At the midnight hour of 15 August 1947 South Asia was bathed in darkness. If they were awake, most citizens in the newly independent dominions of India and Pakistan saw in the transfer of sovereignty by candle flame or paraffin lamp, without electricity able to power a wireless. From the parliament buildings in New Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru announced India’s awakening ‘to life and freedom’. But Nehru’s speech was heard by a fraction of India’s population. More than 80% of the people in the two countries which had just achieved independence lived in the countryside, and all but 1,500 (0.2%) of India’s half a million villages had no power.
The British left India a society of extremes. In pockets amid poverty South Asia was prosperous and modern. In the fifty years before 1947, cities had grown fast, British India going from one to six settlements with more than a million people. In India, 31.5 million (out of 370 million) people lived in settlements with a population of more than 100,000. These cities had electric streetlights and modern typewriters, railway stations and buses as well as slums and open drains. In the mid-1930s, 200,000 cars drove on the streets of India, every one imported from Europe or Japan. Bengal had one of the oldest Automobile Associations in the world. India had the highest rate of road accidents. University departments worked at the cutting edge of international science. By 1947, India was one of a small number of countries which conducted research in nuclear physics.
The Second World War was a good time for some. Businesses boomed as shortages in every sector of the economy needed to be filled at any price. Rampant inflation was good for people living in the countryside able to tap the profits of production. This was boom time for rich peasants in places like Mysore and Punjab, where there were few agricultural labourers whose income would rise slower than the cost of living. But people paid in fixed wages suffered. Field labourers, factory workers and middle-class government employees all faced massively higher prices but no increase to income. Despite big industrial profits, one economist estimated that industrial wages fell by 30% during the war. Agricultural labourers who did not own the land they worked on fared even worse. For many it was a struggle to survive. Roughly the same amount of food was grown as in 1940, but the population was a fifth larger. Famine and serious scarcity had recently returned to parts of the subcontinent. The average new-born could expect to live only thirty-two years. In 1947, life for the vast majority of citizens in South Asia was rural, hard and short.
Despite the century- long effort to control the natural environment, millions were vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the seasons and the landscape. Two years after partition the 27-year-old Pakistani writer Syed Waliullah wrote a description of rural Bengal in these years of chaos, emphasizing the brutal effects of nature on people’s lives. From a family of minor government officials, Waliullah grew up during the depression in a village near Chittagong, before studying in the small town of Mymensingh and then Calcutta University. At partition he chose Pakistan and became a news editor on Pakistan Radio. He novel Lal Shalu (translated later as Tree Without Roots) described the collapse of social norms in rural Bengal during the years of famine and war, and was brutally unsentimental about life in the countryside. Waliullah was writing about a region which had once been one of India’s most productive places. His home district was where the East India Company had hoped to conquer in the 1680s to profit from local agriculture and trade. By 1947, it was home to a struggling population left exposed to storms, floods and drought. To survive, land needed to be ploughed and reploughed to the point of exhaustion with ‘no rest, no peace and what is worse, no nourishment, at least not from the ravenous ones who suck it dry.’
Waliullah described a rootless society in constant motion. Millions searched for something to eat or a place to make their home. People were ruled by ‘a great restlessness’, yet ‘go hungry and starve’. Everyone dreamed of ‘leaving their homes’. But the rivers, the trains, the paths were all crammed full of people on the same search. ‘They sweat, and they swear, they solemnly pray for the infliction of God’s curse on their neighbours and then they pray, equally solemnly for their own safety,’ Waliullah wrote. The political institutions which might have protected the vulnerable had long broken down. The forces which once ensured the poor were looked after had long collapsed. This was a description of a chaotic society in which everyone sought a refuge or an enclave just to survive.
India’s later British rulers and their post- imperial chroniclers liked to propagate the view that imperial rule in India was a systematic form of power driven by coherent ideas. ‘The Raj’ is a phrase which embodies a certain kind of authoritarian high-mindedness. On television or in fiction it is now associated with unbending, stiff-lipped men capable of imposing their visions of order and hierarchy and on an otherwise chaotic society. Historians of empire spend much of their time discussing those visions, tracing the British belief in the inferiority of the Indian society, their rhetoric about ‘civilization’ and ‘development ‘, their arguments about property and the rule of law. Too often the context of those visions is absent, and texts are read with no reference to the situation they were written in. In reality, the British proclaimed their strength and purpose when their authority seemed the most fragile. In fact, British power in India was exercised sporadically. It was driven by a succession of short-term visceral passions. It did not have a systematic vision of peace and stability, nor a way of working able to produce order. It created chaos.
Rather than a coherent political vision, British rule in India was based on a peculiar form of power. Fearful and prickly from the start, the British saw themselves as virtuous but embattled conquerors whose capacity to act was continually under attack. From the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, they found it difficult to trust anyone outside the areas they controlled. Their response to challenge was to retreat or attack rather than to negotiate. The result was an anxious, paranoid regime. The British state was desperate to control the spaces where Europeans lived. Elsewhere it insisted on formal submission to the image of British authority. But it did not create alliances with its subjects, nor build institutions that secured good living standards. The British were concerned to maintain the fiction of absolute sovereignty rather than to exercise any real power.
The result was that the British left South Asia a fragmented society. In theory, they transferred authority to new governments which possessed the power to protect everyone in the territories they ruled. In reality they left an uneven mess of enclaves and ghettoes, in which people were divided from each other by a jumble of different authorities, institutions and economic forces. The political institutions which the British left protected some people; institutions nationalists had built supported a few more. But most people were left unprotected from whoever or whatever forces had the greatest clout in mid-twentieth century South Asia, whether the weather, rapacious landlords, or powerful local political bosses. The British empire’s greatest legacy was to create some of the most disjointed and chaotically ruled societies in the world.
To start with, the British transferred supreme authority to more than two states. When they announced their rapid timetable for departure in June 1947, the British declared that their supreme authority over India’s 565 ‘native states’ would simply lapse. By the date of partition, only 114 of these half-independent regimes had been cajoled into joining the Union of India and none to join Pakistan. For a brief period after August 1947 the world’s list of independent sovereign regimes was swelled by hundreds of new absolute monarchies. Amir Khan’s old principality of Tonk, with 2,500 square miles and 300,000 people, was formally independent for seven months until its Nawab signed up for his state to be incorporated into the Indian state of Rajasthan.
A few of these autonomous monarchies tried to resist the subcontinent’s new political geography. Kashmir in the far north stayed independent for two months, until its Hindu Maharaja decided to take his Muslim-majority province into the Union of India and sparked the first war between India and Pakistan. Travancore in the south-west briefly declared its intention to ‘recover’ independence.
Last of all was Hyderabad, the largest native state ‘situated in India’s belly’, as the minister in charge of state integration Vallabhbhai Patel put it. This Muslim monarchy was still a massive sovereign enclave a year after partition, intent on maintaining its independence from India and Pakistan. In the spring and summer of 1948, the Nizam’s regime was fighting against a massive communist insurgency and Congress activists. The conflict drove tens of thousands of refugees into makeshift camps set up in neighbouring territories.
The new independent Indian government invaded in September 1948. Its aim was to dissolve the enclave of Hyderabad into the national Indian state, abolishing monarchical power by forcing it to accept the supposedly undivided sovereignty of the Indian people. But the Nizam’s resistance led to four days of war and a communal massacre, as more than 50,000 Muslim supporters of the Hyderabad regime were killed by the army and Hindu soldiers.
Hyderabad began its life in free and democratic India under military rule, with 17,550 of its citizens imprisoned by the invading army. The ensuing peace was caused by the prospect of elections, by the fact that the subjects of Hyderabad had become voting citizens of a new nation. Without conciliation, ‘those who are down and out and full of fear’ might vote against the Congress at the polls. As a result, leaders in New Delhi decided that those ‘who sinned so grievously’ needed to be forgiven.’
Between the two new sovereign states of India and Pakistan, powers were incompletely defined, and borders were not well demarcated. Passports took years to emerge; to begin with it was unclear who was entitled to which, and what should be written on their pages. The responsibilities of the two legal systems were not well understood. Well into the 1950s, judges in Calcutta were writing to Pakistani citizens explaining that they were not entitled to sue in an Indian court. Many did not realize the creation of two states meant claims for lost property across India and Pakistan’s new frontiers now needed to be handled by diplomats not lawyers.
Some people were simply stranded by partition. Nineteen forty-seven left some of South Asia’s poorest people living in enclaves along the northern border between the Indian state of West Bengal and first Pakistan and then Bangladesh. One hundred and seventy-three small islands of land were entirely enclosed by the territory of a neighbouring state. The confused boundaries of the two states in northern Bengal date back to poorly defined peace treaties between the Mughal Empire and its far neighbours in the early 1700s; one story says that the enclaves were used as stakes in chess games between north-east India’s regional kings. Until a deal was finally struck in 2015, the enclaves’ 80,000 people were immobile and stateless, with no electricity and very few public amenities.
These border territories are a rare case of enclaves making people worse off. Mostly, enclaves are used as they were under the British Raj to protect the powerful and wealthy from the rest of society. Post-imperial South Asia is still dotted with spaces where better living conditions are protected against poorer people living outside.
The urban map of the independent subcontinent was speckled with military cantonments, for example. Here, large swathes of often green and spacious land are divided off and protected from the city beyond by soldiers, remaining centres of military power in the midst of ostensibly democratic societies. Cantonments were first carved out by the British to create places where European military and civil officers could live without fear of a potentially insurgent population. Since 1947 these have become cities within cities, offering a feeling of order for middle-class civilians as well as for the army and and government. Army-ruled enclaves make up large areas of the centre of many South Asian cities: Lahore, Dhaka, Kanpur, Bangalore, Hyderabad. Added together, the area of India’s cantonments would today make up a city bigger than India’s most populous city, Mumbai. They remain more or less under military rule. The cantonment of Secunderabad in Hyderabad, which Indian soldiers fought to control in 1948, is one of the biggest. The majority of its population of more than 200,000 are civilians. Even though recent reforms mean half of its board are now elected, the army’s commanding officer is still in overall charge. Residents complain that only roads in areas where soldiers live are maintained to a pristine standard.
In less heavily militarized places, middle-class South Asians use this imperial model of separation and defence to partition themselves from the ‘chaos’ and ‘dysfunction’ believed to rule the rest of society. Middle-class refugees from Pakistan settled in well-organized ‘colonies’ in Delhi, where living standards have been protected by community associations and, increasingly, security guards. Many public and private institutions follow the British-era pattern of putting residences and workplaces in isolated compounds. Universities, research institutes and large corporations provide accommodation as well as supporting a social life for their employees. These institutions foster a sense of common purpose, but they also reproduce the imperial idea that home is somewhere distant from the place people reside. Within the heavily guarded spaces of South Asia’s bureaucracy, business and media, elites have cultivated their own exclusive communities, creating social norms which separate themselves from the rest of society.
Recently, these enclaves have been privatized and take physical form in private gated communities, where the capacity to pay for the property is the sole criterion for entrance. These new forts (some even with mock crenelations) are scattered around the fringes of South Asia’s quickest growing cities: Bangalore, Pune, Lahore, Delhi. Money buys an idea of safety and defence by providing closed-circuit cameras and security guards.
Gated communities are often marketed to lure expatriates back to the subcontinent with a safe, luxurious lifestyle. They have, for the most part, dropped any reference to the subcontinent’s history in the seventy years since independence, creating distance between the green, pristine, generic forms inside and the supposedly characteristic South Asian mess outside. ‘It’s not like Pakistan, it’s like a new country. You can get everything,’ said a manual worker interviewed in 2013 who commutes to Bahria Town on the edge of Islamabad. Anuraag Chowfla, an architect who has planned some of the largest communities in India, reports that he ‘sometimes jokes with the developer that now you should design your own flag and passport’.
The enclaves of well-defended prosperity which pepper India, Pakistan and Bangladesh exist in defiance of the idea supposed to justify the exercise of political power throughout the subcontinent: popular sovereignty.
Almost to a man, the British thought their sovereignty in the subcontinent originated with the violence of conquest. The difference between legitimate authority and violence was blurred; the fact of domination needed no other justification than its capacity to exercise brute force. But the imperial state’s story about conquest was contested by Indian commentators, who argued that power should and could only be exercised with the consent of the people being ruled.
From Sayyid Mahmood to M.K. Gandhi to B.R. Ambedkar, critics argued that the Indian people not the European army were sovereign. The British only governed because Indians let them, and that meant Britain had obligations to the people it ruled.
First used to try to persuade India’s foreign rulers to govern in partnership with the people they ruled, the idea of popular sovereignty became the Indian basis for Indian nationalism’s effort to evict the British from power. This principle marked the difference, for both India and Pakistan, between the sovereignty of the empire’s conquest state and the post-imperial regime. For Jinnah and Nehru alike, it was the people, not a party, an elite or a state, which had the authority to rule once the British disappeared. In contrast to British attitudes which they argued emphasized division and hierarchy, nationalists thought the people of their respective nations possessed a single voice or soul. There was a vision, no room for endless enclaves or imperial demarcations. Popular sovereignty means the state’s power needed to be exercised evenly, for the sake of all sections of society.
From long before independence and partition, these ideas of popular sovereignty drove the practical process of institution building. The belief that power should be exercised by the people not a distant, violent state drove Indians to create schools, universities, banks, volunteer organizations, even businesses: when the City of London failed to invest in his steel business, Dorabji Tata appealed to the Indian people for capital. But before the end of the Second World War Indian institution-building was blocked by the coercive anxieties of the British regime. Independence allowed the energies of South Asia’s institution builders to be unblocked and dispersed. In the name of democracy and popular political power, newly independent India and Pakistan created education and community uplift programmes, invested in science and technical education, built heavy industrial plants, founded new colleges and universities and dug hundreds of thousands of tube wells. As far as their limited capacity allowed South Asia’s new states helped coordinate the expansion of production and the improvement of living standards. The path to economic development was fraught, fiercely contested and often patchy – but growth happened.
Compared to the stagnant chaos of the last years of British rule, living standards improved. In the first decade and a half after independence, agriculture became more productive. Much more land was cultivated. Thousands of new factories were built. Industrial output expanded. Middle-class jobs in service industries and the public sector grew more rapidly.
South Asia’s growth occurred while its societies avoided the catastrophic social upheaval which happened elsewhere. The organizations which ruled post-imperial India and Pakistan were committed to the reconstruction of their societies without violent revolution. Living through the turbulent years of partition, their leaders emphasized growth through stability rather than dramatic social upheaval, and more or less achieved it. In practice, this emphasis on consensus entrenched elite hierarchies. In India there was no major challenge to the dominance of upper castes until the 1970s. In Pakistan, the military and bureaucracy retained the upper hand.
This consensual approach was widely condemned from the late 1960s for allowing unaccountable elites to dominate. But it allowed stability to follow the turmoil of war and partition and supported a period of relatively prosperity. South Asia did not take a dramatically different path from other non-communist post-war societies where the idea of popular sovereignty was combined with the effort by pre-war elites to retain power. The greatest contrast was between South Asia’s aristocratic democracies and the revolutionary upheaval in China. In the 1950s revolutionary China was living through the world’s most devastating famine, which caused the death of at least twenty million. In the subcontinent, living standards improved as India and Pakistan’s economies increased at a respectable 4%. Not as quick as recent decades, this was only very slightly lower than the contemporary ‘miracle’ of France. It was only exceeded in Asia by Cold War societies artificially stimulated by the United States such as South Korea and Taiwan.
South Asia’s post-imperial choice of consensus and stability stopped civil war and prevented socially catastrophic upheaval. But it meant that, in the seventy years since independence, ideas of democracy, citizenship and popular sovereignty have not been strong enough to overcome the chaotic legacy of imperial geography. Democracy has forced governments to ensure that the poor survive; citizens have demanded the right to receive enough food to live from their governments. But democracy has not created a common public realm in which people from different social groups have a sense they can shape society as a whole. Instead, advantage is gained as different groups claim they have a right to access the prosperous enclaves which offer wealth and power. Different castes improve their position by claiming they are entitled to government jobs or seats in parliament. Used for dramatically different purposes, with much greater ambition, ideas about what the state is capable of doing have changed little since the days of the Raj. Governments rule by classification and division; poverty, for example, is a bureaucratic category which separates the poor from the rest of society. Governments claim to be able to act on their own, often without dialogue. They are poor at acting in concert with others.
The result is that people mitigate their poverty the same way they did seventy or a hundred years ago; through their restlessness and migration, by bringing themselves near to the prosperous enclaves of South Asia’s highly uneven economic landscape. In many parts of the subcontinent now, it is impossible for a family of rural workers to make ends meet unless they have a child earning in the city. Despite two generations of popular sovereignty, South Asia’s societies retain one characteristic from the days of the Raj which has endured long after the end of imperial rule. Famine and the most extreme forms of poverty have largely gone. But most people are still very poorly paid for a day’s work.
Labour Saving Devices
In 1947, the 28,000 Britons who returned home after the evaporation of British sovereignty in South Asia arrived to a society on the verge of an economic boom. Britain in 1947 had been badly bombed. It only managed to stave off bankruptcy with austerity and loans from the United States. But by contrast with India and Pakistan, people in Britain who earned their living through manual work had relatively good living conditions. The collapse of Britain’s empire in India happened at the same time as a quick increase in wages and living standards.
‘Old Indians’ who returned home experienced this difference in the difficulty of employing servants. Officials and their wives complained about fighting for a seat on the London Underground or bus, about the boredom of being relatively young with little to do, about the weather; but above all about the cost of labour. After living in households that teemed with staff, the families of ex-officials could rarely afford to employ more than a single maid, sometimes not even that. The manuals which guided returned officers about how to live back in England suggested the purchase of labour-saving devices. Women had no choice but to do housework.
The disparity between living standards in British-conquered India and metropolitan Britain had many causes. The most important, though, was the different way these two societies were ruled. Living standards were so much better in Britain in 1947 for a simple reason: labour had a stake in the direction of British society it did not have in South Asia under British rule.
The disparity was clear during the Second World War, when social differences widened in India but narrowed in the UK. The war did not cause Britain’s class divisions to crumble nor did it invent the welfare state. For long after 1945, Britain was a highly militarized, class-ridden, fiercely hierarchical society. But union membership increased, social benefits expanded, women were enticed from their homes to armament factories with relatively good pay as well as the chance to contribute to the war effort.
During the war, labour was a vital interest in the accommodation which had shaped the direction of Britain’s polity. It did not run Britain. But unlike India, organized labour had a seat at the table. Britain’s foremost trade union organizer, Ernest Bevin, was Minister for Labour in Winston Churchill’s cabinet. The involvement of labour helped the creation of the national military-industrial complex which transformed the British state into such an effective fighting force during the Second World War. But it also created the conditions for the sustained economic growth which lasted until the mid-1960s. The loss of India did not mark the beginning of Britain’s decline but the start of an economic boom.
In the years when the men who governed British India were uncomfortably adjusting themselves to life after empire, Britain’s high-technology, highly industrialized factories spun out quickly increasing quantity of export goods. British exports grew from £16 billion in 1948 to £2.8 billion in 1954 and then £3.8 billion in 1960. (£61 billion in 2016 prices). In 1950 Britain had a 24.6 per cent share of the world’s manufactured goods (compared to the USA’s 26.6 per cent), with 52 per cent share of world motor vehicle exports.
Demand for British goods came from across the world. To buy them, Britain relied most on the now long self-governing ‘white’ empire. In the 1950s Australia was the UK’s largest trading partner. But the Commonwealth took less than half of British exports in total, with a demand from the United States and Western Europe growing the quickest. By contrast empire in India left little economic legacy. Exports to India and Pakistan were comparatively tiny. In the middle of the twentieth century, Britain’s prosperity relied on the relative productivity of its well-paid workforce, not on global imperial power.
The coincidence of Britain’s economic prosperity with imperial decline shows how disconnected British India had been from the main currents of British life. For much of its existence, Britain’s empire in India contributed little of value to Britain itself. English merchants had initially been interested in the subcontinent as a source of commercial gain; the East India Company’s first wars were fought to defend the factories and forts it thought it needed to make a profit. But imperial power quickly created its own logic, which had little to do with economics.
The exception occurred during the twentieth century’s two world wars. But then India was only turned into a source of Britain’s global power by corroding the basis of imperial power in the subcontinent itself. The First World War was followed by the first phase of India-wide mass nationalist agitation. Britain’s financing of India’s role in the Second World War cracked the Raj for good, pushing British rule into a final phase of famine and violence.
Outside these destructive, aberrant moments, British rule was sustained by an elite whose lives were focused on nothing more than the survival of Britain’s sovereignty in the subcontinent. For them, the logic of empire was circular; the purpose of imperial power was to do nothing more than maintain imperial power, and with it their pensions and sense of personal authority. That logic aroused passionate commitment from British India’s white ruling class. But it meant that once the Union flag had been hauled down from the last citadels of British sovereignty there was nothing to do but pack up and go home.
From a financial or strategic point of view there were good reasons why the British might have stayed on. By 1947, there were few business interests in India. But Asia still mattered to Britain. Commercial interests existed in Malaya and Singapore, and Australia was still a vital trading partner. The public rhetoric of empire claimed that the job of officials was to maintain ‘good governance’, and that still needed to be sustained in order to prevent the subcontinent falling under communist rule. The subcontinent’s states had borders which needed protecting from malign powers. Both India and Pakistan were concerned to maintain a stable, centralized form of government in the midst of the crises of the late 1949s, so they offered those who chose to stay good terms.
A few did stay. Fifty civil servants and senior police officers and a few more soldiers were hired on temporary contracts by the Pakistani Government. They made up one third of Pakistan’s civil service until the early 1950s. The country’s mint, railways, telegraph, army and civil service college remained under British control, the latter until the 1960s. A handful of civil servants remained in the Republic of India, together with dozens of soldiers and European businessmen. Kanpur’s textile factories were owned by a British capitalist until the early 1960s, for example.
But given Britain’s long history of involvement in India, these numbers were tiny. Remarkably few stayed on. Out of 608 European ICS officers working in India in December 1946, only 429 were still in India on the day of independence; sixty-two were left by the end of 1947, no more than fifteen by 1952, only three of those in the Republic of India. Those few who stayed took jobs which the transfer of power altered the least. Officers in charge of border districts were less likely to quit. Men working in revenue collection were also most likely to stay. The last bureaucrat to leave India was J.W. Orr, who retired from his position of Inspector for Customs and Excise in Delhi at the age of forty-five in 1955, to become director of a gold mining firm. Compared to the last days of other empires, the British left the subcontinent quickly and completely.
Coming Back Home
This quick departure helps us to see what British rule in India was about. British officers and soldiers were in India to maintain sovereignty. Once that had gone there was no point staying on. ‘No longer . . . serving under the ultimate control of the Parliament of their own country’, as one government officer put it, remaining in the subcontinent was seen as pointless, even possibly risky. The government’s ‘absolute priority’ was to ensure a quick and safe return for its European staff. Five thousand British civilians were shipped back at a rate of 1,000 a month. Twenty-two thousand eight hundred soldiers, mostly wartime conscripts, took only a few more months to return home.
Officers returning home had two options. They could take up pensionable opportunities in ‘another civil service’ with a grant of £500 (equivalent to £17,470 in 2016 prices). Or they were given a ‘severance allowance’ equivalent to full pay to the usual retirement age of sixty with the prospect of a good pension afterwards.
‘Old Indians’ who did not take other jobs could maintain the same living standards as dentists or doctors without having to work, but the vast majority put their experience in the machinery of administration to work. Many were employed by other branches of Britain’s bureaucracy, the large number becoming diplomats or officials in Britain’s African Empire, quickly moving to other places where their job was to look after another outpost of British sovereignty overseas. Nineteen out of the sixty-one ICS men who took part in a study in the 1970s joined either the foreign or colonial service; ten becoming civil servants in the UK. One of two became farmers or businessmen. Whatever role they took up, most of these men, used to exercising governmental power, found a small realm of administrative life to dominate. If they did not become civil servants they became college bursars or school administrators, managed lobby groups or became town clerks or local councillors.
For these men, British rule in India had been about the Viceroy and the Union flag. It involved absolute control over a network of citadels and enclaves large enough to give them a delusory sense that they had real authority. It was also about the theoretical capacity of the British state to act without needing to negotiate with other powers. Sharing power was anathema; working for another regime impossible. As the Punjab officer Edward Wakefield wrote when courted by both the Indian and Pakistani governments to stay, ‘I had spent my life in the service of the Crown and did not feel disposed to serve another master.’
By 1947, British power was understood by talking about ‘duty’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘service’, words that conveyed the trappings of sovereignty rather than any real kind of authority. If these were impossible in India, if the slim possibility of power required too many messy compromises, there were plenty of other spheres where it could be exercised. The British state did not give up the idea of ruling Africa until the late 1950s. And there was Britain itself.
In the United Kingdom, the collapse of British power in India was marked by remarkable little stress or anxiety. The point, again, is that empire in India was not about influence or interest, but about sovereignty. When the British left India there was little lament about the loss of markets or prospect of reduced profits. The fact that the Union flag no longer flew was embarrassing, but even those parts of Britain’s political hierarchy most attached to it quickly adjusted. The most important legacy of the empire was not the British desire to control other lands. It was the peculiar form of power which British rule embodied in India and that, after 1947, was transported home.
The strongest British support for British rule in India existed in the Conservative Party, but even Conservative politicians adjusted to the end of the Raj quickly. Many were former ICS or army officers or had relatives who had served in the subcontinent. When they thought about India they tended to use a romantic conception of British sovereignty rather than a realistic assessment of Britain’s power in the world. While negotiations were going on in India, most of them doggedly resisted the unravelling of British sovereignty. But when it’s passing was obvious, they accepted the demise of British power quickly. There was no interest in influence, in ‘informal empire’ as some historians have called it, if there was to be no Union flag.
By 1947 the upper ranks of the Conservative Party thought Britain had no interest in remaining in India. Winston Churchill noted that ‘modern air squadrons are worth more than overseas territories’. When he visited in January 1947, Harold Macmillan was told by the Indian representative of his family publishing firm that a rapid transfer of power to the Congress would be good for profits, particularly if the new government invested in schools and universities. But to begin with, both men fervently resisted the way in which the Labour Government ‘allowed British administration to run down’, particularly fighting the renunciation of sovereignty over the princely states. Macmillan’s worry was that retreat would leave ‘absolute chaos’. Early in 1947, he argued that national serviceman should be sent to reimpose British power.
By May 1947, Churchill, Macmillan and the rest of the Conservative leadership were willing to support the Labour Government’s bill to transfer power to two independent dominions in the subcontinent. By then, the prospect of retaining sovereign power in India had gone. The only choice was rapid retreat. The Tory high command’s decision to acknowledge independence brought anger from local Conservative associations, many sending motions to the 1947 annual conference affirming that they were still ‘the great imperial party’. But even rank and file Conservatives recognized that retreat was inevitable. There were other bastions of British sovereignty which needed protecting.
This quick volte- face on India had the greatest impact on the career perhaps the most important post-war Conservative politician not to become Prime Minister, Enoch Powell. Powell was a romantic conservative, a man who saw violence as potentially virtuous, and who believed in the importance of constructing myths about power in order to maintain order and civilized life. He spent three years as a fellow in classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, eighteen months as Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney and then enlisted in the army in the first months of the Second World War. Desperate to fight, he was continually frustrated by being appointed to a succession of jobs planning and organizing the war effort. Between 1943 and 1946 he spent two and half years working in military intelligence in Delhi. He ended his army career writing the last report into the post-war shape of the Indian military, suggesting, unrealistically, the army increase its proportion of white officers,
In February 1946 Powell was offered the chance to stay on as head of the Indian army’s college for training Indian officers. But at thirty-four he too decided to quit India. Anxious about the imminent prospect of a handover of power, he thought London, Parliament and the. Conservative Party would be the most effective place to campaign for the continuance of British rule.
In the summer of 1946, while British institutions were collapsing throughout the subcontinent, Brigadier Powell wrote a report for the Conservative Party explaining how the British could reconquer the Indian subcontinent. Then, as through the rest of his career, his concern was to stave off chaos and anarchy. Powell saw uniform, united sovereign power as the only way to prevent it. ‘The forces of disorder are endemic,’ he wrote in May 1946. Indians would ‘look to British order as a welcome salvation from chaos and strife’, he imagined. ‘India’, Powell believed, ‘would need direct British control of one kind or another for at least 50 years more.’
These fantasies meant Enoch Powell was one of the few Britons to be shaken by independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. Reportedly he walked all night through the streets of London in a state of disbelief when he heard that a transfer of sovereignty had been announced. But Powell quickly, famously, reconciled himself to the sudden collapse of imperial sovereignty. Once British power in India was gone, he recognized empire was over and castigated the idea of a Commonwealth of independent nations as a meaningless fraud.
Powell could relatively easily reconcile himself to post-imperial Britain because he was not interested in spreading British culture or civilization overseas. Unlike America’s global power, Powell argued, the British had no ‘missionary enterprise’ of making everyone like them. What mattered was the British state retaining its sovereign power to command and not be commanded. The important fact was not the power Britain had over other places but that it ruled itself, and was a haven of civilization and order against the chaos which Powell thought raged elsewhere.
Powell’s imperial conception of Britain’s unitary, absolute sovereign power influenced his lifelong opposition to both the European Economic Community and to the alliance with the United States. It also shaped his approach to race and immigration in the UK. Enoch Powell was the most famous opponent of Asian and Caribbean migration to Britain after the Second World War. His was a conception of England as a culturally and racially homogeneous society, an idea which belied the realities of post-imperial Britain. His idea of a single community with a unitary undivided will drew from his experience of the enclaves of British power in India. Like British officers within the nineteenth-and early twentieth century Government of India, Powell always thought unity was necessary to prevent anarchy. Like them, he believed order relied on the existence of a homogenous group which could act consistently, and which was bound together by common race, a common set of myths and a willingness to make sacrifices for the ‘generation interest.’ The united power of the English state had once extended throughout the world. Looking back later in life, Powell saw that the idea of British power over India was a fantasy. ‘The Raj’ itself, he said, ‘was a mirage’, a belief in British authority in India his ‘grand delusion’. Since 1947 Britain’s claim to sovereignty has shrunk back to encompass just Britain itself. ‘It was’, he said when looking back on these years of ‘colonial disentanglements’ twenty years later, ‘as if the nation and the monarchy had come back home again.’ Enoch Powell’s nationalism repatriated his logic of imperial sovereignty to the narrower confines of ‘home’.
The idea of strong, consistent, effective British power in India was indeed a delusion. From the start of Britain’s presence in the subcontinent, Britains were fractious and anxious, governed by chaotic passions as much as the rational effort to calculate their advantage. The British were driven by profit and the desire for a secure income; but their anxieties often led them to behave in ways which undermined their own interests. Pax Britannica only existed in the safe havens British India’s small number of European administrators created for themselves. Otherwise, the idea of British rule as a source of peace, order and secure property rights was a fantasy, projected by anxious administrators to persuade themselves and their British public they were in the right. In practice, British actions prolonged and fostered chaos far more than they cultivated security and prosperity.
But the grand delusion is not just that British India was not what its propagandists claimed to be. It is that absolute sovereignty is ever an effective form of power. Power, as the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt argued, is the experience of ‘action in concert’, the remarkable achievement of many different wills acting together. The British in India were capable of deploying violence, also of shaping the material world; they certainly had an impact. But they never created real power in this sense. The history of British rule in India shows how, in the long term, the desire to establish a unitary and absolute form of power is self-defeating. Obsessed with only their position and security, British officials were never the political leaders of the Indian subcontinent. British administrators could not shape South Asian society in their own interests let alone for its own good. Two hundred years of government in India could not even create a secure foundation for their rule. Constantly made vulnerable by the chaos they themselves helped to create, the British who conquered India were always one step away from defeat and humiliation.
In Britain now, traces of empire are few and far between. Politicians and foreign office officials are embarrassed to mention the years of conquest and domination when they discuss the UK’s relationship with the subcontinent. Statues to imperial heroes can still be found in urban centres, with Curzon’s figure of Clive perhaps the nearest sculpture to the centre of British executive power at #10 Downing Street, and Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier just up the road in Trafalgar Square. But the British public are more likely to see these figures as the object of bewilderment than support or anger. When people suggest they might be removed, no one defends empire. Instead critics are challenged for ‘doing Britain down’, for wanting to undermine Britain’s sovereignty over itself in the name of foreign interests and ideas, it is as if Enoch Powell’s efforts to make the ‘ nation and the monarch . . . come back home’ have been successful. Wherever it is invoked, the idea of Britain’s absolute sovereign control over anything, including just itself, conveys a sense of the country as embattled and isolated, surrounded by chaotic forces it cannot deal with, imbued with the idea it can only survive by building defensive walls to protect and defend itself. As in India, it is an idea based on delusion. In fact, Britain has never done anything alone. The history of Britain itself has been shaped by global trade, and by friendship and conflict beyond the places its empire dominated. Britain itself is made up of different interests, towns and counties and identities; it has been most successful when authority has been exercised far from Westminster, and then coordinated by an inclusive form of political leadership. In practice the absolute sovereignty of the monarch and Parliament is not the same thing as effective power. There are better ways Britain can engage with itself and with the world.
Powell shared with most recent historians the idea that Britain’s empire was a coherent force in the world. In the last few decades, for radical critics of global capitalism and defenders of global Western power alike, the history of Britain’s empire in India has become a metaphor and a political football.
In the process empire is seen to represent a straightforward set of ideas about global domination which have endured from the days of the Raj to the present day. This book has challenged myths of imperial purpose and power propagated on both the political left and the right. Looking at empire from the bottom-up, through the real lives of its functionaries and subjects, we see how imperial power was rarely exercised to put grand purposes into practice. Its operations were driven instead by narrow interests and visceral passions, most importantly the desire to maintain British sovereign institutions in India for its own sake. That desire created structures and institutions in the subcontinent as well as those thousands of cemeteries which mark the resting place of Britons who died and were buried in Indian soil. But it left no purpose, culture or ideology.
But in the last decade India has seen the emergence of a new attitude towards the imperial past. Many statues have been uncovered and washed; the grass around them has been cut, and their sites have been added to India’s tourist maps. Old imperial monuments have been cleaned and renovated. Throughout India, British-era buildings have been opened up as resorts for the delight of India’s middle-class. The chaos and fragility of British rule are passed over. For Indian consumers British rule is associated with ‘colonial’ style of solid wood, high ceilings and leather armchairs, which evoke escape from India’s fraught present into ‘old world charm’, power and luxury.
For some, then, British rule seems to represent a form of power that newly connects to the ambitions of a modern, outward-looking global India. For others it denotes a systematic form of oppression, a site of devastating cultural and economic oppression. In either case British memorials can be assimilated into stories about the exercise of political power in the past running up to the present. In the process, British rule has become an almost infinitely manipulable set of images and symbols, few of which connect back to the realities of British power.