India Conquered tells the story of continual crisis that bedevilled the world’s biggest state during the colonial era. It is the first general history of British rule in India for over twenty years. The book argues that too many histories have taken the image the British Empire produced of itself for granted. Guardian 20 speaks to Jon Wilson, the author of the book, about the Raj and how India transformed as a nation after its hard-won Independence.

Q. What made you write about this topic?

A. Writers should write books they want to read themselves. There are many wonderful books on the history of India, but what I’ve missed is a good account of the British presence in India from the beginning to end. I like reading books that explain big historical processes through detailed stories about real life — so that’s the kind of book I wrote.

To a large degree, we still live with the myths which British rule tried to propagate about itself, and I wrote the book to challenge those. We imagine the Raj was a stable and effective form of government, which imposed law and order on Indian society. Even the most vehement nationalist opponents of the Raj now think it was an effective regime. The problem is that everyone treats the texts British officials used to justify their actions as evidence for what really happened. As a historian of India I’ve spent 20 years reading the documents produced by often lowly British officials engaged in the everyday work of trying to rule India, and they give a different view — of British rule as chaotic, with limited purposes, frequently violent, and concerned with little more than maintaining itself in a world experienced as hostile. India Conquered presents that perspective. 

Q. How much do you think things have changed in India since Independence?

A. A lot has changed, but a few things have stayed the same. 

Firstly, even before its economic rise since the early 1990s, India is a lot more prosperous than it was under the British. India in 1947 was a very poor society on the verge of total breakdown. Economic growth had been zero for the previous fifty years. India was one of the countries worst hit by the global depression; the Second World War devastated India’s productive capacity. Many Indians are now critical of the slow pace of change during the Nehru years. But in the first few decades after Independence India’s economy grew at the comparatively rapid rate of 4%, with big expansion in some industries, in science and technology, and in public services like universities.

Aside from the economy, the biggest change has come through the spread of democratic institutions, and the emergence of a political culture in which peoples’ claims to citizenship matter. Every sector of society is able to make its case for inclusion in the nation’s life and economy. That wasn’t true before 1947. Even if many are marginalised, and India remains a highly unequal society, people have a voice which was unimaginable before 1947. The rise of lower caste politics is a good example. Indian politics, NGO activity and so on are driven by the energy which comes from that idea of a common national citizenship.

So India’s economy and its political and intellectual culture have changed rapidly. But some institutions are run in a similar way, and are used by elites to protect themselves and their power. I argue in India Conquered that British India was a society of enclaves. The British survived in India by building powerful institutions which separated them off from the rest of Indian society: they lived in isolated cantonments, used the courts to give themselves legal privileges, created their own commercial organisations which had a privileged position, and then weren’t concerned about the standard of living beyond that as people didn’t challenge their regime. In the middle of the 20th century, nationalist politicians fervently criticised these institutions, building rival, more open Indian versions. But many of them still exist. There are still cantonments in the middle of Indian cities; the Indian Administrative Service is very hierarchical. And many of India’s middle classes have retreated beyond the walls of a new set of enclaves, living in gated communities. The problem, as in the days of British rule, is that the fate of the rich is not bound up with the destiny of the poor, as it would be if they both lived in the same space and had to use the same institutions. 

 Q. Why did the Raj fail to build a long-term relationship with Indian culture?

A. The Raj failed to make a long-term relationship with Indian culture because most Britons were anxious that creating too close a connection would undermine their authority. They ruled by building walls between themselves and Indians. The British thought they had conquered India, and that their presence relied on India’s continued subjugation to British violence. Any kind of collaborative relationship would, they thought, weaken the distance and hierarchy which their presence relied on.

Of course there were Britons who empathised with Indian society, even “white Mughals” who tried to fit into pre-British Indian political culture, even marrying Indian noblewomen. The European effort to know India was not all about domination. There were, particularly in old Mughal cities, instances of cooperation. But these were exceptions; the British regime was based on domination, and domination was thought to preclude any kind of equal relationship.

Q. Which aspects of the Raj does your book cover?

A. It focuses on the everyday life of British government in India, from the 1600s to 1947, looking particularly at the relationship between Britons and Indians. It looks at how Indians responded to the changing shape of British rule, in the process offering a new account of the history of Indian nationalism. It considers trade, war, landholding, law, public works — railway building for example — famine, the beginnings of Indian manufacturing industry, the Indian rising of 1857, the collapse of British institutions rom the 1920s and the demise of the Raj in the crisis of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.

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