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Uncovering the Raj

Jon Wilson, author of India Conquered, on how imperial anxiety determined the dynamics of power during the British rule.

Written by Radhika Singh | Published: August 30, 2016 12:10 am
Jon Wilson, author Jon Wilson, Jon Wilson work, india conquered, british rule in india, british rule, srinath raghavan, indian history, indian express talk Cover of Jon Wilson’s book India Conquered.

India Conquered, authored by Jon Wilson (pictured), covers the period of British rule in India in a rather unique manner. The recently-released book, according to Srinath Raghavan, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, is neither a purely academic text, nor a popular narrative. Instead, India Conquered is a historian’s take on colonial rule, which also tells fabulous stories with great characters. “For example, I’ve included the fascinating account of Amir Khan, the Pashtun from Afghanistan,” says Wilson. “He rose to become a great military leader of the Maratha Empire, and later, ruler of Tonk. When the British came, he first fought fiercely against them but later submitted to their rule.”

While in conversation with Raghavan during his book launch at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Wilson, a senior lecturer at King’s College, London, said that he was unhappy with the treatment academics had given the Raj until now. “We need to start thinking more about human experiences and emotions, and the way they guide history.”

Emotion — specifically anxiety — is a driving theme throughout the book; Wilson explained that the violence the British inflicted on Indians was a result of deep sense of insecurity. In the 500-page tome, Wilson analyses events from the early 18th century to India’s Independence. “The British held less control than they would have wanted, and therefore tried to prove their power to themselves and the wider society through violence.”

Laws were another way the British tried to project power. “They were more interested in making laws than giving a verdict on cases,” said Wilson. “There was a distinct lack of interest in what went on in the district courts. In the late 18th century, this consolidated into a distant administrative style in which the British ruled through laws but remained distant from the people they ruled. You can see their disinterest in actual, effective political leadership during the transfer of power during Independence.”

There are a lot of commonly held beliefs that Wilson attempts to disabuse us of in his book. For instance, one can’t talk about the beginning of the British rule with the Battle of Plassey in 1757 — there were a range of decisive invasions before that, which Wilson has included in his chapter titled “Forgotten Wars”. And the rebellion of 1857 was not a throwback against ‘modernity’ or any ‘civilising mission’. It was a reaction to the despotic military style of the government, which again, Wilson reminded us, was a means to secure power for the British.

Wilson also believes that it would be a mistake to think that the Indian Civil Service was, as Lloyd George, former British prime minister, once said, “the steel frame” that held India together. He maintains that the ICS did not have any political clout. “The ICS did not negotiate with Indian political forces, nor did it resolve local disputes… it was only interested in collecting taxes.”

Perhaps the most incorrect notion we hold, according to Wilson, is that India was very important to the British Empire. “Until World War I, India didn’t really matter that much to the British. It was only when it became a source for troops and resources during the war that India became vital.”

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  1. G
    Gurcharan Singh
    Oct 11, 2016 at 9:14 am
    Are the present governments in India any different from the from the British imperialists described by Jon Wilson ? The present Indian rulers are as ruthless and perous, rather more, as their 18th or 19th century foreign predecessors were. How unfortunate of the country !
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