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Changing Face of History

Denys P. Leighton

By Thomas R. Metcalf
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. vi 317, Rs. 575.00


The British claimed they ruled India for India’s good and not for their own. This collection of fourteen essays written between 1961 and 2002 by an eminent American historian of modern India and the British Empire helps us evaluate claims about the altruism and benevolence of the British, as well as competing claims about their self-delusion and hypocrisy, by depicting a variety of British interventions into Indian life. Thomas Metcalf examines how the British altered the legal environment of post-Mughal north India, attempted to secure the loyalty of their Indian subjects by creating or reforming institutions, and conceptualized and symbolized the imperial idea by shaping the Indian built environment—struggling to make the Raj palatable not only to the colonized but to themselves as well. Forging the Raj is introduced by an autobiographical essay, giving account of the author’s formative influences, shifting interests and scholarly preoccupations. Here Metcalf traces the emergence of South Asian studies in the American academy and comments on the influence of postcolonial studies on the practice of western historians of India. The essays, all but one of them previously published, are arranged into three sections corresponding to broad subjects of Metcalf’s scholarly work, signified as ‘land’, ‘architecture’, and ‘migration’. Specialists will be familiar with most of these pieces, none of which has been modified since its initial publication.   The first three essays included in this collection deal with control of the land, ownership and revenue collection in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh during the first half century of Crown rule. The essays regard the ‘Mutiny’ as an object lesson to contending groups of British reformers and pragmatists who had debated since the late eighteenth century the utility of peasant proprietorship. Members of both parties came to believe that landed society might be reconstituted around a responsible and efficient—as opposed to a ‘decadent’—gentry. Metcalf is primarily concerned here with British policy (pre- and post-Mutiny) and administrators’ calculations about legal arrangements conducive to social peace and prosperity in the countryside. Rather less does he consider the wider social pattern of acquiescence and resistance to land and revenue policies down to 1900. He demonstrates how men like Charles Wingfield, Chief Commissioner of Oudh (1859-1866), placed their faith in the taluqdars (whose status was officially redefined in 1869) as key agents of revenue collection and justice administration, and how policies in the decades following the Mutiny were simultaneously implemented ...

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