I have read a slew of books about India and its separation from Britain in the past year. As someone who was brought up in the generation that believed Britain’s empire in India, the Raj, was a force for good, they do not always make comfortable reading.
Gandhi’s autobiography, subtitled “The Story of my Experiments with the Truth”- like most of Gandhi’s books, written in jail – was first published in the Gujarati language as a series of newspaper articles. This gives the autobiography an episodic flavor. As most autobiographies, and all biographies, are monolithic, this makes it very readable. What it doesn’t do is leave much of a punch.
Of course, Gandhi wasn’t writing with a view to making a bestseller out of his life. But I was left with a hollow feeling that, after five hundred pages, I didn’t know him any better than I did after the first few dozen. Those initial pages give the impression of a self-centred tyrant who puts his wife and family through hell in pursuit of the truth; that he’s ruthless in politics, and that he’s well aware his public charisma is a political weapon. Of the many friendships he forms, often with others of a religious bent, the only ones that last more than a few pages are with powerful figures, and it’s difficult to avoid the impression that those are friendships of circumstance rather friendships of the heart.
As to the histories of the various political campaigns of which he was architect – the satyagraha movements in South Africa and India – these are out of the book’s stated scope. So, as a history, it’s all but useless.
But there is one quotable paragraph which seems especially pertinent to our times:
In the very first month of Indian Opinion [a journal], I realized that the sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and destroys crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy.
In these days of wanton abuse of the press, it would do well if journalists were mindful of that.
Gandhi’s nemesis in the Indian independence movement was Mohammed Jinnah. Nearly all historians credit Jinnah with the creation of Pakistan in a way that they do not credit Gandhi or Congress with the creation of modern India. India would have become independent anyway, runs the thought, but Pakistan was an invention, and Jinnah the man who realised that invention.
The autobiography “Jinnah India-Partition Independence” by Jaswant Singh is marred by typos, rambling passages that should be shortened or cut, endnotes that don’t always match the text and from which several pages are missing: in short, as literature, there is room for improvement. Yet, as a view of what caused the Partition, it is insightful.
At the beginning of his career in politics, Jinnah was committed to a single, unitary Indian state after independence. The Muslim League, of which he was to become president, was to represent the interests of Muslims within that framework; it was not to advocate for a separate country. Yet, four decades after Jinnah became prominent, a separate country was what It demanded and received, and Singh does an excellent job of showing the steps by which Congress marginalised the Muslim League at the same time as the League painted itself into a corner.
The pivotal moment came, according to Singh, in the 1937 elections. As neither party expected to win, Congress and the League agreed to a formula to share power. However, when Congress won by a landslide, they ignored the agreement and bulldozed their own course regardless of the damage to their relationship with the League. This, provided the cause of the split, and, although the concept of Pakistan had been coined some two decades previously, it was from this point on that the idea of a separate state became mainstream.
The cause was one aspect; opportunity the other. This came as the Congress shot itself in the foot during WWII by refusing to support the British effort against the Axis powers. Congress withdrew from politics, its leaders were imprisoned (again) and thus had no voice. By the end of the war, the League had made itself a friend of Britain. Although Congress, when its leaders were released from prison at the end of the war, attempted to make up for lost ground, it was already too late.
And that brings me to the third book, “Inglorious Empire”, by Shashi Tharoor. As a work of literature, this is the pick of the three books. It reads well, the notes and references match the text, and it has enough jokes to make up for the heavy stuff.
But the heavy stuff is heavy. A large number of people in both India and Britain are inclined to view the Raj as a force for good – a thesis that Tharoor demolishes. India was first and thereafter plundered; its historical unity was suppressed and such fault lines as there were, were exploited; such political freedoms as were granted were rationed and often withdrawn on a whim; divide-and-rule (not only along religious lines) was an explicit tool of imperial suppression, and enlightened despotism was despotic without being enlightened. Out of two centuries of British rule, India got the English language, cricket and trains – accidental consequences. Nearly all of this is supported by referenced facts.
Aside from a tendency to see Mughal India through rose-tinted glasses, two things undermine Tharoor’s book. In an early part of the book, Tharoor says there were “unsubstantiated” rumours that weavers’ thumbs were broken to put the local textile trade out of business, where in his concluding remarks, he not only tosses aside the “unsubstantiated” but asserts that those thumbs were not broken, but severed. The extent to which the accusation is true is not what troubles me; it’s the change that worries me.
The greater worry is the economic argument. In short, Tharoor says that India accounted for about a third of the world GDP at the dawn of British rule and about 2% at the end. Set aside my instinctive wariness about paleo-economics – the sparse data and the political agendas. The problem is that a “reduction” from 30% to 2% does not necessarily reflect an absolute fall in living standards. Given the huge global economic growth during the Industrial Revolution, it could well be that, while India failed to get richer, nor did it become, in absolute terms, poorer. This is still no good thing, and there is plenty in Tharoor’s book to suggest that the fruits of that global growth were expatriated to England rather than staying in India, but it is one of Tharoor’s central themes and his book would be all the stronger were it addressed. But it’s an excellent read for all that.