As Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, Thomas R. Metcalf specializes in South Asian History. His 1995 work, Ideologies of the Raj, is included within the volumes of The New Cambridge History of India. Ideologies of the Raj seeks to investigate how the British aimed to justify their rule over India and its subjects. Metcalf’s volume is a useful summary (especially after reading the works of Bernard Cohn and Nicholas B. Dirks) covering many aspects of British India. Metcalf focuses on two areas in his study of British rule in India: the similarities and differences in Britain and India as seen by the British.
Metcalf argues that the British used ideologies to convince themselves of their right to govern India. The similarities and differences between the Britain’s self-perceptions and India’s characteristics as a nation, including India’s supposed despotism, the cultures of dress and gender, and India’s caste-based social hierarchy system versus the feudalism in which Britain was familiar, all gave Britain plenty of examples to use the growth of empire and their conviction of Britishness to rule India. The differences became the enduring legacy.
Cohn and Metcalf differed in the ways in which they clarify how the British ordered society. For Cohn, codifying knowledge was how the British were able to order and justify rule in India. Metcalf uses the dual strategy of similarities and differences. While I think there is truth to both author’s points, Cohn’s makes the most sense for me. The British would not be able to order society based on similarities or differences if they did not first understand that there were similarities and differences in the first place. The British had to first gain the knowledge before they could structure the results, the results being similarities and differences. In addition, Metcalf almost completely skirts the topic of language, but one could read Cohn’s work to gain a better understanding of how the British identified, regarded and codified Sanskrit and other native dialects of the Indian subcontinent.
When comparing Dirks and Metcalf, I think their arguments fall closer together than Metcalf and Cohn’s positions. Whereas Dirks argues that the transformation of Indians into victims by Burke laid the foundation for a civilizing mission as justification for empire, Metcalf answers that the justification of empire was difference between the societies of Britain and India. With Dirks’ focus on the Indian victim in the Hastings trial, he makes the Indians appear inferior and badly governed. Metcalf’s basic argument is that the British saw the Indians as inferior and different, and were thus available for governance.
One way Metcalf demonstrates the difference sought by the British over the Indians his the treatment of the climate in India. The British believed that the tropical climate of India produced natives who were ineffectual and submissive (8). Hot humid temperatures produced natives who would rather lounge about than engage in strenuous activity. “Heat and humidity were seen as conspiring to subvert manliness, resolve, and courage.” Even the Indian diet of rice contributed to the view of climate’s responsibility regarding effeminacy because rice required little effort to grow (105). However, the climatic explanation of difference expired the longer the British took up residence in India. The climate argument allows Metcalf to demonstrate how the British purported a difference, but the same argument also points out how the British changed differences to suit their justification of empire. Metcalf uses the example of climate to show how British men, who were considered powerful and masculine, contrasted to Indian men, who were viewed as diminutive, weak, and effeminate.
One of Metcalf’s strongest points is his indication of similarity between past Britain and present India. Practically the only time the British considered themselves similar was between the past and present. India’s villages and communal tenures reminded the English of a familiar form of their own feudalism (71). India’s “ancient institutions” gave the British a way to order society and make Indian society subservient to the needs of the Raj (81). Metcalf does argue, though, that Indian feudalism as a social order based on the ties of blood and kinship were fundamentally different from any form of feudalism observed in Europe (74). This shows that the British did not need much encouragement to find similarities.
English self-perceptions made it very difficult to accommodate similarities of gender in India. Ideologies of the Raj employs gender differences between English women and Indian women to explain how the British attempted to justify their rule in India. English women projected the appearance of purity and domesticity, while Indian women were viewed as prostitutes. Moral reformers in Britain fought for the rights of all Englishwomen, prostitutes included, but the same was not true in India. Metcalf argues that the only concern for females in India was to maintain the appearance of purity in the behavior of British women. In a great example of double standard, the British did encourage the prostitution of Indian women in order to downplay the possible appearance of homosexuality in British men (113). Metcalf uses this point to demonstrate how the British used a distinct difference to justify their rule in India.
Concerning men, Metcalf explains the comparison between the effeminacy of Indian men and the masculinity of British men. Bengali men’s baggy clothing was quickly viewed as similar to that of women’s dresses. Combined with the Indian devotion to female deities, the British had confirmation that India was a land ruled by women or womanly men (105). The British considered India a land of degraded women and effeminate men.
I think Metcalf’s strongest argument is his treatment of the Aryan racial theory. Using this theme, Metcalf succinctly shows how the British used similarities and differences when it served themselves best. The British saw what they wanted to see.
The Aryan racial theory involves the belief that British and Indian peoples originated from a common peoples in southern Russia. Language was not connected to race, but German scholars found perceived similarities between Sanskrit and most European languages. The Aryans were supposed to have spread out and conquered Europe and the Indian subcontinent (82). This view suited the British for a time, until several difficulties came up. On problem the British finally had to come to terms with was the issue of heredity: if the Indians and the British descended from the same people, how could the Indian be marked as inferior to the British? The British skirted this issue by claiming that those Aryans who traveled south to India intermingled with an aboriginal people living there, thereby losing their purity of race (83).
Wholly missing from Ideologies of the Raj (and maybe from South Asian studies in general) is any discussion on how the Indians viewed themselves as similar or different to the English. I think the Indian viewpoint would contribute a great deal to illuminating the history of British imperialism in India. How did the Indians contribute to imperial ideology? Certainly the Indians could not have simply viewed the British as reformers of morality.
If Metcalf’s purpose is to present the most important findings of the justification of British rule in India then he overwhelmingly succeeds. Metcalf presents the big picture ideas in India and it is much easier to read than the previous works, particularly The Scandal of Empire by Dirks. Exposing the similarities and differences as viewed by the English shows how the British set out to turn Indians into Englishmen. The British were able to completely transform Indian culture and society.