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Uncomfortable Claims: Untenable Positions – The Raj Syndrome - excerpts

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

The overpowering atmosphere of a cantonment was ubiquitous in official India. This was, it was believed, but a natural product of the interaction between a rational Western mind and the lurid customs of a spooky land full of snakes, cholera, superstitions and babus. The civil lines, the cantonment, the sadr, and, along with it, a lalbazaar provided the physical expression of an overbearing Raj on the outskirts of an Indian city. Of course, there was the inevitable buffer zone of ‘fat Indians’ as a reliable cushion.  

A British establishment in India was situated outside the old walled town. It was generally divided into two parts, the civil lines and the cantonment. The former was spaciously arranged with lots of green between the bungalows inhabited by the sahiblogs and the latter was organized on severe military lines. The conspicuous feature of the life of the cantonments and civil stations was a disciplined unity against an alleged native insubordination.  As a ruling race it was not the friendship of the ruled that was to be sought after. They required no friendly overtures from the natives. On the contrary, they believed in the unswerving obedience of the Indians and cultivated a calculated detachment from them.  

While the ‘hill stations’ were acclaimed as an English spring superimposed on an Indian summer and the select clubs fashioned an odd world of make-believe.There were many hill-stations and hence plenty of choice. About eighty stations were established by the British as retreats from the heat and cholera of the plains. ‘Like meat,’ one of the memsahibs cribbed, ‘we keep better up here.’ Some of the hill resorts were purely escapism. Simla was, however, ‘the abode of the little Tin Gods’ as Kipling had put it. For several months in every year it was the capital of the Raj and the embodiment of the absolute power of the viceroy. Despotic power was frankly exhibited. There was also the imperial cathedral and the Gaiety. Together, they constituted the complex structure of an imperial hierarchy which segregated even the shopping center. The Mal was separated from the Lower Mal and both from the chhota bazaar. The hill-stations espoused the desire to recreate British atmosphere with exuberance which was always alien and incompatible.  

By and large the British community in India lived its own life, ran its own shops and newspapers, entertained itself at exclusive halls and concerts, admired or criticized itself on Chowringhee Road and Connaught Circus, congratulated itself at the official receptions at the government houses and the viceregal palace, exalted itself at the Imperial Orchestra played Rule Brittania on the Mall at Simla or titillated itself down memory lane as a certain Mr. Cunningham performed Othello at the Gaiety Theatre. The Brahmins, F.Yeats-Brown put it bluntly, made a circle within which they cooked their food. So did we. We were a caste, pariahs to them, princes in our estimation. The compulsions of imperialism negated all passions for democratic equality or Christian egalitarianism. Imperialism, by virtue of its very nature, was insular, racist and arrogant.  

The whole range of historical novels on the Indian theme stoked the self-righteous imperialism in India. These works of fiction were the result of the imperial consciousness, and, in turn, they provided the emotional and material impulses for more rigorous actions and heroism.

Imperial stereotypes   

Major General Agate of The Rains Came had been in India for half of his life and was a perfect Kipling general both in appearance and temperament. It was ‘on his own solid shoulders’, he reminded his over-awed neighbors, that ‘he carried the burden for all dark races.’ He remained smug in the belief that he was serving the British Empire in its grand tradition.       

There was an orthodox Winston Churchill sneering at the ‘naked fakir’ (Gandhi) and refusing to preside over the liquidation of the Empire. Meanwhile imperialism got away with its inhuman ordinances, its broken pledges and the future of the Raj.  

E. M. Forester, was disturbed by the social exclusiveness of the rulers. As Benita Parry puts it, almost all the historical, analytical, propagandist and fictional writings on India devised a way of presenting world history in such a way that British rule in India appeared a political imperative and a moral duty.  

Charles Andrews would have concurred with Forester but for the fact that he had also desired to initiate a singular synthesis between the new India and the old and consecrate the imperial mission with Christian piety. 

In 1934 Robert Byron echoed Forester’s uncomfortable claims and untenable positions with regard to the demands of imperial partnership as well as his general faith in England’s civilizing mission.  

Edward Thompson having acclaimed the fulfillment of the British goal in India gazed remorsefully at the decline of the Raj. He had  witnessed the pageantry and splendor of an arrogant Empire. It was as certain as Rome had been. He had for seen the last days of British rule as he helplessly watched a rising tide of opposition around the issue of partition of Bengal.  

C.F. Andrews, E.M. Forester, Edward Thompson, Horace Alexander and Robert Byron tried to resolve the contradictions of imperialism by weaving a sense of obligation into the system. ‘To see a great race given scope for the exercise of its greatest strength, to see it conduct the art of government on a scale and with a perfection accomplished by no previous race, is to achieve that sublime pleasure in the works of man, which, ordinarily, is conferred only by the great artists. This I saw in India.’  

The Western man’s assumption of racial superiority, Byron argued, had rendered him odious to the East. And the only means which the East devised of resisting this assumption were either to swallow the materialism whole and undisguised, or else, take a little of it and rebel against him forcibly. Japan tried the first course and was about to lose her soul; China opted for the second and relapsed into chaos. ‘India remains’, he said, ‘holding in her precarious balance, the residue of hope.’ 

In India the white man was always the ruler and the native was always the ruled. It could not have been the other way around. To put it in other words, the Englishman was painted as virile, bold, energetic, and masculine, while the natives were presented, with the exception of some Pathan tribesmen of the frontier, as effeminate, weak, cowardly and lethargic. Masculine Christianity was firmly established as the governing principle of imperialism and this perception continued almost unabated.  

Jim Corbett, a hunter, a storyteller and a Christian gentleman, wrote: “ Those who visit India for pleasure or profit never come in contact with the real Indian – the Indians whose loyalty and devotion alone, made it possible for a handful of men to administer, for close on two hundred years, a vast subcontinent with its teeming millions.  

To most British, India was central to his concept of the Empire, and he tried to clothe imperialism with Christian virtues…


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



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