S.R. Ramaswamy (SRR): There is the famous view that India’s societal structure is itself opposed to “progress.” What is your take on that?
Dharampal (DP): An important element that Indians have been unable to grasp in the last two hundred years is this: the powerful impact that Western domination has left on their psyche. The very condition and makeup of a human being’s personality will be crushed due to foreign influence.
A big evidence of colonialism is the stagnation of our country’s economy and society. (After Germany was defeated in the 1945 war, Winston Churchill wanted to transform the country into an agrarian economy.)
I became acquainted with a 93-year-old man named Kubool Singh in Muzzafarpur, Uttar Pradesh. He was a Vazir, the head of three hundred Khaps. The analysis he gave me was as follows: “After the regime of the Guptas, there occurred a revolution of sorts. Following this, our people’s mental sturdiness plummeted. Harshavardhana tried to reform this state of affairs. Yet, a feeling of insecurity continued to increase.
"Still, from time to time, our country’s original spirt and energy did renew itself. The first war of independence in 1857 was once such epoch. That war was far more crucial and important than the freedom struggle of our own century. Its foundational inspiration was more natural. However, after 1857, our society’s collective mind set began to steadily decline. After 1947, we could have begun our national reconstruction in earnest. But that did not happen.”
It is true that in the pre-Independence period, there was the “tyranny” of the powerful and the wealthy in some regions. However, we must grasp its underlying reality. These wealthy folks did say, “You must do what I say.” However, none of them said, “You must eat less than I do.” In fact, we find absolutely no evidence for spurious arguments that say “we always had class conflict in India” in any records of the period.
In order to understand how our society was structured in the past, we need utmost humility. If we go forth with a truthful attitude of learning, people will come forward to share their knowledge. However, if we go with a know-it-all arrogance, people won’t share their knowledge freely. This is but natural.
There is a fundamental difference between the educated and scholarly class of India and its Western counterpart. This class of India is not endowed with strength. The supposed oppression it inflicts on others is way too mild. However, Westerners don’t shy away from inflicting violence. Even after killing crores of his own people, Stalin remained akin to a Sthitaprajna, equanimous. What Stalin committed in Russia could as well be committed anywhere in Europe with equal ease (i.e. after 10th century CE).
SRR: The British came to India to loot and oppress us. Given this, our prosperity was only conducive to their goal. Is this correct?
DP: There was another marked difference between the British and us. They had institutionalized deception, trickery and treachery in commercial transactions to the status of an art form. We continued to remain naïve.
The system of taking bribes that we decry today had been an accepted social system in England over several centuries past. They had prepared an elaborate system that neatly explained its foundational ideology and justification. In the 18th century, candidates who wished to join the military forces or any other government job had to cough up hundreds of pounds as “fees.” This was how the British “logically” defended the premise of this system: “if the enterprise in question fails, people will lose the money they have themselves paid to join it. In this fashion, this fear of failure will imbue in them an attitude of responsibility.” This “orderly system” flourished till about 1860.
By nature, the British do not trust anyone.
After 1760, the British decided to have one British official for every four Indians in the military and other administrative departments. By 1857, this had grown to 6:1. But this development was not to their liking because it did not benefit them. Their experience so far in India had taught them this lesson: “The Indian people are normally agreeable. However, when the wind changes, these people turn in that direction.” It is to counter this situation that they directly wrested some parts of India and put them completely under their control—hill stations, etc.
After the Cabinet Committee negotiations failed in 1947, a high-powered committee of England’s defence ministry concluded that it was no longer tenable to hold India through the use of force. Therefore, another scheme was briefly considered: to completely exit from “peninsular” India and concentrate its entire military might in regions such as Purvanchal.
Rank materialism was the only yardstick that the British colonialists had used to assess India’s civilization. For example, in James Mill’s view, the greater a country’s military power, the greater is its civilisation’s “height.” Therefore, according to him, India’s civilization was at rock bottom. From 1860 onwards, James Mill’s voluminous tome, The History of British India became compulsory reading for every British official who wanted to come to India. Thus, the influence that James Mill had on shaping the attitudes and mental outlook of British Indian officials was enormous. The view of Karl Marx, who flourished several decades after Mill, was not too different. It is true that Marx severely opposed the British colonial empire. However, he neither had any knowledge of nor appreciation for India.
Two major consequences of British domination are as follows:
1. India’s traditional intellectual class became indifferent to its own society.
2. Creating a new “elite” Indian class almost from the scratch.
The second class became progressively widespread over the last four or five generations and has today acquired a decisive status. However, the numerically larger Indian society remained outside the influence of this class. What this society considered as values were entirely different: harmony, truthfulness, etc. Thanks to this, over time, two completely different societies emerged. They had no common unifying element. To a limited extent, it was only our Sadhus and Sants who established a thin link between the two.
Today, that link no longer exists. Today, only about seventy thousand people occupy decisive positions in public life. The number of people employed in the organized sector is about three crores. When we include their family members, this number is about ten percent of our population. There is a huge chasm between this class and the rest of our society. It cannot also be said that this employed class is truly happy; at most, it is comparatively more secure. The earnings of the remainder of the society is about one-third of this employed class. Today, this employed class is dictating critical elements like lifestyle etc., to the rest of our society. Post-Independent India has lacked the strength to narrow the magnitude of this chasm.
SRR: Europeans didn’t colonise only India. Countries which became independent after India have progressed much better. How did this happen?
DP: The European colonial tradition has been to wipe out the self-respect of the people of its subject nations. In the 16-17th centuries, colossal genocides of people occurred in West and Central Africa and the Americas. By the beginning of the 19th century, the British had sort of “reformed” themselves. By then, they had given an institutional shape to forced labour and distribution of material goods. But the fundamental goal and purpose behind all these measures remained the same: apart from feeding colonialism, it was to destroy the dignity and self-respect of local populations.
But there is a difference between that period and today. About 150-200 years ago, Indians carried on their lives quietly and lived in contentment. They never bothered about how people of other countries lived. But now, we look at America and we’re filled with shame and sorrow, “Why aren’t we like them!” This transformed mind set is the root of several contemporary problems.
Imitation of the West became our most cherished goal (in the Indian psyche, the West only means England and America). However, in many spheres, we failed in this imitation as well. We don’t have the competence to keep state secrets a secret.
In today’s India, the contemporary notions and slogans about the environment are largely derived from the West.
Then there is the ancillary argument: “You Indians are not capable of understanding what I am saying. My opinion has greater weight in Western countries.”
Others say this as well: “It is far more useful to present our arguments before the World Bank because the Indian government listens to the World Bank.”
All such paths are neither advisable nor will they help India attain its goal. This is the only thing that all such paths accomplish: by denying leisure to people, they divert our people’s time and energy in unproductive directions.
SRR: What has happened in the last two hundred years has happened. If we discard our current political and administrative systems, will we really achieve progress? Won’t it ensue in more confusion?
DP: If we leave people to their own devices, a certain natural kind of progress will ensue. This does not mean that that is the best kind of progress. If we look at it that way, which society in this world is truly ideal? Shortcomings can be found in any system.
This natural progress might germinate thousands of kinds of systems in various regions throughout India. But we can’t say that they will naturally unite at the national level. The great virtue of the current system is the fact that it unites the entire country. If it breaks down due to some reason, it is not an easy task to reunite it.
The solid foundation for the task of our national reconstruction is a distilled knowledge of how India over the centuries has responded to various challenges. A wide and deep study of our history, literature and traditional wisdom still needs to be done from the perspective of our society.
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