Why I think the popular view of Indian history needs challenging

October 5, 2001

In the series that I am presenting on Channel 4, An Indian Affair , I look at the relationship between Britain and India, beginning with the East India Company and Robert Clive and finishing with the Indian Mutiny and the Raj.

In doing so, I want to challenge a number of myths and misconceptions that are still quite widespread.

First, I do not think people in general are aware how wealthy India was in the 18th century. They do not realise quite how narrow the technological, industrial and political gap was then between the West and the rest. I doubt if anything I say in the series will come as a surprise to a professional historian in the field, but I would like to have some effect on the popular understanding of the history of India - to show that it is not just about Gandhi or about people starving and economic backwardness.

Second, I think we have a rather narrow view of British-Indian relations that is dominated by images of the Raj. I want to show that before the Victorian era, there was a very different, much more tolerant relationship.

Many of the British in 18th-century India were interested in Indian culture and philosophy. Warren Hastings, the first governor-general, commissioned history writing, translations of literary works and so forth, and these had a real impact on European philosophy and literature. Hastings is a good example of somebody who was not racist; he had an attractive attitude towards Indians, which will come as a surprise to many general viewers.

If there is a big idea that I would like to come out of the series, it is that racism should be historicised. It is something that comes and goes - you have to look at the political and international context. We should not assume that people who come from different cultures will naturally be antagonistic to one another.

Finally, as a historian, I want people to think about history in a less moralistic way; you cannot see historical figures straightforwardly as either "goodies" or "baddies".

The series shows that the imperial relationship went through various phases. Sometimes the British were very oppressive, but at other times their relations with Indians were actually quite collaborative. Indians were instrumental in involving the British in Bengali politics in the first place.

Similarly later, many Indians welcomed aspects of British "westernisation". They wanted to learn English. They believed it would give India access to new ideas and revive its culture.

I have a problem with the rather simplistic stereotypes of some post-colonial work, which presents the British simply as oppressors and the Indians simply as victims. But the "schoolboy" history approach, which depicts the British as "civilising" India, carrying the "white man's burden", is equally unsatisfactory. The interchange between cultures and the understanding of cultures among our predecessors is much more complex than that, and we need to understand people's motives in context.

I am half Indian but western-educated, and my perspectives are pretty western. So we decided to have some Indian historians in the series - principally Omprakash Kajariwal and Rajat Ray.

We also have a short piece about my family's history in the third episode. Programme-makers like the subject to be personalised in that way. But I think we have ended up with a series that is not dumbed down, a series that deals with ideas as well as telling a story.

  • Interview by John Davies

The three-part series Untold: An Indian Affair begins on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm.

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