following exchange with my Indian correspondent living in the West, it emerges that India, much like today’s Western countries, is a nation at war with itself, a nation that subscribes to a liberal ideology that undermines the nation, and that this problem is seen most importantly in India’s dealings with its huge Muslim minority of 150 millions. The discussion begins with a more narrow question about the problem of Indian national identity in light of the British Raj, and then expands to broader considerations.
LA to correspondent:
This is a sensitive subject, but tell me how Indians deal with the fact that it was foreign imperialists, the British, who created India as a unified country. Is that a wound in the Indian psyche, or is it assimilated into a larger view in which it makes sense and is ok with the Indians?
Correspondent to LA:
That’s very complicated.
I think our starting point has to be the fact that India is not a nation like Germany or Japan. It’s a political creation that brings together hundreds of different tribes and peoples living together. So when one asks the question about a people’s conception of their history, it depends which people one is talking about.
The Sikhs for example have a very simple history—it originates in their ten Gurus who were their law givers and then culminates in furious wars with Moslem rulers in which the Sikhs despite being hopelessly outnumbered brought the Moghul empire to the brink of collapse. And eventually they overthrew the Empire and replaced it with a Sikh Empire. So there is a kind of heroism there—a fierce pride in being a gallant warrior race. As a result, Sikhs are over-represented in the armed forces. They have a taste for war. Churchill wrote glowingly of them in his book on the Malakhand expeditionary force.
On the other hand, if you were talking about peoples located further to the south (the majority of India), it is perhaps a history of endless subjugations, one after another. And the conception of history becomes much more complicated. Many of those people took solace in their association with Gandhi and his movement to free India from the British.
But the crux of it is that Indians don’t really have a conception of their history. The writing of history was never done in ancient India. All the history we know about India is found in the writings of foreign travellers—Arabs and Chinese. Naipaul once wrote that it is a good thing that Indians have no conception of their history or else they would be ashamed of it.
This is, I think, largely true. Indians don’t really have any conception of history. An earlier generation of Indians saw the world through the prism of Gandhi while the current generation (at least among the educated classes) is too busy with money making and the pleasures of life to bother about such things. The Marxist historians (who form the majority of current Indian historians) paint the Muslim Rulers in a glowing, positive light but paint the Colonial era as an age of exploitation—this is essential otherwise their “secularism” (by which we really mean an Indian version of liberalism) would collapse. The Marxist view of history is the one that Indian governments have usually endorsed because it allows them to be very liberal on the Muslim question and also harsh in their indictment of the Colonial era (which also accords with their worship of Gandhi and Nehru as a de facto state sponsored religion). To do otherwise would be to admit that that Gandhi and Nehru made a fatal mistake—not eject all the Muslims from India to Pakistan as the Pakistanis did with their Sikhs and Hindus. So best to falsify history and pick a common enemy that everyone would hate—the British.
Then there is the Hindu Right wing which has been trying very hard to balance the history that is taught in schools with an accurate depiction of Islam. Not surprisingly, the liberal class and the media like calling them fascists for that reason alone. And they have fought tooth and nail and not allowed the history books to be amended.
So it is a complicated picture. And to add to the complication is the fact that India had a glorious history of achievement before the Muslims arrived. It is arguable that it was the Muslims that really brought the dark ages to Indian civilization with their destruction of learning. The world’s oldest university was located in India (Nalanda)—it was burnt to the ground by Muslim invaders who considered all texts contained in it as an affront to Allah. It was probably the most priceless collection of knowledge from the ancient world. This formula was repeated by Muslims several times during the next millennium.
Ancient India contributed so much to mathematics that modern mathematics would probably not exist without ancient Indian mathematicians. So if there is glory in Indian history it rests in the pre-Muslim past—when India was certainly one of the most advanced civilizations of its time if not the most advanced. But to admit Muslim destruction is to undermine the “secular” Indian state which panders to Muslim interests and is overly careful not to do anything that would upset Muslims. Therefore, while the state likes to idolize the ancient past, it is careful not to link its destruction to Islam.
In addition, half the country is illiterate and much of the literate half is mired in darkness—in religious mythology and mysticism. Ignorance rules supreme in most cases.
LA to correspondent:
Thank you. Extremely interesting.
On balance, it sounds as though the British era is viewed negatively. But since it was the British who unified the hundreds of statelets and principalities into a single political unit called India with its functioning administrative structure and Anglicized Indian elites who ran that structure, how can the Indians be positive about India and yet be negative toward the British? That was my question.
And your answer would seem to be as follows, if I understand you correctly.
It is that (given the prevailing leftist secular view you speak of), the Indians don’t care about an Indian national idea, but rather about equality, secularism, and so forth. That is, Indian independence is good insofar as it freed India from the British and was an advance for equality, but it was not good insofar as it involved the creation of an Indian national state. In fact the Indian state is not national since it makes central to its identity the equality of Muslims. That would be the vision of the Congress Party. And therefore it’s the Hindu national party that is trying to bring back an idea of India, which, you’re saying, did not have a real voice during the whole period of Congress Party domination.
It’s sort of like Israel, in which the nation was created by secular leftists who are ultimately ambivalent about or even hostile toward the very idea of a national state.
The correspondent then sent back my message with his interspersed comments bracked and bolded:
Your answer would seem to be as follows, if I understand you correctly
It is that (given the prevailing leftist secular view you speak of), they don’t care about an Indian national idea [They care about an Indian national idea but it is rooted in the idea of freeing India from Colonial “slavery,”] but rather about equality, secularism, and so forth [secularism and equality are fundamental to their conception of it.] That is, Indian independence is good insofar as it freed India from the British and represented an advance for equality [I would say an end to “slavery.” The Indian nationalists who teamed up with Gandhi always saw it as a struggle for “Liberation.”] but not good insofar as it involved the creation of an Indian national state [It’s seen as a good thing because it “Liberated” Indians from servitude of the British. I think an understanding of Gandhi’s movement is impossible without seeing the effect that westernization had on India’s elite. It opened up Western learning to them and gave them an understanding of the ideas of men like John Locke. They then saw Woodrow Wilson speak about self determination of peoples (and then saw the British deny it to India). So in a sense the Westernization of Indian elites worked in favour of the British initially but then the elites turned against them.] In fact the Indian state is not national since it makes central to its identity the equality of Muslims. [The Indian state is absolutely committed to the religious freedom and equality of Muslims. ] That would be the vision of the Congress Party. And therefore it’s the Hindu national party that is trying to bring back an idea of India, which, you’re saying, has not had a real voice during the whole period of Congress Party domination. [They have had almost no success among the educated elite. In some ways they are responsible for it themselves because they have not been able to reconcile the ideas of the enlightenment with their nationalism.]
It’s sort of like Israel, in which the nation was created by secular leftists who are ultimately ambivalent about or even hostile toward the very idea of a national state. [That would be a good analogy although the difference here is that due to the sheer size of the Hindu population, Muslims are not a serious demographic menace to India except in pockets like Kashmir.]
LA to correspondent:
Based on your further comments, I think I can say that I’ve understood your earlier comments correctly. In essence, the Indian state was a liberal creation whose main idea was liberation from slavery and empire rather than the creation of a nation. And that is why the Indians are not hung up about the British role in creating the Indian national state, because, to the Congress Party which has run Indian through most of its history, more fundamental than Indian’s national existence and national unity is the liberal idea that India is free from British domination.
And therefore, just as in the U.S., Britain, France, Israel, and every other Western or Western-influenced nation we can think of, there is in India a profound and unresolved conflict between nationhood and liberalism which, if it is made the highest and defining value of the state, means the end of nationhood.
Correspondent to LA:
Yes that I think is absolutely spot on.
LA to correspondent:
But my original question has still not been entirely answered. I understand why the Congress Party types are not hung up about the British role in creating India. But what about the Hindu nationalists? Since they do see India as a real nation, and since that nation in its unity and administrative structure, in its elite culture to some degree, and in one of its two official languages, was the creation of the British, is the British role a problem for them? Does it threaten national pride and national identity? How do they assimilate Britain’s historic formative role in India into their own vision of the Indian nation?
Correspondent to LA:
The Hindu Nationalists have not had any good writers or thinkers or even ideologues. Some admit in private that British “exploitation” is thoroughly overplayed. But politically, it is expedient to bash the British.
Since we are now in the realm of electoral politics, it’s a matter of what fetches the most votes. And in India praising the British never got anyone any votes!
In the next day I’ll be posting a follow-up exchange about the mass killings that occurred during 1947 Partition.