Civis Britannicus Sum


To the memory of the British Empire in India,

Which conferred subjecthood upon us,
But withheld citizenship.
To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:
“Civis Britannicus sum”
Because all that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.

I am an unabashed Imperialist. Not of the Glory to the Empire kind, but more of the there-was-some-good-in-the-Empire sort. Nothing in history is more tantalizing than What-if. And nowhere is it truer in Indian history than in relation to the Raj. What if Nawab Siraj ud Daula had taken precautions to cover his artillery from rain at Plassey? What if the French Governor who succeeded Dupleix had even half of his enterprise? What if the Napoleon-Tipu alliance had materialised? What if the Maratha wars had ended the other way? And what if the rag tag sepoys of 1857 had been helped by the Nizam and the Sikhs? Ultimately however, the Company Bahadur and its successor, the Raj did come to stay in India for close to two hundred years and for good or for bad changed us irrevocably.

Nirad Chaudhuri’s dedication sums up the British experience in India pithily. They gave us the notion of an Indian State. They gave us the English language. They gave us (a rather illusory) idea of equality before law and they laid out 50,000 km of the Indian Railways that for the first time in this nation’s history acquainted the Punjabi with the Malayali and the Ahom with the Gujarati. But as Civis Britannicus Sum, that anguished Sicilian cry against Roman brutality, conveys; there was also a deep sense of rage against the Raj. It denied Indians citizenship, its colonial economy brutalized the Indian peasantry and broke the back of an already primitive agricultural setup, famines frequently carried away millions and for the vast majority of Britishers in India the kaalas were an inferior race-to be ruled and subjugated.

The nuance with which the Empire ought to be treated is missing in contemporary Indian readings of the Raj. Good administration and the overbrooding presence of the State in what was, atleast in the 18th century, a subcontinent in ferment did a lot to make what we call the Modern Indian State. Men of the calibre of Charles Metcalfe, Montstuart Elphinstone, Thoman Munro and Lord Macaulay were simultaneously genuine well wishers of India as well as unabashed flagbearers of the Company Bahadur’s divine right to rule. The Raj era had its own such ambiguous figures. Curzon, Hardinge, Hume and their ilk. This explains why the Indians never felt the sort of resentment against the Britishers that has been the experience of other Post Colonial societies around the world. The Sahibs who stayed back were treated with awe and reverence before the sweeping changes of the 60s convinced them that it was time to pack up and leave.

History seldom has any black and white. It would be hard to find a better example than the Raj.

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