“The common law of the Asiatic dynasties,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was “the unceasing round of valour, greatness, discord, degeneracy, and decay”. Very cyclical, correct?
If you manage to read this six-volume work which certainly requires a copious amount of time (readinglength.com claims that at a rate of 250 words per minute you will need 73 hours and 23 minutes of unblinking reading but my own experience attests to a struggle that goes way beyond this timeframe), you will have nothing but admiration for the exceptionally nuanced narrative. So, Gibbon can be forgiven for falling prey to the occasional bouts of historicism, that annoying habit of a few to insist that history is subject to certain laws which predetermine its outcome. Make no mistake. There is a lot of evidence to support his statement about oriental dynasties but it has less to do with any form of fatalism and more with the inability of these dynasties to evolve a stable and peaceful mechanism of succession. That is why democracy is such an enduring system.
No one has done more justice to the vagaries of historical causation and in identifying how dangerous a political construct historicism is than Karl Popper. He calls it pseudoscience and blows it out of water. To know more please consult his, The Open Society and Its Enemies.
But then every once in a while, you walk into an epiphany that compels you to think. Mine, a rather mundane one, came while reading William Dalrymple’s brilliant book, Anarchy. Since the anecdote I am referring to is of a base nature which when taken out of context will do grave injury to the wholly remarkable work, let me first address the book itself. You have to read it more than once to admire two different aspects. One, the labour, the information and the research that have gone into it. It meticulously deconstructs every myth about the rise and the total control of the East India Company in South Asia and leaves you pondering over the counterfactuals of this region’s history. Two, sheer craftsmanship. The second aspect is so enjoyable that I keep a copy handy for leisurely reading when I am short on reading material. I have read his other works but this one by far is the best. I can only hope that one day he finds time to trace the roots of religious radicalism (both of Hindu and Muslim faiths) in South Asia. The world’s future may depend on it.
Now the small anecdote. It was about the advent of the Company’s experiments in India and its first factory at Surat. Since the early batches of workforce dispatched were dominated by ruffians, the settlement was highly unpopular among the local populace. Here the author quotes contemporary accounts which cite two swear words that have survived in common conversations today. I will not reproduce them here save for a hint that they target the families of those on the receiving end. Bear in mind the time and the place under discussion here. The time period is between 1615 and 1669 AD. And the place, Surat, is in Gujarat. We take these words to be of the Urdu/Hindi origin. But given the evolution of these languages, nothing seems to add up and one has to find refuge in the old aphorism: some things never change.
This oddity aside, should South Asians blame the EIC and the British for all their ills today? If you listen to Shashi Tharoor and many other influential thinkers you may get that impression. But the story cannot be that simple. The above-mentioned anecdote at least highlights the intellectual lethargy in the Subcontinent, apart from other ills like misogyny. But here and there in this book, you find small nuggets that unravel the predominant psychology in a second. The English, for instance, are often referred to by the local narrators as the nation of hat weavers. Even if this assertion is accepted at face value, the use of a craft as a slur should tell you of the mindset on display. This ossification of collective consciousness about jobs deemed menial would go a long way in explaining many problems the region faces. But today we have bigger fish to fry.
Do you know why foreigners had so much luck invading the region? Because of the lack of unity here. On every single turn, they would find a bunch of locals ready to betray their people. Why? Well, tyrannical rulers offer one explanation. There is one better. Racism.
If you think South Asians are not racist here is a simple test. No, it is not about skin whitening creams. Here is the test. Do you have servants? Alright. Go to the kitchen and see if you have a separate set of utensils for the servants’ use. Yeah, I know just a matter of convenience. So, have you ever eaten in any of them? Why not? They are all washed up and clean. You do not because you think that they are still dirty. Dirty despite being washed and cleaned. I wonder, why?
Fundamental to the racist mindset is the belief that all humans are not equal. That some are low-born, some high-born and they should stay in their respective lanes. If they mingle perchance, they should keep their effects separate. Now factor in marriages. And casteism. Biradarism. Feudalism. Classism. Tribalism. Ethnocentrism. Communalism. Or whatever name you give to these prejudices. You should know they come from the same wellspring of racism.
Anyone can conquer such a divided house. All you have to do is to identify the correct fault lines. But then there is the problem of the one-track mind. If you want to blame the British you will choose to forget that Aurangzeb Alamgir’s imperial overreach in the Deccan and Nadir Shah’s raid had already emptied the coffers and left the region an impractical mess. I don’t hear anyone asking the Afghans and the Iranians for reparations. Because it is neither convenient nor realistic. Another century, another millennium. Blaming others for what you have done to yourself will only make you more miserable, not better.
See how the South Asian nations lobby against each other. Despite so much shared history. Can there be a more pathetic display? And then you say their lot will improve one day. Yeah, and I shall be richer than Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates all put together. A likely story.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2021.