It is not by love or sympathy that an imperial country rules a colony but by fear and force. Fear drives natives to accept the suzerainty of the colonizers. A British sahib may be a kind-hearted and sensitive man but he has to act ruthlessly and arrogantly. It is by dint of terror and brutality that an imperial country rules its colony.
Our author is not a typical sahib. He abhors the system of imperialism. His heart goes out to the poor natives. Moreover, he has no wish to cause any harm to the elephant that has turned calm. Despite all of this, he guns it down. This is a moment of shocking realization to him. He knows what his beliefs and wishes are, yet he goes against them.
What compels him?
It is the expectations of the natives toward their sahib.
What if he ignores them?
He’s a sahib and needs to act like one. If he doesn’t, he puts the honor of the Empire and his own at stake.
“A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things.”
If the natives find their sahib to be indecisive, weak and mild, someday they may turn riotous against the government. It may bolster their courage to speak against the Empire. He must not forget that he represents the mighty British Empire. Neither can he show himself to be doubtful nor can he express sympathy or love. He ought to be ruthless, violent and determined even if it’s all a mere pretense.
This is when and how he gets "a better glimpse” of “the real nature of imperialism.”
His helplessness is well expressed in the following statement:
And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East. And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.