Thursday, 16 July 2020

India doesn't want to know

This essay is a continuation of this previous essay.

“Both parties, however, agreed on the need to codify the laws of India's communities”

Ironically, Jones translated Manu Smriti into English. After this, British courts ruled Hindus according to it, and Muslims according to Sharia which he also translated. The British for the most part, did not mess around with Hindu law, on marriage (including polygamy and child marriage), caste, food habits, property rights, temple administration, festivals, rituals, etc. They siezed whole kingdoms from kings, they killed Indian shipping, they indulged in the slave trade etc, but this was par for the course. The greatest change they implemented was the abolition of sati, which was a practice limited to royalty, and a few very very rich Indians, with pretensions of royalty. 

If both the Anglicists and the Orientalists agreed on the “need to codify the laws of Indian communities,” they did very little about it. People like John Shore, the head of the East India Company, who later became Lord Teignmouth, and wrote a biography of William Jones, were passionately Christian, and wrote reams of paper hoping to turn India into a Christian country (Jones himself also wrote letters professing deep Christian belief, and wishing the benevolence of Christianity upon this poor pagan nation, once glorious, now decayed), but one wonders if they were playing to the gallery in London; especially to morally opprobious critics of the like of Edmund Burke. Jones may have been defending himself of the grave charge of turning Hindu himself, like Charles Stuart before him.

What Indians miss, especially Hindus, is how dramatically England and Europe transformed – socially, economically, politically – during this Orientalist phase. Far far far more than India. The industrial revolution, Adam Smith’s economics, the defeat of four Napoleons, the terrifying possibility of the French revolution repeating elsewhere, exposure to very different and strange countries and cultures, the astounding heritage of these cultures, rediscovered by Orientalists, increasing literacy in Europe, increasing living standards, all had a transformative effect – very much like the transformation China has undergone in the last forty years, since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Discoveries in biology, like fossils and dinosaurs, microbes and inoculation, drastically reduced the power of the Church, and increased the influence of intellectuals and scientists. The overthrow of the four elements theory by Lavoisier was as significant as the discoveries of Newton and Galileo, or Darwin’s theory of evolution, but it doesn’t get even a fraction of the attention. Different denominations of churches spurted out in England, especially, and a vast army of curates and vicars and bishops and clergy, deeply delved into science – remember Gregor Mendel was a monk; and Darwin almost became a priest.

Joseph Priestley, who discovered carbon dioxide, that plants and animals breathed differently, and produced “different airs”, started his own church, which was burnt down, and he escaped England into the welcoming arms of Thomas Jefferson’s America.

India did not become more English during this era. England became less English.

The single biggest legal social and political reform in India was the abolition of slavery, in 1843. They sepoy mutiny, the abolition of sati, the abolition of untouchability(yes, even that), raising the age of marriage, abolition of princely kingdoms, abolition of the devadasi system, transformation from monarchy to democracy, the unification of 540 kingdoms and zamindari territories, the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan – the two world wars, the famines(yes, even famines), the plagues – all of these pale into comparison, when you consider the abolition of slavery. It is the elephant in the room of history that nobody talks about.

Neither the Anglicists nor the Orientalists in the 1780s even imagined that particular reform. Slavery was still in vogue in Europe. They didn’t imagine the French revolution or the steam engine either. Slavery was abolished in India, not because there were raging social movements or national hunger strikes or threat of revolution by Indian soldiers in the British or other armed forces, but because, in my opinion, technology made it possible to live in a human society without slavery. This is my opinion, I may be totally wrong. Who imagined that the USA would elect a half-black President in 2008, that he would invade Libya, destroy it - and bring back slave markets?! Or that it would be completely not worthy of news or discussion, at all? Well 1843 seems to be a good precursor to this.

Are there any monuments, statues, memorial buildings, celebratory festivals, durbars, even nautch performances celebrating the abolition of slavery in India? Too inconvenient. It is simply not in the collective conscience of the country.

Almost every single Indian pretends that colonial rule itself was a form of slavery, while Indians owning, selling, buying other Indians was nothing significant or egregious. One explanation is that colonial powers merely replaced it with indentured labor, which was “practically the same as slavery”, so they should not get any credit whatsover. Indentured labour was terrible, but it wasn’t slavery. But it may easier to expain algebra to a snail, than convince anyone of this.

We seem to believe that Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in the USA, and the rest of the world magically eradicated it too. Except slavery ended in India, twenty years BEFORE Lincoln ended it in the USA.

We love to pretend that 1947 was the end of real slavery.

Also we simply don’t study the history of law in India. I think most people believe law is something the British gave us. If we don’t, we secretly believe British law was far better than Hindu law, but we don’t want to be caught praising them.

Back to the Indian Constitution.

Only in 1947 did we decide that none of our ancient Smritis is relevant. The Constituent Assembly created a Constitution, guided by those of the USA, France, USSR, Ireland etc with long history in Roman law. We chose a unitary over a federal constitution, parliamentary versus presidential form of government, universal adult franchise, abolition of untouchability.

This replaced the Hindu legal system. Notice that I say Hindu  legal system, not Hindu law. Hindu law has a long history of reform, including under British rule. We learn nothing about Hindu law in schools, in society, in art, in literature, in public entertainment, or even in social discourse.  It is all about how the Gandhi led Congress was heroically fighting the British.  One of these days, we will have a history book that tells us General Manekshaw liberated Bangladesh by going on a salt satyagraha in Dhaka and a hunger strike in Chittagong. It will be a two mark question in a history exam, and by God, two marks in a test are more important than actual history.

Manu was not the only smriti of India, it was one of eighteen, but definitely the most popular and widely used. There were several overlapping concepts among these smritis, and as inscriptions of kings through several centuries attest, a scholar need only know one of these to be a royal official, minister, judge etc. I consider these smritis as akin to the aadhara shruti of a Carnatic singer or traditional singer vs the standardized frequencies in western music, which I think are akin to the unitary Constitutions of almost every democracy. In fact, we see this dominant unitary global standard in European thought - the SI units, universal human rights, Generally Accepted Accounting Practices(GAAP), patent law, architecture standards, road standards, uniform sizes of shipping containers, banking standards, internet protocols, 110V/240V, etc.

  • Different agamas for different temples
  • Choice of astronomy texts - Surya Siddhanta or Pitamaha siddhanta or another, and hence the calendar, almanac or panchangam
  • Choice of silpa sastras for temple, house, and town planning
  • a variety of religious philosphies
  • Local autonomy for administration and certain forms of taxation
  • Variations in property rights, including community trusteeship, like public land, pasture land, forests, water sources
  • Autonomy of merchant guilds to govern themselves, and even set tax and lending rates; and even build mercantile forts (which is why Fort St George, Fort St William etc were allowed - as mercantile forts).

 Whereas in India, in every aspect of art and technology the artist or artisan had freedom to innovate.     

I will stop here. I just think historians, especially Indian historians, do a very poor job of understanding or analysing all of this. And society, for the most part, is happy with this. The white supremacist colonial narrative drowns out the hard facts of far superior technology, military, finance/trade and administrative marvels that the English discovered or invented to transform themselves, while Indians were practically stagnating.

Related Links 

Should April 7 be India's real independence day

History essays


  1. A few thoughts that crossed my mind - Europeans had indeed found all the old civilizations in steep decline.
    Any process has its peaks and toughs. And there is a common thread of the Islamic invasion.
    A traumatised civilization can never be it's original self.
    The chronicles of the Islamic invaders are yet to be brought into public domain India's experience -
    - 1325 The reign of Thuglaq
    - 1335 - Madurai Sultanate
    - 1498 - Vasco da Gama in Calicut
    - 1525 - Babur
    - 1527 - Deccan Sultanate
    - 1530 - Portuguese establish Goa as Capital Coastal India faces problems from the Portuguese and the Dutch
    - 1556 - Akbar's Ascension
    - 1565 - Battle of Talikota

    - 1600 - The English East India Company
    - 1602 - Dutch East India Company
    - 1658 - Aurangzeb's long reign begins
    - 1645 - Shivaji Maharaj's slogan - Swaraj, Swadharma and Go Raksha well depicts the civilization's struggle for Survival
    - 1717 - The Mughal empire existed only in name.
    The task of survival had itself been a herculean effort .

    The sea routes had come under the power of the Europeans and the lands in the north and west had become unsafe for Kafirs.

    And to criticise the Hindus for not evolving, or knowing about the paradigm shift that was happening in Europe seems unfair.

    Europe's emergence from the dark ages coincides with its increased contact with other lands and civilizations, emigration of it's excess population to the newly conquered lands ( aided with the Christian theology that they are more entitled than others) and inflow of enormous resources.

    I am unable to remain eternally in awe but wish to analyse how that came about -

    A study on the both the internal and external factors that made the Indics lose our common sense and meander into the dark ages. ����

    1. This is an excellent timeline. You should start writing a blog.

      I dont think we lost our common sense or meandered into dark ages. India managed to avoid dark ages in spite of all the invasion and devastation

  2. India might have had slavery in her past.

    Hindus were as human as anyone else. But is there a need to be apologetic for not being Super human Saints ?
    - Life requires several resources of which assistance from fellow humans is one
    - A dharmic approach calls for commitment to one's duty to ensure what is received is repaid.
    - Sacrifice where it is called for
    - Some would try to identify the weakness / need in others to have their services for wages or on any other transactional basis
    - The more aggressive would find people on whom they may wield an undue advantage and enslave them

    - Not all can gloss over the guilt and not feel an inherent compassion

    - So there was a need for Religious theologies that seek to segregate
    Humans to justify their cruelty and silence their nagging doubts.
    - People raised on such beliefs have had no qualms on any cruelty including slavery.

    The question here is, do the vedas ordain that some people deserve to be slaves?

    In any case, when societies that have committed multiple levels of cruelty go Scot free , why should Hindus discuss a practice they had given up long ago. We are already burdened with the caste issue which would require several more rounds of discussions and mulling over. 🙏🙏