The British empire in India was in effect established at the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757. The battle was swift, beginning at dawn and ending close to sunset.
It was a normal monsoon day, with occasional rain in the mango groves at the town of Plassey, which is between Calcutta, where the British were based, and Murshidabad, the capital of the kingdom of Bengal.
It was in those mango groves that the British forces faced the Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula’s army and convincingly defeated it.
British rule ended nearly 200 years later with Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous speech on India’s “tryst with destiny” at midnight on 14 August 1947.
Two hundred years is a long time. What did the British achieve in India, and what did they fail to accomplish?
During my days as a student at a progressive school in West Bengal in the 1940s, these questions came into our discussion constantly.
They remain important even today, not least because the British empire is often invoked in discussions about successful global governance.
It has also been invoked to try to persuade the US to acknowledge its role as the pre-eminent imperial power in the world today:
“Should the United States seek to shed – or to shoulder – the imperial load it has inherited?” the historian Niall Ferguson has asked.
It is certainly an interesting question, and Ferguson is right to argue that it cannot be answered without an understanding of how the British empire rose and fell – and what it managed to do.
Arguing about all this at Santiniketan school, which had been established by Rabindranath Tagore some decades earlier, we were bothered by a difficult methodological question.
How could we think about what India would have been like in the 1940s had British rule not occurred at all?
The frequent temptation to compare India in 1757 (when British rule was beginning) with India in 1947 (when the British were leaving) would tell us very little, because in the absence of British rule, India would of course not have remained the same as it was at the time of Plassey.
The country would not have stood still had the British conquest not occurred. But how do we answer the question about what difference was made by British rule?
To illustrate the relevance of such an “alternative history”, we may consider another case – one with a potential imperial conquest that did not in fact occur.
Let’s think about Commodore Matthew Perry of the US navy, who steamed into the bay of Edo in Japan in 1853 with four warships.
Now consider the possibility that Perry was not merely making a show of American strength (as was in fact the case), but was instead the advance guard of an American conquest of Japan, establishing a new American empire in the land of the rising sun, rather as Robert Clive did in India.
If we were to assess the achievements of the supposed American rule of Japan through the simple device of comparing Japan before that imperial conquest in 1853 with Japan after the American domination ended, whenever that might be,
and attribute all the differences to the effects of the American empire, we would miss all the contributions of the Meiji restoration from 1868 onwards, and of other globalising changes that were going on.
Japan did not stand still; nor would India have done so.
While we can see what actually happened in Japan under Meiji rule, it is extremely hard to guess with any confidence what course the history of the Indian subcontinent would have taken had the British conquest not occurred.
Would India have moved, like Japan, towards modernisation in an increasingly globalising world, or would it have remained resistant to change, like Afghanistan, or would it have hastened slowly, like Thailand?
These are impossibly difficult questions to answer. And yet, even without real alternative historical scenarios, there are some limited questions that can be answered, which may contribute to an intelligent understanding of the role that British rule played in India.
We can ask: what were the challenges that India faced at the time of the British conquest, and what happened in those critical areas during the British rule?
There was surely a need for major changes in a rather chaotic and institutionally backward India.
To recognise the need for change in India in the mid-18th century does not require us to ignore – as many Indian super-nationalists fear – the great achievements in India’s past, with its extraordinary history of accomplishments in philosophy, mathematics, literature, arts, architecture, music, medicine, linguistics and astronomy.
India had also achieved considerable success in building a thriving economy with flourishing trade and commerce well before the colonial period – the economic wealth of India was amply acknowledged by British observers such as Adam Smith.
The fact is, nevertheless, that even with those achievements, in the mid-18th century India had in many ways fallen well behind what was being achieved in Europe.
The exact nature and significance of this backwardness were frequent subjects of lively debates in the evenings at my school.
An insightful essay on India by Karl Marx particularly engaged the attention of some of us.
Writing in 1853, Marx pointed to the constructive role of British rule in India, on the grounds that India needed some radical re-examination and self-scrutiny.
And Britain did indeed serve as India’s primary western contact, particularly in the course of the 19th century. The importance of this influence would be hard to neglect.
The indigenous globalised culture that was slowly emerging in India was deeply indebted not only to British writing, but also to books and articles in other – that is non-English – European languages that became known in India through the British.
Figures such as the Calcutta philosopher Ram Mohan Roy, born in 1772, were influenced not only by traditional knowledge of Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian texts, but also by the growing familiarity with English writings.
After Roy, in Bengal itself there were also Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Madhusudan Dutta and several generations of Tagores and their followers who were re-examining the India they had inherited in the light of what they saw happening in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Their main – often their only – source of information were the books (usually in English) circulating in India, thanks to British rule.
That intellectual influence, covering a wide range of European cultures, survives strongly today, even as the military, political and economic power of the British has declined dramatically.
I was persuaded that Marx was basically right in his diagnosis of the need for some radical change in India, as its old order was crumbling as a result of not having been a part of the intellectual and economic globalisation that the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution had initiated across the world (along with, alas, colonialism).
There was arguably, however, a serious flaw in Marx’s thesis, in particular in his implicit presumption that the British conquest was the only window on the modern world that could have opened for India.
What India needed at the time was more constructive globalisation, but that is not the same thing as imperialism. The distinction is important.
Throughout India’s long history, it persistently enjoyed exchanges of ideas as well as of commodities with the outside world.
Traders, settlers and scholars moved between India and further east – China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and elsewhere – for a great many centuries, beginning more than 2,000 years ago.
The far-reaching influence of this movement – especially on language, literature and architecture – can be seen plentifully even today.
There were also huge global influences by means of India’s open-frontier attitude in welcoming fugitives from its early days.
Jewish immigration into India began right after the fall of Jerusalem in the first century and continued for many hundreds of years.
Baghdadi Jews, such as the highly successful Sassoons, came in large numbers even as late as the 18th century.
Christians started coming at least from the fourth century, and possibly much earlier.
There are colourful legends about this, including one that tells us that the first person St Thomas the Apostle met after coming to India in the first century was a Jewish girl playing the flute on the Malabar coast.
We loved that evocative – and undoubtedly apocryphal – anecdote in our classroom discussions, because it illustrated the multicultural roots of Indian traditions.
The Parsis started arriving from the early eighth century – as soon as persecution began in their Iranian homeland.
Later in that century, the Armenians began to leave their footprints from Kerala to Bengal.
Muslim Arab traders had a substantial presence on the west coast of India from around that time – well before the arrival of Muslim conquerors many centuries later, through the arid terrain in the north-west of the subcontinent.
Persecuted Bahá’ís from Iran came only in the 19th century.
At the time of the Battle of Plassey, there were already businessmen, traders and other professionals from a number of different European nations well settled near the mouth of the Ganges.
Being subjected to imperial rule is thus not the only way of making connections with, or learning things from, foreign countries.
When the Meiji Restoration established a new reformist government in Japan in 1868 (which was not unrelated to the internal political impact of Commodore Perry’s show of force a decade earlier), the Japanese went straight to learning from the west without being subjected to imperialism.
One of the achievements to which British imperial theorists tended to give a good deal of emphasis was the role of the British in producing a united India.
In this analysis, India was a collection of fragmented kingdoms until British rule made a country out of these diverse regimes.
It was argued that India was previously not one country at all, but a thoroughly divided land mass. It was the British empire, so the claim goes, that welded India into a nation.
Winston Churchill even remarked that before the British came, there was no Indian nation. “India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the equator,” he once said.
If this is true, the empire clearly made an indirect contribution to the modernisation of India through its unifying role.
However, is the grand claim about the big role of the Raj in bringing about a united India correct?
Certainly, when Clive’s East India Company defeated the nawab of Bengal in 1757, there was no single power ruling over all of India.
Yet it is a great leap from the proximate story of Britain imposing a single united regime on India (as did actually occur) to the huge claim that only the British could have created a united India out of a set of disparate states.
That way of looking at Indian history would go firmly against the reality of the large domestic empires that had characterised India throughout the millennia.
The ambitious and energetic emperors from the third century BC did not accept that their regimes were complete until the bulk of what they took to be one country was united under their rule.
There were major roles here for Ashoka Maurya, the Gupta emperors, Alauddin Khalji, the Mughals and others.
Indian history shows a sequential alternation of large domestic empires with clusters of fragmented kingdoms.
We should therefore not make the mistake of assuming that the fragmented governance of mid-18th century India was the state in which the country typically found itself throughout history, until the British helpfully came along to unite it.
Even though in history textbooks the British were often assumed to be the successors of the Mughals in India, it is important to note that the British did not in fact take on the Mughals when they were a force to be reckoned with.
British rule began when the Mughals’ power had declined, though formally even the nawab of Bengal, whom the British defeated, was their subject.
The nawab still swore allegiance to the Mughal emperor, without paying very much attention to his dictates.
The imperial status of the Mughal authority over India continued to be widely acknowledged even though the powerful empire itself was missing.
When the so-called sepoy mutiny threatened the foundations of British India in 1857, the diverse anti-British forces participating in the joint rebellion could be aligned through their shared acceptance of the formal legitimacy of the Mughal emperor as the ruler of India.
The emperor was, in fact, reluctant to lead the rebels, but this did not stop the rebels from declaring him the emperor of all India.
The 82-year-old Mughal monarch, Bahadur Shah II, known as Zafar, was far more interested in reading and writing poetry than in fighting wars or ruling India.
He could do little to help the 1,400 unarmed civilians of Delhi whom the British killed as the mutiny was brutally crushed and the city largely destroyed.
The poet-emperor was banished to Burma, where he died.
As a child growing up in Burma in the 1930s, I was taken by my parents to see Zafar’s grave in Rangoon, which was close to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.
The grave was not allowed to be anything more than an undistinguished stone slab covered with corrugated iron.
I remember discussing with my father how the British rulers of India and Burma must evidently have been afraid of the evocative power of the remains of the last Mughal emperor.
The inscription on the grave noted only that “Bahadur Shah was ex-King of Delhi” – no mention of “empire” in the commemoration!
It was only much later, in the 1990s, that Zafar would be honoured with something closer to what could decently serve as the grave of the last Mughal emperor.
In the absence of the British Raj, the most likely successors to the Mughals would probably have been the newly emerging Hindu Maratha powers near Bombay, who periodically sacked the Mughal capital of Delhi and exercised their power to intervene across India.
Already by 1742, the East India Company had built a huge “Maratha ditch” at the edge of Calcutta to slow down the lightning raids of the Maratha cavalry, which rode rapidly across 1,000 miles or more.
But the Marathas were still quite far from putting together anything like the plan of an all-India empire.
The British, by contrast, were not satisfied until they were the dominant power across the bulk of the subcontinent, and in this they were not so much bringing a new vision of a united India from abroad as acting as the successor of previous domestic empires.
British rule spread to the rest of the country from its imperial foundations in Calcutta, beginning almost immediately after Plassey.
As the company’s power expanded across India, Calcutta became the capital of the newly emerging empire, a position it occupied from the mid-18th century until 1911 (when the capital was moved to Delhi).
It was from Calcutta that the conquest of other parts of India was planned and directed.
The profits made by the East India Company from its economic operations in Bengal financed, to a great extent, the wars that the British waged across India in the period of their colonial expansion.