The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page

Get the real picture

The first— and last — Australian to hold high office under the British raj was R.G. Casey. He served as Governor of the Bengal Presidency between 1944 and 1946, a time of famine and civil war, and acquitted himself honourably. Although a loyal servant of the raj, Casey was yet broadminded enough to befriend Mahatma Gandhi. Not long after he left Calcutta, Casey published a little book entitled An Australian in India. This spoke of his meetings with Indians known and unknown, and offered en passant a magisterial prediction as regards the future of this land. “The end of British political control in India”, wrote Casey, “will not mean the departure of the British, as individuals, from India. It will not be possible for many years ahead for India to do without a large number of British individuals in government service. They will remain under contract to the Government of India and to the governments of the Provinces and States in a wide range of administrative, legal, medical, police and professional and technical appointments. It will be many years before India will be able to fill, from amongst her own sons, all the many senior positions under the government that the administration of her 400 million people makes necessary.”

In the event, that help was not asked for, nor was it needed. Some million refugees had to be resettled —most of them were, and by Indians. Five hundred (and more) princely states had to be integrated — all but one of them were, and by Indians. A secular, democratic constitution had to be drafted and free and fair elections conducted — they were, by Indians. Appropriate foreign and economic policies had to be designed for the new and vulnerable nation — they were, by Indians.

The making of independent India is a truly heroic story, neglected by historians of left and right, both unwilling to give credit to the remarkable group of liberal, democratic, middle-of-the-road politicians who built a nation from a hundred disputatious fragments. This group included such men as B.R. Ambedkar, J.B. Kripalani, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, and C. Rajagopalachari. Nor were these heroes all politicians. Some were civil servants, such as the architect of India’s electoral system, Sukumar Sen, and the architect of refugee resettlement in the Punjab, Sardar Tarlok Singh. R.G. Casey’s prediction that India, as an independent concern, could be kept going only by a bunch of white-skinned foreigners went spectacularly awry.

Let me now turn to a series of predictions made by another Australian in India, the scholar-diplomat Walter Crocker. I wrote in my last column about Crocker’s fine but sadly forgotten book about Jawaharlal Nehru. On page 165 of that book he wrote that “it is probable that when the dust has settled Nehru’s achievements as ruler will be scaled down. Scaling down is a common fate for statesmen no less than for writers. It happened with Roosevelt; it will probably happen with Churchill and De Gaulle. The scaling down might be on India as much as on Nehru… In the words of Alberto Moravia, the Italian novelist (who visited India and was much taken with Nehru), with Nehru’s death India enters a prose epoch.”

This is a forecast that has proved to be uncannily prescient. In his lifetime, Jawaharlal Nehru was the people’s prince, a man more greatly beloved of the Indian public than Gandhi. But since his death, Nehru’s reputation has swiftly fallen. He has been dumped upon from all sides — by free-marketeers and by communist revolutionaries, by Hindu radicals and by Gandhian Greens.

Other predictions made by Crocker, about India in general rather than Nehru in particular, have also stood the test of time. At the time he wrote his book, in the Sixties, there was much concern about whether Indian democracy would survive Nehru’s death. Aldous Huxley was only the most brilliant of a clutch of Western intellectuals who thought — and argued — that with Nehru gone, India would come under army rule or become a fascist dictatorship. Crocker however insisted that “those who know India well mostly feel that somehow, and in the end, and despite all the signs to the contrary, and all the strains on stability, she will come through and will remain more or less what she is now, namely the Parliamentary Democracy which Nehru left behind him. The Indians share with the British a long-term preference for the middle of the road.”

While India would most likely remain democratic, the form and content of this democracy would undergo major changes. “It is unlikely”, remarked Crocker, “that there will be a place in India again for a ruler like Nehru — the aristocratic liberal humanist.” He believed that “if India is not run by dictators, Rightist, or Leftist, or Militarist, she will be run by politicians, more and more drawn from, or conditioned by, the outcastes and the low castes. For this is the majority, and, thanks to the ballot-box, it will be the votes of the majority which will set up and pull down governments; votes won through promising more and more to the needy and the many.”

Forty years down the line, we can see Crocker’s prediction being fulfilled in good measure. Westernized Brahmins like Jawaharlal Nehru, once so dominant in Indian politics, now find no place in it. The main movers and players are drawn from the lower orders, representing — in varying degrees — the backward castes which constitute the majority of the electorate. And so, as Crocker wrote, “in abolishing the British raj, and in propagating ideas of equality…, Nehru and the upper-class Indian nationalists of English education abolished themselves. Nehru destroyed the Nehrus.”

The last of Crocker’s predictions that I shall quote concerns the part of India where I myself live and work. “South India has counted for too little in the Indian Republic”, wrote this Australian diplomat in 1966. He continued: “This is a waste for India as well as an unfairness to South India, because the South has a superiority in certain important things — in its relative lack of violence, its lack of anti-Muslim intolerance, its lack of indiscipline and delinquency in the Universities; in its better educational standards, its better government, and its cleanliness; in its far lesser practice of corruption and its little taste for Hindu revivalism. If the English language is saved to India as a living language it is the South which will save it.”

Once more, one must give this political astrologer close to full marks. South India does matter much more to the Indian republic, now that the freeing of the economy from the clutches of the state has unleashed the potential that Crocker had sensed lay submerged underneath. The rise of the South has indeed owed a great deal to its having “little taste for Hindu revivalism”, to its better schools and colleges, to its love of English, and — a factor not mentioned by Crocker — to its relatively more emancipated womenfolk.

Most predictions about India that I have seen, whether made by historians or journalists, Indians or foreigners, have met the same fate as R.G. Casey’s — that is, they have been largely falsified by later events, by, if you will, history. Truth be told, even Walter Crocker could be wrong sometimes, as when he claimed that “the population problem…is the first problem in India, and the gravest by far.” (India’s young population, its ‘demographic dividend’, is now reckoned to be among its greatest strengths.)

Still, he was more often right than any other commentator on modern India that I know of.

Email This Page