Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
MOST Americans, bred up in the democratic tradition, sympathize with India's struggle for freedom. They dislike empire and imperialism and the domination and exploitation of one nation by another. And yet they are perplexed when they consider the Indian problem, wondering whether it is possible to build a united and progressive nation out of the seemingly infinite diversity that makes up the fabric of Indian life. They have heard so much of the separatist elements, of the conflicts of religion and culture, of the variety of languages, of the mediæval conditions in the semi-feudal regions of the Indian States, of social cleavages, of the general backwardness of Indian life, that doubts assail them whether it is possible to harmonize all these in a free and independent India. Can democracy be built upon such insecure foundations? Could India stand together and free if British rule were withdrawn?
These hesitations and perplexities are natural. The questions in which they originate must be considered by us dispassionately, and we must attempt to find the right answers. Freedom for a nation and a people may be, and is, I believe, always good in the long run; but in the final analysis freedom itself is a means to an end, that end being the raising of the people in question to higher levels and hence the general advancement of humanity. The vital and most important problem that faces us in India is the appalling poverty of the people. Will political independence help us to diminish this, as well as the numerous ills that flow from it?
It is well to remember that the British have been in effective control of India for more than a hundred and fifty years and that during this period they have had almost complete freedom to act in any manner they chose. No democratic or any other kind of control in fact existed, the British Parliament being too far away and too ignorant to intervene. India was, and is, a rich country, rich in agricultural resources, mineral wealth, human material; only her people are poor. It was indeed the wealth of India that attracted hordes of foreign adventurers to her shores. With these resources and that human material, and following a century and a half of unchecked despotism, one is entitled to ask for substantial results. During this period Europe has changed out of recognition, Japan has bounded up with an amazing speed, America has become the most advanced and the wealthiest country in the world. But in India we still have grinding poverty, widespread illiteracy, a general absence of sanitation and medical relief -- a lack, indeed, of all the good things of life. There are undoubtedly some good works which have followed British rule, notably in the field of irrigation. But how little they are compared to what might have been!
It is idle to blame the Indian people for this when those people have been allowed no say in the matter. The very backwardness of a people is a condemnation of its government. With this patent result of British rule in India, little argument is needed to demonstrate its failure. But even admitting the failure, it is true that our present problems are no nearer solution. It nevertheless is well to bear the fact in mind, for the very structure of British imperialist rule has been, and is, such as to aggravate our problems and not to solve any of them. And because these problems insistently demand solution we have to look for it outside the orbit of the British Empire.
India is smaller than the United States of America, yet it is a vast country and its population is far larger than that of the United States. Our problems therefore are continental. They are unlike those of the small countries of Europe. Till the advent of modern communications and modern methods of transport, it was very difficult for such a vast area to hold together politically for long. The United States grew and developed into a powerful unit, despite the vast area involved, because of the increase in transport and communications. If the United States had had a long history, going back hundreds and thousands of years before modern science and industry revolutionized life, probably the country would have been split up into many small national units, as happened in Europe. The fact that India was split up politically in the course of her long history was inevitable under the conditions then existing. Yet always the idea of the political unity of India persisted, and kings and emperors sought to realize it. Asoka indeed achieved unity two thousand years ago and built up an empire far greater than that of Britain in India today. It stretched right into Central Asia and included Afghanistan. Only a tiny tip in South India remained outside, and this because of the horror of war and bloodshed that came over Asoka in the full flood of victory and conquest. Other rulers in the past tried to achieve the political unification of India and succeeded in some measure. But this desire for a unified political control of the whole country could not be realized in view of the lack of means and machinery. The coming of the British to India synchronized with the development in transport, communications and modern industry, and so it was that British rule succeeded at last in establishing Indian political unity.
The desire for political unity, in India as in other countries before the advent of nationalism, was usually the desire of the ruler or the conqueror and not of the people as a whole. In India, where for long ages there had been a large measure of local self-government, the people were far more interested in their local freedom and rights than in the machinery of government at the top. Kings changed at the top but the newcomer respected local rights and did not interfere with them. Because of this, conflicts between kings and people did not take place as in Europe; and later, under cover of this, kings gradually built up their autocratic power.
An all-India political unity thus was not possible in the past. What is far more important for us is to see what other more basic unifying or separatist features there were in Indian life. This will help us to understand the present and shape the future. Superficial observers of India, accustomed to the standardization which modern industry has brought about in the West, are apt to be impressed too much by the variety and diversity of India. They miss the unity of India; and yet the tremendous and fundamental fact of India is her essential unity throughout the ages. Indian history runs into thousands of years, and, of all modern nations, only China has such a continuous and ancient background of culture. Five to six thousand years ago the Indus Valley civilization flourished all over northern India and probably extended to the south also. Even then it was something highly developed, with millennia of growth behind it. Since that early dawn of history innumerable peoples, conquerors and settlers, pilgrims and students, have trekked into the Indian plains from the highlands of Asia and have influenced Indian life and culture and art; but always they have been absorbed and assimilated. India was changed by these contacts and yet she remained essentially her own old self. Like the ocean she received the tribute of a thousand rivers, and though she was disturbed often enough, and storms raged over the surface of her waters, the sea continued to be the sea. It is astonishing to note how India continued successfully this process of assimilation and adaptation. It could only have done so if the idea of a fundamental unity were so deep-rooted as to be accepted even by the newcomer, and if her culture were flexible and adaptable to changing conditions.
Vincent Smith, in his "Oxford History of India," [i] refers to what I have in mind: "India beyond all doubt possesses a deep underlying fundamental unity, far more profound than that produced either by geographical isolation or by political suzerainty. That unity transcends the innumerable diversities of blood, color, language, dress, manners, and sect." And Sir Frederick Whyte, in "The Future of East and West," also stresses this unity. He refers to the tremendous diversity of India and yet "the greatest of all the contradictions in India is that over this diversity is spread a greater unity, which is not immediately evident because it failed historically to find expression in any political cohesion to make the country one, but which is so great a reality, and so powerful, that even the Musulman world in India has to confess that it has been deeply affected by coming within its influence." [ii]
This Indian background and unity were essentially cultural; they were not religious in the narrow sense of the word. That culture was not exclusive or intolerant to begin with; it was receptive and adaptable, and long ages of preeminence gave it deep roots and a solidarity which storms could not shake. It developed an aristocratic attitude which, secure in its own strength, could afford to be tolerant and broadminded. And this very toleration gave it greater strength and adaptability. There was in it till almost the beginning of the Christian era a certain rationalism, something approaching a scientific outlook, which refused to tie itself down to dogmas. True, this culture and rationalism were largely confined to the upper classes, but they percolated down to the masses to some extent. Superstitions and dogmas gradually crept in and many an evil practice. Buddhism was a revolt against these. But the old way of life was still powerful, and it is one of the wonders of history how India succeeded in absorbing Buddhism without any physical conflict. Buddhism, which had spread throughout India and had made progress from Western Asia right across Central Asia to the Far East, gradually faded out of the land of its birth. The man who is supposed to be largely responsible for this was Shankaracharya, who lived in the eighth century after Christ. This amazingly brilliant young man travelled all over India arguing, debating, convincing large audiences, and in a few years (he died at the age of 32) changed the mental atmosphere of the country. The appeal was to reason and logic, not to force.
This practice of debate and conference over religious and other matters was common throughout India and there are records of many great gatherings from Kashmir in the north to the far south. Whatever the political divisions of the country, ideas spread rapidly and were hotly debated. India hung together culturally and the mental background of the people everywhere was much the same. Even the masses in different parts of the country were not dissimilar in thought and outlook. The chief places of pilgrimage fixed by Shankaracharya were situated at the four corners of India: Badrinath in the Himalayas in the north, Rameshwaram near Cape Comorin in the south, Dwarka in the west overlooking the Arabian Sea, and Puri in the east, washed by the waters of the Bay of Bengal. Thus there was continuous intercourse between the peoples of the different regions. India as a whole was their holy land.
It is interesting to compare the intolerance of Europe in matters religious to the wide tolerance prevailing almost throughout history in India. Christianity came to India in the first century after Christ, long before Europe knew much about it, and found a welcome and a home. There was no opposition whatever. Even now there flourish in India many early Christian sects which were crushed out of existence in Europe. There are the Nestorians, and various Syrian Christian sects. The Jews came to India also about eighteen hundred years ago or more, and were welcomed. They still carry on their community life and parts of an ancient city where they live are supposed to resemble old Jerusalem. The Zoroastrians also came to India, driven out of Persia, and made their home here, and have flourished ever since. The Moslems first came soon after the advent of Islam and they found ready admittance and welcome and full opportunities for propagating their faith. For centuries there was no conflict except on the frontiers; it was only when Moslems came as conquerors and raiders that there was conflict.
The coming of Moslem rule shook India. For a while there was a conflict between the old background and the new, but soon the old spirit of India began to assert itself and attempts began to be made to find a synthesis of the old and the new. Even in religion, most difficult subject of all, this attempt was repeatedly made by Nanak, Kabir and others. The Moslem rulers generally accepted the background of Indian life and culture, varied by Persian cultural ideas. There was no difficulty whatever in the adaptation of old Indian arts to new ideas. New styles grew up in architecture and painting which were a true synthesis of the two and yet were essentially Indian. So also in music. Even in dress a certain uniformity crept in, and a common language developed.
Thus the whole history of India for thousands of years past shows her essential unity and the vitality and adaptability of her culture. This vitality took her message in art and thought and religion to the Far East; it took the shape of great colonizing expeditions to Malaysia, to Java and Sumatra and the Philippines and Borneo, as the remains of great monuments there, a thousand years old, bear testimony.
Behind this cultural unity, and giving strength to it, was the ceaseless attempt to find a harmony between the inner man and his outer environment. To some extent this was the mediaeval outlook of the Middle Ages in Europe. And yet it probably was something more. The profit motive was not so obvious and riches were not valued in the same way as elsewhere. Unlike as in Europe, honor was reserved for the man of intellect and the man who served the state or society, and the great soldier or the rich man took second and third place. Perhaps it was this want of stress on the outer environment that made India politically weak and backward, while external progress went forward so rapidly in the West.
This past record of Indian cultural solidarity does not necessarily help us today. It is present conditions that we have to deal with, and memories of what has been may be of little avail. But though that is perfectly true, yet an ancient people has deep roots in the past and we cannot ignore them. Both the good and the bad that we possess have sprung from those roots; they give us strength and inspiration; they also burden us and tie us down to many a harmful tradition and evil practice. India undoubtedly deteriorated and the vital urge in her began to lessen. Her power to assimilate and absorb became feebler, and the flexibility of her thought and structure gave place to rigidity. What was dynamic became more and more static. The rationalism and the scientific basis of her thought continued for a favored few, but for others irrationalism and superstition held sway. Caste, which was a division of society by occupation, and which at the start was far from rigid, developed a fearful rigidity and became the citadel of social reaction and a basis for the exploitation of the masses. For a long time India vegetated, the strength had gone out of her, and it was inevitable that she should fall an easy prey to the better-equipped and more vital and technically advanced nations of the West.
The immediate result of this was the growth of conservatism, a further shrinking of India inside her shell in self-defense. British rule forwarded this process by crystallizing many a changing custom and giving it the force of law. Even more important in keeping India back was the economic structure which British rule built up. The feudal Indian State system, the gilded Maharajas and Nabobs, and the big landlord system were essentially British creations in India. We have them, to our misfortune, still with us. But this desire of the British rulers to keep a semi-feudal structure in India could not hold back the impact of new ideas and new conditions. The British themselves came to the East on the wave of the great impulse given to the world by the advent of industrialism, and India herself was inevitably affected by this impulse. For their own purposes and in order to entrench themselves, they built railways and the other accompaniments of a modern administration. They tried hard to stop the industrial growth of India, desiring to keep her as a producer of raw materials only and a consumer of British manufactured goods. But the industrial revolution had to spread to India, even though it came slowly because of the obstruction offered by the Government.
The British gave political unity to India. This had now become possible owing to the development of communications and transport. It was a unity of a common subjection, but it gave rise to the unity of a common nationalism. The idea of a united and a free India gripped the people. It was not a superficial idea imposed from above, but the natural outcome of that fundamental unity which had been the background of Indian life for thousands of years. The difference that had crept in was the new emphasis on the political aspect. To combat this, the British Government tried to lay stress on the religious differences and adopted a policy which encouraged them and brought them into conflict with each other. It has had a measure of success, but nationalism, in India as in other countries of the East, is the dominant urge of the time and must triumph. This nationalism is being tempered today by the economic urge, but this is still further removed from the mediæval outlook which thinks in terms of religious groupings in political affairs.
The growth of the powerful nationalist movement in India, represented by the National Congress, has demonstrated the political unity of India. The last seventeen years have seen vast upheavals, in the nature of a peaceful rebellion, taking place throughout the length and breadth of the country and shaking the foundations of British rule. This voluntary organization, commanding the willing allegiance of millions, has played a great rôle in fixing the idea of Indian unity in the minds of our masses. The capacity for united action and disciplined sacrifice for a national ideal which the people have shown has demonstrated not only the probability of Indian unity but its actual existence. In India today no one, whatever his political views or religious persuasions, thinks in terms other than those of national unity.
There are differences, of course, and certain separatist tendencies, but even these do not oppose national freedom or unity. They seek to gain a special favor for their particular group and because of this they hinder sometimes the growth of the nationalist movement. Religious differences affect politics less and less, though still sometimes they distract attention. There is no religious or cultural problem in India. What is called the religious or communal problem is really a dispute among upper-class people for a division of the spoils of office or of representation in a legislature. This will surely be settled amicably wherever it arises.
Language is alleged to divide India into innumerable compartments; we are told by the census that there are 222 languages or dialects in India. I suppose the census of the United States mentions a very large number of languages; the German census, I think, mentions over sixty. But most of these languages are spoken by small groups of people, or are dialects. In India, the absence of mass education has fostered the growth of dialects. As a matter of fact, India is a singularly unified area so far as languages are concerned. Altogether in the vast area of India there are a dozen languages and these are closely allied to each other. They fall into two groups -- the Indo-Aryan languages of the north and center and west, and the Dravidian languages of the east and south. The Indo-Aryan languages derive from Sanskrit and anyone who knows one of them finds it easy to learn another. The Dravidian languages are different, but each one of them contains fifty percent or more words from the Sanskrit. The dominant language in India is Hindustani (Hindu or Urdu) which is already spoken by a huge block of a hundred and twenty million people and is partly understood by scores of millions of others. This language is bound to become the all-India medium of communication, not displacing the great provincial languages, but as a compulsory second language. With mass education on behalf of the state this will not be difficult. Already due to talkies and the radio the range of Hindustani is spreading fast. The writer of this article has had occasion to address great mass audiences all over India and almost always, except in the south, he has used Hindustani and been understood. However numerous the difficult problems which India has to solve, the language problem clearly is not one of them. It already is well on the way to solution.
It will thus be seen that the forces working for Indian unity are formidable and overwhelming, and it is difficult to conceive of any separatist tendency which can break up this unity. Some of the major Indian princes might represent such a tendency; but they flourish not from their own inherent strength, but because of the support of the British power. When that support goes, they will have to surrender to the wishes of their own people, among whom the sentiment of national unity is widespread.
This does not mean that our problems are easy of solution. They are very difficult, as every major problem in the world today is difficult, and probably their solution will depend on international as well as on national factors. But the real problems of India, as of the rest of the world, are economic, and they are so interrelated that it is hardly possible to tackle them separately. The land problem is the outstanding question of India and any final solution of it is difficult to see without revolutionary changes in our agriculture and land system. Feudal relics and the big landlord system are hindrances to development and will have to go. The tiny holdings, averaging a fraction of an acre per person, are uneconomic and wasteful and too small for the application of scientific methods of agriculture. Large-scale state and collective or coöperative farms must be established instead, and this cannot be done so long as the vested interests in land are not removed. Even when this has been done the vast urban and rural unemployment will not be reduced. For that as well as for other obvious reasons we must push forward the industrialization of the country. This again requires the development of social services -- education, sanitation, etc. And so the problem becomes a vast and many-sided one affecting land, industry and all departments of life, and we see that it can be tackled only on a nationally planned basis without vested interests to obstruct the planning. Therefore many of us think that a socialist structure is necessary, that in no other way can such planning be organized and pushed through.
But then the vested interests come in -- here lies the real difficulty and the real conflict. Far the greatest of these is the City of London, representing British finance and industry. The Government of India is but its shadow when vital interests are concerned. In addition there are the imperial services and Indian vested interests, the princes and others. The new Constitution of India, though giving a certain leverage in the provinces owing to the extension of the electorate, is essentially designed to protect these special interests and keep British imperialism in India intact. Even in the provinces real power rests with the Governors and the revenues are largely mortgaged to these interests. Such strength as there is behind the provincial governments comes far more from the organized national movement than from the Constitution Act. Fear of conflict with this movement, resulting possibly in the suspension of the Constitution, prevents too much interference with the provincial governments. But the position is essentially unstable; conflicts are inherent in it. Besides, under the financial provisions and reservations really big schemes of social reform simply cannot be undertaken.
But by far the worst part of the Constitution is the proposed Federal structure, for it makes the feudal Indian States permanent and, in addition, gives them some power to interfere in the affairs of the rest of India. The whole conception of a union of imperialism, feudalism and democracy is incapable of realization and can only mean the entrenchment of all the reactionary elements. It must be remembered that the Indian State system is over a hundred years old and that during this century it has continued more or less unchanged. In this period Europe and the world have altered past recognition, and it is a monstrous imposition on us that we should be saddled permanently with feudal relics which prevent all growth. Hence the fierce opposition to the Federal structure and the Constitution Act as a whole.
The National Congress stands for independence and a democratic state. It has proposed that the constitution of a free India must be framed, without outside interference, by a Constituent Assembly elected on the basis of an adult franchise. That is the democratic way and there is no other way short of revolution which can bring the needed result. An Assembly so elected will represent the people as a whole and will be far more interested in the economic and social problems of the masses than in the petty communal issues which affect small groups. Thus it will solve without much difficulty the communal and other like problems. It will not solve so easily the economic problems, but the clash of interest there is similar to that found all over the world. In the world-wide conflict of ideas and politics, India stands for democracy and against Fascism and the totalitarian state. She stands for peace and coöperation between nations and ultimately the building up of a world order.
Will an independent India be strong enough to protect herself from outside aggression and invasion? If India is strong enough to gain her freedom from British imperialism, which has so long been entrenched on her soil, it seems to follow that she will also be strong enough to resist fresh aggression. The strength of a nation is a relative affair, depending on a host of internal and external factors. Most independent countries today are not strong enough to stop by themselves the aggression of a Great Power. Even a Great Power might succumb to a combination of other Great Powers. Probably the United States is the only country so fortunately situated and so strong in every way as to be able to hope to resist successfully almost any hostile combination. The others rely for their independence partly on their own strength, but more so on a combination of circumstances.
India will of course take all necessary steps to strengthen her defenses. For this she has the industrial and other necessary resources. Her policy will be one of friendship to her neighbors and others, and she will rigorously avoid conflict. The National Congress has already declared that in the event of Britain being involved in an imperialist war, India will not be a party to it. There is no doubt that India can build up a strong defense apparatus. Her army today, though lacking in Indian officers, is considered an efficient force.
Who might be the aggressor against India? It is hardly likely that any European nation will embark on so rash an adventure, for each country in Europe fears its European neighbor. Soviet Russia is definitely out of the picture so far as aggression goes; she requires a policy of international peace, and the acquisition of Indian territory would fulfill no want of hers. Afghanistan and the border tribes also need not be considered in this connection. Our policy towards them will be one of close friendship and coöperation, utterly unlike the "Forward Policy" of the British, which relies on bombing combatants and non-combatants alike. But even if these peoples were hostile and aggressive they are too backward industrially to meet a modern army outside their own mountains.
Japan is mentioned as a possible aggressor. It is said that militarists in Japan dream of Asiatic and even world dominion. Perhaps so. But before they can approach India they will have to crush and absorb the whole of China, an undertaking which most people think is utterly beyond their capacity, and one which will involve at some stage a conflict with other Great Powers. How can Japan come to India? Not overland. Deserts and the Himalayas offer an effective barrier, and not even air fleets can come that way. By sea the route is long and intricate and full of danger in the narrow straits that have to be passed. A Japanese invasion of India could become a practical proposition only if China has been completely crushed, and if the United States, the Soviet Union and England have all been effectively humbled. That is a large undertaking.
Thus we see that, normally speaking, there is no great or obvious danger of the invasion of India from without. Still, we live in an abnormal world, full of wars and aggression. International law has ceased to be, treaties and undertakings have no value, gangsterism prevails unabashed among the nations. We realize that anything may happen in this epoch of revolution and wars, and that the only thing to be done to protect ourselves is to rely on our own strength at the same time that we pursue consciously a policy of peace. Risks have to be taken whatever the path we follow. These we are prepared to take, for we must.
We do not underestimate the difficulties before us. We have a hard task, hard because of external opposition, harder still because of our own weaknesses. It is always more difficult to fight one's own failings than the power of an adversary. We have to do both. We have social evils, with the authority of long tradition and habit behind them. We have within us the elements which have gone to build up Fascism in other countries. We have inertia and a tame submission to fate and its decrees. But we have also a new awakening of the vital spirit of India. The static vegetative period is over, a hunger for change and for the ending of misery and poverty has seized the masses. The world is shaken by war and alarms of war. No one knows what of horror and inhuman cruelty and destruction -- or of human progress -- the future holds for us. Be that as it may, India will no longer be merely a passive instrument of destiny or of another's will.
In the subconscious mind of India there is questioning, a struggle, a crisis. As of old, India seeks a synthesis of the past and the present, of the old and the new. She sees the new industrial civilization marching irresistibly on; she distrusts it and dislikes it to some extent, for it is an attack against and an upheaval of so much that is old; yet she has accepted that industrial civilization as an inevitable development. So she seeks to synthesize it with her own fundamental conceptions, to find a harmony between the inner man and his ever-changing outer environment. That harmony is strangely lacking in the whole world today. All of us seek it blindly. Till we find it we shall have to march wearily through the deserts of conflict and hatred and mutual destruction.
[i] Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919.
[ii] London: Sidgwick, 1932.