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Glorification of Empire
on 22 January 2012
This book is a scholarly and well-researched effort. Nevertheless, it's frustratingly orthodox and does not develop a critical perspective. What we have here is an account of the British establishment in India: only one side of the story. Indian society is viewed in the context of this establishment, as a passive subservient actor and not an independent force. As a result, the fundamental effects of British rule on Indian society are overlooked. In his conclusions, Mr. James suggests that the colonization of the subcontinent was a positive development, even for the average Indian person.
In my opinion, several of the author's evaluations are problematic. When describing the initial conquest of Bengal, he fails to properly examine how the British destroyed its manufacturing industry. The East India Company deprived Bengal of its economic independence, in order to transform it into an export market for British goods (cotton). The effects of this policy were devastating, but Mr. James only devotes a few pages to it.
The author's coverage of the 1857 Mutiny is misleading. He correctly points out that this was more a rebellion than a mutiny, but also conveys the impression that Indians were divided in their reactions to it. Although the upper classes of Indian society generally backed the British, these only constituted a minute fraction of the Indian population. James tends to neglect the lower classes and their interpretations of this event. I would also question the description of the Raj as 'resurgent' following the Mutiny, when in fact this crisis proved what a damning failure the Company's administration of India had been up to that point. The effects of the Mutiny could be felt for years afterwards.
Some important 20th-century events are poorly recorded and often misunderstood. The 1943-4 Bengal Famine, for example, was responsible for the death of nearly 3 million people; but it only receives a four-page description. James claims that the British administration was "taken by surprise" when the famine began. Yet there is clear documentary evidence that Churchill deliberately starved Bengal to feed the UK (see Mukerjee "Churchill's Secret War").
Britain's behavior during the process of de-colonization is painted in a generally positive light, with partition described as gradually becoming inevitable. James only devotes a few passages to Churchill, who once said how "delighted" he was at the prospect of Jinnah and his Muslim League sowing division in the independence ranks. Mountbatten is judged sympathetically, even though his decision to partition India ended in complete disaster and a great loss of life.
Overall, this book presents a good assessment of the mentality and objectives of British rulers during the Raj period. Although not overtly biased, its narrative tends to glorify the British project in India - a view most Indians would probably disagree with. Therefore, the work's main theme is also its overriding weakness.