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The Raj Syndrome - excerpts

(source: The Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perceptions - By Suhash Chakravarty. Penguin Books.1991).

(The book is a study in imperial sensibility. The author has examined the nuances of British perceptions of India during the period, roughly, from the imperial assemblage of the Delhi Durbar of 1877 to the replacement of the Union Jack on the Red Fort by the Indian tricolor in 1947.The Raj was central to the formation of British imperial ideology and the syntax of imperial prose in India was candid and unambiguous.) 

There was no dearth of Social Darwinists to draw up an argument from the natural sciences and to belabor the basic inequalities between the European and non-European peoples. Karl Pearson, for example, idealized imperialism as an essential part of ‘natural history’, as the inevitable struggle between races leading to the triumph and survival of the fittest. “The path of progress, he announced in 1900, ‘ is strewn with the wreck of nations; traces are everywhere to be seen of the hecatombs of inferior races…(p. 8) 

Lord Curzon proclaimed that he had been called upon by Providence to devote ‘the whole of his working manhood to the study and service of the Empire.’ 

He maintained that the physical expansion of Europe was prompted by the law of modern nations which stated that every nation must expand.  Although initially Britain had launched on historic quest, her example soon inspired other nations to follow faithfully. The United States of America, it was pointed out, had been pushing ahead towards an imperial destiny. This lesson had also been grasped by France, Italy and Germany. Imperialism had become a respectable world phenomenon. Curzon insisted that the Empire should not be interpreted either as an upshot of national vanity or as the outgrowth of territorial cupidity. On the contrary, a noble commitment, he stressed, formed the point d’appui of imperialism.  

In keeping with this perception, the expansion of the British frontier in India as elsewhere was presented as a spectacular march of civilization. Whether amidst the mango groves of Palasi or on the banks of the Sutlej, whether in the rugged Aravallis or in the fastnesses of the Maratha uplands, it was drummed into the ears of the prostrate population that British diplomacy and arms desired justice. In imperial literature British rule meant law and British force signified the protection of the weak against a barbarous bully. 

The relentless service of the Raj to mankind was ‘projected in every aspect of its endeavor. Englishmen in India were depicted as the most conscientious servants of God. Kipling faithfully sang these claims in his A Song of the English. 

The elements of progress and loyalty, it was underlined, had transformed imperialism into a progressive force.  This was not an assertion of an egalitarian worldview as it glorified a mercantile past, rhapsodized the brutal ascendancy of an aggressive military power and romanticized the liquidation of traditional societies.  

Curzon ranted that despite human failings, the British Empire in India epitomized a happy combination of moral virtues, a spirit of humanity and a puritanical fervor.  

The Boer War was admittedly the bloodiest military encounter since the days of Napoleon. It lasted 2 ½ years, and of 45,000 British and colonial soldiers on the front, some 22,000 were killed. To many, the spectacle of a big England bullying a little Transvaal was too unseemly and repellent a sight to be overlooked casually. Diplomatically, Britain had been cornered and her splendid isolation was more discomforting than her solitary magnificence. Yet England remained unrepentant. The war resulted in the creation of a reconditioned imperial idea. Imperialism was endowed with the halo of divinity. In fact, the Boer War made imperialism an effusive sentiment. Englishmen in the Empire as also the Americans in the Philippines were urged to:

Take up the white Man’s burden-
Send forth the best of ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait every harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half child.

The imperial adventures were composed as measures blessed by the will of God.  

The Yellow Peril: 

The Russo-Japanese War was a relevant milestone in imperial history. Kaiser had coined for the imperial vocabulary an explosive phrase, ‘ the yellow peril’ – denoting the danger from the Chinese and the Japanese. With regard to this alleged threat to European supremacy he had raised a clamorous outcry in the imperial citadels. It articulated a campaign for the recognition of a pretentious claim of racial superiority by all its necessary attendants. The rise of modern Japan seemed to have challenged the axiomatic supremacy of the white Christian race. Everyone fore glimpsed in it a frightening prospect.  

All forebodings with regard to Japan spearheading a resurgent Asia against an imperial West were submerged by a vigorous assertion of self-confidence. It was noted with spiteful relish that in India popular ideas betrayed little enlightenment, that the awakening of China had been following a tardy process, that would have little impact on a resurgent India. Most Englishmen were certain that there was no danger of a nationalistic steam ‘overpowering us in India.’ 

India formed the principal rampart of the British imperial system. 

She was its halting place, its springboard and its central operation theatre. No one was willing to relinquish that ‘divine dispensation’. The Raj meant much to the Empire. Early in 1870, Richard Southwell Brooke, the Earl of Mayo, had noted its conspicuous potential. Apprehending the  Russian designs towards the Indian frontier Mayo declared: ‘ We are determined as long as the sun shines in heaven to hold India – Our National Character – Our Commerce demands it.’ 

Russia, he added, was ignorant of the mighty power that Britain wielded in India and of  the ‘moral influence we could, if we choose exercise on our borders.’ To that intensely practical Viceroy, India had become the conduit of British prosperity and repository of her ‘national character.’ Recognizing the strategic importance of India in British imperial calculations, Lord Lytton in 1877 sought to actualize the nebulous imperial idea in the magnificent Delhi Durbar with the assumption of the title of Empress of India by the British Queen. Lord Curzon’s tenure as Viceroy was the high noon of the Raj. Both in terms of imperial vision and its fulfillment, ‘the Jewel in the Crown’ had become luminous, enterprising, domineering and extrovert. The numerical strength of the Indian subjects and the immense natural wealth of India actuated a sense of pride which came to be grafted permanently on the British imperial sensibility. The imperial pride of Britain was its chief political asset: it was both a moral and a material force. The loss of British power in India, it was believed, would have been a frank confession of Britain’s moral bankruptcy in a world dominated by concession, treaty ports, extra-territorial rights, buffer zones, client states and formal empires. Without India, the Empire was lost. ‘When India has gone, the great colonies are also gone. Valentine Chirol, said, with the loss of India, British position all over Asia, would be completely shattered. The severance of India from the Empire, Chirol argued with an air of prophetic insight, would be inopportune for ‘the supremacy of the White Man’ all over the world. Japan had already shaken the faith of imperialism in its own sense of invincibility. Its confidence quivered at the sight of a resurgent Asia. The publicists of the Raj shuddered at the thought of the collapse of its principle hinge on which the whole system turned.  

It was natural, therefore, that Indian loyalty could not be allowed to evanesce. The British Empire of India was essentially based on force and it had to be maintained, if necessary, by brute force.  

England’s euphoria with regard to a ‘Greater Britain’ was a kind of ideological formulation. India was ubiquitous in the British imperial sensibility. It carefully contrived the fantasies of a modern Roman Empire and grafted the passion for unrestricted authority on to the viceroy, governors and administrators who were greeted as proconsuls and centurians. It was construed that the imperial obligation of Rome had been inherited by Britain and ‘in the discharge of the highest features in English character have displayed themselves. Rudyard Kipling hailed the ‘Imperial Fire of Rome’ as a divine dispensation that had fallen ‘on us, thy son.’ 

The Empire created its own captains. In thousands of classrooms children were taught to prattle the story of the nine little nigger boys and the importance of being a gentleman.   They were also brought up on the exploits and legends of the old and new knights, of Peter Pan, of the Lost Boys in the Never Never Land and on the adventurous prince awakening the Sleeping Beauty and slumbering civilization of life amidst an unruly people. The Empire, they were taught, was the product of very imaginable variety of heroism and valor. There was no paucity of publicists and there was no dearth of improvisation.  V. A. Smith, H. Rawlinson, Edward Thompson, G.T. Garrett, W.W. Hunter, Percival Spear, to name a few, buffed the imperial sculptures with their tutored skill and historical imagination.  

The Empire called for physical expansion and a determination to defend, hold on to and consolidate territorial acquisitions against all intruders. It demanded indomitable bravery, supreme sacrifice and unflinching patriotism. It sanctioned the conviction of the Light Brigade to ride on to the Valley of Death, underwrote the credo of Tennyson to hail ‘once more to the banner of battle unroll’d and recommended W.E. Henley’s prayer for a war ‘righteous and true.’ The imperial consciousness of Britain inspired Newbolt to implore: 

So shall thou when morning comes,
Rise to conquer or to fall
Joyful hear the rolling drums
Joyful hear the trumpets call. 

Empire building, it was asserted, was an uphill task.  For Rev. Henry Inglis, it meant rough travel through tracts of scrubs, jungle and heavy forest, across riverbeds, up and down the slopes of hills carrying with him a few medical comforts ‘to semi-savage people jungle tribes, poor, primitive souls and bodies as yet hardly higher than animals, owing to the cruel barriers of castes and customs.’ The claims of British mission was ‘to lighten the darkness of these miserable beings’ and give them ‘spiritual and physical aide.’ Between the illusions and realities of English society in India, the myth of the white man’s burden discovered a very large and attentive audience.  

The ideologues of the Empire made no bones about the economic and financial impulses of expansion. Lord Curzon vouched ‘that both our Indian and African dominion had an economic origin.’ The search for a potential market and the raw materials of an Asian El Dorado were far too seductive even for the most circumspect stateman. With Indian resources tamely at the command of Britain, the expansive impulses were regulated and given a direction. ‘There is nothing ignoble or selfish in seeking fresh markets for our produce and manufacture’, Lord Curzon clarified: ‘There is nothing wrong in establishing ourselves in an unsettled and derelict country with a view to bringing wealth to our people.’ Yet he implored that the Indian Empire should not be depicted as an exclusive commercial concern. He entreated that imperialism must adopt a lofty vision. It must don on a gorgeous apparel.   

In the past, it was held, that loyalty of India had been presumed as axiomatic because of her respect for the courage and fortitude of the Englishmen and for their commitment to justice and fairplay. India, by and large, had been reconciled to the British rule despite displaying an occasional delinquency for she was convinced, the publicists assumed, that the British connection had ensured for her a more honest, stronger and a more humane government that what she had herself developed and organized over the centuries.  

There was a sanctimonious air in the fatuous exhortations of the Raj. A divine will, the social obligations of a superior race, the central position of India in the economic and strategic map of the Empire and the existence of a well-synchronized elite corps both in India and Britain in tune with much-publicized British mission had inaugurated an imperial paranoia.  

India, according to the British statesmen, was a geographical expression, inhabited by various ethnic stocks and held together by British imperial hegemony. A Christian sense of superiority was grafted on to that imperial mission. Thus, one was faced with a paradoxical situation. While the exercise of despotism over the Christian and ‘civilized’ people of Cyprus was to be resisted, such a form of government was safely recommended to the people of India, Egypt and Singapore. Christianity and progress, according to the imperial ideologues, were interdependent as a ‘universal law for all times, all states and all societies.’ This perspective was confirmed by the Simon Commission and the Lindsay Commission and largely adhered to by the Conservative and Labor parties during and after the Second World War.  

The centrality of the Raj in the Empire rendered the Indian undertaking very attractive. Its possession reinforced British culture with a renewed interest in militarism, royalty, national heroes, cult of personality, racial ideas of superiority and a contrived sense of Christian mission.  The determination to hold on to India at all costs led to the improvisation of a series of myths and legends. The providential character of British mission in India was upheld on grounds of lofty moral principles. Mastery of this enormous territory conferred on British character an inflated imperial pride as also a set of prejudices. Maintenance of an arbitrary rule over India, despite professed British traditions of freedom and justice, was sought to be cushioned by widely circulated racial stereotypes. Kipling gave the Raj a wide ideological umbrella which sheltered a whole range of self-righteous exaltations, romantic images and contorted visions wrapped in a seductive phrase: ‘white man’s burden.’ 


(source: The Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perceptions - By Suhash Chakravarty. Penguin Books.1991).



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