Illusions and delusions
Reviewed by Rumina Sethi

The Flaws in the Jewel
Roderick Matthews
Harper Collins, New Delhi. Pages 312. Rs. 350.

Other than recounting a full and detailed history of the British Raj in India, The Flaws in the Jewel is unremarkable. The well-trod issues of studies about British rule in India are all there: the wonder how a small nation like Britain could control a gargantuan Indian population; the motives behind British colonialism; the extent to which the British actually realised their own significance and power; the worthiness and advantages of British rule, both for us and them; and the real reasons for their departure from India, leaving behind the debris of partition.

What is quite remarkable about this book, however, is its objectivity. As Roderick Matthews writes: "This is not a ‘we’ history book. It is a book that fully recognises its particular ‘now’, and is written very knowingly in its own present, one that has shown us something new, a different India."

Within this narrative, Matthews does not desist from naming British villains even as British nationalists considered them heroic. This book thus becomes an account of "flawed individuals, flawed ideologies and flawed institutions" as against a host of books that pay homage to Britannia upon which the sun never set.

The imperial enterprise of the Europeans has been seen usually through the modes of discovering, civilizing, rescuing and cataloguing indigenous populations. To take the case of India, the British considered themselves "discoverers". Right from Christopher Columbus, Europe considered itself to be in the privileged position of explorer, and then, conqueror. After the discovery of these foreign lands, the idea was to rescue and civilize, to tame and domesticate, all of which forms part of the necessary furniture of Britain’s mission civilisatrice. Finally, there is the idea of cataloguing, that is, to write and enumerate the exoticism of the "new" world.

As against these tropes, Matthews posits the operation of imperial ideology through the modes of greed, scorn, fear and indifference. Greed was the original sin that spurred many to make their career in the east. This led to the amassing of huge fortunes by many a coloniser either through trade or consolidating relationships of mutual benefit. However, race relations frequently change from idealisation to debasement: after 1800, the idea of the native as "childlike" and malleable, one who could be racially improved by the civilizing mission, gave way to the view that they were primitive savages.

It can be argued that the latter view resulted from the urgent need for slaves. Labour was needed, and so there arose racial hostility. In 1849, Thomas Carlyle aggressively promoted in "Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question" that the "indolent" black man must be made to serve the white races. Thus greed led to scorn which then bred fear as the colonizer began to dread an almost certain rebellion by natives, that is well borne out by the events of 1857.

In many ways, Britain was an overburdened nation, conscious of its own sense of precariousness as coloniser. In the final days of the Raj, the predominant feeling was that of indifference as an exhausted and spent Britain failed to muster the requisite imagination to hold on to its fading splendour.

These four factors largely sum up the governance of British rule in India which, Matthews contends, was full of weaknesses and glitches disguised efficiently by a rhetoric of complacent success stories. The British in India had many fears, mainly financial bankruptcy and native insurrection. Added to that, the very illegitimacy of their presence, the lack of political purpose, their aloofness from the people over whom they ruled of which the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is a consequence, and the asymmetry between British governance of their own subjects and those in India, must have caused considerable alarm.

One would tend to think that these are flaws in the "crown" rather than the ‘jewel" that was India. But one of the reasons that British Raj in India was resilient to danger was Britain’s physical distance from its empire that prevented any backlash against the British state. Another reason for their dominance was the sheer might of the British army especially in the face of a faction-ridden and divided India.

Penetrable borders within India countered by British solidarity and a single-minded capitalist thinking helped overcome some of their major difficulties. Notwithstanding, its major accomplishments were the creation of a single Indian entity and, of course, the foundation of Macaulay’s English-speaking gentry.