Monday, February 8, 2010

Colonial Rediscovery of India

(First published in The Pioneer dated February 7, 2010)

The Rediscovery of India is largely on expected lines as the distinguished author tries to reconstruct Indian history through a conventional Western perspective and hits several roadblocks in the form of dubious interpretations, writes RAJESH SINGH

The Rediscovery of India
Author: Meghnad Desai
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs 699

The story of British India and of India after Independence has been written by a galaxy of writers — professional historians, researchers, politicians and assorted academics. Virtually all “angles” and perspectives have been covered in the decades since 1947, and it would be therefore safe to assume that nothing fresh remains to be explored, unless of course more documents get declassified. The Rediscovery of India, thus, has to be read purely for the interpretations and observations of the author who is a distinguished economist and political commentator with a global canvas.

While the book is largely on expected lines — Desai loves Nehru, is ambivalent towards Indira Gandhi and thoroughly despises the Right — it hits several roadblocks in the form of dubious interpretations. Perhaps the problem is that the author sees developments from a Western perspective, and that too of the conventional kind.

According to him, India’s history — at least that which he considers relevant — began with the arrival of Vasco da Gama to Calicut. He calls it India’s “induction into global history.” With such a beginning, the book’s direction is clear to the reader. Nothing before — the glorious chapters of Mughal, Hindu and Buddhist rulers — is important enough to merit a mention.

Hailing the British, he says their arrival in India saved the country from division. Desai claims the British were responsible for the single entity that India came to be shaped into. A fractured group of kingdoms earlier, it would surely have met Europe’s fate of balkanisation, he asserts.

Later on, he hits upon another theory of how Vedic gods were “marginalised.” He says most experts agreed that what emerged by the end of the first millennium BCE was a synthesis of the two belief systems with the ‘dark gods’ — Shiva, Vishnu and Kali — emerging as dominant and the Vedic gods increasingly marginalised. This, according to the author was due to the emergence of a rival belief system that Buddha preached in sixth century BCE. This is a strange denouement because by no stretch of imagination did the so-called Vedic gods ever get marginalised. In fact, they flourished in the minds of the faithful side by side, and this continues right until this very day.

But Desai’s clarity deserts him at times. For instance, he remains unclear on what led to the long period of economic stagnation that cost the nation “thirty years of low growth.” While on the one hand he says it was due to the centralised policy of the union government, on the other he acknowledges that, “perhaps the problem was not so much central control as the policy chosen.”

The author comes across as a staunch supporter of the British move to promote the English language often at the cost of the local ones. He pulls up those like John Marriot who believed the British launched a programme to “appropriate Indian languages to the exigencies of colonial rule.” He says languages cannot be appropriated and adds the British had “liberated” languages from “narrow caste monopoly and disseminated them to any and all Indians who wanted to learn them.”

While it is true that languages like Sanskrit had been monopolised by a section of the society limited to the upper caste Brahmins, the British never liberated the language and made it accessible to the common man. They only made English relatively more accessible. If literature and languages flourished, it was during the Mughal rule.

It is ridiculous for Desai to observe that someone like Bhimrao Ambedkar would not have been able to get a doctorate had the British not made language accessible to all, including the low caste. He accepts that the British taught themselves Sanskrit with the help of the local elite. Was this done by force, since the elites were supposedly loath to pass on knowledge and monopolise it?

But the author is right about the Portuguese in Goa who went about imposing Portuguese and destroying the local language and culture. Perhaps they did not have the vision to realise how important it is to merge with the local milieu of a nation you want to subjugate for a long period of time. Yet ironically, the Portuguese ruled Goa longer than the British did the rest of India.

Given his endorsement of the British role in “liberating” language, it does not come as a surprise that the author has tremendous regard for Thomas Macaulay, and credits him for the “modernity” that he brought to India through English. Never mind Macaulay’s infamous statement: “I have never found one among them (Orientalists or Indian) who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of Western literature, is indeed, fully admitted….”

The author seeks to dilute the arrogance of the statement by saying Macaulay’s remark was not racist; it was universalist since he made similar comments on Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French. Does that make it more acceptable?

Desai says Macaulay’s impact on India was more although he served here for just four years; in contrast, John Stuart Mill, his opponent handled the affairs for 34 years. True, but Macaulay being in India had a more direct impact. Strangely, the author finds in Macaulay’s contempt for local circumstances and culture, the act of a “genius” who derived his policy “from general principles.”

He wonders about the “great silence” on the Indian side on the 1857 revolt; the little that emerged praised the British for controlling the mutiny. But that was to be expected for two reasons: One, the suppression allowed for little immediate response; and two, the ‘modernity” in Indian thinking that the author had earlier commended. A third reason could be the Left influence in the succeeding years on history which did not see the event as a liberation struggle.

The author says, in those early years the “mutineers” did not have an idea of a “nation”; even if they were very clear who the insiders were and who were the aggressors. But in the end, even if many of them fought for self, it was to liberate from a foreign yoke.

Moreover, one can take on Desai for his claim that the concept of nationhood did not exist. While there are several writers who would contest the assertion, the author would do well to read Parag Tope’s Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus, where Parag asserts how the idea of nationhood existed in a robust manner during that period.

Again unlike what Desai believes, the “rebels” were not driven by petty personal considerations but by the larger goal of liberty and dignity. This is evident in the proclamation made by the Delhi emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who led the 1857 revolt. It spoke, among others, of the unfair taxation on the people of the country, monopolisation of trade and commerce by the English to the exclusion of Indians, denigration of Indian public servants and stifling of individual freedom.

Desai discovers a divisive communal element in the politics of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and inclusiveness in Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s. In the context of the Bengal Partition, he says — with an undercurrent of dislike — that Hindu religion was invoked by the likes of Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai to mobilise people against the British and that the Muslims were left out due to the Hindu slogans of Vande Matram and Swadeshi. But then, since a majority of the population was Hindu, mass awakening naturally led to a huge number of Hindus participating.

In any case, the two words are not the exclusive preserve of the Hindus but symbolise a larger objective of freedom and reverence for a “nation” concept that the author himself admitted did not exist earlier. What would the author — who is a Hindi film fan — say to the film Swades? Was that also communal, and what then was Shahrukh Khan doing in that?

The author makes a rather insensitive statement when he says that Independence came as a “transition, not a disjuncture.” In saying this, he appears to be paying a tribute to the British largely. But what about the horrors of Partition? According to him, the transition was smooth, “notwithstanding Partition.” Indeed, Lord, if this was smooth transition, what would define a violent and unruly one!

The author continues with his generalisation throughout the book. At one point he says the “ideology of Aryans coming to India and civilising it is very much a North Indian upper-caste Hindu narrative.” The author does not elaborate, of course, for there is little to elaborate. He has no corroborative evidence. On the contrary, the theory itself is a Western notion and carried forward by Leftist historians. Even though fresh evidence is undermining this theory, it continues to be touted by these people. Let the author tell us which prominent North Indian upper-caste Hindus are doing it, and if some are involved in them, are they representative of the entire upper caste Hindus?

The author, not known to be Left-inclined, tongue in cheek refers to Left economist Biplab Dasgupta’s comment on why the British won the Battle of Plassey that paved the way for imperial rule. He says the comment was “well within the Indian Marxist tradition.” Dasgupta wrote: “Palashi was a contest between two modes of production… While Siraj (ud daullah) represented decaying and degenerate federalism, the East India Company symbolised the worldwide rising power of nascent capitalism…” Thus, the lesser or the more powerful “evil” finally won.

The author in the course of the book offers little insights into, and nags us to re-visit, personalities that are embedded in our minds with a certain image. For instance, he talks of how Edmund Burke is referred to here with some regard. “Yet, Burke is a strange hero for the Indian nationalists to have chosen.” He quotes KM Panikkar as saying that during that man’s tenure, “moral consideration did not enter into the government of India.” Burke is a hero here to many for his denunciation of Warren Hastings (who was impeached back home).

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