Said I one night to a pristine seer
(Who knew the secrets of whittling Time),
Sir, you well perceive, that goodness and faith,
Fidelity and love
Have all departed from this sorry land.
Father and son are at each other’s throat;
Brother fights brother. Unity
and Federation are undermined.
Despite these ominous signs
Why has not the Doomsday come?
Why does not the Last Trumpet sound?
Who holds the reins of Final Catastrophe?
Mirta Asadullah Khan Ghalib penned his poem in 1827 after a six month trip from Delhi to Banares. The Mughal Empire was declining and it seemed India was tearing itself apart. Britain was claiming large stretches of the north.
Ghalibs question seemed answered when in 1857. What the British called it the Sepoy Mutiny quickly spread to be what Indians call The First War of Independence.
Ghalib was in Delhi then, where the most violent fighting decimated the city. A cultured Muslim bought up with Mughal refinement, he also received a stipend from the British.
“He saw more clearly than the British colonist did then or the Hindu nationalist does now, that it was impossible here to distinguish right from wrong, that horrible atrocities were being committed by both sides. Marooned in his home, he wrote a melancholy account of how ‘Hindustan has become the arena of the mighty whirlwind and the blazing fire.’ ‘To what new order can the Indian look with joy?’” (Guha: 11).
Britain won and Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. The previous ad hoc administration was now run by the elite Indian Civil Service. The building of a massive rail network moved soldiers efficiently to quell trouble and sped up communication. This was also enhanced by active attempts to cause discord between India’s diverse communities.
It seems to me that India’s ancient polytheistic expression of the one God allowed a soft and fluid acceptance of diversity. India’s polytheism of the soul allowed for the shadow sides of our personality to be expressed openly, in symbolic form of odd and bad. I suggest that the rise of nationalism, which in the modern form developed from the French Revolution, has narrowed a terser view.
Ghalib’s question is for me personal since, although I now view India as home, my ancestors arrived from Australia in 1829 as part of the Britain’s 40th regiment. At first many British so loved India’s exotica that ‘to stop soldiers going ‘Native’ government attitudes hardened.
By 1888 Britain was so entrenched few ever envisaged Independence in 60 years. That year, Sir John Strachey who became a member of the Governor Generals council l pointed out India was more diverse than the competing nations within Europe.
India was “a name which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries’ he said. The differences were hard for Europeans to grasp. “”Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like Punjab.” However, by the definition at the time, these were not nations. They lacked a group with a distinct political or social identity.
“There is not and never was in India, or even any country of India possessing, according to any European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious” he said in lectures delivered at Cambridge.
While it was “conceivable that national sympathies may arise in particular Indian counties” but “that they should ever extend to India generally, that men of the Punjab Bengal, the North-Western Provinces, and Madras, should eve feel that they belong to one nation, is impossible. You might with as much reason and probability look forward to a time when a single nation will have taken the place of the various nations of Europe.”
That Independent India does exist extends from the vision of an elite debating club of Gokhali, Tilak and later Gandhi who sought to bridge divisions of culture, territory, religion and language in pursuit of a greater say for native Indians in their affairs.
British opinions divided. A prime mover of Congress was Scottish born O. A Hume. In contrast, when author Rudyard Kipling was asked in Australia of Indian Independence in 1891, he replied “Oh No! They are 4,000 years old out there, much too old to learn that business. Law and order is what they want and we are there and give it to them and we will give it them straight.”
The idea of an Independent India was “not only fantastical in itself but criminally mischevious in its effects” claimed Winston Churchill in the 1930’s. Churchill was a lone voice warning against the rise of Germany, and thought Congress dominated by Brahmins. If Britain left “an army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany, will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu’ he said. “To abandon India to the rule of the Brahmins would be an act of cruel and wicked negligence.” (Guha: XV)
There were many who feared disaster.
As one tea planter explained “chaos would result if we were to ever be foolish to leave the natives to run their own show. Ye gods! What a salad of confusion, of bungle, of mismanagement, and far worse, would be an instant result.”
The barbarism of Partition seemed to show him to be right. Deprivation did ensue. But Germans did not come even though a few Indians thought Japan may help India gain Independence in World War II.
That “India could sustain democratic institutions seems, on the face of it, highly improbable wrote political commentator Robert Dahl. “It lacks all the favourable conditions.” “India has a well-established reputation for violating social scientific generalizations” wrote another American noting ‘grounds for scepticism of the viability of Democracy in India” (Guhu: xvi).
Perhaps this is where the naysayers were seeing only the surface appearance of things.
Indian politics is like its traffic. It looks chaotic and incomprehensible, but once you know the rules (and yes they are there, in a pecking order descending down from buses, then trucks down to pedestrians) you get around. It can be chokingly slow, but once the Indian juggernaut picked up speed it became a largely successful, as the world’s largest democracy.
Few realise that India cannot be characterised on her religious history alone. As extensive as her religious literature is, her heterodox dialectic extends back millennia facing the difficult questions with religious, agnostic, and atheistic debate. Do not assume India is a land of unquestioned practices and uncritical faiths. Indian science and mathematics flowered in the 5th century BCE.
While tribalism does at times flare up, even the Hindatva call for a Hindu India for ‘sons of the soil’ has had limited success. What is chaos to others is India’s vibrant argument with life.
True, after 1857 Britain realised that to keep the subcontinent it had to turn Hindu and Muslim against each other. Exploiting division made Partition a reality and left distrust that can surface even today.
Here is the problem as I see it: With almost erotic intensity nationalism promotes ”my tribe ahead of yours”. The media, and its incessant argument add to this of course. Fear easily grips the heart, sends us into a short term spin, without little time to calmly consider the facts. With the fast changing news scape even experienced reporters have little time for reflection. It is now harder for India, balancing a rapidly changing economy with her vast inequalities. Yet call a return to traditional values will only become oppressive if forced from without. The spiritual dimension, that the subcontinent once cherished, included deep meditative reflection of our polytheistic’ psyches. The many truly beautiful spiritual people were not driven by social pressure to perform a ritual, but were more like the poet Ghalib. Hardship and service taught them to know the hardship of others and to learn there humanity. However, enforced national, caste or religious prejudices divide. They tell us to condemn first, so we will not look into the yes of the other.
Yet, with all its potential for division India survives.
Will India survive?
After monitoring decades of elections British journalist Don Taylor wrote in the Evening Standard of 1969 that while India had stayed united “the hey question remains can India remain in one piece-or will it fragment?”
With all her diverse languages, cultures and religions “it seems incredible that one nation could emerge.”
“It is difficult to even encompass in the mind – the great Himalaya, the wide Indo-Gangetic plain burnt by the sun and savaged by the fierce monsoon rains, and green flooded delta of the east, the great cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. It does not, often, seem like anyone country. And yet there is a resilience about India, which seems an assurance of survival. There is something which can only be described as an Indian spirit.”
The future of the region depends on it.
I agree with Taylor’s conclusion “I believe it no exaggeration to say that the fate of Asia hangs on its survival.”
Let us hope that the legacy engendered by Britain’s post 1857 policy of ‘divide and rule’ will not be allowed to slash apart the good nature of India’s diverse family .
When murderous anti Sikh rioters pillaged after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, few imagined the non aligned but Socialist India would have outlasted the Soviet Union.
India survives because it defies Western definitions of unity. India will survive if it retains its polytheism of the soul.
Anyone interested in Indian modern history will find Ramachandra Guhu’s India after Gandhi (2007, Macmillan, London) a magisterial reference.
A great resource of Indian issues is also Amartya Sen The Argumentative Indian- writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity (2005, Penguin Books, London).
The Evening Standard article by Don Taylor was published 21 August 1969 ‘The New Surprising Strength of Mrs Gandhi’ from Guhu p xvi, xvii.