The White Mutiny

Correctly or not, Niall Ferguson sees the origins of the Indian independence movement in an event called The White Mutiny. After the rebellion of 1857 and the dissolution of the East India Company, India was ruled by a tiny cadre of civil servants, about 900 to rule a country of 250 million. This highly competitive civil service was entered by passing very demanding exams in history, politics, morality, Indian languages and much else.

As Queen Victoria had promised, this civil service was open in theory to Indians as well as Britons. Indians created their own schools to study for the exams and eventually Indians were in fact admitted. The rules, however, had an important racist clause.

Although both were members of the covenanted civil service, the Indians were not entitled to conduct trials of white defendants in criminal cases. In the eyes of the new Viceroy, this was an indefensible anomaly; so he requested a bill to do away with it.

Ferguson, Niall (2008-03-17). Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (p. 165). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

By this time India had a large class of British factory owners and businessmen who had created textile and other factories in India. They led lives of extreme privilege and were very jealous of it. They responded with extreme outrage and a torrent of racist rhetoric.

The Viceroy and his deputy retreated to their Summer headquarters at Simla, hoping for the storm to subside. It didn't, of course, and in the end the bill was drastically watered down.

Ferguson sees this as a key moment in the Indian independence movement. The bill itself would have only affected about 20 Indian magistrates, but the racist torrent it evoked convinced the emerging new Indian elite - that is to say, those educated in Western ways, as distinct from the old elite of princes - that their future was not with the British.

As the Indian Mirror put it:

For the first time in modern history, Hindus, Mohammedans, Sikhs, Rajputs, Bengalis, Madrasis, Bombayites, Punjabis, and Purbiahs have united to join a constitutional combination. Whole races and classes, who never before took any interest in the affairs of their country, are taking it now with a zeal and an earnestness which more than atone for their former apathy.

Just two years after the White Mutiny, the first meeting of the Indian National Congress was held. Though initially intended by its British founder to channel and thereby defuse Indian disaffection, Congress would quickly become the crucible of modern Indian nationalism. From the outset, it was attended by stalwarts of the educated class who served the British Raj, men like Janakinath Bose and an Allahabad lawyer named Motilal Nehru.

Ferguson, Niall (2008-03-17). Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (pp. 170-171). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.


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