The pitfalls of being too flexible a friend

December 3, 2004

Media-land relevance does not always sit well with historical consistency, finds Maria Misra

I suppose, like all academics, I've dreamt of making a great splash in my field, founding the Misra School and a new paradigm of imperial history perhaps. But recently I've begun to wonder if this modest ambition of mine is really compatible with my dabblings in the media. For while consistency is generally prized by historians, in media-land a certain degree of "flexibility" is admired. The reason for this, I suspect, is the media's concern with "relevance", and in my own field, the history of empire, the criteria of relevance have shifted rather dramatically in recent years.

Three years ago I made a short series of programmes for Channel 4 on the emergence of British power in India in the late 18th century. The programme had been commissioned by Channel 4's now defunct multicultural department and aimed to give a fresh view of the British in India. I was hoping to displace the stiff-upper-lipped and pith-helmeted Raj stereotype and tell the less well-known, but rather more appealing, story of the East India Company era.

The programme argued that India in the late 18th century was the setting for a benign form of globalisation. It queried the assumption that the British had always been racist, that Indians were history's victims and suggested that the India of that era was a prototype for our contemporary multicultural societies.

The series had a hero: Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of Bengal, in effect chief executive of Britain's commercial-cum-political operations in Asia. Hastings cut an attractive figure: he befriended Indians and held Indian culture in high esteem, commissioning the first translation of the great Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita .

But despite these virtues, something made me a little uncomfortable about Hastings: his impeachment for what amounted to war crimes for his activities in India. But he had been acquitted and his chief prosecutor was the notorious "aristophile" Edmund Burke, a less attractive character. So I decided to give Hastings the benefit of the doubt; in the series he emerged as a generally "good thing".

But now the BBC has asked me to revisit the impeachment as part of its Great Debates series on Radio 4 and I find, to my surprise, that my loyalties have switched. Much of the case against Hastings - that he was a torturer, a murderer, a defiler of women's virtue and so forth - was pretty thin. But Burke's greater charge was that Hastings had presided over an arrogant and disruptive imperialist intervention in India, wreaking desolation and havoc on a reasonably ordered, if alien, society.

Since I made the TV series, September 11 happened, and the night the first programme was broadcast Afghanistan was invaded. In the light of America's Afghan adventure and Operation Shock and Awe, Hastings' prate about "good government", while propping up puppet potentates with British military power, seems oddly familiar. And the question of whether Hastings was a pioneer of multiculturalism seems less compelling than whether stronger states should impose their will on weaker ones. Burke, who insisted that the commercial and the political be firmly separated and that external interference in foreign societies had to be done with sensitivity, circumspection and sympathy, seems far more "relevant".

With the corporate logo of Halliburton and the storming of Fallujah imprinted on my mind, I've realised, belatedly, that Burke was right.

Hastings was no hero. I'm still torn on the question of consistency versus contemporary relevance in history. But either way, I suspect that the notion of a new Misra paradigm will remain a pipe dream.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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