Saturday, December 20, 2008

The softened target.

Glancing through my daughter’s history book, I find generous references to the role played by stalwarts of our freedom movement. On Independence Day, she had also taken part in a play with the clichéd theme that the British were a blood-thirsty lot out to butcher the heroic natives at the slightest hint of resistance or the faintest murmur of the words, “ Vande Mataram”.

Our history books, of course, will tell us only that version of the story and much of it is probably true. But, till recently, the average citizen did not have easy access to other versions and so could never attempt a detached, dispassionate study, removing the filter of nationalism. Google Books, fortunately, provides an avenue to gain another perspective. What was the mind-set of the British people in those times?

Much as we like to give the entire credit to our brave freedom fighters for throwing out the British, a fact that was also responsible for the softening of their imperial stand was the growing consciousness among the British people, starting from the Victorian era, that much wrong had been done in the name of colonialism.

After the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, many in Britain did endorse the orders given by Brigadier-General Dyer and even complimented him on “nipping the next Mutiny in the bud”. But, some like Churchill could take a more detached view and see the incident for what it was – “an episode without modern precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.... Our reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base ourselves only upon it...”. The Hunter Committee eventually found Dyer guilty of using disproportionate force.

Dr. Rod Thornton, in a paper , touches on this incident and narrates how the mores and values of British society were undergoing structural changes by the beginning of the twentieth century, so much so, that an increasingly affluent middle class came to be influenced by a sentiment that manifested itself in a distinct turn towards liberal values and philanthropic action. Among other things, he says, a desire was generated among Government ministers and other opinion-makers of the time to correct certain wrongs committed in the name of imperial expansion up to that point. This sentiment stressed the virtue of humanitarianism and urged that imperial expansion, if at all, must be compatible with the new ideals of honour, duty and use of minimum force. These ideals, explains Thornton, melded with the Romanticism that dominated literature in the nineteenth century. Such chivalric principles were also publicised through the efforts of the Victorian school system. So, when the Amritsar massacre happened, the British- and the Army- were shocked by the uncharacteristic brutality. For, the understanding of the English Common Law, by that time, was that no more or no less force than necessary to restore the peace was to be resorted to. There was, of course, no precise definition on how much force was warranted in different circumstances, but this was left to good judgement.

So, by the time the freedom movement gained momentum, there was a corresponding softening of the stance already taking place on the other side. And, it was only a question of time, when both these forces would combine and hasten the departure of the British.

No comments: