The Great Delusion

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.

Enclaves

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’.

 Popular Sovereignty

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.

 Colonel’s Retreat

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.

Courtesy of: 

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The Battle for Afghanistan: No Easy Place to Rule

The Battle for Afghanistan

In 1843, shortly after his return from the slaughterhouse of the First Anglo-Afghan War, the army chaplain in Jalalabad, the Rev. G.R. Gleig, wrote a memoir about the disastrous expedition of which he was one of the lucky survivors. It was, he wrote,

“a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, ended after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”

 

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The last survivors of the 44th Foot were exposed and surrounded at dawn as they stood at the top of hill of Gandamak.

William Barnes Wollen’s celebrated painting of the Last Stand of the 44th Foot – a group of ragged but doggedly determined soldiers on the hilltop of Gandamak standing encircled behind a thin line of bayonets, as the Pashtun tribesmen close in – became one of the era’s most famous images, along with Remnants of an Army, Lady Butler’s oil of the alleged survivor, Dr. Brydon, arriving before the walls of Jalalabad on his collapsing nag.

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Lady Butler’s famous oil, The Remnants of an Army, which depicts Dr. Bryden’s exhausted arrival at the walls of Jalalabad on his collapsing nag. 

It was just as the latest western invasion of Afghanistan was beginning to turn sour in the winter of 2006, that I had an idea of writing a new history of Britain’s first failed attempt at controlling Afghanistan. After an easy conquest and the successful installation of a pro-western puppet ruler, the regime was facing increasingly widespread resistance. History was beginning to repeat itself.

The closer I looked, the more the west’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan seemed to contain distant echoes of the neo-colonial adventures of our own day. For the war of 1839 was waged based on doctored intelligence about a virtually non-existent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul was exaggerated and manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks to create a scare-in this case about a phantom Russian invasion. As John MacNeill, the Russophobe British ambassador wrote from Tehran in 1838:

“we should declare that he who is not with us is against us . . .We must secure Afghanistan.” Thus, was brought about an unnecessary, expensive and entirely avoidable war.

The parallels between the two invasions I came to realize were not just anecdotal., they were substantive. The same tribal rivalries and the same battles were continuing to be fought out in the same places 170 years later under the guise of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. The same cities were garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same languages, and were being attacked from the same rings of hills and the same high passes.

In both cases the invaders thought they could walk in, perform regime change, and be out in a couple of years. In both cases they were unable to prevent themselves getting sucked into a much wider conflict. Just as the British inability to cope with the rising of 1841 was a product not just of leadership failure within the British camp, but also of the breakdown of the strategic relationship between Macnaghten and Shah Shuja, so the uneasy relationship of the ISAF leadership with President Karzai has been a crucial factor in the failure of the latest imbroglio. Here the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke to some extent played the role of Macnaghten.

When I visited Kabul in 2010, the then British Special Representative, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, described Holbrooke as “a bull who brought his own china shop wherever he went”- a description that would have served perfectly to sum up Macnaghten’s style 174 years previously. Sherard’s analysis of the failure of the current occupation in his memoirs, Cables from Kabul, read astonishingly like an analysis of that of Auckland and Macnaghten:

Getting in without having any real idea of how to get out

almost willful misdiagnosis of the nature of challenges

continually changing objectives, and no coherent or consistent plan

mission creep on a heroic scale

disunity of political and military command, also on a heroic scale

diversion of attention and resources [to Iraq in the current case, to the Opium Wars then] at a critical stage of the adventure

poor choice of local allies

weak political leadership.”

Then as now, the poverty of Afghanistan has meant that it has been impossible to tax the Afghans into financing their own occupation. Instead, the cost of policing such inaccessible territory has exhausted the occupier’s resources. Today the US is spending more than $100 billion a year in Afghanistan: it costs more to keep Marine battalions in two districts of Helmand than the US is providing to the entire nation of Egypt in military and development assistance. In both cases the decision to withdraw troops has turned on factors with little relevance to Afghanistan, namely the state of the economy and the vagaries of politics back home.

We in the west may have forgotten the details of this history that did so much to mould the Afghans’ hatred of foreign rule, but the Afghans have not. Shah Shuja remains a symbol of quisling treachery in Afghanistan: In 2001, the Taliban asked their young men, “Do you want to be remembered as a son of Shah Shuja or as a son of Dost Muhammad?”

As he rose to power, Mullah Omer deliberately modeled himself on Dost Muhammad, and like him removed the Holy Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad from its shrine in Kandahar and wrapped himself in it, declaring himself like his model, Amir al-Muminin, the Leader of the Faithful, a deliberate and direct re-enactment of the events of First Afghan War, whose resonance was immediately understood by all Afghans.

History never repeats itself exactly, and it is true that there are some important differences between what is taking place in Afghanistan today and what took place during the 1840s. There is no unifying figure at the centre of resistance, recognized by all Afghans as a symbol of legitimacy and justice: Mullah Omar is no Dost Muhammad or Wazir Akbar Khan, and the tribes have not united behind him as they did in 1842. There are big and important distinctions to be made between the conservative and defensive tribal uprising that brought the Anglo-Sadozai rule to a close in the colonial period and armed Ikhwanist revolutionaries of the Taliban who wish to reimpose an imported ultra-Wahhabi ideology on the diverse religious cultures of Afghanistan. Most importantly, Karzai has tried to establish a broad based, democratically elected government which for all its flaws and prodigious corruption is still much more representative and popular than the Sadozai regime of Shah Shuja ever was.

Nevertheless due to the continuities of the region’s topography, economy, religious aspirations and social fabric, the failures of 170 years ago do still hold important warnings for us today. It s still not too late to learn some lessons from the mistakes of the British in 1842. Otherwise, the west’s fourth war in the country looks certain to end with as few political gains as the first three, and like them to terminate in an embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos and quite possibly ruled by the same government which the war was originally fought to overthrow.

As George Lawrence wrote to the London Times just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War thirty years later, ‘a new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent an unhappy country . . . although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however,  successful in a military point o view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless . . . The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul should stand forever as a warning to the Statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruit in 1839-42.’

 Despite the central strategic significance of this region, good writing on Afghan history is surprisingly thin on the ground, and what there is invariably uses printed accounts in English or the much mined India Office Archives in London. Yet astonishingly, while most of the sources are well-known to Dari-speaking Afghan historians, and were used by them in the nationalists Dari-language histories they wrote between the 1950s and 1970s, not one of these accounts ever seems to have been used in any English language history of the war, and none is available in English translation, although an abridged translation of a few chapters of the Waqi’ at-i-Shah Shuja appeared in a Calcutta magazine in the 1840s and a full translation of the Siraj ul Twarikh is currently under preparation by Robert McChesney at Columbia University, to which I was generously given access. These rich and detailed Afghan sources tell us much that the European sources neglect to mention or are ignorant of. The British sources for example, are well informed when talking of the different factions in their army, but seem largely unaware of the tensions dividing the different groups of insurgents who made up the Afghan side.

The Afghan sources also present us with a mirror which allows us, in the words of Alexander Burne’s cousin Robbie Burns, “To see ourselves as others see us“. To Afghan eyes the western armies were remarkable for their heartlessness, for their lack of any of the basic values of chivalry and especially for their indifference to civilian casualties. ‘From their rancour and spite there will be burning houses and blazing walls,‘ Dost Muhammad warns Akbar Khan in the Akbarnama.

For such is how they show their strength
Terrorizing those who dare to resist them

As is their custom, they will subjugate the people
So that no one makes a claim to equality

It is moreover, a consistent complaint in the Afghan sources that the British had no respect for women, raping and dishonouring wherever they went, and riding ‘the steed of their lust unbridled day and night’. The British in other words, are depicted in Afghan sources as treacherous and oppressive women-abusing terrorists. This is not the way we expect the Afghans to look at us.

If the First Afghan War helped to consolidate the Afghan state, the question now is whether the current western intervention will contribute to its demise. at the time of writing, western troops are again poised to leave Afghanistan in the hands of a weak Popalzai run government. It is impossible to predict the fate of either that regime or the fractured and divided state of Afghanistan. But what Mirza ‘Ata wrote after 1842 remains equally true today:

‘it is certainly no easy thing to invade or govern the Kingdom of Khurasan.’

No Easy Place To Rule 
Considering its very ancient history, Afghanistan — or Khurasan, as the Afghans have called the lands of this region for the two last millennia- had had but a few hours of political and administrative unity. For more often it had been ‘the places in between’ – the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains, floodplains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours. At other times its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival, clashing empires. Only very rarely did its parts happen to come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right.

Everything had always conspired against its rise: the geography and topography and especially the great stony skeleton of Hindu Kush, the black rubble of its scalloped and riven slopes standing out against the ice-etched, snow-topped ranges which divided up the country like the bones of a massive rocky ribcage.

Then there were the different tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures fragmenting the Afghan society: the rivalry between the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between the Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes, and especially the blood feuds within closely related lineages. These blood feuds rolled malevolently down from generation to generation, symbols of the impotence of state-run systems of justice. In many places blood feuds became almost a national pastime – the Afghan equivalent of county cricket in the English shires – and the killings they engendered were often on a spectacular scale.

The real reason behind the despatch of this first British Embassy to Afghanistan lay far from India and the passes of the Hindu Kush. Its origins had nothing to do with Shah, the Durrani Empire or even the intricate princely politics of Hindustan. Instead its causes could be traced to north-eastern Prussia, and a raft floating in the middle of River Nieman. Here, eighteen months earlier, Napoleon, at the very peak of his power, had met the Russian Emperor, Alexander II, to negotiate a peace treaty. The meeting followed the Russian defeat at the Battle of Friedland on 14 June 1807, when Napoleon’s artillery had left 25,000 Russians dead on the battlefield. It was a severe loss, but the Russians had been able to withdraw to their frontier in good order. Now the two armies faced each other across the meandering oxbows of the Nieman, with the Russian forces reinforced by two new divisions, and a further 200,000 militiamen waiting nearby on the shores of he Baltic.

The stalemate was broken when the Russians were informed that Napoleon wished not only for peace, but for an alliance. On 7 July, on a raft surmounted by a white classical pavilion emblazoned with a large monogrammed N, the two emperors met in person to negotiate a treaty later known as the Treaty of Tilsit.

 Much of the discussion concerned the fate of French-occupied Europe, especially the future of Prussia whose king, excluded from the meeting, paced anxiously up and down the river bank waiting to discover if he would still have a kingdom after the conclave concluded. But amid all the public articles of the treaty, Napoleon had included several secret clauses that were not disclosed at the time. These laid the foundations for a joint Franco-Russian attack on what Napoleon saw as the source of Britain’s wealth. This, of course, was his enemy’s richest possession, of India.

The seizure of India as a means of impoverishing Britain and breaking its economic power had been a long-standing obsession of Napoleon’s, as of several previous French strategists. Almost nine years earlier, on 1 July 1798, Napoleon had landed his troops at Alexandria and struck inland for Cairo. “Through Egypt we shall invade India,” he wrote. “We shall re-establish the old route through the Suez.” From Cairo he sent a letter to Tipu Sultan of Mysore, answering the latter’s pleas for help against the English.

At the Battle of the Nile on 1 August, however, Admiral Nelson sank almost the entire French fleet, wrecking Napoleon’s initial plan to use Egypt as a secure base from which to attack India. This forced him to change his strategy; but he never veered from his aim of weakening Britain by seizing what he believed to be the source of its economic power, much as Latin America with its Inca and Aztec gold had once been that of Spain.

So Napoleon now hatched plans to attack India through Persia and Afghanistan. At Tilsit, the secret clauses spelled out the plan in full: Napoleon would emulate Alexander the Great and march 59,000 French troops of the Grande Armee across Persia to invade India, while Russia would head south through Afghanistan. General Gardane was despatched to Persia to liaise with the Shah and find out which ports could provide anchorage, water and supplies for 20, 000 men, and to draw up maps of possible invasion routes. Meanwhile General Caulaincourt, Napoleon’s ambassador to St. Petersburg was instructed to take the idea forward with the Russians.

But the British were not caught unawares. The secret service had hidden one of their informers, a disillusioned Russian aristocrat, beneath the barge, his ankles dangling in the river. Braving the cold, he was able to hear every word and sent an immediate express containing the outlines of the plan to London. It took British intelligence only a further six weeks to obtain the exact wording of the secret clauses and these were promptly forwarded to India. With them were instructions for the Governor General, Lord Minto, to warn all countries lying between India and Persia of the dangers in which they stood and to negotiate alliances to oppose any French or Franco-Russian expedition against India.

Lord Minto did not regard Napoleon’s plan as fanciful. A French invasion of India through Persia was not “beyond the scope of that energy and perseverance which distinguish the present ruler of France,” he wrote as he finalised plans to counter the very “active French diplomacy in Persia, which is seeking with great diligence the means of extending its intrigues to the Durbars of Hindustan.”

In the end Minto opted for four separate embassies, each of which would be sent with lavish presents in order to warn and win over the powers that stood in the way of Napoleon’s armies. One was sent to Tehran to impress upon Fatteh Ali Shah, Qajar of Persia, the perfidiousness of his new French ally. Another was despatched to Lahore to make an alliance with Ranjit Singh and the Sikhs. A third was despatched to the Amir’s of Sindh. The job of wooing Shah Shuja and his Afghans fell to a rising young star in the Company’s service, Mountstuart Elphinstone.

Elphinstone sat scribbling in his diary, trying to make sense of the Afghan character in all its rich contradictions.

Their vices are revenge, envy, avarice, rapacity, and obstinacy; on the other hand, they are fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, brave, hardy, frugal, laborious, and prudent.”

He was astute enough to note that success in battle in Afghanistan was rarely decided by straightforward military victory so much as by successfully negotiating a path through the shifting patterns of tribal allegiances. “The victory is usually decided by some chief going over to the enemy,” wrote Elphinstone, “on which the greater part of the army either follows his example or else takes flight.”

The same was often true in India. Clive’s ‘victories’ at Plassey and Buxar were more like successful negotiations between the British bankers and Indian power brokers than the triumphs of arms and valor that imperial propaganda later made them out to be.

The British were beginning to understand that Afghanistan was no easy place to rule. In the last two millennia there had been only very brief moments of strong central control when the different tribes had acknowledged the authority of a single ruler, and still briefer moments of anything approaching a unified political system. It was in many ways less a state than a kaleidoscope of competing tribal principalities governed through Malik’s or vakils, in each of which allegiance was entirely personal, to be negotiated and won over rather than taken for granted. The tribes’ traditions were egalitarian and independent, and they had only ever submitted to authority on their own terms. Financial rewards might bring about cooperation, but rarely ensured loyalty: the individual Afghan soldier owed his allegiance first to the local chieftain who raised and paid him, not to the Durrani shahs in faraway Kabul or Peshawar.

Yet even tribal leaders had frequently been unable to guarantee obedience, for tribal authority was itself so elusive and diffuse. As the saying went: Behind every hillock there sits an emperor – pusht – e har teppe, yek padishah nehast (or alternatively: Every man is a khan – har saray khan dey).

In such a world, the state never had a monopoly on power, but was just one among a number of competing claimants on allegiance.

Many of the tribes had lived for centuries by  offering empires their services in return for the political equivalent of protection money: even at the height of the Mughal Empire, for example, the emperors in far away Delhi and Agra had realized that it was hopeless even to think of attempting to tax the Afghan tribes. Instead the only way to keep open communication with the Mughals’ Central Asian lands was for them to pay the tribes massive annual subsidies: during Aurangzeb’s rule 600,000 rupees a year was paid by the Mughal exchequer to Afghan tribal leaders to secure their loyalty, Rs. 125,000 going to the Afridi alone. Yet even so, Mughal control of Afghanistan was intermittent at best, and even the victorious Nadir Shah fresh from looting Delhi in 1739, paid the chiefs huge sums for providing him with safe passage through the Khyber, in both directions.

The British later learned the Mughal model. According to a piece of imperial doggerel it became British policy to “Thrash the Sindhis, make friends with the Baluch, but pay the Pathans.”

There were other options: The Afghans could be lured into accepting the authority of a leader if he tempted them with four-fifths share of the plunder and spoils of conquest as Ahmad Shah Abdali and Timur Shah had both done. But without a ruler with a full treasure chest, or the lure of plunder to cement the country’s different interest groups, Afghanistan almost always tended to fragment: its few moments of coherence were built on the success of its armies, never of its administration.

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Featured image: Skinner’s Horse riding out to war

Courtesy of: William Dalrymple, Return of a King, The Battle for Afghanistan, Bloomsbury Publishing London

The Memsahibs

The Women of Victorian India

In 1834, George, Lord Auckland,  Commissioner of Greenwich Hospital, is appointed to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in the Whig government of Lord Melbourne. George is a bachelor, and Emily & Fanny Eden are his sisters.  The Government falls but returns to power in April 1835.

In October 1835, Auckland is appointed Governor-General of India, a position which carries with it a great deal of prestige, a high salary and supreme administrative authority over the British Presidencies of Bengal, Madras and Bombay. He leaves Portsmouth on the the Jupiter, accompanied by his sisters, his nephew, William Osborne, and a pet dog, Chance.

In India, George would be answerable to no one; but he had two masters in England–the Whig government and the Directors of the East India Company.  In matters of political policy, he is to act in consultation with the Home Government whenever possible; in commercial matters, he was responsible to “The Company”.

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Emily Eden

Emily Eden writes to her friend, Theresa Lister in London, about their arrival in Calcutta five months later on March 4, 1836. They were to spend six years in India. Auckland’s predecessor in India was Lord William Bentinck, who had instituted a number of successful and far-reaching social and legal reforms which Auckland was expected to consolidate and extend.

Auckland was considered able, with an unflappable disposition and a strong head for hard work. But he lacked imagination, flexibility and sound personal judgement. His sisters possessed some of these qualities but they were not in India to govern; they were there as top memsahibs of the country and their functions were social, decorative and ceremonial. Everyone passing through Calcutta felt they had to call at Government House–and everyone was always through.

 “They come to Calcutta on their way out to make their fortunes or on their way home because they have made them, or because their health requires a change of station and they come here to ask for it.”–

-Emily to Theresa Lister in correspondence.

Barrackpore, sixteen miles from Calcutta, and standing in a large park by the River Ganges, was their weekend retreat.

The unquestioning and prompt fulfilment of their every wish which resulted from their elevated status was a trifle startling at first, even to those of the Eden’s aristocratic background.

“The subservience of the natives to the handful of white men who have got into this country shocks me at this moment”,–

-wrote Fanny. 

Anglo-Indian society in Calcutta had been notorious for this narrow parochialism since the late seventeenth century when the first overseas trading houses were established here. The increasing wealth of the foreign community was based entirely on commerce and its aspirations on the life style of the eighteenth-century British nabob. The nabobs were famed for the size and extravagance of their households, their gargantuan appetites and the numbers of their ‘dusky mistresses’.

For in those days English women were indeed a rarity in India and those there were,  

“not in the opinion of one male resident, either in the education of intellect or heart what an intelligent, reflecting and cultivated man would select as his companion.”

Not that the ladies were short of admirers.  Sophia Goldbourne, one of the fair few, wrote home that

“the attention and court paid to me was astonishing. My smile was meaning and my articulation melody; in a word, mirrors are almost useless in Calcutta and self-adoration idle, for your looks are reflected in the pleasures of every beholder and your claims to first-rate distinction confirmed by all those who approach you.”

By the early nineteenth century more English ladies had arrived on the scene, and in the rows of mansions at Chowringhee, Calcutta’s richest quarter, no expense was spared to recreate for them the ambience of luxurious western-style comfort. Their lofty rooms were stuffed with ‘objects your only interest in which would arise from their familiar associations’, wrote the anonymous author of the Anglo-Indian Domestic Sketch Book. They boasted ‘marble halls and passages, carpeted floors, oil-clothed stairs, fireplaces with all their decorative accompaniments, window curtains, chandeliers, stained glass and, in short, a thousand and one ornamental elegance of fashionable life that would do no discredit to St James’.

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The memsahibs go dancing (India Office Library)
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The memsahibs go dancing (India Office Library)
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The memsahibs do their shopping (India Office Library)
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The memsahib in her sitting-room (India Office Library)
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The memsahib weighing out the day’s supplies (India Office Library)

‘It is so very HOT, I do not know how to spell it large enough’, Emily commented.

People unused to such temperatures do very little in them unless forced. The men who had to earn enough money to bring in the butter and keep the punkahs moving, managed to continue work; the women, for whom there was little compulsion to do anything much, often lapsed into inertia and dullness.

In her drawing-room for the chief part of her day, the Anglo-Indian lady is as much a prisoner by reason of the heat as the zenana woman is by custom,’

wrote one sympathetic gentleman.

‘She is by herself all day long and thrown on her own resources of music, reading, letter-writing or sketching.’

Alone and yet not freely alone, for at ever turn servants waited to do her every bidding and encourage her indolence. Top of the service hierarchy indoors were the

  • butlers and footmen (who wore household liveries),
  • the cooks
  • valets for the gentlemen,
  • ayahs, amahs, and wet nurses for the ladies and children.
  • Each person of consequence had his own tailor who sat cross-legged snipping and sewing on the verandah all day, and
  • most of them had personal dhobies (washermen) who arrived in the morning on a donkey laden with equipment, soap board, a stick for thrashing clothes clean, drying lines and a firebox for heating the water.
  • The water was carried by the bhistie, who had also to fill the rows of earthenware jars in the bathrooms and keep the tatties wet.
  • Then there were the general domestics who carried messages or goods, cleaned or swept, filled and trimmed the lamps.

And outside in the garden and compound was another structure of service,

  • topped by the coachmen
  • elephant-drivers (mahouts
  • head gardeners
  • through the fowl keepers, cowmen, grooms, watchmen, palanquin-bearers, grass-cutters and gatekeepers
  • down to the young lads who swept the stables, cleaned the latrines and the wells, and dug the irrigation ditches round the vegetable plots.

As a lady newly arrived in Madras commented, the results of such a system was that

‘Every creature seems eaten up with laziness. Even my horse pretends he is too fine to switch off his own flies with his own long tail, but turns his head round to order the horse keepers to wipe them off for him.

It was a commonplace that, in the British establishments, the servants were often treated worse than the animals. Emily Eden mentions that the natives competed for employment at Government House because it was

‘one of the few houses in Calcutta where they are not beaten. It is quite horrible and disgusting to see how people quietly let out that they are in the habit of beating these timid, weak creatures.’

But the servants were so poor they had to bear it, and the English, even had they wished for less grandeur, could not economize by letting one servant perform several tasks because of the taboos of the caste system.

The Edens, while learning to adapt themselves to the extravagancies and deprivations of their new life, were also able to stand apart from it, strong in the knowledge that it could not last for more than six years at the worst and that everything back home afterwards would be pleasurable by comparison . . . Assuming, of course, one was lucky and lived long enough to return home, for there was no denying that the India of the period was a dangerous place for foreigners and an alarming number of men and women under forty died there of fevers and other undiagnosed  illnesses.

‘Lord Auckland has a very dry manner always. The sisters quite the reverse, extremely agreeable,’ wrote Mary Wimberley, after her first dinner at the Governor’s residence in Barrackpore. She was quite happy as the wife of Charles Wimberley, who had recently become his Lordship’s private chaplain. Charles and Mary Wimberley had spent the past twelve years shifting about the world in the Christian cause and, compared to where they had been, their ‘nice clean little cottage’ in Barrackpore park seemed a haven of comfort. They had first been assigned to India in 1816, then to the Straits Settlements at Malacca, then Java, Macao, Cape Town and then back to Fort William, Calcutta, where they lived in four stifling rooms with no running water, no nursery and no stabling for their horse and buggy.

Mary was a Scot, with the national characteristic of resilient practicality which she greatly needed, having married a man whose principal gift was for pulpit oratory, and having already borne him five children in various uncongenial habitations. However, it was her husband’s power of preaching in a manner sufficiently stirring to entice people to worship even in the heat of Sunday mid-mornings that had resulted in his Barrackpore appointment.

It was true; she (Emily) was essential to George’s equilibrium, and when Lord Auckland began to plan an extensive tour of the north-west provinces, it was taken for granted that his sisters should accompany him, though it was unusual for ladies of such elevated status to take long journeys ‘up-country’. From his point of view, it was essential to gain some first-hand experience of the real India, for he was surrounded by advisers who knew much more about it than he did, and who were full of bushy-tailed ideas of expanding British influence and authority to the various provinces of the north-west.

But George possessed a too highly developed sense of duty not to go and take a good look at the country under his governorship. Perhaps by so doing he could reassure himself that it would get along all right without too much intervention on his part in the future, for neither he nor his sisters had any urgent desire to probe very deeply into the mysteries of Indian affairs. There were rumours in August that the Whigs would lose power in which case Lord Auckland would have to go home to Kensington instead of on his planned tour Up the Country, on which the Wimberleys were to accompany him. Most of the ladies concerned including Emily Eden and Mary Wimberley, devoutly and secretly hoped for such an outcome but it was not to be. Lord Melbourne, who had appointed ‘G’ to the Governor-Generalship,  remained at Westminster.

Lord Auckland and his sisters left Calcutta on 21st October ‘for eighteen months of travelling by steamers, tents, and mountains’ Emily wrote inconsequentially hating the prospect ahead. With all their pauses en route for visiting out-stations, sketching ruins and holding durbars, it took them nearly three weeks to reach Benares.

The imperial cavalcade was twelve thousand strong with:

  • government secretaries
  • scribes
  • aides-de-camp
  • army officers, their wives and children
  • soldiers
  • sepoys
  • servants
  • servants’ servants
  • drivers
  • drummers and valets
  • guards 
  • guards’ guards
  • laundrymen 
  • loaders
  • messengers 
  • tent-pitchers
  • grass-cutters 
  • cooks
  • mahouts 
  • amahs 
  • herders 
  • grooms.

To transport this multitude and their equipment between ten and twenty miles a day overland in strictly hierarchical degrees of comfort required unspecified numbers of

  • elephants
  • oxen
  • camels
  • horses and ponies
  • tilburies
  • buggies 
  • jonpauns (sedan chairs on poles carried by four bearers)
  • hackeries drawn by bullocks
  • palanquins that were furnished with shelves, a little oil lamp and a mosquito net, rather like a steamer-berth
  • dhoolies, covered litters, lighter and cheaper than palanquins and described by one traveller as ‘a tray for women’ and by another as ‘little four-poster beds with very short legs and curtains buttoned up all round to keep out the rain’.

Relatively few women ventured to India in the first half of the nineteenth century and those who did were frequently ‘in an interesting condition’ or staying at the hill-stations. At regimental balls, therefore there might be but six dancing ladies for every twenty-five men, so that he couples had to dance from one side, then on the other in the quadrilles until the fair few were quite exhausted. It was an artificial situation for both sexes that resulted in a number of hasty and ill-considered marriages, as Emily noted.

For the Eden sisters, elevated by their rank above situations of this sort, life retained its hectic tenor, relieved by the first visit to Simla in the summer of 1838. But come autumn, they were again doomed to the road for a ceremonial state visit to the ruler of the Punjab, Ranjit Singh, at the town of Ferozepore in Ludhiana. The object of this visit was to ratify the terms of a new Sikh-British alliance which Macnaghten and other advisers had been negotiating during the summer. The earlier treaty between the two nations had bee made in 1809, soon after the ‘Lion of Lahore’ came to power. He ruled with masterful ferocity, his greatest strength the well-disciplined and efficient Sikh army which he used to increase his territories by conquest-including the capture of Peshawar across the River Indus that had formerly belonged to the Afghans.

Afghanistan, that was what it was all about–a cunning, virile, poverty-stricken, cynical country which refused to accept its geographical role as reliable buffer-state between the Middle-East and British India. In 1838 the Amir of Afghanistan was Dost Mahomed, an enterprising warrior of ambiguous allegiances who had battled to the top after a turbulent series of tribal plots, fights and counter-plots that followed the defeat of the former ruler, Shah Soojah (Shuja). Early in the century, Soojah (Shuja) had signed a treaty of friendship with the British-which stated that the two countries “shall in no manner interfere in each other’s countries”– and after his deposition,  the Shah had been in exile in Ludhiana under British protection.

When Lord Auckland went to India he was burdened with a secret directive from the East India Company’s committee of directors that the slippery state of Afghan affairs was to be looked into

“either to prevent an extension of Persian domination in that quarter or to raise a timely barrier against the imperial encroachment of Russian influence”.

Once settled in Calcutta, Auckland was further burdened with a great quantity of conflicting advice from his government members on the trustworthiness of Dost Mahomed, the actual intentions of the Persians and Russians about the north-west frontier and the true feelings of the Afghan themselves. Ignoring the last, Auckland made the most disastrous decision of his political career: that the most effective way to forestall Russian encroachment and secure the stability of Afghanistan was to restore the elderly but still aspiring Soojah (Shuja) to the throne of Kabul, and to do this by sending a military expedition made up of levies raised by the Shah, supported by British and Sikh forces.

After reaching that decision in the cool hills during the summer, G. issued a ‘Declaration on the Part of the Right Honorable Governor-General of India’ that became known as the Simla Manifesto, which set out justification for the proposed invasion of Afghanistan. It was an erroneous, distorted and hypocritical document (‘the welfare and happiness of the Afghans’ was, of course, the prime British objective), and it was severely criticized by all in London and Calcutta who had a true grasp of Afghan affairs. But Auckland was determined and, as his elder sister who knew him better than anyone else explained, it was impossible

“to get out of his Lordship’s head what had once been put into it”.

So that was why, in early November, it was away from Simla and back to the tents.  The cavalcade was rather less cumbersome because ‘all the women and other superfluous baggage’ had to be left behind. The only essential females were the Eden sisters and Mrs. Macnaghten. Emily had acquired some lovely bonnets that arrived just before she left the hills. She determined to save the finest one for Ferozepore, “to give Ranjit Singh some slight idea of what’s what in the matter of bonnets”.

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Ranjit Singh drawn by Emily Eden (India Office Library)

What, if anything, Ranjit thought of Miss Eden’s bonnets is not on record; what she thought of him, when she first sat at his side on a gold sofa, is.

“Exactly like an old mouse, with grey whiskers and one eye. . . no jewels on whatever, nothing but the commonest red silk dress. He had two stockings on at first, which was considered an unusual circumstance; but he very soon contrived to slip one off, that he might sit with one foot in his hand, comfortably”-

she wrote that on the 29th November, the day after the first official encounter between the Sikhs and British who had spread their great camps over the plains on either side of the River Sutlej near Ferozepore. 

During the meeting there was the customary ceremonial exchange of presents, but on a particularly lavish scale. From Ranjit, Emily most admired

  • ‘a bed with gold legs, completely encrusted with rubies and emeralds’;

from the British, Ranjit crowed with delight over

  • seven horses,
  • two howitzers ornamented with the Punjabi Star and
  • his own profile, and a portrait of Queen Victoria that Emily had painted specially for him.

In practice, all presents received were immediately whisked away by the aides-de-camp and stored in treasure chests, some for later distribution to other rajahs, for it was an inflexible rule that none of the Company’s servants should receive and keep gifts from natives.

The initial meeting signalled the beginning of two weeks of frenetic ceremonial activity, with fireworks and balls, suppers and dancing girls, and military parades for each force to show the other how fit it was, all accompanied by salutes from Ranjit’s personalized howitzers. Even the more somber rituals of the church went splendidly and Wimberley gave many sermons so stirring that Ranjit sent for him to explain why the English congregated in such numbers every Sunday. Wimberley went, armed with translations of the Lord’s prayer and the Ten Commandments, which Emily thought,

must have been a puzzle- from not worshipping graven images down to not coveting his neighbour’s goods’.

For the Lion of Lahore had done a lot of successful neighborly- goods coveting in his time–after a promising start twenty year before, when he had wheedled the famous Koh-I-Noor diamond out of Shah Soojah (Shuja) under false pretenses. His love of a large glitter was still apparent in his heavily bejewelled Sikh followers.

At last, when everyone of any consequence was utterly surfeited with food, drink and splendor and Emily had seen so many emeralds, pearls and diamonds that she had quite lost any wish to possess them, the leaders of the two armies swore eternal friendship to each other and the camps were struck. For the Edens, it was a move towards another state occasion a Lahore, the Sikh capital; for the men of the Bengal Army it was a move towards the north-west frontier and the unknown perils of Afghanistan.

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Featured image: The memsahibs do their shopping

By courtesy: Excerpts from: The Memsahibs by Pat Barr, Secker & Warburg London 1976

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