Inquest on the Raj

Published : Apr 25, 2008 00:00 IST

Scandals were closely linked to the project of empirebuilding.

PROF. Nicholas B. Dirks, Professor of Anthropology and History and Dean of the Faculty at Columbia University, is a historian of India, principally southern India. During the years when President Bill Clinton was being impeached, he began thinking seriously about the impeachment of Warren Hastings led by Edmund Burke. The interest acquired another dimension when President George W. Bush exploited 9/11 to attack Iraq and acquire an imperial presence in the Gulf. No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. It has been ruined and is now a mere geographical expression. The parallels became increasingly close as he pursued his studies. He felt that he was writing the history, not just of the 18th century, but of the present as well.

The aim of the present book has been to understand how the well-known scandals of the East India Company in the eighteenth century became either forgotten or subsumed within the larger and more compelling imperial narrative of an exhausted land that virtually invited the British to conquer it. Historians of India have frequently observed that the social, political, cultural and economic buoyancy of India in the eighteenth century was not just forgotten but suppressed by a narrative in which the decay of India became the primary reason for the case, and inevitability, of European conquest. These same historians have documented with increasingly detailed and robust arguments the extent to which the sub-continent was far from decadent in the decades before imperial conquest. But while most historians have also been well aware of the scandals of early empire, the implications of these scandals, either for the impoverishment of Indias own history or for the history of Britain itself in the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, have been little noted of late.

After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British were set on a trajectory not only of conquest but of rewriting history too. In the scandals of empire we see not just the basis for the creation of British imperialism, but also the origins of modern understandings of corruption, sovereignty, public virtue, the market economy, the bureaucratic state, history, and even tradition, the final repository of scandal for empire.

To this day, very few British writers are willing to accept fully the enormity of the outrages perpetrated by the Raj. Scandal is inseparably linked to empire-building, alike in the 18th and 19th centuries and now. Empire was always a scandal for those who were colonized. It is less well known that empire began as a scandal even for those who were colonizers.

The East India Companys men used their ill-gotten wealth to corrupt British public life and buy seats in Parliament. What was supposed to have been a trading company with an eastern monopoly vested by Parliament had become a rogue state waging war, administering justice, minting coin, and collecting revenue over Indian territory.

Burkes eloquent denunciations did not lead him to suggest Britains withdrawal from India. They tried, instead, to rivet British control over India, the author holds. Scandals were not an aberration.

It was British historiography which laid the seeds of communal writing of history and of Somnath and Ayodhya. Prof. Dirks exposes with erudition its falsehoods and the scandals that created and sustained the empire and offers a close analysis of those times and relates the events to the ones of today. It is impossible not to be deeply disturbed by the continuities with a present in which scandals, most recently of the U.S. relationship with Iraq including the original arming of Saddam Hussein by the United States, the delayed reaction to Husseins use of torture and genocide, the shameless use of the fabricated pretext of weapons of mass destruction to justify an imperial war, the use of the occupation to secure lucrative contracts for companies such as Halliburton, the horrific images of civilian casualties, and the systematic torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib have failed to stem the tide of a new imperial resurgence. Empire, as many observers of contemporary globalisation have observed, is transforming itself into new forms of global power that use markets, corporate influence, international banking systems, and law rather than military conquest, colonial occupation, or direct economic domination but in recent years the United States has retreated to imperial ways and means.

If history can ever serve as a lesson for our present and future, the history of empire as recounted here should remind us that no imperial ambition can ever be unencumbered by scandal. Indeed, scandal is what empire is all about.

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