Sep 292012

Probably the last addition here for a while.

I have said elsewhere (well, everywhere) that I distrust and dislike the mixing of politics and religion, and have said that the less they overlap the better. This seems like a good time to spell this out in a slightly different way that also relates to Jinnah vs. Gandhi.

I become uneasy when politics becomes religious and vice versa. This happens very frequently, though it doesn’t have to. I think Jinnah and Gandhi are good exemplars of the way this works.

First, let me be clear on a general point. Religious sentiments are not a bad thing in most people, most of the time. They may or may not be natural. Positive emotions, like empathy, compassion, forgiveness, the ecstatic contemplation of one’s connection with the wider biosphere, loving other people etc. etc., may all exist in or outside conventional religious structures, and may or may not confer evolutionary benefits or advantages. What is certain is that these emotions, especially when collectivised, can easily be directed to non-spiritual purposes, and exclusive identities can be stamped on them by formal denominational relgious bodies. This is the crux.

Once collective identity, or internal hierarchy, or church property, or doctrinal orthodoxy come into play then every religion develops political interests. It begins to matter how well the faith is doing, how well individuals are doing within it, who is in its orbit and who isn’t, who is working for unity and who isn’t, who has got the message right and who hasn’t etc. All these things also apply to political parties.

Organised religion can easily become highly political, even before we enter into the question of what the social ambitions of the religion in question might be. The area of ambitions is usually where people look for the religious-political interface, and I think it the wrong place, or at least a secondary place.

This is where Gandhi and Jinnah came up with different strategies. Gandhi tried to empty religion of its political ambitions, by subscribing to the least structured form of faith he could conceive. Jinnah adopted an existing edifice while ignoring most of its infrastructure. He was not primarily interested in its theological content, even if he believed it to be true in eternal, cosmic terms. He took identity and social norms – equality and freedom – from Islam. He kept the shell that Gandhi threw away.

In sum; organised, denominational religion is a way into politics, not out of it. Spirituality is a way out of politics, though it is not a solution to anything much outside of one’s own consciousness. Spiritual people tend to recognise this boundary to what they are doing. Religious people, on the other hand, are often fiercely reluctant to accept any boundaries to their actions at all.




 Posted by at 3:52 am
Sep 292012

Nearly done. I have visa, tickets, immunisations, and some new socks. It’s all very exciting.

One wall of my study has long been filled with books about India – nearly all of which I have actually read – and now large parts of the floor are filled as well, up to about knee height. Reading is one thing, but actually going to India is another entirely. Usually an overwhelming experience, this time it will bring new excitements, and not a little pressure.

Just time to make a few more additions to the rough manifesto sketched out above.

One important area to clarify is my general approach to writing. What is to be found on this site is a personal strand of ideas, explorations of the core ideas that interest me. What appears in books is another strand, a more considered type of writing. The main difference is that I write as ‘me’ here,  and in books I am trying to find a slightly more distanced view, to relate things that on reflection I believe to be true, for reasons that go beyond the simple believer’s validation – that I believe them. This is a traditional academic place to be, and in some ways I have no business being in there. I still get the feeling that someone in authority will appear any minute and throw me out.

So, the writing here is more personal, and less considered. This reflects my general understanding of myself – that I have a much more intellectual, less emotional approach to history than I do to politics. I consistently find that I am more interested in what human interactions actually produce – ideas, institutions – than in what I think they should produce. This leads me to be more interested in history (results we know about) than in present day political struggles, which I see partly as speculation, partly as side-taking and generally as morally compromised. Politicians spend an inordinate amount of time convincing us all that they and they alone (and their followers) have moral right on their side. It is not possible for them all to be morally superior.

Right and wrong are provisional and relative notions within politics. In history the point is to find out what happened and make the best stab at understanding it. This is not like politics.

I don’t think of myself as ‘in’ history. Possibly the true horizon of history – where it breaks with the present – is the point where this can first be true for the writer. And this will, of course, vary across individuals, and eras. Coming from the other direction – from past to present – the horizon of history is probably found at the point where we stop knowing how things turn out.

I am happy to separate the two elements of politics and history in my head, because most of history does not directly involve my personal interests at all. How could it? Yet so many people write history as if their own personal destinies were involved. This seems to me to be a mistake. It is certainly a way to write passionately, but not necessarily truly. People with strong political and religious beliefs tend to go down this route, and nowhere more so than in the writing of Indian history.

One Indian journalist has upbraided me (in a very fair review – here) for writing a ‘dry’ book, and I can easily accept that. From my point of view, I would not want to write one that was much ‘damper’. Well, not at the cost of truthfulness anyway.



 Posted by at 3:10 am
Sep 162012

I think rather too much has been made of the distance between Britain and India. Some of this is now labelled “Orientalism”. I have a series of problems with the whole businsess of Orientalism and the distortions it has introduced in the process of trying to rid the world of distortions.

But I digress. Back on track, some of the distance between Britain and India was artificially exaggerated by the relative status of rulers and subjects within an imperial system. This produced clearly opposing interests and a parallel necessity for the creation of difference, real or imagined. Certainly eighteenth century Britain and India were superficially very different in all sorts of ways, but much of the confusion in matters of culture – religious, political and linguistic – has been a result of a willingness on both sides to see distance and difference where rather less existed. Without travelling all the way along this road, much of this dispute, and even hostility, ignores the fact that there are clear parallels (once more freely acknowledged) in all sorts of areas between Indian and Greek culture.

What has made these parallels controversial recently is the absolute determination by Hindutva enthusiasts to use them to insist that India has priority in all cultural, philosophical and religious areas. I have written about this elsewhere and I will leave the matter for now.

Now, returning to the bullet point agenda:

What the British call the ‘Rule of Law’ was present in India in the pre-colonial era; it was called dharmaraj. The historic insistence of the British that these were not the same thing is still maintained in the modern world by people who are prepared to ignore the fact that, although dharmaraj might be a tad less formal than its British version, occidental rule of law is not autonomous and portable. It depends heavily on a supporting system – it really matters who makes the laws, and who trains and appoints the judges.

Indians did not have too many laws, as some in the East India Company believed, She actually had rather too many.

The rule of law that the British brought to India was not quite in the same condition as when it left Albion’s shores. It had been bumped around a good deal in transit.

And surely what Indians call ahimsa was not so far away from what the British used to call ‘our island genius for compromise’. Again, this simply blew away on the long voyage east.

 Posted by at 11:54 am
Sep 122012

If anyone were to ask me whether the British Empire was a good thing or a bad thing, I would reply that this is not a good question. The British Empire was just ‘a thing’, a thing that happened. It was good for some people and bad for others. Opinions about its relative goodness or badness follow on.

One thing that can be said is that Indians need not feel much gratitude to the Empire, in the way that Niall Ferguson seems to think they should. Ferguson’s general thesis is that the British Empire made everyone, on average, better off, and spread liberal institutions across the globe to match. The latter part is true, in India at least, but the long-term economic effects of imperial rule on India have not been good, and certainly not good enough on balance to account the whole project a laudable success. Imperial rule is not fair by modern standards, and it is inappropriate to defend it with any vigour. The costs for whatever benefits one may care to select were very high.

What Britain did give India – and this is not something that an older generation of Indian nationalists liked to concede – was a structured political unity. Many to this day claim that India has always been one entity, and culturally this might be true, though it is hard to say much for sure about very ancient times, and more recently there has only ever been evidence to the contrary. Much on this subject has come from the nationalist Right, but on reading what they say it soon becomes apparent that their central argument is weak, and amounts to saying that India has always been united except in all the ways she hasn’t.

But not everyone on the patriotic Right has been strident about India’s unity. The impeccably nationalist, and much admired historian. R.C. Majumdar conceded that ‘the political unity of India’ was a British achievement, indeed their ‘greatest achievement’. Even Radha Kumud Mookerjee, author of The Fundamental Unity of India, the seminal work on the subject, remarks in the Introduction that: ‘No doubt, the greatest gift of British rule in India has been its political unification under a paramount power’ (p. 24).

But the issue of unity – which is sure to remain in play for the foreseeable future – is of course a stalking horse for much else.

Its most obvious use is to prove that all India’s ills were created by the British, which is what Congress politicians repeatedly said after about 1905. All the while a section of Hindu nationalists have been saying that all India’s ills were created by Muslims. What is at issue here is ultimately not what constitutes ‘unity’, but what constitutes ‘Indianness’. And that is highly subjective.

A more direct question remains: where and when were Indians ever united politically? One answer is, in opposition to the British. This is much more easily accepted. And, of course, such unity as the British brought either positively through institutions, or negatively by raising opposition, was only achieved by violence.

Paradoxically, empires bring peace and unity, at least for a while, but only by the use of well-funded, carefully directed violence.

 Posted by at 11:48 am
Sep 082012

I have plunged myself into a renewed phase of reading and thinking in an effort to prepare for the Kovalam Festival. This has been very mentally refreshing for me, but has also made me realise that I have far more to say than can possibly be covered in one session, no matter how skilful the questioning.

I have always been daunted by the sheer scale and complexity of Indian history, and this thought has now returned with fresh vigour. So I am going to put up a few bullet points, building to a sort of manifesto. This is partly to clear my own mind, but also so that whatever transpires in India, I can refer people to a clear statement of what I think and where I stand, without necessarily having to spell it all out over and over again on different occasions.

Let me start by saying that I do not believe in the cultural superiority of the West, or of lighter ‘races’, or of Christianity, or any such nonsense.

I realise that sometimes the effect of white educated males talking about history can be to recall past eras of paternalist imperial wisdom, and I do not wish to evoke such memories. Reviews of my writing in India have fortunately not been like this (so far), and I have not been attacked for condescension or bias. However, I am often chided for my ignorance of something or other. Fair enough; I am learning.



 Posted by at 12:23 pm