A century ago, Alfred Lyall, the notable Anglo-Indian administrator, sociologist and man of letters, speculated in his Asiatic Studies on the remarkable stability of India in the later 16th century onwards and its collapse into seeming anarchy in the 18th. For explanation he pointed to a succession of four strong and long-lived rulers - Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb - and to the constant centralising tendency of Mughal rule. While creating and sustaining an empire of unparalleled strength and size, this centralising tendency steadily destroyed all autonomous sources of resistance and hence ultimately deprived the ruler of all independent means of support. When the line of succession of strong men failed, there was nothing to break the fall. The top-heavy empire came down in a ruinous crash that left India in a state of complete political dissolution. Lyall saw the British Raj as falling into the same error of over-centralisation, so exposing the citadel of authority to direct attack from the democratic centralism of a modern nationalist movement. Whatever the half-truths implicit in his analysis, he grasped the historic importance of the tension between the centripetal and centrifugal forces in the sub-continent. It proved impossible, however, to alter the character of the Raj. British efforts from the 1880s to build up political outworks by decentralising and devolving power on princely states and provincial governments were too half-hearted and too tardy. The nationalist movement seized on the truth that to defeat a centralised foreign dominion it had to model itself on similar lines. This meant not only centralisation but autocracy.
LRB 4 September 1980 | PDF Download