William James Durant more popularly known as Will Durant holds a unique distinction for a singular reason: he is perhaps the only Western scholar-historian-commentator who spoke with blunt candour against the naked evil of European, specifically, the British colonialism of Bharatavarsha. And gave a blow-by-blow account of almost every excruciating detail of the most evil Empire the world has ever seen. Certainly, there were other vocal critics of this colonialism in his own time, but none as direct, bold, and unsparing. For example, there is a George Orwell and a Joseph Conrad but they dwelt in a different realm and largely spoke of this evil in general terms. But almost none gave details of the pure diabolism that was the British Empire in India for a straightforward reason: at this vilest peak, there was almost no major power or business house or influential person who had not benefitted from the crumbs of plunder thrown at them by this island of world-plunderers.
But Durant went a step further and declared his stand openly:
If I write at all it is not only because I feel deeply about India, but because life cannot wait till knowledge is complete. One must speak out, and take sides before the fight is over.
The Western world still hasn’t forgiven Will Durant for this trespass. But it is one thing for Indians to write about the horrors of British colonialism because they are the actual sufferers and victims. It is entirely another for someone like Will Durant to do so: it is because he was in many ways an insider of the same culture that spawned colonialism. As an insider, he incisively understood its intent, modus operandi, tactics, and tragic consequences. For Indians, this “outsider” perspective is invaluable.
So here it is. I present a few curated excerpts from his classic The Case for India which he wrote in 1930. A book which must adorn every Indian house the world over. A book which must be made mandatory reading for our children. All emphases have been added by me.
I went to India to help myself visualize a people whose cultural history I had been studying for The Story of Civilization. I did not expect to be attracted by the Hindus, or that I should be swept into a passionate interest in Indian politics. I merely hoped to add a little to my material, to look with my own eyes upon certain works of art and then to return to my historical studies. But I saw such things in India as made me feel that study and writing were frivolous things in the presence of a people—one-fifth of the human race—suffering poverty and oppression bitterer than any to be found elsewhere on the earth. I was horrified. I had not thought it possible that any government could allow its subjects to sink to such misery. And the more I read the more I was filled with astonishment and indignation at the apparently conscious and deliberate bleeding of India by England throughout a hundred and fifty years. I began to feel that I had come upon the greatest crime in all history.
Though I have prepared myself with the careful study of a hundred volumes, this has all the more convinced me that my knowledge is trifling and fragmentary in the face of a civilisation five thousand years old, endlessly rich in philosophy, literature, religion and art, and infinitely appealing in its ruined grandeur… If I write at all it is not only because I feel deeply about India, but because life cannot wait till knowledge is complete. One must speak out, and take sides before the fight is over.
I have seen a great people starving to death before my eyes, and I am convinced that this exhaustion and starvation are due not, as their beneficiaries claim, to over-population and superstition, but to the most sordid and criminal exploitation of one nation by another in all recorded history. I propose to show that England has year by year been bleeding India to the point of death, and that self-government of India by the Hindus could not…have worse results than the present form of alien domination.
Let us remember, first, that India is not a little island, nor a continent sparsely inhabited by savages, but a vast territory containing 3,20,000,000 souls—three times as many as in the United States, more than in North and South America combined, more than in all Europe, west of Russia, combined; all in all, one-fifth of the world’s population… Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.
At no time in history has India been without civilisation: from the days of Buddha… down to the sixteenth century, when culture, wealth and art flourished at Vijayanagar in the south… It was to reach this India of fabulous riches that Columbus sailed the seas. he civilisation that was destroyed by British guns had lasted for fifteen centuries, producing saints from Buddha to Ramakrishna; philosophy from the Vedas to Schopenhauer and Bergson, Thopea and Keyserling, who take their lead and acknowledge their derivation from India (India, says Keyserling, “has produced the profoundest metaphysics that we know of.”; and he speaks of “the absolute superiority of India over the West in philosophy); poetry from the Mahabharata containing the Bhagavad-Gita, “perhaps the most beautiful work of the literature of the world”… And how shall we rank a civilisation that created the unique and gigantic temples of Ellora, Madura and Angkor?
This, evidently, was not a minor civilization produced by an inferior people. It ranks with the highest civilizations of history… When, in 1803, the invading British besieged the Fort at Agra, and their cannon struck near the beautiful Khass Mahal, or Hall of Private Audience, the Hindus surrendered at once lest one of the most perfect creations of the human hand should be ruined like Rheims. Who then were the civilised? The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilisation by a trading company utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and “legal” plunder which has now gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years, and goes on at this moment while in our secure comfort we write and read.
When the British came, India was politically weak, and economically prosperous. It was a simple matter for a group of English buccaneers, armed with the latest European artillery and morals, to defeat the bows and arrows, the elephants and primitive musketry of the rajahs, and bring one Hindu province after another under the control of the British East India Company.
Those who have seen the unspeakable poverty and physiological weakness of the Hindus to-day will hardly believe that it was the wealth of eighteenth century India which attracted the commercial pirates of England and France… It was this wealth that the East India Company proposed to appropriate…Robert Clive said, “When I think…of the marvellous riches of that country, and the comparatively small part which I took away, I am astonished at my own moderation.” Such were the morals of the men who proposed to bring civilisation to India.
His successors in the management of the East India Company now began a century of unmitigated rape on the resources of India… The Company paid such fabulous dividends that its stock rose to $32,000 a share. Its agents deposed and set up Hindu rulers according to bribes refused or received… They forged documents as circumstances required, and hanged Hindus for forging documents.
By 1858 the crimes of the Company so smelled to heaven that the British Government took over the captured and plundered territories as a colony of the Crown; a little island took over half a continent… All the debts on the Company’s books, together with the accrued interest on these debts, were added to the public obligations of India, to be redeemed out of the taxes put upon the Hindu people. Exploitation was dressed now in all the forms of Law- i.e. the rules laid down by the victors for the vanquished. Hypocrisy was added to brutality, while the robbery went on.
Such was the method of the British acquisition of India; this is the origin of the British claim to rule India today. The result is a pitiful crushing of the Hindu spirit, a stifling of its pride and growth, a stunting of genius that once flourished in every city of the land. Have we felt that the Hindu character is degraded, that it lacks virility and initiative? But what people could have retained these qualities under such ruthless alien rule?