Total Pageviews

Follow by Email

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Later Gandhis same as later Moghuls?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Indians have an elevated perception of their own moral standing in the world—as the nation that has been wedded to lofty spiritualism for many thousands of years, as the civilisation that put personal ethics over the quest for power, and as the karmabhoomi of the Buddha, Guru Nanak and Mahatma Gandhi. What is less appreciated is that this faith in collective self-superiority is not universally shared, and certainly not in the West. The Occident’s view of what the Orient represents doesn’t make very flattering reading.

Some of the most damning indictments of the flawed Indian have, naturally enough, come from Britons who have had the most sustained engagement with Hindustan. Robert Clive, the rogue who cut every corner to establish the foundations of the British Empire in India, made a fortune from his swashbuckling ways. Yet, when he returned to England to enjoy his fame and fortune, he found himself the subject of a Parliamentary inquiry for acquiring assets disproportionate to his known sources of income.

Clive defended himself with characteristic gusto, claiming that in view of the temptations, he was “astounded by his own moderation.” But more than emphasising his own uprightness, Clive’s defence rested on the assertion that corruption was a way of life in India. “From time immemorial”, he told his inquisitors, “it has been the custom of that country, for an inferior power never to come into the presence of a superior without a present. It begins at the Nabob and ends at the lowest man who has an inferior.”

The omnipresence of Indian venality was recognised by the stalwarts of the East India Company as an inescapable reality. If Britain was to do business with India, it would have to recognise the grim truth of Lord Cornwallis’s claim that “Every native of Hindustan, I verily believe, is corrupt.”

Nor was this accommodation of local custom limited to graft. Duplicity in dealings and negotiable standards of truthfulness were the two other features of public conduct that confronted the foreigner. Innumerable civil servants who were entrusted with dispensing justice were aghast at the ease with which witnesses committed perjury if that suited their self-interest. In February 1905, while delivering the address at the Calcutta University convocation, Lord Curzon (one of the few Viceroys who was genuinely fond of India) lit a bush fire by claiming that “I hope I am making no false or arrogant claim when I say that the highest ideal of truth is to a large extent a Western conception… (U)ndoubtedly, truth took a high place in the moral codes of the West before it had been similarly honoured in the East, where craftiness and diplomatic wile have always been held in much repute.”

In Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale of the Anglo-Indian encounter, the Eurasian street urchin watches the disoriented Tibetan lama narrate his search for his disciple to a passer-by: “Kim stood amazed at this, because he had overheard the talk in the Museum, and knew that the old man was speaking the truth, which is a thing a native seldom presents to a stranger.”

Subsequently, describing the boy’s friendship with the spy-cum-horse trader Mahbub Ali, Kipling stressed Mahbub knew that “Kim was the one soul in the world who had never told him a lie. That would have been a fatal blot on Kim’s character if Mahbub had not known that to others, for his own ends or Mahbub’s business, Kim could lie like an Oriental.”

There is a strong temptation these days to dismiss these awkward observations on the Indian character as being racially and political prejudiced—what Edward Said has characterised as the condescension of “Orientalism”.  Equally, there is an inclination to highlight the role of ‘dharma’ in moulding the individual India’s perception of right and wrong.

Actually, it would seem there is no contradiction between the two. Just as the Indian manages to effortlessly reconcile a strong sense of personal hygiene with public squalor, the tendency to see salvation as a personal initiative has invariably prompted a detachment from the disrepute of public life. “Responsible Government” the British ICS officer Sir Michael O’Dwyer (who earned notoriety with the Rowlatt Act) wrote after a lifetime in India, “has no meaning to the Indian peoples, no equivalent in any Indian vernacular”. 

O’Dwyer was not entirely correct because “Ram Rajya” came to denote virtuous and enlightened governance. But he was right in emphasising that in the hierarchy of values, Hindus have attached greater value to the self over the state. This isn’t because of any insufficient attachment to wider dealings: the importance of trust in Indian business practices has been known and appreciated for centuries. Yet, there is a profound alienation from the ethical underpinnings of politics and governance which outsiders have noted and repeatedly taken advantage of.

The latest saga of the 10 per cent or so commission paid to agents and an unnamed ‘family’ for facilitating a Rs 3,600 crore helicopter purchase from an Italian firm has an air of eerie inevitability about it. Short-changing the public exchequer, subverting public officials and discounting the larger good have been the driving principles of national life for too long.

I haven’t read what the Italian whistle-blower deposed before the Magistrate and public prosecutor. But I won’t be surprised if they resemble Lord Clive’s observations on the India of the decrepit Moghul Shah Alam. The later Moghuls and the later Gandhis: is there any difference?

Sunday Pioneer, February 17, 2013 


Anonymous said...

who's this FAMILY? am sure it is sonia maino.

Anonymous said...

>> "O’Dwyer was ... was right in emphasising that in the hierarchy of values, Hindus have attached greater value to the self over the state."

Unfair comment ... Hindus have had no independence for a millenium ... In 1947, the colonialists passed on power to their chosen toadies, who continued to suppress Hindus with virulence and gusto.

Jitendra Desai said...

There is no difference bet'n these Gandhis and Mughals.Both have presumed that this Delhi throne is not permanent.So loot as much as you can.Electoral defeat be damned.We will buy off judges,CBI and voters for next to next elections.That must be the thinking among late Gandhis and their cohorts.Expect more intensified and more brazen loot.
When British discuss our morality, they probably discuss the morality of Mir Jaffer and other such ruling crooks that we had had the misfortune of suffering.What about ordinary mortals?If they were dishonest and non trustworthy,3000 guys would not have ruled over 30 crore ordinary Indians.In this case pl refer to Lord Macaulay's observations about Indians.

Sanatan said...

Very good article. I guess you are providing a moral hideout to the corrupt where they can claim that this has been like this for centuries.

Even though I am too young to comment on this matter, I believe the days of maximum "transparency" in India were over just a decade or so after the Independence. The moral victory of the approach of the Mahatma rubbed onto others too. But once he passed away, the lesser leaders just were too frail to follow his lofty ideals. Over time, this has been more evident. And now we have public acceptance (by way of elections) of even leaders of the low quality of lalloo, mulayam, paswan, karunanidhi, pawar, kamal nath, khurshid, and so on.

These thugs would be too happy to console themselves on the arguments provided by you, if at all they care to read anything outside of politics.

Anonymous said...

Totally disagree with this article. Everyday i marvel at the simplicity and innocence of the average Indian who gets up goes to work in the most trying of circumstances.Did the British interact with the common citizen or with some middlemen who wanted to profit from being interlocutors? Obviously the latter.
And since when did the West become the torch bearer for morality ? The West has created good societies for its own citizens but has not necessarily behaved fairly with the rest of the world even in the late 20th century.

Anonymous said...


The observations are probably correct, but what explains the low value attached to public disrepute? Is it because such disrepute hardly dents the power and fame of such people in India, whether it is in the field of journalism or politics or business (or any other field for that matter)? And from what I have understood (or perhaps misunderstood) from reading the comments of our enlightened intellectuals such as Nandy, shouldn't such behavior be celebrated and encouraged as it is a measure of retributive justice and social progress?


Anonymous said...

A bad day in office Swapan da?

Shantanu said...

Swapan-Da: I do not agree with your assertion that corruption is intrinsic to Indian DNA..
Pl do read, "Thus a system was created..later “corruption” in the Third-World
Thanks. Shantanu

desicontrarian said...

Well, is'nt it true that Marco Polo talked of the ordinary merchants of Lata who according to the Venetial traveller - “are among the best and most trustworthy merchants in the world; for nothing on earth would they tell a lie and all that they say is true.”

Is'nt it true that The Mahatma was not the only truth-teller during the freedom movement? Was there not an army of truth-tellers?

Why do we passively accept anything that a Clive tells us as automatically true for all Indians at all times? Why do we then hair-split on a "different" Hindu amorality vis-a-vis other peoples? Is it a symptom of colonized minds which have such starting points?

Arun said...

The Occident’s view of what the Orient represents doesn’t make very flattering reading.

That is a generalization that is unsupported by facts.

Many informed Americans know that despite being a third world nation, our food habits haven't deteriorated due to the dominance of corporate farms like in the US. They are aware that America has the most diseased prone cows and pigs in the whole world; sick practices that result in the slaughter of a billion cows a year and how this malice shows up as frequent E-COLI outbreaks. All possible because of giant retailers like Walmart.