For whom the Chota Hazari Bell Tolls – Doon School and the making of the ‘Secular Indian’ identity

At 6.15 a.m everyday in the sleepy Dehra Dun valley the ‘chota hazari’ bell is a wake up call for the morning cup of cocoa for boys sleeping in the dorms of the Doon School, also sometimes called ‘Eton of the East’.

And thus it has been since 1935 when British school masters from Eton and Harrow started a residential all boys boarding school in India to fashion a uniquely Indian aristocracy tutored in the British Liberal ideologies of its time.

Significantly, this elite corps of Doon pass outs (Doscos) would go on to manufacture an original representation of national identity that would also come to be definitively labelled as ‘Indian secularism’. Doon alumni would include members of the Indian Parliament and state Legislative Assemblies, nineteen generals, two admirals, former heads of the Indian and Pakistani Air Forces and twenty-four ambassadors, including those from India, Pakistan, Nepal and the United Kingdom. The best-known alumnus is former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who appointed so many old boys to his administration that his inner circle was called a “Doon cabinet”.

For them and the generation preceding them, this specific post-colonial Indian national identity remains even today distinctly loyal to its colonial roots.

In the cultural politics of pedagogical action that Doon School founders played out, colonial rule was not only accommodated but often translated into admiration as a recurring feature in its early ‘patriotic’ thought, says Sanjay Srivastava in ‘Constructing Post-Colonial India: National Character and the Doon School’.

A closer scrutiny of an incident in Doon School during Gandhi’s call for the Quit India movement reveals how this Dosco sub-culture was created through subliminal messaging hard wired into its students.

As a gesture of solidarity with Gandhi a few students wore black arm bands for the morning assembly.

Headmaster Foot, instead of an obvious reprimand or any display of displeasure gave the ‘miscreant’ boys YCs (yellow cards)– for inappropriate dress code. Without exposing the master’s political prejudices, the student was here dextrously prevented from crossing an invisible line of a predisposed and predefined regulation. The creators of this predisposition however always remained anonymous and beyond reproach.

Politics was not encouraged, Doscos say. It was what it was, they say.

Be that as it may, the Doon School principal founders Foot, Martyn, Mason, Gibson and Holdsworth were considered deeply committed to the students, and rarely can an alumnus be found who does not hold them in the highest regard if not worship.

Under their guidance it was taught that religion was narrow minded and communal, and its belief systems when polished on the whetstone of British rationalism and western science always came out wanting. Though it was never called British liberalism and western science but liberalism and science.‘Western’ and ‘British’ were universalised predicates as is wont to happen even today.

Similarly, few Doscos would notice that the referencing of religion was mostly for Hindu Dharma. So much so that over time with the consistent vilification of casteism, ritualism, Brahmanism etc the word ‘communal’ became associated mostly with the Hindu, only on rare occasions was a ‘communal’ Muslim or Christian. This becomes evident by the unmistaken reality that even now regressive Christian and Islamic practices like conversion still remain smudged in the shadowy margins of mainstream awareness.

Pedagogical politics was further clearly effected by the Dosco’s studied indifference (the Dosco will deny animosity) towards Mayo College, interestingly derided as ‘elitist’. Again in an indifferent and not antagonistic way.

Mayo college in Ajmer had been created some time before Doon School for the express purpose of providing schooling for the princelings of pre partition Rajputana.

For the Dosco their royal excesses were legion. Doscos knew stories of how princes came to start their boarding school term with a retinue of cooks and khansamas. A prince when reprimanded by a British headmaster in Mayo had replied with a famous quote, ‘the only education I need is on how to sign cheques.’

The egalitarian and eclectic Dosco of course showed up in a much more favourable light compared to such derelict royalty. This condescension successfully created an entire generation of princelings, whether from Hyderabad, Kashmir or Jaipur ashamed, at least to some extent of their royal heritage. Ironically, of the five Doon hostels or ‘houses’, along with Tata and Oberoi it was the patronage of the scions of Jaipur, Hyderabad and Kashmir royalty that wove into the social fabric of Doon’s Jaipur House, Kashmir House and Hyderabad House the tapestry of a new westernised identity over their own age old customs and traditions. Erstwhile princely states were not just willing participants, they funded their own cultural harakiri for a new nationalised persona British in temperament and ideology.

Not one Dosco princeling complained. Not one asked why the excesses of British monarchy were not reviled either in Doon or England. Not one called out the selective demonisation of Indian royalty.

Importantly, it can also be argued that Doon’s pedagogical resentment towards Mayo was more against a previous ‘ruling class’. For survival it was important for colonial thinking now metamorphosed as Indian national identity to overthrow the ‘old order.’

Tennyson’s ‘the old order changeth, yielding place to new’ was declaimed on many a Doon pulpit.

The chota hazari bell tolled for embarrassed Indian royalty.

With the homogenising of princelings from Hyderabad to Kashmir the post colonial national identity project started taking shape in earnest.

In Doon, school assemblies still start with secular songs by Tagore (British liberal Hindu secular) and Iqbal (British liberal Muslim secular). The lack of Christian hymns and chapels (ubiquitous in most Christian convents) may have been because the British founders of Doon were mostly Protestant. But this lack was made up with an annual ode to Shakespeare at their Rose Bowl auditorium on Founder’s Day and many a Dosco who saw Jennifer Kendal of Shakespearewala fame play Ophelia there has probably still not forgotten her.

Vande Matram, however, initially in the school song book was soon removed. It could be because the Sanskrit hymn had increasingly started taking on a vibrant Hindu identity.

Dosco folk lore has one notable incident regarding the legendary Gibson. During a mid term Himalayan hiking expedition, housemaster Gibson, who did not speak Hindi questioned the Doscos about an exchange they had had with a villager at an eatery. The boys told Gibson that the villager was astounded at how the three boys were eating off the same plate.

‘He will be even more astounded,’ Gibson famously said, ‘when he learns that one is a Hindu, the other Muslim and the third Christian’. This statement is meant to display the progressive education of the Dosco and at the same time the tragically primitive sectarianism of the native.

It is not known whether Gibson knew or deliberately did not know that unlike the other two, that securely came under the sub category of Abrahamic religion, Hindu Dharma is not just a religion, it is a philosophy.

In any case all religions are not the same. To put Hindu Dharma in the same category as Islam or Christianity is a disservice to its philosophies, Indic scholars like Dr. Frawley would say.

But in Doon, for Hindu Dharma (or ‘Hinduism’ as the colonial power preferred calling it) to become a bigoted religion it first needed to be masqueraded as a religion. A reductionist conflation was implemented on Hindu Dharma, giving it an Abrahamic connotation inconsistent with Hindu philosophy.

Though unraveling the origins of how this happened requires a complex understanding of colonial machinations its manifestations are evidently and plainly bizarre.

While Pakistani Doscos like Ghulam Jilani Khan set about the making of an Islamic theocratic country most Indian Doscos focussed on veering away from the remotest possibility of an equivalent Hindu entity, what is now being unapologetically and unashamedly called Hindu Rashtra.

In the name of secularism the Indian Dosco whether Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Sikh or Muslim were all synchronously subverting any semblance of Hindu pride. But not one Dosco in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Doon cabinet, or one Dosco in the media critiqued the Shah Bano bill or opposed regressive Islamic practices. Also meanwhile, while Christian conversions were conducted without reproach, opposition to conversions was considered ‘communal’ and ‘narrow minded’.

How did this come about? Why would one Dosco make a career of establishing a theocratic state and the other in subverting it? How was this brand of secularism inculcated? Career choices made because of political opportunities and exigencies of the prevailing time is an obvious answer. But this does not obviate the question ‘where did the political exigencies come from?’

Arguably this political exigency lies in the very heart of the identity of colonial existence as – insecurity.

For every colonising community that invaded Bharatvarsha, whether French, Spanish, Portuguese, British or Islamic the threat of the indigenous majority culture of what has long been called ‘Hindoostan’ has always been potently real. This ‘Hindoostani’ ethos drew its strength from a primordial and civilisational philosophy imminently dangerous because of its sheer ability to aggrandise, subsume and make amorphous all religions that came in its way.

Hindu Dharma was tenacious because of its ability to morph and adapt. It called itself the successful extant survivor of the most ancient of all civilisations. Nascent Abrahamic religions like Islam and Christianity were specially vulnerable to the hydra headed, polytheistic, all-encompassing nature of its philosophy. Because no boundary and no binary could withstand the inevitability of Advaitin non-duality.

From this perspective Hindu Dharma even as the most secular and inclusive of all known philosophies can be quite threatening to a proselytising conqueror.

In the wake of the aggrandisement of Sarva dharma samabhava (all faiths are equal) the two potently proselytising religions of Christianity and Islam ran into the serious danger of becoming harmless offshoots, one of the myriad faiths in Hindu Dharma, just another wave in the vast ocean of Sanatana Dharma.

How terrible it would be, if like Buddha, Christ and the Prophet too became an avatar of Vishnu! The proselytisation of proselytisation without proselytism would be difficult to contend with, a very tough pill to swallow.

Hindu Dharma evidently needed containment, especially because the majority of the Indian population was Hindu, and the majority was an uncomfortable 85 percent. So the old revilement that had worked successfully with Indian royalty now turned towards Hindu Dharma.

Hindu Dharma was labelled ‘Hinduism’ and branded communal, casteist, unfair, unequal, obscurantist and fundamentalist. It failed the logic of secular British rationalism. To reiterate, the secular yardstick was rarely, if ever used for Islamic and Christian excesses, maybe because as minorities Christianity and Islam shared a ‘co-coloniser bro code’.

This had to be true because however liberal British thinkers might consider themselves, their lifestyle and culture were still as proselytising, supremacist and invasive as Islam. And while they could be at war with each other in Europe and the Middle East, here they had a common enemy– the overarching neutralising benevolence of Hindu Dharma.

If the secular yardstick had been used in 1935 on these two religions, the definition of secularism would have different connotations today. But that is not how it happened.

The Hindu Dosco grew up with the conscious guilt of the wrongs committed by his religion, even though it paled in comparison to the crimes of Islam and Christianity perpetrated on his ancient land.

The chota hazari bell tolled for the embarrassed Hindu.

In the early Doon batches, Hindu boys, unlike strangely his Muslim or Christian counterpart felt disconnected from the ways of his parents when he went home. He found them narrow minded and parochial in their thoughts and ideas.

Lessons were learnt from these failed batches and resulted in another highly successful ‘free and focussed admission of boys of old boys’ policy. With accessible admission to Doon many generations of Doscos not only severed their Hindu roots but successfully created an insular Dosco universe of shared values and ideals.

Doon became an elaborately structured and well regulated ecosystem with red cards and yellow cards, (YCs and RCs) and strict dress codes. Today the Dosco old boys network is considered one of the most powerful in the world.

This ecosystem works on the principles of a Darwinian ‘beau ideal’, as termed by Sanjay Shrivastava in ‘Constructing Post-Colonial India: National Character and the Doon School’.

To clarify, for the Dosco Eton will always be outside the ecosystem and the irredeemably unachievable ‘beau ideal’. A beau ideal that can only be strived for, and striving itself was the only manifestly achievable goal. You could walk like the duck and talk like the duck but you could never be ‘the’ duck.

In this Darwinian system the focus on competitive and contact sport and the peer power of ‘monitors’ and ‘prefects’ created an adhesive and closely bonded culture of first among equals. This was competition that could be savagely brutal in a ‘Lord of the Flies’ kind of way. One where young ‘sissy’ Vikram Seth probably cried himself to sleep every night. The fittest who survived would ‘successfully’ become the future leaders of the country. The remaining would be content as grateful followers.

Those who took the Doon-St. Stephens-Oxford route were the stuff prime ministers and ministers were made of. Of course this was at a time when St. Stephens was not considered a minority college, as it is today, and Oxford was not considered the mothership of regressive British liberalism, again, as it is today.

Then, Oxford was simply, the mothership.

Doon School alumni like Ram Chandra Guha, Prannoy Roy, Karan Thapar and Mani Shankar Aiyer brought the national identity project to mature fruition by becoming the mostly undisputed thought leaders and gatekeepers of this uniquely Doon pedagogical process.

Families that could not afford Doon or schools like Doon or could not get their sons admitted because they did not have the ‘old boys’ bloodline did the next best thing to a Doon School education.

They followed the followers of the beau ideal. And as is usual in such circumstances the more the distance from the beau ideal, more the fanatic zeal to achieve it.

In a lineage conscious country, those without an illustrious background or any remarkable family history to hark back on, are observably still the most frenzied in their striving, because getting anointed by the beau ideal gives them the stamp of respectability.

Thus there became the seculars who were more secular than the seculars themselves. A lot like the brown sahibs who were more sahib than the sahib himself.

In the early days of Doon, lunch was Indian and dinner always continental. Resultantly, the Dosco not only ate his Indian meal with a fork and knife, he ate his chapati folded like a bread roll.

He would however laugh at someone who ate a dosa with a fork and knife as ‘trying too hard.’ It would obviously be a joke on someone lower down in the food chain, as a generation lost in hankering for the unachievable beau ideal.

Such was the ecosystem that survived up till almost the close of the millennium.

Every Indian who wanted to be known as ‘educated’, diligently tried to reach the beau ideal of an Indian secular identity. The Doon School model was thus now being replicated and operational in every household that aspired for the ‘educated Indian’ label. That would include pretty much all school going Indians.

‘Liberal secular’ is still an irrevocably aspirational identity to have. It has jobs, is good for your career, gives the right image. It means you are educated.

Though it still pays well to be an Indian secular, the Dosco sub culture started losing its Darwinian battle for survival in the 90s, around the time when the Doon continental dinner was done away with and the boys refused to eat Tandoori chicken with a fork and knife.

By the turn of the millennium parents figured out that Doon School was not only expensive it was fast becoming anachronistic. The local boy could speak better English, had more fire in his belly at the sports field and could crack the competitive exams faster than a Dosco ever could. The local school was a jugad that worked better than the imported brand.

But even then the Secular Indian identity was still not tarnished, it was still sought after. The beau ideal illusion finally crashed a few years ago with the technological blowback of mobile data.

The bete noir of woke folk- Whatsapp University. Suppressed history started crawling out of the woodwork, flying in the face of political realities.

How come the Dosco knew about King Alfred the Great, and the Norman conquests, but not the Inquisitions of Goa?

Why was the beauty of Mughal architecture discussed, but never the ravages of Islamic radicalisation? Why was Taimur’s barbarism never mentioned in school curricula, and did he really decorate crossroads with Hindu skulls?

Is it true that the inception of three warrior communities, Rajput, Maratha and Sikh were seeded to defend the defenceless from Islam?

How come the regressive and rare practice of sati is a known fact but no one, not even Wikipedia knows of Rampyari Gurjar, the woman who raised an army to fight Taimur and possibly fatally wounded him?

What secrets were kept from the general public about the partition of India? How fake was the fake news? How true are the conspiracy theories?

Could it be, back then, the chota hazari bell tolled for the ignorant Indian?

As social media and time and circumstance dismantles the Indian secularism edifice, two key collateral damages lie in the rubble of its deconstruction.

The first is a reality that whenever confronted with danger Hinduism has always adapted itself into a more virulent form. Over time, contextualising and territorializing a boundary-less ancient wisdom that had been transmitted orally in sanctuaries and hermitages slowly made Hinduism take on the expression of its detractors.

To protect women who had once been the embodiment of the goddess, purdah was incorporated and new social malpractices like sati and the widows of Vrindavan became the landmarks of Hinduism. This unfortunately is but one example.

But for Hindu Dharma, colonialism was the worst, because it created a new literate aristocracy speaking in a foreign language that reviled the ancient ways. Without patronage and scholarship, its treasures in science, medicine, arts, astronomy, literature and philosophy, probably the most advanced in the world, withered away and was lost to humanity.

Maybe not completely lost for it is still maintained and owned as a collector’s item amongst western Indologists. But in the subcontinent, this secular identity uprooted from its historicity became a venal and banal political tool in the hands of opportunists.

The second collateral damage is that the beauty and wisdom of Hindu Dharma is lost to us.

It hangs on the colonial hunter’s trophy wall as Hinduism. Exotic but barbaric, unique but ugly, easily identifiable as – communal. But not as communal as Islam and Christianity that still roam free in the post colonial jungle.

Like Nature that still needs to be rescued from the colonial hunter, the Dharma teachings of this ancient land, too, needs to be reclaimed. So that the world can understand the true meaning of secularism again.

History doesn’t need to be rewritten. History needs to be retrieved. From books written in the blood of Hindu Dharma’s martyrs.

Bibliography

List of Doon School alumni: retrieved from Wikipedia

“Constructing Post-Colonial India: National Character and the Doon School” by Sanjay Srivastava. Publisher – Routledge, 2006

“The Myth of the Aryan Invasion of India” – by Dr. David Frawley. Publisher: Voice of India, 1997


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About the Author

Shivani Singh
Shivani is an author published by Hachette and Harper Collins. Her books have also been published and translated in European languages. Her next, 'Nalanda' will be published by Amaryllis in English, Hindi and Marathi.