The Languishing Republic – II
Continued from “Our Languishing Republic - I”
W H Auden made a sardonic observation in one of his essays in The Dyer’s Hand: “Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat his past nor leave it behind”. The past continues to haunt until we come at least to some sort of terms with it. The scars of history never cease to stare at us. The collective memories of our past include deep remorse on account of our oft-bruised self-esteem. And that past has significantly influenced our perceptions of the present. We can neither wish it away nor live with it easily. “We do not live in the past, but the past is in us”, is another way to put this ever-continuing past-present interaction.
Yes, indeed our past is there − it is in each living moment of the present, pursuing our memories, shaping our actions, conditioning our thoughts, influencing our psyches. And in our case, ‘the past in us’ (the past of the last one thousand years) isn’t altogether a glorious past.
One After Another
As a matter of fact, it is a humiliating past − a past of conquests by those who were, militarily, stronger than we were. The Muslim invaders came in one wave after another over-running the land, leaving behind a trail of misery and terror. Hardly had one set of conquerors settled down and been assimilated, another arrived: the Slaves, the Khiljis, the Tughlaks, the Lodhis, and the Mughals. Each bequeathed a mixed legacy that invariably included an exploitative system of administration created primarily to prop up their tyrannical rule.
And, finally came the Westerners: the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English. The devious English outwitted everyone else to establish the rule of the East India Company and then, after 1857, the reign of Victoria. From the Battle of Plassey in June 1757 to the partition of the subcontinent in August 1947, is the period of British rule. Many a Mir Jaffer helped in the establishment of a ruthlessly repressive Raj which, today, is being suavely wished away. The Anglophiles (like Nirad Chaudhuri) who think the English came on a uniquely civilizing mission, are egregiously wrong. Their own icon of the libertarian mission, John Stuart Mill, put it with uncharacteristic candor:
Now, if there be a fact to which all experience testifies; it is that when a country holds another in subjection, the individuals of the ruling people ... think the people of the country mere dirt under their feet... (Italics added for emphasis)
The English were no different. In fact, they were much worse. We were occasionally mesmerized by the laudatory utterances of stray Indophiles (like William Jones who founded the Asiatic Society and discovered the treasure troves of rich Indian heritage). Inwardly, they never thought much of us other than “dirt under their feet”. Their true feelings and impressions were not recorded; and if recorded, never assigned to the archives. The files containing the real perceptions of the British rulers of India will perhaps never see the light of the day. We, in our profound naiveté, are tickled by a few flattering statements issued for purposes of public record. Let’s not forget that the English language was introduced in India primarily to educate some Indians to help the British rule India and not to expose Indians to the intellectual influences of Renaissance Europe. While introducing the Indian Education Bill in the British Parliament, Lord Macaulay − its author − is on record to have said:
“A simple shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India... Neither as a language of the law, nor as a language of religion has Sanskrit any particular claim to our engagement...We must do our best to form a class of persons, Indians in blood and color but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. (Italics added for emphasis).
What a pity the great seers of this land who gave the world the most invaluable gems of insight into ultimate truth and reality through the legacy of the Upanishads, did not have the benefit of learning Queen’s English and writing therein. Of course, our rulers waited − and waited patiently for over a century − to find in Nehru (and some others like him) “persons, Indian in blood and color but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” to hand back the reins of power.
Victims of Distortions
Wars of conquest − not only in the Indian subcontinent but everywhere else in the world too − distort the social mores, the moral ethos and the economic relationships of the conquered people. These distortions have to be seriously addressed to and rectified. That we miserably failed to deal with them, explains in large measure our dismal record in nation-building in the last half century.
The euphoria of independence soon petered out. We have, since, seen wrong score over right; injustice triumph over justice; institutions manipulated for furthering partisan interests; rules bent to serve personal ends. What is that makes us passive spectators to wrongs perpetrated around us instead of standing up to them to register our protest? What brought about utter lack of a sense of accountability? I have often wondered why? Was it all inevitable? Must it have happened? Can't anything be done about it? Why must evil triumph over good − almost invariably?
Devayani and Kacha
The answer perhaps lies in the story of Devayani and Kacha in the Mahabharta. It goes something like this.
There was once upon a time a bitter and long struggle between the devas − i.e. the gods − and the asuras i.e. the demons. The stakes, as always in such conflicts, were for the over-lordship of the proverbial three worlds (In good old days, the Evil Empire didn’t exist). The struggle went on and on for years which added up to decades.
Both the belligerents had illustrious preceptors who ably helped and guided them to carry on the inconclusive conflict. The mentor of the devas was Brihaspati, renowned for his profound knowledge, both religious and secular. The asuras had turned to Shukracharya who, renowned for his knowledge of warfare, guided them.
In the conflict, the asuras had a formidable advantage over their adversaries. Their mentor possessed secret knowledge of Sanjivini which the preceptor of the devas did not. Shukracharya could bring the dead back to life. So, the asura warriors, who died in today’s battle, were resurrected again for tomorrow’s combat. The devas did not have this unique advantage. The devas’ ranks were consequently getting decimated as the protracted conflict lingered on. It was to overcome their grave disadvantage that the devas thought of a stratagem. They approached Kacha, their mentor on Brihaspati’s son, and persuaded him to go to Shukracharya and become his disciple to somehow master the secret of Sanjivini and come back to rescue the devas in the ongoing warfare.
Kacha agreed to the request. Shukracharya accepted him as his disciple. After long years of learning and serving his guru with unflinching devotion Kacha was initiated in the art of Sanjivini, but only after many lives. And with that the devas acquired the weapon to defeat the asuras. However, this defeat was by no means final.
The long-ranging war between the forces of good and evil has been going on, and will continue − perhaps forever. The evil has the unique trait of surfacing and resurfacing. The good has the capacity to respond which is more reactive than swift and relentless.
What impressed me about the devas-asuras conflict was the profound insight of Rishi Vyas in the affairs of the world. The forces of evil in human history always seem to have an upper hand insofar as they have an almost inexhaustible potential for repeated wrong-doing and self-renewal. What we have seen in the last fifty years is a replay of Shukracharya’s miraculous power of revitalizing the forces of evil in one round after another. One wrong-doing unearthed, one corrupt politician exposed, one scam exposed, has not brought about the end of the conflict. The asuras of our polity possess the secret of Sanjivini. Ultimately, the devas will win but it is always a long-drawn battle, fought in almost ever-continuing rounds.
Our British Connection
Perhaps our most momentous − but certainly not the last or last but one − round was with the Western imperialism. In the introduction to his magnum opus, The British Conquest And Dominion Of India, Sir Penderel Moon raises the inconvenient question that we Indians should have done on our own − and repeatedly − asking of ourselves:
How was it possible for a mere handful of foreigners from a distant land to make themselves masters of a large subcontinent, the inhabitants of which numbered many millions? .... Superiority of military technique could be exploited only with the aid of Indians. This was readily forthcoming and is the basic explanation of the seeming miracle of Britain’s Indian empire. (Italics added)
The conclusion is simple, but it hurts. The Mughal Empire had decayed and was ready to collapse in the first half of the eighteenth century. Militarily, we were no match to the Western hardware and organizational skills. Above all, it was the disunity among Indian rulers accompanied by a lack of the all-important nationalist feeling that facilitated the British take-over. As Moon puts it:
The British conquered the country with the assistance and connivance of Indians themselves and then ruled over it for a century with their collaboration and tacit consent. The empire was from start to finish far more of a joint Anglo-Indian enterprise and partnership than either party has been inclined to admit. (Italics added)
The question I wish to pose is: isn’t there now another joint enterprise at work: this time between the privileged top crust of our society and the customary brokerage collectors of India. (I’m using the term brokerage collectors for the self-serving middle class of India which has always been too ready to extend a helping hand for a suitable remuneration to any invader who chose to impose his rule on India. They helped the Mughals with the same self-serving diligence which they extended to the British Raj. The term brokerage was used by Gandhi in his historic statement before the judge who tried him in March 1922, to which I made a detailed reference last week in the first piece in the present series.) Meanwhile, the masses continue to sink to intolerable levels of deprivation. Simultaneously, our enemies are busily at work to bring about the disintegration of the Republic.
The most unfortunate attribute of the present situation is that while the storm rages furiously we don’t have a lightning rod.
When the controversial book The Bell Curve authored by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein appeared in mid-1990’s, it was vehemently denounced by social scientists and liberal pundits. One of its severe critics was a then-little-known (now very famous) Chicago civil-rights lawyer named Barack Obama, who accused the authors of calculating that “white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism as long as it’s artfully packaged.”
Anyone who remembers the firestorm over the arguments about race, class, genetics and I.Q. would be impressed by Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Let’s consider if coming apart isn’t more applicable to our society than the American.
Belmont and Fishtown
Looking around Mr. Murray sees America as a country increasingly polarized into two culturally and geographically isolated demographics. In Belmont, the fictional name Mr. Murray gives to the part of America where the top 20 percent live, divorce is low, the work ethic is strong, religious observance is high, and out-of-wedlock births are all but unheard of. Meanwhile in Fishtown, where the bottom 30 percent live, what Mr. Murray calls America’s four “founding virtues” − marriage, industriousness, community and faith − have all but collapsed.
Murray doesn’t have much to say about the roots of Fishtown’s problems, but he identifies the villain. “The ’60s were a disaster in terms of social policy,” he said. “The elites put in place a whole set of reforms which I think fundamentally changed the signals and the incentives facing low-income people and encouraged a variety of trends that soon became self-reinforcing.”
What name do we assign to our Fishtown? First, in our case it isn’t just a Fishtown, but several Fishtowns. Take Mumbai’s internationally famous slum, Dharavi, a 535-acre slum of over half a million sandwiched between Mahim in the west and Sion in the east. Actually, Mumbai has at least four slums bigger than Dharavi , but it is the most famous of our Fishtowns.
It isn’t Mumbai alone. Each metropolitan town of India has scores, if not hundreds, of Fishtown (if you prefer Murray descriptive term) or Dharavi (if you’re prepared to call them by an indigenous name.)
Take the national capital of India. It has, officially listed 369 villages (a,k.a. Fishtowns). If you want to know their names, do visit www.delhi.gov.in. The number of unlisted Fishtowns runs into a few thousands. Before every election –one is scheduled for later this year − the Government brings in thousands of new migrants into Delhi who are issued some sort of identity papers to entitle them to vote. And once in Delhi they never return to their dreary villages from where they came. That’s how our Dharavis multiply.
Our Belmont − Murray will be glad to hear − has an alien name. It is called Lutyens’ Delhi, about whose captivating charms some other day.
Continued to “Disintegration of Social Contract”