M.J. Akbar meticulously explains in the book how British racism was of the worst kind, as seen during the Britishers’ treatment of the Anglo Indians, ostensibly because the mothers of their children were Indian. It seemed to the author that British racism distorted all values that existed in India.
I think it is important to talk about Britain’s exploitative, racist imperial attitude while it ruled India, its brutal savagery and vindictiveness, before I open up M.J. Akbar’s brilliantly researched tome, Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj (Bloomsbury India). What the British did to India was nothing but a shamelessly long record of rapacity, a litany of exploitation and theft. And eventually, the Government of India Act of 1858 led the British crown to assume direct control. It was then the British rulers—actually—started plundering India’s thriving manufacturing industries.
I would like to toss some numbers here. For the record, India’s share of world manufacturing exports under British rule fell from 27% to 2%. The comment of the Marquess of Salisbury, secretary of state for India in the 1870s, that “India is to be bled” is now quoted by various writers across the globe. Robert Clive, commander in chief of British India in the mid-18th century, triggered the destruction of the Indian economy. The Indian shipping industry was destroyed, Indian currency manipulated while tariffs and regulations were skewed to favour the British industry. At the end of the 19th century, India was Britain’s biggest source of revenue. It was a brutal story of British imperialism and enormous revenue earned through exploitation and coercion.
Now let’s focus on Akbar’s book. His work reflects his brilliant political and historical acumen and his ability to highlight facts with eloquence and irresistible conviction. In chapter after chapter, Akbar explains how Indians were hijacked by the British condescension—he calls it an illicit affair between exalted idiosyncrasies and unwary subjugation. The author explains how the British sweet talked in India, proffering their trade propaganda to the Rajas and Maharajas, but slowly insinuating their dominion over states and their emergence as a strategic colonial power. The British caravan finally ended with a fissiparous division of the land in 1608 when the East India Company reached Surat, a land on the western coast; a chasm of culture, dialect, etiquette and perceptions. The book has some real testimonies of Colonel Thomas Broughton who totally abhorred certain tentacles of Indian faith. The book traces the stark reality of racism and revenge during the British Raj which jolted Indians out of shape, slicing the ground under their feet. Akbar explains how viciously the British wanted total control of the subcontinent, and how the British ruled with total prejudices and polarization.
In his detailed scripting of the life of Indians under Mughals and British, the author notes that while the Mughals, till Aurangzeb, blended a fine net of harmony and humorous culture to help safeguard the integrity of India and help it prosper, the British acted ruthlessly, violently. The Britishers, sadly, kept Indians at bay in every possible way. Akbar rightly says the Mughals served India, the British looted India. This was, perhaps, the biggest trigger of both revenge and revolt by the Indians against the British.
Akbar has told his friends and a few journalists that the idea of this book emerged from his studies of the British Raj and its policies. He researched deeply for his book on Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. And, almost instantly, Akbar found great examples of the brutal economic exploitation by the British rulers, and how their cultural imperialism had a deep, invasive impact on Indian lives. What was appalling to him was the absolute denigration of Hindus and Muslims. It was only during the British rule in India that the Hindus were seen as emblems of backward heathen superstition, and Muslims symbols of barbarism.
Akbar finds it horrifyingly wrong. His research shows the culture of power in India had some striking common chords among rulers of all faiths. It was before the British started their rule in India. Akbar in his book cites the case of Emperor Akbar and says he was best remembered because he was an exemplary ruler. And then, the author explains how a similar culture of harmony existed across India, a chapter details the harmony that prevailed in the Scindia court at Gwalior in the 18th and 19th centuries and during the great Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Akbar says it was quintessentially the Indian philosophy of power and the Mughal rule succeeded only because it assimilated into a common Indian culture.
The author cites the example of Abu Fazl, the official historian of Akbar’s reign, who writes how Akbar gave up consumption of meat in stages and eventually turned vegan. And how, Jahangir included the Shahjani Gujarati khichdi—made from rice and moong and flavoured with garam masala—on the imperial menu.
Now contrast that with the British rule and you will realise, claims Akbar, that the British never accepted India as home. For them, their home was England or Britain. So, what did the British do? The British rulers totally distorted India’s ethos of harmony.
The British thought process of Indians triggered a negative and disgusting impression about India across the world. India’s much acclaimed literature and philosophy of thousands of years did not find space on the bookshelves of European literature. The author meticulously explains in the book how British racism was of the worst kind, as seen during the Britishers’ treatment of the Anglo Indians, ostensibly because the mothers of their children were Indian. It seemed to Akbar, very rightly so, that British racism distorted all values that existed in India.
Akbar writes how the British took great pride in wearing heavy British clothes even in the heat, prompting the Indians to laugh at the sight of such attire. But the British did not care, they were both brutal and cruel and always called Indians “natives”. It was a peculiar superiority complex, probably born out of racism and also because of military success. Such was the level of rudeness even the best of the British intellectuals and liberals could not stem this deep rot in the way the Britishers behaved and ruled. To the world, the British conveyed a simple message that they brought order to a chaotic India. It was partly true, largely wrong. Well, tensions existed in some parts of India in the 18th century in some parts of the subcontinent, but this was never true of the whole country. The British also told the world that they were plugging their science and modernity in India—a bloody, backward East—and that Indians should be grateful.
But after millions and millions died in famine, the much-vaunted British science did not work. It was clear to India, and to the world, that British science was never meant for the welfare of the Indian. In short, it was meant for the propagation of colonial rule. Akbar has told his friends that he shuddered when he researched about famines in India. It was actually unbearable to him while he was scripting the book.
The author finds it both intriguing and surprising how the British managed to rule such a vast subcontinent with very few officials. Again, some dates need to be mentioned here. In a span of ten years—that is between 1757 (when the British won the battle of Plassey in Bengal) and 1857 (when the first sepoy mutiny took place)—the British were constantly challenged for over five decades on the battlefield by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, and the Marathas. And then, of course, the story of the iconic Rani of Jhansi. I found an interesting conversation in the book about the Indian queen, the Maharani consort of the Maratha princely state of Jhansi from 1843 to 1853 and wife of Maharaja Gangadhar Rao. The book quotes Arthur Wellesley, one of the commanders who defeated the Marathas, saying his victory at Assaye over the Marathas was a much closer battle than Waterloo.
Akbar is clear in his hatred for Indians, who turned into cronies for the British and rampaged through the hinterland to collect revenue. Among them was Govindram Mitra, the first Black zamindar. I get a sense of the title of Akbar’s book when he writes about Mitra, who he describes as a very corrupt person who worked in tandem with the rulers because they both basked in corruption. No one could stop them, claims Akbar, because the British judiciary in Calcutta was equally corrupt. The author cites the example of first chief justice Sir Elijah Impey, who was derided as Justice “Pulbandi”. And it was because his nephew grabbed some of the biggest contracts for bridge and road repairs at excessive rates by Warren Hastings. The book has a mention of the very corrupt Haldar brothers who happily shared their loot with their British partners and judges.
And then the British parties at Doolally before they left for England. The word Doolally originates from the Deolali cantonment, the holding area for British troops on their way back home. The soldiers, always in high spirits, did not bother if they got drunk. Actually, they did not care about India.
Twitter is now abuzz with someone raising a demand for the British to return the gold they carried from India. The cost of the yellow metal, someone estimated, was nearly $150 billion. Bureaucrats in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) must be given copies of Akbar’s book to push the case in the International Court of Justice. If that actually happens, the crimes of the erstwhile British rulers would be laid to rest.
It is a brilliant read.