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Response to Review no. 184

I am very grateful indeed to Dr Wilson for the generous comments that he makes about this volume and for the many interesting points that appear in his review. I would like to point out at the outset that Jon Wilson’s recently completed Oxford D. Phil thesis, ‘Governing Property, Making Law. Land, Local Society and Colonial Discourse in Agrarian Bengal, c. 1785-1835’ has unmistakably established his credentials as a leading authority on early British India. We are indeed fortunate that this admirable work has been followed by an even more recent Cambridge thesis on the later eighteenth century, that of Robert Travers, entitled, ‘Contested Notions of Sovereignty in Bengal under the British 1765-1785’. Taken together, these two theses do much to correct what has been something of an imbalance in the great revival of interest in eighteenth-century Indian history. The nature of the Mughal successor states and the social and economic conditions that made a British take-over a feasible possibility have been intensively and illuminatingly studied. High politics on the British side and the assumptions that men such as Clive, Warren Hastings or Cornwallis brought to early British efforts at state-building have been neglected. This is now no longer the case. The British Empire in India is now revealed as having ‘intellectual origins’ as interesting as those of the failed empire in North America.

Questions of intellectual continuity between the eighteenth century and the later Raj are perhaps the most challenging issue raised in the review. As Jon Wilson shows, high Victorians were very keen to appropriate Warren Hastings. They enlisted him as an ally in the struggle against what they regarded as the effete liberalism of their own times that in their view constituted so serious a threat to the British Empire. Hastings was ‘reinvented’ in Wilson’s phrase as a ‘paternal, benevolent autocrat’. Hastings certainly had an extremely ruthless streak in him, as many people, both British and Indian, learnt to their cost. Those who crossed him could literally put their lives at risk. The renter of the Awadh revenues, Almas Ali Khan, would have been murdered if Hastings’s orders about him had been carried out to the letter. Yet, as Wilson’s review brings out and Travers’s thesis develops at considerable length, Hastings believed that the great Mughal emperors had bound themselves to rule within an elaborate code of constitutional provisions and that the British should try to understand these conventions and apply them as a matter of good policy. My statement in the Introduction, quoted by Wilson, that Hastings did not feel himself ‘bound’ by an ancient ‘constitution’ gave a somewhat misleading impression of what he seems to have believed. He considered that the British were not bound in that they had inherited a sovereign power, but that they should exercise an absolutism according to law, with a wide discretion in emergencies. The law that the British enforced must be the Hindu and Islamic law long practised in the British provinces, to be recovered by the scholarly translation of texts and with the guidance of learned pandits and maulavis. The British were not free to innovate or improve. To attempt to do so would undermine Indian society. Such beliefs put a great gulf between him and his nineteenth-century successors, whatever they may have thought.

Burke was more difficult for the later Raj to appropriate. Because they found his views so admirable in other respects, conservative-minded men in India were reluctant to distance themselves from Burke. For them the real enemies who had wantonly besmirched the origins of British rule were James Mill and above all the detested Macaulay. They seem to have felt that Burke had been misinformed and had got most things wrong, but generalised ideals of rule as a trust were perfectly acceptable to them. They indeed saw British rule over India as a trust for the future of the Indian people, but one whose terms were interpreted by the British themselves. Indian views on its terms were not welcome. Burke would of course have had no truck whatsoever with such opinions. For him, the trust by which Britain and India were united was based on God’s eternal law.

As Jon Wilson helpfully point out, Burke quarrelled with Hastings on narrower ground than either of them might have quarrelled with later generations in British India. Yet their quarrel was real enough, however much the distance between them was exaggerated by Burke. If Hastings believed that the British were not bound by an Indian constitution, but should be guided by it as a matter of policy, Burke believed that their obligations were absolute. Indian law was the expression of the natural law that was specifically relevant to the peoples of India. As Wilson puts it, he saw it as ‘an organic, self-contained system of rules and procedures. It could not be detached from the society that had produced it and be administered by foreigners.’ The condition of British rule was that they governed according to that law. They did not have absolute sovereignty. When Hastings claimed it, he uttered blasphemy. His claims of discretionary powers were rank usurpations. Discretion could only be used according to the ultimate good of the people ruled, not to satisfy the emergency exigencies of the rulers.

What united Burke and Hastings, for all their differences, was perhaps a sense of the essential similarity of most human societies. A view of historical evolution through certain stages was coming into vogue, especially in Scottish philosophy, and both men probably subscribed to some version of it. Yet the differences between Britain and India did not seem very great to most eighteenth-century opinion. India was reckoned to be a ‘commercial’ society, if a stagnant one by comparison with Britain. Its laws and its political arrangements, once a crude concept of despotism had been disposed of, had a validity that could not be denied. They were worthy of understanding and respect. For later generations, the steps by which societies climbed up the stairs of progress seemed to be much steeper. The gap between those at the top of the stairs, like Britain, and those lower down, like India, was therefore much wider. This did not mean that Indian law and governance were not thought to have been well enough adjusted to the state that Indian society had reached or that they merited no understanding or respect at all, but if India was to progress beyond its present state, it was pointless to spend too much time on ancient texts or in modelling institutions according to custom. Those were questions fit for antiquarians, but not for statesmen. A new discourse of improvement would replace the old discourse about ancient constitutions.