Deadly distortions of Colonial Rule- Notes from ‘A Ruler’s Gaze’ by Arvind Sharma- I

Deadly distortions of Colonial Rule- Notes from ‘A Ruler’s Gaze’ by Arvind Sharma- I

Edward Said wrote an important book called ‘Orientalism,’ where he noted Western representation of Eastern cultures as an exercise in exaggerating the differences, presuming Western superiority. Orientalism is the source of inaccurate cultural representations and its principal characteristic is a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples and their culture”, which derives from Western images. These cultural representations usually depict the ‘Orient’ as primitive, irrational, violent, despotic, fanatic, and essentially inferior to the westerner, and hence, ‘enlightenment’ can only occur when “traditional” and “reactionary” values make way for “contemporary” and “progressive” western ideas. Saidian Orientalism (1978) proposes that much of the Western study of Islamic civilization was not an objective intellectual enquiry of Eastern cultures. Orientalism was a discriminatory method applied to non-European societies and peoples to establish European imperial domination. In justification of empire, the Orientalist claims to know the Orient more than the Orientals. (Sourced from Wikipedia) 

Distinguished author and Professor of Comparative Religions, Arvind Sharma applies the Saidian lens in analysing the British and Muslim rule over India and the distortions they inflicted. Sadly, there has been a gross internalization of many of these narratives by Indians, so much so that, there is persistent  refusal to believe alternative versions about ourselves. This book is a fantastic attempt to correct our colonized minds. The author sets the tone in the beginning of the fantastic book saying, ‘Knowledge is power and later, power becomes knowledge.’ Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ questioned the cultural representation of the Arab and the Eastern world purely from a western intellectual perspective. A ruler’s study of a ruled culture is likely to be highly distorted and without objectivity. The ruled are primitive and uncultured; and the rulers, the civilizing influence. This will bring into question the entire intellectual motive of constructing another culture by ‘outsiders,’ more so if they happen to be the rulers. Finally, the rulers would be justifying their presence in a foreign land. Though Edward Said applied his thesis to the study of Arab world, the present book uses the same idea to study the narratives produced by the British on India. The author thus tests the Saidian hypothesis of knowledge production with regards to British rule over India.

Arvind Sharma proposes that the British had changing equations with India during the years of its association. Initially, they were traders, later became rulers, and finally we are in a post-colonial world. The literatures produced by the British during these three eras were very different. A cultural representation of a primitive and uncivilized nation in all respects replaced the initial sense of awe and wonder. The post-colonial period produces a more favourable literature of India as it grows in power.

British Rule over India: A Discursive History

The British started as small trading colonies in the port areas of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. Their naval power overpowered the Portuguese, French, and Dutch powers to gain access to the central part of the country, Delhi, as the Mughal rule was crumbling in the early part of 18th century.

British rule gradually established itself over India from 1757 to 1858. There were four important chronological markers of this era. 1813, when missionaries could function from the company’s territories; 1818, when the British rose to a prominent power by defeating the Marathas; 1835, when English became a language of instruction; and finally, 1857, when a chaotic Indian Mutiny failed to dislodge the British and led to the replacement of the Company by the Crown.

Till the early part of 20th century, they looked irreplaceable. In 1905, the first stirrings of an Independence movement started. Gandhi emerged on the national scene in 1920. The world wars broke the back of Britain, which set the stage for Indian independence finally in 1947. The Independence of course came with a heavy price of partition and a permanent problem of Kashmir.

The early British representatives like William Jones, Charles Wilkins and Warren Hastings seemed to have great respect for Indian culture and literature. They were no paradigms of virtue either because they indulged in some massive distortions of Indian history as they could not handle the enormous timelines of Indian past which clashed directly with their biblical ideas of creation. The Asiatic Society, formed by William Jones, promoted the translations of Kalidasa’s works, Bhagwad Gita, Manusmriti, and Hitopadesha. Though the Asiatic Society was itself out of bounds for Indians, the initial admirers had great respect for its scholars, its works, and the language of Sanskrit. This started changing with Charles Grant in the latter part of the 18th century, who started pushing for the presence of missionaries in India. He argued that Britain had an ‘obligation to attend to the happiness, general welfare, and moral improvement of the people under its rule in India, and the only way to do this was to accept that empire must legitimate itself through Christian principles, and by seeking to promote those principles through education and conversion.’  Charles Grant was quick in labelling Indians as ‘degenerate, obstinate, malevolently passionate, corrupt in manners, and sunk in misery by their vices.’ He thought Hindu religion as the most despotic in the world.

1813 saw the admission of Christian missionaries for a civilizing mission in India. This connected directly to the consolidation of British political power in India. A landmark book published in the year 1818- The History of British India by James Mill, became a ‘philippic’ against Hinduism. Hindus became backward and primitive, limited to mere animal functions. The contempt of James Mill was glorious as this remark shows- ‘in truth the Hindu, like the Eunuch, excels in the quality of the slave.’  As one author said that between 1750 to 1818, the Englishman’s attitude towards India transformed from a plus sign to a minus sign with respect to Hinduism, and pluses attached increasingly to British power. William Jones, in 1787 thought that India is ‘invisible through dark glasses from Europe but needs the strong light of being in India to write about India.’ James Mill never visited India and did not know any Indian language; and he went through extreme and mostly ludicrous arguments that it was not a necessary requirement. This was a remarkable transition of the equation of power translating into knowledge production.

Unfortunately, even a supposedly great supporter of Hinduism or Indian culture like Max Mueller never set his foot in India. James Mill thought India was simply static and the past simply reflected its present. Max Mueller thought the past was great, but the present was in ruins and the people needed a civilizing mission from Europe. We all know about Macaulay. He introduced English as a language of instruction replacing Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic because he thought the dead language of Sanskrit was ‘barren of useful knowledge.’ He thought it full of monstrous superstitions, false history, false medicine being in the company of a false religion. Macaulay, by making English the language of instruction, simply had the purpose of creating a class of interpreters, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, opinions, and morals.

Lord Macaulay, while pressing for English as a medium of instruction, said famously in his ‘Minute to Education’ (1835) that, ‘I have no knowledge of Sanskrit or Arabic. A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia…. when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable….’

After the mutiny, Englishmen started depicting Indians as creatures, half gorilla, half negro, sometimes standing over murdered women. Even Punch magazines had cartoons based on these themes strengthening the popular perception. Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) wrote his famous Jungle books and the highly recited poem called ‘If’. He was a blatant racist quite content to show the Indian population as primitive and uncultured. His stories always cultivated this impression of Europeans being fine gentlemen, and Indians generalized to certain categories like being cowards, duplicitous, and not really humans. And then we study him in our schools.

Katherine Mayo wrote a supposedly neutral book called ‘Mother India’ in the early part of the 20th century where she concluded that India cannot self-rule. Gandhi dismissed the book as a ‘drain inspector’s report.’ The Oxford History of India slowly changed its stand in 1923 as the Independence movement gained force. Post-independence, the writers started to depict India in a better light so that by 1972, India became spiritually important as it survived politically.

In summary, Indian historiography primarily emphasised throughout the British rule the differences between the ruler and the ruled- religious, cultural, political, linguistic, and so on. After Independence, as the Saidian hypothesis would predict, there was a downplaying of the difference. The colonialism came funnily to the description – ‘British rule through Indian collaboration.’ By a subtle twisting of arguments by scholars like Christopher Bayly, the colonial rule was more of an Indian project than a European one! A scholar would even put the reason of colonialism as a logical outcome of South Asia’s own history of capitalist outcome- almost showing that Britain rule of India was for the benefit of Indian capitalists! The economic figures which show that India was contributing 25% of the world GDP in 1700s but became 2% at the time of independence with a complete reversal of figures for the British from 2% to 20% gives some problems to this kind of reasoning, of course.

The Anomalous British Rule Over India

The British fought 111 wars to capture India according to one count and the author says that this supports the statement of Samuel Harrington who said, ‘the West won the world not by superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence.’

James Mill’s ‘History’ was unabashed in its condemnation of Hinduism holding it responsible for everything wrong in India. It was handed as a necessary copy to new Company officials embarking for India. The gulf between the ruler and the ruled; the difference between the civilized and the primitive needed exaggeration to justify the British rule in India. The secular orientalists carried this campaign in a brutal manner; however, the missionaries were subtler in their conversion agenda fearing a severe backlash for the rulers from the majority. In short, Hindus did not appear primitive, but had to be ‘primitivized’ to fit the picture.

The Indian mutiny of 1857-58 and Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in 1859 brought drastic changes in the power equations. First, the British after quelling the mutiny became more exploitative and brutal; and second, pernicious Social Darwinism took roots. Though Darwin himself might not have been a racist, but his ideas came forcefully to social sciences. Perhaps, he was too mild to resist the wrong application of his theories, or perhaps he might have subtly approved. We do not know. Physical features became the basis for classification of people as primitive or advanced. India, China, ancient Egypt were ‘slave societies,’ above the ‘savage independents’ requiring an absolute ruler, with England lying at the top of the heap of civilizational progression, of course. It was a pernicious twist to Darwin. The Aryan theory- a fantasy creation of Max Mueller- in a twisted form became a justification of British rule in India. The Britishers being the brethren of the Aryan race of India-the Brahmins specifically- had come back to continue the civilizing mission of backward India.

The accentuation of racial differences post-mutiny led to legislations preventing Indian magistrates to have powers over European subjects. Indian judges could not prosecute and give punishments to Europeans. Rudyard Kipling wrote in his autobiography that parity of Indian judges to give punishments would mean trying white women by Hindus whose idea of women is ‘not lofty.’ A wife of a British ICS officer reacted on the proposed bill for equality of Indian judges to try European women by saying, ‘it is a proposal to subject civilized women to the authority of men who have done little or nothing to redeem the women of their race, and whose social ideas are still on the outer verge of civilization.’ By mid-19th century, the British became absolutely convinced of their right to rule a foreign country. The cause of this was twofold; the military successes which made them arrogant, and the rise of Evangelical Christianity which made the Europeans feel religiously exclusive and superior.

The irony which the author rues about is that during British rule, much ink flowed in justifying the British rule over India; after the end of British rule, very few from the West said anything to justify Indians ruling over their own country. It is a little surprising that the author does not talk about Will Durant, who was big time critic of British rule in India. The author finally states Western Indology to be an oxymoron, where for it to survive, somebody becomes a moron!

The British Depiction of Indian Society

Ruling a foreign land by force is an abnormality, and the major thrust of British discourse was to justify it. One of the methods adopted was to show as India as primitive, barbaric, regressive, and hence needing a civilizing force. The key subunits which were utilised to depict India thus were Sati, Thugee, slavery, legal inequality, female infanticide, dowry, illiteracy, and finally, the caste system.

Sati (Suttee) is a remarkable example of the relation between power and the projection of virtue, says the author. British first formalized it in 1813; and Lord Bentick then abolished it in 1829 hailing himself as a protector of Indian women. It was an infrequent occurrence, and most women who committed Sati were older women above 40. The British painted themselves as saviours but this understanding is now problematized by the work of Indrani Chatterjee. She showed that in the pre-British India, the local rulers- Hindus, or Muslims supported the widows by land grants. The Company stopped this to maximize their profits; and the widows, many years after the husband’s death, self-immolated as a form of cultural protest to which the British were insensitive. The latter finally banned the practice but it appears more like a cover-up of rapacity rather than any humanitarian act.

The thugees were small time dacoits who were the product of the disturbed times. They were not as pervasive and ferocious as the British made them out to be. Fantastic stories revolving around the thugees, basically restricted to a small region of North India, became pervasive all over representing a treacherous and unreliable India. The thugees prayed to various deities; and that created a religious colour to the phenomenon of thugees. And after creating the problem, Bentick stepped in with reforms to suppress the thugees.

Lord Ellenborough’s government abolished slavery in 1843. It was never greatly prevalent in Indian society as commented by authors of the past galore. It restricted to domestic servants to a large extent; and brutal treatment was not the norm. There was however, a very intensive slave trade to various British and French colonies from India which was with the active involvement of nefarious Indians and Europeans. This included child labour. The accounts of Europeans harshly treating the slaves has been well documented. Here again, there was a reversal of discourse. The slave business being a great evil needed abolishment. But, it was the empire which opened all the slave markets in the first place.

Oxford History of India stated about the principle of equality:

The principle of equality of the subject before the law lies at the root of the whole body of English law. It  was wholly absent from the body of Hindu custom with its special privileges for Brahmans and disabilities for the depressed classes…. Bentick went further. He modified the Hindu law of inheritance to make it possible for a convert from Hinduism to inherit the family property…

British policy was clear in painting Indian reality darker than it was and introducing the change in a manner which indicted Hinduism and/or benefitted Christianity. The secular cover condemned Hinduism overtly and promoted Christianity covertly. Selective readings of Hindu texts like Manusmriti and Purusasukta justified the discourse of the British that the various varnas were not equal before the law and that the brahmana class enjoyed a privileged position in this respect. A huge body of Hindu texts completely negated this. But the Britishers were either ignorant or chose to ignore them. It was more likely the former. Manusmriti gave a differential treatment to various varnas rather than preferential treatment. The higher castes would receive greater punishment for the same quanta of crime. This crucial point completely overlooked, made way for a malignant discourse showing Hindu law in a very poor light. But, the English law which replaced the previous law was heavily in favour of the Europeans.

Similarly, dowry system became depicted as a big scourge of Hindu religion; but the author shows that dowry was a cultural consequence of an economic phenomenon of the Company’s or Crown’s land revenue demands rather than the economic consequences of a religious phenomenon. The Saidian Orientalism of shifting blame is at play here, says the author. Female infanticide also came projected as a rampant phenomenon by a few writers and augmented by the writings of philosophers like Locke who wanted the Western world to believe that people of non-Western societies lack innate moral sense. They were more likely to believe sensational accounts of exotic rites in far-off lands based on unauthenticated travelogues. Contemporary thinkers have argued that ‘the naming of female infanticide from 1789 to 1857 was not a progression of the emancipation of Indian women sponsored by the British but part of British colonial expansion and the political rhetoric of colonial rule.’

It is worth spending some time on the two main ‘scourges’ of a Hindu country and the tremendous discourse created by the British in the blackest of pictures- the illiteracy and the caste system. The second part will deal with this narrative.

Featured Image: The Irish Times

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.