Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Day 31: Reading About India

I am reading Ramchandra Guha's India After Gandhi. Unlike the scholarly histories, this one is very readable. This is also written very recently, which gives it a sort of familiar feel. It talks about how India's schoolbook histories end in 1947 [a fact Nandini disputed and claimed that history books in her school went beyond 1947, though she did not read that part!], and how we should look back to our history after 1947 with a sense of pride. Indeed, it is so easy to see the negatives in everything, to complain about what we did not achieve. However, the fact that we have built the world's largest democracy, the emergence of which no theory can plausibly explain, is something which we often overlook and never take pride in. Yes, it is imperfect, but so is every other country. But this isn't a reason why we should stop being proud of what we have achieved, and from whatever I read so far, I feel Mr. Guha's history is a timely, appropriate reminder.

There is this other interesting thought, which came from recent readings, especially from After Temarlane, an excellent history about the rise and fall of global empires. This talks about the modernizing effects of the European empires, and contrary to the claim that these empires had removed the age-old prejudices in the countries they ruled, it talks about how these empires possibly destroyed the indigenous culture and systems, and in fact developed and institutionalized some of the divisions and prejudices in the society. The Indian system of caste, while not a British invention, was certainly accentuated and institutionalized by the British administrators. While they can't be completely blamed for how Indians treated their compatriots, they certainly created posts and electorates, but no affirmative action programmes, for different castes and religions. Undoubtedly, British rulers were also responsible for many of the modernizing reforms - abolition of 'Sati', for example - though it is wrong to see this as a completely European-led reform. Raja Rammohan Roy, a classical scholar, thinker and a religious reformer, is largely credited with the abolition of 'Sati', though this goes unreported in many colonial versions of history.

While on this subject, I must also return to Macaulay, the key personality involved in introducing English education in India. I have written in the past about a spoof that circulates in his name, wherein he marvelled about the richness of India and drew up a cynical plan to destroy this with English education. This spoof of course, shows the other end of the coin - how the nationalist history, and its numerous followers, completely missed the point. In my opinion, the British ruled with self-interest, doing nothing that undermine it, doing everything to promote it. So, despite the colonial view of 'White Man's Burden' and its many modern apologists [Read Niall Ferguson's Empire], the European empires in Asia and Africa often had retrograde effect on societies, and consolidated and institutionalized prejudices and divisions in the society. The modern reformers, Indians and in other nations, however, were often trained in English and in European liberal values. They were not helped when they tried to reform their societies; indeed, the empire tried to undermine their efforts in every step. They promoted people like Jinnah, who, with all his British education and little regard for Islamic faith, saw self-interest in promoting division and bigotry in India. Macaulay, in the interest of his nation, introduced English education in India. His interests were clear - he wanted to preserve the British rule in India in perpetuity by creating a English-speaking Indian bureaucracy. There are indeed no moral issue here - international affairs are run on the basis of pure self-interest even today. However, Macaulay's children, as the Hindu nationalists later derisively called the English educated liberal leaders, had a most unanticipated effect on the country - they wanted to build their country with the liberal values of Europe. It is still a very sensitive issue - I got severely rebuked by many of the readers on this blog for calling the spoof a spoof, and for what they saw as Macaulay's genes in me. However, I did think Macaulay had an unintended effect on Indian history, and his reforms set us down the road of modernity in a way.

This is exactly why one should be optimistic about human civilization, and not write it down. If the course of history was left in the hands of the powerful, progress would not have been possible - because the powerful always preserves their power. But, throughout history, one would observe, human mind has been unsupressable, and the curious has always sought knowledge and driven progress. There is a lot of proof of the essential good nature of the human beings. At troubled times like this, this indeed is a reassuring thought.

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