Modern India

Modern India

We come to “the unromantic annals of modern India” (P.E.Roberts). outward events are few. The Russian fear dominates statesmen, and their eyes are towards the north-west frontier. This leads to the Afghan War of 1878-1880, a war almost as chequered as the earlier one, and as unnecessary and with a little honour in its memory. The “forward policy” brought also a number of small frontier wars that have their own tradition of innumerable instances of skill and valour, and that ultimately meant the forming of a new province, beyond the Panjab.

Warlike episodes outside India were the Third Burmese War, in 1885, which resulted in the annexation of Burma, and the expedition to Tibet in 1904. Within India, after the period in which both peoples were remembering the passions and intense agonies through which they had passed, came an awakening which is even now little known in England. The eighties saw, especially in Bengal, an intellectual movement comparable to the Renaissance in Europe, and the vernaculars began to show their immense possibilities. From the literary effort followed a new self-respect, that gradually claimed a share in the government of the country. Lord Ripon’s viceroyalty – Lord Canning, when the Crown succeeded the Company, was the first to hold the title of Viceroy – was notable because the Queen’s representative in India showed how strongly he felt that the people’s entry into some kind of partnership in their own government had been too long delayed. He was not able to do much, but his term of office, which ended in 1884, was a landmark, and is gratefully remembered. In 1885 the Indian National Congress held its first meeting in Bombay. It was an unofficial body of Indians, and for a long time friendly to the Government. Other things that awakened pride and self-respect were the discovery of the West that Sanskirt was the earliest and in many ways the most remarkable of the known Indo-Aryan languages, and increased study and exultation of India’s ancient literature.

The National Congress criticized, and sought for greater participation in government by Indians. Criticism passed into unrest when the South African War showed – or seemed to show – how much weakness and incompetence lay beneath the splendid surface of England’s imperial power. In 1950 the Partition of Bengal, defended as an act for greater convenience of administration, was passionately resented as an attempt to cut in two the newly found national consciousness of the province. Agitation against British rule spread over India, and there were many assassinations. The Partition was annulled in 1911, when the King-Emperor visited India, where his presence called out enthusiastic loyalty. This loyalty readily passed into the spontaneous support of Britain’s entry into the Great War in 1914. In that war Indian troops enabled us to ride over those first months while our own civilian armies were training; and afterwards, in Mesopotamia and Palestine, they fought with a courage and endurance that should have established a lasting bondage between their people and ours. Their proved value enabled us to draw British troops from Palestine to stem the German rush in 1918.

Unfortunately the war was followed by the bitterest agitation that India has known. The scope of this book excludes politics, and my space has nearly run out. But a few things may be worth saying. In the first place, it is useless to resent the passing of power into the hands of Indians; it is inevitable, and those officials who stayed and helped to see the transference begun, as well as the newer officials who never knew the old order, are not finding their work the dull and disappointing thing that many predicted it would be. It is true that there is commonly a loss of efficiency when an Indian “take over” from an Englishman. But this admission does not settle the question against transference, not need we suppose that the loss of efficiency must always happen. If my readers will forgive another quotation from Sir Thomas Munro, I will remind them that he wrote in 1824: “Let Britain be subjugated by a foreign Power tomorrow, let the people be excluded from all share in the government, from public honours, from every office of high trust and emolument, and let them in every situation be considered as unworthy of trust, and all their knowledge and all their literature, sacred and profane, would not save them from becoming in another generation or two, a low-minded, deceitful, and dishonest race.” Indians have not been excluded during the last forty years as completely as the quotation implies, though it is only now that they are getting representatives other than official nominees; and they are not “a low-minded, deceitful, and dishonest race.” Nevertheless, long subjection makes a man less than himself, and in particular makes it hard for him to judge his subjector fairly. It is surprising that such magnanimity and freedom even from almost inevitable prejudice exists among Indian as many of us have found.

The Government of India Act of 1919, establishing the much-abused “dyarchy,” by which certain departments of administration were transferred to Indian ministers, was born in a storm. Readers will remember the Panjab disorders, and the shooting down of 2,000 people at Armritsar in April, 1919; but more unfortunate than even the last event were the repeated refusals of a section of our people to accept any judgement, however, moderately expressed and however authoritative, that condemned it. Indian self-respect was hurt to the quick when the General who ordered the shooting was presented with £26,000 collected by public subscription, and the House of Lords passed a resolution exonerating him. It is self-respect that Indians are resolved to regain, and with it the respect of the outside world. Independence would, of course, restore it, but so would a genuine partnership within the Empire. And recovery is helped forward by many things that need no Act of Parliament. It was helped when, in the Great War, Indians were made eligible for the Victoria Cross, which many of them won magnificently. It is helped when an Indian becomes F.R.S., or even when he wins a “blue.” It would be helped if Oxford or Cambridge would occasionally honour an Indian who is not a raja. It is not helped by the giving of knighthoods, for Indians are far more aware of out point of view than we are of theirs, and know that these are official honours. In short, everything that helps Indian opinion to feel that there is a real Empire citizenship, and that they posses it, relieves the political tension. Even the bitterness caused by the refusal of immigration or civil rights by the Dominions is not irreconcilable. Many Indians recognize that the Dominions have hte right, as well as the power, to safeguard their customs and standard of living; it should not be impossible to find a formula that does this, and yet keeps Indian self-respect. Similarly, it was an unstatesmanlike thing to make the proclamation that preceded the India Act so patronizing, and it has been undignified to insist that nothing should cause that Act to be reconsidered before the sacred date that was chosen – 1929. But the British people, as wittily aware as any in the world, have long ago formed the habit of laying by their sense of humour when they discuss Indian affairs; so seriously do we take ourselves in the great civilising role that we have assumed here. Otherwise we could nver have issued such a succession of absurd manifestos to the peoples of India. There is something in the word “India” that disarms the brain; the reader can take up almost any reputable history of India he likes, and he will find quoted with heavy, emphatic approval statement that he himself – if he will only country, for India – can see are fatuous and question-begging. A good example is the Message of King Edward VII., on the fiftieth anniversary of the assumption of control by the Crown. This message could not be read aloud in any assembly of Englishmen other than Indian officials, without its high humorous quality being acclaimed with gleeful shouts. Yet it was translated into equally stilted language in the vernaculars, and – by a master-stroke of unconscious humour – is sold in India on a “His Master’s Voice” record.

In the present writer’s opinion, three things estrange educated Indian from us. These are, their feeling that we force upon them an interpretation and writing of their history which is unjust and – in the very assumption that we have the right to dictate the interpretation of their history to them – insulting; their conviction that any deed, however violent, will be condoned if it is done by an Englishman in a high and responsible position; their resentment of what they think is our contempt for their intellect and its achievements. As to the last of these, it must be admitted that, greatly as we have served them, we have shown ourselves singularly incurious as to what they think and feel. Lord Curzon and Hastings, two of the greatest of British Governors-General, have been almost alone in their class in valuing India’s past and its culture. Indians are already finding that they have to forgive Lord Curzon all his faults of manner for the courage with which he insisted on justice to them, and for the way in which, amid his immense toils, he found time to care for their monuments.

Indians have their own problems, as the recent very disquieting riots between Hindus and Mohammadans have shown. Then there is the problem of the native princes, which greatly exercises politically minded Indians. The Mutiny left these in an inferior position – no longer princes, but as best barons. Inevitably they had to lean hard on the supreme Government that they had supported against their own countrymen. Lord Curzon, though their inefficiency vexed him, as it vexed Dalhousie long before, insisted on their dignity being consulted in every way, and is partly responsible for the stronger position that is now theirs. Other problems – which, since they are now obviously political, may seem capriciously mentioned here – are those of their attitude to their own past and also to the alien power in their midst. India needs an infinitely more rigorous and free criticism of her own thought, literature, and religion. This was shown even in the political realm, when the weakness of the “non-co-operation” movement was the uncritical acceptance by Hindus of the Khilafat agitation. This agitation was a Mohammadan one to compel Britain to restore Turkey to the position she held once before the war. Its claims were absurd, and could not have been enforced without a succession war against the Arabs and against France, who had taken Syria. The Mohammadans (in my opinion) would have been more wisely and justly busied if they had supported the remarkable Arab movement that had won, and deserved to keep, Damascus. Instead, they weakened Feisal by their demand that Britain compel the Arabs to accept the Turkish yoke again; and France was able to vamp up an excuse to eject him from Damascus. When Mr Ganghi, without enthusiasm, supported the Khilafat claims as the price of Mohammadan help, he lost much of the strength that his sincerity had brought him, and made himself very like politicians elsewhere. I never met a Hindu who believed in the agitation; and it came to nothing  when the Turks themselves banished their Sultan and repudiated it.

Indians must be willing to decide against their politics and their patriotism, if truth lies that way. Especially, they must at last take up in earnest the ending of child-marriage and other practices that dishonour their name and wreck the race physically. They cannot afford, in self-respect – which is the point at issue – to continue either extravagant laudation of their past or their own spiritual qualities, or detraction from the work of Britain and the British in India. Their cause is too just to allow of unfairness. British rule has made blunders and committed crimes. It may be said with some reason that we were slow (but so was science) in learning how to combat plague, disease, and famine, which so often devastated India between 1857 and 1900. Also, a great deal more needs to be done for agriculture, irrigation, elementary education. All this we can admit, and with a frankness of which we seem to stand in strange and unnecessary fear. In the end it will be acknowledged by all that it was fortunate that new life came to India. Some of the outward gifts of British power are so familiar that they pass unnoticed; men forget how amazing it is that there should be peace and security over so vast a country. But it is nonsense to say that India has gained only material things. It is not possible for countless thousands of men to labour with the patience that our countrymen, whatever their faults, have exercised in India during many years past, without so great a service leaving its mark on more than administration. The very soul of India has been changed, and she has been made capable, as she was not before, of giving her own noble gifts, first of all to her own sons, whatever their creed or caste, and then to the world.



Cambridge History of India. In progress. (Cambridge University press.)

Smith, Vincent A.: Oxford History of India. (Clarendon Press.)

Farquhar, J.N.: Outline of Religious Literature of India. (Clarendon Press.)

Lovett, Sir Verney: India. (Hodder and Stoughton, Nations of to-day series.)

Macdonell, A.A.: India’s Past. (Clarendon press.)

Roberts, P.E.: History of British India. (Clarendon press.)

Hunter, Sir William: Short History of the Indian Peoples. (Clarendon Press.)

Rulers of India   series.  28 vols. (Clarendon Press.)

Tod, James: Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. (Clarendon Press.)

Foster, Sir William: The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to India. (Clarendon Press.)

McCrindle, T.: Ancient India as described in Classical Literature. (Constable.)

Elliot, Sir Henry, and Dawson, J.: History of India as told by its own Historians. (Hertford.)

Beveridge, H.: Editions of the Akbarnama (Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta) and the Memoirs of Jahangir (Royal Asiatic Society).

Foster, Sir William: The English Factories in India. 13 vols. (Clarendon Press.)

There are Lives of most of the greater British rulers and soldiers, and the Letters of many have been published. The student should consult also the works of Elphinstone, Orme, Wilks, Forbes, Sir John Malcolm, Jadunath Sarkar, Krishna Sastri, Srinivasa Aiyangar, Sewell, S.N. Sen, Kincaid, and such books as Heber’s Journal and Miss Eden’s two books of letters written in India. The chief lack is a good account in English of the Portuguese in India. My thanks are due to Dr. J.N. Farquhar for advice.