Now Reading:

A Historical Memory of Imperialism: Let us be Balanced, Please!

A Historical Memory of Imperialism: Let us be Balanced, Please!

By Karmanye Thadani

If I were asked what I consider the most interesting dimension of this election season, it would be Narendra Modi, in spite of his Hindu rightist image, citing how Pondicherry and Goa should be encouraged to develop relations with the French and Portuguese respectively based on their historic connections.This, more than anything else, demonstrates a pragmatic approach to viewing the present and the future in the context of the past, a reading of history that is not laced with prejudice (and indeed, Modi has, in many ways, been trying hard to cast off his intolerant image, as I have discussed in this article, which also points out that very many tolerant Hindus, who had rejected the politics of religious majoritarianism in 2004 and 2009, turned to Modi because they couldn’t see any other credible alternative and also because Modi has consciously worked on casting off his intolerant image, something our Muslim and Christian countrymen ought to understand, for leave aside Hindu rightists, even many secular Indian nationalists view colonialism from a biased eye-lens, and cannot discuss British presence in India objectively. Their conception of patriotism revolves around a historical narrative of an exploitative regime being challenged by our freedom fighters, and hence, the British rulers of India, going by this oversimplified perspective, have to be seen as diabolic, and believe it or not, some extend this conception to the British or even European people as a collectivity.

A friend of mine from Jodhpur told me that as a small child, he would run to white-skinned foreigners in tourist destinations and say – “Bastards, you ruled us!”, and when he was narrating this to me when we were in college, his only regret seemed to be that he didn’t realize as a small boy that those people could have been of non-British nationalities, as though saying what he did to British people would have actually been justified! I also recall some of my educated friends proudly sharing, on their Facebook profiles, a picture of a cycle-rickshaw with a highly offensive message written at the back, and to put it mildly, it was to the effect that whites would not be allowed to board the rickshaw owing to their having ruled India!

Then, I recall a friend of mine posting a Facebook status about how David Cameron ought to apologize for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and I pointed out to him that shamefully, rogue elements among our own military and paramilitary personnel have committed gross human rights violations in Kashmir and the northeast (though, of course, there are those who grossly exaggerate the same too, but that is a different story), and it would be more appropriate for us to address those issues first, rather than await an apology for a massacre committed almost a century ago, when most of today’s Brits and Indians were not even born, and I posted in that comment on his status an article by me which advances this line of thinking. And then, rather than having a reasoned debate, I faced the ad hominem allegation of bordering on being anti-national, though I sing the national anthem with pride and I feel very proud whenever India does well in any sphere in the international arena.

Many of today’s Hindu rightists (unlike the pre-independence Hindu Mahasabha, which thanked the British for liberating India from Muslim rule and never participated in the freedom struggle, some individuals in it who were also Congressmen like Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya notwithstanding), given their xenophobia and trying to prove that everything good and great emerged only in the ancient Indian civilization and the achievements of all other civilizations are worthless or largely plagiarized from India, have a very strong aversion to very many things Western, such as Valentine’s Day, and in some cases, cricket and even the English language, and hence, for them to suggest celebrating a cultural connection with former imperial powers does come across as pleasantly surprising, especially in the context of the Portuguese rulers of Goa, who during the early period of their rule, had engaged in forced conversions to Christianity, which was, of course, wrong, just as the persecution of Buddhists by ancient Hindu rulers like Pushyamitra Shunga and Mihirakula was, or even the subjection of Muslims to forced labour by the modern Hindu Dogra rulers of Kashmir was. Ironically, Swami Vivekananda, a man the Hindu rightists swear by, was not only not in the least anti-Muslim, as some of them portray him to be, but, in fact, someone who even appreciated the positive side of British imperialism. For reference, you can see the following excerpt from an article ‘Modern India’ written by him in 1899-

“The present government of India has certain evils attendant to it, and there are some very great and good parts in it as well. Of highest good is this, that after the fall of Pataliputra Empire till now, India was never under the guidance of such a powerful machinery of government, as the British wielding the scepter throughout the length and breadth of the land. And under this Vaishya supremacy, thanks to the strenuous enterprise natural to the Vaishyas, as the objects of commerce are being brought from one end of the world to another, so at the same time, as its natural consequence, the ideas and thoughts of different countries are forcing their way into the very bone and marrow of India. Of these ideas and thoughts, some are really most beneficial to her…”

Indeed, democracy in its modern form with the rule of law and equality before law, and in fact, even many of the legislations we still use, a modern bureaucratic structure and the likes came with the British. While every civilization can boast of lofty ideals in some form, these conceptions took concrete shape only in the post-Renaissance West, and we have benefited from the same. Modern technology too came with the British, and the Kolkatans, for example, are very sentimentally attached to the trams introduced during British rule. We gave the world the positional scheme of numeration with the number zero, the Panchatantra which inspired Aesop’s fables and the likes, and just as the Europeans learned from us, we have also learned from them.

Vivekananda, unlike many Hindu rightists, understood the true essence of the Vedas, and the Rigveda explicitly mentions that one should allow noble ideas to flow from all directions, and the Vedic message is not having a puritan view of culture, regarding all foreign influences as adulterations.

In fact, before KP Jayaswal’s explosive research about Indian republics (which by a modern yardstick, would qualify as oligarchies) came to the fore in 1912, there was no historical record of any tradition of democracy in India going beyond the village level. Taking into account what was known then, Vivekananda critiqued the ancient Indian society in the following words-

“Neither under the Hindu kings, nor under the Buddhist rule, do we find the common subject-people taking any part in expressing their voice in the affairs of the state. True, Yudhishthira visits the house of Vaishyas and even Shudras when he is in Varanavata; true, the subjects are praying for the installation of Ramachandra to the legacy of Ayodhya; nay, they are even criticizing the conduct of Sita and secretly making plans for bringing about her exile; but as a recognized rule of the state they have no direct6 voice in the supreme government. The power of the populace is struggling to express itself in indirect and disorderly ways without any method. The people have not yet the conscious knowledge of the existence of his power. There is neither the attempt on their part to organize it into a united action, nor have they got the will to do so; there is also a complete absence of that capacity, that skill, by means of which small and incoherent centres of force are united together, creating insuperable strength as their resultant.”

He continues-

“There cannot be the least doubt about it that the germ of self-government was at least present in the shape of village Panchayat, which is still to be found in existence in many places of India.

But the germ remained forever the germ; the seed though put in the ground never grow into a tree. This idea of self-government never passed beyond the embryo state of the village Panchayat system and never spread into society at large.”

A clear example of a false rumour circulated by chauvinistic Indian nationalists to discredit the British and portray pre-British India as a perfect society can be seen here.

I must also point out that not all Indian nationalists holding a biased view towards certain foreign influences in Indian culture are Hindu rightists. An interesting example would be Western-educated, influenced-by-Marx Rammanohar Lohia, who was fully secular but condemned the English language and the game of cricket. The following passages reproduced from Ramachandra Guha’s book A Corner of a Foregn Field – The Indian History of a British Sport, is very interesting in this regard-

“To illustrate cricket’s extraordinary hold over India and Indians, let me offer a last anecdote, from a Test match played against Pakistan in Bombay in the first week of December 1960. The visitors batted first, and Hanif Mohammad opened a batting. On the second morning of the match, while some 40,000 crowded into the Brabourne Stadium, a smaller but no less intense crowd gathered in an Irani restaurant outside. That eatery had been chosen by the socialist leader, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, for a press conference. Now, Lohia’s pet hates were Jawaharlal Nehru, the English language and the game of cricket, generally in that order. To a group of acolytes and left-wing journalists Lohia thundered on about how to game of cricket symbolized our continuing colonialism, and how the last Englishman to rule India was complicit in this. Throw out Nehru, he said, and we can all happily start playing Kabaddi.

The scribes departed, to file their stories. But after they had gone Lohia walked across to the nearest paanwallah, asked for a paan, and while chewing it continued: ‘Kya Hanif out ho gaya kya?’ The answer came back no, Hanif is still batting. He was out only at sundown, run out, for 160.

In this cricket-mad land, even the most active of cricket-baiters always succumb to its charms in the end.”

Interestingly, today, kabaddi has emerged as a recognized international sport and Western countries too have kabaddi teams!

Let me make it clear that I am proud of our freedom struggle, and I consider Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose my role model, just as I deeply respect Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar Bhagat Singh and Masterda Surya Sen (please have a look at this article to see how the saffron brigade has wrongly tried to appropriate the legacy of Sardar Bhagat Singh and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose). Nonetheless, taking pride in our asserting the right to self-determination does not necessitate despising the British.

At the very outset, we ought to understand that prior to the two world wars, territorial conquest was a normal facet of human history, exceptions like Akhenaten in Egypt and Ashok in India who later turned their back on this policy notwithstanding. Indian rulers too engaged in territorial conquest, even of territories outside the geographical and cultural construct that India was, such as Samudragupt and Rajendra Chola invading parts of Southeast Asia and Kanishk invading parts of Central Asia. Thus, there was nothing very extraordinary in European powers trying to establish global empires, the British Empire being just one example of the same.

Further, while it is true that there was a degree of racism exhibited by many of the British, it came naturally to a people who were actually the dominant force, and ancient Indians too carried a very chauvinistic view of our civilization. Though the Vedas are certainly not derogatory in their tenor about the non-Vedic peoples, there was this superiority complex that many Indians entertained, with the word mlecch for ‘foreigner’ coming to imply ‘unclean’ (for more on this, one can read Romila Thapar’s The Image of the Barbarian in Early India and Aloka Parasher’s Mlecchas in Early India: A Study in Attitudes towards Outsiders up to A.D. 600), with even later accounts in the mediaeval period testifying this Brahmanical arrogance, and injunctions against sea travel in some Hindu societies, which existed even as late as in British times (this even finds a mention in Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography), were in this very spirit. The dialogue between the Indian teachers of Nalanda University and their Chinese student Xuanjang demonstrates this superiority complex on the part of Indians very clearly, and if someone contends that the Indians were nonetheless open-minded enough to accommodate Chinese students, they must recall that even British universities during the colonial period accommodated Indian students, some historical examples being Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose! In fact, speaking of racism, we, Indians, must note that racism against mongoloids exists in India too, and if the British barred Indians from entering many of their public places, the treatment very many upper caste Hindus exhibited and still exhibit to Dalits, their own countrymen, was/is no better.

Even within Britain, there was much condemnation of the exploitation of Indians by the British East India Company, which can also be seen in famous economist Adam Smith’s monumental work The Wealth of Nations. Sir Charles Napier, a British official who invaded Sindh, also wrote in his diary that he felt guilty about what he was doing.

That said, it must also be noted that there were British people who genuinely took a keen interest in India and its natural and cultural heritage. Verrier Elwin worked earnestly for Indian tribals, and even participated in India’s freedom struggle, Sister Nivedita (who was Swami Vivekananda’s disciple and was very dear to him) and Annie Besant loved and embraced Hinduism and also fought for India’s freedom, the British were the ones who unearthed the Indus Valley Civilization and even historians accused of promoting an imperialist agenda like Vincent Arthur Smith had much positive to say about ancient India, and exposed to us the greatness of our own past. Many artists from Britain much appreciated what they saw of India’s natural and cultural beauty. Jim Corbett, in his memoirs, fondly recalls his interactions with Indian people, and he was a man who worked hard for environmental conservation in India. General Charles Stuart in the army of the British East India Company embraced Hinduism as his faith and was strongly critical of the Christian missionaries. In his book Vindication of the Hindoos (1808), Stuart criticised the work of European missionaries in India, claiming that –

Hinduism little needs the meliorating hand of Christianity to render its votaries a sufficiently correct and moral people for all the useful purposes of a civilised society.”

In this book he defends Hinduism from assaults by missionaries explaining –

“Wherever I look around me, in the vast ocean of Hindu mythology, I discover Piety….Morality…and as far as I can rely on my judgement, it appears the most complete and ample system of Moral Allegory that the world has ever produced.”

There was tremendous outrage against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre even in England (though there were also racists appreciating what he did, but you always have prejudiced people appreciating or condoning mass murders committed by people from their nation or community), and General Dyer had to justify his case in the British Parliament. A parliamentarian who defended Dyer’s case also conceded that he disapproved of what Dyer did, but said that Dyer should be pardoned because he acted in pursuance of British national interests, an attitude many of us, Indians, too have when we hear of mass murders in Kashmir and the northeast by rogue elements in our security forces.

When Mahatma Gandhi went to England to attend the Second Round Table Conference in 1931, many British people, including Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw, thronged to reverentially meet him, Oxford University invited him to their campus and a man who had lost his job in a textile mill in Lancashire owing to Gandhi’s call for boycotting British goods, said, “I am one of the unemployed, but if I was in India I would say the same thing that Mr. Gandhi is saying.” There is a picture of such unemployed workers with the mahatma, cheering for him and smiling. The fact that the Indian nationalist movement and the struggle of Britain’s working class had much sympathy for each other, in spite of not always having overlapping interests, is also evident from the speech delivered the revolutionary Udham Singh who killed Michael Dwyer, who was not the lieutenant governor of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (he did not kill General Dyer, as many wrongly believe, and even the classic movie Rang de Basanti is wrong on this point)  in a British court – “I have nothing against the English people at all.  I have more English friends living in England that I have in India.  I have great sympathy with the workers of England.  I am against the Imperialist government. You people are suffering workers.”

Indeed, many Indians who lived in the colonial period fondly recall having good relations with British people, even government officials, then resident in India. A family friend of ours recalls that his father (who, by the way, had close relations with many freedom fighters and was arrested for his association with Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose after Netaji had made his dramatic escape from house arrest), told him that he studied in a college with a British principal who was very concerned about the health of students who were arrested for participation in the freedom struggle, and checked their weight before their arrest and after their release!

Last but not the least, let us also not forget that many British people intermarried with Indians, giving us the Anglo-Indian community. A gentleman who happens to be my father’s friend is an Anglo-Indian Hindu whose grandmother, who was British, absconded and married an Indian soldier before the Revolt of 1857. I have interacted with several Anglo-Indians, and they are very well assimilated in the Indian society, their conduct not being suggestive of the faintest trace of any kind of superiority complex. Ruskin Bond, whose stories and poems on India, especially the hills of Uttarakhand, that so many of us cherish, is an Anglo-Indian.

To hold a prejudice against any collectivity of human beings goes against our ancient Indian ideal of vasudhaiv kutumbakam, which is echoed in verse 49:13 of the Quran.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Input your search keywords and press Enter.