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Racist Raj — I

Abhik Roy |


The British colonial ideology was constructed on racist terms and the underlying argument behind their racist ideology was that British rule conferred the benefits of a superior civilization to Indians whose lives were mired in illiteracy, poverty, superstition, and strife. So, all their accomplishments in the areas of government and law, education, city planning and architecture, among others, primarily served to mark out the British Raj as a “moral,” “civilized” and “civilizing” regime. The following quote from Tory politician, Lord Randolph Churchill, captures not only the British imperial hubris but also the overt racist beliefs behind the British colonial rule in India:

“Our rule in India, is, as it were, a sheet of oil spread out over a surface of, and keeping calm and quiet and unruffled by storms, an immense and profound ocean of humanity … and it is our task, our most difficult business, to give peace, individual security and general prosperity to the 250 millions of people … to bind them and to weld them by influence of our knowledge, our law, and our higher civilization, in process of time, into one great, united people … That is our task for India. That is our raison d’être in India. That is our title to India.”

The British colonialists had to create a vision for the Raj for India’s past as well as its future. Without such a grand vision they could not justify their rule to themselves, much less shape an efficient bureaucratic system in a foreign land. One major category that the British applied to define India was the notion of “Oriental despotism.” This overarching term had major implications for the British colonizers for enacting laws for India because it meant that India had no laws. Hence Indians had to be taught to be law-abiding people. The other category the British used to define Indians was that they were corrupt and given to extortion and mendacity. As Lord Cornwallis had boldly proclaimed, “Every native of Hindustan, I verily believe, is corrupt.” By establishing despotism, lying and chicanery as the norm of Indian behaviour, the British reaffirmed their moral superiority over their Indian subjects. Sir Francis Younghusband, who led the British force into Tibet in 1904, explained the British colonial ideology thus: “No European can mix with non-Christian races without feeling his moral superiority over them … It is not because we are any cleverer than the natives of India, because we have more brains or bigger heads than they have, that we rule India; but because we are stronger morally than they are.”

In the realm of governance, many British legal scholars found ample justification for Britain’s authoritarian rule over the Indian subcontinent, arguing that the exercise of rule in India could not always be applied within the bounds of English law because Indians were culturally and racially different. In Georgie Porgie, Rudyard Kipling argued: “You will concede that a civilised people who eat out of china … have no right to apply their standard of right and wrong to an unsettled land.” For Kipling, “the men who run ahead of the cars of Decency and Propriety, and make the jungle ways straight, cannot be judged in the same manner as the stay-at-home folk.” Thus, for Kipling, the British colonialists were men of a special breed who had the divine responsibility to bring about civility, law and order in a nation marked by chaos, lawlessness, and corruption, where normal standards of morality simply could not be applied. Kipling and British colonialists of his ilk laid down the ideology of the British Raj, which was racist, arbitrary, and amoral. It was based on expediency and designed to create a permanent schism between the colonizer and the colonized.

While the British could not give Indians the substance of their English law, which they deemed impractical for India, the British thought they could at least bring its “spirit.” The underlying assumption was that by doing so the British could fulfill their avowed civilizing mission in India. James Fitzjames Stephen, legal member of the Viceroy’s Council from 1869 to 1872, summed up the notion of the moralization of English law in colonial India:

“The establishment of a system of law which regulates the most important parts of the daily life of the people constitutes in itself a moral conquest more striking, more durable, and far more solid, than the physical conquest which rendered it possible. It exercises an influence over the minds of the people in many ways comparable to that of a new religion … Our law is in fact the sum and substance of what we have to teach them. It is, so to speak, a compulsory gospel, which admits of no dissent and no disobedience.”

In order to implement an imperialist ideology in India, the British focused with unrelenting fervor on the education of Indian subjects. Indian students were taught not only English literature but they were also persuaded into believing the inherent superiority of the English race. Gauri Viswanathan’s seminal work, The Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India, shows quite forcefully how the British education system in India, whose ideas came from Thomas Babington Macaulay and William Bentinck, was rampant with thoughts about inequality of races and cultures that were propagated in the Indian classroom as part of the curriculum and pedagogy. Thomas R Metcalf indicates in Ideologies of the Raj that while English literature was not a part of the English curriculum, the British colonialists ensured that their Indian subjects got exposed to the “high culture” that the English literature supposedly represented as part of their grand plan to civilize the culturally inferior Indian subjects.

The British succeeded in propagating an imperialist ideology not only by direct domination and physical force of their Indian subjects, but they also utilized other persuasive means to maintain the hegemonic processes of British colonial power. Edward Said reminds us in Culture and Imperialism that at the most visible level there was a physical transformation of the imperial realm, which involved the “reshaping of the physical environment, or administrative, architectural, and institutional feats such as the building of colonial cities (Algiers, Delhi, Saigon)….” These massive projects, whether designing and building new cities, museums or roads, were undertaken by British colonialists solely for the purpose of leaving a lasting legacy of the “civilized” British culture with their Indian subjects, which would subsequently become an integral part of their colonized mind and collective memory.

So, in essence, British colonizers devised a system whose purpose was not only to ensure the effective reinforcement of their racist ideology, which propagated the superiority of their culture and race over Indians, but also maintained intellectual power to dominate their Indian subjects and to deny them the same rights and privileges on the basis of cultural and racial differences, which the British enjoyed in their own country.

(To be concluded)

The writer is Professor of Communication Studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.