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March 05, 2006
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March 05, 2006




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Home > 2006 Issues > March 05, 2006


Think it over
Another view of the British

By M.S.N. Menon

Was a ?Muslim? India possible? Not a chance? But it could have happened. Almost. The British saved us from that terrible tragedy. What is more, the Hindus could not have brought about their self-renewal without the stimuli provided by the British.

Are we grateful? We are not. We are confused. We still hold Britain responsible for our degradation. But, ?No? says Vivekananda. And Aurobindo supports him. They say, we alone are responsible, for our degradation. We should know the British better.

True, the British exploited India. In 1700 India?s share of world income was about 22.6 per cent, but it fell to 3.8 per cent by the time the British left India. But are not the rich (MNCs) exploiting the poor even today?

Perhaps, we have not done with British bashing? But they themselves have been their severest critics. Take this for example, ?Foreign conquerors (meaning Muslims) have treated India with violence and often with great cruelty, but none has treated them (Hindus) with contempt and so much scorn as we,? wrote Sir Thomas Munroe, governor of Madras Presidency.

Our historians have not been helpful in giving us a final judgement on the British. Fear is one psychosis which has been guiding the Hindu historians?fear of what will happen to their name and status. The Muslim historian suffers no such inhibition. He wants to prettify the Muslim period of Indian history and beastify the British period.

I consider the British highly civilised. And more humane, too. Only the Hindu civilisation was more distinguished. Love of freedom, love of free enquiry?these were common to both of us. Which is why India did not deprive others of their freedom, and why Britain, after having made the mistake, hastily withdrew from its empire fixation.

Not all the British thought that the Empire would last for ever. Warren Hastings did not. In an introduction to a translation of the Gita (1875), he wrote that works like this ?will survive when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist.? Hastings opposed conversion of Hindus and he used to mock at the missionaries by quoting from the Gita.

But the missionaries provided complete justification for Britain?s imperial mission. L.S. Amery, the arch imperialist, says: ?...a pioneer Empire and a stay at home Church went ill together.? So, here in India, the Cross and the Sword got together for their unholy enterprise. A.F. Hirstel writes in The Church, the Empire and the World: ?It (the Empire) has been given to us as a means to that great end for which Christ came into the world?the redemption of the human race.? Thus was imperialism given a false religious cloak.

It is the missionaries who have done the greatest harm to the image of the Hindus. We must never forgive them for it. The East India Company (of traders) had no plans to Christianise India. In fact, it promulgated an order against ?compulsory conversion? and ?interference with native habits.? But conversion became a political issue and the strident missionary voice became a ?vote bank? in Britain, just as appeasement of Muslims has become a vote bank in India.

The ?men of Empire? thought that an ?unseen providence? was guiding the Anglo-Saxon race to a higher destiny. Bacon did not agree. What really animated the imperialist, he said, was his firm, even if mistaken, belief, that he belonged to the ?chosen people.? ?Had the British appealed to a different vision of their place in the providential order of things, the Raj would have had a different story,? says Gerald Kennedy. But the British held on to their nobler vision.

It is true the British were arrogant. But there were among them eminent men, Burke for instance, ready to prick their bloated ego effectively. He says: ?Faults this nation (Hindus) may have, but God forbid we should pass judgement on a people who formed their lives on institutions prior to our insect origins of yesterday.?

Much has been written about and against Macaulay. If his language policy created babus, it also created Dr S. Radhakrishnan and Dr Homi Bhabha. Above all, without English we could not have known the world. But his greatest critic was Horace Wilson, spokesman for the Orientalists. He wrote: ?By rendering a whole people dependent on a remote and unknown country for the very words to clothe their thoughts we would degrade their character...?

The Muslims destroyed much of what the Hindus had built. But the British went out of their way to preserve what was left. For this India is grateful to Lord Curzon. Nahru says: ?After every other Viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he preserved and restored all that was beautiful in India.? Can we say this of the Muslims?

The Raj made it possible for the rise of a self-confident Hindu elite on an all-India scale. The work of Sir William Jones and others gave them self-esteem. When Vedic learning was almost extinct, Mueller published his monumental translation of the Rig Veda. Jones created the Royal Asiatic Society, literally re-constructed India?s history and discovered the greatness of the Sanskrit language. And one cannot forget that the entire Buddhist story was reconstructed by the pionering work of British explorers and savants.

India is truly thankful. Dr Manmohan Singh said so recently in his talk to an Oxford audience. He said: ?Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research labs have all been fashioned in the crucible when our age-old civilisation met the dominant empire of the day.?

To conclude, is it not a remarkable irony that the seed for the demise of the British empire was planted by an Englishman A.O. Hume? By launching the Indian National Congress, he launched Indian nationalism.




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