This article is an edited transcript of Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India with Shashi Tharoor on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 June 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
In 1885, the Indian Nation Congress (INC) was established by a liberal Scotsman, Allan Octavian Hume, as a vehicle for Indian opinion. Hume and his fellow liberal-minded, Anglifying lawyers sought to write decorous memoranda to the viceroy, seeking entirely reasonable and very modestly couched and phrased benefits.
It was all very constitutionalist rather than revolutionary.
Had the British been sincere in their proclaimed desire to associate Indians with governance, then the INC would have been the perfect representational body.
The presidents of the INC included Christians, Hindus, Parsis and Muslims. Every single community of any consequence in urban, educated India was represented there.
They were not confrontational, they were not radical, they just wanted to work with the Brits.
Did Britain deliberately undermine the INC?
Not only did the British consistently fail to give the congress any attention, but they then encouraged the setting up of the All-India Muslim League, a religiously-based alternative. This deliberately undermined the Indian National Congress’ claim to be a nationally inclusive body.
The Brits were actually going out of their way to prevent the growth of democracy in India.
In 1906, Henry Nevinson, a journalist with the Sunday Times, attended some of the Indian National Congress meetings and wrote of his utter astonishment that these constructive, positive and well-meaning attempts were being so ruthlessly and rigidly spurned by the British.
After World War One, the British Liberal MP Vickerman Rutherford wrote of his exasperation at Britain’s behaviour in India:
“Never in the history of the world was such a hoax perpetrated upon a great people as England perpetrated upon India, when in return for India’s invaluable service during the war, we gave to the Indian nation such a discreditable, disgraceful, undemocratic, tyrannical constitution.”
Yet despite such widespread denunciations from within the British establishment, somehow the pecuniary interest always prevailed. India was far too valuable a source of revenue and comfortable employment for the British to contemplate real change at that time.