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.
Sunday Pioneer, February 17, 2013