The Content of the Hegemony: Defining the British Identity
Even though Britain of 1757-1835 was not much different from Bharat of the same period, and in many ways was worse off, the British had one major advantage. After the initial period during which the motley riff-raff of the East India Company forces were the norm, Britain, being ten thousand miles away, could stage manage their image in Bharat. To remind the native of his “Place” the forms of the identity were very precisely defined. The club, the dinner jacket, the scotch and soda, the Ball, the Hunt, the separate housing quarters, the hill stations were some of his accouterments.
In the identity set created by the hegemon, the subject is the negative opposite, which permits the definition of the master as all light and good and superior. Physically, the Bharatiya was defined as small and dark – they were “wogs” or “niggers”. The English were tall, fair and the epitome of beauty and Bharatiyas vied to look as close as they could to the Europeans. Even though by 1823, England had been exposed to the full panoply of Bharatiya ‘type’, Macaulay, the chief architect of the Anglican program insisted on defining the Hindu identity based on their assessment of the Bengali Babu. The Hindu was a coward: weak, passive, docile, cunning, shifty, fawning, otherworldly and superstitious.
One of the motives for creating an empire was to spread Christianity – the religion itself proclaimed that this was the mission of its adherents. Christianity is also an apt religion for those who want to oppress another group. Its whole theology and philosophy is pervaded by the Manichean duality of light conquering darkness, saved versus sinner, God versus Devil. There is no halfway house – one had to discard all of one’s old beliefs and accept the new dispensation hook, line and sinker. There is only one way, and that is the way of the Europeans…it was easy to slide from the demand of the religion to the demand of the hegemony.
Christianity was defined as rational, and free of the superstitions that bedeviled Hinduism. Its calculation of the moment of creation of the earth as 23rd October 4004 BC at 9 am was accepted as scientific, while the Hindu claim of the universe being billions of years old was categorized as “ridiculous”.
Hindu Dharma on the other hand, was a mass of depravity, idolatry and superstitions such as suttee or wife- burning and “cow worship”. Its underlying philosophy was “other-worldly” and unscientific. The Hindu was labeled “spiritual” and this essentialist tag has remained the most enduring purported Hindu characteristic. Even revolutionary thinkers like Swami Vivekanand accepted this tag. A typical statement of this position was made by Max Muller who is generally thought to be positive towards Hindu when he declared that the Hindu character was ‘not the active, the combative, the acquisitive but the passive, the meditative and the reflective.’ The British thus defined “spiritual” as specifically apposed to “physical”. “Spiritual” connoted ethereal, wispy and feminine qualities.
This deliberate selection of non- physicality as a Hindu trait directly addressed, and helped to neutralize the physical response which would have been most appropriate to their subjugation. Leaders who espoused such a course of course of action could be branded as deviants, while those who pushed the “spiritual” course were encouraged. This was the sole reason for the success of Mohandas Gandhi’s success in ‘mobilising” the Bharatiya masses. He played right into the hands of the British.
The irony was that in the Hindu definition of “spirituality”, i.e. Yoga, there was never any dichotomy between bodily and mental techniques in one’s Sadhana or spiritual path. Hatha Yoga, which focuses on physical conditioning, is a perquisite for Raj yoga, which delves into meditative techniques. In the spread of Hindu Dahrma across Bharat, it was more often the spiritual Rishis rather than the warrior Kshatriyas who led the way into the virgin jungles.
The Hindu social system received the harshest criticism since this was an aspect of Hindu life that was visible to all. Hindu social practice was defined as dominated by casteism, child-marriages, and prohibition of widow remarriage and cow worship. The historical context of these practices were overlooked. The British castigated the Bharatiya for the deficiencies but neglected that the England of the era was about as caste ridden – with strong sanctions for the nobility marrying commoners. Additionally the British never mentioned that much of their wealth was built on the backs of slaves. The British boasted about the equality of their system, even as women were denied the franchise.
Hindu politics was mired in despotism and venality. Hindus lacked any “national consciousness” and Bharat was really a “sub-continent” with a variety of peoples. The Bharatiyas, even though their civilization had predated Britain’s by several millennia, could not be trusted to govern themselves: they were not ready. Liberalism was the culmination of centuries of evolution and was the political philosophy for all societies. Never mind that its premises about the centrality of the individual was irrelevant in societies such as Bharat’s.
Literature and Arts
Hindu literature and art were a-historical, “absurd legends” created with overwrought techniques. In England the students at the very best schools, such as Oxford and Cambridge, had to study the literature of the Greeks and the Romans. Homer and Ovid were required reading for any undergraduate. Yet Bharat was the first place where “English Literature” was taught as a subject.
The history of Britain was blended into that of Greece, home of democracy and logic. Bharat, on the other hand, was conceded to have made some achievements but these were the product of Aryans who had invaded Bharat about 1500 years before Christ. The contributions were not really Bharat’s.
Philosophy and Science
The philosophy of Britain rode on the successes of the scientific revolution unleashed by Bacon’s contribution to the scientific method and Newton’s contribution to Physics. The positivist scientific philosophy was contraposed to the otherworldly, fantastic speculations of the Hindu.
The Result: Aestheticisation of Force
Even though force, supported by treachery, bribery, vice and venality were the instruments of the British conquest of Bharat, with the sole purpose of deepening economic exploitation, this did not quite coincide with the image the British projected within the paradigm, of them being incorruptible, just and godlike. To correct this inconsistency, the facts were simply re-written. According to the British, Bharat was not conquered for “gold” (its economic wealth), or “glory” (political expansionism), or “god” (religious fulfillment), but was ruled purely for the benefit of the Bharatiyas. This altruism supposedly sprung from the British desire to: establish peace amongst the “squabbling and warring peoples” in Bharat, bring civilization to Bharatiyas, eradicate inhuman social practices, establish law and order, develop the Bharatiya economy, save the souls of heathen Bharatiyas etc, etc.
All these had to be accomplished stoically, for it was the white man’s burden. As the subject accepts this view – that he is being ruled for his own good – the true nature of the relationship, which is ultimately based on naked force, is masked. This force, as explained above, is aestheticised through the inculcation of the moral premises.
Much of this process can be seen in the institutions of British rule as they created a political system in which the Bharatiya saw them as moral and just rulers – even as they were raping the country. British political theorists, such as J.S. Mill (who not so incidentally was an employee of the East India Company) proposed the paradigm in which the Bharatiya and other colonised peoples were ensnared: The British Government should be moral. Morality demands that consent should replace force as legitimacy to rule. Consent should be given by “informed” persons. These “informed persons”, however could only be formed by the British education system. The circularity of the argument needs no further elaboration.
The aestheticisation of the true nature of the source of British conquest and rule- naked force – serves to give the dominated a more pleasing aesthetic ‘feeling’ about his predicament. The force however, is always in reserve and at any time if the subject challenges the system frontally, the mask is ripped off and brutal force is inflicted, as has occurred on numerous occasions in Bharat and elsewhere. One can be killed for one’s own good. But more importantly, it side-tracts the efforts of those Bharatiyas who dissatisfied with British rule for any number of reasons, attacked the purported bases of British power; for example, they are accused of the “violation of democratic norms”, which are stipulational to begin with – this is the projection of social maya.
The second consequence of the aestheticisation of force is even more insidious and far- reaching. It springs the trap of an inferior identity onto the Bharatiya and maneuvers him into a course of action in which, no matter how vigorously and consistently he struggles, that becomes an exercise in futility. The result arises out of the existent reality, which the Bharatiya had to deal with every day – the rule by the British over Bharat, which demonstrated their superiority. The Bharatiya begins at the initial: Whites are superior. I am not White. Therefore I am inferior.
After the aestheticisation of force through the imposition of the hegemony, the Bharatiya moves to: Since Whites are superior because of their culture, If I want to escape being inferior and be equal I must assume their culture. The Bharatiya becomes a “good” Bharatiya; he struggles to be better at things English that the English, he always has to prove himself. Always defensive, he constantly seeks approval from his ideal. He never moves to: Whites are superior because of physical and symbolic forces. If I want to escape feeling inferior and be equal, I must overcome the force and hegemony with superior force and a counter-hegemony. The necessity for armed rebellion and violence as valid means of gaining freedom are delegitimised.
Hegemony and Struggle in Bharat
The aestheticising of force sidetracked the efforts of those who may have been dissatisfied with British rule for any number of reasons, into futile attacks on the purported bases of power, which were fictional to begin with – the content of its paradigm. This consequence is exemplified vividly in the careers of four leaders who passed through the hegemonic apparatus – Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915) and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) on one hand, and Balwantrao Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) and Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945) on the other.
Gokhale (pronounced Go-ka-lay) was a protégé of Justice Ranade (1842-1901), one of the first Bharatiyas to occupy such a high judicial position during British rule and a member of the first graduating class of Bombay University. As a twenty-year old, Ranade founded the “Society for the Encouragement of Widow Remarriage” and later petitioned the House of Commons against the Vernacular Press Act by pleading that “freedom of thought and speech is a right to
which all subjects of the British Crown are entitled by their birth and allegiance.” Gokhale, also a product of the British newly- instituted educational system, accepted the stated premises of British rule. In reference to Macaulay’s Minute of 1835, he said, “Britain had been called upon to make her choice between two courses – to try to bring up the people of Bharat in ignorance and superstition, or to open to them the floodgates of Western knowledge and thereby aim at gradually raising them to the level of her own sons. And the choice that she made was only worthy of her noble traditions” (link).
Gokhale continued his mentor’s efforts to alleviate the problems by “working from within” the British system in a futile effort to ‘lift’ up his compatriots to British “heights”. He asserted, “I have the profoundest faith in the honour of the British nation, and if only we keep it well informed of all that passes here, I am persuaded all cause of complaint will sooner or later be removed.”
He diligently practiced his English (he had a lifelong passion for English Literature), wrote copious, fact-filled memoranda, submitted innumerable petitions, engaged in scintillating debates as he submitted proposals for constitutional reform etc. He even traveled to England where he performed before the House of Commons and to private audiences. They patted him on his head, praised his prose but acceded not to a single one of his reasonable and reasoned pleadings. He died a defeated man. The meekness and mildness of Gokhale and the “Moderates” (as the British labeled those who accepted his strategy for change) can be gauged by their rejection of Gokhale’s own protégé.