Monday, 6 September 2010



How could a small country become the ruler of a vast Empire with the Indian subcontinent at its centre? Was it because the British were really “superior” as they claimed? Was it their military skill? Did the British offer better governance in India? English historian Roderick Matthews has studied these questions and the history of the British Raj in his book The Flaws in the Jewel — Challenging the Myths of British India.

Matthews begins by rightly pointing out that it was primarily the ‘English’ business interest — as the English East India Company (EIC) and not a ‘British’ ambition — that began India’s gradual colonisation; the process began almost a 100 years before the Act of Union in 1707 created the nation of Great Britain.

Right from the book’s onset what strikes is the author’s ability to avoid the skewed British or the ultra-nationalist Indian perspectives of India’s history. Matthews minces no words while showing that the English-turned-British ideas about India were improper in many ways: the foremost among them being that Indians are “morally inferior” and “incapable of ruling themselves”. India, as a political union, may have been the result of British rule, but India of 2010 has proved that the 18th- and 19th-century British colonisers were shamefully wrong.

Though the book refers to innumerable records to support the analyses and the questions it raises, Matthews never narrates the events of history in a typical fashion that one finds in history books. His language remains lucid which makes the book engrossing and enlightening for those interested in the flaws and puzzles of a bygone era.

One such analysis dwells on the conflicting views among the English polity about what to do with India. There were those who opposed the EIC’s trading monopoly; there were the Benthamites with ideas of public welfare who wanted to free Indians from the perceived immoral ways and religious superstitions. But at no point of time, any of these people thought it proper to give back India to the Indians. Matthews skilfully navigates through and dissects each of the views vis-à-vis the phases in British politics and India.

According to Matthews, the English-British rule in India comprised four phases: greed, scorn, fear and indifference. This classification of the history that is linked with using the concept of the different generations of imperialism — extermination of the opponents (including the French challenges), absorption of the native population to some extent, and seeking a faux legality to Empire-building — is brilliant.

The author didn’t over-simplify the history, rather made it more accessible to the common readers like me. And in that effort, Matthews has analysed the economics of railways in India from its advent to the Independence. He has also brought to fore a well-balanced view of George Nathaniel Curzon, the Viceroy of India (1899-1905), a mediocre but proud and self-obsessed man who was instrumental in Bengal’s partition in 1905. Matthews’s analysis of Curzon’s failings — how he unwittingly sabotaged his own policies — could be educative for all those who intend to play a role in public life as administrators.

However, my personal favourite is the chapter on Partition of India that led to the creation of Pakistan. Whether accepting the Partition was a folly or not is a different issue. But this chapter shines in its ability to bluntly show that some of our most revered leaders were not infallible, a fact that often gets hidden by the stream of eulogies.

Perhaps to liven up history, Matthews also plays a little game by trying to understand what if 10 historical events would have been different. It makes for an interesting reading — with facts, counterfacts and projections — that I enjoyed along with coffee and chips. But even without those, this book is unquestionably refreshing.