Book Review: Cultural Exorcism

(My review in Open Magazine dated July 21 2017 of Arvind Sharma’s The Ruler’s Gaze)


THAT THE BRITISH in India, once their motivations graduated from commerce to empire, went out of their way to denigrate the country is well known. This, after all, was integral to the construction and projection of their power; to convince themselves (and their subjects) that the prospects of the Subcontinent were hopeless without British intervention. Governor General Hastings thought the Hindu had ‘no higher intellect than a dog, and an elephant, or a monkey’, and so imperial rule was really a godsend. James Mill, who compiled damaging volumes on Indian history without condescending to actually visit the country, thought that ‘the Hindu, like the eunuch, excels in the qualities of a slave’. Lord Macaulay declared India a ‘decomposed society’, and even a sympathetic interlocutor like William Jones felt that Asia, on the whole, could at best serve as a ‘handmaid’ to the ‘sovereign princess’ that was Europe.

What Arvind Sharma sets out to do in The Ruler’s Gaze is to test Edward Said’s seminal thesis in Orientalism (1978) against this Indian backdrop, and to expose the broader agenda that propelled colonial claims. And in doing so, he has given us a work of great significance, arguing in a dense, heavily annotated text, how India’s own understanding of itself was ‘filtered through that of another’ power, which often held ‘different and even hostile beliefs’. Though his language and style is typically academic, there is passion in the case he makes as he attempts to ‘exorcize the ghost [of Orientalism]’ so that ‘the spirit of India’s culture can speak for itself’. It is a lofty goal, and for the most part Sharma succeeds in laying bare the business of empire, the invention of narratives to justify that business, and the plain, endless repetition of such narratives till they became ‘real’ even to the most discerning of Indians, from Rammohun Roy to Mahatma Gandhi.

The broad argument Sharma makes is that the British perception of India, when their power was still nascent, was generally favourable. But the moment they became a territory-grabbing force, everything changed—as it did, he suggests, with Muslim rulers before them. The arrival of Christian missionaries was central to the reversal of attitudes: the Government gathered data in order to understand the land they now ruled, while missionaries infused this data with pronounced prejudice, producing broad narratives of timeless Indian depravity that needed imperial correction and a moral reorientation. So ‘while British power was finding its feet in India, Indology tended to take a generally positive view of its subjects… once it became dominant around 1818 [after the fall of the Marathas], it developed an anti- Hindu position, absorbing… evangelical critique’. Simply speaking, cultivating contempt for India helped justify British appropriation of Indian resources.

Together, officialdom and the missionary enterprise became a factory for mythmaking, cloaking an exacting machine of extraction with lectures about ‘civilizing’ a barbaric people. The Thugs, for instance, who really functioned only in certain regions of the Subcontinent, were now exaggerated into a major threat and as proof of the chaos that was India. Other scholars like Jon Wilson, however, have showed that in fact it was the British who dismantled existing Indian systems of law and order to impose their rule, only to then justify this rule (and attendant violence) as necessary to control anarchy—an anarchy that was of their own design. So too, Sharma highlights Sati to show how the British took what was essentially a regional practice among certain groups, and used it to paint Hinduism as a monstrous assortment of horrible customs.

There are, however, certain infirmities with some of Sharma’s arguments. The concept of Hinduism as defined by the Vedas, Upanishads, and other philosophical works, was itself, others have argued, an invention of Orientalists—so when Sharma claims that the British maligned Hinduism, he does not fully address the claim that this Hinduism was also a creation of Orientalist minds who, coming from Abrahamic religions defined by textual sources, decided that the faith of the Hindus must be that contained in the Vedas and other written material. In reality, most ‘Hindus’ had little to do with these texts. So when Sharma suggests that ‘the Hindus’ were victimised, he bypasses the debate on whether such a ‘Hindu’ identity even existed at the time.

Similarly, in discussing caste, we again encounter several weaknesses. Certainly, the British solidified and worsened differences, but at one point Sharma appears to brush aside the inequalities promoted by the Manusmriti by pointing out that these did not find sanction in the Rig Veda. But did either the Rig Veda or the Manusmriti actually have any real bearing on the lives of ordinary people, who lived by local practices that were not codified in books? Is the Hinduism that the British painted black also to a considerable extent a creation of their own, just as they invented or exaggerated other notions we now take as intrinsic to Indian society? The texts Sharma reaches out to while making his case, the ones pooh-poohed by the British, were understood only by a Brahmin elite, so in exposing Orientalism, does Sharma fall into an Orientalist trap himself, taking the customs of a dominant Indian minority as reflective of Indian realities that were vastly more diverse?

Sharma is a scholar of philosophical Hinduism, which might explain his interest in the relevant texts, but in deploying them to make a political case, we encounter trouble. At one point, the claim that modern Hinduism is essentially Brahminism is denied by arguing that surely this cannot be true because ‘the two leading representatives’ of such Hinduism—Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi—were not Brahmins: a tenuous line of reasoning. So too Sharma is on shaky ground when he investigates the British demolition of India’s education system. British authorities in the 1830s down till the 1850s found that there were hundreds of thousands of schools in India. Given, however, the destruction they wreaked on our education system, leaving us with a fraction of the original literacy rates, they eventually discredited their own surveys instead of addressing the issue. In making this wider point, Sharma is strong.

However, when he attempts to show that traditional schools were accessible even to low-caste groups, the evidence produced is inadequate. The numbers certainly show that ‘Soodras’ were often the overwhelming majority in Indian schools. And if we consider the varna system, Soodras are the lowest class, by which logic the lowest in Indian society would appear to have had access to education. The only problem here is that often those who were deemed ‘Soodras’ were in fact privileged castes. In Malabar, for example, Soodras were 54 per cent of the student population. But this ignores the fact that in Malabar, it was the high-caste Nair, second only to the Brahmin, who was classed as a Soodra. In the Deccan, it was the land- owning Marathas who were considered Soodras, and so on in several other regions. So though the term may suggest lowliness, in actual fact it was dominant castes that were bracketed as ‘Soodras’ who went to these schools.

On the whole, Sharma’s argument that the ‘gulf between the ruler and the ruled had to be exaggerated to justify that rule’ is indeed correct, and the wider argument he makes in the book about colonial rule is a powerful one. After all, for the West to appear enlightened after the Enlightenment, someone else had to be painted as a mirror opposite.

The British utilised India not only to cast Indians as backward to justify their seizure of the country and its systematic, sustained destruction, but also to build their own national identity and a superior self-image back home. In making this case, Sharma is sharp, thought provoking, and correct. But on further scrutiny, the reader is left a little less happy. Perhaps, the subject being what it is, no single book can fully grasp it in 400 odd pages.

Still, The Ruler’s Gaze is an effective effort. And Sharma succeeds in providing us several answers, but also prompting many more questions.


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