ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Chaos or Conquest

India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire by Jon Wilson,London: Simon & Schuster, 2016; pp 564, 799.

Was India conquered? This question is the implicit concern of the book under review. It is a provocative question to ask, as there is bound to be a clamour of objecting voices that would suggest the obvious oppressions of colonial/imperial rule, and how imperial conquest irreversibly shaped the destiny of the Indian subcontinent, evident in so many legacies and artefacts. Yet Jon Wilson argues that the so-called illusion of British permanence and strength in India was merely a fantasy projection by some imperial administrators. For Wilson, the apparatus of power was at best ad hoc, and the British Empire was never a project or system, but rather something far more chaotic and ruled predominantly by self-interest. The argument is persuasive as far as British rule between 1757 and 1857 is concerned, but falters as imperial rule consolidated and exercised its influence in far-reaching ways between 1857 and 1947.

In mapping the contours of early British domination in India, the author emphasises the patchy nature of conquest, the resolute determination to preserve a few, mostly coastal invulnerable strongholds, and their unwillingness to actually negotiate with the complex social realities of the subcontinent, in turn perpetuating conditions of conflict. This story of British conquest is not especially new. It draws on the existing narratives and accounts, only adding shifts in emphasis and generalisations which are interesting reading, but often untenable as arguments. For instance, Wilson emphasises personal relationships as the bedrock of social and political arrangements under the Mughals, asserting that these were displaced by the British, while simultaneously arguing that the British rule was a paper raj. These assertions are not substantiated. What are we to make of the unprecedented scribal expansion and power that undergirded Mughal and Maratha political rule, where elaborate records were maintained to arbitrate minute aspects of every day aspects of life and inheritance, and produced an organic historical mindedness? To argue that friendship and social conversations were the means to political and social survival is to empty out the potential of precolonial political and administrative structures. Equally, it would be far-fetched to make much of the depersonalised
nature of the East India Company regime after Cornwallis. Notwithstanding the importance of the reforms that he introduced in Bengal, we do know that in other parts of the subcontinent, there was a strong affirmation of personal rule and charisma by British administrators, perhaps embodied best by Thomas Munro.

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Updated On : 16th Feb, 2018

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