Thursday, September 21, 2006


I watched Gandhi again yesterday after a long time, and realised a few things, or rather, those things which I already knew were underscored more strongly.

The British were gentlemen. I am not trying to downplay their brutalities, their cruel suppresion of the 1857 revolt, or the inhuman massacre at Jalianwala Bagh. Not at all. But it's still true that on a relative basis, we perhaps got the most benign ruler. If we had been ruled by the French, Japanese, Portugese, or Spanish, I shudder to think how it would have been, and Gandhi may not have lived to fight. As it was, the British were reasonably courteous to Gandhi, they used to make sure he was not treated too harshly in prison (his spare frame and frail body helped here), and they used to have armed escorts to take him to prison (I cannot believe that the armed escorts were employed to stop him from escaping). Perhaps they were not doing this out of genuine respect, but I believe they did it out of minimum respect.

The fact is that non-violence places an enormous moral burden on the the perpetrator, because he knows he is suppressing and tendering injustice on an individual who is doing absolutely nothing to stop him. Thus, it suddenly deprives him of an excuse, which is that his adversary is retaliating against him. He is in a position where he cannot justify his reprehensible actions on any grounds. Sooner or later, every perpetrator has to crack under such a tremendous moral burden. The British certainly were ones who in my opinion would give in in such a way sooner or later. And perhaps Gandhi was astute enough to realise this fact about them.

I always like to believe that the reason for the minimum moral sentiment of the British was democracy. Although this ideal was many times flaunted abroad by them under a hypocritical guise, the fact remains that it was they who gave democracy to the world, who tolerated if not encouraged, dissent. From one side, they were facing this potent weapon of non-violence wielded by us, and on the other side, they had a lofty tradition of democracy, independence, and free speech behind them. In The British parliament, there were Lords after all, who complained and chastised British actions in India, if only out of political ambitions. But the combination must have been a thorny source of discomfort to The Crown. The great advantage of democracy is that because it allows dissent, policy makes are always answerable to counterpoints, and their conscience is therefore constantly challenged by the viewpoints of others. It surely must be harder in such a situation to tenaciously hold to your own viewpoint, which many in the first place already regard as morally reprehensible. For this reason, I believe we are relatively lucky that it were the British who were our rulers.

One quality of Gandhi that caught my attention is that in spite of having such profound will, ideals, and conviction in himself, he was not brooding, distant, or utterly philosophical. By many accounts, he was an extremely simple person, and quite a playful one, ready to indulge in jokes and self-effacing comments. He could communicate as an ordinary person with the simplest of people, the poor and the young. He believed deeply in god, yet was not overly religious in his daily life and principles, and in his talk. In his heart, he really seems to have been a peace loving person of the highest morals. I always believe that Gandhi did appreciate the good things about Britain, including their language, culture and history, their laws (not as applied to India necessarily), and other things which were typically English- after all, he was an English-educated lawyer. One thing he said struck me as being sincere, and I believe he meant it. "When the British leave our country, we want them to leave us as friends". But he knew all too well that when friends stay for a disproportionately long time, their presence becomes a nuisance.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. The movie was made by an Englishman.
2. Was Gandhi really like the way portrayed in the movie?
3. True the Spanish or French would have been brutal rulers. But my opinion is no one but the wily Englishmen (except perhaps the Dutch) were capable of the Machiavelian (sp) maneuvering (sp) required from Thomas Roe - through Plassey - to Victoria's Proclamation to acquire the realm of India with diligent patient effort.
4. I think any one but the British would have lost the realm of India in 1857.
5. Democracy evolved in Britain. Slowly, painfully often accompanied by bloodshed. Democracy did not arrive in England like a revelation with the signing of the Magna Carta. It is interesting to note that women were agitating for a vote in the birthplace of democracy at the same time as we were agitating for independence. The upshot is tolerance of dissent etc are features of modern democracy. England has had a modern democracy not much longer than we have.
6. I think the reason the British were such mild rulers compared to say the Portuguese is that they were a pragmatic people who wanted to make money from the empire. So they did not waste time and effort in inquisitions and the like but went about a methodical economic agenda which more than the minimum brutality would have upset.

5:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RYC on bloop: Well, $1 is INR 45 or so. And still, you onky have a few bargain sales like that.

I get an 'emerging market' discount on virtually evey imported book. AND then there is Strand. How much did you pay for John Casti's Paradigm's Regained again? I picked it for INR 250 at Strand.

BTW, Strand Bookfest has started from 19 Sep 2006.

5:32 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Why do you say that? There were a lot of dissenters in England even before the American Revolution, who were opposed to England's hold on her American colonies and used to openly say so without fear. So dissent is quite old in British democracy.

Ashutosh and Vaidehi bought Paradigms Lost for me from Australia.

8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before 'modern' democracy, even in England, ONLY the priviledged class has the freedon to dissent without fear. Albeit, class abuse was not as draconian or feudal in England as in France by then - but still. A Lord or a member of the Gentry could dissent. Could a coalier or a cabbie dissent with as much impunity? More impunity than say in Spain, but even so?

Am not trying to deny the merits or pioneering nature of British democracy, but it is easy to get carried away and over rate the importance and prevalence of dissent.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

My comments are only on a relative basis as the post makes clear. I am not overrating anything.

Both factors were important; economic ambitions as you cited, as well as the advantage of having dissent and democracy at home.

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Siddharth Rege said...

Hey Ashutosh, fantastic post. For once, I find a like minded person. I too have always maintained that the British were far better than any one other foreign power. Usually when I say this I am always shouted down by comments that I am unaware of the myriad ways in which they emasculated the country. But to this I say, what were you expecting, a benevolent rule?? Given that they were in INdia purely for their own financial gain, atleast they managed their affairs with as much decency as could have been expected from a colonial power.
However, I do not think Gandhi felt that Satyagraha would have worked only against the British. He believed that it was universally applicable. This can be derived from his infamous statement that the Jews of Europe should follow his non-violent principles against Hitler.
Ofcourse, in this matter Gandhi was dead wrong. I believe that in there are only 2 really successful (major) examples of Satyagraha in history and those were the Indian independence struggle and the US civil rights movement in the 60's. Mandela tried but failed in south africa. He was simply locked away and aparthied was brought down by international pressure.
Anyway so in the only 2 successful examples, the two common these are firstly leaders of uncommon calibre and secondly a democratic and therefore by definition, atleast partially decent opposition. Wasn't it one of the British Viceroy's to India who famously remarked about Gandhi," What can I do to this man when school children in England are writing essays in his praise?

8:32 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Yes, I agree with you Sid. His comments about the Jews did not make sense at all. Apparently, they had written a letter to him to enlist his support for the Zionist movement, and he replied with a completely unacceptable reply. I definitely believe that non-violence is a very potent weapon, but that it cannot be applied in all situations universally; Hitler being a classic example. But if it does have a chance of working, it's really astonishing in what way it can help.

Again, I think the basic democratic morality of both the British and the Americans helped, for Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Apartheid in South Africa was really horrible, and as you mentioned, we know what happened to Mandela. On the other hand, even though there are only two major examples of Satyagraha working, I always wonder in how many minor, unheard of circumstances, men and women have used civil disobedience to achieve their objectives; I get the feeling that there are many. I think that this cumulative effect of many small efforts may be huge, although it is difficult to objectively analyse them.

I have also faced a similar experience of being shouted down! But as you said, we have to assume that once someone is ruling us, they are going to be unjust of course. However, we only judge the British on a comparative basis and make some favourable assesments.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RYC: Ashutosh - my fundamental argument is that the kind and degree of dissent and democracy that would act as a restraint to colonial brutalities existed in England only in the last 50 years or so of the 150 years for which Britain ruled India. The prime restraining factor was that brutalities get in the way of financial gain.

Given the ardency of the revolution, France in much of the 19th and 20th Century was not only a democracy but a republic to boot. But the lack of the 'shopkeeping sense' made them rather cruel colonial masters.

In any case, our disagreement is not on the fact that the Brits were relatively mild.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

It is questionable how much economic gain the British had especially after 1857. Some recent documents seem to revise the impact of financial gains which drove British colonialism in India (although it was still substantial in an absolute sense). So the point that they did not bother with inquisitions etc. because that would interfere with financial objectives, can go only so far in my opinion. I am not questioning the complete validity of this factor, only saying that I do not think it was overwhelmingly more important than the other one.

"In any case, our disagreement is not on the fact that the Brits were relatively mild."

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Some recent documents seem to revise the impact of financial gains which drove British colonialism in India (although it was still substantial in an absolute sense)."

Are you refering to the assessments of Niall Ferguson in this regard? Any reference to what these recent documents are?

It makes me wonder what "National Income Accounting" data is extant for the period from 1858 to 1947 when India was a crown colony. Would the economic gains of private English businesses out of colonial rule be measured as accurately as government booty?

Has the economic gain to the Brits Indian indentured labour in far corners of the Empire from Suriname to Singapore been measured or factored in?

Besides, the economic benefit of the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by British Officials (even petty ones), other Europeans and Anglo-Indians in colonial India can probably not be measured ever.

In any case, the end result was that they bled the Indian economy dry. Ample recent and not so recent historical evidence shows the frightening decline of India's and China's share in world GDP and world trade as a result of colonialism.

1:13 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Nail Ferguson is once source. I will look up the other references.

I don't want to extend this argument any further, because you are enumerating things which I already know, and the whole basis of the post was a relative assesment. Ergo, we are unnecessarily arguing about something which we largely agree about.

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, we agree about the conclusion, but disagree about the premises and the inference. Hmmm.

In any case, I don't intend to be any more charitable about the Brits role in Indian history than absolutely necessary. ;-)

8:38 AM  

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