India today is a liberal democracy and one of the world’s largest political units, yet historically it was neither liberally inclined nor politically united. So how, Roderick Matthews asks in his latest book, to account for this transformation? Might it have something to do with colonial rule? How was it that such a vast subcontinent came to be run from a small and remote island? And how could so topsy-turvy a state of affairs have lasted for two whole centuries? ‘That would be a long time for any regime that was irredeemably bad,’ says Matthews. So perhaps British rule wasn’t quite as dismal as much modern scholarship would have us believe. To have survived so long it must have ‘brought sufficient benefit to enough people’.
By ‘people’, Matthews means both British and Indians. Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017) confined itself to lambasting the iniquities of British rule. Matthews challenges Tharoor by juxtaposing the injuries the British inflicted on India with the novelties India gave to the British. These last he lists, along with the dates when they were pioneered. There are about a dozen, including ‘acceptance of government obligations to the governed (1788–95)’, ‘a full time paid police force (1793)’, ‘education as a state obligation (1813–54)’, ‘codified criminal law (1861)’, ‘government protection of archaeological sites (1863)’, ‘state investment in roads and canals (1830s and after)’, and so on. It’s as if India’s role was to be a test-bed for policies that might in time be safely introduced at home.
This two-way traffic afforded India, as per Matthews’s title, ‘peace, poverty and betrayal’. The betrayal was principally of British pledges in respect of Indian participation in government, the most promising being an understanding reached in the 1830s and 1840s with the urbanised classes about the need for liberal reforms. This