In his brilliant essay State, Power, and Colonialism, Douglas M. Peers states, “The Raj might in some of its military and economic ambitions be characterized as modern, but it was decidedly pre-modern and perhaps even anti-modern in many of its social, cultural, and political aspirations” (31). What, we might ask, does Peers mean by this characterization of British ambitions in India? How can the Raj be described as both modern and pre-modern, or even modern and anti-modern? Further, if we accept this claim, what led to the divergence in imperial ambitions? According to Peers, it is quite simple: “the imperatives of security and stability which stemmed from the anxieties and ambivalences of ruling such a complex and variegated land dictated the form and function of the state…” (16). That is to say, the anxieties of empire produced a style of governance that favored military aspirations. With military spending over fifty percent of government revenues in the early colonial period, it was only natural that economic ambitions became a top priority, as well. These ambitions were modern because they worked together to develop a fiscal military state in British India.
Economic ambitions were, however, only a priority inasmuch as they financed the military state. As Peers notes, the Raj prioritized “military needs in policy-making and financial transactions that created an increasingly efficient financial mechanism but at the cost of economic development” (31). Likewise, the military needs of the colonial state hampered social and political improvements. This was especially true after the Rebellion of 1857-8, when “the need for order took precedence over social and political reform” (24). In this sense, the British Raj was a despotic regime. We can say, then, that as a despotic regime, the British Raj was pre-modern; as “a liberal regime employing markedly illiberal means to perpetuate its rule,” the Raj was anti-modern (17). Ultimately, according to Peers, the multiple characterizations of the Raj as modern and pre-modern or modern and anti-modern require us to question the commonly held assumption that colonialism equates modernity.
Peers, Douglas M. “State, Power, and Colonialism.” In India and the British Empire, edited by Douglas M. Peers and Nandini Gooptu, 16-43. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
[Thanks to Micheal O’Sullivan for looking over this post before it was published.]