5

‘UN-BRITISH RULE’ IN ‘ANGLO-INDIA’

British rule in India had always been an awkward compromise between principle and practice. The early Victorians had declared that the purpose of the Company Raj was the political education of Indians and their preparation for eventual self-government. Fifty years on, progress towards this goal was barely perceptible. At the end of Company rule in 1858, the Queen's Proclamation had reassured Indians that race discrimination would play no part in the new colonial regime. But this was hard to square with the status of even educated Indians in the politics and social life of the late-Victorian Raj. The third contradiction was even more telling. The British had founded their rule on the promise of social and economic improvement: what the annual reports of the Indian government were to call ‘moral and material progress’. Yet, even at the end of the century, India remained prey to devastating famines, terrifying epidemics and contagious diseases whose sphere was widening not contracting. Literacy (even in local languages) remained (at around 10 per cent) embarrassingly low. But, while social progress seemed stalled, the Indian government spent more and more on the army, and especially on that part of it ‘borrowed’ from Britain. It was hardly surprising, then, that the terms of India's association with the British world-system became more controversial after 1880. But it was India's growing importance to the imperial system, as much as the grievances of its social elites, that shaped its late-Victorian and Edwardian politics.

Map 7 The Indian Empire

Imperial India?

In the later nineteenth century, the value of India as the second centre of British world power became more than ever an axiom of British thinking. This was partly because, in the aftermath of the Mutiny of 1857, Company rule was replaced by the direct control of the London government, a transition glamorised a few years later by the proclamation of Victoria as ‘Queen Empress of India’ or Kaisar-i-Hind. But mainly it reflected the rising contribution that India made to the world-system whose consolidation in the age of world politics after 1880 we have been tracing. Without India as one of its four grand components, the British world-system would have been without some of the most vital sources of its security, stability and cohesion. And part of the motive and much of the means for the acquisition of so many lesser dependencies in Afro-Asia would have been lacking.

India's contribution to British world power was not left to chance or self-interest. It was deliberately shaped by British rule. After 1870, the Indian economy was developed rapidly as a major producer of export commodities: wheat, raw cotton, jute and tea, among others.1 It also became an ever more important market for British exports, especially cotton textiles and iron and steel. At a time when many other markets were being sealed off by tariffs, India was wedged open by imperial fiat.2 The British officials who ran the Indian government could levy import duties; but they could not protect Indian producers of textiles against outside competition because London insisted that any tariff be matched by a local excise. In this way, India, which bought some 25 per cent of Lancashire's export production, took the largest share of Britain's largest export up to 1914. Simultaneously, the growth of its own exports, mainly destined for European or American consumers, earned the foreign exchange that, when remitted to Britain, helped square Britain's own balance of payments. For, while Britain was usually in deficit to Europe and the United States, India was always in deficit to Britain. This was partly a matter of borrowed capital, much of it by government to build railways, and much of it at London's urging – since longer lines meant wider markets.3 But it also grew from the ‘Home Charges’ that London imposed on India to pay for the British troops that were stationed there, as well as the pensions of British officials and the cost of the India Office, the Whitehall department from which Indian affairs were supervised.

In the later nineteenth century, then, India's economic value to Britain – and to Britain's ability to service its world-system – was great and growing. The expansion of the Indian economy widened British markets, increased the demand for British capital and helped India bear more easily the cost of its second great imperial contribution – to imperial defence. Even before 1857, the Company had maintained a sizeable army in India to uphold its power and expand its territories. It had ‘borrowed’ British troops at a charge from the home government. After the Mutiny, the Indian troops were cut down in number to between 120,000 and 140,000. But, at the same time, the all-British contingent was enlarged so as to be roughly half the size of the Indian. As we have seen, providing 60–70,000 British soldiers for Indian service (with inevitable ‘wastage’ for disease) was a major strain on the British military system and enforced considerable adaptation. But there was also a benefit. By the late nineteenth century, when the Empire's standing armies totalled some 325,000 men, two-thirds of this number was paid for by the Indian taxpayer. For the rule was that every British soldier, once embarked for India, had to be paid, pensioned, equipped and fed by the government of India, not of Britain. And there was an irresistible tendency, as time went on, for more and more British soldiers to be kept in India at Indian expense. How valuable this was politically can be grasped by asking how readily the British parliament would have agreed, at a time of rapidly rising naval costs, to maintain an army nearly three times as large as that for which the Treasury had actually to pay. How valuable it was strategically can be illustrated by the frequency with which troops were despatched from India after 1860 on operations that had little or nothing to do with India's own defence – to China (1860, 1900–1), Ethiopia (1867–8), Malaya (1875), Malta (1878), Egypt (1882), Sudan (1885–6, 1896), Burma (1885), East Africa (1896, 1897, 1898), Somaliland (1890, 1903–4), South Africa (1899, but white troops only) and Tibet (1903).4

India's commercial and military contributions were both functions of British rule which facilitated, or enforced, a distinctive pattern of economic development and financial spending. India made a third contribution that was less directly the result of colonial control. Across the whole face of the ‘British world’, Indian manpower and commercial expertise helped open new regions to British influence and make colonial government financially viable. Indian labour made plantation agriculture possible in Malaya, Southeast Africa and the Pacific. It built the railway to Uganda. Indian peasants streamed into British Burma and made it the rice bowl of Southeast Asia.5 Indian retailers and merchants, with lower overheads than their European counterparts, built a commercial infrastructure in places too exacting for the ‘nation of shopkeepers’.6 Indian policemen, clerks and orderlies served as far away as China.7 In much of the tropical world east of Suez, ‘British’ expansion was really an Anglo-Indian enterprise: here was a field almost as much of Indian as of British colonisation. It was Winston Churchill as a junior minister who picturesquely evoked East Africa as ‘the America of the Hindu’.8

Between 1880 and 1914, these commercial, military and demographic connections (and others) sharpened the dominant tendency in late-Victorian and Edwardian India: its ever-closer integration into the British world-system. ‘Advancing civilisation’, remarked the Indian Currency Committee in 1893, ‘brings with it constantly increasing demands for Government action and enterprise.’9 Irrigation schemes and, above all, railways, were a heavy call on Indian revenues. Financing them drove the government of India ever more frequently to the capital market in London. As a result, the proportion of its public debt that was held there rose from a mere 7 per cent in 1858 to 60 per cent by 1914.10 Servicing this debt became an ever-increasing burden, especially when silver, the basis of India's currency, depreciated sharply against gold in the later nineteenth century. As a guarantee against default on the ‘Home Charges’, the government of India was forced after 1898 to maintain a gold fund in London, managed by the India Office, whose operation regulated the supply of money in India – and thus the general level of economic activity there.11This was integration with a vengeance. The ‘silver problem’ exacerbated the growing burden of Indian military spending, especially that part of it needed to ‘rent’ the British garrison from London. Between 1884 and 1897, India's military expenditure increased by 45 per cent – a colossal figure.12 Much of this was due to the fall in silver's value. But it also reflected increases in both Indian manpower (up by 20,000) and the size of the British contingent (up by 10,000).

Behind this martial expansion lay the diplomatic and geostrategic imperatives that seemed to be drawing India ever more closely into London's embrace. The new geopolitics of the later nineteenth century envisaged a handful of ‘world states’ whose global pre-eminence would be based on their coordination of territories, resources and populations. At the same time, Asia (especially East Asia and the Pacific) was becoming the focus of European (and American) economic and diplomatic rivalry. ‘I am one of those’, Lord Curzon told an enthusiastic audience on the eve of his departure as Indian Viceroy in 1898,

who think that the Eastward trend of Empire will increase and not diminish…[T]he strain upon us will become greater not less. Parliament will learn to know East Asia as well as it now knows Europe [and] Asiatic sympathies and knowledge will be…the interest of the whole nation (Cheers).13

Both these developments pointed to a steady rise in the imperial importance of India, the springboard and citadel of British influence in Asia – the ‘pivot and centre’, in Curzon's phrase, ‘of the British Empire’.14 But they also made India more vulnerable. In the 1870s, the British had been alarmed by the threatened disintegration of the Ottoman Empire exposing their sea communications with India to Russian and French interference. In the 1880s, the advance of Russia into Central Asia had produced a crisis (over Penjdeh in 1885). In the 1890s, the impact of Russia's colonial presence there began to sink in: the threat of a Tsarist encirclement of Persia east and west of the Caspian Sea; and a forward move towards the Persian Gulf and India's maritime frontier. As the risk of Anglo-Russian confrontation over China grew greater, so did the danger of a Russian jab towards India. When ‘[Russia's] Siberian railway is ready’, argued Lord Salisbury in 1900,

she will want to be mistress of the greater part of China: and if Afghanistan is unprotected she can force us to give way in China by advancing upon India. She won't try to conquer it. It will be enough for her if she can shatter our Government and reduce India to anarchy.15

The meaning for Anglo-Indian relations was clear. India must play a larger but also more obedient part in imperial strategy. It must take up the burden of forward defence in Persia and the Himalayas – but not in ways that risked a great power conflagration.16 It must reorganise its ramshackle armies, concentrate them in the Northwest and recruit from the Sikhs, Punjabis, Pathans, Baluchis and Gurkhas who were suited to the northern climate.17 It must acknowledge its function as the strategic reserve of the British Empire in the East.18 It must contribute to the costs of the Royal Navy.19 Its diplomatic agents in the Middle Eastern borderlands must faithfully echo the shifts and twists of London's European diplomacy – especially the intermittent search for an accommodation with Russia pursued by Salisbury and Lansdowne. And it must guard against the political disruption of its military system. ‘I dread the day’, the Secretary of State warned Viceroy Elgin, ‘when the northern or fighting races from who we draw recruits take to reading the vernacular press.’20

This steady tightening of the economic and strategic bond between Britain and India was symptomatic of a deeper force for integration whose effects were not so easily managed. Like other parts of the extra-European world, India became more and more accessible to European influences as the frequency, speed, volume and cost of communications with the West were transformed by the telegraph, railways, steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal.21 Information from, or about, India became available in Britain in greater quantity, and from a much wider variety of unofficial sources, especially the English-language newspapers owned by private British interests in the sub-continent. Political, scientific and literary ideas from Europe circulated more rapidly and much more cheaply in India, reaching – and disturbing – wider audiences. Christian notions of religious community and personal ethics posed a sharper challenge. European styles – in speech, humour, dress, deportment, leisure and family life – became more widely known and imitated. But the results of all this were not simply to make India more culturally attuned to Britain. Far from it. Instead, three contradictory tendencies were at work. First, the larger flow of news and information back to Britain, much of it originating in the Anglo-Indian press, helped entrench in ‘Home’ opinion a negative view of Indian political aspirations and a condescending attitude towards the ‘exotic chaos’ of Indian society. This was the outlook of the British settler community writ large. Secondly, it heightened the sense of destiny among Western-educated (or ‘anglo-literate’) Indians about their role as the intermediaries between India and Europe, as the standard-bearers of modernity and as the natural legatees of British rule whenever it might end. For who could doubt that India must adapt, and be adapted to, a West-centred world? Thirdly (however), the flood of European attitudes, ideas, images, habits and prejudices pouring into India evoked an anxious, angry, defensive response from those who feared that the social and moral foundations of Indian society – Muslim or Hindu – would be washed away in the process.22 For a wide section of the traditional educated class (including some who had acquired an ‘English’ education) the close encounter with imperial Britain was the signal for a campaign of cultural rearmament. Religion must be renovated; social discipline reinforced; moral order reasserted; language reformed; literature reinvented; history rewritten; the nation (or nations) remade. It was in this uneasy atmosphere that the terms of India's connection with the emerging British world-system became the object of a subdued (by later standards) but fierce political struggle between 1880 and 1914.

The Civilian Raj

At bottom, this was a question of how far the ‘Civilian Raj’ would be diluted by the admission of Indians into its executive and legislative branches. The ‘Civilians’ were members of the Indian Civil Service, recruited by an examination held in Britain and almost exclusively British in origin. They formed an administrative cadre that numbered around 1,000 who had signed the ‘covenant’ of faithful service, and for whom the 700 or so most senior posts in the central and provincial governments were reserved, including the key position of district officer in the 250 districts of British India.23 The Civilians were a bureaucracy whose medium was the official minute, memorandum, report and inquiry. But they bore only a superficial resemblance to civil servants at home. In practice, they formed a ruling oligarchy whose authority was limited only (and in theory) by the oversight of the India Office in London; and by the presence in India of a Viceroy, two governors (in Bombay and Madras) and one or two members of the Viceroy's executive council, all habitually appointed from outside the ranks of the Service and (supposedly) immune to its prejudices. In pay, status, prospects and pension, the Civilians (whose name in print was invariably followed by the honorific letters ‘ICS’) stood at the summit of the European official hierarchy: above the army, medical service, police, forestry service and education: and far above the lowly Railway and Public Works departments.

In the thirty years that followed the end of Company rule in 1858, the Civilians had consolidated their power. Their internal solidarity had been reinforced, not least by the virtual exclusion of qualified Indians. Their authority was enhanced by the new emphasis on administrative and financial stability rather than the forcible annexation of princely states – a practice that had given Company rule its aggressive, militaristic character. Through the census, the Imperial Gazetteer of India completed in 1881, the great Statistical Survey with its 114 volumes and 54,000 pages, the ethnographic studies of ‘tribes and castes’, and the district ‘histories’ compiled by energetic officials, the Civilian Raj extended and codified its administrative knowledge and imposed its categories on an untidy social reality.24 More fundamental, perhaps, was the virtual demolition of supra-local political ties between Indians, partly achieved by Company expansion before 1857, and completed after the Mutiny with the final abolition of the Mughal throne (the surviving princely states were closely supervised and political contact between them forbidden). For thirty years thereafter, British India resembled the Agraria imagined by Ernest Gellner:25 a congeries of districts without horizontal connections (for the provinces were merely administrative confections without economic or cultural rationale). Their only links were vertical: through an alien bureaucratic hierarchy with whose high culture, language and ethnic origins they had nothing in common – but whose authority they could not hope to challenge. It was this localisation and differentiation of Indian politics that was faithfully recorded in the Civilians’ gazetteers, surveys and censuses: indeed, they were the warrant and charter of the Civilian Raj.

Entrenched in India, the Civilians were protected in the rear by political sympathy in Britain. Unofficial information from India upheld the necessity of authoritarian rule, at times with hysterical urgency. The mild extension of judicial powers proposed for Indian (i.e. non-British) officials under the Ilbert Bill in 1883 produced an explosion of settler rage that soon found an echo in the British press. British commercial interests in India, with their City connections, had little love for the Civilian Raj but even less for any alternative. The new regime established in London to supervise the Indian government after 1857 saddled the Secretary of State for India with a ‘Council of India’, largely composed of retired Civilians. It formed the centre of an extended network of ‘Old India Hands’ whose mandarin scholarship and constant intervention in the correspondence columns largely informed ‘public opinion’ on late-Victorian India.26 Then, at a crucial moment in the 1880s, the intellectual basis of Gladstonian Liberalism was challenged by a powerful phalanx of Liberal thinkers, including several, like Henry Maine and Fitzjames Stephen, with Indian experience. Their part in the Liberal split over Irish Home Rule in 1886 eventually helped to turn the authoritarian bureaucracy of British India from an embarrassing exception to Liberal practice into an authentic (though not uncontested) expression of the Liberal ideal.27

These benign conditions strengthened the Civilians’ claim to be the ideal ‘collaborators’ of British imperialism in India. Of course, no contemporary would have used such a term. What makes it appropriate in historical analysis is that the Civilians did not see themselves as, nor were they in reality, mere agents of the British state. They were ‘Anglo-Indians’28 – the political hinge between Britain and the indigenous communities of the sub-continent. ‘Anglo-India’ had its own interests, its own ethos, its own patriotism, its own shrines (at Lucknow and Cawnpore) and martyrs, its own ideology, its own state. Its self-image was energetically disseminated by the late-Victorian Civilians who piled up an astonishing literature of antiquarian history, sociological enquiry, ethnographic description, political commentary and biographical memoir, as well as the vast collective labour of the district gazetteers – a literary self-creation as remarkable as that of any conquest state in history. In a standard text on Indian administration, Sir George Chesney's Indian Polity,29 Anglo-India's claim to political autonomy was stridently asserted. ‘The Indian administration’, said Chesney, ‘must not be placed at the mercy of the erratic dictates of a chance majority in the House of Commons.’30 India ‘should not…be subjected to treatment which the…Commons would not venture to adopt towards the smallest self-governing colony’31 – a claim that anticipated the later demand of the Indian National Congress for self-government on the model of the ‘white dominions’. From retired Civilians poured a stream of reminiscence proclaiming India's incapacity for self-rule and the Civilians’ role as the platonic guardians of the peasant mass. In 1899 came the first volume of Sir William Wilson Hunter's History of British India. Hunter was, with Sir Alfred Lyall, one of the great scholar-mandarins of the late-Victorian Raj. He had master-minded the Imperial Gazetteer. He became Curator of the Indian Institute in Oxford, founded to prepare trainee Civilians for life in India. He wrote for The Times. In planning his history on a monumental scale, Hunter confronted head-on the issue of India's place in the imperial story. The aim, he told his agent, was to show that the growth of British India ‘stands out as an epic of the British nation – the fibre of its fibre, the express image of its innermost character…[I]t will make the world understand the British race – adventurous, masterful, patient in defeat and persistent in…its designs.’32 These qualities had made England ‘the residuary legatee of the inheritance painfully amassed by Europe in Asia’.33

It was, perhaps, no accident that, as the Civilians came under challenge in India, the value of their rule to Britain's imperial system, and its legitimacy as an authentic expression of the British genius, were reiterated more and more vehemently by the officials themselves and by their political allies at home – and by no one more eloquently than Lord Curzon whose The Place of India in the Empire (1909) was a sustained plea to acknowledge that Britain without India would be a third-class power. In retrospect, we can see that this whole vast literary enterprise was part of the secret of Anglo-India's tenacious grip on the British imagination, unmatched by any other dependency. Of course, it had also its unofficial laureate of genius in Kipling. And ironically its tropes, values and categories exerted a persistent fascination for Indians themselves. Yet, ultimately, its political survival depended upon brokering the rival demands of the British at home and its indigenous subjects. The Civilian Raj had to persuade British opinion that it was indispensable and Indian opinion that it was irremovable. But, as India's imperial value rose and the stresses of its commercial, strategic and cultural entanglement with Britain were felt more deeply in the sub-continent, the position of this foreign ruling elite was bound to grow more vulnerable to criticism and more open to attack.

For the moment, however, ‘Anglo-India’ seemed an essential partner in the late Victorians’ imperial enterprise. Indian unity was becoming more urgent, for commercial and strategic reasons. The Civilian Raj looked its best guarantee. Tariff-free access was becoming more vital. The Civilians would, grudgingly, maintain it. Indian revenues must be driven up to match the rising cost of imperial defence and expenditure in the localities held down. What other regime would match the fiscal parsimony of the Civilians’ localised despotism? For their part, the Civilians resented the escalating demands imposed by London on their brittle system. They contested the issue of tariffs and the burden of military costs – but only so far.34 The concession they won in return was to be free to fashion a political system that paid scant regard to the shibboleths of Liberal Britain. They repudiated representative government (except in a grossly bowdlerised form), the market economy (through restraints on the sale of land) and liberal individualism (in favour of caste, religious or tribal identity). To some disgruntled observers, the Civilians’ aim was to make parliamentary control from Britain a nullity and rule without restraint. And, to some, they had already achieved this goal. For William Wedderburn, himself a former Civilian, but now a supporter of Congress and an MP, the Secretary of State, far from being the master of the official hierarchy in India, was only its ‘mouthpiece and champion…the apologist of all official acts’.35

The political struggle in India between the 1880s and the outbreak of the First World War thus had implications that went far beyond conceding greater representation to the gentlemanly nationalists of the Indian National Congress. It was really a struggle between rival groups for the support of imperial Britain in ruling India. It was a struggle between the Civilians’ ‘Anglo-India’ and the ‘British Indians’ of the Congress who were determined to supplant it. For the Civilians it was vital to maintain their status as the indispensable collaborators, and to preserve the wide freedoms this had brought them. To dissuade their London ‘partners’ from any backsliding, they must meet Britain's requirements in India and pay the ‘imperial dividend’. They must polish the image of Indian contentment and repress disorder. Above all, they must discredit any rival claiming a real share in governing the sub-continent. They had, in short, to find a means of adapting India to its changing place in the imperial system without pulling up the roots of their Civilian Raj.

Indian politics

Before 1880, the main threat to the Civilian Raj seemed to lie in the princely states and their aristocratic sympathisers in British India: great landowners like the taluqdars of Oudh (modern Awadh). They alone had the means to challenge British rule. It was against this danger that the army was partly deployed. It was to strengthen the Raj's hold on princely allegiance that the British Queen became ‘Empress of India’ in 1876.36 It was to conciliate this ‘traditional elite’ that the Raj adopted a neo-feudal public style and ‘Indianised’ some of its outer trappings – like army uniforms. But, by the 1880s, a more insidious challenge was beginning to threaten the Civilians’ power.

From its very outset, British rule had relied heavily upon Indian manpower, military and civil. To fill up the lower ranks of its bureaucracy government had gratefully recruited Indians equipped with a Western education. It smiled upon the English-style schools and colleges that sprang up by local initiative in Calcutta and Bombay. It was convenient to appoint a handful of Indian notables with an ‘English’ education to the central and provincial legislative councils where the executive was temporarily transformed into a law-making body. In this way, an Indian element was assimilated into the highest level of the autocracy without threatening the local arrangements at district level where the revenue was derived and patronage distributed. After 1880, however, the gravitational pull drawing India into the world economy and the British world-system steadily undermined this post-Mutiny settlement.

It did so in two ways. The more obvious was through a double revolution of rising costs and expectations. A combination of the falling value of silver and the upward trend of defence expenditure, exerted, as we have seen, a continuous strain on the Indian budget after 1880. At the same time, government also came under pressure to play a more active role in developing the economy and providing for social improvements. In Bengal, for example, in the forty years after the Mutiny, the provincial administration acquired sixteen new departments, among them those for forests, mines, factories, vaccination and municipalities. To meet these new needs, government had to borrow more and tax more. But its room for manoeuvre was limited. Land revenue (calculated on the productivity of the soil) formed the bulk of its income. It was notoriously difficult to increase. An income tax was risky.37 One hopeful solution lay in raising more revenue at the local level for local improvements. Even here, if British rule was not to seem moreoppressive, it was desirable that new levies should be made as far as possible on Indian initiative and with Indian support. That pointed towards wider participation by Indians on district boards and municipalities. On the other hand, if the principle of elective authority was conceded there, and Indians organised themselves to compete for it, how long would it be before they pressed for the extension of that principle to the provincial or even ‘All-India’ level?

This was only one side of the late-Victorian coin. India's deepening association with Britain was, as we have seen, cultural and intellectual as well as material. By the 1880s, it had thrown up a local class literate in English, familiar with British ideas and deeply loyal to the new educational and social institutions that had shaped its outlook and opportunities. Though small by Indian standards, this anglo-literate community (700,000 adult males could read and write English by 1901)38 dwarfed the non-military British population in India (c.100,000). It filled the highest bureaucratic ranks to which Indians could be promoted. It quickly overran the senior profession open to talent – the law – and expanded sideways into education and journalism. Because it depended not on local patronage or district-level politics, but on the expansion of government, education and trade at the provincial level and above, it was quick to form associations that spanned the provinces. For the tiny group of Indians resident in London, it was natural to think on an All-Indian scale. The East India Association, founded in 1866, was the first approximation to a national body for Western-educated Indians – though it was dominated by Bombay merchants and largely ignored in Calcutta and Madras.39 Behind all this clubbing together lay a bid for influence over government and a claim for recognition. The climax of this gradual mobilisation was the founding of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in 1885.

Historians have been disdainful of this ‘early’ Indian nationalism and condescending towards its achievements. The outward deference of its leaders to their British masters is easily ridiculed. Their ambitions seemed modest compared with later demands for ‘purna swaraj’ (complete independence) or ‘swaraj in one year’. They were mocked by their British critics as a ‘microscopic minority’ greedy for jobs and influence. It was true of course that the Congress nationalists seemed obsessed with equal access for anglo-literate Indians to the Indian Civil Service, and with getting seats on the legislative councils, where, it was alleged, they would promote the dominance of urban commerce over the rural cultivator. It was true, no doubt, that self-interest helped hold the Congress together. But the timidity of its demands has been exaggerated, and the shrewdness of its ‘moderation’ misunderstood. The Civilians would have had little to fear from a disparate collection of job-hunters and ‘wire-pullers’. What they did learn to fear about the early Congress was the dual onslaught it launched on the ideological basis of the Civilian Raj and on the Civilians’ claim to serve the best interests of Imperial Britain. As the tougher and more percipient of the Civilians acknowledged, ‘early’ Indian nationalism presented a deeper and subtler challenge to Anglo-India than the huffing and puffing of an alienated intelligentsia. It pointedly reaffirmed its imperial loyalty to disarm the Civilian tactic of dismissing all opposition as subversive. It insisted that the apparatus and institutions of British India were the foundation of any future Indian state. But it claimed that the Civilian Raj was a dangerous perversion of the imperial purpose in India and a betrayal of the Queen's Proclamation of 1858 with its promise of no discrimination. The ‘un-Britishness’ of Civilian rule was an affront to Victorian liberalism, a dangerous experiment in authoritarianism and a bar to India's becoming a commercially progressive and politically contented member state of the Empire.

This was a seductive appeal to British opinion at home, though one that was fiercely contested by the official and unofficial propaganda of Anglo-India. But the more insidious threat that the early nationalists posed derived from their local roots in Indian society. For they were not an isolated anglophone elite vying for colonial preferment but part of a larger movement of educated opinion. There was a close if ambivalent relationship between those who insisted that membership of the legislative councils and the Civil Service was all-important, and those who drew on Western ideas for a broader project of cultural or national renewal. This wider ‘cultural’ nationalism, diffused through educational institutions and charged with religious and historical symbolism, was the vital link between the hyper-elitist preoccupations of the Congress leadership and the far wider constituency of Indians literate in the vernacular languages (like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil or Hindustani) rather than English. But, as we shall see, right up to 1914 this connection was often fraught and unmanageable, an embarrassment to Congress leaders as well as a source of strength.

Bengal had been the bridgehead of British power in India and the pivot of their expansion across the sub-continent. Not surprisingly, it was also there that the British impact was felt most deeply. The Bengal Presidency (as the province was called) was a huge multi-ethnic territory stretching over three modern Indian states as well as Bangladesh. Illiterate cultivators formed the bulk of its population. Many of them were Muslims. Many were Oriya or Assamese, not Bengali. Many in wooded or hilly tracts were ‘tribals’ who did not follow the rituals and conventions of Hindu caste society. Political consciousness in this vast conglomerate was concentrated in the literate elite or bhadralok (the ‘respectable people’). The Hindu bhadralok was neither princely nor aristocratic. It had little in common with the pre-conquest ruling class. In many ways it was the stepchild of colonial rule, a social group that had sprung up to service the colonial state and exploit its opportunities. Its badge of membership was higher education. It had made Bengal society, in the sardonic words of an official report, ‘a despotism of caste tempered by matriculation’.40

The bhadralok were concentrated in Calcutta, the imperial capital of British India and its commercial metropolis, where some 60 per cent of British investment in India was managed. Calcutta dominated Bengal, commercially, administratively, educationally. There the bhadralok could supplement the rentals of absentee landownership by a career in the literate professions: administration, law, journalism and education. The city was a forcing-house for the bhadralok's belief in itself as a vanguard class, the makers of a new Bengal liberated (in the past) from Muslim rule and (in the future) from Civilian power. Their ethnic consciousness was sharpened by the presence of the Calcutta Europeans, the large non-official community dominating the city's commercial life and virulently hostile to ‘babu’ ambitions through its newspapers (like the Englishman), clubs and associations. Bhadralok solidarity was rooted in its schools, colleges, newspapers and societies, and voiced by the cadre of new professionals that had formed in a maturing provincial society. By the 1870s, a vigorous literary and religious movement was imparting a keener sense of cultural identity and social purpose. Bhudev Mukerji, Bankim Chandra Chatterji (the first modern Bengali novelist) and Swami Vivekananda showed how foreign ideas could be scrutinised, annexed or rejected in the creation of an up-to-date literary and religious tradition.41

The most influential figure in Bengali politics between the 1880s and 1914 was Surendranath Banerjea. Banerjea became the hero of bhadralok nationalism and the scourge of the Civilian Raj. Famously, he had overcome the barriers of prejudice and secured appointment in the Indian Civil Service only to be dismissed a few years later on what was widely seen as a trumped-up charge. Instead, Banerjea became an educator – with a devoted student following – and a journalist whose paper, the Bengalee, was the organ of bhadralok aspirations. Banerjea's programme perfectly expressed the ambivalence of bhadralok nationalism towards British rule. Like many educated Bengalis, Banerjea was deeply dissatisfied with what he regarded as the tainted legacy of the Indian past. In a speech on ‘England and India’ in 1877, he denounced the effects of caste, the practice of child-marriage, the customary ban on the remarriage of widows, and the zenana system (the seclusion of married women).42 England's mission in India, he declared, was to help eradicate the evils of Indian society, to help ‘in the formation of a manly, energetic, self-reliant Indian character’, and to introduce the ‘arts of self-government’. This was a liberal programme, to be enacted with British encouragement by Indian protégés – the Western-educated class (the exact audience to which Banerjea was speaking). It was meant to ‘regenerate and civilise’ (Banerjea's phrase) India as a liberal society. Self-government, he insisted, would not mean separation. When Britain, ‘the august mother of free nations’, conferred self-government, it would clear the way for the ‘perpetual union of the two countries’.43 Abolishing race distinctions and ‘conferring on us…the franchise of the British subject [would] pave the way for the final and complete assimilation of India into the Empire of Britain’.44

The precondition of this happy outcome was, of course, recognition by the British of the claims of the bhadralok elite. This was Banerjea's cause. In the 1870s, his ‘Indian Association’ pushed aside the landlord-dominated ‘British Indian Association’ to become the largest political movement in Bengal. When the Calcutta city government became elective in the 1870s, the Indian Association quickly moved in. By the late 1880s, it had over 100 branches in the Bengal Presidency and beyond. Bhadralok resentment of European racial arrogance, painfully visible in the furious outcry against the proposal in 1883 to allow Indian magistrates to try European defendants, helped fuel the movement. So did the growing anxiety that educated Bengalis would be frozen out of bureaucratic employment elsewhere in North India as the British began to favour local regional elites instead. The dominance of European firms in Bengal's main industries – tea, jute, coal and cotton – and export trades was bound to make public employment and its political control the focus of bhadralok concern.

This was where Banerjea's nationalism came full circle. Bhadralok loyalty and the achievement of a liberal India bound to Britain in ‘perpetual union’ could only be guaranteed if the Civilian Raj was broken and its administrative citadel surrendered to a new local garrison. ‘All India is of one mind on this great question’, Banerjea had declared in 1878.45 But how was he to overcome the entrenched resistance of the senior Civilians and the bitter hostility of the Calcutta Europeans and their vociferous press? Neither he nor his bhadralok followers had any taste for mobilising the masses – so much of them ethnically, culturally or religiously alien. If mass politics did come to the vast, unwieldy Bengal Presidency, how long would a Calcutta-based, anglo-literate and privileged Hindu ‘vanguard’ stay in control? To fight the Civilian Raj, it seemed better to spread wide rather than dig deep. It was hardly surprising, then, that, when the chance came to join forces with like-minded Bombay politicians in an All-India national ‘congress’, Banerjea and the Indian Association quickly signed up.

Dadabhai Naoroji, the pioneer of an All-India political movement, was a merchant from Bombay and a member of the small Parsi community that stood apart from the Hindu majority. The Parsis were a cosmopolitan business elite, conscious of their wealth and culture and determined to share in the government of Bombay City and the Presidency. The rapid growth of the city as its railway system reached deeper into the hinterland, the expanding trade in raw cotton and the new textile industry, helped create a confident business class largely free from the commercial dominance of European firms so evident in Bengal. Shrewdly, the Parsi elite founded its claim upon its Indianness, but was equally careful to insist that its object was partnership in what Naoroji had called the ‘Imperial firm’. British supremacy, declared Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, the Parsi godfather of Bombay city politics as also of the early Congress, was ‘the indispensable condition of Indian progress’.46 Like the bhadralok politicians of Bengal, Mehta and his friends had little time for populism. But he was just as determined to overthrow the Civilian Raj. ‘The English official’, pronounced Mehta caustically, ‘moves among the natives, isolated even when not unsympathetic, ignorant even when inquisitive, a stranger and a foreigner to the end of the chapter.’47

The advantage that Mehta and the Bombay group enjoyed over Banerjea was their alliance with an inland elite whose hold on popular sympathy could be used as a tactical weapon against the Civilians. On the plains north of Bombay city and behind the Western Ghats on the Deccan plateau lay a different cultural world, the Maratha country or Maharashtra. Here the elite were Chitpavan brahmins, the scribal class that had been the mainstay of the Maratha Confederacy organised by Sivaji against the Mughals in the seventeenth century, and only defeated by the British in 1818 after a bitter struggle. For the Maratha brahmins, the British Raj was a conquest state in a much fuller sense than for the bhadralok. In the 1870s and 1880s, cultural nationalism in Maharashtra meant coming to terms with the ubiquity of British institutions and practices while re-establishing contact with the Maratha past. For the new cadre of anglo-literate Marathas, thrown up by the expansion of English-language education, cultural revival and social cohesion demanded a new view of the Maratha past, freed from the condescension of Civilian history where the Confederacy was cast as a predatory banditti. The pre-conquest polity was now imagined as the prelude to a new Maratha nation, in which the language and concepts of European liberalism would be selectively grafted onto the indigenous stem. The master-mind of this project was the historian and philosopher M. G. Ranade, described by a British official in 1880 as the ‘Parnell of the Deccan’.48

The Maratha brahmins were far better placed than the Bengal bhadralok to mobilise a wider following against the Civilians. Ranade and his protege, G. K. Gokhale, were cautious. They preferred to emphasise the loyalty of the elite to British ideas of government and Western notions of social progress, and, in Gokhale's case, to build bridges towards the Parsi ‘nationalists’ in Bombay city. But, to B. G. Tilak, like them a Western-educated brahmin, a more drastic confrontation with the Civilians seemed necessary. Tilak was later portrayed as the champion of traditionalism, the ‘trusted and accredited leader of Conservative and religious India in the paths of democratic politics’.49 In fact, Tilak's attitude to caste rules and orthodox piety was perfunctory.50 He sent his daughter to an English-language high school and corresponded with British academics on Sanskritic literature. His ultimate goal was not, perhaps, very different from the liberal model of nation-state favoured by Banerjea or Mehta. But he was more willing than they were to experiment with popular religiosity and folk patriotism as the building blocks of a political movement. In the 1890s, he agitated against raising the age of consent for marriage; promoted the cult of Ganapati, a regional deity; and evoked the Marathi folk hero Sivaji – all in the effort to ground the arm-wrestling with the Civilians in a wider sense of cultural grievance. None of these campaigns went very far. But the hostility with which the Civilians regarded him (Tilak was gaoled for sedition in 1897 and exiled for six years to Burma in 1908) was matched only by the nervousness of his political compatriots. To them, Tilak's appeal to religious conservatism, his baiting of the British and his championing of a Maratha hero regarded elsewhere in India as a barbaric freebooter51 threatened to wreck their fragile inter-provincial coalition and destroy the mantle of respectability on which their dealings with the Civilians (and their credit in Britain) depended so heavily.

Elsewhere in British India, especially in the vast southern Presidency of Madras, we can see a similar pattern of provincial politics bringing to life movements that, for all their local differences, were broadly united behind the common demand for a real voice in the provincial legislatures and the appointment of Indians to the Civil Service. The new political leaders were deeply conscious of the need for social and cultural renovation. They accepted much of the British critique of an atomised Indian society lacking the beliefs and institutions for social progress. But they fought shy of popular politics fearing a religious backlash against their reformist project and the Civilians’ accusation that they were accessories to a second Mutiny. They preferred to concentrate on a constitutional and administrative platform that would maximise their power and influence. The radicalism of their strategy should not be disparaged. Diluting the Civilian oligarchy with anglo-literate Indians would have broken the back of the Civilian Raj (not least by choking off its British recruitment). The new politicians were neither imperialist poodles nor the protagonists of full-blooded independence. Instead, they favoured the making of a self-governing ‘middle nation’52 in which the institutions and structures of the conquering power would be manned and moulded by the representatives of a revitalised indigenous culture. The object was not rebellion nor separation from Britain but partnership in a reformed and decentralised imperial association. Indeed, there was much to be gained, they thought, from an alliance with the strongest liberal power, the richest commercial state and the great entrepot of progressive culture. This was the programme of ‘British Indian nationalism’, a bold assertion of India's rightful place in a new imperial order. Its struggle with the Civilian Raj occurred at a critical moment in the shaping of the British world-system, in whose ultimate fate British rule in India was to be so deeply implicated.

The struggle

It was the resentment of anglo-literate Indians at the racial arrogance of unofficial Europeans in their campaign against the Ilbert bill that triggered the formation of an ‘All-India’ national congress. The Ilbert agitation had shown how vulnerable the Viceroy's government was to lobbying by a handful of European residents. The Congress would redress the balance. The Congress was just that: an annual meeting of the provincial associations representing the anglo-literate elite and voicing its distinctive (and elitist) demands. It had no mass support – and no desire for it. On the face of it, this ‘microscopic minority’ held no fears for the Civilians. Yet, within a few years, the Civilian Raj had been partly reconstructed to appease its demands.

Three arguments forced the Civilians to take ‘babu politics’ more seriously in the 1880s. First, it was well understood that the Raj needed more cooperation from local men, and those who represented their interests, if the growth of government was not to stall. Like many governments of the period, the Raj found itself pressed to regulate more closely and intervene more frequently in the cause of social and economic improvement. More rules must be made; more revenues raised. As a result, it needed to cultivate local notables and secure the endorsement of the educated elite. The Civilians might dislike the ‘babu’ politicians: but, in the project to govern India more closely, to impose codes for famine relief, forest management, irrigation works or plague control, they were vital allies through whom progressive opinions would trickle down into the vernacular world of the mofussil. Secondly, the obverse was just as important. The Civilians could coerce disorder; but they were poorly armed against public criticism. In a regime whose security was stretched thin, and where prestige seemed the key to obedience in the army, police and bureaucracy, unrelenting hostility from the newspapers was a corrosive force. Smothering it by any means short of outright censorship (which London was expected to veto) became a Civilian obsession. That too pointed towards some accommodation with the Congress politicians whose links with the Indian press were invariably close. Thirdly, by the mid-1880s, the Civilians had become increasingly nervous of ‘Home’ opinion. The advance of the radicals, whose threat to British power, Lord Salisbury (a former Secretary of State for India) had excoriated,53 did not bode well for the Civilians and their political autonomy. The artful campaign of Naoroji, Banerjea and Ranade, with its appeal to ‘Gladstonian’ values, and its reassuring loyalism, was bound to trouble Liberals conscience-stricken by interference in Egypt and coercion in Ireland. More repression in India might bring down London's wrath and end by clipping the Civilians’ wings. It was an apt coincidence that the Indian Viceroy at this uneasy moment was an Anglo-Irish landowner, the Marquess of Dufferin. Dufferin knew better than most how the shifts of mood in Westminster could subvert the oligarchies of the Empire.54

The Viceroy and his advisers decided that bureaucratic discretion was the better part of imperial valour. Two enquiries probed the limits of concession. One committee of senior Civilians considered the Congress demand for a reform of the legislative councils. A second committee under Sir Charles Aitchison took up the question of Indian appointments in the Civil Service, the arcana imperii of Civilian power. On the first issue, the Civilians found some scope for compromise. After all, they calculated dourly, enlarging membership of the councils, and adopting less restrictive rules about what could be discussed, queried or debated, could be worked to their advantage. New allies might be recruited and, in a larger forum of public discussion, the officials would be able to rebut the criticisms levelled against them in the press. But, on the second question, the Aitchison committee returned a telling negative. With minor qualifications it rejected any change in the rules of the entry competition or in the numbers of senior posts reserved for members of the Indian Civil Service. Indian ambition would have to be content with a larger provincial service – the intended instrument of bureaucratic expansion. To the Congress leaders, however, even half a loaf was welcome. With larger legislatures in the provinces, and modest advances in scrutiny, interpellation and debate, they hoped to follow the path to self-government carved out by settler politicians in Canada, the Cape Colony or New South Wales. When the proposals gained London's approval in 1892, the Congress reacted with joy.

In fact, of course, the 1892 Councils Act was not the end of the Congress campaign but the beginning of its political struggle. In 1895, Surendranath Banerjea, presiding over the annual Congress meeting, laid out its political programme: ‘the goal of our aspirations, the promised land of equal freedom and equal rights with British subjects’.55 There should be more elected members: Bengal had only seven for 70 million people. Debate and scrutiny should be wider and freer. The military budget should be cut down. And (the old cry) the employment of a ‘foreign element’ in the public service (the British Civilians) was ‘morally wrong, economically disastrous and politically inexpedient’. British rule, declared Banerjea, must be liberalised so that India could ‘find its place in the Great Confederacy of Free States, English in their origins, English in their character, English in their institutions, rejoicing in their permanent and indissoluble union with England’.56 The educated class in his province, wrote the lieutenant-governor of the North-West (after 1900 ‘United’) Provinces, were thoroughly discontented – not because they wished to overthrow British rule but because they wanted to administer it themselves.57

On their side, the senior Civilians were just as determined that the act should be the end of concession and the start of stricter political discipline. As usual, London devolved the detail of reform to the Indian government. The Civilians took full advantage. Their own view of India as a jumble of conflicting castes, communities and interests formed the working principle of the new representative system. The enlarged legislatures were not to represent territorial constituencies but sets of ‘interests’ defined and approved by the Civilians. Their members might be chosen by the interests concerned, but they sat in council as the nominees of government, not by popular vote. The councils met only briefly: that of Bengal (the largest province) for nine days a year. Discussion and questions were permitted (up to a point) but without control over financial supply, and faced by an irremovable executive, the scope for collective action was minimal, and the formation of parties a dream. In the last resort, the deck of interests could always be shuffled to throw up a different ‘hand’ of members. But, for all these administrative safeguards, the number of Congressmen on the councils crept steadily upward.

Reform was thus the goad for Civilian reassertion. Sir George Chesney, one of the committee that had drafted the councils scheme, made a blunt avowal. In the third edition of his Indian Polity (1894), he rejected the schemes of Congress as ‘absurd’.58 His book was a forceful restatement of the need to entrench the autonomy of the Civilians, as much from Whitehall and Westminster as from Indian opinion. Another old India hand, Sir William Hunter, was sympathetic to Congress but dismissed the ‘numerical principle of representation’.59 Among the senior Civilians in India, insistence upon the ethnic (and thus ineradicable) basis of India's social divisions, and the incompatibility of the caste system with any form of representative government, became the hallmark of the new official scholarship. Ethnographic and census studies along these lines made Herbert Risley a rising star in the 1890s.60 In the Punjab, where large-scale irrigation works were forming a new ‘hydraulic society’ in the ‘canal colonies’,61 the dominant school among the Civilians insisted on the ‘tribal’ basis of rural society and the need to prevent urban and commercial castes from buying land and social influence in the countryside.62 Elsewhere in India, the Civilians actively sought new allies among the provincial elites.63 In North India, the ‘Mutiny syndrome’ could still be readily invoked.64

The lesson of all this was clear enough. The Civilians were determined to challenge what they saw as the absurd and potentially dangerous pretensions of the anglo-literate elite to be representative of India at large. Opinion at home had to be reminded of Indian ‘realities’; and Indian politics corrected to put the Congress in its place. Lord Elgin was too much a Gladstonian to be sympathetic. But his successor as Viceroy (in 1899), Lord Curzon, brought a different outlook. Curzon was of landed family but modest means. He had made his way by academic talent, intense ambition, hard work and a ready pen. In the early 1890s, he had entered politics with a reputation for expert knowledge of Asia, especially of Central Asia and Persia (Iran) where Anglo-Russian competition was greatest. He was the protege of Lord Salisbury whom he served at the Foreign Office.65 By 1898–9, Salisbury was deeply alarmed by Russia's diplomatic advance towards India. A Viceroy in tune with his thinking and with Curzon's local knowledge would secure London's grip on Indian frontier policy. By an added irony, Curzon was also expected (in London) to bring a more sympathetic and imaginative approach to Indo-British relations and soften the rule of the dour Civilians.

As Salisbury had intended, Curzon brought to India an intense concern for its central Asian borderlands – the viewpoint of a Mughal emperor. It was a crucial change of perspective. Like some latter-day Mughal, Curzon saw Indian politics as the rightful preserve of princes and landowners bound by neo-feudal allegiance to the imperial crown. He attached great importance to the education and training of the princes as a governing class in imperial service.66 ‘The native chief’, he said, is ‘my colleague and partner.’67 India's vast treasury of ruins, monuments, forts and palaces excited his imagination. Curzon had a life-long passion for architecture as the visual key to both history and politics. To maintain and restore the monuments of India was to link the Raj to its Mughal past not to ‘babu’ modernity. To build new landmarks – like the Victoria Memorial Hall on the Calcutta maidan – was to make the imperial monarchy (and not the British Parliament) the focus of Indian loyalty.68

Curzon's strategic preoccupations and his ‘Mughalist’ outlook chimed well with the Civilians’ wish to curb the ambitions of the Congress politicians. Curzon was readily persuaded that the inroads of babu politics must now be reversed, and nowhere more urgently than in Bengal on the doorstep of the Indian government. The opening salvoes were directed at two bastions of bhadralok influence: the Calcutta city government and Calcutta University. The elected majority on the Calcutta Corporation was removed. The autonomy of the University was cut down.69 But the Civilians’ real target was the Bengal Legislative Council and the growing bhadralok influence in provincial and All-India politics. They found a neat, if drastic, solution. The sprawling Bengal Presidency had long been the target for administrative surgery. It was over-centralised in Calcutta. Oriya-speakers in the west and Muslims in the east were no match for Calcutta Hindus in catching the attention of government. Assam, separated in 1874, was too small to maintain its own cadre of Civilians. The administrative answer had always been to divide Bengal. Now there was the will to do so. There was little doubt about the motive. ‘Bengal united is a power’, remarked Risley, now (as Home Secretary) the director of political strategy. ‘Bengal divided will pull in several different ways. That is one of the merits of the scheme.’70 Curzon faithfully repeated this logic to London. ‘The Bengalis’, he told the Secretary of State,

like to think of themselves as a nation…If we are weak enough to yield to their clamour now we shall not be able to dismember or reduce Bengal again, and you will be cementing and solidifying on the eastern flank of India a force almost formidable, and certain to be an increasing trouble in the future.71

By the time the final version of the plan was sent to London for approval, the aim of partition had become still more explicit. Calcutta, said Curzon,

is the centre from which the Congress party is manipulated throughout the whole of Bengal, and indeed the whole of India. Its best wire-pullers and its most frothy orators all reside here…They dominate public opinion in Calcutta; they affect the High Court; they frighten the Local Government; and they are sometimes not without influence on the Government of India…Any measure…that would divide the Bengali-speaking population; that would permit independent centres…to grow up; that would dethrone Calcutta from its place as the centre of successful intrigue, or that would weaken the influence of the lawyer class, who have the entire organisation in their hands, is intensely and hotly resented by them. The outcry will be very loud and very fierce.72

It was an accurate prophecy. The Bengal Congressmen and their allies elsewhere in India rightly saw the partition driven through in 1905 as a frontal attack upon the claim of the anglo-literate class to a political voice, and as a blatant attempt to stir up other religious or ethnic groups against them. To rub salt into the wound there was no pretence of consulting the legislative council: partition was by Viceregal fiat. The result was a furious outcry which widened steadily beyond the educated class. The swadeshicampaign was meant to boycott British goods (especially textiles) in favour of local products as an expression of Bengali patriotism. It was taken up by student groups and hastily formed clubs or samitis. Soon there were signs of its being enforced by caste associations and through coercive means.73 Marches, demonstrations and the singing of Bande Mataram as a national song were an open challenge to the colonial power. The Civilians grew uneasy: some had doubted the partition plan all along. But so too did their opponents. For all his outrage at the Civilians’ ploy, Banerjea drew back from a violent confrontation with the Raj. As the tempo of agitation increased, he looked instead for some accommodation with the embattled government. Relief was to come from a surprising quarter.

Curzon's endorsement of partition had sprung from his urgent geopolitical vision: of the coming struggle for Asia. Throughout his term of office, he argued fiercely for a ‘forward’ policy to contain the Russian threat and safeguard India. Pressing his views on the British cabinet, he claimed that he spoke for Indian opinion.74 Without India, he was to argue a few years later, Britain was scarcely a first-class power.75 In Curzon's geostrategic universe, it was intolerable to have Congress snapping at his heels, denouncing India's foreign wars and blaming the size and cost of the Indian army for poverty, plague and famine. If India was to take what the Viceroy saw as its rightful place in the British system, its internal politics must be brought in line with its imperial duty. But, by a painful irony (to Curzon at least), his insistence upon the imperial status of the Indian government was to bring about his downfall. Ministers in London were already annoyed by Curzon's presumption: in foreign policy they expected India to pay, to be seen but not to be heard. They resented his opposition to the appeasement of Russia. When Curzon was drawn into a bitter row with Lord Kitchener, Commander-in-Chief in India and the Empire's leading soldier, to thwart his grip on the army's bureaucracy, they gratefully accepted his over-hasty resignation. But it was not so much a change of Viceroy (in 1905) as a change of government in London that imposed a rough political truce between the Civilians and the Congress.

With the new Liberal government in London came a new Indian Secretary. John Morley had been an ardent Gladstonian, a radical and a Home Ruler. He lost no time in warning Lord Minto, Curzon's successor as Viceroy, that a large radical phalanx in the House of Commons was watching India closely.76 Here was a clear signal, like that in the 1880s, that the Civilians’ system must not become a ‘factory of grievances’ and that some move must be made towards ‘reform’. Morley himself began with a strong prejudice against Civilian rule. But his real target was Curzon's inadmissible claim to Indian influence in British policy and the ‘jingo’ mentality of the Civilian regime. What he cared about most, he told his closest adviser, was to ‘depose the Government of India from their usurped position of an independent power’.77 He himself was a fervent supporter of the entente with Russia reached eventually in 1907. ‘Forward policy’ was out of date, and with it the whole Curzonian ethos. In June 1906, six months into office, he was keen to announce reforms ‘in the popular direction’.78 He may have reasoned that a larger ‘popular’ element in Indian government would curb its jingoistic excesses and forestall its obstruction of a Russian entente.

Morley's enthusiasm had been heightened by the prospect of a tacit partnership with the Congress. The Congress leadership had despaired of Curzon. Even Tilak agreed that nothing could be gained by agitation in India: London was the only hope.79 With Curzon's fall and a new Liberal government, Gladstonian in sympathy, they hoped to turn the triangle of Anglo-Indian politics to their advantage. G. K. Gokhale, now the pre-eminent Congressman, hastened to London. In the classic language of Congress loyalism, he denounced Civilian rule and affirmed the bond of empire. Gokhale was a figure of impregnable rectitude, a ‘moderate’ who repudiated the ‘extremism’ of Tilak, and an appointed member of the Viceroy's legislative council, the legislature of the central government. He had made a good impression, Morley told Minto.80 To Gokhale he stressed the importance of Congress support; its opposition would endanger reform.81

The Viceroy and the Civilians could see the writing on the wall but they were anything but cowed. Minto rejected the reversal of partition. The Civilians turned their hand to ‘reform’. They were already disillusioned with the Councils Act of 1892: here was the chance to revise it. In the scheme they drafted, pride of place was given to a new Chamber of Princes (to influence opinion in Britain and India) and a ‘native member’ of the Viceroy's government (to prove the Indianness of the Raj). The ‘natural leaders’ of Indian society, they argued, were the chiefs, landholders, merchants and bankers. They had little sympathy for Congress-type reform. But the legislative councils of 1892 had distorted the image of Indian opinion. Thirty-six per cent of council members had been lawyers, only 23 per cent landowners. Reform should reverse this trend. It should also give Muslims their own seats in the councils.82

The thinking behind these proposals was amplified in the Reforms Despatch sent off to London in March 1907. It was a remarkable manifesto of Civilian politics, perhaps the last great statement of Civilian ideology. It acknowledged that the Congress had done much to implant a sense of nationality across India, but insisted that most of the ‘educated class’ had little sympathy with its programme. It saw in Civilian rule the convergence of two great sources of authority: its inheritance from the Mughal past and its role as the trustee of ‘British principles’. The object of reform, it claimed, was to fuse them both in a ‘constitutional autocracy’: the Civilian Raj would ‘govern by rule’, merely reserving ‘the predominant and absolute power which it can only abdicate at the risk of bringing back the chaos to which our rule put an end’.83 If the legislative councils were enlarged to represent ‘all the interests that are capable of being represented’, and if the electorate were refashioned to prevent its falling ‘into the hands of wire-pullers’, a great common interest could be built up between the Raj and the ‘conservative classes’. ‘We are not without hope’, Minto's government concluded,

that in the course of a few years the constitution which we propose to establish will come to be regarded as a precious possession round which conservative sentiment will crystallise and will offer substantial opposition to any further change. We anticipate that the aristocratic elements in society and the moderate men, for whom there is at present little place in Indian politics, will range themselves by the side of government, and will oppose any further shifting in the balance of power and any attempt to democratise Indian institutions.84

The repudiation of the Congress demand for swifter progress towards self-government, and the admission to power of the anglo-literate class, could not have been blunter.

Morley's response to this provocative document was curiously tepid. He welcomed it, pressed the case for advisory councils in the provinces and remarked on the need for greater representation of European interests if the councils were enlarged. His caution was understandable. Being seen to impose reform on the Indian government was risky. He was nervous of Anglo-India-at-Home and its furious correspondents. He knew that any constitutional scheme would have to navigate the parliamentary rapids in the House of Lords with its phalanx of former Viceroys. There Curzon lay in wait, and without the support of Lord Lansdowne (Viceroy 1888–92) Morley had little hope of winning over its Conservative majority. To make matters worse, his Indian ally, the Congress, was in disarray and threatened him with embarrassment.

The Congress faced a syndrome all too familiar to colonial nationalists in the twentieth century. Their leverage on colonial rulers was usually increased by signs of general unrest. The official world became uneasy and more open to modest concession. But, if unrest challenged colonial power too openly, ‘Home’ opinion was quickly hardened against ‘agitators’ or ‘troublemakers’. Colonial officials made up lost ground by stigmatising their critics as rebels-in-the-making. Without organised mass support, nationalist leaders then faced the choice between promoting chaos or accepting impotence. After 1906, the Congress lurched dangerously towards this political impasse. The swadeshi agitation in Bengal radicalised bhadralok opinion and the local Congress supporters. It gave a chance to Congressmen from other provinces who favoured more ruthless tactics against the Civilian Raj: now they might swing the Congress behind them. In January 1907, B. G. Tilak launched his ‘New Party’ and attacked the policy of relying on British goodwill and Morley's reformism. The remedy, he declared, ‘is not petitioning but boycott’.85 Boycott was the way to shatter the illusion of British power, resting as it did on ‘our assistance’. For ‘every Englishman knows that you are weak and they are strong…We have been deceived by such a policy so long.’86 After the Congress annual meeting in Calcutta in December 1906, it looked as if Tilak's programme – boycotting military service, revenue collection and the administration of justice – would carry all before it.87 In 1907, there was serious unrest in the Punjab over land rights. In Bengal, young bhadralok activists turned to assassination and bomb-throwing.88 This was hardly the right climate for Morley to force more reform on the government of India than it had proposed itself. The established Congress leaders, for their part, were desperate to avoid the tag of extremism.89 The next annual meeting at Surat broke up in disorder. The leadership withdrew, and drafted its own manifesto, insisting on its loyalty and rejecting unconstitutional action. The following year at Allahabad, a new Congress constitution was drawn up to repudiate the Tilakite heresy and declare that ‘colonial swaraj’ – self-government within the Empire on the ‘white dominion’ model – was the grand objective. The British helped by arresting Tilak for sedition and exiling him to Burma. His ‘party’ in the Congress broke up. The Punjab unrest was appeased. The Bengal bombing died down. The moderates regained control of the Congress and imposed their new ‘creed’.90

In this easier atmosphere, Morley, whose enthusiasm for reform had been ebbing, was able to insist on two crucial principles which the Civilians had hoped to bury. The new enlarged councils in the provinces would have ‘unofficial majorities’: a predominance of members who were not required (as were official members) to vote with the government as a condition of their place. Secondly, Morley insisted, against the Civilians’ prejudice, that a substantial proportion of the unofficials would be chosen by electorates, not selected by interest groups. This, together with the provision that Indians could be appointed to the Viceroy's executive council, was the heart of the ‘Morley-Minto’ reforms. A new political order seemed in the making. The Congress received the prospect with enthusiasm. Morley, said Surendranath Banerjea, was the ‘Simon de Montfort of India’.91 The Congressmen looked forward to filling the lion's share of seats in the new provincial councils. With more liberal rules on debate and interpellation in the council chambers, they hoped for gradual progress towards a quasi-parliamentary constitution. At the very least, Morley had blocked the Civilians’ project for a ‘constitutional autocracy’ based on the partnership of princes and landowners. But it soon became clear that the triumph of ‘British Indian nationalism’ was far from complete.

The stalemate

The struggle over the reforms had been fought on two levels and between several parties. At the imperial level, it had been a trial of strength between London and Simla, between Morley and the Viceroy's Civilian government. Morley had been determined to bring the Civilians to heel. ‘It is not you or I who are responsible for [Indian] unrest’, he told the Viceroy irritably in June 1908, ‘but the over-confident, over-worked Tchinovniks who have had India in their hands for fifty years past.’92 Morley had insisted on a Royal Commission to decentralise the Indian government and chose as Minto's successor the diplomat Lord Hardinge (closely involved in negotiating the Anglo-Russian entente) to underline that the days of Curzonism were over. The Viceroy's government, remarked Morley's under-secretary, and perhaps at his suggestion, had acted as his ‘agent’ in making the reforms (a description received badly in Simla).93 Implicit in Morley's whole policy was not so much the graceful acceptance of Indian claims as the deliberate extension of London's control. It was entirely in keeping with this that, while he pressed for unofficial majorities in the provincial councils, he bluntly rejected one at the Indian centre (on the Viceroy's legislative council) where India's budget and its military spending were settled. In the strange constitutional minuet it danced to keep London at bay, it had been the Viceroy's government that had proposed this seemingly radical innovation.94

In the Indian arena the contest was much more confused. The old struggle between the Civilians and Congress had widened out. The partition of Bengal had shown the potential of mobilising support on a larger scale and with a more emotive programme. Much of Tilak's ‘new party’ plan was soon to be revived by Gandhi. For the moment, this tendency had been checked by a tacit alliance between the British and the Congress moderates. There was one significant exception. The Congress attack on partition had infuriated its main beneficiaries, the Muslims of East Bengal. In 1906, their sympathisers in North India formed the All-India Muslim League. Since Muslim loyalty was vital to British rule across much of Northern India (especially in the United Provinces and Punjab), the embattled Civilians looked kindly on these likely allies. At a time of rising tension between Britain and Ottoman Turkey, Morley had extra reasons for conceding the Muslim demand for separate seats on the councils. ‘The Mahomedans’, he told Parliament, ‘have a special and overwhelming claim upon us.’95 But, overall, the surge of political unrest unleashed in 1905 produced a curiously indecisive result in which none of the interested parties – London, the Civilians, the Congress ‘moderates’, the ‘extremists’ or the Muslims (partition was reversed in 1911) – gained a clear advantage.

But, for the time being, it was the Civilians who carried off most of the spoils. As in 1892, London had been obliged to delegate the ‘small print’ of reform to the local officials. But, since the small print included choosing electors and electorates, and deciding the membership of the provincial councils, its importance was very large. The Civilians once more took full advantage. Minto and his advisers had disliked the idea of elections, but there was another string to their bow. ‘We shall have to trust to a careful creation of electorates’, said the Viceroy coolly.96 And so they did. This creativity ensured that, in Bengal, out of twenty-six elective ‘constituencies’, perhaps only four could have been won by Congress and (in 1912–13) only three were won.97 The same tactic brought disillusion in the United Provinces. ‘They…are just the opposite of reforms’, Motilal Nehru reported angrily. ‘The avowed object of the so-called reforms is to destroy the influence of the educated classes.’98 The effects were soon seen. The provincial budget debate in 1910 was ‘a farce’, as a crowd of unofficial members stood up not to challenge the government but to praise it.99 Nor were the Civilians content with new allies in the councils. They armed themselves with fresh weapons against attack in the press. Provincial governments were given wide powers to close down papers on grounds of sedition100 and were encouraged to subsidise ‘selected loyal vernacular newspapers’.101 The new Department of Criminal Intelligence stepped up the scale of political surveillance.102 There was little to choose between ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’, said the Civilian in charge.103 It was little wonder that a senior official could say in 1910, after five years of upheaval, that, in his province at least, ‘the executive has never been stronger’.104

Nor was this all. The Civilians had been put on the defensive by Morley's alliance with the Congress moderates. But they were determined to recast Indian politics along lines of their own choosing. One symptom was Minto's appeasement of the Indian princes whom he promised to free from the strict supervision imposed by Curzon.105 The next step was more daring. It was decided to reverse the partition of Bengal to which the whole Hindu elite remained bitterly hostile. But the quid pro quo would be the removal of the Indian capital from the ‘disloyal’ city of Calcutta to Delhi. Here was a partial if belated fulfilment of Curzon's vision. The centre of Indian politics would be shifted from the hectic lowlands of Bengal to the loyal heartlands of Upper India. From Delhi, the Raj would assert its link to the Indian past, its legacy from the Mughals, and the permanence of its rule.106 A new imperial city was planned, to echo the Mughal foundations at Fatehpur Sikri and Shahjahanbad. At the grandiose Delhi Durbar in 1911, attended by the new King-Emperor George V, the public fealty of the Indian princes formed the climax of the ceremony. What better riposte to the pretensions of ‘babu’ politics?

This new ‘Delhi Raj’ had still wider implications. In 1908, the Civilians smothered the inquiry that Morley had launched into administrative decentralisation. The Financial Secretary dismissed financial devolution as a dream.107 The commission accepted his view. Three years later, as the new political landscape took form, decentralisation began to look more attractive. In the famous ‘Delhi Despatch’ of 1911, the new Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, sketched out a novel constitutional framework. Power was to be devolved increasingly to provincial governments and, indirectly, to the provincial councils and their carefully constructed ‘electorates’.108 But none of this was meant to upset the ability of the central government to meet its imperial obligations, pay the imperial dividend and impose, if necessary, the ultimate sanction of coercive power. In its new imperial enclave in Delhi, magnificently free from provincial distractions, buoyed up by feudal loyalty, confidently manipulating the levers and limits of provincial politics, the Civilian Raj would remain: indispensable and irremovable.

In the last years of peace, there was little time to test the new model Raj. Morley's successor in London, Lord Crewe, brusquely ruled out the parliamentary future on which the Congress moderates had pinned their hopes. ‘Fancy a Liberal Secretary of State…proclaiming the impossibility of Self-Government for the Indian people on the ground of their race’, said Srinavasa Sastri sadly.109 The Congress leaders grumbled but made the best of it. The reforms had reversed the growing estrangement between British and Indians; they were beneficial for all their defects; they had revived the ‘drooping spirits’ of the constitutional party.110 The Delhi Despatch held out hope for provincial autonomy.111 Perhaps fiscal autonomy might be granted.112 The Congress goal remained ‘an autonomous Government…under the suzerainty of the most powerful and progressive of modern nations’.113 It was only the onset of war that changed the mood. ‘In Europe the war of nations, now in progress, will knock off the last weights of mediaeval domination of one man over many, of one race over another’, declared the Congress president hopefully in December 1914.114A new phase of the political struggle was about to begin.

The idea of India

Behind the slogans, schemes and manoeuvres of these decades lay a deeper issue: the idea of India. In an age of such furious change – in communications technology, geopolitical assumptions, social mobility, cultural hierarchy, religious allegiance, economic structure, political order – in India and beyond, it was hardly surprising that the sub-continent evoked widely different and sharply contested visions of its political and cultural future. The idea of India was being made and re-made with exceptional urgency. New formulas were concocted. New audiences were sought. The stakes were rising.

In London, the official and semi-official idea of India was predictably instrumental. As India grew more valuable, the costs of instability went up, and imperial supervision became more rigorous. If India's relative economic importance had slipped with the huge growth of British trade and investment in the Americas after 1900, it was still the largest export market for Britain's largest export. London's oversight (rather than Civilian rule) was Lancashire's guarantee of an open door for its cotton products. The continuing expansion of Indian trade and the ever-growing frequency of its communications with Britain suggested that India's place in the British pattern of trade, investment and payments was as important as ever. On the geostrategic front, the trend seemed even stronger. London's view of India had always been refracted through the prism of its military assets. India was the strategic reserve for the British system east (and sometimes west) of Suez. In 1899, (British) troops rushed from India (not distant Britain) had stopped the Boer dash for the sea and staved off disaster in the early phase of the South African War. As the division of the world into spheres and colonies speeded up, and the geopolitics of partition spread across Asia, geostrategic control over India came to seem more and more critical to the British world-system. This was the point of Curzon's address on ‘India's place in the Empire’. This was the point made by The Times in 1911, when it drew the connection between command of India and command of the sea. ‘India stands right across the greatest highway in the world’, it proclaimed (with some hyperbole). ‘It is the centre of the East…The Power which holds India must of necessity command the sea. Supreme sea-power would be as difficult to maintain without control of India, as control of India without command of the sea. It is…the centre of Imperial defence.’115

Of course, the view from London was heavily coloured by the vision of oriental backwardness so skilfully promoted in the literature of Anglo-India. But implicit in London's ‘idea’ was an unsentimental regard for India's utility and an indifference to those intra-Indian affairs that had no imperial significance. The Civilians would be backed to the hilt if India's imperial ‘duty’ was threatened by its politicians. But London might be willing to cooperate with ‘loyal’ Indian ‘moderates’, especially at the provincial level where its interests were not at risk. There was always the claque of Anglo-India's friends at home to face. But, if the Civilian regime seemed a bar to modernising India imperially, or to the partnership of its native elites in some larger imperial purpose, it might yet find its privileges cut down by the London government. Before 1914, for all the sound and fury of Morley's reforms, there was little sign of this. The Civilians could not be replaced as the guardians of the imperial stake while its strategic component was growing so remorselessly in value.

Hence, perhaps, the continuing vigour and confidence with which the Civilians’ idea of India was propagated. The Civilians had had to come to terms since the 1880s with the growth of an educated class and with a vociferous press, both of which challenged the dogmas of its rule. Their reaction had been to emphasise, by ‘scientific’ inquiry and with wider publicity, their vision of India as a cultural and political mosaic, a riot of castes, communities, religions and races, teetering on the brink of violent disorder. More pragmatically, they modified their bureaucratic despotism by limited devolution at local level and by the careful definition of interest groups with privileged access to authority and (after 1892) with seats on provincial councils. Under pressure from Congress and London, this idea had expanded into something more grandiose: India as a confederacy knit together by Civilian rule and the neo-feudal loyalty of its landed classes. With provincial devolution, ‘conservative’ (rather than ‘Congress’) India would be brought to the fore. The educated class would be revealed as one community among many, special perhaps in its claims, but not dominant in its influence. The horizontal and vertical links in this emergent India would remain under Civilian control. An untrammelled authority at the Indian centre would ensure that the Civilian Raj could pay the imperial dividend, the secret of its lease of power from London. In the meantime, it made sense for the Raj to identify itself more openly with Indian interests, where the ‘dividend’ was not involved. In 1913, the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, expressed his government's sympathy for the Ottoman Empire (reeling from its Balkan defeats) as a fellow ‘Muhammadan power’.116 He promised to take up the grievances of Indian communities in settler Africa.117 ‘Anglo-India’ and ‘Indian-India’ would be reconciled.

On the Congress politicians the travails of political struggle since the 1880s had also left their mark. But to a remarkable extent the core of their programme survived unchanged. Like European nationalists, the Congress leaders saw in the educated class a proxy for the nation. They saw themselves as trustees of the Indian idea. Their vision of India was (politically at least) to remake it along Gladstonian lines. The object of the Congress, declared its president in 1912, was ‘to create a nation’ whose citizens would be ‘members of a world-wide empire’. ‘Our great aim is to make the British Government the National Government of the British Indian people.’118 India was to be a British Indian nation, inspired by the ideals of British-style Liberalism. The apparatus of the Raj would be the scaffolding of Indian nationhood, just as the adoption of British values would be the secret of self-rule. Pressing the old case for easier Indian entry into the ranks of the Civilians, Motilal Nehru insisted that, even if Indian candidates were locally chosen, they should still be sent to Britain to complete their education: ‘to acquire those characteristics which are essentially British and…absolutely necessary in the interests of good government in India’.119 It was ‘axiomatic’, he went on, that the administration in India ‘must have a pronounced British tone and character and too much stress cannot be laid on Indians acquiring that character as a habit’.120 It was no accident that Motilal sent his son (Jawaharlal) to Harrow and Cambridge: he was meant for the Civil Service, not Congress.

In retrospect, we can see that each of these ideas of India received in this period a decisive check. By 1914 they were all at stalemate. A new cadre of imperially minded Indians, ready and willing to do India's imperial duty, was the white hope of advanced opinion in Britain. If the British world-system was not to weaken or stagnate, India's contribution must grow greater, its role more dynamic, its leaders more receptive to their imperial task. In reality, there was not the smallest sign that the most moderate of the Indian moderates would agree to India's existing imperial burdens once self-government was granted. Like it or not, London would find itself bound to the Civilian Raj. The unofficial ties of sympathy between the Imperial centre and its Indian friends would be fretted by this dilemma. As for the Civilians, their hope of embedding their rule in Indian sympathies, fusing their autocracy with Indian conservatism, had (as it turned out) little chance of success. It depended too heavily upon stifling the appeal of Indian nationalism in the educated class and on rallying new groups and interests to provincial institutions without the means to satisfy their wants. For the ‘British Indian nationalists’ of the Congress, the future was just as gloomy. Indeed, they were trapped in a paradox. Without mobilising a larger following (the course rejected in 1907) they had little hope of a breakthrough at the provincial (let alone the All-India) level. Without wresting more power and patronage from the Civilians, they had few means of widening the appeal of the ‘manly liberalism’ they espoused. When the dust had settled on the Morley-Minto reforms, that much was clear.

To an extent only dimly glimpsed before 1914, the political ground was heaving beneath them all. A fourth idea of India was in the making. It was less the dream of an Indian state than the anxious search for Indian community. Its prophet was Gandhi, whose Hind Swaraj (1909) brusquely rejected Western civilisation and Congress ideology in favour of a spiritual India of self-sufficient villages. Outside the formal world of Civilian rule and Congress politics, a host of new interests was emerging. Hindu sabhas,121Muslims,122 caste associations, leagues of peasants,123 even groups of workers, sought a new solidarity or defended an old. In Bengal124 and Madras,125 new social ambitions were afoot in the countryside. Congress's ‘British India’ meant little to such men. Regional interests and communal identities were much more pressing. Whom they would follow and to what effect were as yet unknown. The answers would come much sooner than anyone expected.

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