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Through the Imperial Looking Glass – The Raj Syndrome excerpts

(source: The Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perceptions - By Suhash Chakravarty. Penguin Books.1991)

The Empire-building was a demanding responsibility was repeatedly affirmed. There was no lack of flamboyance and poets and publicists were eager to extol the abounding achievements and fruitful experiments of the ‘pioneers’ and guardians.’ The pattern of imperial sensibility was thus nourished by falsified facts. Hypocrisy, which supplied this nourishment to false consciousness, found in the same consciousness its own moral justification and confirmation. In the process of the self-glorification of the Raj, the nebulous dividing line between faith and casuistry, admiration and worship, conscious deception and false consciousness was blurred. A confused reflection of reality, distorted insights and half-truths together with an officially sponsored organization of optimism and swagger tinged the imperial looking glass.  

“There is too much  Asia and she is too old. You cannot reform a lady of many lovers.’ Rudyard Kipling propounded, ‘and Asia has been insatiable in her flirtation.’ She would never attend Sunday school or learn to vote or render habitual obedience to law without the show of the naked sword. 

Everywhere the civilizing mission of Britain, the onward march of a ‘masculine’ and ‘scientific’ Christianity and the assertion of the superiority of imperial pride were discerned in the assault of imperialism.  At all places it was made to confront barbarism, superstition and tyranny and everywhere an atmosphere of lawlessness of the native society was improvised and condemned for provoking an inevitable imperial retribution. 

Kipling spelt out a well-circulated fable that the new acquisitions had been, before annexation, ‘one crazy hell of murder, torture and lust’; a hysteria of blood and fanaticism.’ Kipling spitefully recalled the gory days when Sudan was being ‘reduced to sanity by applied death’ on an unprecedented scale. In one day and night, he gibed, ‘ all those who had any power and authority were wiped out…till no chief remained to ask after any followers.’ The imperial retribution in Khartoum, as elsewhere, was savage. One is also forced to recollect the blood-thirsty ravanche in India following the Revolt of 1857 which had covered a wide area from Delhi to Awadh. Flora Annie steel depicted the inhuman realities of the uprising in her flamboyant novel On the Face of the Waters in which the heroine Kate Erlton learnt to appreciate the assertion of her husband, Major Erlton, that he was a Christian soldier whose task was to become ‘the happy instrument of rescuing his neighbor from eternal damnation’ of Hinduism, the cult of the inevitable.’ The triumphant movement of the Christian power had been violently challenged and the imperial deposition fashioned, by an unholy combination of obscurantism of various forms in 1857. 

The Raj was the center piece of the British Empire and it experienced all forms of imperial experiments. Kipling’s analysis of British initiatives in Egypt and the Far East applied equally to India. Together, they represented the exploits of an aggressive imperial culture.  Defending the aloofness of the Englishmen in India, a writer in the Quarterly Review, dismissed the ‘favorite caricature’ of the Englishman in India as a hectoring, domineering, swaggering overlord, exacting salaams from every Indian who traversed his path. At home, Aldous Huxley wrote, the same Englishman was lost in a nameless crowed; he did not count because he was nobody. But in India, life satisfied the most powerful of all the instincts – that of self-assertion. For example, even the young man of Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads who went out from a London suburb in search of a career in India found himself a member of a small ruling elite surrounded by slavish servants, dark-skinned subordinates and millions of Indians from the coolie to the maharaja, from the illiterate peasant to the holder of an Oxford degree. Huxley, who shared in full measure British prejudices about India, wrote: ‘Superiority in India is a question of epidermis.’ Robert Byron who was equally sensitive on this point, stressed the foundations of British arrogance in his An Essay on India. White pigmentation of skin, he wrote, ‘at first only a symbol of material efficiency assumes, and is paid, the homage of a divine attribute.’ Every white man in Asia becomes an Apostle and is prepared to maintain his part in face of all opposition.  

Flora Annie Steel compared the British experience in India with the repressive frustrations and exacting obligations of Babur, the Empire builder of the sixteenth century. The founder of the Mughal Empire, she thought must have found the Indian countryside ‘ugly and detestable’ and must have wondered, as did the British general subsequently, if he had better left India undisturbed only to allow it ‘to stew in its own juice.’ The people, she indicted, were not handsome and had no idea of the charms of friendly society or of social intercourse. They had little ‘comprehension of mind’, no ‘politeness of manners’ and no ‘fellow feeling.’ 

To Kipling, Maud Diver, Flora Annie Steel, Sarah Duncan and even Edward Thompson, like Lord Curzon, Milner, Rhodes, and Kitchener, the imperial mission was an obsession and all of them became prisoners of their propaganda. They placed the Empire on a higher pedestal than the daily routine of the Government of India and the democratic uneasiness of the British Parliament. Kipling’s ‘burden’ was an idealization of an aggressive and flamboyant Raj. Curzon went out of his way to applaud the Indian experiment as the highest achievement of their race. Kipling became the barometer of British interests in India. Civilians affirmed that they served Kipling’s India. W.W. Hunter, who misjudged Departmental Ditties, exhorted the young Kipling to present to the world the British experiment in India which ‘has never had an equal in history’. Ronald Wingate, like many others, felt the weight of the white man’s burden.  

After the announcement that the Noble Prize was to be awarded to Rabindranath Tagore, Western critics sought to establish the superiority of the ‘Caucasian race’ over the ‘Indian race’: to discover in the poet, a dreamer with a ‘narrow Western outlook’ and a dated Western sensibility who had been favored by preferential treatment that was, according to them, often meted out to ‘colonials’ for political exigency. They saw the award as something of a humiliation to which they were supposed to adjust themselves.  

“It is the first time that the Noble Prize has gone to anyone who is not what we call ‘white’. It will take time, of course, for us to accommodate ourselves to the idea that some one called Rabindranath Tagore should receive a world prize for literature. “ 

‘We of the West do not want from the East poetic edifices.’ The Liverpool Post declared, ‘built upon a foundation of Yeats and Shelley and Walt Whitman. We want to hear flute of Krishna as Radha heard of it, to fall under the spell of the blue God, in the lotus-heart of dreams. As an Oriental poet Rabindranath Tagore, the Queen of London pronounced, had nothing to offer the West. Indeed, critics often crossed the frontier of sanity and moved into the realm of absurdity.  

There was no paucity in Anglo-Indian fiction of examples depicting the liberating influence of Christianity. Nora E. Karn in her collection of short stories, The Believer and other Stories, identified Christianity with humanity. The Christian nun of ‘The Bhaktani’ spoke in the warm language of the East, another girl a child in her lap became a sadhni of Jesus, defied a cruel Hindu society and trudged all over religious India in the garb of a mendicant with the joy of St. Francis in her heart. Christianity, it was maintained, was the essence of liberty and unless a significant proportion of the whole community had become true Christians, self-government might become a sheer calamity. Christianity, it was assumed, could not co-exist with Hinduism and missionaries often called for exclusive official patronage. Over the years the sympathies of the Government had shaped and regulated a set of firm guiding principles. Basking under the warm glow of official care, Christian propaganda turned intensely intolerant. ‘If Christ is to rule over India, wrote one of its active cadres, ‘then Hinduism and all its various superstition must go. You can neither lessen His light nor illuminate its darkness by a process of assimilation.’ 

As the prospect of Christian conversion loomed large in the eyes of the missionaries, they were often carried away by their unrestricted optimism beyond all reasonable proportion. Thus Henry Whitehead, the Bishop of Madras and G.W. Briggs of the Christian Missionary Society, reported gleefully that there existed in India enormous raw material ripe for instant conversion. Christianity, Briggs penned, was for the lower castes like the Chamars more than a social and economic gospel. Hinduism, he maintained, on its lower side was polytheistic and saturated with demonology. Bishop Whitehead endorsed this view. The first step towards any social progress in rural India, he argued, was to demolish this chaotic clutter of beliefs and practices, rites and ceremonies and clear the ground for the teaching and worship of the Christian church.  

Henry Whitehead characterized Hinduism as ‘a religion of fear and superstitions’ finding its outward expression in mean symbols and ‘in forms of worship that are to a very large extent disgusting and even immoral.’ 

The imperial mind questioned, in utter bewilderment, the queer imagination that had conceived ‘these strange creatures.’ It was overwhelmed by a creepy feeling which stood between it and Hinduism with its ‘ugly gods’, devastating ‘evil eyes’ and ‘sure charms’ – all shrouded in mysterious forces that were beyond any rational explanation. It shivered at the infinite and immense secrets of India. The Jain temples at Mount Abu rattled Edmund Candler. He was amazed by ‘the miracle of elaboration’ the diversity of compositions and the uncompromising ‘severity of the details’ of the shrines.  

One fifth of humanity, the imperialists swaggered, lived here and the British could not have held the country for even a day unless ninety-nine percent of the people were stirred by them.  Even Islam with its uncompromising monotheism, Valentine Chirol contended, made only a marginal impact on Hinduism. As a political force, it was concluded, Islam had already become moribund and it was generally held in official circles that it owed its political existence largely to the British rulers who had resisted the political revival of Hinduism and had ever since held the balance even between all creeds and communities. In the antagonism between the two religions, it was argued, the deepest chasm in Indian society ought to be located and nursed.  

It is small wonder that Katherine Mayo ingeniously appended Indian nationalism with the superstitions of a ritualistic Hinduism and fused them into a powerful anti-Indian demonstration. The impact of Katherine Mayo’s (Mother India) was more than ephemeral. She rendered the racial arrogance of the exclusive clubs into a self-righteous assertion. There was a general agreement on the issue that there was no rational ground for the development of democracy in India and that there was little likelihood that one could discover any method by which a stable government could be established upon ‘any other foundation than of British bayonets.’ All their ‘sub-human civilization’, ‘repulsive personal habits’, ‘amazing egocentric mania’ and ‘unparalleled sexual degradation’ were exposed by Katherine Mayo and in the process she reduced ‘India’s claim for Swaraj to sheer nonsense’ and ‘the will to grant it’ in some quarters to ‘almost a crime.’ 

Katherine Mayo set the trend for a new branch of literature whose pre-occupation was to stretch the morbidity of Hindu customs, superstitions and rituals to a point of absurdity and invest it with a unique spiritual inhumanity.  

W. A. Frazier’s Caste was one of them. To Barlow (one of the characters of the book) the compelling voice of the Brahmin signified idols and a depraved materialism. The scientific and Christian West, Frazer underwrote, was incompatible with a ‘barbarous ‘ and ‘fanatic’ Hinduism even if the West made the necessary adjustments and carried out effective surgery in its own value system in order to meet the East on its own terms.  

There were many who were upset by the fact that the country had been suffering from abject poverty despite British rule. They considered it a disgrace to the British Empire that there should be any large body of citizens who were continually hungry. It was conceded that  Arnold Lupton in his Happy India, a reasoned rebuttal of William Digby’s Prosperous British India, found the roots of India’s poverty and misery in the apathy of its callous upper castes and their peculiar social attitudes. Lupton lambasted the Hindu social system and its self-centeredness. Englishmen, Lupton bemoaned, could teach but if only the Indians would care to learn.  

The balance sheet of British rule (the social insecurity of Britons in India and the life of gross humiliation led by educated Indians on the other hand) was, however, drawn  up with a promising note. One of them announced: ‘ I am proud that our country should have been chosen by fate, nature, God or whatever you will it, to clear up the debris of the Moghul Empire and to unlock for India, the treasures of Western thought. I think on the whole we are worthy of it. The date for this self-righteous exhilaration is not 1917 but 1943, when the memories of the movement of 1942 were still fresh. The author was neither a swashbuckling champion of the Raj nor a poet laureate of the Empire. He was the modest Penderel Moon known for his sympathies for a new India.  

Dwelling on the position of India in the British educational system, the India League, in 1945, came to an unfaltering conclusion that the children of the British school system had been over the years taught on the assumption that since they lived in a country which had for centuries held a great empire under control, they were peculiarly fitted to rule. Although this did not manifest itself crudely in the same  way as in the Nazi Kerrenvolk teaching, it was almost as dangerous in the underlying acceptance without question of all the implications of such a position. The teacher’s committee of the League noted that although the British children had been encouraged to appreciate and assess the contribution of countries other than the Great Britain to world civilization, the curriculum was judiciously selective and misleading. The countries which were covered by the enquiry of the students fell into two categories: those which had contributed to the development of Christianity and to Western civilization in general and those which were fighting on the other side of the allies in the Second World War including the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. 

Most serious gaps occurred in the case of Japan, China and the Islamic countries while India, the brightest gem in the British crown, witnessed remarkable distortion. Thus while the caste system, child marriage and Sati as reprehensible institutions were heavily underlined, the absorptive capacity of Hinduism, the general attitude of tolerance, the role of Buddha, Ashoka and Akbar, the development of composite culture, the historic role of the Sufi and the Bhakti movements were either overlooked or pushed into a twilight of hazy information. Even the resurgence of India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was glossed over and the name of Rabindranath Tagore did not figure in the school textbooks although the works of American writers like Longfellow and Whitman found adequate representation and the work of Christian missionaries in India was emphasized on a disproportionate scale. The civilizing mission of Britain in India continued to dominate the minds of both the teachers and the students. In contrast, India’s contribution in the spheres of art, literature, science, and politics as also its nationalist movement remained a well-guarded secret from the average Briton.  

For the ideologues of the Raj, the human race was divided into two categories: that of the poor of the black and brown colonies and that of the rich which was restricted to a small white European stock.  It was believed that in both these areas, men might attain salvation – but by different means. The road to freedom opened to the wretched colonies was conditioned by the nature of their subjugation to the white race. It was a traverse through a world of humility, patience and submission – a long and tedious journey to be undertaken with faith, conviction and cheerfulness. The Empire-builders, on the other hand, were to sanctify their superior ability, authority and honor by infinite mercy, and the result of their munificence was sure to meet the ‘ungratefulness of the conquered race.’ Thus the Indians ought to be forced, if necessary, to discern and acknowledge their cultural, social and religious and economic inferiority and trace their restrictive frontier of life. As Edmund W. said has conceptualized, the idea of ‘Orientalism’ has come to fashion an academic tradition. By its very definition, the perception inherent in Orientalism is racist, imperialist and ethnocentric. The white man’s burden was thus placed even theoretically on force and it was to be buttressed by a constant exhibition of physical might. It was a sentiment, an attitude, a policy and a reality. The white man, as a consequence, was never to meet the East on equal terms. 

(source: The Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perceptions - By Suhash Chakravarty. Penguin Books.1991).



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