Monday, March 19, 2018

Through the eyes of the 'other'

As the British wrested power across the country, their racial attitude against the native came to the fore.

The claim that the Hindus are a separate nation, and so are the Muslims, and cannot live together in peace without the British was an Orientalist construct that was applied to tear apart the social fabric of the sub-continent. Once their motivation had graduated from commerce to empire, the colonial hegemony was asserted through cultural supremacy of power and control. It was much sinister than that, as it had proclaimed a moral superiority by reducing the subjugated to a ‘decomposed society, with intellect no higher than a dog’. So profound was its cumulative impact on the masses that 5,000 officers with an army of 65,000 white soldiers were enough to control 300 million people spread across the undivided landscape. Arvind Sharma examines Edward Said’s fundamental thesis - that power invariably drives the production of cultural knowledge – to unfold the ideological might which helped the British exercise full control over people of India.

There is little denying the fact that widespread social influence caused by the imposition of the subjugating culture helped the ruler justify its rule. The British had the luxury of time to reconstruct the cultural history of the undivided landscape, to convince themselves that without their intervention the sub-continent had little future. Else, they could not have created a veil around the plunder of country’s riches, first as East India Company and later as the Empire, which they were engaged in for almost two centuries. India had 24.5 per cent share of global manufacturing output in 1750, which was reduced to mere 2 per cent at the time of independence.

Sharma’s sharp and thought provoking narrative leaves one wondering at the change in attitude of the British during the early nineteenth century. In its early days, the company patronized both the Hindu and the Muslim religions, which transformed dramatically thereafter. As the British wrested power across the country, their racial attitude against the native came to the fore. It will be unjust to judge that action in hindsight, as the ruler had an obligation to not only build their national identity but to reflect a superior self-image back home. Perhaps, permission to allow Christian missionaries to set up educational institutions in 1813, euphemism for conversion, was a step in pushing racial arrogance to the next level. It only helped widen the racial divide further, leading first to the Mutiny, and then to the quest for freedom.

The Ruler’s Gaze is an in-depth study on how misinformation and misinterpretation guided the way in which the myth called India was interpreted by the Greeks and the Europeans. It is intriguing that Indian civilization - its languages, epics and cultures – has been a subject of intense enquiry through most of the recorded history. Did its riches not turn the sails of marauding seamen to unleash organized violence on India? Not without reason the British fought some 110 battles, including those with the Dutch, The French and the Portuguese, to seize India with the ulterior motive of enriching their own resource-poor existence.

Exploring a nuanced understanding of the outside/insider dichotomy of understanding the native, Sharma attempts to presents the ‘other’ perspective as the one that helps to know ‘us’ better. Far from being objective, the ‘others’ saw and understood the native as they deemed fit, justifying George Orwell’s remarks that ‘they denied and obliterated peoples’ understanding of their own history’. To justify their own anomalous presence, the British drew an anomalous portrait of the India based on deep-rooted caste configuration and well-entrenched social practices viz., sati practice, child marriage, dowry and rampant untouchability. It helped them score some brownian points for enforcing their kind of governance on the natives.

The question that begs attention is whether that situation has changed for the better. The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy continues to persist, and so are other socio-cultural anomalies. Lord Macaulay had drawn a long term aim ‘to form a class of persons, Indians in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect (who in time would become) by degrees fit vehicles for conveying (our) knowledge to the great mass of the population’. While this wider argument did apply correctly during the colonial period, that it has transcended time zone to afflict potent impact on the dominant politics remains discerning.

A professor of comparative religion at the McGill University in Montreal, Sharma unfolds the Saidian perspective to prism India through the eyes of the rulers. It is scholarly work that is insightful, revealing, and disturbing, leading to multiple interpretations but not without accepting that Saidian frame of mind continues to remain relevant even today.

The Ruler’s Gaze: A Study of British Rule from a Saidian Perspective
by Arvind Sharma
Harper Collins, New Delhi
Extent: 426 pages, Price: Rs 699

First published in the Hindustan Times dated March 17, 2018.

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