Saturday, December 30, 2006

How the Indians saw the British

Over the holidays I've been reading an essay by the Indian historian, Rajat Kanta Ray in the Oxford History of the British Empire (Oxford, 1998) on how Indian society reacted to the establishment of British supremacy after the Battle of Buxar (1764) finally guaranteed British control over Bengal.

In the eyes of the pundit who wrote the Sanskrit work, The Pleasure of All the Gods, c. 1787, the seizure of power by 'the white-faced upstarts' was like the recurrence of the age of the demons. The late Mughal poet Sauda (1713-80) was aware of 'living in a special kind of age' when every heart was aflame with grief and every eye brimmed with tears.
How can I describe the desolation of Delhi? There is no house from which the jackal's cry is not heard.
Indians used the Arabic and Persian term inqilab (inversion) to describe the catastrophe.

But the new generation saw matters differently. In 1809 the westernizing reformer Raja Ram Mohun Roy saw the transition from Mughal to British rule as the passage to a 'milder, more enlightened and more liberal one'. In 1831 he travelled to England (accompanied by his cow- he was a Brahmin!) and was full of admiration for what he saw there.

The foundation of the Hindu College in Calcutta in 1817 helped to create a generation of westernized intellectuals. This new class was initially pro-British, but in spreading western ideas of freedom and representative government to India, the British (unwittingly) were to create Indian nationalism. Gandhi and Nehru were the products of the British educational system!