Author Journal / History

Amritsar and the British in India

Nick Lloyd.

Amritsar and the British in IndiaHistory is written by the winners. I was constantly reminded of this somewhat hackneyed phrase when writing my new book, The Amritsar Massacre.

When looking at British imperial history and the legacy of the Raj in India and Pakistan, it is important to remember who won, which in this case was the Indian National Congress. The Congress was an organisation founded in 1885 by a retired Indian civil servant, Allan Octavian Hume, ostensibly to provide a forum for educated Indians to meet and discuss the politics of the day. By the 1930s Congress had grown into the largest and most well-organized nationalist political entity in Asia, and it was this, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, which took power in India when the British departed. It was also Congress who were instrumental in shaping how the history of the subcontinent has subsequently been seen.

In 1947 Congress faced a difficult challenge: to weld together a country of remarkable size and variety, many languages and two main religions (alongside hundreds of others); moreover, a country that had recently gone through the trauma of partition with its grim toll of communal dead. Nehru recognised the importance of history in helping India to recover from the past. He knew how important it was to construct a legacy of heroism and sacrifice, of non-violence and Gandhian morality, that would be a beacon for future generations to aspire to. While Nehru did not always discount the British connection and the administrative and legal structure of imperial rule (much of which remained in place), he was more interested in building up an alternative history, centred around Congress, that would, he believed, have an important role in shaping the new India. Over the coming decades, his lead would be followed by generations of historians who studied the origins of nationalism, the nature of Indian political organization, the history of the subaltern, and the growth of a modern Indian consciousness. In all of this attention, the role of the British, those stiff-upper-lipped administrators and their memsahib wives, became neglected, lost to history; a vision of the past, not of the future.

This is not to say that the history of the British in India was totally ignored, it was not, but the great tide of historical scholarship went in the direction that Nehru would have wanted. Perhaps it was an inevitable feature of independence, but in doing so, our understanding of the British in India became stagnated and caricatured; perfectly encapsulated by the unsympathetic figures that feature in the endlessly repeated, and extremely influential movies, Gandhi and A Passage to India, or in the mini series, The Jewel in the Crown. This was the essential story of the British and how they ran India: stuffy, aloof, out of touch; obsessed by the Mutiny; criminally negligent of India’s people; and only too eager to use violence to crush legitimate political dissent. Given the widespread ignorance of how Nehru’s post-1947 Indian state went about its business, this clash between British ‘imperial terrorism’ and Indian ‘non-violence’  became a defining feature of modern Indian history.

I believe it is time to move beyond these myths of nationalism. As I argue in The Amritsar Massacre, much of what has passed for historical consensus over many years is flawed, indeed often deeply so. The failure to deal with India’s past honestly and objectively, for political reasons, has allowed a whole series of fallacies and inaccuracies to flourish that have obscured the true meaning of the events in question. There is little doubt that Amritsar was an awful, shocking event – that traumatized the British as much as anyone else – but the story remains incomplete, and many historians have shied away from examining key aspects of this period, particularly our understanding of how the British really acted. For far too long we have lacked a proper appreciation of how the authorities dealt with the situation in March and April 1919, with many writers falling back on the old stereotypes of the British in India: their hysteria; their over-reaction; their obsession with crushing ‘another Mutiny’. Only by re-examining the original archive material and by challenging unproven allegations can a new history of this contentious period be written. It is time for the ‘losers’ to be heard. Some will undoubtedly find it objectionable or inconvenient to do this, but if India is to face its past with honesty and integrity, it must be done. ■

The Amritsar MassacreNick Lloyd is Lecturer in Defense Studies at King’s College, London, and the author of The Amritsar Massacre, described by BBC History Magazine as ‘an excellent work of painstaking research.’

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2 thoughts on “Amritsar and the British in India

  1. Thanks for an interesting piece–I shall definitely read your book on the Amritsar Massacre now. But may I point out that Allan Octavian Hume, founder of the Indian National Congress, did not have a knighthood–unlike Rabindranath Tagore (who famously repudiated his knighthood after the Amritsar Massacre in 1919).

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