The painful thoughts of the British empire syndrome
The Raj Syndrome by Suhash Chakravarty,Rupa,2007 pp 400. Revisiting 1857 Myth,Memory,History,Rolli Books,2007 Leonard Woolf A Life by Victoria Glendinning London,2006,pp 526
The thoughts here all raise highly emotional and highly controversial thoughts and throw up conflicting images as I look at India as a country and people who had been badly treated by the march of history, if I can say so, by enslaving it, all through the last two hundred years and more.
These three books are in a way inter-connected.
They came into my hands without any planned purchase. They in a surprising manner contributed to enlightening my understanding of an underlying theme that shapes my intellectual beliefs and political outlook today.
First the Moghul conquest, then the British Empire and the result today is people whose mental make-up, their very national character is yet to be clearly defined and understood by the people themselves.
The raj syndrome raises an important intellectual issue that is widely noticed for long by many and yet no one systematic thesis has evolved yet.As far as I know.
The raj syndrome is about how we Indians came under the occupation of the British traders who came to establish trade links and step by step they went on to conquer the whole continent and established control over the affairs of the left-over Mughal empire.The story is told in so many volumes of writing and for so long that we almost lost control over our own imagination of the whole deeply-ingrained attitudes and our own mindsets,when it comes to knowing our own Indian identity.
Prof.Chakravarti has done a good job and we all owe something to him for highlighting this particular theme in the form of a book.While Nirad choudhary reading the same I was reminded of another Bengali babu, the more cantankerous Nirad babu, who in his own inimitable way had done the negative job of reminding Indians of everything that is good in us we owed to the British occupation!
I often used to wonder for I have spent some years at Santiniketan, that for every Nirad Choudhury,there must at least be another one hundred unknown Nirad babus, when it comes to learning, the bookworms the average educated Bengali of my generation used to be. I am not sure the situation now, but I should assume that the average middle class Bengali household is at least educated for over three or even four enerations, if we take the Raja Ram Mohan Roy years as the starting point.
English education came early to Bengal and then it spread to other provinces,notably in Madras where also a middle class arose more on the same model.With the result,all the best brains of the British empire years in India came from Bengal and Madras and to some extent Kerala, the Malabar.
So you have the Madras Brahmins and the Malabar Nairs and Menons dominating the Indian civil service, of course the Bengalis always were ahead.
The Bengali middle class was always more diversified and thus you see a widespread scholarship in the province and the Calcutta Presidency College was a pioneer in the humanities and the sciences.
Since the days of Ram Mohan Roy,we see the diverse forms in which the empire rule implanted itself in the psychology of the Indians educated classes and also the Indian ruling princely classes.
Through several means this hold was perpetuated. First, the Christian missionaries in the name of spreading their religion and also spreading English education. Then, there was the exercise of the political power.
The founding of the first trading houses and then gradually taking part and assisting the local princes and by cheat and deceit grabbing power ruthlessly.
Chandragiri fort :
There is one deserted fort outside Tirupathi in the South. The Chandragiri fort. There you can see even today (as I used to see whenever I drive through the road beside) the document that was executed by a minor official from the East Indian Company leasing out a strip of land on the east coast in Chennai.The great irony is that you will also see there a later day receipt from the nearby district collector to the very same king after the Company had taken over the entire country and the king was asked to pay taxes for his kingdom!
Yes, that was the old story. Robert Clive and his deceit is also much written about.
What pains me is the fact that now, after the empire is dismantled and we are supposed to be very much in the present with sixty years of freedom with us and yet the raj syndrome, the empire mindset is very intact in much of the educated Indian’s psyche, right?
The first book deals with this Indian psyche.It is a sort of tour de force, every Indian student must read through it to have an idea as to how we Indians, starting from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to the final years of 1948,we were held in our mental captivity, the empire mindset had affected the way we look upon the whitemen even today.
Perfidious Albion :
There is a telling phrase in the Oxford dictionary. Perfidious Albion.That is the phrase that we Indians must learn to understand, the British people, I mean the British who came to India, came for profit-seeking and in the end they ended up as the most greedy and the most savage occupiers and they destroyed the best of the Indian value system.
Rudyard Kipling :
The book explores the large number of British writings, starting from the arch imperialist writer, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) to Winston Churchill, both got the Nobel Prizes for what? Literature! That was a measure of the impact British imperialism held on the world imagination! While Gandhi and Tolstoy missed the Nobel recognition!
Kipling ballads and stories were read not just the whitemen, but by the very educated Indians classes for long and very much taken as models for their writings in English language!
I remember hearing from educated Indians quite some time ago, talking of Kipling as a mark of their Westernised education and values. The author quotes a great number of British writers, including those who were supposed to be sympathetic to the Indians, men like E.M.Forster,George Orwell and many others like C.F.Andrews.But what the book brings out clearly is that even these sympathizers shared the larger picture of the empire being in the interest of the Indians only!
What is much more distressing is the fact that even the nationalists when they came along, from say, Gokhale to Gandhi and Nehru, they too were victims of their own times and the mindset, they all thought at least in the beginning of their careers,that India was to be a dominion within the empire and that was the goal then.
Even after we attained our freedom in 1947, we didn’t realise the dept. of the empire midset among our educated Indians.Leave out the old ICS under the empire. What about the IAS and the so-called liberal professionals, the economists and others now?
Irfan Habib :
Dr.Manmohan Singh went to Oxford to receive a honorary degree and there he praised the British benevolence for giving him and his countrymen to learn to rule themselves! Even his fellow Oxonian D.Phil, Prof. Irfan Habib protested at this interpretation by Dr.Singh. While the PM’s other colleagues, including Prof. Amartya Sen remained silent.
Aren’t our current crop of NRI intellectuals, those who are based in the USA and UK, they who make their living abroad and who come often to their country of birth to give us lectures and enlighten us, are victims of the empire syndrome? They are,very much so!
So, when we will get over this all-encompassing and all-consuming poison of the alienated sense of belonging to our own civilisational value system?
It is for many others to answer this question.It is not one person’s job!
The other book on 1857 came along and I find the very same question arose in me. What about the writings on the 1857? There is a pointless debate in my opinion as to whether it is a mutiny or revolt or rebellion or fight for independence? Is it a feudal resistance or peoples’ war?
I would say unhesitatingly,after reading through the many books on the subject that 1857 is all these only.Yes, the men and women, Nana Sahib, Tatia Tope and Rani of Jhansi were freedom fighters in our own modern sense.We can say this and Veersavarkar,whatever be his other failings, did call it a war of independence.Why not?What is wrong with it? Let professional historians fight their battle! Yes,sometimes history becomes popular history and that is how history catches the minds of the common man and let academic history do its job!
There are one or two observations I like to make on the empire syndrome.
One, the Bengal renaissance gave a different mindset to the Indian educated classes, the Bengali bhadralok in particular was awakened to their own heritage. The rise of Ram Mohan Roy’s Brahmo Samaj movement was a true counter-blast to the Christian missionaries and their British ruling masters.
Ram Mohan Roy :
Second, the learning of the English language was a blessing. Ram Mohan himself learnt it only when he was 28, very much later before he learnt the other classical languages like Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. He learnt some 10 languages. This had its impact on his propaganda media, like magazines in many languages,in the growth of the Bengali language. Bankim Chandra and Tagore family contributed to the cultural renaissance. The book here has cited some instances that how even after Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature, his writings were not included in the text-books for British school children in the books published by the London Missionary Society in 1895.One of the popular books for children on India was the illustrated volume,The land of Idols or Talks with Young People About India, written by one Rev.John.Pool and the book presented India as “a land of conjurers and jugglers enshrouded in mystery with idols everywhere, some 333,000,000 gods!”
Oxford imperalists :
And even the great Oxford educators, like A.D. Lindsay (1879-1952), a master of the prestigious Balliol College, headed a committee to examine the education for Indians based on their changed interest in their own religion, namely Hinduism. He wanted the Christian beliefs in education incorporated. I mention only one among the many names to indicate that even when I went to Oxford in the late Fifties in the last century Linday’s name was held in some awe.
Third,I have to say that though the average empire servers were rather socially of inferior classes,this much I can say with confidence!Who else came to India? Not the real,genuine people nor the rich. It is the job-seeking classes, sometimes the bulk were from the lower order, the army and the cantonment characters were the less educated and the Anglo-Indians passed off as really upper class. Even till recently, when we used to visit the older public schools, like the Lawrence school in Lovedale, the real white students were for most part the Anglo Indians.This we didn’t realise till much later! Then, we can imagine the Indian middle class attitude towards their white masters!
In fact,a third rate class and that held even the most highly educated Indian social classes in some awe and respect.
Four, there were some exceptions. Those officials, may be they were ICS or non-ICS and yet they were gifted in their own ways. They who founded the Bengal Asiatic Society did a great service. They resurrected the Indian heritage. They discovered Buddha and Asokan heritage. The Orientalists who translated from Sanskrit to English,the Gita and Kalidasa was translated. These men need recognition and due acknowledgement.
But the task today is more challenging. How to bring about the paradigm shift? How to infuse a new sense of realisation on the apart of the educated new generation, about getting their own ethos?
This is the task I set for the educationists, the thinkers and intellectuals.
Let the younger generation of Indians’ writers write novels and win prizes and much reocognition.This is just only one stream.
The much more challenging stream will be to create wealth and win the modern battle of abolishing poverty and ignorance, how to revive our rural heritage, how to teach Indian history, Indian values, Indian languages and much else that would equip the modern Indian generation as confident citizens?
As a result of my own peregrinations, I have come to the conclusion that Indians must learn to suspect whatever is being written on India
by the British writers and thinkers. They are congenitally incapable of seeing India in a detached manner. The evidence can be seen as given by the author in his notes. There are at least some one hundred books written by various British writers on their nostalgia of the raj. Writers like Charles Allen, Jan Morris, Philip Mason, Geoferry Moore and others are testimony of the continuing fascination with their old jewel of the crown!
The biography of Leonard Wolf I have added here for the reason he was an ICS attached to Ceylon. Besides he became
an early skeptic of the
empire, though he believed
the empire is for the good
of the Ceylonese people. Besides, he comes from a distinguished literary family, his wife Virginia Wolf was a great writer and much
admired. As for me, he was
also a friend of the Fabian Socialists, the Beatrice Web
and Sydney Web and also the editor of the Newstatesman, Kingley Martin. I was a friend of Kingley Martin while I was at Oxford and I had invited him once to speak to the Indian students at Oxford. Hence his name included here in assessing the empire ethos!
My encounter with the raj syndrome!
I became a Fabian Socialist!
There is the persistence in the hold of the raj syndrome in the years since India became independent.Even now,we can see the many pretensions of Indians who went to Oxford or Cambridge and came back as civil servants or academics.
Indians are subservient,they fear and respect even the lowest of the lowly government servants!
Now, E.M. Forster ,the author of A Passage to India, was a sort of cult figure, for he had cultivated Indian friends, he was close to one Masood, a grandson of the founder of the Aligarh Muslim university. Forster visited India twice, once in 1912and 1921. He lived in India and worked in some obscure princely state of the North and he wrote not many novels and the Passage to India firmly gave him a brand name as a spokesman for India in the later imperial years.
I knew Forster in a way! Though I haven’t given much publicity to show my own Britishness as such!
In fact,in my time at Oxford,we some Indian students got an opportunity to appear in his adopted play of the same name before it became a big bright in New York.So, Forster came to the Oxford Playhouse to launch the inaugural play when I was one of the minor “actors’ standing and watching Forster making the appearance along with us. (It is another thing, the next day my Oxford friends at the breakfast table made fun of me for having worn my Indian attire that was unfamiliar to them! For they had till then only saw in the English clothes!).
Now,to talk and write of E.M.Forster was a cult job with the Indian official class.Even Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi,I should say,enjoyed their “Britishness”, their British connections, first as students and later as political figures. Even in his later years I don’t think, as I see now, that Pandit Nehru was aware of the harm the raj syndrome had caused on the Indian psyche. That is a pity, indeed. If at all one person who was qualified to do something about it, it was Nehruji only.
He was too much enamoured by his British friendships, starting with the glamorous couple, Lord and Lady Mountbatten and later with his British Labour Party friends like Prof.Harold Laski, Aneurin Bevan and many others.As I see now, Nehru’s obsession with British Socialism was bit misplaced for he, if at all, was the only person qualified to suspect and also distinguish the British Socialism from its Soviet variety of authoritarianism and also Indian economic development’s special historic compulsions and alternatives.
Among the many British “liberals” who showed evident sympathy towards India’s aspirations,are some of the great Englishmen and women.
Now, speaking for myself,I should say that I went to England in independent India,in 1959.There had been great many Indians who visited England in the past,starting from Ram Mohan Roy to Prince Dwarakanath Tagore to Rabindranath Tagore himself. Later, Mahatma Gandhi went to England in the year 1888, (Nehru 1904 to Harrow) and we have to make room for the historic context in which they went and what they imbibed there.
Now, the empire’s impact was so all-pervasive, it is important how each one of us, England educated or educated in India, felt drawn into the all-powerful reach of the imperialism and its many tentacles.
As for me, I was clearly not drawn towards everything that was English or Western. Already my sensibilities were moulded by the Gandhian school and the Tagorean aesthetics and Indian values.
So,I joined the Oxford Labour Club as a student and later attached myself deeply to the Socialism of the famous weekly, Newstatesman whose editor, Kingsley Martin I invited to Oxford to speak to the Indian students.
Thus, I was drawn to read more of the Socialist literature, I was already an ardent follower of Harold Laski’s political ideas,his exposition of Socialism, Individual liberty,I confess, as an unassailable exposition. Obviously, Newstatesman weekly writings, Kingsley Martin’s trenchant pen greatly influenced my thinking and even in a way my writing style, I should say.
Also, I became an ardent admirer of the famous Fabian Socialist couple, namely, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Beatrice Webb’s two volume autobiography is still my favourite reading volumes!
The Fabian Society was founded in 1885 by Sidney and Beatrice Webb to “permeate” the power structure through Socialist ideas, Webbs also founded three great institutions that changed the outlook of the world as it was emerging then.They founded the London School of Economics and Political Science, the socialist weekly, Newstatesman, they in turn shaped the British Labour Party!
Many Third World leaders came out of these institutions.
Oxford Debating Union
I was also active in the Oxford Debating Union, I knew some who b ecame later famous in the world. Some Sri Lankan leaders also were my friends.
Though, later I very soon came to doubt the Webbs’ volumes on the Soviet Russian experiment and even in later years I became a bit disillusioned with Laski’s over-enthusiastic endorsement of the Soviet Communism.
May be that sort of doubt and also my rather later growing admiration for the 19th century statesmen, both Disraeli and Gladstone, also brought about the urge in me to personally visit Soviet Union before I returned to India and take up politics full time!
What is rather disappointing even now, is the hold the British empire syndrome still exerts on the Indian middle classes, specially in the bureaucracy and the higher reaches of the New Delhi establishment.
This has certain far-reaching implications for the shaping of India in the new century.
First, we Indians don’t have the independent thinking on many aspects of foreign policy as of now. In the post-Nehru era, we seem either to have been led by the US establishment or fall back on the moth-eaten British establishment. The English books, the English press and also our lack of a clear alternative thinking to evolve a distinctive Indian identity has created the present dilemmas. How much to take the present leaders seriously? Dr.Manmohan Singh to Sonia Gandhi? Or, for that matter L.K. Advani or Prakash Karat? The BJP and the CPI(M) are the worst offenders! As for the mainstream Congress, the real and genuine mainstream is hidden from public view. Sonia Gandhi presides over a superficial section of the power-seekers. So, there is a big task cut out for the many strands of opinion and activists, cultural, educational, political and social areas of national priorities.
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