TIME magazine celebrated the end of the 20th Century with a special issue on 100 Heroes and Icons. One of the hundred was Mahatma Gandhi, his place in history explained by India-born British novelist Salman Rushdie.
Rushdie began his piece with a riff on the Apple Corporation’s “Think Different” advertising campaign. “A thin Indian man with not much hair sits alone on a bare floor, wearing nothing but a loincloth and a pair of cheap spectacles, studying the clutch of handwritten notes in his hand. The black-and-white photograph takes up a full page in the newspaper. In the top left-hand corner of the page, in full color, is a small rainbow-striped apple. Below this, there's a slangily American injunction to Think Different. Once, a half-century ago, this bony man shaped a nation's struggle for freedom. But that, as they say, is history. Now Gandhi is modeling for Apple.”
Gandhi today is “up for grabs” Rushdie declared. “He has become abstract, ahistorical, postmodern, no longer a man in and of his time but a freeloading concept, a part of the available stock of cultural symbols, an image that can be borrowed, used, distorted, reinvented to fit many different purposes, and to the devil with historicity or truth.” As if to validate that last phrase, he then served up the following pastiche of colonial era British propaganda:
None of the other Heroes and Icons received such negative treatment; in fact, all other articles in the issue were uniformly uncritical. Why was Gandhi the exception?
TIME is the most ideological of mainstream American magazines and such a gratuitous attack on a revered figure could not be anything but political. Going just by the contents of the article, the editors of TIME, who continue to maintain a defensive Cold War attitude towards an encroaching world, probably felt the need to counter Apple’s suggestion that Gandhi, the antithesis to American consumerism, should be a role model. Rushdie’s published record of contempt for the land of his birth made him a natural choice to do a hatchet job, and he had to resort to lies and distortions – every quote above is one or the other – because the truth would only have reinforced Apple’s admiring view.
Rushdie’s own motivation is not so easy to explain. He is the loose end of a very tangled skein, leading into multiple layers of history and politics; we must follow the story patiently through knot and twist to see its thread run clear.
The “Indian” Booker Novels
Rushdie was born in Mumbai of Muslim parents who sent him away as a boy to be educated in one of Britain’s famously oppressive private schools. Saleem Sinai, the loosely autobiographical central character in Midnight's Children suffers the same fate because of his suspected paternity; he is really the son of an Englishman.
Unlike Saleem, Rushdie emerged from school a Brown Sahib disdainful of his own country and traditions, a species of Indian the British deliberately created to collaborate in colonial rule. That self-hate did not find voice in his weak and little noticed first novel, Grimus, but it was the effulgent core of his second effort, Midnight’s Children, written in a strikingly more energetic “magical-realist” style. The novel shot to instant fame because it won the £50,000 Booker Prize, often described as “Britain’s most prestigious literary award.”
However, the Booker Corporation, a right-wing outfit with a decidedly unsavory colonial-era reputation, had no literary antecedents before it endowed the award – at the suggestion of Ian Fleming, a Military Intelligence specialist in psychological operations who authored the James Bond novels. Fleming worked for “Section 6” of Britain's Military Intelligence, which deals with foreign dirty tricks, and the arrangements for the award of the Booker Prize facilitate fine manipulations. Its juries change every year and individuals rarely participate in more than one, ensuring that the modalities of selecting winners remain firmly in the hands of faceless Sherpas, presumably from MI6.
The four “Indian” novels Booker juries have chosen to reward over the last four decades have an interesting sameness: all depict the country in the divisive terms the British invented in their effort to subvert and demoralize the nationalist movement; all are filled with characters caught in webs of caste, religion or ethnicity, aimless and ultimately despairing.
Two were first novels: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (which she originally claimed to have written without the knowledge of her husband); and Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. The other two were second novels markedly different from weak first efforts –Rushdie’s, as already noted, and Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss. None of the four is rooted in Indian culture or values. Rushdie, Desai and Adiga have spent most of their lives outside India and their comprehensive deracination shows in the novels. Arundhati Roy came from a broken Christian-Hindu home and led a vagabond existence until David Davidar, the founding head of Penguin India, “discovered” her in his own small "Syrian Christian" community in Kerala. Penguin India also publishes Rushdie and Desai; Adiga might also have appeared under that imprint if Harper Collins had not hired away two of its senior staffers to begin its India operations.
Rushdie’s work is by far the most accomplished presentation of the British view of India as a gigantic freak-show of dissipation, hysteria and comic mangling of the English language. The novel’s central conceit is that all babies born at midnight preceding 15 August – when India became independent – possessed some magical gift. Its protagonist has two such gifts, a powerful sense of smell and the capacity to serve as the telepathic medium for all the other magical children who are, says the hero, either “the last throw of everything antiquated and retrogressive in our myth ridden nation” or “the true hope of freedom.”
By the sour end of the story that freedom is “forever extinguished;” all communication among the children has ended, and the hero is using his nose to track and kill intellectuals in East Pakistan during its struggle to become Bangladesh. Recognition of Rushdie’s 1981 work as the “Best of the Bookers” at the 25th anniversary of the award has extended its time in the limelight; a second extension came with the 2012 Canadian-British movie adaptation.
In two subsequent novels, Shame! and The Satanic Verses, Rushdie lavished his raw contempt on Pakistan and Islam. These tragicomic pictures of his putative homelands and ancestral faith have in common one pronounced characteristic: they ignore the British role as the puppet-master of South Asian and Islamic politics in the 20th Century.
In ridiculing Pakistan Rushdie avoided mentioning that Britain created the country – at the cost of over a million lives – to be its violent proxy in South Asia. In casting scorn on the dreams and stories that surround the long dead Prophet of Arabia Rushdie took no note of the prolonged British effort that manipulated the politically primitive and quiescent world of early 20th century Islam into its current blaze of suicidal extremism. That manipulation involved four main elements:
Saudi control of Islam’s holy places gave global influence to its extremist Wahhabi creed; the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs outraged and radicalized Muslims all over the world; Pakistan sponsored the Taliban and al Qaeda; and the Muslim Brotherhood provided the leadership of every major “Islamic” terrorist group that exists, including al Qaeda and ISIS.
Arundhati Roy is not in the same literary league as Rushdie but she has reprised more clearly the stock British theme of India as a land of irredeemably oppressive caste and gender discrimination. She set her story in Kerala, celebrated by development economists for its liberated women and the revolutionary advances of its lower castes, the province that has the highest literacy rate in the country, life expectancy comparable to Europe, and where, within a few decades of independence, land reform devolved ownership massively into the hands of the poor.
Caste discrimination is murderous in The God of Small Things. The police kick to death the low caste lover of a high caste (Christian) woman; they do so shod in boots, an inexplicable upgrade from the sensible chappals that are standard issue for Kerala police. The local Communist Party Chief is a Brahmin who had it in his power to prevent the murder but gave it the green light in the hope of currying favor with the woman’s businessman brother. The bereaved woman dies of asthma in a railway waiting room. Her children survive, but the boy, molested as a child at a cinema hall, is emotionally dysfunctional; there is also a suggestion of sibling incest.
The novel is a dankly corrupt and despairing picture of India, and since receiving the Booker, Roy has given shrill voice to that perspective in a series of political essays that have tended to be hare-brained, extremist, or both. In 2008, she called for Indian withdrawal from Kashmir, a move that would shatter the country’s secular polity and fulfill British predictions that Hindus and Muslims can never coexist peacefully. In 2010, amidst a coordinated violent effort in the streets of Srinagar to internationalize the Kashmir issue before the visit to India of President Barack Obama, she expanded on the theme that the state was not a part of India, inviting a civil complaint of sedition (which the government initially refused to act upon). In 2014, Roy wrote an Introduction to a work by Dalit icon Babasaheb Ambedkar, in which she lavished gross abuse on Gandhi.
Where Rushdie resorted to colonial era lies and distortions to muddy Gandhi’s image, Roy broke new ground. She emerged in 2010 as an advocate for the murderous Maoist insurgency in the jungles of India’s most backward states, describing the guerrillas as “Gandhians with guns” and romanticizing their wretched reality. In a long article in Outlook Magazine entitled “Walking with the Comrades,” she characterized as “Gandhian” the guerrillas’ “approach to sabotage.” What did she consider “Gandhian” about it? Before they burn a police vehicle, “it is stripped down and every part cannibalized. The steering wheel is straightened out and made into a bharmaar, the rexine upholstery stripped and used for ammunition pouches, the battery for solar charging.” In an arch aside, she wondered: “Should I write a play, I wonder—Gandhi Get Your Gun?”
She has maintained that level of absurdity in interviews. Asked by journalists to explain her lack of support for Gandhian means to promote the cause of poor tribals struggling against giant mining companies, she answered: “they’re already starving, so they can’t go on hunger-strike.”
The article had nice things to say about Charu Mazumdar, the Pol Pot-like figure who initiated the Naxalbari insurrection four decades ago in North Bengal. Watching the young tribal insurrectionists dance in the forest night she wondered what Mazumdar would think of the scene. “When he said that only ‘an annihilation campaign” could produce ‘the new man who will defy death and be free from all thought of self-interest’ — could he have imagined that this ancient people, dancing into the night, would be the ones on whose shoulders his dreams would come to rest?”
While admitting, “it’s impossible to defend” much of what the Naxalites have done, she thought that “Mazumdar was a visionary in much of what he wrote and said. The party he founded (and its many splinter groups) has kept the dream of revolution real and present in India. Imagine a society without that dream. For that alone, we cannot judge him too harshly. Especially not while we swaddle ourselves with Gandhi’s pious humbug about the superiority of ‘the non-violent way’ and his notion of trusteeship: ‘The rich man will be left in possession of his wealth, of which he will use what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and will act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the good of society’.” Like Rushdie, she has avoided looking at the British authorship of many Indian miseries, especially its deliberate poisoning of caste and inter-faith relations.
Desai is the weakest of the Booker propagandists. Her plotless Inheritance of Loss strings together a succession of tragicomic stories about the humiliations and frustrations of people who are all orphans of British rule. The central character is a retired judge, once part of the elite Indian Civil Service, the reputed “steel frame” of British India.
He leads a forlorn existence in a cold, mist-shrouded bungalow outside Darjeeling, with only a cook and a dog for company, beset with vague regrets about the long and hollow pretence of a life spent in trying to fit into an imagined British society of which he was never a part. He went hunting. He cut his father out of his life because the old man was too Indian. He ended his marriage after beating up his pregnant wife because she unknowingly joined a public reception for Jawaharlal Nehru. His orphaned granddaughter comes to visit. So do gun-toting young supporters of “Gorkhaland” who terrorize the household. His beloved Mutt disappears, driving him to tears, to entreaties for divine intervention by a God he does not believe in, and to beating the cook.
The cook’s son gets a tourist visa to go to the United States by lying to the consular official and producing a forged bank statement. To vent his jubilation at getting the visa he chases pigs in a lush green public park watered “with raw sewage.” In America, he finds low paid grungy work at the exploitative "Gandhi Cafe." On his return to Darjeeling, Gorkhas steal everything he brought back; the book ends with him at the Judge’s gate, dressed in a woman’s nightgown, defeated, penniless and humiliated.
The only time the novel looks disparagingly at the British is when an old ICS colleague of the Judge comes for dinner and talks bitterly of not receiving the same pension as White officers. The novel records without passion, without blame, as if it were a turn in the weather, the great crimes committed in the final phase of British rule. The “news of the country disintegrating filled the newspapers; almost a million were dead in riots, three to four million in the Bengal famine, thirteen million were evicted from their homes; the birth of the nation was all in shadow. It seemed appropriate.”
Adiga is the most untalented of the Booker Prize winners, a factor obvious in the crassness of his attack on India and Gandhi. Where the others presented miserable situations and characters but left readers to connect the dots and come to their own conclusions, Adiga is venomous in indicting India. His foreign-educated sensibilities register the spit, shit and disease of India, its corrupt politicians and its uncaring rich. He is entirely oblivious to all that is positive and admirable about India, its heroic endurance against staggering odds, its brave and humble people, its vibrant faith and enriching culture.
The White Tiger has as hero a Delhi chauffeur who murders his boss to get the money to start his own business, a taxi service for night-shift workers at a call-center in Bangalore. From that central node of new, high-tech India, the murderer-entrepreneur writes to the visiting Chinese Prime Minister, warning him not to believe what his official hosts say about Gandhi or Indian business acumen. Holding out his own experience as the national model, the semi-literate protagonist declares India’s current economic rise to be entirely criminal.
Adiga’s novel is a crude attempt to soil India’s hard-won image as an economic success; it seeks to reassert the prejudices the British nurtured for so long to cripple Indian potential in its relations with the West, especially the United States. Adiga’s story is also at many points a call for caution by international investors in India. “Keep your ears open in Bangalore,” he writes; as “in any city or town in India – you will hear stirrings, rumors, threats of insurrection. Men sit under lampposts at night and read. Men huddle together and discuss and point fingers to the heavens.” Revolution is brewing, but people are distracted by television, by cricket, by shampoo advertisements. It is not the chauffeur-hero but Adiga himself who finds that exasperating. He instructs budding insurrectionists: “The book of your revolution sits in the pit of your belly, young Indian. Crap it out and read.”
Is it far-fetched to look on the Booker awards as part of an elaborate British propaganda effort to project their negative view of India?
Those inclined to be skeptical need to look at British history.
The people of Britain represent successive waves of tribal invasions from Europe over thousands of years, each wave violently dispossessing its immediate predecessor. Although there has been much mixing of bloodlines, the lower classes and historically less-privileged parts of the country still represent conquered groups. Presiding over that layered social order is an elite minority, the Normans of 1066 And All That, who arrived in the 11th Century.
Once raw violence was no longer necessary to keep control, the Normans maintained themselves in power by blocking the economic and social potential of the other groups. They did so with impenetrably nuanced discrimination calculated to keep others in a perennial state of insecurity about everything from their accents, to their mannerisms, clothes, education, and way of life. The Welsh, Scots and Irish were the first victims of this method of governance, and it came into use across the Empire on which the sun never set.
Such manipulation was set aside only where the populations under British control were useless as labor and incapable of organized resistance; in North America, Australia and New Zealand settler colonists committed genocide. Everywhere else, mind games were part of the standard operating procedure, and nowhere did they assume the same scale and intricacy as in India.
The Black Hole of Calcutta & The "Battle" of Pilashi
An appropriate place to begin the story of British mind-games in India is their first bid for political power in the country, in 1756. That was some 150 years after the East India Company’s ships first weighed anchor off Surat, the main Mughal port on the Arabian Sea. In that time the agents of the Company had become adept at taking advantage of local weaknesses, and as the Mughal Empire went from its zenith to quick disarray in the 18th Century, they were politically sure-footed.
In Bengal, the richest Mughal province, the British waited until the office of Nawab passed to a raw and impetuous youth, 19-year old Suraj ud-Dowlah, then withheld taxes that were due to his treasury, provoking him to attack the Company base at Calcutta. His attack on Fort William provided the excuse the Company needed for aggression. To justify that to the cautious directors of the Company in London, the head of operations in Calcutta wrote a harrowing report on an atrocity committed by the teenage Nawab: he had imprisoned 146 British prisoners in a dungeon 14 feet by 18 feet at Fort William, causing 123 to die of suffocation and thirst in one stifling summer night.
The story of the “Black Hole of Calcutta” was patently absurd, for 146 Europeans could not possibly have fit into the dungeon, and those who were supposed to have died were alive and well long afterwards. In fact, people in Calcutta had no inkling of the infamous “Black Hole” when the author of the story concocted its heart-rending details six months after the supposed incident, as he sailed back to Britain to report to the Company Directors. Neither those worthies nor their overseers in the British government questioned the compressibility of human bodies, for by then the war had proved to be enormously profitable.
The "war" had, in fact, been largely play acting. It consisted of a skirmish at Pilashi” (Plassey) in 1757, an engagement in which the British claimed that a force of 2000 under Robert Clive (1400 of them Indian sepoys from Madras), had routed an army of 40,000. Their heroic accounts of the “Battle of Plassey” usually left out the crucial detail that Clive had bribed the boy-Nawab’s uncle/General not to fight.
These tales of Indian infamy and British valor became the founding legends of colonial rule, featured in history books and taught to generations of schoolchildren in India and throughout the British Empire.
Churchill on the British in India
In the century after the play-acting at Pilashi, as the Company slowly extended its territories across India with the help of Indian turncoats, each step had a separate mendacious justification. This ruler had conspired against the British; another was vicious to his own people; a third was mentally incompetent; others interfered with trade.
Those individual explanations slipped easily into the self-righteous narratives of colonial history and literature, creating an official record of British imperialism in India so far removed from reality that Winston Churchill could claim (in his 1956-1957 History of the English Speaking Peoples) that it was all unintended:
“Modern generations should not mistake the character of the British expansion in India. The government was never involved as a principal in the Indian conflict. The East India Company was a trading organization. Its directors were men of business. They wanted dividends, not wars, and grudged every penny spent on troops and annexations. But the turmoil of the great subcontinent compelled them against their will and their judgment to take control of more and more territory, until in the end, and almost by accident, they established an empire no less solid and certainly more peaceful than that of their Mughal predecessors. To call this process ‘Imperialist expansion’ is nonsense, if by that is meant the deliberate acquisition of political power. Of India, it has been well said that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind.”
That argument is false at many levels. The British government acted through a private corporation in India because its misadventure in America had left a huge burden of official debt. The Crown, and later parliament, chartered the Company and benefited from its revenues. In fact, the Crown came to own a third of its stock and its current vast wealth dates back to that ownership. The Directors of the Company included parliamentary appointees, and they were overseen by a cabinet minister. Parliament revised the Company charter several times after 1661, always to extend its sovereign powers: to coin money, create armies, arm ships, summon Courts of Admiralty and enforce martial law. The Directors could initiate wars and negotiate treaties “with any people that are not Christians.”
The main reason the East India Company took to expanding its Indian territories was not to defend trade but to replace it as a source of income. The Company discovered early in its foray into India that there was no demand in the country for anything British; all Indians would accept in payment for their goods were gold and silver. To stem the drain of bullion the Company took to local trade at Madras, Calcutta and Bombay (now Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai). The profits from that trade paid for the cargoes sent back to Britain.
When thriving towns developed around its trading posts and the various fees imposed on their inhabitants outweighed profits from trade, the Company had a firm financial motive for territorial expansion. The confusion created by the rapid decline of Mughal power in the 18th Century created the opportunity for the Company to insert itself in Indian affairs as just another collector of taxes for Delhi. It was in the name of the Mughal that the Company expanded its control. Far from bringing security to trade, the expansion of British power decimated it. The wealth that flowed out of India was not the proceeds of commercial exchange but of outright loot, a Hindi word that entered English at that time.
By 1833 only a quarter of the company's stock was exposed to the vagaries of trade. In 1848, as its forces brought down the Sikhs (who were leaderless after the death of Emperor Ranjit Singh), the Directors in London abandoned all pretence of being a trading company. The loot from Punjab included the Kohinoor diamond, taken as a “gift” from Ranjit Singh’s 12-year old son (who was also taken and debauched in Britain with opium and sex, for fear he would, as an adult rise to leadership).
As a life-long student of history, Churchill certainly knew that what he wrote was untrue, but was evidently confident that he could say anything about India without challenge. It was an arrogant assumption born of imperial experience, evident in the work of many British writers even today.
More complex Myth-Making
A few decades after the fabrications about the “Black Hole of Calcutta” and the “Battle” at Pilashi, the British made a far more complex effort at mythmaking. To understand why and how that happened, we have to step back and look at what the British did in Bengal in the first few decades after taking over the job of Mughal tax collector from the murdered boy-Nawab.
In their first decade the British raised levies on agriculture to extortionate levels and imposed ruinous duties on Indian merchants. Edmund Burke speaking in the British parliament to impeach Warren Hastings of high crimes in India noted how his tax collectors operated:
“Virgins whose fathers kept them from the sight of the sun were dragged into the public Court [and there] vainly invoking its justice, while their shrieks were mingled with the cries and groans of an indignant people, those virgins were cruelly violated. … It did not end there. The wives of the people of the country only differed in this; that they lost their honor in the bottom of the most cruel dungeons … they were dragged out naked and exposed to the public view, and scourged before all the people … they put the nipples of the women in the sharp edges of split bamboos and tore them from their bodies.”
Such fierce exactions destroyed the agricultural economy of Bengal and pushed it into the first of the great “man-made famines” the British brought to India. In the first decade of their rule some 7 million people starved to death, fully a third of the population of Bengal. By the time British rule ended, the all-India toll would stand, at a conservative estimate, near two hundred million. When even the most draconian measures could not squeeze any more out of Bengal’s private holdings, the East India Company turned its attentions to the wealth locked up in temple and mosque endowments, the revenues from which supported village schools and vaids (healers), and maintained roads, tanks and dams. Unable to decipher the Sanskrit and Persian endowment records, and not trusting local translators, the Company assembled in Calcutta during the last quarter of the 18th century a small group of linguists. They uncovered much wealth for the Company, the taxing of which soon undermined the entire structure of traditional civic arrangements in Bengal.
The “Orientalists” as the group of linguists came to be known, also found an entirely unexpected treasure: the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita and the teachings of the Buddha. They translated much poetry and the play Sakuntala, in the process, sparking the Romantic Period of European literature. They uncovered a tradition of mathematics and astronomy that predated those of "Enlightenment" Europe by a thousand years and from which both Copernicus and Newton almost certainly “borrowed.” They discovered fables that fathered those of Aesop; treatises on love, architecture, horses, elephants; books of fortune telling and prophecy, chants and magic.
The most eminent of the Orientalists, William Jones, a Welsh polymath proficient in scores of languages, also arrived at a startling conclusion: Sanskrit belonged to the same family of languages as Latin and Greek. In 1786, he delivered a lecture in Calcutta declaring the existence of an ancient Indo-European language family in which Sanskrit held pride of place. “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer (sic) could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”
Other Europeans before Jones had noted the similarities between Sanskrit and their own languages, but no one had thought to question the concept of Babel contained in the Bible, which was then still considered authoritatively factual. The idea of a family of languages that had evolved from a common source was revolutionary. In an effort to fit his theory into the Biblical narrative, Jones in his 1791 address to The Asiatic Society at Calcutta, placed it in the context of story of Noah.
“The only human family after the flood established themselves in the northern parts of Iran. … as they multiplied they were divided into three distinct branches, each retaining little at first and losing the whole by degrees, of their common primary language.” One branch of the family had spread north in “scattered shoots” across Europe and Asia to the oceans at Eastern and Western extremes, and “at length, in the infancy of navigation, beyond them both.” That branch of the family “cultivated no liberal arts, and had no use of letters, but formed a variety of dialects as their tribes were variously ramified.” Another branch (the “children of Ham”) meanwhile, founded in Iran itself the “monarchy of the first Chaldeans, invented letters, observed and named the luminaries of the firmament, calculated the known Indian period of 432 thousand years,” and “contrived the old system of mythology” that was partly allegorical, partly the veneration of their great leaders and lawgivers. At different times colonies from that branch spread to Scandinavia and Greece, Italy, India, Egypt and Ethiopia, to China and across the Pacific to Mexico and Peru. The third branch of the family (the “children of Shem”), peopled Arabia.”
As the intelligentsia of Europe marveled at such connections Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778), the most influential of the French philosophes, declared India the foremost of civilizations. “Is it not probable that the Brahmins were the first legislators of the earth, the first philosophers, the first theologians?” he wrote. “Do not the few monuments of ancient history which remain to us form a great presumption in their favor, since the first Greek philosophers went to them to learn mathematics, and since the most ancient curiosities collected by the emperors of China are all Indian?”
Such vocal appreciation of Indian pre-eminence was twinned with Voltaire’s virulent antipathy for the Bible. He marked “a singular contrast between the sacred books of the Hebrews, and those of the Indians. The Indian books announce only peace and gentleness; they forbid the killing of animals: the Hebrew books speak only of killing, of the massacre of men and beasts; everything is slaughtered in the name of the Lord; it is quite another order of things.”
The presentation of Indians as a highly advanced people made civilizing missionaries seem redundant and colonial rule more of a crime. A backlash was inevitable, and it came from Christian evangelists and the East India Company.
Evangelical leader William Wilberforce led the attack in a parliamentary debate he initiated in June 1813, just as the East India Company’s charter was coming up for renewal. Wilberforce had a specific agenda: he wanted to force a change in the Company policy excluding missionaries from its territories, and to that end highlighted the desperate need of Indians for moral, spiritual and cultural succor. Citing authorities from Tamerlane to Company bureaucrats, he depicted Indians as intellectually “totally uncultivated,” possessed only of a “low cunning which so generally accompanies depravity of heart;” they were indolent, “grossly sensual, cruel, cowardly, insolent and abject,” and “without a sense of religion.” They had “all the vices of savage life without any of its virtues.” They were habitual liars whose religion was mere superstition, with rituals both degraded and debauched: 100,000 of them committed religious suicide at the annual festival of “Juggernaut” (Jagannath) at Puri, and 10,000 widows immolated themselves every year on the funeral pyres of their husbands. There were voices of protest against this flow of calumny, but after its charter was renewed the Company quietly eased restrictions on missionary activity in India.
The Company for its part, paid for two works of anti-Indian propaganda. One was a History of British India by James Mill (1773-1836), a journeyman journalist in London who had never been out of Europe and knew no Indian language. The other was a tome on Hindu Manners and Customs by the Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois (1765-1848), the Chief of Foreign Missions in Paris who had fled the French Revolution to Pondicherry. He spent a year after arriving in India trying to convert Hindus to Christianity, and having no success, set out to find the reason. Dressing himself to pass for a Brahmin he wandered around the countryside, hoping to discover the secrets of Hinduism. His notes on those researches found their way to London after he saw a notice circulated by the Company in India asking for material Mill could use.
James Mill, "Historian"
Mill wrote that it was “incredible and ridiculous” to think of India as having “a high state of civilization.” To an audience largely ignorant of the long Indian traditions in the arts and architecture – and well before the Taj Mahal and Khajuraho were tourist destinations – he depicted Indians as primitive:
“Of the Hindus, it may, first of all, be observed, that they little courted the pleasures derived from the arts, whatever skill they had attained in them. The houses, even of the great, were mean, and almost destitute of furniture; their food was simple and common; and their dress had no distinction (which concerns the present purpose) beyond certain degrees of fineness in the texture.”
He admitted to “the exquisite degree of perfection to which the Hindus have carried the productions of the loom ... as there are few objects with which the inhabitants of Europe are better acquainted.” However, he had an explanation for that aberration into excellence: “intelligent travelers” had observed “that this is the only art which the original inhabitants of that country have carried to any considerable degree of perfection” and that was because the “circumstances of the Hindu were in a singular manner adapted” to it. “His climate and soil conspired to furnish him with the most exquisite material for his art, the finest cotton which the earth produces. It is a sedentary occupation, and thus in harmony with his predominant inclination. It requires patience, of which he has an inexhaustible fund; it requires little bodily exertion, of which he is always exceedingly sparing; and the finer the production, the more slender the force which he is called upon to apply. But this is not all. The weak and delicate frame of the Hindu is accompanied with an acuteness of external sense, particularly of touch, which is altogether unrivalled, and the flexibility of his fingers is equally remarkable. The hand of the Hindu, therefore, constitutes an organ, adapted to the finer operations of the loom in a degree, which is almost, or altogether, peculiar to himself.”
The book was a great success, and had the impact the East India Company desired: Europe never again looked on India as having a worthy and high civilization.
The Abbe Dubois
Dubois also had a major part in that change. The notes from his two decades of wandering in South India contained little insight, for the interpreters who helped him seemed to have pulled his leg outrageously. There is no other explanation for the egregious dishonesties in the book, which began by declaring that British rule had “filled the people of India with admiration” and “fully convinced the Powers of Asia of the great superiority of Europeans in every way.”
He described Hinduism as “a religion that encourages the most unlicensed depravity of morals,” illustrating that assertion with a plethora of repulsive detail, mostly drawn from his own sordid imagination. The Namboodiri caste in Kerala, Dubois wrote, would cremate an unmarried girl after puberty only after arranging for the ritual wedding and deflowering of the corpse. He found people in the “hills of the Carnatic” who never washed their clothes, but wore them until they rotted off their bodies. In the “interior of Mysore” women were “obliged to accompany the male inmates of the house whenever the latter retire for the calls of nature and to cleanse them with water afterwards;” that practice was “regarded as a sign of good breeding” and was “most carefully observed.”
The Abbe was admiring only of two things about the Hindus, their tolerance and their caste system. To the latter he ascribed the “hereditary continuation of families and that purity of descent which is a peculiarity of the Hindus.” A Hindu of high caste, he wrote, “can, without citing his title or producing his genealogical tree, trace his descent back for more than two thousand years without fear of contradiction.”
Not surprisingly, Dubois tried, as William Jones had done, to fit Indians into a Biblical framework (which then envisaged a 6000-year life-span for the human race, with Creation set at 9 AM on Sunday, 23 October, 4004 BC). He speculated that India must have been “inhabited very soon after the Deluge,” for it was “close to the plains of Sennaar, where Noah’s descendants remained stationary for so long.”
The seven rishis (sages) of Indian antiquity, from which the Indian Brahmins claimed descent “must be the seven sons of Japeth who with their father at their head, led one-third the human race towards the West, when men began to disperse after the Flood. They did not all reach Europe. Some of them on their way there turned northwards under the guidance of Magog, second son of Japeth, and penetrated into Tartary as far as the Caucasian range.”
As evidence that the Brahmins had originated in the Caucasus, the Abbe pointed to the similarity between the names Magog and Gautama, one of the seven rishis. “Anyone believing in the connection between names and facts will be struck with the similarity existing between Magog’s name and Gautama’s, commonly called Gotama. Ma, or maha, signifies great, so that Gotama must mean the Great God, or Ma Gog.”
The Birth of the "Aryan Race"
The Abbe’s confused speculations about the prehistoric spread of Noah’s progeny and pure Hindu bloodlines came to be conflated with William Jones’ far more plausible concept of the Indo-European family of languages, giving birth to the idea of an ancient master race. The concept was manna from heaven for British imperialists, for they saw it as legitimizing their rule. It also solved satisfyingly the embarrassing question of a superior Indian civilization: ancient Aryan Europeans had created it!
The German Sanskritist Max Müller (1823-1900) tried vainly to separate the linguistic from the racial. “The genealogies of the Old Testament refer to blood, not to language,” he wrote; “it is clearly impossible” that they “should coincide with the genealogical classification of languages. In order to avoid a confusion of ideas, it would be preferable to abstain altogether from using the same names to express relationships of language, which in the Bible are used to express relationships of blood. It was usual formerly to speak of Japhetic, Hamitic, and Semitic languages. The first name has now been replaced by Aryan, the second by African; and though the third is still retained, it has received a scientific definition quite different from the meaning which it would have in the Bible.” The clarification had no impact, for a phantom “Aryan race” had come alive in the European imagination and would not be exorcised.
The Rise of Modern Racism
The easy military dominance Europeans established over other races and regions had set off a search for a “scientific” explanation of their superiority well before the idea of an ancestral breed of Aryan supermen became popular. Some speculated on the correlation of skin color and the shape of the skull to level of civilization, others saw the Christian faith as a key element, yet others ascribed it to geography and climate; but the “Aryan origin” theory seemed to have the support of science.
A French diplomat, Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), produced the first full blown theory of European racial superiority, arguing in a four-volume Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races that White European “Aryans,” the "best of the human breeds," held the key to all history. That “illustrious human family, the noblest among the White race” had originated in Central Asia” he asserted, and in its purest form could be found in North-Western Europe, especially Germany. Gobineau warned of the threat to Aryan superiority from weakening inter-mixtures with inferior black and yellow races.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) contributed to this new racism. The subtitle of his 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life,” gave Gobineau’s theory the full backing of science. The concept of the “survival of the fittest” made European domination of other races seem natural and necessary. Germans in particular took to the idea of their own special superiority, and soon “Gobineau Societies” sprang up all over the country.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) dressed racism in philosophic garb, distilling from Darwin’s theory about the survival of the fittest the concept of “an incarnate will to power” that would “strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant — not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.” Exploitation of others, Nietzsche said, belonged “to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all, the will to life.” In dominating the weak the powerful were but fulfilling their nature, reverting “to the innocence of wild animals.” He dismissed the gentling message of Christianity as Semitic weakness, and glorified Teutonic supermen, blond, beautiful beasts whose orgies “of murder, arson, rape and torture” left them “jubilant and at peace with themselves.”
Nietzsche’s idea of a master race “beyond Good and Evil” drew inspiration from the “Code of Manu,” a work of Indian jurisprudence that the early Orientalists had assumed from their limited knowledge to be the only one that shaped Hindu tradition. William Jones had rendered it into English a century earlier, but Nietzsche’s understanding of the work was not based on that translation but on the inexpert writings of a minor French official in Bengal who focused entirely on the element of specialized bloodlines implied in the caste system.
Dorothy Figuiera, who writes of that revealing detail in her densely scholarly 2002 book Aryans, Jews, Brahmins: Theorizing authority through myths of identity, noted that Manu had codified “belief in the fourfold caste system as a means of social cooperation for the common good.” He had stressed “that individuals must perform the function for which they are suited as well as that for which they born.” Nietzsche ignored that in constructing the myth of the pure-blooded Aryan Superman scornful of the mongrel crowd, and it solidified attitudes that had been growing since the middle of the century. “Before 1850, many placed the original home of the Aryans in India,” Figuiera wrote. “However, when racial anthropologists applied their various sciences to the problem of origins, they found linguistic, archaeological and anatomical reasons for situating the Aryan homeland in their own backyards, whether that be north or central Germany, Scandinavia, or the Baltic region. They also invariably claimed pure descent.” Such definitions were, in Figuiera’s words “fundamentally Manichean” and they had an unforeseen impact on Jews in Europe. As the “Aryan was solidly identified with everything good,” evil “increasingly became identified with the Jew.”
An Englishman who had settled in Germany, Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), promoted the new racism in a widely influential book, The Foundations of the 19th Century. Chamberlain had a messianic faith in racial purity. “Race lifts a man above himself” he wrote: “it endows him with extraordinary – I might almost say, supernatural – powers, so entirely does it distinguish him from the individual who springs from the chaotic jumble of peoples drawn from all parts of the world; and should this man of pure origin be perchance gifted above his fellows, then he becomes a genius towering over the rest of mankind, not because he has been thrown upon the earth like a flaming meteor by a freak of nature, but because he soars heavenward like some strong and stately tree, nourished by thousands and thousands of roots – no solitary individual, but the living sum of untold souls striving for the same goal.”
The Jews, Chamberlain wrote, guarded the purity of their own bloodlines while seeking to “infect Indo-Europeans with Jewish blood. If that were to go on for a few centuries, there would be in Europe only one single people of pure race, that of the Jews; all the rest would be a herd of pseudo-Hebraic meztisos, a people beyond all doubt degenerate physically, mentally and morally.” Chamberlain met the young Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), hailed him as the long awaited “superman,” and became a firm supporter.
Another German theorist of European superiority, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), also met Hitler but was unimpressed. However, his ideas have had a much longer and more respectable shelf life than those of Chamberlain. Spengler thought “European-Western” culture had a “Faustian soul,” ever reaching for power, and that war was its natural métier. All talk of “Peace, Humanity and the Brotherhood of Man” reflected “European weariness” and “flight from the struggle for existence.” In Man and Technics (1931), Spengler warned that the “outer” Colored races of the world would seek to appropriate Western high technology and destroy White Europe.
It was not just in Germany that the concept of inherent racial superiority became the fount of policy. Winston Churchill was an enthusiastic racist. As late as 1937, he was comfortable in telling the Royal Commission on Palestine that he did “not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” Churchill's “dog” of immediate reference was, of course, the Arab people of Palestine. The British came to tar Indians with the same contempt: the people from whom Europe got the idea of pure blood lines were bundled in with the world’s “lesser breeds.”
The Ironies of History
One result of newfound British racism in the early 19th Century was the creation of unprecedented social distance between White and Brown. British-Indian sexual liaisons, par for the course in earlier decades, became rapidly unacceptable to the colonials (as indeed, they had been to caste Indians who considered the British “mleccha” – unclean – from the beginning of contact).
As William Dalrymple noted in The Last Mughal (2007), the “wills of Company officials show that it was at this time that the number of Indian wives, or bibis (consorts or girlfriends), being mentioned begins to decline: from turning up in one in three wills in the period 1780 -85, the practice had gone into steep decline. Between 1805 and 1810, bibis appear in only one in every four wills; by 1830 it is one in six; by the middle of the century they have all but disappeared.”
That happened before the large-scale influx of memsahibs — British women — who have traditionally been blamed for enforcing a steely new color bar. However, the new racism did coincide with the entry into India of Christian missionaries. The combination of racism and evangelism proved to be a deadly combination. Just as importunate evangelism aroused Indian fears of conversion, racist arrogance led the British to ignore the strong objections of Indian soldiers to a new musket that required them to bite open an ammunition packet greased with pig-fat and lard. The result was the great uprising of 1857, which almost toppled British rule.
The racism generated by the concept of the pureblood White Aryan persisted right up to the end of British rule in India. H.G. Wells (1866-1946) in his acclaimed 1920 Outline of History was typical in his obsession with skin color. “Somewhere between Central Europe and Western Asia there must have wandered a number of tribes sufficiently intermingled to develop and use one tongue,” he wrote. “It is convenient here to call them the Aryan peoples. Sir. H.H. Johnston has called them ‘Aryan Russians.’ They belonged mostly to the White group of races and to the blond and northern subdivision of the group — to the Nordic race that is.” Wells considered India part of a “triple system of White Man civilizations” established by “a fair, beef-eating people.” The Buddha had originated an “Aryan faith.”
Such entirely unwarranted racial posturing did little harm to Indians; for Europeans it proved calamitous. Adolf Hitler’s dreams of a Germany of pure “Aryan blood,” a Europe “cleansed” of its Jews, and of a world under the rule of Germanic Supermen, pushed Europe into the Second World War. That conflict killed some 60 million people, ruined Britain and France, and augured the end of European colonial rule in Asia. As if to underline the karmic lesson of that outcome, German armies carried into battle the Swastika, the ancient Hindu symbol of good luck. Nor did the flow of Europe's bad karma stop there: World War II leveraged the Soviet Union into a world Power and set in place the conditions for the Cold War and much that has happened since its end.
Author: The White Tiger
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) distilled from the rubbish about the Aryan Race the concept of the Superman who was beyond Good and Evil. His ideas fed into Nazi ideology and drove Hitler's genocidal "Final Solution."
H. G. Wells
Remembered mainly for his science fiction now, H.G. Wells in his day (866-1946) was a respected historian and commentator on world affairs.
Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children became a Hollywood movie that continued Britain's manipulation of India's international image into the second decade of the 21st Century.
Pen name of François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), the most influential of the French "philosophes." Amidst the sensation caused by the first Orientalist translations he declared India the foremost of civilizations. That set off a determined propaganda effort by the East India Company to convince Europeans that India was really a barbaric place.
The Decline of the West was written during the First World War by a German professor Oswald Spengler (1889-1936). He was deeply affected by Germany's defeat. His warnings about the "colored races" appropriating European technology and using it against the West has contributed an element of fear to all later Western policy towards Asia and Africa.
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Arundhati Roy, author of "God of Small Things" (1997) claimed initially that she had written the novel without the knowledge of her husband. It led to speculation that she had not written it herself but was fronting for Britain's MI-6 as it continues a post-colonial propaganda campaign targeting India and in particular, the Mahatma. That speculation gained currency after her novel won the Booker Prize and Roy spent the next two decades churning out a stream of anti-Indian/Gandhi propaganda. Her second work of fiction in 2017 got generally poor notices.
Rushdie being burned in effigy after his the publication of his novel Satanic Verses, satirizing Muslims
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) adopted the Hindu symbol swastika (literally, "Healthy Sign" in Sanskrit), believing it to be an "Aryan" sign. Thus the armies that destroyed Britain's ability to rule its empire in India marched under an ancient Hindu sign. See also: NYT "How the Swastika became a Confederate Flag
The new European racism got support from Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who was not altogether a dispassionate scientist when it came to issues of race. The full title of his famous 1859 book read: On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.” See here for some startling details.
The trial of Warren Hastings: after much sturm and drang the British parliament took no action.
Salman Rushdie, a British writer of Indian origin, has had an important part in the post-colonial campaign against Gandhi. One of his typical hatchet jobs appeared in TIME magazine's special issue in 2000 celebrating "100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century." It was the only negative piece in the issue.
This show was taped in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, the year Arundhati Roy's first novel was published. It features Roy, Salman Rushdie and former New York Times correspondent in India, Barbara Crossette. Note how everyone thinks it is remarkable that India has "survived" but no one explains why, even when the host asks what makes the country special. The tone is overwhelmingly negative. Interesting fact about Barbara, who was my colleague on the UN Press corps: she was the last journalist to interview Rajiv Gandhi. In fact, she was in the car with him going to Sriperumbudur where the assassin lay in wait and survived the bomb only because she had forgotten something in the car and left Rajiv's side moments before the explosion.
Parliamentarian and evangelical leader Wilberforce (1759 -1833) led the campaign to have Christian missionaries sent to British controlled India.
As a young man Churchill was posted to India and developed a visceral dislike for the country that intensified as it moved towards independence. He was one of the most effective propagandists of Empire.
"Of India, it has been well said that the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absence of mind,” he wrote in The History of the English Speaking Peoples (1956) It was anything but that. The East India Company acquired control of about 3/5th of the Mughal Empire by a combination of steadfast treachery and violence between 1757 and 1857. Throughout that time the Company acted formally in the name of the powerless Mughal Emperor in Delhi. After the uprising of 1857, the British government took over from the Company and ruled its Swiss cheese empire in India for 90 years. Its efforts during that time to assert "paramountcy" over the remaining parts of the Mughal domains were steadfastly reported during that time.
Scroll down for a Short History of British mind-games in India ... and the origin of modern racism in the invention of the Aryan Race
Arthur de Gobineau
Frenchman Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) is the father of modern European racism. His theory of pure "Aryans" took root in Germany with the most fateful consequences.
Author: Inheritance of Loss
Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois
Abbe Dubois (1765-1848) fled the French Revolution to Pondicherry and after failing to convert anyone in his first year there, spent the next two decades camouflaged as a Brahmin trying to find out why. His researches yielded a whacky treatise on Hindu Manners and Customs that is a tribute to his fertile if prurient imagination. He is a key figure in the emergence of the concept of a flesh and blood "Aryan Race."
The Last Mughal
William Dalrymple's 2008 book is entertaining and insightful but does play the divisive communal card at every turn. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, represents "Islamic civilization," not Indian!
Ian Fleming (right), author of the James Bond novels, with Sean Connery, who played the spy "licensed to kill." Fleming himself was a British psywar operative in World War II and it was at his suggestion that the Booker Corporation established a literary award in recognition of the best fiction from a former British colony. The so-called "Indian" Booker prizes have been used to brand India in terms of colonial stereotypes. Since I began writing about the role of the Booker Prizes, they have begun to look at a larger pool than the former British Empire for talent, weakening the propaganda impact.
The first British history of India was the work of a journalist who had never been out of Europe and knew no Indian languages. He worked on the basis of materials provided by the East India Company, missionaries and sailors. His mendacious work unfortunately set the pattern of much British mainstream historical writing on India.
The "Black Hole of Calcutta
A 14" by 18" dungeon in Fort William at Calcutta was billed as the "Black Hole" by British propagandists who alleged that the Nawab of Bengal had imprisoned 146 British prisoners there on a hot summer night, killing 123. The story was widely believed until post-colonial historians questioned how 146 British prisoners could be crammed into a 14X18 space. The story was invented by the local head of the East India Company to justify attacking the teenage Nawab of Bengal, Suraj ud Dowlah. The subsequent "Battle of Plassey" (Pilashi) was also largely fictional, for the Nawab's uncle had been bribed (with money borrowed from the richest banker in Mughal India, Jagat Seth of Calcutta).
Below: An unknown artist's imagined "Black Hole of Calcutta" in a colonial era book. The British taught it as "history" until American historians pointed out it was a physical impossibility
German Sanskritist Max Müller (1823-1900) tried vainly to clear the confusion spread by the Abbe Dubois about an "Aryan Race." He edited the 50 volume Sacred Books of the East which contained the core texts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Islam and Zoroastrianism.
The man who led the nonviolent movement to free India of British colonial rule was a target of virulent propaganda while he lived. After his death the British campaign has continued more insidiously.
The Rani of Jhansi
The Indian uprising of 1857 produced one of the great national icons of the freedom movement: the 23-year old Rani (Queen) of Jhansi. She went to her death in battle wearing a priceless pearl necklace.
TIME magazine put Gandhi on its cover several times while he lived (above) and seemed to consider him positively. Why it chose to carry a negative piece in 2000 is mysifying. Perhaps its editors were displeased with Apple Corporation's "Think Different campaign using Gandhi's image (below).
Britain and India: Untold Stories
I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.
– Winston Churchill
The Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 led to a sophisticated French elite ruling a kingdom with a Saxon majority and tribal minorities in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. After brute force was no longer necessary to rule, the Normans used psychological tactics to disempower the other groups. The way they spoke, the way they dressed, the way they ate, all became objects of Norman scorn. It worked until the 20th Century.
Perhaps the greatest man Britain ever sent to India. A Welsh polymath who knew over two dozen languages, he was deeply interested in Indian antiquity, and was the first to postulate the existence of an Indo-European family of languages.