Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Did the British Give India Political Unity? (By Shashi Tharoor) - 1

From book "An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India" by Shashi Tharoor

Part one

The British like to point out, in moments of self-justifying exculpation, that they deserve credit for the political unity of India - that very idea of 'India' as one entity (now three, but one during the British Raj) instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets, is the unchallengeable contribution of British imperial rule.

It is difficult to refute that proposition except with a provable hypothesis: that throughout the history of subcontinent, there has existed an impulsion for unity. This was manifest in the several kingdoms throughout India history that sought to extend their reach across all of the subcontinent: the Maurya (322 BCE - 185 BCE), Gupta (at its peak, 320 - 550 CE), and Mughal (1526 - 1827 CE) empires, and to a lesser extent, the Vijayanagara kingdom in the Deccan (at its peak 1136 - 1565 CE) and the Maratha confederacy (1674 - 1818 CE). Every period of disorder throughout Indian history has been followed by a centralizing impulse, and had the British not been the first to take advantage of India's disorder with superior weaponry, it is entirely possible that an Indian ruler would have accomplished what the British did, and consolidated his rule over most of the subcontinent.

The same impulse is also manifest in Indians' vision of their own nation, as in the ancient epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which reflect an 'idea of India' that twentieth century nationalists would have recognized. The epics have acted as strong, yet sophisticated, threads of Indian culture that have woven together tribes, languages, and people across the subcontinent, uniting them in their celebration of the same larger-than-life heroes and heroines, whose stories were told in dozens of translations and variations, but always in the same spirit and meaning. The landscape, for instance, as their travels throughout it demonstrated, and through their tale, Indians speaking hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects in all the places names in the epic, enjoyed a civilizational unity. Lord Rama's journey through India and his epic battle against the demon-king of Lanka reflect the same national idea.

After all, India has enjoyed cultural and geographical unity throughout the ages, going back at least to Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE. The vision of Indian unity was physically embodies by the Hindu sage Adi Shankara, who travelled from Kerala in the extreme south to Kashmir in the extreme north and from Dwarka in the west to Puri in the east, as far back as the seventh century after Christ, establishing temples in each of these places that endure to this day. Diana Eck's writings on India's 'sacred geography' extensively delineate ancient idea of a political unity mediated through ideas of sacredness. As Eck explains: 'Considering its long history, India has had but a few hours of political and administrative unity. Its unity as a nation, however, has been firmly constituted by the sacred geography it has held in common and revered: its mountains, forests, rivers, hilltop shrines... linked with the tracks of pilgrimage.;

Nor was this oneness a purely 'Hindu' idea. The rest of the world saw India as one: Arabs, for instance, regarded the entire continent as 'al-Hind' and all Indians as 'Hindi', whether they hailed from Punjab, Bengal or Kerala. The great nationalist Maulana Azad once remarked upon how, at the Haj, all Indians were considered to be from one land, and regarded themselves as such. Surely such impulses, fulfilled in those distant times by emperors and sages, would with modern transport, communications and far-sighted leaders, have translated themselves into political unity?

Starting from these incontrovertible facts, it is possible to construct an alternative scenario to British colonialism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the Marathas extending their conquests across the country, while finding it politically convenient to mast their power under a titular Mughal emperor, a process that had already begun. Though the Marathas would have ruled the country under the nominal overlordship of a weak Mughal monarch (as the British themselves were briefly to do), this would have led to an inevitable transition to constitutional rule, just as England transitioned (with the seventeenth -century Glorious Revolution and the subsequent strengthening of the House of Commons) from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. This could have happened in India just as it did in several other countries in the non-colonized world, across Europe and in the handful of Asian countries that were not colonized notably China, Japan and Thailand. The process would not have been painless; there may well have been revolutions and military struggles; there would have been disruption and conflict; but India's resources would have stayed in India and its future would have been resolved by its own people. The onset of British colonialism interrupted this natural evolution and did not allow it to flower. But to suggest that Indian political unity would not have happened without the British is absurd and unsupported by the evidence.

Counterfactuals are, of course, impossible to prove. One cannot assert, for instance, with any degree of certitude, events that did not in fact occur, nor name that centralizing figure who might have been India's Bismarck, Mazzini, Ataturk or Garibaldi in the absence of the British. But historical events find their own dramatics personae, and it is unreasonable to suggest that what happened everywhere else would not have happened in India. From such an initially hybrid system could have emerged a modern constitutional monarchy and political institutions built upon the Mughal administrative system, as modified by the Marathas. But these are hypotheticals. The British came, and no such non-colonial India emerged.

Counterfactuals are theoretical but facts are what they are, The facts point clearly to the dismantling of existing political institutions in India by the British, the fomenting of communal division and systematic political discrimination with a view to maintaining and extending British domination.

When the British eventually left in 1947, they left India as a functioning democracy, and many Britons would take credit for having instilled in their Indian subjects the spirit of democracy and the rule of law, even if Indians were denied its substance by the British. This claim is worth examining closely.

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