Colombo, March 22: The thoughts, speeches, writings and campaigns of Edmund Burke (1729-1797) are worth recalling because they are as relevant today in the 21 st., Century as they were in the 18 th., Century when he lived.
Burke, who was an Anglo-Irish politician, author and activist, had penned his incisive observations on the French Revolution, the American struggle against Britain, and the early years of British rule in India. He gave clues to the real nature of these events and institutions and told us what might be in store for us if these were repeated and replicated. Indeed, these have been repeated and replicated with such regularity that Burke has always been relevant.
Burke was a liberal, incessantly calling for sympathy and empathy for the down-trodden and the exploited, no matter in which part of the world these might have lived. He called for resistance, even violent resistance, against the atrocities committed by the British rulers and traders who lorded over Indians in the 18th.Century.
However, while he held these revolutionary views vis-à-vis the princes, peasants and priests of India, he did not advocate violence in all circumstances and under all conditions. For example, he was uncompromisingly opposed to the French Revolution because of its destructive potential. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790), Burke foresaw a bloodbath with the moderate leaders becoming ineffective. He foresaw the rise of a dictatorial Napoleon and a long European war which the latter would unleash.
Opposing radical change and violence, Burke showed how easily things could be shattered in the name of moral betterment, national purification and radical political transformation. “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity. And therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs,” he wrote.
The rise of Nazism and Stalinism in the 20 th. Century and the destruction they wrought in the name of doing good, bear testimony to Burke’s observation. Burke valued civil order, public property and orderly change, and would have disapproved of the violence which followed the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the US. “Rage and phrensy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years,” he had said.
British Rule in India
Burke foresaw Indian author Shashi Tharoor’s grim assessment of British rule in India. Tharoor points out that the 200-year British rule, established essentially by fraud, manipulation and plain violence, had turned a wealthy India into one of the poorest countries in the world, all in the name of “benevolence” and the “White man’s burden” of civilizing the ignorant heathen.
Tharoor points out that in 1600, when the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating some 23% (27% by 1700). But in 1947, the British left India with a 16% literacy rate, a life expectancy of 27, with practically no domestic industry, and with over 90% living below the poverty line.
Burke graphically brought out the plight of Indians, of both high rank and low rank, when he led the impeachment of Governor General Warren Hastings in the British parliament. He said: “My Lords, I am obliged to make use of some apology for the horrid scenes that I am now going to open to you…You have had perhaps more than enough of oppressions upon property and oppressions upon liberty, but here the skin was not touched. Τhe punishments inflicted upon the Ryots, (farmers) of both Rungpore and Dinagepore (in Bengal) for non-payment, were in many instances of such a nature, that I would rather wish to draw a veil over them than shock your feelings by the detail.”
“The first mode of torture was this: They began by winding cords about their fingers until they had become incorporated together, and then they hammered wedges of wood and iron between those fingers until they crushed and maimed those poor, honest, laborious hands…They began there, but there they did not stop. The Heads of villages, the parochial Magistrates, the leading Yeomen of the country, respectable for their situation, and their age, were taken and tied together by the feet, two and two, thrown over a bar, and there beaten with bamboo canes. And while their heads hung down as their feet were above, they were beaten with sticks and cudgels, their tormentors attacked them with such blind fury that the blood ran out of their mouths, eyes and noses.”
Burke describes how “innocent children were brought out and scourged before the faces of their parents,” how virgins were violated publicly and how the Brahmins were “put upon a bullock, and with drums beating… (were) driven through the country.” Both of these, he says, lost their caste and with that, all their social life.
Burke noticed that social insult could be more hurting than physical hurt. Man is made of two parts, the physical part and the moral. The physical parts suffer famine, distress, violence, outrage. But disgrace, shame, violation of manners, violation of opinions, injury to inborn sentiments of people, affect the mind and social standing of the victim from which recovery could be very difficult.
“While the pains of the body address our common humanity, the violence against established habits, manners and prejudices, touches difference and cultural specificity,” he said. Rulers ought to be aware of this difference.
Burke condemned the British way of looking at Indians as savages, who needed to be civilized. He refers to “princes once of great authority and opulence,” to “chiefs of tribes and nations,” to “an ancient and venerable priesthood,” to “a nobility of great antiquity and renown,” to “merchants and bankers,” to “manufacturers and mechanics,” to “tillers of the earth.” Indians to him were “people for ages civilized and cultivated; cultivated by all the arts of polished life, whilst we were yet in the woods.”
Burke thus treats the Indian society as an organized whole, as a complex, mature and richly diversified social organization with its variety of orders and classes, with its laws, religion, manners, usages and of course governments, thus deserving the highest respect from the British.
Interestingly, while disapproving of violence in the French Revolution, Burke sanctioned violence against the British India on the ground that there was no other way the British could be brought around as they were separated from the natives by a thick wall of prejudice and preconceived notions. In the absence of violence, the Indians’ grievances would never be noticed, he argued.
But Burke did not see British rule improve in India. As Shashi Tharoor points out, the British continued to follow their ruling model albeit with some adjustments especially after the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 which virtually ended their rule in north India. After the mutiny, in 1858, the government of India was taken over by the British Crown from the East India Company. Queen Victoria and her Viceroy in Indian Lord Canning effected a rapprochement with Indians which gave Canning the nickname “Clemency Canning”.
In the latter part of the 19 th.Century and early 20 th.Century, some constitutional reforms were introduced witch enabled Indians to voice their grievances. But commercial and economic exploitation of India continued unabated to make India among the poorest in the world.
Meanwhile wars big and small raged Subsequently, decolonization led to prolonged and destructive wars in Vietnam, Algeria, and other parts of the world. Empathy, sympathy and benevolence, which Burke proposed, continued to be scarce.