Dear Shri Shashi Tharoor,
A friend Merin Mathew alerted me about your recent Oxford Union Society address. I had an idea of the format as I had once heard a young Muslim argue in defence of his faith and the accusations of terror hurled at his brethren. The video clip had gone viral and thousands had watched him through YouTube.
He was young, articulate, knew facts and figures, had a great sense of humour, a great command of the English language and was persuasive, not combative, and thrilled his listeners. In short, he was a great debater.
I have heard that you were also a debater in your time as a student of St. Stephen’s College, described as the Alexandria of the East. So I was not surprised when your speech became a hit with countless Indians, including our Prime Minister. That is why I decided to listen to you, though I had to exhaust the Internet data I sparingly use to read news and to comment in Facebook.
I know you are good at defending even the indefensible. Ganesh is worshipped by millions of Indians who believe that He symbolises everything that is good. My Asan (teacher) initiated me into learning by invoking “Hari Sri Ganapateya Namah”.
I was sitting with my editor H.K. Dua when he got a call from the proprietor of the newspaper who told him that he himself saw a Ganesh statue drinking milk. He said that he even took a video of the phenomenon.
He wanted him to play up the story. It evoked only a laughter from Dua, who refused to play ball. I thought it was a case of mass hysteria when the media played up the story with reports that other deities, too, started drinking milk. Thousands of gallons of milk was wasted to feed the deities when it could have provided nutrition to some poor children.
I was shocked to read your column where you expressed your belief that Ganesh indeed drank milk. You even debunked the capillary action theory the scientists had advanced. You quoted some British journalist who saw Ganesh drinking milk. I am sorry to say that you came down in my esteem for that piece of writing.
In your speech you called the British all names but did anyone interrupt you? They all heard you in pin-drop silence. You also received occasional clapping. That is democracy. Now imagine you taking part in a television debate moderated by Arnab Goswami of Times TV who thinks he represents the Indian state just as the Delhi LG who thinks he is the Delhi government.
I found it funny
that you began your speech by quoting Henry the Eighth who had six wives whose fate is described best in this popular rhyme:
“Divorced, beheaded, died;
Divorced, beheaded, survived”.
The moment you gave the figure that the Indian economy represented 23 per cent of the world economy when the British arrived in India, I remembered Manmohan Singh’s brilliant speech while accepting a honorary degree from Oxford exactly10 years ago. This is what he said:
“As the painstaking statistical work of the Cambridge historian Angus Maddison has shown, India’s share of world income collapsed from 22.6 per cent in the year 1700, almost equal to Europe’s share of 23.3 per cent at that time, to as low as 3.8 per cent in 1952.”
Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th Century, “the brightest jewel in the British Crown” was the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income”. What a pity, even for this quote, Manmohan Singh and you had to depend on a British scholar!
Let’s assume that whoever had measured India’s share in the world income in 1700 had access to unassailable statistics to reach such definitive conclusions. By the way, did “India” that we understand today, exist at that time? Did the economist who made the study in1700 take into account the gross domestic product of Kayamkulam in Kerala where I live most of the time, which too had an independent rajah, my grandmother was fond of telling me, while making his comparison?
Nobody has ever contended that India was a poor country. You represent the constituency which has the richest temple in India. In fact, it was rumours about the wealth of India that attracted hordes of invaders from places as far away as Portugal and Central Asia.
It is true that rulers in India were enormously rich. And so were temples, where gold and jewels were hoarded. Somnath in Gujarat was attacked not because the invaders opposed idolatry but because of the huge wealth it contained.
In the late 16th century, India had a population of 100 million, a very large number for the period. Compared to many other countries, India was very rich. But were the people of India also rich? No, because the surplus the economy generated went to support rulers and courts of legendary opulence.
The annual revenues of the Moghul emperor Aurangazeb (1658-1701) are said to have amounted to $450,000,000, more than 10 times those of (his contemporary) Louis XIV. According to an estimate of 1638, the Moghul court of India is supposed to have accumulated a treasure equivalent to one and one-half billion dollars!
Nearer in time, the Maharajah of Darbhanga had the world’s largest fleet of Rolls-Royce cars. Can one deduce from this that the Maithil Brahmins were the richest people in the world? The Maharaja of Kapurthala had a large collection of expensive wrist watches and he employed one person to key them everyday.
India was rich by the time the British arrived here. Then what happened? The Industrial Revolution in Europe transformed the continent and made it richer. The productivity of the people increased manifold when they no longer had to depend only on manual labour. Indian manufacturers could not face competition from their European counterparts.
The balance of trade went against India when Britain imposed heavy duty on cotton products from India. Absence of proper law and order in India prevented people from creating wealth. Thus, India’s commercial activity languished well below its potential.
And to top it all, religious taboos like barring Hindus from crossing the seas stymied Indian seafarers. In Europe, a small discovery – the spectacle that hangs fashionably from your neck, instead of sitting on your nose – more than doubled the productivity of artisans. Eyeglasses made it possible to do fine work and use fine instruments. But also the converse: eyeglasses encouraged the invention of fine instruments.
But what did our leaders do? Take the case of Mahatma Gandhi. For all his greatness, he found virtue only in charka. Amartya Sen’s book “The Argumentative Indian” (Penguin) has a chapter on Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in which he discusses the many differences the poet and the Mahatma had. One of them was about charka, which Tagore found was not the answer to India’s economic backwardness. He would have been happier if Gandhi had visualised a company like the Reliance, which depends on imported polyester for its raw material, and has made lakhs of Indians rich.
In contrast, Indians believed in fate and despised manual work. Thus, when earthquake hit Bihar in 1934, Gandhi believed it was because of the “untouchability” practised in the state. The Judeo-Christian respect for manual labour helped in the transformation of Europe and later America. For instance, when God warned Noah of the coming flood, He did not provide him with an ark. Rather, he was asked to build one with gopher wood.
The point to make is, the British are not entirely to blame for what happened to India. In the decisive Battle of Plassey which enabled the British to acquire power, the British lost only four Europeans and 14 sepoys. The secret of their success, in addition to Clive’s deceit which you mentioned, was keeping the gun powder dry under a tarpaulin when it rained.
In other words, knowledge of science helped them accomplish victory on the battlefront. They had come to the continent seeking trade, not territory and were, initially, at least, reluctant rulers. When the British found that a cigarette butt did not extinguish itself when it was thrown in a particular place in Assam, they engaged labourers to dig the place for they suspected the presence of oil.
That is how the Digboi oil refinery — the first in Asia — was set up. Sorry to say, our people would have, instead, set up a temple called Jwalamukhi there. Again, the British were the ones to discover that Assam was the place where tea could be grown. How did they learn it? When the local people gave a Britisher, who fainted because of exhaustion, a glass of boiled water with some leaves in it. That is how they discovered tea. Who brought apples to Himachal Pradesh? You ask your party leader Vidya Stokes whose grandfather, a foreigner, popularised its cultivation in Devbhoomi.
For many years, the British in India had successfully avoided entanglements, because entanglements led to responsibility and responsibility interfered with profit. The hard-headed London merchants of the East India Company wanted wealth, not glory: to them glory was an expensive luxury that counted for nothing on a balance sheet.
For almost 150 years, the company went on trading quietly. While exercising total authority over its own people, the company was content to remain humble petitioners to the Mughal emperors. It is the persuasive role of the evangelicals that forced the East India Company to turn its attention to ameliorating the socio-economic conditions of the people, a fact accepted even by Karl Marx in his writings on India.
Was the British rule an unmitigated disaster for India as you claimed? Lord Dalhousie provided India with what he called the three great engines of social improvement –Railways, uniform postage, and the telegraph.
Together with the new educational system, Dalhousie’s three great engines were to revolutionise communications throughout India, playing a vital part in its unification and making a national independence movement possible in little more than 30 years.
Creating the right conditions for independence was not, of course, Dalhousie’s intentions. He saw the telegraph carrying instant warnings of trouble from the farthest corner of India, which could be put down swiftly by troops transported from their stations by rail. The new postal and telegraph network would aid business, while the railways would open up the interiors of India to imported British goods and transport raw materials like cotton, jute and coal for the factories and mills of Lancashire, Dundee, and later, Calcutta.
Mangalore is very close to your state. Please visit the modern port there. You will find iron ore regularly exported to China and Japan. They make finished goods which they sell in India. Are the British to be blamed for this?
Now, did the British believe that they could have held on to India for ever? The answer is definitely in the negative. “The movement towards Indian independence began as soon as the British took power in the middle of the eighteenth century, and it was started not by the Indians but by the British themselves”.
Henry Lawrence, who with his brother, had been sent to take charge of the Punjab in 1849 wrote: “We cannot expect to hold India for ever. Let us so conduct ourselves … as, when the connexion ceases, it may do so not with convulsions but with mutual esteem and affection, and that England may then have in India a noble ally, enlightened and brought into the scale of nations under her guidance and fostering care”.
It is no wonder that even the Indian National Congress of which you are a member was founded by a British – Allen Octavian Hume, who was a District Magistrate when the “First War of Independence” occurred. He was sympathetic to the Indian cause. It is said that in his jurisdiction, only six Indians were hanged for taking part in the1857 mutiny. Not only that, he also devised ways in which the persons, who were awarded capital punishment, did not experience much pain when they were hanged. It is the same procedure that will be followed if the Supreme Court finally decides to hang Yakub Memon on July 30, his birthday.
As the Prime Minister mentioned in his Oxford speech, good governance is not a substitute for self-governance. But what are the ideals of good governance? Amartya Sen quotes Ashoka and Akbar on the subject but they are nowhere near what Anthony Read and David Fisher describe in their book “The Proudest Day: India’s Long Road to Independence”:
“On November 1, 1858, Lord Canning, wearing court dress and riding a large black horse, emerged from the fort at Allahabad, leading a procession of civil and military officers in full dress uniforms.”
He read out a proclamation from Queen Victoria: “It is our earnest desire to stimulate the peaceful industry of India, to promote works of public utility and improvement, and to administer the government for the benefit of all Our subjects resident therein. In their prosperity will be Our strength, in their contentment Our security and in their gratitude Our best reward…
“We declare it to be Our royal will and pleasure that none be in anyway favoured, none molested or disquieted, by the reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law; and We do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under Us that they abstain from interference with all religious belief or worship of any of Our subjects on pain of Our highest displeasure… in so far as may be, Our subjects, of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to office in Our service, the duties of which they may be qualified by their education, ability, and integrity duly to discharge.”
It was perhaps the most remarkable statement of policy by any imperial power in history.
Over the following 90 years, the reality rarely matched the fine sentiments, but the principles remained unchanged. The British in India might have viewed the proclamation with some cynicism but the Indian people reciprocated in great measure.
Kartar Singh, father of Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights activist, who was killed by the Punjab police, is one of them. He says, “The British were here to rule us. They did that under some rules and norms. In the British period, custodial killings, victimisation of family members of political or revolutionary suspects, false prosecution, etc., were unheard of”. (Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab – Final Report: Volume One)
Do you know that Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of our Constitution, had a different take on the British rule? Narendra Modi might have praised you for your speech but do you know that the RSS wanted the British to rule for some more time? By the way, it did not take part in the freedom struggle.
Also, remember that the British were able to defeat the Mughals only because they received support from the majority of the people. Colonialism began in Goa, a Hindu-majority state ruled by the Muslims. But for the support from the local people, the Portuguese would not have been able to establish themselves there.
At no point of time were there more than a few lakhs of British citizens in India. If every Indian had thrown a stone at them, they would have been finished. This being the situation, why blame the British when we should blame ourselves for what happened? We get the masters we deserve.
We have Narendra Modi now.
The writer is a senior journalist and can be reached at [email protected]
Courtesy: Indian Currents