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MOTHER INDIA. By Katherine Mayo. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1927.
THE pictures that flash into a man's mind when he thinks of a foreign country or its people spring from an enormous variety of experiences--a movie or a song, a book read in childhood, a cartoon caricature, a painting or a college lecture, a travel poster or a newspaper feature story. For a generation or more, an American's mental image of France was quite closely tied to the Mademoiselle from Armentières. In the 1930s, in a certain block in New York City, to call a boy English was to call him a dandified sissy and invite what followed. There are millions of people throughout the world who, to the day they die, will see jackboots when they hear the word "Germany." A couple of years ago, a British moving picture director thought of the perfect way to make sure his audience immediately identified a well-dressed young woman as an American. Naturally, he had her snapping bubble gum when she came on-screen.
These flashing images, these quickly recognizable symbols or caricatures, obviously have a great deal to do with the attitude of a man or a country toward another country or its people. Even in this Era of the American Tourist, they are important, because it is easy and wonderfully comforting to find in a country what before you ever bought your ticket you were quite sure existed.
All this has to do with the American image of a country about which Americans seem to be thinking more than they have in the past--India. The political images of India are usually on the unpleasant side: Nehru sitting on a fence or shaking a finger in self-righteous lecture. The Indian Army occupying Kashmir in opposition to Pakistan (mental image: turbaned soldier standing shoulder to shoulder with a G.I.). V. K. Krishna Menon, ruffle-haired and sharp-featured, leaning into a microphone and saying something at least faintly nasty. Happy Russian leaders standing garlanded before hundreds of thousands of cheering Indians. But it is a fair guess that these political images of India occur in the minds of Americans a lot less frequently than the dramatic and usually horrible mental portraits that often can be traced back to, or at least symbolized by, a book published 30 years ago and detested in India to this day.
There are few people more important in the relationship between India and the United States than Katherine Mayo, few books, if any, that contributed more violent coloring to the American mental image of India than "Mother India." To read "Mother India" in public in New Delhi is to ask for sour looks and a pointed talk on the evils done to India by its author. When this reporter reread the book on planes recently he found it the price of privacy to turn the jacket cover inside out. A friend, one of India's most able diplomats, advised him not to write any piece that used "Mother India" even as a take-off point. He said that no discussion could be taken seriously that started from libel. Another Indian made the point that "Mother India" could no more be used as a basis for discussing India than could the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" be used as a basis for discussing Israel. Some Indians seem to have the idea that every American who visits India has read the book carefully. The likelihood, of course, is that by this time most Americans who come to India have never even seen a copy.
But Indians' hatred of the book is not simply founded on what they take to be a monstrous distortion of their country and religions, but on the belief that too many foreigners have the "Mother India" picture of their country. The importance of the book, therefore, is not its accuracy. A small shelf-full of books has been written attacking Miss Mayo point by point. The authors of these books question Miss Mayo's facts, her judgment, her ability to understand the country on the basis of a few months' visit, her method of presentation and her fairness. But what nobody is able to question is that the picture she drew of India is the picture that remains alive in the mind of the rest of the world. That is why "Mother India" is worth talking about 30 years after publication.
This, broadly, was Miss Mayo's picture:
India is a country whose people are self-cursed. Their religion is degrading, their society leads them into ways of life even more degrading mentally, morally, socially and economically. Too-early marriage and encouragement of autoeroticism have created an indolent, weakened, ineffectual people. Indians are mentally sterile, as well as bodily feeble and often sexually impotent. They are habitually inclined to blame their faults on anybody but themselves. Temple prostitution, infanticide, child marriage, bitter isolation for widows, untouchability, ignorance, cow worship, a cow-crippled economy, cruelty and callousness, disease and a layer of filth over the country--these are some of the ingredients of the "Mother India" diagnosis.
Many of the horrors that shocked Miss Mayo and contributed to the "Mother India" image can be found in India today. Hinduism, as a religion, philosophy and way of life, has been able to satisfy the spiritual needs of billions of people for thousands of years. That in itself makes it somewhat ridiculous to write off the Hindu civilization, to dismiss it because it has failed to produce social and economic decencies for the people who follow it. But it is no great discovery to say that, in terms of those decencies, the end product of Hindu civilization remains today an appalling one. Every tourist who has seen the bathing in the slime of the holy rivers, stepped across the street sleepers of Bombay, edged away from the lepers of New Delhi, seen the naked children of Calcutta, watched humans condemned to a life of removing the excrement of other humans, seen the scabs and flies of Indian villages, can leave the country, if he looks no further, with his own "Mother India." With no trouble at all, any writer who has stayed in India for a few months could fill a book cataloging the human degredation he has seen. These things are still part of India. No amount of good will, no amount of sophistication, changes their reality. But the truth is that a "Mother India" could be written about most countries in Asia and perhaps most countries in the Middle East and even some in Latin America, subtracting a few horrors, adding a few horrors.
It is not the purpose of this article to re-review "Mother India," to condemn or justify it or to apologize for or praise India by saying, "See how things have changed!" Looked at 30 years later, the most important element in the book is not the listing of horrors, some of which existed for thousands of years, some of which exist today, some of which never existed or at least were never witnessed by foreigners and Indians living in India. The most important element in the book is Miss Mayo's picture of the mental India, her portrait of the Indian as spineless, eternally accepting, spiritually slothful, without curiosity, without quest and without gumption. It is important, not just in the evaluation of the book, but in the evaluation of India today.
Something has happened in India whose beginnings were visible 30 years ago but which Miss Mayo did not take into consideration. That something is mental fermentation on a national scale.
After ages of acceptance, India is questioning and changing. More changes have been made in the Indian social structure in the decade since independence than in centuries before it. Attitudes are changing; and for a country searching for progress, attitudes are perhaps more important than any other factor. The changes are painfully slow, both the changes in attitude and the changes in social structure that they bring with them. There is one sure way for India to change faster, to strike harder at the social and economic evils. That would be for India to adopt authoritarianism. This does not mean, of course, that even within the democratic framework India could not make changes she has not yet attempted. But for the time being at least India is willing to pay the high price of change through evolutionary democratic processes.
The heaviest handicaps under which India labored through the centuries were the attitudes toward authority and the individual's place in society and human relations within the society. An individual-to-individual callousness, despite India's belief in her own spiritualism, was always part of India. No miracle has taken place. This callousness is still so strong in the country that it is the greatest danger for a foreigner living in India, for it is a frighteningly easy thing to find it creeping into one's own soul.
It has many manifestations. One day a couple of years ago, in a South Indian city, an Indian of considerable prominence was driving with a foreigner. The Indian was talking of the great Socialist reforms his country was undertaking. The foreigner, new to the country, was staring out the window at some near-naked Indians pulling a load of steel in the 110-degree sun. The foreigner called his companion's attention to the men. The Indian stared briefly, said "Oh, coolies," turned away and went on talking about Socialist reforms. This is a trifling example of something rather important. There is a great deal of turning away in India, even more of simply not seeing. There is an explanation: if Indians reacted to all the misery they see about them and of which so many of them are a part, they would find their day-to-day lives shaken emotionally to an almost unbearable point. It is easier to shrug and turn away, and Indians do both. Among India's upper classes there is depressingly little realization of the responsibilities that go with wealth and position. It is the exceptional Indian woman who will give even a tiny bit of her time to the mountain of social welfare work to be done in India, the exceptional Indian businessman who will put any of his profits into a hospital or a school.
A decade of independence also has not been enough to change the ordinary Indian's jumping-to-attention sort of respect for somebody above him, the snapping-of-fingers sort of disrespect and unspoken contempt for everybody below him. It is not frivolous or naïve to point out that Indians never say "thank you" to a servant, virtually never leave off the "sir" to a superior.
This trait is not something confined to social life but has its influence in the political makeup of the country. On the national and state level, India is governed through the processes of parliamentary democracy. Get down into the district, though, and New Delhi seems awfully far away. In the district, the magistrate or the collector rules as a virtual king and rules usually by decree and the awesome respect of the villagers and townsmen for his office. In the city of Belgaum two years ago, not a taxi-driver would dream of taking some Goa-bound correspondents toward the border, or even sightseeing around town, until approval had come down, from the magistrate to the police superintendent to the regional transport officer to the taxi-driver.
But to say all this is to say what could have been written about India at any time in its modern history and to say no more than could be said about most countries of Asia. What counts now is whether there have been changes in national mental attitudes, and there have been. A clerk still snaps his fingers at a chaprassi --a messenger--but in Bombay a chaprassi sits in the state legislature. The villagers still salaam at the sight of the district officer, but the district officer, like it or not, is taking courses to teach him that a civil servant is not a civil master.
In the years since independence, India has done what the British thought could not be done--outlawed untouchability, recognized the human rights of women, permitted divorce, attacked some of the legal anachronisms in the Hindu code. For the moment, the question as to whether all these changes have succeeded is not the most important one. The essential point is that independent India has shown, by these laws, that she is looking inward, finding things in herself that displease her and is trying to cast them out.
There are few countries in the world whose leader scolds his people more often and more sharply than Nehru does. There is no other leader who insists so often on probing his country's national psychology and then telling everybody who wants to listen just what's wrong. And it is difficult to think of another country where the government and the ruling party, even though they do not always carry through, are pledged to social reforms that strike at tenets and ways of life held holy by the majority of the people.
It is being neither condescending nor Pollyannaish to say that a nation that disapproves of itself, that seeks to change peacefully a social structure sanctified by the religion of the majority of its people, has achieved something prideful. This sort of nation is something more than Miss Mayo's wallowing "Mother India."
The fermentation in India has not, obviously, come to the point where it has eliminated the mental burdens and crippling attitudes from which the country suffered for so long. Of these, possibly, the most important are the attitudes toward caste. To foreigners, caste in India means only one thing-- untouchability. But this is simply the most dramatic part of the problem. Caste is important to India not just because it divides high-born from untouchable but because it divides the country into unnumbered thousands of compartments whose members act and think as members of that compartment and who guard their privileges and rights against the members of all other compartments. This compartmentalization leads to a sort of boxed-in thinking and set of attitudes toward the rest of the society. It leads to a contempt and disgust for certain kinds of labor, and, beyond that, to a shutting of the national mind to those who participate in those forms of labor. The importance of caste therefore is not simply the physical manifestations of it but, for a country seeking for a form of social justice, the mental attitudes that go with it.
After 10 years of independence, India suffers from a split personality. As a nation she is committed to and believes in an egalitarian form of society. As a people, Indians, to nobody's great astonishment, have found a decade not long enough to change patterns of thought and attitude made rigid over the centuries.
In the elections this spring, possibly the most important single political factor, on a state and local level, was the caste to which the candidate belonged. Caste was the problem that bedeviled and split the Congress Party in Madras, Bihar, Bombay, Orissa and other states of the union. All over India, politicians told this reporter that the general rule was that, outside of a few pocket boroughs controlled by one party or another, caste was the first thing the local nominating committee had to consider. This was true not only of the Congress Party but of most other parties in the opposition, including the Communists.
If important Indians once were inclined to look away from caste or justify it, that is not true today. Every now and then little articles appear in newspapers berating the fact that the iron framework of caste--marriage within the caste--still is a way of life not just in the villages but among the educated, and that matrimonial advertisements still prescribe the caste to which the bride or groom must belong.
Professor M. N. Srinivas, an anthropologist at the University of Baroda, put the problem of caste this way at a recent meeting of the Indian Science Congress: "Caste has played a crucial rôle in the functioning of representative institutions and in the struggle for power. Devolution of power in India is seriously complicated by caste. One of the dilemmas of modern India is that while smaller states will make for more intimate associations of the people with the Government, they are also likely to make for the tyranny of the dominant caste. The conferring of vast powers to panchayats (village councils) places great temptations before the locally dominant caste to use the money and power available to it in favor of its own members and at the expense of the other and dependent castes." He added that caste was so "tacitly and completely accepted by all, including those who are most vocal in condemning it, that it is everywhere regarded as the unit of social action. . . . The politician who wants caste to disappear is also aware of its vote-catching power and is thus faced with a real dilemma."
The 1951 census reported that there were 51,343,000 Indians belonging to the depressed or "scheduled castes." The law is on their side but economics is against them and so are taboos sanctified by thousands of years. Millions of the "scheduled caste" members, according to a report written by an investigation commission, are virtual serfs. They till land belonging to their masters, and only as long as their masters please. If they attempt to break their caste bounds, they find themselves destitute.
The Government outlaws untouchability, but Indian officials, most of whom seem to face the problem squarely, recognize that the Government cannot yet enforce the ban. Harijans--"children of God," Gandhi's name for untouchables--do not go easily to the police or the courts any more than a Negro in Alabama 15 years ago would have petitioned the local police chief for his civil rights.
Harijan leaders speak bitterly. N. K. Lingam, a Harijan member of the Andhra Assembly, said in 1955:
"We Harijans are reconciled to the life of untouchability in spite of what has been done to remove it. We pray, however, that at least when we are dead this curse should not follow us. Separate cremation grounds for Harijans should cease forthwith."
Another Harijan member of the Andhra Assembly, Mrs. Rukminamma, said this:
"You tell us to draw water from wells in the central part of villages inhabited by caste Hindus. You point to us the Removal of Untouchability Act. But if we poor Harijans dare approach these wells, caste Hindus threaten to break our bones."
These are not simply isolated quotations. They are examples of the enormous problem of making social custom catch up with legal action--a problem that the United States Supreme Court knows something about.
But on the question of caste, as on most other problems in India, a foreigner can look at the situation in two ways. He can concentrate on the problem itself, built up over so long, and see nothing else. Or he can look at the problem in conjunction with the attempts made to deal with it.
For instance: Is the only important thing about caste in India in 1957 that it still exists, still hampers the country's mental and physical growth? Or is it also important that for the first time in Indian history efforts are being made, through the laborious and unglamorous process of change by law, to do something about it? Is the only significant element within the caste picture in India the fact that scores of millions of Indians still live by it? Or is it even more significant that for the first time millions of other Indians have shucked off, or are beginning to shuck off, ways of caste thinking that not many years ago seemed indelible?
In tens of thousands of Indian villages, caste is today as it always was. But in a hundred thousand other villages, Government Community Development workers are fighting the battle against untouchability as they are fighting illiteracy, disease and hopelessly antiquated agricultural methods--by example and persuasion. This battle is just as much a part of the picture of India as is the fact that the complete miracle has not taken place. Looking at India from the point of view of attitude and changes of attitude, it is more important.
In the Indian Government, in India's armed forces, in the big cities, in the publicly supported schools, untouchability as such no longer exists. There are Harijans in the civil service, in the central and state cabinets. When India voted, Harijan queued with Brahmin. All this does not guarantee the social acceptability of Harijans any more than permitting Negroes to ride buses without Jim Crow in Montgomery guarantees their social integration in the American South. But both are achievements and part of the picture.
The slow change in attitude toward caste in itself is part of a bigger change that is perhaps the most striking difference between India as it is and "Mother India." The realization has come to the people of India that better ways of living exist and can be achieved. The bringing of this realization, and with it the lesson that the achievement must be brought about peacefully and legally, is certainly the greatest accomplishment of Gandhi, Nehru and the people who fought and worked with them. As in every major peaceful step, this accomplishment has not been perfectly achieved but that does not change the fact that it exists.
This realization not only marks an historic change in attitude but has brought with it enormous new problems, psychological as well as economic. Summed up, these problems are that India is ready for more than she has achieved, wants more than the Government and the economic structure of the country can at present supply, and is becoming impatient with the waiting.
It was once thought, for example, that the great difficulty in constructing the Community Development Program would be to get the Indian villager to accept new techniques, new habits, new attitudes toward change and progress. But the administrators of the project have found that the desire of the villagers is outstripping the ability of the Government to satisfy the desire. This is something that gives the Community Development people a deep and warm inner satisfaction. But it is something that has its dangers, obviously enough, for a country wedded at least by law to peaceful change.
It also has its dangers for the Community Development Program. The benefits brought by the program certainly are not anything that would make a Kansas farmer unhappy with his own lot. But for people with nothing, a new drain, new seeds, schools, the attention of a doctor, farm credits, the first loosenings of caste, are a great deal indeed. The villages untouched by the Community Development Program see neighboring villages emerge into a touch of economic and social sunlight and want to come out of the shade themselves. The problem this has posed is that the program has developed political overtones. The Government has promised that by the end of the second Five-Year Plan in 1961 every village in the country--about 500,000 of them --will come under the Community Development Program, or its less intensive offshoot, the National Extension Program. But putting a village under the latter may turn out, in tens of thousands of cases, to be giving it little more than paper attention.
There is another situation in India indicating that the country's chief psychological problem at the moment is not the sloth of the mind about which Miss Mayo wrote but something quite the reverse. In the decades of rebellion against the British, habits of resistance to government were developed among millions of Indians. The revolt against British rule was not simply a coup engineered by a few, not a flash mutiny or a quick take-over of government. It was a long and slowly built up movement and by the time it succeeded millions of people had participated in it, had fought the government by every method Gandhi taught from boycott to refusal to recognize the laws of the land.
These habits of resistance to government still exist in India and worry the leaders of the country, probably more than anything else. There is an impatience with parliamentary change, a reluctance to wait, a deep and genuine belief that it is the citizen's right to use other methods than the ballot to force his government to change a decision. This is a way of thinking that may be an advance over passive acceptance of evil but is an important step away from understanding of a man's place in a free society.
A huge variety of things that could quite easily be settled peacefully are, in India, taken into the streets. A change in state boundaries in Bombay. A change in the price of a bus ride in Patna. A railroad worker's dispute in the Punjab. As Nehru sees it, this is a perversion of Gandhi's teachings of peaceful resistance. As Nehru sees it, the problem stems from the abandonment of one set of political morals and the failure to achieve completely another set.
Durga Das, one of the editors of the Hindustan Times, wrote in a column not long ago that Indians were coming to the point where they were recognizing their rights. He asked himself whether they would now recognize their duties. Putting the same problem more directly, he wrote: "Nehru can raise a storm, but he has yet to prove that he can direct the whirlwind." Durga Das and other Indians point to the danger: that a people whose desire and political consciousness have been awakened may not be content to wait indefinitely upon the processes of law.
To an Indian observer, what counts most is whether the whirlwind can be directed. But to a foreigner interested in India's growth and change the picture looks slightly different. The existence of the storm, the existence of the danger, are in themselves marks of the fact that the eternally slothful, mentally crippled, perpetually accepting "Mother India" is a caricature and not a true likeness.