Monday, August 26, 2013

Britain and Hinduism 7: Ending the Empire

A British correspondent once said to me after the daily noon briefing at the UN, “You’re the only Indian journalist I’ve ever met who asks about anything other than Kashmir.” Then he added. “Actually, only English journalists ask about everything. Everyone else sticks to their own national issues.” When I pointed out that American journalists asked about all issues, he laughed: “Yeah, but the Americans don’t know what to ask until we tell them.”

The arrogance of that statement is rooted in about two centuries of British success in dominating the political narrative of other nations. I have already looked at how that was done with Islamic countries, and the current series is examining the manipulation of India. Part 6 also took in one aspect of the British-American interaction.

In this segment I look at the distortion of history involved in the British manipulation of India; what follows is a very brief summary of what is set out in 1001 Things Every Indian Should Know.

[Several readers have asked when hard copies of my book will be available, but as of now there is no answer. I am looking for a publisher who will not price the book out of reach of most readers and will work with me in developing a web site that will make the information available for free and be an ongoing platform for discussion of national and international issues. Suggestions about who might be open to such an approach would be very welcome.]

The people of Britain represent successive waves of tribal invasions from Europe over thousands of years. That layering of conquered groups has been ruled since the 11th Century by an elite minority that devised an impenetrably nuanced system of social discrimination to keep the majority in a perennial state of insecurity about everything from their accents, to their mannerisms, clothes, education, and way of life. The Welsh, Scots and Irish were the first victims of this method of governance, and it came into use across the Empire on which the sun never set. Such manipulation was set aside only where indigenous populations were useless as labor and incapable of organized resistance; in North America, Australia and New Zealand British colonists simply killed off most of the local population.

India got both ends of the stick; it was subjected to more vicious psychological manipulations than any other subject population, and more Indians were killed than in the rest of the world combined.

The pattern in India was set early. A decade after the East India Company’s top official in India cooked up the story of the “Black Hole of Calcutta” to justify the 1757 takeover of Bengal, the richest of Mughal provinces suffered a famine that killed seven million people, a full third of its population. Over the next century, as the Company’s rule spread over some 40 per cent of undivided India, a concocted story justified the takeover of every new territory and everywhere the British ruled there were repeated famines.

I have not found a consolidated list of all the famines that occurred under British rule, but they were unprecedented both in number and severity. Kali Charan Ghosh in his 1944 book Famines in Bengal 1770-1943, listed over 60. However, that cannot be considered a comprehensive tally, for British administrators were often too engrossed in extracting taxes to notice that multitudes were dying of starvation. The massive famine of 1877, perhaps the worst on record, was officially acknowledged only after a travelling newspaper editor reported the devastation.

Deliberate official inertia continued right up to the end of British rule: in 1943, despite three million deaths in the great “man-made famine of Bengal,” the government did not declare an emergency and refused to allow discussion of the matter at the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Conference in Atlantic City. The British delegation also declined a Canadian offer of 100,000 tons of free wheat.

Dharampal (he did not use his caste name Banwari), the “Gandhian historian,” estimated that between 200 and 500 million Indians died in the great famines and wars the British brought to India. Amaresh Mishra in War of Civilizations. India AD 1857, put the toll of the “pacification” after that great revolt at 100 million. The important point for us here is that this dark picture has virtually disappeared from the world’s memory, and indeed, from India’s.

Adam Hoschild in his1999 book King Leopold’s Ghost termed the disappearance of colonial atrocities from European history “the Great Forgetting.” Britain has done its share of forgetting – school textbooks make no mention of its leading role in the transatlantic slave trade or the great Indian famines – but its historians have done much more than arrange national amnesia. Generations of them have actively distorted history to present the country’s colonial record in a good light; they have even made the case that British rule brought “progress” to backward races. The actual examples of distortion make almost comical reading:

Percival Spear in The Oxford History of Modern India (1978 revised edition) dealt with the 1943 Bengal famine thus: “During the summer of 1943 it became apparent that the Bengal administration was unable to cope with the situation. An undue tenderness for the principle of provincial autonomy delayed action by the Centre and it was only on the arrival of Lord Wavell in October 1943 that the nettle was firmly grasped. The British army was entrusted with relief distribution and a system of rationing instituted for all large towns. Never had the British army been so popular.”

P. J. Marshall summed up the commendable aspects of British imperialism in the 1996 Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire. It had created among very dissimilar peoples a similar ambition “to be citizens of nation states and members of ‘modern’ societies, marked by liberal secular values.” It had introduced rule of law “with at least a theoretical respect for the accountability of government and the rights of the individual.” Protestant missionaries had been a “kind of conscience for British imperial rule,” a role that had no European parallel. There were the “economic gifts” of “investment, markets, technology, and financial services such as banking or insurance.” And finally, the British were “proud custodians of a culture and set of values that many other people found very attractive indeed.”

Those claims are bizarre. The “similarity of ambition” was shared only by the tiny political elites the British created to collaborate in colonial rule. Talk of “common law,” “accountability of government,” the “rights of the individual” and “economic gifts” is absurd when we consider the reality of White supremacist colonial rule that impoverished and/or exterminated people on a continental scale. It is an outright lie to claim that the Church of England was a unique colonial “conscience;” its record of silence and inaction is shameful in comparison to what the Catholic Church did to protect the indigenous peoples of South America.

Niall Ferguson, lauded by The Times of London as the “most brilliant British historian of his generation,” is perhaps the most obtusely extreme defender of colonialism. He sees in the near extermination of the Australian Aborigine “the very essence of the imperial dilemma. How could an empire that claimed to be founded on liberty justify overruling the wishes of colonists when they clashed with those of a very distant legislature?” Fergusson has also cited no less an authority than Adolf Hitler to assert that India had been lucky to have the British as rulers.

The temerity of historical distortions has nowhere exceeded Winston Churchill’s claim (in his 1956-1957 History of the English Speaking Peoples), that the British were never imperialists.

“Modern generations should not mistake the character of the British expansion in India,” he wrote. “The East India Company was a trading organization. Its directors were men of business. … But the turmoil of the great subcontinent compelled them against their will and their judgment to take control of more and more territory, until in the end, and almost by accident, they established an empire. ... To call this process ‘Imperialist expansion’ is nonsense … Of India, it has been well said that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind.”

It is important for Indians to note that Churchill was able to make that absurd claim because of the self-righteous narrative the British had taken care to construct at every step of their expanding rule of India; and his argument had a specific aim: to help Britain shape-shift into one of the “Free World” Good Guys of the Cold War.

In contrast to Britain’s politically acute use of history, India exists in a state of confusion about its own past. Two generations after Partition, a cataclysmic, traumatic national event without precedent or parallel, there is still no coherent Indian version of what happened. Nor has there been much effort to understand the colonial era as a whole. The “Subaltern” historians, supposedly “progressive” in their consideration of disempowered groups, have fractured the nationalist narrative that emerged from the independence struggle and reinforced divisions the British promoted within the Indian population. With the exception of Dharampal and Amaresh Mishra, almost everything that has been written by Indians about the colonial era falls within the framework set by the British.

Because of that, Indians have been blind to the continuing flow of negative propaganda that emanates from Britain and dominates global perception of “Brand India.” A host of airheads celebrate the award of the Booker Prize to Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga; they seem unconcerned that each of the novels thus raised to global attention is a noisome dump on India. Similarly, there was much joy in “Bollywood” when the Academy Awards gave star billing to Slumdog Millionaire, a finely crafted piece of propaganda meant to demolish the new can-do global image of India.

The British effort to dominate India’s global image dates back to the 18th Century. It began in response to the enthusiastic European reception of the earliest translations from the Sanskrit of the great works of Indian scripture, philosophy and literature.

In that early enthusiasm Voltaire (Fran├žois-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778), the most influential of the French philosophes, had declared India the foremost of civilizations. “Is it not probable that the Brahmins were the first legislators of the earth, the first philosophers, the first theologians?” he wrote. “Do not the few monuments of ancient history which remain to us form a great presumption in their favor, since the first Greek philosophers went to them to learn mathematics, and since the most ancient curiosities collected by the emperors of China are all Indian?”

Such thinking threatened commercial and evangelical interests, the most powerful drivers of British imperialism, and they mobilized a strong negative response in the first decades of the 19th Century.

Evangelical leader William Wilberforce led the attack with a parliamentary debate he initiated in June 1813 to highlight the desperate need of Indians for moral, spiritual and cultural guidance. Citing authorities from Tamerlane to Company bureaucrats, he declared that Indians were intellectually “totally uncultivated,” possessed only of a “low cunning which so generally accompanies depravity of heart.” They were indolent, “grossly sensual, cruel, cowardly, insolent and abject,” and “without a sense of religion.” They had “all the vices of savage life without any of its virtues.” They were habitual liars whose religion was mere superstition, with rituals both degraded and debauched: 100,000 of them committed religious suicide at the annual festival of “Juggernaut” (Jagannath) at Puri, and 10,000 widows immolated themselves every year on the funeral pyres of their husbands.

The East India Company followed up with two books of racist calumny it commissioned and published. One was James Mill's 1817 History of British India. It is “incredible and ridiculous” to think of India as having “a high state of civilization,” he wrote. “Of the Hindus, it may, first of all, be observed, that they little courted the pleasures derived from the arts, whatever skill they had attained in them. The houses, even of the great, were mean, and almost destitute of furniture; their food was simple and common; and their dress had no distinction (which concerns the present purpose) beyond certain degrees of fineness in the texture.” He could not deny the high quality of Indian textiles but explained it thus: “The weak and delicate frame of the Hindu is accompanied with an acuteness of external sense, particularly of touch, which is altogether unrivalled, and the flexibility of his fingers is equally remarkable. The hand of the Hindu, therefore, constitutes an organ, adapted to the finer operations of the loom in a degree, which is almost, or altogether, peculiar to himself.”

India had no history, he asserted. Its view of the past was a “monstrous and absurd” concoction of legends and myths. Its society had not changed from the time of Alexander. Their “annals … from that era until the period of the Mohomedan conquests, are a blank.” The known facts were replete with “sudden, violent, and unprepared revolutions incident to barbarians,” and were “so much guided by caprice, and terminate so often in cruelty, that they disgust us by the uniformity of their appearance.” On the whole “it is rather fortunate for letters that they are buried in silence and oblivion,” and there was “perhaps but little to regret in the total absence of Hindu records.”

The other book, on Hindu Manners and Customs by the Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois (1765-1848), layered racial and religious prejudice. Dubois was the Chief of Foreign Missions in Paris and had fled the French Revolution to Pondicherry, where he saw a notice circulated by the East India Company asking for material Mill could use.

The manuscript the Abbe submitted was just what the Company wanted. It declared that British rule had widespread support in India and that the government was bent on a "humane and generous" effort to lessen the hardships of the people. However, Indians would "continue to grovel in poverty as long as their physical and intellectual faculties continue in the same groove." To "make a new race of the Hindus, one would have to begin by undermining the very foundations of their civilization, religion and polity, and by turning them into atheists and barbarians. Having accomplished this terrible upheaval, we might then perhaps offer ourselves to them as lawgivers and religious teachers. But even then our task would be only half accomplished. After dragging them out of the depths of barbarism, anarchy, and atheism into which we had plunged them, and after giving them new laws, a new polity and a new religion, we should still have to give them new natures and different inclinations."

That became unstated policy. Gerard Lake (1744-1808), Commander-in-Chief of the Company’s forces as it fought the Marathas, noted that the Indian must be made to “think that Hindoo culture and civilization itself is decadent and sustains a temper which cannot be scientific. Thus devoid of a knowledge of his own past and culture the Hindoo will come to us – he will think of us as holding the key to progress.”

He was prescient. By 1823 Raja Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833) was writing to the East India Company to complain about its decision to set up an official college of Sanskrit in Calcutta. Such an institution, he wrote, “can only be expected to load the minds of youth with grammatical niceties and metaphysical distinctions of little or no practical use to the possessors or to society.” Indians needed a school that would employ “European gentlemen of talent and education to instruct in mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, and other useful sciences.”

Twelve years later, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) wrote the acerbic “Minute” that changed Company policy: “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative positions of the two nations is nearly the same.”

So-called “educated” Indians swallowed that assessment hook line and sinker, and by the 20th Century the superiority of things European had become such an article of faith that Mahatma Gandhi found little support in the Congress when he advocated the revival of traditional schooling as part of village-based rural development. The Congress Working Committee refused even to discuss his proposals formally.

All this should be of general and urgent concern. The British distortion of history is aimed at hiding its continuing effort to dominate and control India, and so far, the tactic has worked very well. Few Indians keep in mind that Britain created Pakistan as its proxy and that the continuing terrorist assaults on India emanate not from Islamabad but London.

We cannot make peace with Pakistan unless we get Britain to back off, and we cannot do that by pretending that it is not actively involved in efforts to subvert our economic and political systems. As is clear from the dirty record of Vedanta, Vodafone, BP and Westland (to name only the most prominent cases), the British want to get back into a commanding position in India, and are furious at New Delhi’s refusal to be a doormat.

The relentless barrage of corruption charges sensationalized by Britain's Indian media proxies over the past two years, the current crisis of the Rupee, and even the sudden spate of brutal attacks on women in our major cities should be seen as part of a concerted British-sponsored effort to delegitimize the government and reduce its capacity to resist. Such destabilization efforts are hardly without precedent, and CBI investigations of the incidents of gang rape would do well to consider if family members or associates of the accused have recently got a lot of money. It would also be worthwhile to keep tabs on the financial resources that come Narendra Modi's way after his speaking engagement at the British parliament.

If India is to escape the toils of Britain's second Empire of crime and corruption the first step must be political recognition that it exists; so far, there has been a studious refusal to admit the reality.

Part 8 will go into the details of British Empire II and things we can do to roll it back.


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