Proconsuls who ruled the jewel

November 21, 1997

VICEROY: Curzon to Mountbatten. By Hugh Tinker. Oxford University Press, 266pp, Pounds 11.99. ISBN 0 19 577698 4.

What Hugh Tinker calls "a kind of personal retrospect, completed when a lifetime of writing about southern Asia is almost over" is a chronicle of British Indian history between 1899 and 1947 compiled from the interplay of the personality, character, problems and ambitions of the ten viceroys who then ruled the jewel in the crown. But the study is limited to the viceroy-India Office relationship; developments in India are relegated to a small and secondary place and mentioned sporadically. What matters is the cut and thrust of the arguments which disfigure or decorate the official correspondence. Each viceroy is allowed one chapter to demonstrate his interest in, and understanding of, India, the ebb and flow of his reformist zeal, his preference for Hindus or Muslims, his relationship with his secretary of state and the British Cabinet, and his success and failure as a proconsul. His dealings with the Indian leaders and the native princes receive curt treatment. Tinker has every right to choose his terrain, but it should be indicated in the title.

Hurry, carelessness and the absence of a copy editor have marred a good book. The bibliography is grossly inadequate and stops inexplicably at Lord Reading. There is no index. The book was written in 1982-83 and published in 1997.

More substantially, there are statements of doubtful validity. C. F. Andrews's international influence is exaggerated. The Curzon-Mountbatten comparison in chapter one disregards Curzon's prodigious intellectual and administrative abilities and Mountbatten's inflated ego and lack of integrity. The Lucknow Pact might have been "a major triumph for Jinnah", but it rang the knell of Bengali and Punjabi Muslim majorities. "Thousands" were killed in the Punjab carnage of 1947; read "hundreds of thousands" or "millions". Most seriously, Tinker's statement that the ICS monopoly in the viceroy's executive council was broken only "in the 1930s" is an error unexpected from the doyen of British historians of imperial India. I can name nine non-ICS men who sat in the Council between 1909 and 1925.

Sources of over 90 per cent of the quotations are not identified. Presumably they are taken from the British archives, but in such matters presumption will not do. The last page says, "All the papers listed here are from the India Office Records". There is no list. All this notwithstanding, the book has two enormous virtues. First, it provides source material of great worth and freshness. Secondly, the treatment of the themes is honest, balanced and dispassionate. It is a pity Tinker did not spend another three months on the final draft.

K. K. Aziz is a political scientist and historian.

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