A Million Mutinies
by V. S. Naipaul

I think that it would be wrong to ask whether 50 years of India's Independence are an achievement or a failure. It would be better to see things as evolving. It's not an either-or question. My idea of the history of India is slightly contrary to the Indian idea. India is a country that, in the north, outside Rajasthan, was ravaged, and intellectually destroyed to a large extent, by the invasions that began in about 1000 A.D. by forces and religions that India had no means of understanding.

The invasions are in all the school books. But I don't think people understand that every invasion, every war, every campaign, was accompanied by slaughter, a slaughter always of the most talented people in the country. So these wars, apart from everything else, led to a tremendous intellectual depiction of the country. I think that in the British period, and in the 50 years after the British period, there has been a kind of recruitment or recovery, a very slow revival of energy and intellect. This isn't an idea that goes with the vision of the grandeur of old India and all that sort of rubbish. That idea is a great simplification, and it occurs because it is intellectually, philosophically and emotionally easier for Indians to manage.

What they cannot manage, and what they have not yet come to terms with, is that ravaging of all the north of India by various conquerors. That was ruin not by an act of nature, but by the hand of man. It is so painful that few Indians have begun to deal with it. It's much easier to deal with British imperialism. That is a familiar topic, in India and Britain. What is much less familiar is the ravaging of India before the British. What happened from 1 000 A.D. on, really, is such a wound that it is almost impossible to face. Certain wounds are so bad that they can't be written about. You deal with that kind of pain by hiding from it. You retreat from reality. I wrote a book about that, and people thought I meant that India hasn't really a civilization, or India can't go ahead. What I was saying is that you cannot deal with a wound so big. I do not think, for example, that people like the Incas of Peru or the native people of Mexico have ever got over their defeat by the Spaniards. In both places, the head was cut off. I think the pre-British ravaging of India was as bad as that. Muslims shouldn't be too sensitive about this. Because in the Islamic world, a similar vandalization occurred with the Mongols. Muslims all over still grieve about that.

In the place of knowledge of history, you have various fantasies about the village republic and the old glory. There is one big fantasy that Indians have always found solace in: about India having the capacity for absorbing its conquerors. This is not so. India was laid low by its conquerors. There's an extraordinary work by the young Gandhi-his 1909 book, Hind Swaraj, about the need for Indian independence-where he says that what is really wrong with India is modern civilization: doctors, lawyers, railways (spreading famine and vice). His arguments are quite absurd. Rome has fallen, Greece has fallen, every other culture has fallen, but old India has survived. It is immovable and glorious. Now Gandhi is writing this at one of the blacker moments in India's history and one of the blacker moments in his personal life. He has seen South Africa and the abject, unprotected condition of Indians there. Out of that despair, and out of his own lack of education, all he can manage intellectually is that rejection of modern civilization, which is a rejection of the tools of self-defence. It is the deepest kind of despair. That's my starting point in understanding Indian history. And so, I feel the past 150 years have been years of every kind of growth. I see the British period and what has continued after that as one period. In that time, there has been a very slow intellectual recruitment. I think every Indian should make the pilgrimage to the site of the capital of the Vijaynagar empire, just to see what the invasion of India led to. They will see a totally destroyed town. Religious wars are like that. People who see that might understand what the centuries of plunder and slaughter meant. War isn't a game. When you lost that kind of war, your towns were destroyed, the people who built the towns were destroyed, you are left with a headless population. That's where modern India starts from.

The Vijaynagar capital was destroyed in 1565. It is only now that the surrounding region has begun to revive.

A great chance has been given to India to start up again, and I feel it has started up again. The questions about whether 50 years of India since Independence have been a failure or an achievement are not the questions to ask. In fact, I think India is developing quite marvellously. People thought-even Mr Nehru thought-that development and new institutions in a place like Bihar, for instance, would immediately lead to beauty. But it doesn't happen like that. When a country as ravaged as India, with all its layers of cruelty, when that kind of country begins to extend justice to people lower down, it's a very messy business. It's not beautiful, it's extremely messy. And that's what you have now, all these small politicians with small reputations and small parties. But this is part of growth, this is part of development. You must remember that these people, and the people they represent. have never had rights before. So in India at the moment you have a million mutinies-every man is a mutiny on his own-and 1 find that entirely creative. It's difficult to manage, gets very messy, but it is the only way forward. You can't get people from Bihar suddenly behaving very beautifully. When the oppressed have the power to assert themselves, they will behave badly. it will need a couple of generations of security, and knowledge of institutions. and the knowledge that you can trust institutions-it will take at least a couple of generations before people in that situation begin to behave well.

People in India have only known tyranny. The very idea of liberty is a new idea. Particularly pathetic is the harking back to the Mughals as a time of glory. In fact, the Mughals were tyrants, every one of them. They were foreign tyrants. And they were proud of being foreign. There's a story that anybody could run and pull a bell and the emperor would appear at his window and give justice. The child's idea of history. The slave's idea of the ruler's mercy. When the people at the bottom discover that they hold justice in their own hands, the earth moves a little. You have to expect these earth movements in India. It will be like this for a hundred years. But it is the only way. In a country like India, I don't want people at the bottom to ever lose their say in their government, to ever lose representation. That is a calamity that must be avoided at all costs. It's painful and messy and primitive and petty, but it's better that it should begin. It has to begin. If we were to rule people according to what we think fit, that takes us back to the past when people had no voices. Old caste or clan boundaries can't disappear. They are people's support system and I think they will be with us for a long time. What is happening, of course, is that within those boundaries people are beginning to have a greater sense of themselves. Some people may feel unhappy at what they see as a breakdown of old reverences. but they have to understand that this is part of an intellectual movement forward. I don't believe in revolution. it's a bogus and cruel idea. Things don't change overnight. They move very slowly, they move over generations. And with self-awareness, all else follows. People begin to make new demands on their leaders, their fellows, on themselves. They ask for more in everything. They have a higher idea of human possibilities. They are not content with what they did before or what their fathers did before. They want to move. That is marvelous. That is as it should be.

From India's point of view, the Partition was extremely fortunate. The religious question would otherwise have paralysed and consumed the state. By cruel irony, this is what it's done across the border in Pakistan. In India, there's the emphasis on human possibility. In Pakistan, there's only a constant regression to greater and greater fundamentalism-it's quite extraordinary and shameful that Pakistan, 50 years after independence, could have created something like the Taliban. There's no future in the doctrine that perfection in religion leads to perfection in men. That is the great difference between India and Pakistan. The Iqbal idea that religion wasn't a matter of conscience, that it needed a separate community and society, was a wicked and rather foolish idea, and in the end it went against the polity he thought he was creating. There are very talented people in Pakistan. Unfortunately, they don't have much of a chance. The religious state is not built around the idea of individual talent. So it remains half a serf state, and there is little chance of .change. A country's wealth is its people, but instead of drawing out strengths of the people, instead of drawing out their talent, this use of religion debases, degrades and depresses them more and more.

People ask me about the forces of Hindutva in India. I got into trouble a couple of years ago when I said that with this new kind of self-awareness in India, the Hindu idea is almost a necessary early, stage. It contains the beginnings of larger, new ideas: the idea of history, the idea of the human family, of India. I hope this self-awareness doesn't stay there, and I don't think it will, but it's necessary. We are dealing with a country that has started from a very low point, a very low intellectual point, a low economic point. When people start moving, the first loyalty, the first identity, is always a rather small one. They can't immediately become other things. I think that within every kind of disorder now in India there is a larger positive movement. But the future will be fairly chaotic. Politics will have to be at the level of the people now. People like Nehru were colonial-style politicians. They were to a large extent created and protected by the colonial order. They did not begin with the people.

Politicians now have to begin with the people. They cannot be too far above the level of the people. They are very much part of the people. The Nehrus of the world have to give way now to the men of the people. It is important, in this apparent mess, for two things not to be interfered with. One is economic growth. I would like to see that encouraged in every way. It is the most important news coming out of India, more important than the politics. I would like to see education extended and extended. If this were to happen, and I feel it might, gradually, the actual level of politics will reflect both the economic life and higher level of education.

There's been great movement since 1962, when I first went to India. It's not only the level of public debate, of intellectual life. You look at the newspapers from those days, they are reports of speeches, there is not much news, nothing like investigations going on. In a way India didn't exist for the Indian papers at that time. There would be various items sent in by the local correspondent, saying that a woman had thrown her children in a well and then jumped in herself, that would come as a line from the correspondent from Faizabad or wherever. But they wouldn't send someone to investigate what would make someone do that. They had no idea that could be done. So you get an idea of the great intellectual change that has taken place. And that goes with the economic change. That's why I think the two must go side by side. There was no economic life really worth talking about. People blame Nehru for his slightly socialist attitude to enterprise. But I don't think India in the 1950s had the talent to resist international business. It would have been dreadfully exploited. I think the old stringencies caused a lot of pain, but it's much better that change is happening now. Every year that passes, makes the country more able to cope 'with international business. In 1962, the number of talented people, equipped people, would have really been quite small compared to what you have now.

It is important that self-criticism does not stop. The mind has to work, the mind has to be active, there has to be an exercise of the mind. I think it's almost a definition of a living country that it looks at itself, analyses itself at all times. Only countries that have ceased to live can say it's all wonderful.

In India the talent is prodigious, really, and it increases year by year. And in sheer numbers, in another 10 years, India will probably be one of the world's most intellectually gifted countries. The quality and the numbers are extraordinary, and I think this makes India extraordinary. But India shouldn't have fantasies about the past. The past is painful, but it should be faced. We should make ourselves see how far these old invasions and wars had beaten India down and how far we have come. I would say that India in the 18th century was pretty nearly a dead country. India has life now. India is living.

[Editor’s Note: This exclusive essay evolved from a conversation With INDIA TODAY, done in 1997. All credits to the author and the paper mentioned which first published this piece on August 18, 1997. We recommend that you read “On Kashmir” my Mahatma Gandhi and, for a today’s version of the conflict, see Mishra’s “Murder in India.”]

Aug 18 , 1997
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