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Commentary/Rajeev Srinivasan

The uncouth reality of the present is not the only possibility for India: in our many pasts lie the seeds of our future

All this would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous. Continuous propaganda drilled into impressionable minds eventually becomes 'truth by repeated assertion'. A perusal of the Internet newsgroup soc.culture.indian will demonstrate the hatred and loathing many Pakistanis hold for all things Indian -- naturally, those brought up on a steady diet of disinformation could never conceive of a friendly relationship with India.

Salman Rushdie said, in Shame, that Pakistan is trying to nullify 5,000 years of Indian history with fifty years of Pakistan Standard Time -- a pithy observation. Here are a couple of gems from the Internet: "We Muslims are the true masters of India. You wily Hindus conspired with the British to cheat us out of what is rightfully ours." "I am so thankful that we have Pakistan, a place where the subcontinent's Muslims need not be afraid". I wonder, any Mohajirs or Bangladeshis out there?

It astonished me to see this utter religious animosity, for the Kerala Muslims I grew up with are entirely Indian, comfortable with their multiple identities as Indians, Malayalis and Muslims. As far as I can tell, they don't see any contradiction in these roles; yet, these Pakistani Muslims can only see themselves as Muslims, I suspect because they have suppressed all consciousness of their pre-Muslim history, despite the reminders of the Indus Valley Civilisation all around them.

Well, Oscar Wilde once said that the only duty we owe history is to rewrite it. Yet, despite that flexibility, it is true that there are defining moments that nations and peoples use to create their self-images. For the Australians, it was the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 when they realised that the British viewed them as mere cannon-fodder. For the British, it was 1941 and the Battle of Britain which gave them the self-image of muddling through with blood, sweat and tears.

For the Americans, much as they might protest, I think it is that June day in 1975 when the last helicopter took off from Saigon, marking an ignominious defeat. That day marked the beginning of the end of the American century. And for India, it must be April 13, 1919, Jallianwallah Bagh. That is the day when we too realised that British rule was simply evil.

Yet, for all that, and the two hundred years of looting and pillage perpetrated by the British, we Indians have never even demanded an apology, much less asked for retribution. Compare that to the Americans, demanding apologies from the Japanese at every turn for Pearl Harbour. (Curiously, it does not seem to have occurred to the Americans to apologise to the Japanese for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

It is worth noting that General Dyer, who ordered the firing at Jallianwallah Bagh at an unarmed and peaceful crowd, was felicitated by the British parliament; he was given an honourable discharge, a purse of 80,000 pounds and a bejewelled sword inscribed 'Saviour of the Punjab'. 1,650 bullets, 1600 casualties -- a day that will truly live in infamy--and they gave him an award!

And that is the crux of the matter as far as the pragmatists are concerned. Never again, they cry. Never again shall we be enslaved. That is at the core of the differences between the oh-so-politically-correct 'idealists' and the pragmatists. The 'idealists' talk of vague principles. The pragmatists want concrete security. We all know what the 'idealists' achieved in 1962 with all that fine talk of vague principles, Panchasila. Surely there is a lesson there?

Going back to the British, the sheer scope of their rapine is staggering. Capital removed, societies destroyed. As a single example of the social cost, historian William Digby (Prosperous British India) estimated that the population of Dhaka dropped from 200,000 to 79,000 between 1787 and 1817; the export of Dacca muslin to England amounted to 8,000,000 rupees in 1787; in 1817, nil. The fine textile industry, the livelihoods of thousands, and the self-sufficient village economy, were systematically destroyed.

A strong case has been made by William Digby quoting Brooks Adams that the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760) could not have happened in Britain had it not been for the loot that came in from India. It is indeed a curious coincidence: Plassey (1757); the flying shuttle (1760); the spinning jenny (1764); the power-loom (1765); the steam engine (1768).

Note that prior to 1760, the machinery used for spinning cotton in Lancashire was as simple as that in India. About 1750, the English iron industry was in serious decline as the forests, used for fuel, were seriously damaged. But after 1764, coal began to be used for smelting iron; and with the steam engine, energy became harnessable. What set off this frenzy of invention? The motivating force probably was just money, circulating and incentivising: the plunder from India.

Look at some individuals and their 'East Indian Fortunes' (P J Marshall)--all numbers in pounds: Robert Clive estimated in 1767 that his net worth was 401,102. John Johnston had 300,000. Richard Smith amassed in 1764-1770 a fortune of 250,000 pounds. Note that these company officers' average salary was between 1,000 and 5,000 per year. Marshall estimates a total of 18,000,000 pounds as the *private* fortunes of these officers in the period 1757-1784. This, of course, in addition to official East India Company pillage.

Digby estimated in 1901 that the total amount of treasure extracted from India by the British was 1,000,000,000 pounds--a billion pounds. Considering the looting from 1901 to 1947 and the effects of inflation, this is probably worth a trillion dollars in today's money. Serious money, indeed. Shouldn't we ask for some reparation? Or at the very least tell the British politely to go suck an egg when they offer to 'mediate in Kashmir' as Labour apparently wants to do?

To go back to Rizwan Salim's article, he suggests that a lot of the books written on Indian history by Westerners either have a vested interest or a 'barely concealed patronising tone'. For example, the Penguin History of India by Percival Spear and Romilla Thapar can scarcely contain its sneering contempt. On the other hand, there is A. L. Basham's very positive The Wonder that was India, although it too finds it hard to admit that, as Salim suggests, Indians 'created the most imaginative culture on the earth'.

A very large amount of Indian history, Salim believes, is literally crumbling -- it is in the thousands of palm leaf manuscripts that are rotting away, unknown, unread, and unmourned. For that matter, even the stone tablets of the Harappan civilisation have never been deciphered, although they are clearly an alphabet and thus easier than the pictographs of the Mayans, which have recently been decoded by American scientists.

The deracination of Indians was a project first thought up by Macaulay who wanted to create, infamously, a class of brown Englishmen; and this process continues apace. Although Mahatma Gandhi considered Western civilisation a 'disease' and said: "I am not the enemy of the English; I am the enemy of their civilisation", his political descendants have, unhappily, looked to England and the Soviet Union. So much better had looked in their own backyard for diamonds!

A nation that is unaware of and uncaring of its history does not deserve to be a nation. Indeed, the very fissiparous tendencies we see in India are partly the result of historical naivete, for whenever we stood together, India was strong and prosperous. The uncouth reality of the present is not the only possibility for India: in our many pasts lie the seeds of our future. If we are to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Indian Union as a prosperous society, we must not ignore the other 4,900 years of Indian history.

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Rajeev Srinivasan

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