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A nationalist's history of India

C P Bhambhri |  Jun 28, 2017 10:41 PM IST

The Ruler’s Gaze
A Study of British Rule Over India from a Saidian Perspective
Arvind Sharma
Harper Collins; 432 pages; Rs 699
Scholars and sundry analysts have paid considerable attention to studying the “encounter” between British colonisers of India and the subjugated. Predictably, British, European and Indian historians have adopted different ways to pitch their analyses. The “Saidian perspective” from which the author of The Ruler’s Gaze seeks to present Indian history stems from the seminal thesis of the late Palestinian scholar, Edward Said, as set out in his famous book Orientalism.
Power defines knowledge, Said had contended, arguing that perspectives of oriental history was defined by imperialist scholars who caricatured Arab society and culture. Arvind Sharma says it is not only the Arabs who were painted as “backward” by the colonisers, Said’s thesis applies to Indian history as well, and he sets out to refute the historiography of India as written by British colonisers.
In doing so, the author appears to be performing a highly patriotic duty. As a nationalist, he offers “corrected” history on the basis of Indian historical sources and Sanskrit scriptures — the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vedas, and the Smritis, including Manu Smriti.
The first two chapters — (a) British Rule over India: A Discursive History and (b) The Anomalous Nature of British Rule over India — offer a context-based description of the real intention of the British colonisers while writing Indian history. The author maintains that the British attitude towards Indians can be divided into two parts. The first phase when the East India Company and its employees were generously disposed towards Indians. The second phase between the Battle of Plassey (1757) and the Mutiny (1857), when the British started looking at India from the perspective of conquerors and rulers.
The best example of this divergence, Mr Sharma says, is the difference between Thomas Babington Macaulay and William Jones. William Jones (1746-1794) bases his understanding of Indian society by learning and promoting Sanskrit. Not only this. The Asiatic Society was established to study Indology, culture and civilisation of India. Macaulay (1800-1859), who comes on the scene when colonisers were busy conquering India, considered Sanskrit “a language barren of useful knowledge”.
This change of attitude towards Sanskrit is deemed important enough for the author to maintain that after consolidating its rule over the conquered, the Orientalist approach to knowledge changed. The “modern, “civilized” and “enlightened” British/Europeans had to “civilise”, the “savage” and “primitive” people of India. The native education system was dismantled and replaced by the British educational system, a policy that, according to the author, made Indians illiterate.
The author has devoted three chapters — (a) The British Description of Indian Society; (b) ‘Us’ and ‘Them’: The Status of the Sudras and Aryan Invasion; and (c) Ancient Greek and Modern European Accounts of India — to test the validity of British descriptions against Indian sources of knowledge. On the evidence of all the sources mentioned above, he concludes that the British distorted history and focused on the idea of portraying Indians as primitive and did not identify the cause of underdevelopment, which was very real British robbery of India.
On the caste system, Mr Sharma says the concept of “untouchables”, ie. a fifth caste outside Hindu society, was a British construct and a complete misrepresentation. The author observes that “the Hindu word for caste proper is jati,” which denotes the social unit in which one is born. It is important, he continues, to identify jati thus, because Hinduism contains another word, varna, with which it is sometimes confused. Further, while “castes rise and fall in the social scale”, varnas or the “four great classes are stable”. The result is when ancient Hindus talked of “linking of varna as jati”, they united society, whereas western Indologists “divided the society and the country into separate castes,” the effect of which continues to unfold in India today.
Chapter 4 is further testimony to the author’s argument, who makes the point that western egalitarianism is projected as the “us” and the varna-ridden and caste-ridden Hindus as “them”. The author scrutinises the ideas of race as it emerged in British India with signboards like “Dogs and Indians not allowed”. The crank ideas of race — the Aryans, the racial difference between Aryans, a “white race”, and the Dasas and Dasyus, a “dark race”, the Aryans as outsiders — are all creations of the British. The author devotes a lot of attention to the writings of B R Ambedkar who rejects the idea of “the advent of Aryans in India”, though many Indians were taken by the idea without realising that it was the colonisers who had introduced this idea to govern an “inferior race”.
Chapter 5 discusses the contrasting views of between the Greeks and the British colonisers. No matter that many centuries separate the two, the author presents vastly differing perspectives — of fertile India versus famine-ridden India; oriental despots versus ancient Indian republics; philosophical, rational India versus “spiritual” India and so on. The author quotes Greek writers who acknowledged that the ancients in India had knowledge of astronomy, astrology, yoga and medicine. It is not only the British, Muslim rulers also had a negative assessment of Sanskrit, Mr Sharma claims.
The author has made a heroic effort to refute the colonial description of India by concentrating on the theme that ancient Hindus were quite literate, economically developed and enjoyed an advanced culture and civilisation. His hard work is shown by his notes and bibliography which run to more than 100 pages.
This book is bound to please the Nagpur-based Sangh Parivar, which is trying to make Hindus develop a national pride based on rich antiquity. The trouble with this somewhat non-nuanced analysis is this: The history of civilisation always has a context, so the achievements or non-achievements of a society should be evaluated against the stages of societal development. Just because the colonisers chose to paint a negative picture of India does not mean that we should glorify everything about the past.

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