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February 11, 2018

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Oriental Despotism and Justifications of the Raj in India

February 9, 2018

The ideological framework with which colonial rule in India was imagined was tied to the evolution and perception of British society. The belief of being a civilized society guaranteeing freedom, a just rule of law and universal rights to its citizens made it paramount moreover necessary to justify their conquest and rule of India. On the face of considerable support and criticism, the British had to answer questions as to their purpose, motives and adopted roles in the lives of the Indian people and the Indian society. They answered these questions in numerous ways.


It is important to keep in mind the historical background of the British and understand their desire to spread the idea of civilization across the world. In their conquest of Ireland for purely material reasons, the British embarked on a mission to satiate their conscience by stating that as Christians and civilized, it was their duty to reform the barbaric and uncivilized Irish. By passing on the ideals of justice, English laws and the right to private property, the British saw themselves doing what the Romans had done to the English centuries ago. This again was an important milestone for the British. The core principles of a “proper” English society, laws and right to property allowed themselves to be viewed as different from the rest of the world.


The way the British perceived their own society and the world outside was crucial, it was a distinction of being civilized and uncivilized, of “heaven” and “hell” and of being or not being Christian. But with the onset of scientific study and greater knowledge of India, the earlier views of the east being a demonic land slowly disappeared. Scientific study enabled the British to compare societies not on the basis of religion but on the basis of being modern and progressive. Thus, the British took upon themselves the task of modernizing the east and bring them on the road to progress.


Keeping in mind the core principles of their own society and the perceived distinction between them and the east, the British set about evolving an ideological framework that would underlie their rule in India after the battle of Plassey. The first of which would be the idea of oriental despotism. It is essential to remember that the frameworks that developed in Britain greatly depended on the intellectual bearings of that period.

The idea of oriental despotism took shape in the early years of the Raj in India. Alexander Dow, Edward Burke, Philip Francis and several other British intellectuals judged and commented on the state of India, politically and socially. The belief circulating around the major British voices of that time was that India for centuries lived under despotic rule on the basis of several claims. Despotism here indicates the lack of any codified rule except for the decrees of the ruler. Firstly, they claimed that the Indians had submitted themselves to centuries of Islamic rule. This pointed at two things- the nature of the Indian people and that of Islamic rule. Alexander Dow hinted at the culture and geography as reasons for their submissive nature. He stated that the tropical climate of India pushed its people to look for ease and tranquility in their daily life and be subservient to foreign rule. Islamic rule on the other hand directed at a religion who negotiated only by the sword, this gave the British further impetus to believe India was ruled arbitrarily and on the whims and fancies of a ruler. The British thus, took it upon themselves to bestow upon the Indian people the ideals of liberty, justice and modernity. The mode through which these ideals would be executed came into further debate as they ruled in an authoritarian manner. They justified this by stating that the Indians who for so long lived as slaves would find freedom and liberty difficult to comprehend as it was not a part of their inherent character.


However, after the enlightenment period and the rise of scientific study, the British discovered that India was an “ancient land with enduring laws and customs”. However this did not stop them from looking at India as an inferior society. India was now an antiquated land forever in decay and the British were modern and progressive. After the 1800s, the British began to see that the Hindus had their own code of law and aimed at returning to the Indians their own laws after centuries of Islamic rule. After this, the British took the help of the Brahmins’ to establish the most authoritarian Indian text to govern the people. Due to their knowledge of Sanskrit and the vedas, the British thought the Brahmins to be the purest, this allowed them to occupy the upper rungs of Indian society. Hindu law was codified from among the Brahmins and the British officials.

Once the issue of laws were settled, the British had to look at how Indian society would be governed and the mechanisms that would allow just governance. Before this the British had to determine how far the East India Company would be involved in governance. Once they decided on this, the British began to evolve a fundamental set of principles that were a reflection of their own society like the just exercise of law, right to property and improvement of society. These set of principles were executed through an elaborate scheme. The British were very careful of their image and went to great lengths to justify their act. To execute these principles they followed Locke in creating organs of the government- legislature, executive and judiciary. Each organ would balance the other but moreover, this served to ensure that they weren’t complacent in their rule of India. The division of power among the three organs were not only to efficiently execute laws but also to check corruption and malpractices within these organs.


British intellectuals like Edward Burke continued to stress that they would be able to shake off the guilt of oppression only by ruling in the favour and interests of the Indian people. This required disciplining British officials in India and reordering their activities so as to ensure that power would not be exercised arbitrarily. After the institutions of governance, the British secured property rights in the hands of the zamindar as they believed that the old system of land holding came through from the time of oriental despotism. When it came to actual governance of India, the British showed to have no trust on their own Indian employees and believed them to be inherently corrupt.

But it was the spread of romanticism in 18th century Europe that proved to be another ideological shift. The romantics were sensitive to history as a living expression of a society’s character, they wanted the perpetuity of Indian institutions and to reclaim to the Raj the Indian sense of personal government. While Cornwallis aimed at securing property in the hands of the zamindar, the romantics wanted to secure land in the hands of the peasants. Romantics like Thomas Munro challenged the Cornwallis system of limited governance and impersonal laws and instead advocated a more personal style of rule. They wanted to rule India in a manner distinct from the British, rather they celebrated the differences in society, history and culture of India and Britain.


The other important difference was that the romantics wanted to install the collector as the official central to British rule in India while the old regime of Cornwallis laid emphasis on the role of the judge. The romantics believed that the collector would lay the foundations of a welfare state whereby the official would act as the “ma-baap” of the citizenry while the judge would again reinforce the ideal of the despot giving out judgments though from codified laws.


Romanticism concluded with the onset of liberalism in British society. Liberalism as a doctrine took shape from the time of the industrial revolution. It wasn’t a doctrine about how the British Empire should be organized but a “strategy for remaking a New Britain”. However, it wasn’t a very coherent doctrine and found resistance in Britain. India was thus used as a testing ground for liberalism. The plans, ideals and justifications that came with liberalism was in direct conflict with what was envisioned during the romantic age. While the romantics backed the idea of ruling India in an Indian manner, the liberals suggested that the ultimate success for the British would not be civilization of the Indians but ensuring that the Indians were an image of the British, thought and behaved like them. The British involvement in the education of Indians reinforced this ideal.


Thinkers like John Stuart Mill emphasized that the Indians had no claim to representative democracy. The raging view of that period was that the future success of reason demanded the exercise of barbarism by the British in the present. The idea that the Indians were inferior to the British continued to exist even after subsequent changes in the ideologies of British society.


In conclusion, the British imagined their rule of India as an effort to modernize an inferior people. They paid great attention to the exercise of law and policy in India and set up proper justifications for their every move. The three broad ideological frameworks under which oppression and modernization was carried out were oriental despotism, romanticism and liberalism.

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