Bankimchandra and Our Independence
The Communist Manifesto and the first volume of Das Capital, published in 1848 and 1867 respectively, predate the publication of Bankimchandra’s Kamalakanter Daptar. Did the clarion call of Marx reach India during Bankim’s lifetime? Was Bankim aware of it? There is no direct evidence. He died in 1894, the year in which the last volume of Das Capital was published. And the Communist Party of India was not founded till 1920. In The Cat Kamalakanta calls the cat a socialist and certain words and expressions remind one of Marx’s concept of capitalist accumulation and exploitation.
Bankim was a Deputy Magistrate and most of his service life was spent in rural areas in close contact with the common people whom very few of the elite knew more intimately than him. For his celebrated Castes and Tribes of Bengal H.H. Risley collected his data through many field officers. Bankim was one of them. I do not know of any other writer who has described rural Bengal and the conditions of its people more graphically than him.
In his essay – Bharatbarsher sadhinata o paradhinata (India’s Freedom and Bondage) he discussed this question. Is it still relevant today? In ancient times when men of our own country ruled us were we all independent? Are we so today when foreigners no longer rule us? What did Bankim think? Was he also aware of Marx’s views on Indian history which were published in 1853? Here is his long essay in my free and summarized translation.
Bankimchandra’s novels are still read and many of them are available in translations both in English and some Indian languages. Except as texts prescribed in selections for college and university students his essays are rarely read. They also don’t seem to have been translated. They have not lost their relevance. In order to become familiar with his thoughts and ideas one should read them. Some of them are very revolutionary indeed. In the present essay he questions the popular concept of freedom and independence.
Bharatbarsher sadhinata o paradhinata
There cannot be any nation in the world whose conditions are so bad that even in its greatest misfortunes there is no element of good. It is therefore prudent to find out if at the worst of times in our history there is anything which is good and get some solace in its discussion.
There was a time when India was free but for centuries it has been under foreign rule. The present day Indians consider it their greatest misfortune. It is our wish to compare that freedom of olden times with the present lack of freedom. Let us see how happy we were and how unhappy we are.
But what do we mean by freedom and bondage? We want to compare ancient with modern India. Our purpose is to understand their difference. What aspect should we select for our comparison? Otherwise to say ancient India was free and modern India lacks freedom becomes meaningless. In our view our purpose should be to find out the extent of our happiness both in ancient and modern times.
Some will take strong exception to this. According to them freedom itself is a state of happiness. Those who doubt it are evil men. We do not dispute this. But it is difficult to find the correct answer when we ask in which respect freedom is better than bondage.
Our knowledge of English has taught us two English words – ‘liberty’ and ‘independence’. In translating them though we use two separate native words many of us feel that they mean the same thing. Freedom means self-rule or rule by our own countrymen. When the king of a country is a foreigner that country is said to be under foreign rule. So, because of British rule our country is said to be under foreign domination. For the same reason India under the Mughals and Bengal under Siraj-ud-daula are considered to have been under foreign rule. Let us see if such a view is correct.
Queen Victoria may be said to be an English lady, but her forefathers like George I and George II were not English; they were German. William III was Dutch. Bonaparte was an Italian of Corsica. The ancient kings of Spain were Bourbons of France. Many barbarians who were not Romans ascended the imperial throne of Rome. Such examples can be multiplied where many countries were ruled by foreigners. Does it mean that those countries were under foreign domination? We do not agree with this view. If we cannot call England under the Georges or Rome under Trajan countries under foreign subjection then how can we call either India under Shah Jahan or Bengal under Alivardi countries under foreign domination?
Thus even if ruled by foreigners a country cannot always be called a subject country. Instances are there where countries are not free even if they are ruled by people of their own race. Before it achieved independence under the leadership of Washington America was ruled by Englishmen as an English colony and it was not a free country. In their early stages though most colonies are ruled by people of the same race they cannot be regarded as independent.
Then what is foreign rule? The British rule in India is a perfect example. All the lands from Britain to Syria conquered by the Romans were under foreign rule. Countries like Algiers or Jamaica are under foreign rule because they are not separate states but are parts of the kingdom of foreign kings. Where two countries are ruled by the same ruler one of those countries must be under foreign rule. That country would be the one in which the king does not reside. Here again we encounter complications.When King James I became the king of both Scotland and England and began to reside in the latter country Scotland cannot be said to have become a subject country. Similarly, when Babur, after conquering India, began to rule his paternal kingdom from Delhi or when George I, after ascending the throne of England, began to rule Hanover from London the native countries of these rulers cannot be said to have been under foreign rule.
Then what is the difference between foreign rule and foreign domination? Where the ruler is a foreigner there is scope for foreign domination when foreigners dominate over or oppress the native population. Where such domination is absent that country can be regarded as independent even if the ruler is a foreigner. Hanover and Kabul were independent but England under the Normans and India under Aurangzeb were not. India under Qutb-uddin was under foreign domination but under Akbar it was free. (The yardstick here is not the nationality of the ruler but the presence or absence of oppression of the native population by foreigners.) Where the ruler is non-resident the subject country stands the danger of not being properly administered and discriminated against for the interests of the country where the ruler resides. India would have been better administered had Queen Victoria been resident in this country. India has to foot the bill for the expenses of England’s war in Abyssinia and the provision made in the Indian budget under the head ‘Home Charges’ is a clear example how India has to make sacrifices for the benefit of England. The ruler’s absence in their land has deprived the Indians of a better administration no doubt but it has also saved them from miseries which are often caused by the moral depravity of the ruler.
In ancient India there was no such racial domination, but there was oppression of the lower castes by the higher castes. The common people belonged mostly to the lower castes and the rulers who belonged to the higher castes were a minority. Though the rulers generally belonged to the kshatriya caste the actual work of governance was done by the Brahmins. Later however mixed castes like the mouryas became kings and emperors. The Chinese traveler HieuenTsang found some rulers who were Brahmins. The Rajputs were also a mixed caste. During the reigns of all these rulers the administration was however run by the Brahmins. This was the case even during the ascendancy of the Buddhists who did not accept the authority of the Vedas. This was because the Brahmins were learned and experienced in administrative work. Thus in ancient India the Brahmins were the actual rulers. This has been shown by Babu Taraprasad Chattopadhyay in an article recently published in the Bengal Magazine. According to him the Brahmins were the Englishmen of ancient India.
Now the question is – is the racial discrimination between the natives and the English in modern India a greater evil than the caste discrimination in ancient India? Under foreign rule racial discrimination manifests itself in two ways. In law the ruler’s race gets a preferential treatment. In administration it is also favourably treated – most works of administration are entrusted to it. Were these evils, present in English ruled modern India, also present in the Brahmin ruled ancient India? Let us examine this.
Firstly, under the judicial system introduced by the English in this country there are different courts for the trial of native and English offenders – the former can be tried and punished by an English judge but no offender who is an Englishman can be tried by a native judge. Otherwise all are equal before law – an Englishman murdering a native is equally culpable as a native murdering an Englishman. For the English there may be separate courts but the law is not separate. In Brahmin ruled ancient India there was graver discrimination – the punishment for the murder of a Brahmin by a sudra was vastly different from that for the murder of a sudra by a Brahmin! In this respect who will say modern day India under the English is inferior to the Brahmin ruled ancient India? As an English offender cannot be tried by a native judge in modern India so could no Brahmin be tried by a sudra in ancient India. Babu Dwarakanath Mitra, a non-brahmin, has made us proud by becoming a judge of the Supreme Court. Where would he have been in the ‘Ram-rajya’ (in the kingdom of the ideal ruler Ram)?
Secondly, the higher posts in administration in modern India are mostly reserved for the Englishmen no doubt but a few are manned also by the natives. It is doubtful to what extent the sudras enjoyed such privileges in ancient India. From the fact that some times sudras also became kings, we may surmise that they could have also held some higher posts in the government. In modern India lower courts are almost exclusively run by the natives. Did the sudras do similarly in ancient times? We are not very sure for we do not know much about ancient India. Some of the judicial work at the village level must have been done by the village communities. But from a study of ancient literature it is clear that the higher posts in all departments of administration were mostly in the hands of the kshatriyas and Brahmins.
Many will argue that such comparison of the ascendancy of the English in modern times and that of the Brahmins in ancient India is not good, because the Brahmins, though oppressors of the sudras, belong to our own race while the English are foreigners. I would like to tell these people that oppressions both by our own people and by the foreigners are ultimately nothing but oppression. I don’t want to say that one cannot be somewhat sweet because it is by our own people and the other cannot be sour because it is by the foreigners. Both are the same. I have of course nothing to say to those to whom oppression by the people of their own race tastes pleasant.
We want to conclude that in modern India there is racial domination and in ancient India there was caste domination. None of them is acceptable to most of us. It must however be admitted that because of foreign domination Indians with higher learning and intellect are finding it difficult to flourish according to their abilities. And it is a kind of great oppression. The foreigners have deprived us from a share of higher administration and without experience in administrative work we cannot develop our administrative capabilities. This is thwarting our progress. In ancient India men of higher intellect and learning did not suffer from this handicap. At the same time now we have got the scope to learn European science and literature. This good fortune has been possible because of foreign rule. Thus our subjection has caused us loss in some respects but gains in other areas. Comparatively in ancient India people of higher classes could enjoy the fruits of freedom to a great extent. The common people seem to be rather better off in modern India.
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