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Sunday, 27 May 2007

William Dalrymple is interviewed by Christopher Kremmer in yesterday's The Sydney Morning Herald. According to Kremmer:

The 1857 uprising against the increasing economic and military power of the British East India Company saw Indians rally to the crumbling Mughal Empire...

This is quite misleading. I mean, even a quick look at Wikipedia provides a more accurate account of the causes of the disturbance: "It was ... believed that the British had issued new gunpowder cartridges that had cow and pig fat on them, which insulted both Hindus and Muslims."

Which was my impression of the case, having read quite extensively about the East India Company a few years ago. In fact, among the best accounts of the Company and its activities in India (which, of course, was not so-called at the time), I found in a book by Niranjan Dhar:

The British administration in India was not ... built in a day. It did not consist in the continual growth of national institutions. Nor did it develop in pursuance of a premeditated plan. The story of this administration is the story of a series of experiments made by foreign rulers in a foreign land.

The Administrative System of the East India Company in Bengal 1714 - 1786, Vol. 1: Political.

And M. Ruthnaswamy, in his Some Influences That Made the British Administration in India, talks of Sheridan's "literary castigation" and Burke's "high strung descriptions". Both politicians were vocal during the impeachment of Warren Hastings starting in 1787.

Ruthnaswamy says "The record of the East India Company is one of which none of its historians need be ashamed." "Some of these papers tremble with sensibility to the needs of the poor ryots, to the wrongs of women, and the future of backward peoples."

But according to Kremmer, Gyan Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton University, says that Dalrymple's account is 'revisionist'. I wonder how objective Prakesh (whose quid pro quos cannot be questioned, it seems) is really being.

In my mind, the history of the East India Company, about which Ruthnaswamy says "one step in expansion led to another", is a story of implementing gradually more typically English institutions on a complete mess, as needs arose.

The occupation of India was, in any case, inevitable, given the geopolitics of the time. If it hadn't been the English, it would have been the French. Just like Australia.

And I believe we, in Australia, and the Indians, are better off because it was the English. Their institutions were and are manifestly superior to anything the French were capable of.

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