This is a short book on a very long and tumultuous period of Indian history and Judd is ambitious in tracing the rise and fall of the East India Company rule and the subsequent British Raj in this summary fashion. However, this concise account is written in the best traditions of popular history and is aimed, one would surmise, primarily at the general reader rather than an academic audience per se. But while there are no novel interpretations or new data presented, it nevertheless has much to commend it.
The book covers the years 1600-1947 with the help of ten chapters and a short epilogue. It follows in its schematic structure the pattern of established text books on the subject – the narrative begins predictably with a sweeping account of the beginnings of the East India Company’s trading interests in the spectacular wealth of the East at the end of the 16th century and ends with the denouement of Independence with Partition in 1947.
The intervening years cover the standard narrative of the consolidation of British crown rule through coercion and conciliation, the rise of Indian nationalism, the establishment of the major political parties like the Congress and the League, the towering presence of Gandhi and the creed of nonviolent noncooperation, the cataclysmic impact of the two World Wars, the apogee of the forces of separatism and communalism in the interwar years and the various, often unsuccessful, British attempts at a constitutional handover of power. Even within the self-imposed limitations of a book of this nature, a more creative approach to the narrative and the schematization could have been adopted and this is a somewhat missed opportunity. However, there is a reassuring attempt to not simply supply a political overview but also to highlight the socio-cultural aspects of this imperial encounter and it is in these sections that the book is most interesting and successful. For instance, Judd argues that as the Raj consolidated its power the relationship at a social level between the British and the Indians lessened, the primary exceptions being the Indian Princes and the Indian aristocracy who continued to receive favour. The role of British women in India is apposite in this connection, especially with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, when larger numbers crossed the seas and it was possible to have viable white-only communities with their own attendant problems, problems vividly captured by Rudyard Kipling and by E. M. Forster in A Passage to India. As Judd notes, ‘British women in India became notorious for their gossip, the passing on of juicy bits of scandal became a pastime for many, almost an art’. (p. 55). A pleasing aspect of the study is the use of colourful, insightful (though often rather lengthy) contemporary quotations which punctuate the text and help enlighten a theme or give voice to a protagonist, though the perspective is primarily a British one – the gaze of the colonizers and of the ruling classes. Thus, we hear from Viceroys like Dalhousie, Mayo, and Curzon, as well as politicians like Gladstone, from Anglo-Indian writers like Kipling and Flora Anne Steel, and from the rank and file Briton serving in the army or civil service. The voice of the subaltern and of Indians are occasionally heard. For instance, Judd quotes Sita Ram, an Indian officer in the East India Company’s services, who in his book From Sepoy to Subedar argued that in the pre- Rebellion years, “I always was good friends with the English soldiery and they formally used to treat the sepoys with great kindness, these soldiers are of a different caste now—neither so fine nor so tall as they were. They seldom can speak one word of our language, except abuse” (p.74). Another attractive quality of the book is the numerous evocative images and illustrations that accompany the text.
In the epilogue, Judd deploys passages from a number of English writers like George Orwell, Edward Thompson, William Buchan (son of the novelist John Buchan), as well as Forster, to throw light upon and describe the mutual perceptions of Indians and the British: perceptions about the Raj, perceptions about western and Indian culture, perceptions about Independence and freedom. Judd concludes that at the end of the day Britain, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have a special relationship that is ‘complex, affectionate, confused and significant’. This is a reliable and useful introduction to the subject for the general reader written with Judd’s characteristic verve and style and would recommend it on those counts.
Chandrika Kaul is in the Department of Modern History, University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK.