For those who think that Britain's imperial record has been badly
traduced, maligned and misinformed the acquisition of this book for
20-25 pounds will be a good investment.
Dr Lalvani, OBE, DSc, founder and Chairman of one of Britain's most
successful biotec companies and an Indian who settled in Britain five
decades ago, has produced a very readable and hugely informed book
which in his own words "seeks to recognize the positive side of the
imperial coin and to set the record straight". He was spurred to write this
book on how British enterprise transformed India because in his many
decades of residence in Britain, "I have not encountered a single native
Brit who has stated any form of belief that the British benefited India".
He starts by seeking to give a perspective to the performance of the East
India Company which is widely believed to have looted India. He points
out that by the time the EIC came, in 1757, to control the richest part of
what had been the Mughal Empire it had already been comprehensively
looted by the most savage invasions ever known; by Persians and then
three Afghan invasions. A French traveller records of this area "poverty,
plundering and anarchy as result of the perfidy of the nobles". "Delhi",
says Lalvani, "the richest city in the world, was ransacked and emptied of
all treasures and antiquities, while 20,000 Indian soldiers were killed and
a far greater number made slaves".
It is against this background that the actions of the EIC need to be
assessed. While the EIC did make enormous profits they laid the basis for
a central state and a unified country, and when they entered this long
devastated city of Delhi in 1803 it was restored - as was also the Taj
Mahal. They then abolished the "iniquitous tax" on non-Muslims. They
also enacted important social reforms, eradicating thuggee, prohibiting
infanticide and banning suttee (burning widows on the husband's funeral
pyre). "After more than 2,000 years during which not one Indian ruler intervened - it took foreigners, at great personal risk, a commercial
enterprise with a huge amount to lose, to make punishable by law a
centuries-old practice", from which they had nothing to gain financially.
The practices of the EIC were not immune from Parliamentary scrutiny as
Warren Hastings found out. His trial demonstrated that Britain was the
only imperial power which had a Parliament that could and did call to
account the excesses of colonial administrators. Parliament intervened
because EIC business "became increasingly rampant and unethical".
Revoking its monopoly in 1813 did not lead to outright Government
control until the Indian Mutiny (or "War of Independence" as Dr. Lalvani
does not name it). Despite EIC shortcomings, "It revolutionized Indian life
and its development of an infrastructure was responsible for creating
millions of jobs".
Dr. Lalvani is keen to emphasise the importance of investment in railways,
canals, shipping, ports, power, bridges, mail services, roads, industries
and the huge contribution that enterprising British engineers and other
professionals made to the emergence of India as a significant economic
power. Indeed over half the book is an account of how British investment
and enterprise developed Indian infrastructure and he records the names
and achievements of these long undeservedly forgotten professionals and
He does not overlook the many educational institutions, historians,
archaeologists, surveyors, botanists who built schools, established
national parks and who recognized and indeed discovered India's once
great history, and restored much of its forgotten great cultural heritage.
Lord Curzon is praised for his support for the research by scholars into
India's past. Curzon said "There are no countries with such precious arts,
antiquities and monuments as India." It was an archaeologist Sir John
Marshall who discovered the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro cities,
established in the third and fourth millennia BC, which were found to be
more advanced than any cultures of their time.
Among Britain's great institutional legacies, according to Dr. Lalvani, was
the Indian Civil Service which was properly established after the Mutiny,
and whose "unselfish and ceaseless toil" enabled fewer than 1,000 to
govern a country of 500 million people. He goes onto make a quite
remarkable statement: "The ICS was by any measure the most efficient
bureaucracy in world history". High praise indeed but difficult for anyone
to substantiate. However it will thrill those still around to read such praise
and will no doubt please their descendants. My own experience, not as
ambitious, but relevant, having worked in many countries since the end of the war, has been that British colonial administration possessed a
competence and integrity unmatched by any other public service in the
world in the 20th century.
The other institutions which merit Dr Lalvani's admiration include the
judiciary, which abolished many of the unpleasant aspects of Sharia law
and left a wholly secular legal system based on the Magna Carta and is
the basis for Indian law to this day. The Constitution has copied the British
system of governance. He also makes the interesting point that the Indian
army and police were staffed by recruits from all castes and cultures
without fear of favour and left behind a formidable army.
There is little or nothing in the book which is critical of British rule although
the author is not naive enough or dishonest enough to claim British rule
was perfect. Its detractors will no doubt be keen to point this out. He does
not deny that there are many histories which are highly critical of British
rule, especially of the EIC. Nevertheless in the post-war world there has
been such a negative picture of Britain's colonial history, that this book,
written by one of the products of the Empire, is an important step to help
restore a more balanced, fairer view of Britain's colonial rule.
Let me finish with a quote from the last sentence from Dr Lalvani's
introduction: "What would India be like today if the British had stayed at
News of this book began to filter through to BACSA members immediately after its publication earlier this year. The author, founder and chairman of the large vitamin company Vitabiotics, was interviewed on the commercial radio station LBC, a rare honour for an Indian historian. And Dr Lalvani is Indian, born in Karachi in 1931, then moving to Bombay, before settling in London, initially as a student. Even more astonishingly he is full of praise for the British Raj, and in particular for its engineers and entrepreneurs. He has dedicated his life, he writes 'in realising the blessings and opportunities afforded to me by the unique Anglo-Indian connection'. And he asks pertinently 'What would India be like today if the British had simply chosen to stay at home?' Golly! This is inflammatory stuff in today's politically correct world and will subsequently be dismissed by many historians of colonial studies. But the book has been warmly welcomed both here and in India, not so much for its revisionist views, which are certainly present, but for the sheer accumulation of evidence that the British did, for multiple reasons, shape the face of today's India.
lt is undeniable that the fruits of Britain's Industrial Revolution and the European Enlightenment both found a warm welcome in India, which had been struck by dissent and division during the eighteenth century as the hitherto firm hand of the Mughal emperors began to waver. Railways, steamships, iron foundries, bridges, canals, telegraphs and new roads all changed the face of the landscape for ever, bringing the huge subcontinent together as an (almost) cohesive force for the first time. In particular the railways, as well as moving people and goods over previously unimaginable distances, were impervious to the distinctions of Indian society. The Chief Engineer of the Madras Railway said in 1854 it was not the responsibility of the railways to recognize 'creed or caste' and the only distinction was that 'which can be purchased by money' - a useful early exercise in democracy and the shift from the medieval to the modern.
But to imagine that all these enterprises were carried out entirely by Britons would be quite wrong. Few of them would have been possible without active Indian support. It was the Parsi Wadhia family that built the first dry-dock in Bombay in 1755 and many of the best ocean going ships too, including 170 ships for the East India Company. Another Parsi, Ardaseer Cursetjee, was sent by the Company to study steam technology in England and on his return to Bombay was put in charge of a hundred British engineers there.
Other Parsi entrepreneurs include the great Tata family, who provided the steel for the hastily construct ed railtracks in Mesopotamia during World War One. There is no doubt however, that it was in Britain's financial interests to have a captive market in India for all manner of goods, and that many of the manufacturing giants in the Midlands, like the Butterley Company in Ripley and Ruston in Lincoln did very well out of exporting its wares to India under favourable tariffs.
The author notes other, less obvious, benefits of British rule like the Indian Forestry Service and the establishment of Botanic gardens. Again, one could argue that these were not purely altruistic enterprises, though they did of course provide work for many local people. And it takes a brave man to suggest that the British Raj, at its peak, was particularly interested in conserving wild life. .... but nevertheless the establishment of Kaziranga as a reserved forest and the creation of what later became Corbett Park are cited. Dr Lalvani has produced a valuable reference book and its proceeds will go to fund a new Indo-British research group into our shared histories. We wish him well.