Friday, 18 September, 2009

Six myths of the Raj

Scratch an English historian of the Raj and you’ll find a few set themes:

  • Indians were conquered because they were not united: You were divided, so we ruled. The English united and pacified the country and created India for Indians.
  • The Mutiny of 1857 was to bring back the feudal order, and drive out missionaries. Hence, it wasn’t a war of independence.
  • The demands for representative government did not come from the poor: It came from the English-educated elite. The masses were more than happy with the English for bringing them out of the 10th century BC to the 19th century.
  • In fact, the people were so loyal and grateful, that this vast colony was ruled by a handful of civil servants and soldiers. 
  • Gandhi was no saint. He was a wily politician, who would often change his stands. In many matters, he was eccentric. Above all, he was a sexual pervert.
  • Partition was inevitable because the Hindu majority would have never given the Muslim minority a fair deal. The English had to curve up the subcontinent into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.
  • Had it not been for the Raj, we’d not have had courts, colleges, civil servants, trains, and the rest.

Let’s try some commonsense on each of these:

Indians were conquered because they were not united.Indian rajas fought each other no more than their European contemporaries did. Third-parties took advantage of the fighting to create empires, the most recent examples being the division of Europe into American and Russian satellites following WW2. No problem with that.

What I find puzzling is the English insistence that there was no India before the Raj and, in the same breath, blaming the rajas for not being united… as Indians. That’s blaming the past for not being the present.
The Mutiny wasn’t a war of independence.This assumes that independence = capitalism + democracy. In other words, unless you were fighting your version of the American War of Independence, you weren’t fighting for freedom.

The Mutiny was a fight for freedom by the yardsticks of its time. Shouldn’t that be good enough?
Common people didn’t care for independence.Common people don’t care much about anything. If they did, they won’t be common. Issues don’t bubble up, fully developed, from below. So what?

The question is whether the issues, introduced from ‘above’, found mass support.

And isn’t it strange that there were no mass movements, led by anyone, to keep the Raj. If the common people were so happy with the English, that sort of thing would have sold very well. 

And what’s so horrible about being led by your demographic ‘betters’? Dr King was the son of a minister, not a sharecropper. Should that have disqualified him from leading the black movement? Many Israeli prime ministers are ex-army generals. Should that have barred them from political office? Through most of the Raj, English politics had a fair sprinkling of aristocrats. Did that disqualify England from being a democracy?

By the way, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were ‘one of us’. Fat lot of good that did.
The people were willing slaves, for they needed so few masters.  Independent India has, most probably, far fewer bureaucrats and soldiers per 1,000 of its population than the poorest developed country. Does that prove that we Indians love our present rulers?

We also have far fewer doctors and schoolteachers than developed countries do? That should mean we are very healthy and are born wise.

And I’ll bet Belgian Congo had far fewer Belgians per 1,000 Congolese than British India had British per 1,000 Indians. So what?

The moot point is not that so few of them could hold the peace; it is that there were too few of them to wage war against poverty, backwardness and illiteracy. By all accounts, the Indian Civil Service was staffed by selfless souls toiling in the midday sun for this benighted land. Wouldn’t it have been be wonderful to have had more of them?
Gandhi was no saint.Can we have a few illustrative examples of his famed craftiness please?

Or is he being blamed for not being rigid? His stands on many subjects, like the caste system and women’s issues, changed over time, but never regressively. Isn’t he to be admired for that?

And so what if he was eccentric about many matters? How did that effect his politics and reform work? He didn’t keep his private life private? But what good does it do to put that under focus?

Admittedly, his sex life and beliefs were bizarre, even by the standards of his days. However, let’s not forget that all the information we have about this comes from him. How do we know if other leaders, then and now, don’t have equally strange sex lives?

There is a petty trick in all this, which is best explained through an example. In Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Niall Ferguson writes, “An Irishwoman was elected to the presidency of the Congress in December 1918: Annie Besant, a half-mad theosophist who believed her adopted son to be the ‘vehicle of the world teacher’ and saw Home Rule as the answer to the Indian Question.”

That’s the only reference to Mrs Besant in the book. Now, what is the reader to make of that part of her that wasn’t mad? Or of the party that elected her to its presidency? Or of the political (not theosophical) causes she advocated? This is nothing but vilification by omission, trivialisation and distraction. 
The English had to curve up the subcontinent into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.Whether partition was inevitable, I must leave historians to decide. My problem is with ‘Hindu India’ and the implication that that the British solved our religious problems by dividing us.

How can the country with the second largest Muslim population in the world be Hindu? What in India’s laws or constitution is Hindu? Or does the poverty and backwardness of Indian Muslims make India Hindu? By that logic, USA is white. And China is Huang. Why don’t Western books use these adjectives?
Had it not been for the Raj, we’d not have had courts, colleges, civil servants, trains, and the rest.First, which of these is the envy of the world? If not one is, what are the English gloating about? Or do they want to be canonised for being nicer to India than, say, Hitler was to Poland? 

Or was everything shipshape in 1947 and we have made a royal mess in the six decades since then? How about some comparative analysis?

And must we accept the characterisation of all Indian rulers and admirations as oriental despotism at face value. Chance dictates that not all of them could have been that rotten. Or were they?

Or are we being blamed for not having reinvented the wheel? 

Incidentally, what about courts and parliaments in Pakistan and Bangladesh? Should their prolonged periods of military dictatorship be blamed on the English?


I’d gladly let the dead past lie, but others won’t. I suspect that has something to do with what they want now, and from me. That’s why I must look back. There are lessons there. And lessons too in how the present interprets the past. The future lies in the eyes of the historian, for what is history but predictive analysis on a mass scale.

PS: I get what really gets me mad is their trying to make a balance sheet of history. This was the good the Raj did; this was the bad. It reminds me of that monster in Austria who kept his own daughter entrapped in the basement for years, raped her and fathered several children through her, who he also kept underground. Would these historians say, "At least he fed them"?

Churchill wrote that the Raj kept Japanese Army out of Indian soil (Mizoram doesn't count) during World War 2. Sure, but what about the Bengal famine? Keeping a war out and keeping an army out are not the same thing, except in a balance sheet. 

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