Monday, November 10, 2014

Durant blames Britain for India's poverty and misery. True. But why is mass misery still continuing?

Here's something that should rivet Narendra Modi's attention. "Nearly every kind of manufacture or product known to the civilised world -- nearly every kind of creation of man's brain and hand, existing anywhere, and prized either for its utility or beauty -- had long, long been produced in India. India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or than any other in Asia. Her textile goods -- the fine products of her looms, in cotton, wool, linen and silk -- were famous over the civilised world; so were her exquisite jewellery and her precious stones cut in every lovely form; so were her pottery, porcelains, ceramics of every kind, quality, colour and beautiful shape; so were her fine works in metal -- iron, steel, silver and gold. She had great architecture, equal in beauty to any in the world. She had great engineering works. She had great merchants, great businessmen, great bankers and financiers. Not only was she the greatest shipbuilding nation, but she had great commerce and trade by land and sea which extended to all known civilised countries. Such was the India which the British found when they came".

That's a quotation from a little-known but ought-to-be-widely-known book written 84 years ago: The Case for India by Will Durant (of the 11-volume The Story of Civilisation fame). "Made in India" was the natural slogan of the past. Today we have to plead to "make in India". What explains the wholesale collapse? Will Durant puts the blame squarely on British exploitation of India. Separating the English from the British, he says, "The English are the best gentlemen on earth, the British are the worst of all imperialists". His book marshals evidence to show how extensive was the destruction wrought by the imperialist Britain.

Durant has a way of digging out nuggets of information from extensive research and presenting them with a suddenness that surprises the reader. Casually as it were, he tells us that there were 7000 opium shops in India operated by the British Government, that two to four hundred thousand acres of India's soil were given away to the growing of opium. On Gandhi: "In his first year in England he read 80 books on Christianity".

His account of the levels of poverty that prevailed in India is perhaps the most disturbing. While Britain stole enough wealth from India to make the Industrial Revolution possible, the percentage of taxes as related to the gross produce was more in India than in any other country. Famine became a feature of Indian life. As many as 15 million people died in the famines of 1877, 1889, 1897 and 1900. (A bigger one was to come after Durant's visit when the British took away all the foodgrains they could get from India as supplies to World War II).

There is a doomsday echo to Durant's words: "The British ownership of India has been a calamity and a crime. This is quite unlike the Mohammedan domination: those invaders came to stay; what they took in taxes and tribute they spent in India, developing its industries and resources, adorning its literature and art... [Under British rule] I saw a people -- one-fifth of the human race -- suffering poverty and oppression bitterer than any to be found elsewhere on the earth. I was horrified. I had not thought it possible that any government could allow its subjects to sink to such misery". That last point seems applicable to successive governments after independence as well. The misery of vast sections of people in the slums, on the banks of polluted water bodies, in unplanned urban beehives ever waiting for catastrophes would horrify Durant if he were to visit us again.

An oddity in the narrative provides an ironic link to today's ultra-nationalists who say that all Indians are Hindus. They are, of course, in a geographic sense -- as inheritors of the Sindhu (Indus) valley civilisation. The word has since become wholly religious, as distinct from geographical, so much so that Durant sounds outdated or eccentric when he talks of Hindu industries vs British industries, there being not one Hindu in the Railway Board of those days, third-class passengers in trains being Hindus and Gandhi being the leader of 320 million Hindus. Narendra Modi would never claim to be, or want to be, the leader of 1.1 billion Hindus. He wants to be the leader of 1.1 billion Indians. Which underlines why the two words are not interchangeable.