September 06, 2005

Thank the Rulers

The Telegraph, 06.09.2005

The British raj indeed acted as a positive catalyst between modernity and Indian society. Although Ramachandra Guha is correct in saying this, he makes a few unwarranted generalizations.

First, it is incorrect that the number of famines went down during British rule. Famines have been recorded in oral and written Indian documents ever since the Rig Veda, and around two major famines per century was the standard for 700 years before the establishment of the raj. In contrast, the number of major famines, by some estimates, increased to 36 in the 190 years since Plassey. After the 1900 famine codes were imposed, the situation improved somewhat. Even then, the example of the 1943 Bengal famine has been mentioned by the author himself. Neither is it true that the princely rulers were more callous than the British — as early as 1681 and as late as 1896, native rulers were imposing price controls and introducing emergency government purchase of grains to prevent spiralling prices. During the raj, poorer sections of the population were entirely helpless, as hoarding resulted in spiralling prices, as markets were freed without developing adequate institutions.

Second, to say that India before British rule was not a nation, is to go by the Western definition of a nation-state. India was more than a nation — it was a civilization.

Third, yes, the English did give us modernity, but it was their modernity, not ours. Who can say that India would not have undergone an industrial revolution of its own had it not been invaded and mutilated? If we study India’s manufacturing output as a percentage of global output, its share declined from 25 per cent in the 1750s to around 8 per cent a century later, during the high noon of colonialism. Free markets, entrepreneurship, trade, lucrative industries for both export and domestic consumption, and resources — all the ingredients for an industrial revolution were there in India. Speculation this might be, but to imply that India would have been at sea without the injection of Western modernity needs to be taken with a dose of scepticism.

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