SIDH is going to publish ‘The White Sahibs In India’ (first published in 1937 and talked about here, here and here on this blog) by Reginald Reynolds in a month or two. I read the full book once and then started creating a final word document for printing, for which I had to pay attention to every comma and inverted comma, every italic and quotation mark. Reading the book even once is distressing and heart-wrenching and having to go through it painfully slowly is very difficult to bear. The book is relentless in graphically telling us about the dishonesty, the inhumanity, the brutality of the growth and maintenance of British rule in India. The story is told by the author using many voices – people who go along with the mainstream narrative and are happy for Britain, people who go along with the mainstream narrative but are appalled by the excesses perpetrated by the British rule, and some few voices who warn that Britain will inevitably have to pay a heavy price for its actions in India.
Anger is the appropriate first response to reading the book. It took some time to work through the anger and arrive at some form of acceptance that these things happened and that we need to acknowledge the trauma heaped on us and heal ourselves as a people. The book tells this disturbing story in clear, well-referenced terms; a story that has been carefully hidden away from us by our British-initiated, West-glorifying, India-bashing (subtly) education system. I found myself thinking that if the information in this book was presented to every Indian, our unnatural attraction to the West and its value-systems would be comprehensively broken. That brings me to the insight I wanted to present with this post. Take a look at the following excerpt:
“Our conquest there, after twenty years, is as crude as it was the first day. The natives scarcely know what it is to see the grey head of an Englishman; young men, boys almost, govern there, without society, and without sympathy with the natives. They have no more social habits with the people than if they still resided in England; nor, indeed, any species of intercourse but that which is necessary to making a sudden fortune, with a view to a remote settlement. Animated with all the avarice of age, and all the impetuosity of youth, they roll in one after another; wave after wave, and there is nothing before the eyes of the natives but an endless, hopeless prospect of new flights of birds of prey and passage, with appetites continually renewing for a food that is continually wasting.”
– The great statesman Edmund Burke speaking in 1783 about the conquest of Bengal, as quoted in The White Sahibs In India.
In my after-anger, acceptance phase, it looked like the worst excesses done by these young British men happened because they were part of a corrupting system, what Gandhiji called a satanic civilization in Hind Swaraj. I could find myself believing that they were only energetic young men merely doing their jobs, men who just wanted to make a ‘sudden fortune’. Men who, probably, were not aware of the satanic system that drove their actions. If that is possible, it got me thinking about what is it that I and people like me are not aware of, as we go about our daily lives, just doing our jobs? Going beyond the distress and anger the story causes, I found that meditating on and exploring this idea was the great gift that reading The White Sahibs In India gave me.