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William Dalrymple: India:
the Empire strikes back

 

 

From Raj to riches: as India celebrates 60 years of independence, acclaimed historian William Dalrymple salutes a country returning to its pre-colonial wealth

When I moved back to India with my family four years ago, I took a lease on a farmhouse five kilometres from the boom town of Gurgaon on the south-western edge of Delhi. From my road I could see in the distance the rings of new housing estates, full of call centres, software companies and fancy apartment blocks, all rapidly rising on land that only two years earlier was billowing winter wheat.

The first time I lived in Delhi, in the late 1980s, Gurgaon was a semi-rural Haryana market town, with a single large Maruti car plant to one side; it was home to no more than 100,000 people.

Now it had become a city of several million; some said three million, some said more - the speed of growth was so enormous that it was difficult to obtain accurate figures. Either way, Gurgaon was now home to a population almost equal to that of my native Scotland.

Here an increasingly wealthy middle class had suddenly taken root in an aspirational bubble of fast-rising shopping malls, espresso bars, restaurants and multiplexes. These new neighbourhoods, most of them still half-built and ringed with scaffolding, were invariably given such unrealistically enticing names as Beverly Hills, Windsor Court, West End Heights - an indication, perhaps, of where their owners would prefer to be and where, in time, they might eventually migrate.

Four years later, Gurgaon has galloped towards us at such a speed that it now abuts the edge of our farm and the proudly-touted "largest mall in Asia" is arising a quarter of a mile from my house.

What was farmland and a pool for water buffaloes when I moved in is now a mass of cranes, flanked by billboards advertising the latest laptops and iPods. There are still no accurate figures but the population has probably topped five million.

The speed of the development of Gurgaon is breathtaking to anyone used to the plodding growth rates of western Europe: the sort of construction that would take 25 years in Britain comes up here in five months, even if, at the end of it, the "luxury" flats will probably only have electricity for a couple of hours a day and the water supply will be intermittent at best.

The speed of change in Gurgaon reflects that of the growth of the Indian economy in general: economic futurologists all agree that China and India will at some stage in the 21st century come to dominate the global economy.

The various intelligence agencies estimate that China will overtake America between 2030 and 2040, while India will overtake the US by roughly 2050, as measured in dollar terms. Measured by purchasing-power parity, India is already on the verge of overtaking Japan to become the third largest economy in the world.

Incredibly, India now trains a million engineering graduates a year (against 100,000 each in America and Europe) and stands third in technical and scientific capacity - behind the US and Japan, but well ahead of China.

Today India's IT sector alone annually earns the vast sum of almost $25 billion, mostly in export earnings. With an average growth rate over the last decade of 6 per cent and current growth of 9 per cent, it is little wonder that average incomes are doubling every 15 years: the number of mobile-phone users has jumped from 3 million in 2000 to 100 million in 2005; the number of television channels from one in 1991 to more than 150 last year.

It is a similar picture on India's roads: in the early 1990s, as India was starting to relax import and investment restrictions on foreign manufacturers, there were only six or seven makes of car.

More than 90 per cent of them were Hindustan Ambassadors, the Indian- made version of the 1950s Morris Oxford - effectively clumpy vintage cars. Now the new six-lane highways are full of sleek and speedy Fiats, Fords, Mercedes-Benz and even the odd Porsche and Bentley.

So extraordinary is all this to us today, particularly to those who knew the sluggish India of 20 years ago, that it is easy to forget how little of it would have surprised our ancestors who sailed there with the East India Company. The idea of India as a poor country is relatively recent: historically, South Asia was always famous as the richest region of the globe, whose fertile soils gave two harvests a year, and whose mines groaned with minerals.

Ever since Alexander the Great first penetrated the Hindu Kush, Europeans fantasised about the wealth of these lands, where the Greek geographers said that gold was dug up by gigantic ants and guarded by griffins, and where precious jewels lay scattered on the ground like dust.

In Roman times, there was a dramatic drain of Western gold to India. This is something the Greek historian Strabo comments on with great anxiety in his writings - an image graphically confirmed by the recent finds of huge Roman coin hoards around Madurai in Tamil Nadu and a large Roman coastal trading post near Pondicherry.

At the peak of the trade, during the reign of Nero, the south Indian Pandyan Kings even sent an embassy to Rome to discuss the latter's balance of payments problems. Even today, the English "pepper" and "ginger" are loan words from Tamil - respectively, pippali and singabera, testaments to the spice trade that was once a staple of this lucrative Indian export traffic.

It was similar legends of India's extraordinary wealth that drew the merchant adventurers of the Company eastwards. They came not as part of some Tudor aid project, or on behalf of a charitable Elizabethan NGO, but as part of a desperate effort to cash in on the vast riches of the fabled Mughal Empire, then one of the two wealthiest polities in the world.

What the Poles are to modern Britain - economic migrants in search of better lives - the Jacobeans were to Mughal India.

At their heights, the Mughal Emperors were really rivalled only by their Ming counterparts in China. The Great Mughals ruled over most of India, all of Pakistan and Bangladesh and great chunks of Afghanistan.

Their armies were all but invincible, their palaces unparalleled and the domes of their many mosques glittered with gold. For their contemporaries in distant Europe, they were potent symbols of power and wealth. The word Mughal (or Mogul) is still loaded today with connotations of this, even when it is divorced from its original Indian context.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, for example, the great Mughal cities of Agra and Lahore are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God's creation. This was hardly an understatement: by the 17th century, Lahore had grown larger and richer even than Constantinople and, with its two million inhabitants, dwarfed both London and Paris.

"The city is second to none either in Asia or in Europe," said Portuguese Jesuit Father Antonio Monserrate, "with regards either to size, population, or wealth. It is crowded with merchants, who foregather there from all over Asia. There is no art or craft useful to human life which is not practised there. The citadel alone has a circumference of three miles."

It was, in terms of rapid growth, instant prosperity and unlimited opportunities, the Gurgaon of its day.

What changed all this was quite simply the advent of European colonialism. Following Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to the East in 1498, bypassing the Middle East and conquering the centres of spice production in South Asia, European colonial traders - first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British - slowly wrecked the old trading network and imposed with their cannons and caravels a western imperial system of command economics.

It was only at the very end of the 18th century that Europe, for the first time in history, had a favourable balance of trade with Asia. At the same time, the era of Indian economic decline had begun and was most precipitous in the region around the British headquarters in Calcutta.

As the 18th century historian Alexander Dow put it: "Bengal was one of the richest, most populous and best cultivated kingdoms in the world… We may date the commencement of decline from the day on which Bengal fell under the dominion of foreigners."

This was certainly the view of Edmund Burke, who impeached Warren Hastings, India's first Governor General, charging him with oppression, corruption, gross abuse of power and ruthlessly plundering India.

On February 13, 1788, huge crowds gathered outside Parliament to witness the members of the House of Lords troop into Westminster Hall to sit in judgement on Hastings.

Tickets for the few seats reserved for spectators were said to have changed hands for as much as £50. In the audience was Sarah Siddons, the great society actress (and courtesan), as well as Edward Gibbon, Joshua Reynolds, the novelist Fanny Burney, the Queen, two of her daughters and most of the ambassadors in London.

For all the theatre of the occasion - and, indeed, one of the prosecutors was the playwright Richard Sheridan - this was not just the greatest political spectacle in the age of George III. It was the nearest the British ever got to putting the Empire on trial and they did so with Edmund Burke, one of their greatest orators, at the helm, supported by the similarly eloquent Charles James Fox.

Hastings stood accused of nothing less than the rape of India - or as Burke put it in his opening speech: "Cruelties unheard of and devastations almost without name… crimes which have their rise in the wicked dispositions of men, in avarice, rapacity, pride, cruelty, malignity, haughtiness, insolence - in short everything that manifests a heart blackened to the very blackest; a heart dyed in blackness; a heart gangrened to the core… We have brought before you the head, the captain general of iniquity - one in whom all the fraud, all the tyranny of India are embodied."

When Burke began to describe the violation of Bengali virgins and their mothers by the rapacious tax collectors the British employed - "They were dragged out, naked and exposed to the public view, and scourged before all the people… they put the nipples of the women into the sharp edges of split bamboos and tore them from their bodies" - Mrs Sheridan "was so overpowered that she fainted and to be carried from the hall".

Hastings was in many ways the wrong target for Burke's Parliamentary offensive and, after a trial lasting nearly 10 years, he was eventually acquitted on all charges.

But it is worth recalling the damage that the Company undoubtedly did to the flourishing economy of India as the 60th anniversary of Indian Independence dawns amid unprecedented excitement at India's rapid rise towards its projected superpower status.

Today, academics, historians and economists are fiercely divided between those who believe European colonial rule brought great benefits to India and those who believe Britain put India into irreversible political and economic decline.

Given the complex and emotive issues involved, it is hardly surprising that there is little neutral territory in this politically super-charged debate: did Western mercantile-imperialism bring high capitalism and free trade to India, as supporters such as historian Niall Ferguson would have us believe; or did it irrevocably destroy millennia-old trading networks?

Did it bring democracy to a part of the world inured to despotism and tyranny; or did it remove political freedom of expression from lands with long traditions of debate and public expression of dissent, as argued by the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen?

Did the British Empire bring in constitutional guarantees of the freedom of the individual; or promote slavery, exploitation, indentured labour and forced migration? Did the British bring just governance and irrigate the deserts, or did they plunder natural resources, drive a number of species to extinction and preside over a succession of famines that left many million dead while surplus grain was being shipped to Britain?

Most important of all, did the British promote religious tolerance, or did they instead sow the seeds of religious conflict with cynical policies of sectarian divide and rule - thus laying the scene for the politico-religious divisions we see around us and what Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntingdon would have us believe are today's civilisational clashes?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. Looking back at the role the Europeans have played in South Asia until their departure in August 1947, there is certainly much that the West can unambiguously be said to have contributed to Indian life: the Portuguese, for example, brought that central staple of Indian life, the chilli pepper; while the British brought that other essential staple, tea, as well as the far more important innovations of democracy and the rule of law, along with the railways, all of which have helped India rise again to greatness.

In the light of so much post-colonial disapproval, it is also worth remembering the impeccable reputation Victorian rule in India (if not that of the Company) once enjoyed, even from Britain's fiercest critics.

Bismarck thought Britain's work in India would be "one of its lasting monuments". Theodore Roosevelt agreed that Britain had done "such marvellous things in India" that they might "transform the Indian population… in government and culture, and thus leave [their] impress as Rome did hers on Europe".

The French traveller Abbé Dubois extolled the "uprightness of character, education and ability" of British officials in India, while the Austrian Baron Hübner ascribed the "miracles" of British rule to its administrators' "devotion, intelligence, courage, and skill combined with an integrity proof against all temptation".

It is also true that factors such as cricket and the English language have been crucial to India's modern success, cultural indicators that in their different ways set Indian eyes looking westwards to the rising power of Britain, and later the US, and away from the declining Islamo-Persianate culture of Central Asia and the Middle East, a world that would go into ever greater cultural and economic decline as the 19th century gave way to the 20th.

In the days that followed the fall of the Mughals after the great Indian Mutiny of 1857, this turning away from the old cultural moorings and the reorientation of India towards the West caused heartbreak to the old Urdu- and Persian-speaking elites.

As the poet and critic Azad wrote: "The glory of the winners' ascendant fortune gives everything of theirs - even their dress, their gait, their conversation - a radiance that makes them desirable. And people do not merely adopt them, but they are proud to adopt them."

Yet it was the depth of that reorientation and adoption, and the ease which Indians can now cross the globe and work in either Britain or the US, that today has given the country's anglicised elite such easy access to the jobs and opportunities of the Western economy.

Nevertheless, for all this we British should keep our nostalgia and self-congratulation over the Raj within strict limits. For all the irrigation projects, the great engineering achievements and the famous imperviousness to bribes of the officers of the Indian Civil Service, the Raj nevertheless presided over the destruction of Indian political, cultural and artistic self-confidence, while the economic figures speak for themselves.

In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8 per cent of the world's GDP, while India was producing 22.5 per cent. By 1870, at the peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1 per cent, while India had been reduced for the first time to the epitome of a Third World nation, a symbol across the globe of famine, poverty and deprivation.

Today in India, the dramatic increase in wealth that we see on all sides is less some sort of economic miracle - the strange rise of a once impoverished wasteland, as it is usually depicted in the Western press - so much as things slowly returning to the traditional pattern of global trade in the pre-colonial world. Last year, the richest man in the UK was for the first time an ethnic Indian, Lakshmi Mittal, and our largest steel manufacturer, Corus, has been bought by an Indian company, Tata.

Extraordinary as it is, seen from the wider perspective the rise of India and China is merely nothing more than a return to the ancient equilibrium of world trade. Today, we Europeans are no longer the gun-toting, gunboat-riding colonial masters we once were, but instead are reverting to our more traditional role: that of eager consumers of the much celebrated luxuries and services of the East.

William Dalrymple's new book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, published by Bloomsbury, has just been awarded the Duff Cooper Prize for History. Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.

Editor's Note: This commentary was originally published by The Telegraph, on 03 Aug 2007, republished on Tuesday 24 June 2014. Petroleumworld reprint this article in the interest of our readers.

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