Why Britain Failed to Subvert the Hindu Narrative
by Bhaskar Menon on 08 Mar 2013 22 Comments

There are three main reasons why the British have not been able to co-opt and subvert the Hindu narrative as they did with that of Islam. The most important is a long-running failure to understand the nature of the faith.

By the time Vasco da Gama landed in Kerala in 1498, Europeans had long forgotten what ancient Greece and Rome knew of India. Increasing contact over the next three centuries did not improve understanding because Europeans could make little sense of a faith that had no single founder, deity or catechism.

It was not until the “Orientalist” discoveries of ancient Sanskrit works in the late 18th century that Europeans began to understand basic Hindu tenets. However, even as knowledge of ancient India set off an “Oriental Renaissance” in Europe, the East India Company took measures to bring back ignorance: it could not countenance admiration for a country the British were supposedly civilizing. The Company commissioned and published two books of racist calumny, John Mills’ “History of British India,” and “Hindu Manners and Customs” by the French missionary Abbe Jean-Antoine Dubois.

Mills was a journeyman journalist who had never been to India and knew none of its languages; the Abbe had fled the French Revolution to Pondicherry and, after a year in which he made not a single convert, took to going around dressed as a Brahmin to find out why.

Their comically ignorant books presented Indians as religious primitives with a chaos of gods, superstitions, repulsive practices and quaint philosophical beliefs. The impact of the books is evident in countless English books, articles and films that are a Rorschach test of British fears and fantasies about Hinduism. While that helped the East India Company justify its rule of India, it did not facilitate manipulation of Hindus.

A second reason the British never got a grip on the Hindu narrative was that Indian custodians of ancient tradition avoided contact with people they considered mad and mleccha. Those forced into intimacy by economic or political need were of little use in manipulating the community as a whole.

The third factor was the intellectual and moral quality of Indian leadership. From Rammohun Roy in the 18th century to Vivekananda, Tilak, Gandhi and Ambedkar, there was a formidable and unwavering line of Hindu defense. The British managed to poison inter-caste relations but that did not affect a cultural unity forged over millennia; even at the height of his disgust with high caste bigotry Ambedkar never lost sight of that irreducible reality. When the British tried to create a separate electorate for the lowest castes, seeking to replicate their success in splitting a faction of Muslims from the nationalist mainstream, Gandhi went on a “fast unto death” to prevent it.

This is not to say that the British did not succeed in taking control of the overall Indian narrative by conceptualizing its history in communal terms and by outright fabrications such as the “Aryan invasion theory” postulating an imaginary proto-European parent of Indian civilization. But that was as much self-deception as it was manipulation. In fact, the invention of the “Aryan Race” proved disastrous for Britain: it became the basis for the racist ideology of Nazi Germany and, in one of history’s rich ironies, mobilized under the Swastika the armies that demolished its capacity to hold onto India. Another exercise in self-deception, the bombastic claim that the British had “invented Hinduism,” did not have the least effect on Indians but it blurred British understanding of Indian realities, especially Gandhi’s massive political power.

The only way the British could get a manipulative handle on Hindus was through communal violence, and it is instructive to look at how they managed it.

By the time the British took power in Bengal in 1757, Islam in India had undergone a long process of adaptation. Most notably, it had developed the indigenous Sufi tradition that moved it towards other Indian faiths and indeed, brought it a large Hindu following.

The ruling elites of the country helped that interfaith melding. Shivaji, now an icon for Hindu intolerance, had Muslims at every level in his army and endowed Sufi shrines; Aurangzeb, remembered for his imposition of the hated Jaziya (tax on non-Muslims) and persecution of the Sikhs, also employed people of all religions and extended support for temples.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the easy coexistence of those times more than Netaji Palkar, one of Shivaji’s commanders who joined the Mughal army, converted to Islam, and fought for ten years against the Afghans under the name of Quli Mohammed Khan; after that he returned without fuss to Shivaji's service and Hinduism.

Against that background, it is easy to see why Hindu-Muslim differences were not a factor in the century-long expansion of British rule in India: the treacheries that helped them were within the communities, not between them. The British focus shifted only after the 1857 uprising made clear that their rule could not survive if Hindus and Muslims were to unite in more effective opposition.

To prevent that from happening became a primary aim of Britain's India policy. Initially, it involved no more than playing favorites with patronage to promote elite jealousies. The British were also deft at creating communal distrust. When an important section of the Muslim intelligentsia lost its livelihood because courts in north India stopped using Persian, the British blamed the change on “pressure” from Hindus. That was a laughable proposition in the prevailing circumstances, but it deflected blame and embittered Hindu-Muslim relations. By misrepresenting Hindu protests at the increasing slaughter of cows for British consumption as anti Muslim (at a time when the community, in the Arab-Persian tradition, ate mainly mutton), the regime created an enduring hot-button issue.

Divisive maneuvers became more overt after the Indian National Congress (founded in 1885) began to focus on Hindu-Muslim commonalities.

As the number of Muslim delegates to the annual sessions of the Congress rose from two to 22 percent and leaders like Mohammad Ali Jinnah assumed national prominence, the British split Bengal along communal lines and prompted the formation of the All India Muslim League. A few years later, the shadowy creation of the Hindu Mahasabha gave the British a Hindu proxy as well. Despite their grandiloquent names both were tiny organizations with little political appeal, especially at a time when Hindu-Muslim amity was at an all-time high because of Congress backing for the pan-Islamic Khilafat movement to safeguard the Caliph in the wake of Turkey’s defeat in World War I.


However, the atmosphere changed radically after the Khilafat movement dissolved in the wake of Kemal Ataturk’s abolition of the Turkish Caliphate and the eruption of the “Maplah (Muslim) Rebellion” in Kerala.

The British were clearly behind the Maplah violence in a province where Islam, Christianity and Hinduism had coexisted peacefully for many centuries. The poor and largely illiterate Maplahs were stirred by talk that they would be invulnerable to all weapons in a jihad for a new Caliphate. Although it was supposedly anti-British, their spree of murder and rapine turned against their Hindu neighbors. As I explain in 1001 Things Every Indian Should Know, these developments came in the wake of a major effort by Spymaster John Arnold-Wallinger to expand the assets of the Indian Political Intelligence Office, a coincidence historians have yet to explore.

In the wake of Gandhi’s first great non-cooperation movement in 1920 the British activated important new proxies to carry forward their new divisive agenda.

One was Mohammad Ali Jinnah, just a few years earlier the “Ambassador of Hindu Muslim unity.” He had self-destructed politically within the Congress by eloping, at the age of 42, with the 18-year old daughter of an influential Parsi leader of the party. Although he made not the least pretence of being an observant Muslim, Jinnah became the leader of the League.

On the Hindu side, the British got as proxy the fiery patriot Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who they broke with brutal and degrading torture at the notorious “Cellular Jail” at Port Blair in the Andamans. Months into a 50-year sentence Savarkar wrote a letter pleading for mercy and promised in another to do whatever the British wanted. In 1923 he wrote the tract Hindutva, setting out a Hindu version of the League’s “two nation” theory; it argued that Muslims must submit to the dominance of the Hindu majority. After release in 1924 he lived in a pleasant bungalow the British provided in Ratnagiri and in 1927, despite being a professed atheist, he took over as the head of the Hindu Mahasabha.

Two years earlier, BS Moonje, a doctor from Nagpur who had served with the British Army in the Boer War, had established the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (National Self-Service Society). It inculcated strongly anti-Muslim views in idealistic Hindu youth and trained them to become a source of thuggish street muscle to counter the Muslim community's capacity for violence.

With the help of two godless men at the helm of rival communal organizations, the British then set about ratcheting up the Hindu-Muslim “riots” that destroyed Indian unity. Writing about this period, the American journalist William Shirer noted that it was difficult to find out how many of India’s communal riots “were incited by the British in their effort to keep both communities at each other’s throats so that they could not unite in their drive for self-rule.” He quoted the British Chief of Police in Bombay saying “almost as a joke – that it was very easy to provoke a Hindu-Muslim riot. For a hundred dollars, he said, you could start something really savage. Pay some Muslims to throw the carcass of a cow into a Hindu temple, or some Hindus to toss a dead pig into a mosque, and you could have, he said, a bloody mess, in which a lot of people would be knifed, beaten and killed.”

Based on the author’s book, 1001 Things Every Indian Should Know

Next: Partition and Beyond

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