The New Nationalist Movement in India (Part 1)

.. No, this is not in reference with the nationalist movements that are prevalent today. This is a title of an article written by Jabez T. Sutherland (Link-thanks: doubtinggaurav) which appeared in The Atlantic way back in October 1908. In this article, the author asks some important question regarding Great Britain’s occupancy in India. The author describes himself as someone who has pretty wide acquaintances in England, and a residence of some years in Canada, a country which was a colony of England. This rather lengthy article thorough which the author seeks to understand the reason behind the new nationalist movement in India,  can be broadly divided into three parts:

• The problems of British rule over India.
• The causes for the indescribable poverty.
• What needs to be done.

I would discuss each of these parts in three separate posts starting with this one.

Part 1: Problems of British rule in India:

At the outset of the article, the author goes on to explain the difference between a colony and a dependency and what India exactly was:

What is this new Indian movement? What has brought it into existence? What is its justification, if it has a justification? What does it portend as to the future of India, and the future relations between India and Great Britain?

In order to find answers to these questions we must first of all get clearly in mind the fact that India is a subject land. She is a dependency of Great Britain, not a colony. Britain has both  colonies and dependencies. Many persons suppose them to be identical; but they are not. Britain’s free colonies, like Canada and Australia, though nominally governed by the mother country, are really self-ruling in everything except their relations to foreign powers. Not so with dependencies like India. These are granted no self-government, no representation; they are ruled absolutely by Great Britain, which is not their “mother” country, but their conqueror and master.

The author believes that self-ruling colonies of Great Britain are among the most free forms of governments which better embody the “intelligent” will of their citizens. While he is impressed with the reverence and affection of these colonies towards their “mother nation” and appreciates the fact that the mother nation allows her colonies to govern themselves freely, he asks , why were the dependencies spared of this magnanimity? Shouldn’t the principles of freedom which are supposed to be the very basis for British polity apply to these dependencies as well? But, more importantly, he asks that bold question:

Why is England in India at all? Why did she go there at first, and why does she remain? If India had been a comparatively empty land, as America was when it was discovered, so that Englishmen had wanted to settle there and make homes, the reason would have been plain. But it was a full land; and, as a fact, no British emigrants have ever gone to India to settle and make homes. If the Indian people had been savages or barbarians, there might have seemed more reason for England’s conquering and ruling them. But they were peoples with highly organized governments far older than that of Great Britain, and with a civilization that had risen to a splendid height before England’s was born…. Said Lord Curzon, the late Viceroy of India, in an address delivered at the great Delhi Durbar in 1901: “Powerful Empires existed and flourished here [in India] while Englishmen were still wandering painted in the woods, and while the British Colonies were a wilderness and a jungle. India has left a deeper mark upon the history, the philosophy, and the religion of mankind, than any other terrestrial unit in the universe.” (Emphasis mine)

This is an important observation, and a worthy answer to all those who seem to think that before the arrival of the Europeans India was lacking Order or Culture. Given the rich past of this country, both figuratively and literally, was it fair Britain to hold on to it as a dependency, that too by quelling the voices of it’s own people ? No doubt they may have referred to India as “the brightest jewel in the British crown” , but asks the author:

Do they reflect that it is virtually a slave empire of which they are so proud; and that this so-called brightest jewel reflects no light of political freedom?

The author goes on to reflect upon the nature of irresponsible absolute power which Britain was wielding at that time. I feel this paragraph below is relevant for all times, especially the one in which we live, since we can replace the names of the key players and still find it true:

Perhaps there is nothing so dangerous, or so evil in its effects, as irresponsible power. That is what Great Britain exercises in connection with India—absolute power, with no one to call her to account. I do not think any nation is able to endure such an ordeal better than Britain, but it is an ordeal to which neither rulers of nations nor private men should ever be subjected; the risks are too great. England avoids it in connection with her own rulers by making them strictly responsible to the English people. Canada avoids it in connection with hers by making them responsible to the Canadian people. Every free nation safeguards alike its people and its rulers by making its rulers in everything answerable to those whom they govern. Here is the anomaly of the British rule of India. Britain through her Indian government rules India, but she does not acknowledge responsibility in any degree whatever to the Indian people. (Emphasis Mine)

Post Independence, the Indian parliament drafted a reasonably good constitution founded on the democratic principles of “Rights and Duties”. Dr. Ambedkar made a strong point that the preamble was not ingrained with ideologies such as socialism. With this constitution as the guiding light and keeping in mind the warnings of the risks mentioned by our author above, we had an idea of “what not to do”. Despite these, Nehru flirted with the absolute power in the name of Socialism or the common good. His daughter Indira Gandhi legitimized these flirtations by imposing the emergency and taking us back to the days of British. She had famously declared that “Nation was more important than Democracy”. Did she understand the meaning of either of them ? Really it makes me wonder, after all those letters exchanged between father and daughter, after all those ideologies discussed, did either Nehru or Indira learn anything from history at all ?! Or did they learn the right history in the first place! Also, is this the “strong foundation” on which the Congress party wants to build India’s future ?

But I digress. Coming back to the article, our author proceeds to describe the “India” experience. Right from the mannerism of companions on the steamer journey from England to Bombay, the style hotels in Bombay, the magnificent Railway and telegraph networks, the numerous palaces in Calcutta, one could find the unmistakable stamp of the British in India. While all this was very impressive, and a casual observer would conclude saying that Britain has done a great service to the country of India, our author goes a step further and asks, whom do all these belong to? The British.  Who enjoys these privileges ? Mostly the British. And who pays for them ? By and large, the poor Indians. And what was the result of successive years of British governance to a country which used to be referred as the “land of plenty overflowing with Milk and Honey” ? Was there great prosperity in the nation and great satisfaction amongst it’s people ? No! On the contrary, our author tells us about the large scale famines that were prevalent in India. He quotes from W.S. Lily’s “India and it’s problems” which describes the vivid picture of famine in Bellary. But Bellary wasn’t the only one. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in his book “Anandmath” has mentioned the Bengal famine, in the backdrop of it’s story was set. Nicholas B Dirks in his book The scandal of the Empire” attributes the famine in Bengal to the Diwani system through which the British got exclusive rights to collect the revenue directly from Bengal’s Landholders.  Our author analyses these famines:

What is the cause of these famines, and this appalling increase in their number and destructiveness? The common answer is, the failure of the rains. But there seems to be no evidence that the rains fail worse now than they did a hundred years ago. Moreover, why should failure of rains bring famine? The rains have never failed over areas so extensive as to prevent the raising of enough food in the land to supply the needs of the entire population. Why then have people starved? Not because there was lack of food. Not because there was lack of food in the famine areas, brought by railways or otherwise within easy reach of all. There has always been plenty of food, even in the worst famine years, for those who have had money to buy it with, and generally food at moderate prices. Why, then, have all these millions of people perished? Because they were so indescribably poor. All candid and thorough investigation into the causes of the famines of India has shown that the chief and fundamental cause has been and is the poverty of the people,—a poverty so severe and terrible that it keeps the majority of the entire population on the very verge of starvation even in years of greatest plenty, prevents them from laying up anything against times of extremity, and hence leaves them, when their crops fail, absolutely undone—with nothing between them and death, unless some form of charity comes to their aid.

He then quotes several statistics that take us to an India beyond those Hotels, Palaces, Railway lines and Telegraph posts. To the “Real India” which was rarely highlighted in those times, except by a rare observer such as our author. Given this context, I must admit that I am amazed by the irony and also appalled by the hypocrisy that once India became independent, the British have made use of every opportunity to shower accolades on anyone who highlighted the fact that India in the hands of Macaulay’s Children today is as “Real” as it used to be in the times of Macaulay. Be it authors like Arundhati Roy, Arvind Adiga, Pankaj Mishra or film makers like Danny Boyle, all have gotten an applause for romanticising this “Real India” in their works. What was it that made the British applaud these works? Was it the nostalgia of the legacy which they endowed to us, was it the “they are no better than us” satisfaction, or was it the genuine regret of the follies of their ancestors? I shall leave you to ponder over that one.

Back to India’s problems, poverty wasn’t the only one. It might actually have been the effect of a much larger problem. As our author points out – the loss of liberty was a far greater injustice to the Indian people who didn’t even have independence to carve their political destiny and participate in governance. Especially when you consider that:

There are not wanting men among them, men in numbers, who are the equals of their British masters, in knowledge, in ability, in trustworthiness, in every high quality. It is not strange that many Englishmen are waking up to the fact that such treatment of such a people, of any pe ople, is tyranny: it is a violation of those ideals of freedom and justice which have been England’s greatest glory. It is also short-sighted as regards Britain’s own interests. It is the kind of policy which cost her her American Colonies, and later came near costing her Canada. If persisted in, it may cost her India.

Well, in the end, it did cost her India. And again it was India which had to pay heavy price in the form of partition, the effects of which continue to haunt this country even to this day.

In conclusion to this section, I think that while this article may not be painting a complete picture of India’s problems in those times, it does paint the important parts rather well. In terms of it’s importance, I would view this article as something which provides us with a context to analyse the reason why India became a third-world nation and what “we should not do” in-order to avoid remaining just that. But this article is by no means an excuse to evade the responsibility of restoring our country to it’s past glory.

(To be continued ..)


About gautshen

A jack of many trades of which , Linux Kernel Programming puts food on the table. Also pursuing his PhD in the area Theoretical Computer Science at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. Is an avid reader interested in the Hindu traditions and philosophy. Loves Bicycling and Good Music. Name is Ranjal Gautham Shenoy.
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