Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James

Raj cover

I don’t always decide to read 700-page books on a whim, but when I do, they’re about subjects I know almost nothing about.

When I was in high school I discovered Bollywood movies, thanks to a relative giving me a VHS copy of Lagaan. It was about an Indian village in the 1800’s challenging the local British army cantonment to a cricket match, with the wager being that if the villagers won they wouldn’t have to pay taxes for three years, and it represents everything I know about the British occupation of India. (not that I’m knocking it – it’s awesome, and if you have a spare four hours you should totally watch it). So obviously, Lawrence James had a lot of work to do with his book when I picked it up at the library.

It’s extensive, I’ll say that for him. The book covers the trajectory of the British rule in India, from the fall of the Mughal empire in 1740 to India becoming an independent nation in 1947. James identifies key players in each era, describes various rebellions and wars that India was involved in during the time, and explains how the British maintained control. The larger question that James seeks to answer with his book is this: how did a tiny island nation manage to take control of a country many times larger and more densely populated than theirs, and keep that control for more than two hundred years? Because, James reminds us, India in the 18th century wasn’t some undeveloped African nation where the natives had never even seen a white person before. India had a monarchy, technology, medicine, art – a culture and a history just as rich, if not richer, than Britain’s. How in the hell did Britain take control and keep it for so long? James’s book examines the ways the British kept the Indians under control, including how they quelled various rebellions (the unsettling solution of the British to these situations seems to always have been “shoot into unarmed groups of protestors until the protest stops”), and how the constant tensions between Muslims and Hindus led to the creation of Pakistan. He also discusses how India became independent, and what the lasting effects of British rule were.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I knew nothing about this subject before starting the book, so I don’t feel fully qualified to evaluate whether James is overly biased or not. But that being said, he certainly feels biased. He’s extremely forgiving whenever he’s discussing despotic measures taken by the British (whenever he describes the whole mass-murdering-protesters thing, he’s weirdly dispassionate about it while rattling off the death tolls of unarmed civilians), and also he hates Gandhi. Like, a lot. According to James, Gandhi wasn’t the glorified saint everyone says he is, and was really a manipulative, shrewd man who manufactured his own image of holiness and peacefulness, and was more than happy to encourage his followers to sacrifice themselves while he stayed safe.

Okay, is this a thing? The last time I studied Gandhi was during a high school social studies class (where they basically just sat us in front of that Ben Kingsley biopic for four class periods), so I have no idea how universally accepted this view of Gandhi is. Are we really revising how Gandhi is perceived, or is James just being a dick? I don’t know enough about the subject to be sure about this, but I do know that James’s book has a distinctively pro-colonizer viewpoint, and it made me uncomfortable. Judge for yourself:

“Today, the principles which underlay the Raj are unfashionable. We dislike the notion of one people assuming superiority over another and re-ordering their lives. Imperialism, however well-meaning it may have been (and it was not always), is a discredited creed and the benefits it brought are either overlooked or devalued. By contrast, and often in the teeth of much recent experience, national self-determination is considered to be a source of human happiness. The right of peoples to decide their own future is inviolate, irrespective of whether they’ve choose wisely or whether the government which emerges is just, honest, and humane. Late-twentieth-century political correctness has been added to post-colonial guilt syndromes and the residual Marxism which still lurks on many university campuses, with the result that any British, Indian, or American historians have a good word to say about the Raj, or, for that matter, any other type of colonial government. At their poor best, colonial regimes are portrayed as expressions of incomplete paternalism, and at their worst as oppressive, racialist, exploitative and the source of the Third World’s present woes. The balance is slowly being adjusted, not least because the recent history of so many of Europe’s colonies has been a saga of a decline into tyranny, chaos, and internecine war from which they seem unable to rescue themselves.”

Hoo boy.

Verdict: three out of five stars



Filed under Review

2 responses to “Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James

  1. Raja

    Try reading The case for India by Will Durant. I know its rare, but if you can find it.

    Its not long.

    Certainly not pro Raj.


  2. Ooh, thank you. I’ve heard only good things about Will Durant’s books.

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