Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Was Churchill a Hitler? - Part 2. Were India's leaders Racists? Tilak, Gandhi, Patel, Ambedkar and Racial Attitudes

"This one time Inner Temple lawyer and now seditious half-naked fakir, a type well known in the East, striding up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the King Emperor's representative" said Churchill of Gandhi going to meet Lord Irwin. The phrase 'half-naked fakir' stuck and it continues to sting the hearts of many an Indian, including those who loath Gandhi, even today. But, little do Indians knows how their beloved saintly Mahatma referred to blacks in South Africa. Or as for that matter what Ambedkar wrote of Manias, Gandhi's fellow caste members. Or what Patel thought of commoners and Muslims. Or Rajaji about Dalits getting educated? Or Tilak's views on universal education? Read and learn.

Indians suffer not only from selective amnesia but from hypocrisy too, conveniently forgetting that their own icons were not all too different from Churchill when it comes to racial attitudes.

Gandhi spent one night in a South African prison, amongst his many, with African and Chinese prisoners and wrote:
"The reason why I felt so uneasy was that the Kaffir and Chinese prisoners appeared to be wild, murderous and given to immoral ways"
On being classed with Natives in prison Gandhi bristled,
"We could understand not being classed with the whites but to be placed on the same level with the Natives seemed too much"
Gandhi had to ritually purify himself for having left the shores of India to pursue education. A practice that showcases what Indians thought of foreigners. Unlike the habitual Gandhi haters I, for one, have written how, like Abraham Lincoln who did not think highly of African-Americans, Gandhi's views are to be contextualized and understood in the broader context of his later life that was spent in emancipation. This was a man who slapped his wife for refusing to clean the toilets of a lower caste member of the ashram. The lesson from the Gandhi quotes is the human instinct to view with not just suspicion alien cultures but to look down upon anything or anyone foreign. Till today I hear Indians mocking Western women for suspected licentiousness and mocking westerners for what they think as weak institutions of family life.

Gandhi (from Wikipedia)
Subramania Bharathi, firebrand poet, journalist and pamphleteer from Tamil Nadu referred to British as 'mlecchas', a derogatory term used to refer to the lower caste Hindus. Vanchinathan, an assassin,  wrote a note that uprooting the 'mleccha' from his holy soil India was his religious calling in the name of his religion, Hinduism. Both Bharathi and Vanchinathan were Brahmins, is noteworthy. Bharati's poem prophesying Independence for all, including the "evil pulaya", a lowly caste raised hackles even then. Bharathi did dedicate one of his poems to them and wrote of eradicating caste differences. Nevertheless he presented as ideal the 'Aryan'. To Brahmin Bharathi, it was the Aryan that was worthy of aspiring to and protecting. Was Churchill, by today's standards, racist towards Indians? Absolutely. But then Indians then and now quite often show smug racism towards the West and as African students recently learned in India, much worse towards Africans.

Gandhi said that Chakravarthy Rajagopalachari, called Rajaji, was his 'conscience keeper'. Rajaji, a Brahmin, disavowed casteism but as free-marketer he was not above arguing that Hinduism's much reviled Varnashrama had something to recommend as a system of organizing labor in villages. He argued if a barber's son goes off to the city to study who would do the barber's job. Little did it strike him that someone else desirous of the job or what it pays could fill in. Too often economic theories were used dress up societal iniquities.

India's poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore toured the world and raised funds for a school he established in Calcutta. Until a visit by Gandhi happened food at Shantiniketan was served separately on caste basis. A similar arrangement was done in V.V.S. Iyer's school in Tamil Nadu. Lesser known is how Pachaiyappa's college, funded by a non-Brahmin, prohibited Dalits from admissions.

If the above examples are of people who either lived a life that was more nuanced or a repudiation of their early years there are others whose ideas on race and caste went with them to the grave.

A much lamented and idolized beyond reproach leader is Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a man who rose from the lowliest of stations in life to which he was born to the high office in Independent India, including being the architect of its constitution. Having been stung by the nettles of discrimination one would expect him to be sympathetic of others but no such luck. Here is what Ambedkar thought of Banias, a community of traders to which, incidentally, his arch nemesis in politics Gandhi belonged to.
"The Bania is the worst parasitic class known to history.In him the vice of money-making is unredeemed by culture or conscience.He is like an undertaker who prospers when there is an epidemic.The only difference between the undertaker and the Bania is that the undertaker does not create an epidemic while the bania does.He does not use his money for production.He uses it to create poverty and more poverty by lending money for unproductive purposes.He lives on interest as He is told by his religion that money lending is the occupation prescribed to him by Manu,he looks upon it as both right and righteous.
 The whole of poor,starving,illiterate India is mortgaged to the Bania. To sum up,the Brahmin enslave the mind and the Bania enslave the body.Between them,they divide the spoil which belongs to the governing classes.Can anyone who realizes what the outlook,tradition and social philosophy of the governing class in India,is believe that under the congress regime,a sovereign and independent India will be different from the India we have today?"
Ambedkar's writings on Muslims in 'Thoughts on Pakistan' continues to warm the cockles of the hearts of today's Hindutva brigade, a group of Hindu fundamentalists who hold neo-Nazi beliefs about non-Hindus. That said, how did Ambedkar's attitudes shape his policies?

B.R. Ambedkar (from Wikipedia)
Of the many things that the Hindutva brigade celebrate Ambedkar for is that he was instrumental in denying independent India's most far reaching measure on providing education and jobs to only Hindu Dalits and denying it Dalit in Christianity and Islam. Among 25 million Indian-Christians 20 million are Dalits, says a website. Imagine the denial of opportunity for millions for over half-century. Dying is better than living in a society where opportunity is denied on account what religion a person is born into. I don't know how much fight, if at all, Ambedkar put up on account of Dalits in other religions.

Vallabhai Patel, considered, by those who blame Nehru for not making India a Hindu-Pakistan, the best Prime Minister India never had. Here is Ambedkar quoting a speech by 'Sardar' Patel:
"The Viceroy sent for the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, he sent for the leaders of the Muslim League and he sent for the Ghanchis (oil pressers), Mochis (cobblers) and the rest"
Following the quote, Ambedkar writes, "Although Mr. Vallabhai Patel in his malicious and stinging words referred only to Ghanchis and Mochis, his speech is indicative of the general contempt in which the governing class and the members of the Congress High Command hold the servile classes of this country"

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, called 'Lokmanya', holds a special place in the memory of every Indian who is taught in school that he issued the call for 'Self-Rule'. No school textbooks teaches Indians of a less than laudable side of Tilak, a Brahmin.

Tilak's biographers, A.K. Bhagwat and G.P. Pradhan, note, without irony or remorse that Tilak pressured the colonial regime, at the height of a plague that was sweeping across Poona, to give separate quarters in hospitals, not just for ladies, for 'upper class' men too.

Historian Stanley Wolpert charts the ebb and flow of Tilak's ideas on India being a "Hindu state" and of various people in various states cannot "have one nationality". When a colonial official wanted to open a school for girls Tilak railed against it and waxed eloquent on the duties of girls as per Hindu Dharma. Commenting on the case of Rakhamabai, an educated woman who refused to go to her much older husband after her father's death, Tilak wrote "if a woman does not go to her husband she should be punished by the king, and if she disobeys the king's order she should be imprisoned" and then helpfully compared her to a eunuch from India's epic story Mahabharata, Shikandi.

Faced with opposition from reactionary Hindus to raising the 'age of consent' for marriage and sex from 10 to 12 (yes that was the age) the Colonial government balked until a 11 year Phulmani Bhai died of lacerations during intercourse in 1890. Tilak, Wolpert notes, did not see "any need of reforming the law at present". Arguing on behalf of Phulmani's husband Tilak wrote:
"Hari Mohun could not be responsible for intercourse with his wife, 11 years old - an intercourse which neither he nor almost the whole of India, nor even her legislators, had reason to think to be dangerous to life". 
Unlike Wolpert the Indian biographers praise Tilak for "his accurate knowledge of Hindu scriptures and his legal acumen...He took up cudgels on behalf of tradition and attacked all those who wanted to defy it. His retorts were crushing, his language biting and his tone was offensive throughout the controversy". Some cudgels, some acumen indeed. It was this India that Churchill had left just a few years ago as a young army officer. Now contextualize Churchill's ideas on India. If one visited America before the Civil War or before the Civil Rights Act and came away wondering at the hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence can one blame the visitor?

Bal Gangadhar Tilak (from Wikipedia)
Tilak ridiculed the Poona government's efforts to combat plague by dumping voluminous quantities of disinfectatnts into the sewers that lined the city because he had, Wolpert says, no faith in science. Thankfully Tilak did not occupy as pivotal a position of power as Churchill or Nehru did else god only knows what kind of atavism he'd have imposed on a hapless population.

'Sardar' Patel's attitude towards Muslims caused great anguish to Gandhi who said "you're not the Sardar I once knew". Maulana Azad in his autobiography records how Patel, though not a demagogue, was not in the league of Nehru when it came to secular credentials. Patel, Azad alleges, was not too perturbed by the killings of Muslims in Delhi. A more contemporary example comes from military historian Srinath Raghavan's 'War and peace in modern India'.

While the Hindutva brigade take vicarious pleasure in recounting how Muslim Razakars unleashed a terror campaign in Hyderabad with the consent of the Nizam not much is spoken of revenge killings, by HIndus, after the swift and successful annexation of the state to India. 40-50,000 Muslims were killed. Reports of revenge killings reached Nehru who sought an official report from Deputy Prime Minister and Home minister Patel. Patel, Raghavan notes, was dismissive of such events and Nehru had to order his own investigation. Raghavan castigates it as failure of secularism in India. Too often, atrocities against minorities often go unrecorded and worse, unpunished in independent India. Against the advice of intelligence agencies Indira Gandhi ordered an election in Assam and Muslims were killed by the hundreds in the village of Nellie. The official government investigation remains classified and of course no record of punishments. Likewise with the perpetrators of anti-sikh pogrom and more recently with the Hashimpura massacre.

Nellie Massacre News (from Wikimedia)Alberuni
A murderer like General Dyer was at least relieved from service, an open hearing, including Indians on the panel, was held and Churchill condemned the butchery in the House of Commons. Churchill showed better humanity than Rajiv Gandhi did. Unlike Dyer, Bal Thackeray, whom the Sri Krishna committee report said 'acted like a general' during the Mumbai riots, was buried with state honors.

While Indians are too eager to crucify Churchill one can find them performing acrobatics in logic and language to dissociate Patel or Tilak or Ambedkar from the policies they enunciated and affected hundreds or thousands or millions and in Ambedkar's case, for generations. I've not included quotes, for want of going too far and too much, from sheer neo-Nazis like Guru Golwalkar who openly admired Hitler and the Nazi ideology.

Indian heritage a long history of considering foreigners as 'impure'. Alberuni cites Varahamihira "the Greeks though impure, must be honored, since they were trained in sciences". Alberuni provides that quote to substantiate that Indians, of an earlier era and unlike those he met, were eager to learn from various sources. Preceding the Varahamihira quote Alberuni gives a withering description of the India he saw:

"the Hindus believe there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty,foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course from any foreigner. According to their belief, there is no other country on earth but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no created beings besides them have any knowledge or science whatsoever. Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khusrau and Persis, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar".

It is sheer intellectual laziness to pretend that the Colonial regime in India was thuggery and interchangeable with a Nazi regime or, as for that matter a Japanese invader. Both of the latter regimes annihilated and left behind a scorched earth wherever they went. No nation that suffered the Nazi regime has any fond memory of those days let alone anything of note left behind by the regime except terror and murder. Unlike the Nazi regime that was to kill Russians by telling them vaccination was unnecessary the Colonial regime  opened hospitals and medical schools in India that catered, for the first time as a principle, to all sections of Indians.

Sir Ronald Ross who won the Nobel Prize for identifying the parasite that causes malaria did his work in India while managing a Cholera epidemic. British universities incubated practically all of India's anti-colonial movement leadership. But for a G.H. Hardy the Indian mathematician Ramanujan would've died an unrecognized lowly clerk.

I was stunned to hear a friend say that the Germans, like the British, would've propagated German culture and that would be the only difference. No, my friend, not at all. The Nazi regime rose to power by burning German books let alone books by Indians or English. Contrast that with the foreword that Warren Hastings wrote for a translation of the Bhagavad Gita in 1784 (see link in references). Hastings had actually studied Gita. Were would 'Shakunthala' be without William Jones? Should Indians not worship Cunnigham for 'Archeology Survey of India'? Hitler wanted his retreating army to burn down Paris with all its treasures. He asked his general every hour "Is Paris burning?" Is that a regime that would have left behind the Taj Mahal? No. Never. Sadly, Indians have shown how little regard they've for their own treasures today.

The central charge about Churchill is that his racial attitude inured him to the plight of millions of Bengalis dying in famine and shaped his policies, wartime exigencies notwithstanding, in combating the famine in which eventually 2-3 million perished. That Churchill was an imperialist and racist, by today's standards, to boot is undeniable. That he was insensitive to India's needs was all to evident. However on the key question of whether he could've done better under the circumstances is to be scrutinized dispassionately and I'll do it in my following blog.

The lesson from all this that the canker of racism towards those not like us and ideas about diversity, inclusivity and secularism are not only very recent but still yet to firmly take root in India. It is important to note that all these great leaders had very distasteful opinions of even their own fellow Indians let alone foreigners or of alien cultures.

India in its checkered history post independence has had its moments of pride in forging a unified identity unlike what Tilak and Ambedkar thought the journey is still in its infancy and recognizing that is not unpatriotic or weak but a sign of maturity. Learning to appreciate history and the forces of history as textured complexity is not a sign of servitude to colonialism but a sign of confident intellectual maturity. Let there be no whitewashing in history but let's not make history a tool for scoring propagandist brownie points either. More to come.....


  1. Lokmanya Tilak -- A.K. Bhagwat and G.P. Pradhan
  2. Tilak and Gokhale - Stanley Wolpert
  3. The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire -- Ashwin Desai and Goolam Wahed
  4. The Essential Writings of B.R. Ambedkar -- Edited by Valerian Rodrigues
  5. Bhagavad Gita with Warren Hastings's foreword
  6. Sir William Jones: A Study in Eighteenth Century British Attitudes to India -- S.N. Mukherjee
  7. British Policy in India: 1858-1905 --- S. Gopal (This and the previous book were sources for some material in this blog and my previous one)
  8. Nellie Massacre
  9. War and Peace in modern India -- Srinath Raghavan. My review of that book with details on the revenge killings in Hyderabad is at 
  10. Ronald Ross
  11. Dalit Christians quota issue
  12. Alberuni's India -- Abridged and Edited by Ainslee Embree. The text can be found at

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