As India enters its 75th year of Independence, you would imagine that most skeletons of the horrific colonial past are known to one and all. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In the recent past, social media has been rife with videos and forwards that talk about the brutality of imperialism and the extent to which it financially and socially plundered India. Reading MJ Akbar’s new book, Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar: Racism and Revenge in the British Raj (Bloomsbury, Rs 899), one gets a sense of how the British Raj nestled itself in the Indian subcontinent and how it not only ended the Indian way of life and values but more significantly, how it instilled a system and mindset that embraced its exploitative ways.
Meticulously researched, a hallmark of Akbar’s works, the gripping narrative sheds light on how the British managed to rule over such a vast piece of land with only a handful of officials. While the data gives an overview of the extent of the pillage — according to statistics for 1750, India produced 24 per cent of the world’s manufacturing output — it’s the other, dare one say, tiny details of how the Raj operated that one needs to read. Drawing upon letters, memoirs, and journals of traders, travellers, bureaucrats, and officers, Akbar gives excellent insight into how the British were the worst colonisers ever known to humanity.
Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar explores the racial relations between Indians and their last foreign invaders. Considering that the British ruled over Indians for nearly two centuries, they never considered it their home, which is what made the relationship unique. The book derives its title from Deolali Cantonment, a transit camp 100 miles from Bombay where the English soldiers drank and made merry before they returned home and one Gobindram Mitra, the first ‘black zamindar’ anointed by the British to extract revenue from the locals, often by letting loose his goons upon the citizenry. The former never cared for India.
The British rarely looked beyond their self-interest, ‘licked’, colloquial for harsh beating, the locals without the slightest hesitation and believed themselves to be superior to the point where they simply abandoned half-caste children because half their blood had come from an Indian mother and they were convinced that the mixed breed children inherited the worst of both genes. On the other hand, the latter went out of the way to warm themselves up in every possible manner to their masters.
The British Crown ruled India through Indian Civil Service, a covenanted service that was initially open only to the British as Lord Curzon, who was certain that God had sent the British to India for the lasting benefit of humanity, believed that birth, breeding, character, education and administrative skill gave the British natural rights to the Indian Civil Service. The emergence of the ‘Brown Sahib’ — the aspirational Indian who tried to assimilate European culture, fuelled the growth of the British in India. The more the masters asserted that Indians were incapable of achieving civilisation on their own, the more the Indians aided the spread of the Raj by trying to become the ‘Brown Sahib’.
The transition entered a new phase in 1922 when the first entrance test for ICS in India was held at Allahabad, and between 1925 and 1935, 311 Indians were taken into the ICS as compared to 255 Europeans, who were sent to Oxford or Cambridge for a course to become proper Brown Sahibs. However, the twain wasn’t destined to meet. No matter how much the Indians tried, the subject and ruler lived parallel lives.
The book is also a scathing indictment of Indian historians who haven’t made the reality and horrors of the British famine policy that claimed millions of lives during their reign common knowledge. Famine was synonymous with British rule; there were 22 major famines under the British till 1915. In 1770, when a famine in Bengal wiped out one-third of the population of Bengal, Warren Hastings, the governor of Bengal, wrote to the Court of Directors on 3 November 1772 about how he raised tax revenues during this horrific disaster by use of violence to 1943, when the Great Bengal Famine left over 3 million dead, the British aided and abetted death of millions by hunger.
Besides offering deep insight into a race that arrived as traders in 1608 and ruled over the subcontinent from 1757 to 1947, Akbar’s Doolally Sahib and the Black Zamindar shatters the myth that the British were civil to Indians or did us something for us, which in reality wasn’t self-serving. Historians who claim that things such as infrastructure that the British left behind, which was good for India, or taught us how to be a democracy are encouraged mainly by the British. This is vintage MJ Akbar — deft, delicious, and a must-read.
The writer is a noted film historian and author. Views expressed are personal.