Way back in 1857 a foreign journalist described India in words that seem eerily relevant today. (That is going a really long way back because 1857 was the year Indian soldiers rebelled against their British overlords in what came to be known, in Indian terms, as the first war of independence and, in British terms, as the Sepoy Mutiny.
This was the showdown that led to the formal end of the Mughal Empire and the formal start of the British Empire, the Crown taking over officially from the East India Company). In November of that year an American editor named Charles Creighton Hazewell published an article titled British India in The Atlantic Monthly. His thesis was that the cultural divisions within India were so sharp and extreme that a foreign power found it easy to take control. A lengthy quote is justified:
“In one respect the Indian Empire of England resembles the Roman Empire. The latter comprised many and widely different countries and races, and so it is with the former. We are so accustomed to speak of India as if it constituted one country, and was inhabited by a homogenous people, that it is difficult to understand that not even in Europe are nations to be found more unlike to one another than in British India.
In Hindostan and the Deccan there are ten different civilised nations, resembling each other no more than Danes resemble Italians or Spaniards Poles. They differ in moral, physical and intellectual conditions — in modes of thought and in modes of life. This is one of the chief causes of England’s supremacy, just as similar state of things not only promoted the conquests of Rome but facilitated her rule after they had been made. The Emperors ruled over Syrians, Greeks, Egyptians and other eastern peoples with ease because [these peoples] had little in common and could not combine against their conquerors”.
Not that Hazewell had discovered something new. Conquerors exploiting Indian disunity is a well-recorded story. Robert Clive won the crucial Battle of Plassey only because he could get the Bengal commander-in-chief Mir Jaffer to betray his Nawab. Nevertheless every recording of the story is a reminder of how we make ourselves easy to be dominated.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, the eastern half centred around Constantinople lasted several centuries longer than the western half headquartered in Italy. Presumably the notion of the “Orient” provided a cultural connect of some sort. The British empire in India failed when, apart from war and politics, “the ten different civilised nations” Hazewell saw in India became one nation under Mahatma Gandhi. The might and political cunning of Britain could not match the unity of India.
That unity disappeared with Gandhi. Politicians of a different type took over the country and private interests gained precedence over public good. The ten different nations of the past multiplied into a hundred narrow ideologies trying to control India. What was benign in the past became malignant under the impact of modern political manipulations.
Linguistic emotions were the first to fan the flames of internal antagonisms. The languages actually gained nothing apart from decorative embellishments such as “classical status”. But as a political tool, it became potent in the hands of localised power-seekers. An ironic extreme of sorts was reached when the Telugu state, for which the original linguistic martyr Potti Sreeramulu sacrificed himself, was further split into two Telugu states.
Today Telangana fights Andhra, Maharashtra fights Karnataka, Karnataka fights Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu fights Kerala and Kerala fights Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over water. Linguistic antagonisms have since been overtaken by sharper, more dangerous communal enmities. Muslim extremists fight Hindu extremists and vice versa, Christian evangelists fight Christian establishmentarians, and Dalit Mayawati threatens to convert to Buddhism “with my crores of followers”.
On the sidelines, Kadva and Leuva Patels fight Kachia and Anjana Patels, Kapus fight Naidus, Bhumihars fight Rajputs, Vanniyars fight Nadars, Jacobites fight Orthodox, and Jats fight everybody. The Roman and British empires were simple garden-variety exercises compared to today’s Indian Empire controlled by vicious religious hatreds.
The Brits and Romans took advantage of existing divisions. We created new and lethal divisions. The Westerners saw the differences among Indians but were too uninformed to notice the unifying bonds that were there — such as the principles of sanatana dharma and the traditions of tolerance. Today we have lost those bonds and become victims of selfish parties that seek to divide and rule. Perhaps 1857 wasn’t all that bad.