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A Triangular Drama


Ainslee T. Embree

PEOPLE, PRINCES AND PARA¬MOUNT POWER: SOCIETY AND POLITICS IN THE INDIAN PRINCELY STATES
Edited by Robin Jeffrey
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1978, Rs. 80.00

VOLUME III NUMBER 5 March/April 1979

To give the essays in this collection a unifying theme, the editor raises what is perhaps the most interesting question about the historical experience of India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: How did the British manage to stay so long? For they did stay a long time in comparison with the record of most im­perial rulers in India and elsewhere. The Indian Empire in the full extent of its territoria1 control lasted longer, after all, than that of the Mauryas, or the Guptas, or the Mughals. From the conquest of the Punjab to August 15, 1947 is over a hund­red years; among the great historic em­pires only the Romans have done much better. Against this fact, the authors-or at least their editor, by way of interpre­tation—asks questions about the endu­rance of the British: who supported them, and, in the end, what made their position untenable? Was it a universal tide of history, sweeping away the past to make way for new political forms, or was the end determined by the patterns of relationship that had created and sus­tained the Indian Empire? These ques­tions are seldom asked in modern historical studies, partly because attent­ion has been focused upon the nation­alist movement or the drama of partition. When it has been asked, the tendency has been to give an answer in terms of dogma, with the dogmatic explanations having in common an appeal to forces beyond history. When Keshub Chunder Sen declared in Calcutta in 1877 that ‘Victoria in an instrument in the hands of Providence to elevate this degraded country in the scale of nations,’ the record states that the response of the audience, presumably composed of the Western-educated elite of the great metro­polis, was ‘Loud Cheers.’ In our own time, Philip Mason, sophisticated and ur­bane though his book is, found the explan­ation of the long British presence in the moral character and the vocational dedi­cation, born out of the demands of time and place, of the Founders and Guar­dians. The secular version of the provi­dential guidance of what H.A.L. Fisher called the ‘play of the contingent and unforeseen’ received its preliminary apotheosis when Marx saw the British intervention in India as having broken, however unintentionally, the frozen grip of Oriental Despotism to produce the first social revolution in India. A muta­tion of all ...


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