our- 
selves have set before them’. As the ‘inevitable result of education in 
the history and thought of Europe’ was the ‘desire for self-determi- 
nation’, the present Indian unrest was therefore ‘no reproach but 
rather a tribute to our work’. The task of the British government was 
to provide ‘opportunities for the satisfaction of the desires which it 
creates’. With the Montagu-Chelmsford Report, liberal idealism — the 
‘faith that is in us’ — had gained a place at the heart of Britain’s Indian 

This new ideal was not of course meant to be implemented over- 
night, nor could the sheer force of rhetoric by itself overwhelm the 
doubts of those who clung to a belief in India’s enduring ‘difference’. 
Montagu and Chelmsford had themselves acknowledged the strength 
of religious contention, especially that between Hindu and Muslim, 
and argued that the government had to reserve to itself power to deal 
with it. In subsequent years an insistence that the British could alone 
protect the rights of ‘minorities’, and hence had to remain the rulers of 
India, was to anchor the faith of those who were reluctant to move 
down the path Montagu and Chelmsford had outlined. Distrust of the 
educated too, and a disdain for India’s politicians, could not easily be 
laid to rest, especially as Indian nationalism under Gandhi’s leadership 
grew at once more threatening and more difficult to contain. Indeed, 
the prospect of sharing power with Indian politicians only exacerbated 
the growing anxiety and fearfulness among the British in India. Mon- 
tagu’s ‘faith’ commanded a whole-hearted enthusiasm among few of 

" Government of India, Report on Indian Constitutional Reforms (Calcutta, 1918), 
especially pp. 1, 84-95, 117-18. 


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those who had committed their lives, and careers, to the running of 
India’s government. 

The views of Malcolm Hailey, member of the viceroy’s council and 
governor of both Punjab and the United Provinces during the 1920s, 
are in this respect perhaps typical. Nurtured in the paternalism of the 
Punjab school, accustomed to giving orders and to being obeyed, 
Hailey brought to his long years in the Indian central government that 
combination, as one visitor to the Punjab wrote, of ‘deep sympathy 
and equable justice wherein lay the strength of the great Anglo-Indian 
administrators in the past’. By 1915, in Delhi, he had come to realize 
that it was ‘no longer possible to represent the “‘intelligenzia” as a class 
which represents nobody but itself and voices no views but its own’. 
The political ferment now involved larger numbers and was part of ‘a 
growing belief in the possibility of a social, moral and political “resor- 
gimento” of the East’. Hence Britain ought to take ‘every reasonable 
opportunity to meet this growing feeling of responsibility and 
independence’. Yet even then his conversion was only partial. 
Although, as John Cell has cogently observed, ‘his mind might belong 
to the Liberals’, his ‘heart’ remained in Shahpur, the rural Punjab 
district where he had begun his Indian career. This ambivalence 
bedevilled Hailey throughout his life. Even as late as his governorship 
of the UP in the mid-1930s, Hailey’s intellectual recognition that 
Indian nationalism must succeed was yoked to an abiding antagonism 
toward the Congress, a willingness to play Muslim off against Hindu, 
and a reluctance to contemplate bringing the Raj to an end. This 
‘fundamental ambiguity’, as Cell argues, was not Hailey’s alone, but 
personified ‘the contradictory nature of the empire he served’.!? 

History could be enlisted to contest change, as well as, in Montagu’s 
vision, to support it. The standard histories of India had long laid out a 
pattern of recurrent anarchy whenever the strong hand of central 
authority was withdrawn. At once a renowned historian and a retired 
member of the Indian civil service, Vincent Smith endeavoured, in a 
100 page tract on ‘Constitutional Reform’, written in December 1918, 
to bring ‘the light of history’, as he saw it, to bear on the recommen- 
dations of the Montagu-Chelmsford Report. He insisted that ‘diver- 
sity’ remained, in the present as in the past, fundamental in shaping the 
character of India’s society. The ‘old sores’ of ancient feuds, he wrote, 

12 John W. Cell, Hailey: A Study in British Imperialism, 1872-1969 (Cambridge, 1992), 
especially pp. 30-31, 54-55, 213. 


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still ‘fester’, and would not go away by parading a superficial appear- 
ance of unity. The institution of caste, above all, to which he attributed 
3,000 years of history, ‘suits Hindus and has become part of their 
nature’. Hence ‘in all probability it will still endure for untold cen- 
turies’. A land so divided, and whose people craved personal rule, had 
to remain under British protection. It could not be made over in the 
image of England, nor could the ‘purely foreign invention’ of respon- 
sible government ever take root there. To think otherwise was to give 
way to ‘vain visions’. 

In 1919 the Amritsar massacre brought to a tragic climax the 
opposition to what Sir Michael O’ Dwyer, the Punjab governor, called 
the subordination of ‘honest administration’ to ‘dishonest politics’. It 
was not wholly by accident that this tragedy, in which some 400 
unarmed demonstrators were shot dead in an enclosed garden, took 
place in the Punjab. The Punjab School ideology, as we have seen, had 
always emphasized firm, paternal rule by an elite of self-confident 
administrators, who conceived their duty as that of bringing order and 
prosperity to a contented peasant society. Unlike their colleagues 
elsewhere in India, they had had to confront few challenges to their 
authority before 1919. Hence they were perhaps more likely to break 
under stress, as had already been the case with the Kuka uprising of 
1872, and to resort to a forceful assertion of their authority. Still, the 
cast of mind which led to the massacre in the Jallianwalla Bagh was by 
no means exceptional to the Punjab. The firing met with widespread 
support throughout the services, and, more generally, in England, 
where General Reginald Dyer, who ordered the shooting, was 
acclaimed by the House of Lords and made the beneficiary of a fund 
drive which raised some £26,000. 

At no time was Dyer at all apologetic for his actions. He insisted 
always that he had simply done his duty in endeavouring to put down 
what O’Dwyer called the ‘Punjab Rebellion of 1919’. As O’Dwyer 
later wrote, defending Dyer, ‘he had the rebel army before him, he was 
practically isolated in the middle of a great city seething with rebellion, 
and hesitation would have been fatal’. Dyer himself insisted that the 
firing was not ‘a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of 
producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not 
only on those who were present but more specially throughout the 
Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.’ The firing in 
Jallianwalla Bagh cannot thus be viewed as an unfortunate mistake, 


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marked with regrets on the part of its participants, but rather as 
expressing enduring assumptions about the nature of the Raj, and of 
Indian society. India, Dyer was saying, was different from England, 
and the British had responsibilities there that could not be shirked.'° 

Most telling perhaps was Dyer’s use of the language of the school- 
master in describing the events of Jallianwalla Bagh. Indians, in his 
view, were children who when ‘naughty’ needed to be punished. His 
actions, presented as those of the stern but watchful father, as he told 
the inquiry committee, though horrible, were ‘merciful’. As with a 
good paddling at school, the Indians ‘ought to be thankful to me for 
doing it’. I thought, he continued, ‘it would be doing a jolly lot of 
good and they would realize that they were not to be wicked’. As 
children, Indians were for Dyer simply not capable of governing 
themselves. Hence any defiance of British authority was by definition 
rebellion against a properly constituted moral order. Like Governor 
Eyre in Jamaica in 1865, Dyer conceived of himself as standing 
between order and chaos. 

The use of unrestrained force was, however, hardly compatible with 
the proud commitment of the British in India to the rule of law. Hence 
immediately after the shooting in Jallianwalla Bagh the government 
proclaimed martial law throughout the central Punjab. This placed 
civil government in the hands of military officers and permitted the 
meting out of summary punishments on the spot without recourse to 
the courts. Martial law, with its exercise of exemplary powers, had 
long been regarded as a legitimate device to contain threatening dis- 
order, and a way as well to throw a cloak of legality over the actions of 
men such as Dyer. Yet it also widened the distance between India and 
England. In England, although the military were from time to time 
called out in support of the civil authorities, disturbances were met by 
the reading of the ‘riot act’. Since the early nineteenth century, 
however, despite its roots in English common law, martial law had 
been employed only in the colonial empire and Ireland. Its use thus 
signified not just the existence of riotous behaviour, but a fearfulness, 
and a presumption, clearly visible in O’Dwyer’s account of the 
‘Punjab Rebellion’, of a people conspiring to overthrow constituted 
authority. In the colonial world the ‘rule of law’ had to bend to secure 

'3 Michael O’ Dwyer, India as I Knew It, 1885-1925 (London, 1925), chapter 17, especially 
p. 285; Derek Sayer, ‘British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre, 1919-1920’, Past & 
Present, no. 131 (May 1991), pp. 130~64. 


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its own supremacy. The violence of martial law, in this view, could 
alone restore a challenged imperial governance. 

Many of Dyer’s critics, including among them senior officials of the 
Indian government, who secured his censure, described his actions as 
simply the excessive zeal of a misguided individual, and so sought, by 
making him a convenient scapegoat, to distance themselves from any 
responsibility. Montagu, however, disdained the Jallianwalla Bagh 
firing because he saw embodied in it a larger concept of empire that 
marked India out as a place apart, where such practices as ‘terrorism’ 
and ‘racial humiliation’ were to be allowed to flourish. The inhabitants 
of India, Montagu insisted, had a right to demand of those set in 
authority over them that they adhere to the ‘standards of propriety 
and humanity’ of ‘the civilised world in general’. No more so in India 
than elsewhere, in this view, could massacre be justified on the ground 
that it had a valuable ‘moral effect’. In place of coercion, Montagu put 
forward the idea of dyarchy, in which the British, while retaining 
ultimate authority, would slowly devolve power to elected Indian 
ministries, at first in the provinces and over a limited range of ‘nation- 
building’ activities such as education and agriculture, and then finally 
at the centre. Rather than wicked children who required punishment, 
the Indians in this liberal vision were more like adolescents who 
needed ‘trust’ and ‘goodwill’ as they approached maturity. 

The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms passed through parliament with 
little opposition in December 1919. This legislation, which vastly 
enhanced the Indian electorate and the powers alike of Indian legisla- 
tures and ministers, envisaged an India consisting of a set of provinces, 
self-governing in local matters, under a central government ‘increas- 
ingly representative of and responsible to the people of all of them’. 
There was to be no turning back. India’s evolution to the status of a 
fully self-governing dominion within the Commonwealth, implicit in 
the 1919 legislation, was explicitly avowed as the goal of British policy 
by Lord Irwin in 1929. The transfer of power on 15 August 1947 was 
thus the only outcome that could be anticipated from the ideals that 
sustained the Montagu-Chelmsford scheme. There was, however, to 
be a great deal of foot-dragging, above all by those for whom the 
ideology of ‘difference’, and the consequent need for the continuance 
of the Raj, remained appealing. 

This ‘diehard’ resistance, in which many senior, largely Conserva- 
tive, British political figures participated, took various forms. All were 


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directed to the objective, as Carl Bridge put it, of ‘holding India to the 
Empire’. The resulting political manoeuvres have been described in 
detail in the writings of numerous scholars, among them R. J. Moore, 
John Darwin, and Carl Bridge. At the heart of the enterprise was what 
Bridge calls a ‘grand design’ for holding on to ‘the commanding 
heights of the Raj while gaining important kudos for giving away 
inessentials’. This meant that Congress politicians should be diverted 
away from the centre to the provinces, and constitutional change 
should always aim, as the Conservative Indian secretary Samuel Hoare 
put it, at giving ‘a semblance of responsible government’ while keeping 
‘for ourselves the threads that really direct the system of government’. 
These various delaying strategies informed the 1935 Government of 
India Act. This legislation at once laid out a blueprint for India’s 
subsequent independence, and yet signalled Britain’s determination to 
thwart Congress control of the centre by proposing a federation 
dominated by princes, Muslims and minorities. An Indian dominion 
so constituted, the act’s authors were convinced, would assure con- 
tinued subordination of the country’s foreign and defence policies to 
those of an imperial Britain.'4 

The most outspoken ‘diehard’ was Winston Churchill. In a manner 
reminiscent of Dyer after Amritsar, or Fitzjames Stephen during the 
Ilbert controversy, Churchill stripped away the evasive rhetoric to 
reveal underneath the enduring ideology that had sustained the Raj for 
so long. There was, he told the House of Commons in the debates on 
the 1935 Act, ‘no real practical unity in India apart from British rule’. 
Hence ‘liberty for India only means liberty for one set of Indians to 
exploit another’. The British may have been only ‘the latest of many 
conquerors’, but they alone had ‘made the well-being of the Indian 
masses their supreme satisfaction’. As they had taken upon themselves 
this ‘mission in the East’, the British could not simply ‘abdicate’ it, and 
so ‘withdraw our guardianship from this teeming myriad population 
of Indian toilers’. Gandhi, as Churchill put it in a memorable phrase at 
the time of the 1931 Gandhi-Irwin Pact, was no more than a ‘half- 
naked fakir’; India’s politicians, as he said on the eve of independence, 
were only ‘men of straw’ who represented no one and would be swept 
away in the coming storm. Of course, for Churchill the Raj secured as 

4 See Bridge, Holding India; R.]. Moore, Endgames of Empire (Delhi, 1988); and John 
Darwin, ‘Imperialism in Decline? Tendencies in British Imperial Policy Between the 
Wars’, Historical Journal, vol. 23 (1980), pp. 657-79. 


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well Britain’s own position as a great power. Without India, ‘the most 
truly bright and precious jewel in the crown of the King’, the British 
Empire, he correctly discerned, would soon cease to exist.!5 

Neither the manoeuvrings of the Conservative party leaders, nor 
Churchill’s empassioned defence of the Raj, could destroy the Con- 
gress, which held power in the majority of India’s provinces from 1937 
to 1939, or even halt the steady, if slow, march toward independence. 
Nevertheless, only in the 1940s, as Britain fought desperately for its 
own survival, was the ideal of empire in India, with the ideology that 
upheld it, decisively repudiated. In early 1942, moved by the liberal 
vision of an India transformed into an equal member of the British 
Commonwealth, the Labour leader Clement Attlee called for ‘a man 
to do in India what Durham did in Canada’. Stafford Cripps’s sub- 
sequent mission to India, though sabotaged by Churchill’s unyielding 
refusal to allow Indian participation in a reconstituted war govern- 
ment, still made it clear that after the war a constituent assembly 
would be convened, and a constitution drafted to bring into existence a 
self-governing Indian dominion. 

In July 1945, with Britain exhausted from the war, a Labour govern- 
ment under Attlee’s leadership took office. Though long sympathetic 
to Indian nationalism, Labour had never devised a vision of Britain’s 
role in India distinct from that of liberals such as Montagu. Indeed, the 
Labour Party had among its members many who believed in the value 
of empire. When briefly in office during the interwar period - in 1924 
and again in 1929-31 — Labour had worked closely with its Liberal 
allies; while in 1940-5, as a participant in the wartime coalition 
government, the Labour Party had acquiesced in Churchill’s suppress- 
ion of all constitutional change in India. Hence, once in office after 
1945, the Attlee government offered no new vision of the Raj, but they 
moved quickly to implement the ideals that had shaped British policy 
since the Montagu declaration of 1917. A Britain in debt even to India 
itself, and dependent on the United States for its postwar prosperity, 
had few enduring economic or strategic interests to stand in the way of 
what Churchill, defiant to the end, called the ‘scuttle’ of 1947. The 
Muslims were awarded the Pakistan they had demanded, but the 
princes were abandoned, and the Congress under Nehru left to claim 
power in a free India. 

15 Rhodes James (ed.), Winston Churchill, Complete Speeches, 1897-1963, vol. 5 (New 
York, 1974), especially pp. 5450-68. 


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After 1947, although a few Conservatives still spluttered about the 
loss of India, most Britons endeavoured to put the best possible face 
on the events of 15 August by taking credit for the award of Indian 
independence. In the process the liberal vision of India’s trans- 
formation that had shaped Montagu’s 1917 declaration was read back 
into the earlier history of the Raj, and the ideology that had for so 
many decades sustained the ‘illusion of permanence’, as Francis 
Hutchins described it, was either willed out of existence or attributed 
to a few isolated ‘diehards’. Once men like Dyer and Churchill had 
been portrayed as exceptional, the 1947 transfer of power could then 
become the triumph of a spirit that had continuously informed 
Britain’s purpose in India for over a hundred years. Macaulay and 
Mountbatten, the last viceroy, were thus linked indissolubly together 
as the beginning and the end of a chain forged of liberal idealism. 
During the 1950s, in the hands of liberal scholars, this version of the 
history of the Raj took on an authoritative shape, and sustained a quiet 
pride in Britain’s achievements in India. Not only, as Percival Spear 
wrote in the 1958 reprint of the Oxford History of India, did India 
break ‘her British fetters with Western hammers’, but ‘the fetters 
began to be removed by one side as soon as they began to be rattled by 
the other’. Macaulay’s ‘dream’ had found fulfilment in the ‘radical 
transformation’ British rule had brought to India.'¢ 

Much in the ideology of ‘difference’ nevertheless lived on. Within 
India it left its mark above all in the conception of India as a society 
informed by a passionate commitment to community, and of the 
public arena as a site where communities contested for power. To be 
sure, after independence separate electorates were abolished and caste 
outlawed; and the 1950 Constitution enshrined the values of secular 
democracy. Yet underneath the liberal rhetoric of the Nehru era the 
structures constituted by the Raj, and affirmed during the course of 
the nationalist struggle, remained compelling. By far the most power- 
ful were those of religious identity — as Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh. As 
time went on, and the central government itself, together with the 
leaders of religiously based organizations, began openly to manipulate 
these communal loyalties for partisan advantage, such ties became ever 
more deeply embedded in Indian society. Forty years after indepen- 
dence, as Gyan Pandey has written, ‘questions of the defence of 
custom, of established religious institutions (including buildings), of 
16 Percival Spear, The Oxford History of Modern India (Oxford, 1965), p. 389. 


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the rights of (religious) communities have again assumed an over- 
whelming importance in the politics of India’. The ‘colonial construc- 
tion of the Indian past’ lives on today not only in the halls of New 
Delhi but on the streets and byways of Amritsar, and Ayodhya, and 

Ideas of India’s ‘difference’ also made their way to Britain. Indeed, 
by 1960 the British found that they had abandoned their empire 
overseas only to find it on their doorstep. Immigration from India and 
Pakistan during the early postwar years created a sizable South Asian 
community within Great Britain. Towns such as Southall and Brad- 
ford had such large populations, with mosques, halal meat shops, and 
turbaned men and sari-clad women on the streets, that they could 
almost be conceived of as extensions of Pakistan or India. In accom- 
modating this immigrant community the British brought into play 
racial sentiments, and ideas of Indian inferiority, shaped during the 
long years of the Raj. From the late 1950s, despite Indian membership 
in a now multi-racial Commonwealth, the British government tightly 
restricted immigration from South Asia, while the country’s South 
Asian residents met with often virulent harassment and _ hostility. 
Britain’s South Asians, above all its Muslims at the time of the 
controversy over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, were at once stig- 
matized for refusing to submerge their identity within the secular 
liberalism of British society, and denied the opportunity to do so. The 
enduring contradictions between the ideologies of liberalism, and of 
‘difference’, have come back home as Britain copes with the multicul- 
turalism of the 1990s.!8 

'7 Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (Delhi, 
1990), especially chapters 2 and 7. 

18 Talal Asad, ‘Multiculturalism and British Identity in the Wake of the Rushdie Affair’, 
Politics and Society, vol. 18 (1990), pp. 45580. 


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A variety of works assess British attitudes toward India, and the ways India 
was fitted into the larger set of ideas that sustained the Raj. Some of these 
works are idiosyncratic, even contentious in their approach, but all are lively 
and suggestive. Francis Hutchins, The Illusion of Permanence: British 
Imperialism in India (Princeton, 1967), though now somewhat dated, remains 
a stimulating account of how the British sought to assure their superiority 
over their Indian subjects. More philosophical, with a discussion of German 
as well as British scholarship, though tendentious in its argument, is Ronald 
Inden, Imagining India (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990). Two stimulating 
works from a psychological perspective, the latter of which includes Indian as 
well as British responses to the colonial encounter, are Lewis Wurgaft, The 
Imperial Imagination: Magic and Myth in Kipling’s India (Wesleyan Univer- 
sity Press, Middletown, CT, 1983), and Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: 
Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (Oxford University Press, 
Delhi, 1983). Kipling’s own writings of course, especially the enduringly 
powerful Kim (1901), are central to any understanding of the Raj. 

Among a number of works based largely on the critical evaluation of 
literary texts the most informative are Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English 
India (Chicago, 1992) and Benita Parry, Delusions and Discoveries: Studies on 
India in the British Imagination 1880-1930 (California, 1972). Though less 
accessible to the general reader, the writings of the literary critics Gayatri 
Spivak and Homi Bhabha contain much that is important for understanding 
the Raj. Specially useful are the essays in Francis Barker et al., eds., Europe 
and its Others, vol. 1 (University of Essex, Colchester, 1985). Of more general 
interest are the special number on race of Critical Inquiry, vol. 12 (autumn 
1985), and Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and 
Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca NY, 1988). Though it does not include India 
in its account, Edward Said’s Orientalism (London, 1978) has shaped all 
subsequent discussion of the ideas that informed European views of the 
‘Orient’. For assessments of Said’s argument as applied to India see Ronald 
Inden, ‘Orientalist Constructions of India’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 20 
(1986), pp. 401-46; and Carol A. Breckinridge and Peter van der Veer, eds., 
Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia 
(Pennsylvania, 1993). The latter brings together a wide-ranging and stimulat- 
ing set of case studies of law, language, mensuration, and other subjects. 

Several works examine the shaping assumptions of the Raj through study of 
visual materials. Pathbreaking in its scholarship, though best on the early 


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centuries before the British conquest, is Partha Mitter, Much Maligned 
Monsters: History of European Reactions to Indian Art (Clarendon Press, 
Oxford, 1977). The richly illustrated exhibition catalogue, The Raj: India and 
the British 1600-1947, C.A. Bayly, ed. (National Portrait Gallery, London, 
1990) is exceptional for its interweaving of political narrative and visual 
representation. For a view of the Raj from the perspective of architecture see 
Thomas R. Metcalf, An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain’s Raj 
(California, 1989); for a stimulating discussion from the point of view of 
urban planning see Anthony D. King, Colonial Urban Development 
(London, 1976). An account which minimizes the political significance of 
colonial architecture in favour of the aesthetic is G.H. R. Tillotson, The 
Tradition of Indian Architecture: Continuity, Controversy and Change Since 
1850 (New Haven CT, 1989). 


The late eighteenth century era of conquest and discovery can be explored in 
the various writings of P.J. Marshall, including two edited volumes of original 
documents, The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century 
(Cambridge, 1970), and The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, vols. 5 
(India: 1774-1785) and 6 (India 1786-1788) (Oxford, 1981, 1991). For the 
early British study of Indian languages and culture see Bernard S. Cohn, ‘The 
Command of Language and the Language of Command’, in Ranajit Guha, 
ed., Subaltern Studies IV (Delhi, 1985), pp. 276-329; O.P. Kejariwal, The 
Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India’s Past, 1784-1838 (Delhi, 
1988); and David Kopf, British Orientalism and the Indian Renaissance 
1773-1835 (California, 1969). For the early debates on property and land 
Ranajit Guha, A Rule of Property for Bengal (Mouton, Paris, 1963) remains 
authoritative, while Burton Stein, Thomas Munro: the Origins of the Colonial 
State and his Vision of Empire (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1986) pro- 
vides a useful study not only of Munro’s life but of his challenge to the Whig 
theorists of the Bengal settlement. General accounts of the growing British 
conception of themselves as an imperial people during the eighteenth century 
can be found in Richard Koebner, Empire (Cambridge, 1961) and Linda 
Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation (New Haven CT, 1992). 

Eric Stokes, The English Utilitarians and India (Oxford, 1959), though 
some of its arguments about the pervasiveness of theory in shaping policy 
have given way to subsequent research, remains the classic account of the 
formative role of liberal ideology in nineteenth-century British conceptions of 
their mission in India. Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study 
and British Rule in India (New York, 1989) offers a fresh look at the ideas 
behind British Indian education policy in the 1830s. The work of Lata Mani, 
especially her ‘Contentious Traditions: the Debate on Sati in Colonial India’, 
in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds., Recasting Women: Essays in 
Colonial History (New Delhi, 1989), has reshaped our understanding of the 
debates over sati and British social reform legislation. Two older but still 


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important biographies are Ainslee Embree, Charles Grant and British Rule in 
India (New York, 1962), and John Rosselli, Lord William Bentinck: the 
Making of a Liberal Imperialist 1774-1839 (California, 1974). Though badly 
dated, George D. Bearce, British Attitudes Toward India 1784-1858 (Oxford, 
1961) provides a convenient summary of ideas and opinion during this period. 
James Mill’s classic History of British India, first published in 1818, is 
available in an abridged form from the University of Chicago Press (1975), 
while John Stuart Mill’s writings are collected in Martin Moir, ed., John Stuart 
Mill: Writings on India (Toronto, 1990). 


The transformation of liberalism after the 1857 uprising is assessed in Thomas 
R. Metcalf, The Aftermath of Revolt: India 1857-1870 (Princeton, 1964). For 
a suggestive, but long neglected view of the events of 1857, see F. W. Buckler, 
“The Political Theory of the Indian Mutiny’, in M. N. Pearson, ed., Legiti- 
macy and Symbols: The South Asian Writings of F. W. Buckler (Michigan 
Papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 26, Ann Arbor, 1985). For the larger 
mid-century crisis of liberalism Bernard Semmel, The Governor Eyre Con- 
troversy (London, 1962); and John Roach, ‘Liberalism and the Victorian 
Intelligentsia’, The Cambridge Historical Journal, vol. 13 (1957), pp. 58-81 
remain valuable. For the revival of conservatism, and its connection to empire, 
see C. C. Eldridge, England’s Mission: The Imperial Idea in the Age of 
Gladstone and Disraeli (Chapel Hill NC, 1973); and R. Koebner, ‘The 
Emergence of the Concept of Imperialism’, The Cambridge Journal, vol. 5 
(1952), pp. 726-41. Exceptionally useful in assessing late Victorian conserva- 
tism are the essays in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Inven- 
tion of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983), especially Bernard Cohn, ‘Representing 
Authority in Victorian India’ (pp. 165-209), which analyses the symbolic 
meaning of British durbar ritual by examining the 1877 Imperial Assemblage. 
The rise of popular enthusiasm for empire is explored in the richly textured 
essays collected in John M. Mackenzie, ed., Imperialism and Popular Culture 
(Manchester, 1986). 

It is essential to consult the seminal works that shaped British understand- 
ing of India in the late nineteenth century. Most important are Henry 
S. Maine, Village Communities in the East and West (London, 1871), with his 
subsequent lecture The Effects of Observation of India on Modern European 
Thought (London, 1875; reprint Folcroft, Pa., 1974); James Fitzjames 
Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (London, 1873); Alfred C. Lyall, 
Asiatic Studies, Religious and Social (London, 1884; revised ed. 1904); and his 
The Rise and Expansion of British Dominion in India (London, 1894; reprint 
New York, 1968). The classic study of India’s historic architecture, informed 
by the assumptions of Victorian scholarship, is James Fergusson, History of 
Indian and Eastern Architecture (London, 1876; revised ed. 1910). British 
historical writing on India generally is assessed in C. H. Philips, ed., His- 
torians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Oxford, 1961). 


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The memoirs of Indian officials provide unique insights into the ideas that 
sustained the Raj, as well as revealing its internal conflicts. Some of the most 
important are George Campbell, Memoirs of my Indian Career (London, 
1893); Richard Temple, Men and Events of My Time in India (London, 1882); 
John Beames, Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian (London, 1961); and Michael 
O’Dwyer, India As I Knew It, 1885-1925 (London, 1925). For a sympathetic 
account of the Indian civil service, and the ideals that motivated it, see Philip 
Woodruff [pseud. for Mason], The Founders and The Guardians (London, 



Useful studies of British attitudes toward caste, seen as a central ordering 
feature of Indian society, include Nicholas Dirks, ‘Castes of Mind’, Represen- 
tations, no. 37 (Winter 1992), pp. 56-78; Bernard Cohn, ‘Notes on the 
History of the Study of Indian Society and Culture’, in M. Singer and B. S. 
Cohn, eds., Structure and Change in Indian Society (Chicago, 1968), 
pp. 3-25; and Christopher Pinney, ‘Classification and Fantasy in the Photo- 
graphic Construction of Caste and Tribe’, Visual Anthropology, vol. 3 (1990), 
pp. 259-88. British Victorian scholarship on the Indian village is assessed in 
Louis Dumont, “The “Village Community” From Munro to Maine’, Contri- 
butions to Indian Sociology, vol. 9 (1966), pp. 68-89; and Clive Dewey, 
‘Images of the Village Community: a Study in Anglo-Indian Ideology’, 
Modern Asian Studies, vol. 6 (1972), pp. 291-328. Joan Leopold examines 
‘British Applications of the Aryan Theory of Race to India, 1850-1870’, in the 
English Historical Review, vol. 89 (1974), pp. 578-603. For the official British 
view at the time the most authoritative account is Herbert Hope Risley, The 
People of India (1915; reprint Delhi, 1969). 

Issues of gender, sexuality, and women’s role under the Raj are examined in 
Kenneth Ballhatchet, Race, Sex, and Class Under the Raj (London, 1980); 
Mrinalini Sinha, ‘““Chathams, Pitts, and Gladstones in Petticoats”: the Poli- 
tics of Gender and Race in the Ibert Bill Controversy, 1883-84’, in M. Strobel 
and N. Chaudhuri, eds., Western Women and Imperialism (Bloomington 
Ind., 1992), pp. 98-116; and Sinha, ‘Gender and Imperialism: Colonial Policy 
and the Ideology of Moral Imperialism in late 19th Century Bengal’, in 
Michael S. Kimmel, ed., Changing Men (Newbury Park Calif., 1987), pp. 
217-31. Literary representations of British sexual anxieties are assessed in 
Nancy Paxton, ‘Mobilizing Chivalry: Rape in British Indian Novels about the 
Indian Uprising of 1857’, Victorian Studies, vol. 36 (Fall 1992), pp. 5~30; and 
Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire: the Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text 
(Minneapolis, 1993). Several of Rudyard Kipling’s short stories, especially 
‘Without Benefit of Clergy’ and ‘Beyond the Pale’, offer insights into the 
interplay of sex and race among the British in India. Although lengthy, Flora 
Annie Steel, On the Face of the Waters (London, 1896; reprint, New Delhi, 
1985) provides a perceptive woman’s account in fictional terms of the trauma 
of the 1857 revolt, especially as it affected the position of English women. For 


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the later Raj E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924) is of course indis- 

British notions of community, class, and the construction of an Indian 
‘public’ sphere are examined in Sandria Freitag, Collective Action and Com- 
munity: Public Arenas and the Emergence of Communalism in North India 
(California, 1989); in the special number of South Asia, ns vol. 14 (June 1991), 
on the ‘public’ in British India; and in Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction 
of Communalism in Colonial North India (Delhi, 1990). For the distinctive 
character of the Punjab in British ideology see Richard G. Fox, Lions of the 
Punjab (California, 1985); and David Gilmartin, Empire and Islam: Punjab 
and the Making of Pakistan (California, 1988), especially chapter 1. The role 
of the census in demarcating castes and communities is discussed in the essays 
by Frank Conlon and Kenneth W. Jones in N. Gerald Barrier, ed., The 
Census in British India (Delhi, 1981); and in Bernard Cohn, ‘The Census, 
Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia’, Folk, vol. 26 (1984), pp. 
25-49. W. W. Hunter, The Indian Mussalmans (London, 1871; reprint 
Lahore, 1964) is central to understanding British attitudes to Muslims. A 
suggestive account of British conceptions of India’s princes is to be found in 
Nicholas Dirks, The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom 
(Cambridge, 1987), a case study of Pudukkottai in Madras. 

The role of ideas about disease in shaping the Raj is discussed in the writings 
of David Arnold, especially his ‘Cholera and Colonialism in British India’, 
Past and Present, no. 113 (1986), pp. 118-51; and his Colonizing the Body 
(California, 1993). J. B. Harrison, ‘Allahabad: a Sanitary History’, in K. Ball- 
hatchet and J. Harrison, eds., The City in South Asia (London, 1980); Veena 
Oldenburg, The Making of Colonial Lucknow (Princeton, 1984); and 
Marriam Dossal, Imperial Designs and Indian Realities: the Planning of 
Bombay City, 1845-1875 (Delhi, 1991) discuss the connection of sanitation 
and urban settlement patterns. John W. Cell, ‘Anglo-Indian Medical Theory 
and the Origins of Segregation in West Africa’, American Historical Review, 
vol. 91 (1986), pp. 307-35 provides a comparative perspective. For the cre- 
ation of a distinctive housing form for the British in India see Anthony King, 
The Bungalow (London, 1984). The hill station is the subject of Dane 
Kennedy’s The Magic Mountain (California, 1995). 


Numerous works detail the contest between the Raj and Indian nationalism in 
the first half of the twentieth century. Most useful perhaps in exploring the 
larger issues at stake from the British side are the writings of John Darwin, 
John Gallagher, R. J. Moore, especially his Endgames of Empire (Delhi, 
1988), and Carl Bridge, Holding India to the Empire (Delhi, 1986). John 
W. Cell, Hailey: a Study in British Imperialism (Cambridge, 1992) provides a 
careful biographical study of one of the main participants. Anil Seal, 
‘Imperialism and Nationalism in India’, and the other essays in J. Gallagher, 
G. Johnson, and A. Seal, eds., Locality, Province, and Nation: Essays on 


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Indian Politics, 1870-1940 (Cambridge, 1973) provide a useful summary of 
the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ position. Douglas Haynes, Rhetoric and 
Ritual in Colonial India (California, 1991) suggestively assesses the relation- 
ship of the British with the English-educated nationalist elite by an examin- 
ation of one town, that of Surat. Talal Asad, ‘Multiculturalism and British 
Identity in the Wake of the Rushdie Affair’, Politics and Society, vol. 18 
(1990), pp. 45 5—80, offers a thoughtful perspective on the clash of imperial and 
liberal ideologies in contemporary Britain. 


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