Book Review: Vishnu's Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion by Maria Misra
Having liked Maria Misra’s first book on managing agencies so much, I got hold of her second and much more recent one, a couple of weeks ago. In Vishnu’s Crowded Temple, Misra undertakes the challenging task of analysing India’s history from the time immediately after the mutiny (1857) till the present. Misra proves herself equal to the challenge. Her 450 odd page tome is not only a very thorough examination of India’s history during this period, it is also crammed with Misra’s analysis of the prominent events and personalities. Irrespective of whether you agree or disagree with Misra’s various assessments, you can’t help appreciating that Misra knows her history very well and has all relevant facts at her finger tips.
Misra’s stand out achievement in this book is in examining every issue from multiple points of view. For example, when discussing partition, she explains how each of the actors, the Congress, the Muslim League and the British, performed their roles and did what they did in a manner that is entirely comprehensible, though with the benefit of hindsight, many serious mistakes were made. Equally brilliant are Misra’s description of the Emergency and the raise of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s. The personalities of Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Laloo Prasad Yadav, V.P. Singh and Mayawati are dispassionately analysed and laid bare. Their contributions to India are examined ruthlessly without any drama. Also of great interest (to me at least) was Misra’s examination of the (failed) attempts to have a Uniform Civil Code for India and to make Hindi India’s national language.
Misra’s language is simple, to the point, non-melodramatic, slightly sarcastic at times and in short, it’s just right for a book of this sort. For example, while describing the Congress’s (unsuccessful) attempt to remain uncorrupted and keep India unified as it neared the goal of Independence, she says, ‘By the end of the 1930s, it was clear that much of Congress politics was fast degenerating in an unedifying scramble for the spoils of office. Gandhi had not woven the tough, rough-textured and inclusive fabric he had originally designed. Rather, the Congress nation was silk not khadi. Threads from the prosperous peasantry, urban petty bourgeoisie, the progressive intelligentsia and big business had somehow been woven into a single cloth. But it was distinctly frayed at the edges. Skeins of regional, Muslim and low caste politics hung loose and it would prove difficult, if not impossible, to weave these back into a united and independent Indian nation.
Cricket does not find a mention in the post-independence part of this book and neither does Bollywood, though Sholay is discussed as are film actors turned politicians MGR and NT Rama Rao. The implied assessment here, I assume, is that neither Bollywood nor cricket has influenced post-independence India. In a sense, I would agree with Misra that Bollywood is not as much of a nation unifier as it is hyped out to be. For example, people in Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh enjoy Bollywood movies though anti-India feeling runs high in these countries. Cricket does bring Indians together and alleged Muslim support for the Pakistani team is the cause of much tension and quarrel. I do wish Misra had commented on the impact of cricket on Indian society.
Misra makes a few minor mistakes which do not have any impact on the overall quality of this book. She says that A.O. Hume, the founder of the Indian National Congress was an Englishman (when he was actually Scottish). The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is translated as “Dravidian Forward Federation”, something which will bring a smile to any Tamil speaker. In my opinion, it ought to be the “Dravidian Upliftment Party”.
Misra’s book has a very detailed bibliography. Since I am not a qualified historian, I am not going to comment on it.
Misra ends her book with the story of how Laloo Yadav, long considered a maverick and joker, reformed the Indian railways and made it profitable. However, Laloo has no qualms about having his in-laws travel ticketless in a first class railway compartment. Misra tells us in the epilogue that her objective was to explain India’s peculiar form of modernity, one which is a mix of so many contradictions. I would say that Misra has admirably succeeded in her endeavour.
I am setting out here a few of Misra’s theories and assessments which I found to be interesting and a few facts I ‘discovered’ from this book, which the average desi doesn’t easily get to read elsewhere.
Impact of British Rule: The role of the British on the subcontinent should not be exaggerated. According to Misra, the subcontinent is too vast and too ancient and the British presence too brief and microscopic to be seen as a leading player. Initially I shook my head in disbelief, but then as I thought about this, I started to feel that Misra might have a point. However, this is a very moot point on which it will be possible to canvass a variety of views.
Caste: Till the British arrived, Indian society was very fluid. Castes were not frozen. However, the British found it easy to understand the Varna system as hard and fast. Also, the educated Brahmins were the ones the British turned to for tutorials on India. It made sense for the Brahmins to explain the caste system in such a way that they were on top, though in reality, the intermediate castes were the property owners and the generally, especially in southern India, the most powerful. Misra says that there’s a great deal to be said for the view that untouchability was an institution initially confined to some locations. As India industrialised, the poorest and lowest castes migrated to the cities where they did the dirtiest jobs and the stigma of untouchability grew.
Aryan Invasion Theory and Pre-Aryan Dravidian Utopia: The Aryan invasion theory came into vogue between 1901 and 1911. The proponents of this theory found it very convenient to explain the caste system and the hierarchy within. Soon census takers were carrying ‘nose callipers’ to measure the length of Indian noses and categorise people. The Theosophists propagated the Aryan invasion theory and the upper castes gratefully seized upon it to show that they were superior to other Indians and were linked to Europeans. Please note that Misra does not at any point express her own view on the Aryan invasion theory. I wish she had.
In the south, a British preacher Robert Caldwell pioneered the study of southern languages. Caldwell wanted to destroy the influence of corrupt priests and Brahmins in order to make conversions easy. For this, he propagated the view that the Aryan invasion had destroyed a pre-Aryan Dravidian utopia and that southern languages are totally autonomous from Sanskrit and Hindi. Tamil intellectuals accepted Caldwell’s theories, though they did not convert. They also took them further by saying that pre-Aryan Tamil possibly existed prior to the movement of the tectonic plates when Asia, Africa and Australasia was a unified landmass called ‘kumarikantam.’
Changing British attitudes to India and Indians: Prior to the mutiny, the British wanted to modernise and reform India. After the mutiny, the British only wanted to preserve the existing order, and use it to strengthen their own presence in India. The British set up a College of Arms which would produce for various Indian princes various assorted ensigns, emblems and other signs of power. The Statutory Civil Service was an attempt to make bureaucrats out of the scions of Indian aristocracy. Sons of Princes were enrolled in this service as a birth right and trained to be bureaucrats in order to avoid having middleclass Indians rule India through the Indian Civil Service. Colleges such as the Mayo College at Ajmer, modelled on Eton, were established. This attempt ended in a dismal failure since Indian princes were too much fun loving and lacked the necessary discipline to become mandarins.
British attitudes to different Indian ethnic groups is one of the topics covered in Misra’s first book. Misra takes up the same topic in this book as well. The Afridis, Dogras and Sikhs were believed to make good soldiers, since they physically resembled Europeans more than other Indians. Sikhs especially were the apples of the British eye. The British were so keen to keep the Sikhs pure that Sikh recruits to the army had to be baptised, have uncut hair, bangles, a dagger and have ‘Singh’ as the last name. The British maintained Sikhism in the army at a standard higher than it was elsewhere. Bengalis were considered effeminate and non-martial, though they had formed the bulk of the British Indian army prior to the mutiny. It was only during the Second World War that stereotypes such as these were abandoned.
The British also condemned many communities as criminal classes. In the south, the British started to prop up the Dravidian parties to fight the Brahmin dominated Congress. Reservations were made for non-Brahmin communities. British - Hindu – Muslim relations: Misra devotes a lot of time and space to explain how Hindu and Muslims came to be poles apart. Initially, the British were very tolerant of Hinduism. This morphed into contempt. With regard to Islam, the British were closer to the Muslims till the mutiny, after which there was a period of bitterness. Later, the British grew to develop cordial relations with a few select Muslims, like Syed Ahmed Khan, who benefitted a lot from their closeness to the British. Such select Muslims got British largesse and protection from Hindu domination, as the British played one community against the other. The bulk of the funding for the Aligarh University came from the British
Occasional Hindu-Muslim violence did take place in the 19th century, but such violence was local. In 1809, there were riots in Banares. British reports classified these as religious violence that erupted when a Muharram procession insulted Hindus, though in reality it was the result of a land dispute.
Till the early 19th century, Hindus and Sunnis celebrated Muharram along with the Shias. Similarly, Muslims participated in Ramlila celebrations. Towards the end of the 19th century, Tilak started to promote the Ganapati festival and made it a lavish and public affair. With that, Muharram processions and Ramlila festivities ceased to attract people from other faiths.
Regionalism among Indian leaders: At the Indian National Congress’s Lahore session in 1893, the great leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak boarded and lodged with his fellow Maharashtrians Gokhale and Ranade who were moderates and his ideological adversaries since he didn’t want to mix with Bengali leaders who subscribed to his own extremist views. South Indian leaders, almost entirely Brahmins, were fussy eaters and would not eat with others.
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a leader of Hindu renaissance in the 1870s, attracted the cream of Bengal’s intelligentsia and preached the rejection of western values and advocated a return to a rustic lifestyle. He was a gender bender who liked to dress as a woman and flirt with his largely male followers, at times sitting on their laps. Keshub Chandra Sen was a westernised Brahmo Samaj leader who reverted to Hinduism under Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s influence. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa advocated child marriage and Keshub Chandra Sen gave his 9 year old daughter in marriage to the ruler of Cooch Behar
Since the British were busy portraying upper caste Hindus as non-martial and effeminate, the Hindu renaissance brought in its wake a great deal of interest in exercise and fitness. Various akharas were started. Wrestling became a favourite pastime for many Indians. The great Indian wrestler Gama was said to live entirely on milk, ghee and almonds which he consumed in vast quantities. These were supposed to be all that was needed to make a man strong.
Max Muller was a German orientalist who promoted the theory of the noble Aryan race which migrated to India and from whom the upper castes were said to have descended. The Aryans were said to have founded in India the greatest civilisation the world has ever known, though they weakened themselves by marriages with the lower castes. Muller opposed woman’s liberation which he said would weaken the fabric of Indian society.
Bankim Chandra used to be a proponent of women’s rights, till he took a sharp U turn. After his change of mind, he went about advocating that women should not behave like babus. He advised such women to rid the earth of their useless weight by applying ropes to their necks.
The Age of Consent Bill: In 1891, the Age of Consent Bill was proposed after many child brides died after sex with their husbands. This bill made intercourse with a child below the age of 12 years statutory rape even if the girl was married to the accused. Bankim Chandra opposed this bill tooth and nail. He said that if this bill was passed “Bengal would be plagued with females in groups hanging from door to door, begging men to gratify their lust”. Many Indian dailies opposed the Bill. Anand Baraz Patrika changed from a weekly to a daily to meet increased subscriber demand. The Bangabani saw its subscription soar to 20,000, whilst Sanjivani which supported the bill had only 4,000 readers. Bal Gangadhar Tilak too opposed the Age of Consent Bill.
Aurobindo Ghose was a Hindu revivalist and Swaraj advocate who studied at St. Paul’s and Cambridge. He advocated revolutionary violence though his goals were quite vague. He talked about the golden age of the Vedas and declared that his ultimate objective was the ‘Aryanisation’ of the world
Annie Besant was a Theosophist who believed that high caste Hindus were Aryans who ought to be given the power to unify India as they had done earlier. She had a controversial attitude to non-Brahmins. She wanted to “humanise them because, as in Britain, the lower classes are a menace to civilisation and undermine the fabric of society.”
The Gurgaon experiment: Frank Bryne was a civil servant who carried out an experiment in Gurgaon to change the ‘bad’ habits of the Indian peasantry who were given to idleness and filth. To fight idleness, he made them give up canal irrigation and switch to inefficient Persian wheels. To make them conserve fuel, he promoted a magic ‘Bhoosa’ box. For disciplined defecation and fighting filth, he got them to dig latrines, though the latrines became traps for mosquitoes. Though none of his experiments really worked, a few successful monsoons meant that Gurgaon showed progress. Bryne’s books became standard texts for Indian bureaucrats.
Bombay Pentangular: So named for the five religious communities who took part, namely the Parsis, Hindus, Muslims, Europeans and the rest. In the initial days of this tournament, the Parsis refused to play the Hindus since they thought only the British were their equals. In 1939 the Hindus won the tournament and their supporters sang the Bande Mataram, which the Muslims found offensive.
Congress’s Hindu tilt and rift with the Muslim League: On many occasions Misra says that, at its lower echelons, the Congress was very much Hindu nationalist. Membership of the RSS and Congress overlapped to a considerable degree. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS was a disciple of the Congress leader Tilak. From the 1920s , there was practically no Muslim participation in Congress led agitations. The 1930 civil disobedience movement which led to a sharp fall in the demand for imported fabrics, disproportionately affected Muslims, since most importers of foreign cloth were Muslims. Misra blames the Congress for breaching its relations with the Muslim League. Jinnah was willing to renounce his demand for separate Muslim electorates if the Congress would agree to more Muslim majority provinces in Sindh and the North West Frontier Province. The Congress refused. In the 1937 provincial elections, the Muslim League cooperated with the Congress, but the Congress reneged on a deal to share ministerial posts.
Frontier Gandhi: Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and his Khudai Khidmatgars followed Gandhian principles when fighting the British. However, their fight was mainly for the reunification of the North West Frontier Province with Afghanistan and had little to do with the national movement.
Subhash Chandra Bose and the INA: Subhash Chandra Bose established contact with Nazi Germany through the Kabul office of Siemens Company. He did not really get along with Hitler who refused to delete a few bits from his Mein Kampf which Bose considered insulting to Indians. Bose then went to Japan and Singapore and took over leadership of the INA. “Relations between the INA and the Japanese were appalling. The Japanese regarded the INA troops as turncoats, inherently untrustworthy and cowardly. At best they were a propaganda unit for spreading pro-Japanese stories among Indians and at worst as coolie corps.” The INA was not particularly effective and Subhash Chandra Bose himself was regarded by the Japanese as “incompetent and stubborn”. Misra says that this view was not totally unjustified since Bose kept insisting that a march on Delhi was possible in the midst of a catastrophic retreat.
Allied Army atrocities: During the Second World War, the enormous allied army in Eastern India misbehaved. There were many cases of rape, arson and looting.
Gandhi’s approval for Indira Gandhi’s marriage: Indira Gandhi’s marriage to the Parsi Feroze Gandhi was controversial. Mahatma Gandhi gave his approval, but said that the marriage should be celibate.
Book Review: Vishnu's Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion by Maria Misra
- » Published on December 31, 2008
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