A review from Brits at their best.
India upended - The British Raj, Decay
Elisabeth Beckett, who defended the freedom of the British people with every nerve in her body until she died in 2009, has written a startling and profound book about India, The British Raj, Decay.
The overall impression of India gained from Attenborough's film Gandhi is that a people longing for independence and freedom fought nobly for their rights against the most powerful empire in the world.
Beckett's research persuaded her that the independence movement of the early 20th century was the organized work of a self-elected class of Hindus to topple British rule and the concepts of equal justice before the law and replace British governance with themselves. Along the way they conspired with German, Russians, and Turks, set whole provinces aflame, and were particularly assiduous about plundering Muslims.
A majority of people may refuse to consider Beckett's perspective, but if they do, they will deprive themselves of a fascinating account, told from the point of view of British people on the ground, and filled with terrifying riots, mutinies, beatings, rescues, treachery, and devotion, both British and Indian.
The book has created a magnetic field around three men:
1) The first is Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, who ordered British soldiers to fire at Indians at Amritsar. His earlier campaigns in the Sarhad, which lies between Persia (Iran), Baluchistan and Afghanistan, are described in the book. They are worth the price of the book. They are riveting. With Britain fighting in Afghanistan as we write, they should be of special interest today. Possibly no one regretted the action in Amritsar more than Dyer himself. It came after several British people had been burned alive and soldiers had been attacked by huge mobs throwing stones and using the heavy clubs called lathis.
2) The second man featured in this book is Gandhi, the Mahatma, whose appearance as a wolf in sheep's clothing is surprising, to say the least. Beckett's research makes her portrayal provocative and disturbingly convincing.
3) The third man is Edwin Montagu, a clever, naive, Socialist ideologue, who came from London to end British governance in India, and learned too late that all was not as he wanted it to be.
No doubt Britain's rule made contributions to India in the form of schools, clean water, famine relief, trade, railroads, and an incorruptible, meritocratic, and colour-blind civil service. Britain also contributed the rule of law, stopped the burning of widows, and ended ruthless gangs, like the Thugs, which had pillaged Indians since the 18th century and violently overrun civil society.
No doubt by the 20th century it was time for Indians to rule themselves. Whether this could have been accomplished more happily, without the murderous divisions that ensued, is the poignant and pertinent question examined by Beckett.
This 484-page book is haunting, and personal. Elisabeth Beckett's unarmed father tried to stop the rebellion in Amritsar with his body. Beckett's style is clear, vivid, and ironic.
The book's original research and appendices will make Decay a source for researchers and writers interested in obtaining all the information available about events which still lie like a shadow on India and Britain.
Elisabeth Beckett died before her manuscript could reach publication. John Wrake is the exemplary gentleman and former army officer who took on the burden of editing the manuscript and seeing it through publication.
at their best