An Asian Giant Flies High: Two views of India

Flying Hanuman (monkey-god)” and “Asian Giant” are colorful metaphors the authors Maria Misra and Dietmar Rothermund use with good effect to describe Indian history and development from the coming of the British to the subcontinent in the 17th century to the present day.

Misra, a fellow at Keble College, Oxford University, believes that the British colonial model of government continues in some degree to affect Indian political workings today. The title of her book, Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India Since the Great Rebellion, and sections of the book itself do seem to have a Hindu bias, likening India to a Hindu temple in which all groups and communities vie for a place. In his book, India: The Rise of an Asian Giant, Rothermund, a senior professor of South Asian history at Heidelberg University, cites varied figures to show how India has made impressive strides in its development while dealing at the same time with social issues and the large economic divide among the people. (Both books are from Yale Univ. Press.)


Toward Modernity

Misra states that the history she delineates is not “a tale of straightforward liberal westernization, nor of a struggle between all-powerful elites and the hopelessly subordinated poor, but of its complex and halting evolution into a very particular kind of modern nation.” The British government in India, known as the Raj, saw itself as a partner with Indian collaborators who were selected and rewarded according to their effectiveness in working with it. India was a temple, one in which worshippers were carefully scrutinized for their closeness to the presiding deity, the British.

The British wanted India to be modernized, but many Hindu groups did not wholeheartedly accept the modernity offered to them. As an early opposition, groups like the Brahmo Samaj (Divine Society) in the 1880s worked at accepting only certain elements from Christianity in order to reform Hinduism into a modern and vibrant belief system. The introduction of English educational institutions helped groom Indian personnel for British administrative services. Various forms of racism were apparent early on. Recruitment for the elite Indian Civil Service was open to Indians, but they had to qualify before they were 19 years of age and could take the tests only in England.

Misra’s method of always seeing a clear plan in all that the British undertook in India leads her naturally to the game of cricket. The British, she concludes, saw the game as “the greatest gift imperialism could bestow, because it could transform ‘natives’ into gentlemen.” Cricket was meant to encourage all castes, communities and religions of India to mingle together, but in reality the game boosted division, with various religious groups playing spiritedly against each other rather than with each other.

Breaking Away

Britain borrowed heavily from the Raj exchequer in India during the two Wars. Indian politicians had hoped this favor would result in more devolution of political powers to Indians, but this did not come about easily. Mahatma Gandhi, who had returned to India by 1919 after 20 years as a lawyer in South Africa, involved himself fully in the freedom struggle. He heralded the concept of the spinning wheel, the charka, which stood for a break with foreign exploitation. Trained as a lawyer in England, he spent 20 years in South Africa, where he fine-tuned his doctrine of satyagraha (soul force, or holding on to truth).

Gandhi had a raw political cunning, Misra believes. He knew that the Raj needed Indian cooperation, so he urged his fellow Indians to withdraw it. “Indians were exhorted to disdain foreign goods, boycott the new elections, abjure the British-run courts, play truant from the state’s schools and councils and reject the Raj’s honors, titles and other demeaning baubles of servitude.” The British had believed that their rule in India was eternal. But Aug. 8, 1942, saw the launch of the Quit India movement by the Indian National Con-gress, the most serious rebellion since the Mutiny of 1857 (a widespread revolt in Northern India by Hindu and Muslim soldiers against the British rule), leading to independence in 1947.

The partition of 1947, which created the state of Pakistan, led millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to abandon their homes on either side of the border. The British were blamed for the massacres, but Misra concludes that “in fairness to the British, they were acting in concert with Indian politicians who wanted the handover to be as swift as possible and who also grossly underestimated the turmoil that would ensue.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s charismatic first prime minister, plunged himself into the freedom struggle under the guidance of Gandhi but lacked Gandhi’s genius for dealing with the masses. The centerpiece of his reforms was economic and industrial planning. In global affairs, he saw the freedom of India as a prelude to the emancipation of the colonial world.

Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and third Indian prime minister, learned the political ropes under her father’s guidance. But in mid-1975 she was found guilty of a minor election irregularity and was forced to resign from office. Rather than do so, however, she declared a state of national emergency and suspended democracy. Her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, and his Youth Congress then ran roughshod over the Indian political scene, which eventually led to his mother’s defeat in national elections.

At the beginning of her hefty and well-documented book, Misra speaks of “a very particular type of modern nation.” India, unlike any other nation, had to deal with the issue of castes as she tried to weave the population into a single people after 1947. The Mandal Commission studied the issue of equal job and study opportunities for all citizens and recommended a 27 percent reservation of posts in the government and in scientific and professional institutions for marginalized groups. The government’s decision to accept this recommendation generated fierce opposition, mainly from upper- caste students.

Over the last three decades, the 29 Indian states have seen various political alignments by parties hoping to stay in power. Regional parties have become an important element in Indian democracy. All this bodes well for the nation, says Misra, since “India has developed its own form of modernity the most striking feature of which is its highly atomized, fragmented and diverse citizenry.”


If in her analysis Misra appears very forceful, incisive and determined in what she thinks of British influence in India and how politics is playing out today, Rothermund, on the other hand, appears more discreet, looking at the picture almost as an impartial observer, though his long association with Indian affairs shows. He delves more into the post-Independence years and into how India has worked at developing itself as a democratic nation.

The economic graph of India has seen an upswing under the present prime minister, Manmohan Singh. The national government, a coalition of the Congress Party and other parties, has attracted private business, both national and foreign, and has opened the power sector to private operators. It has deregulated the economy and made structural adjustments to it while reducing import duties. Its main coalition partner, the Communists, supported the government since 2004 but opposed the privatizing of the public sector and opted out of the coalition this year because of differences over the nuclear treaty signed between India and the U.S. government. Rothermund also describes in detail the success story of India especially in the diamond, garment and software fields, a trade that accounts for over 40 billion dollars in earnings, as well as promising strides in the field of agriculture.

Both of these books, with their different emphases, are valuable reading for attaining a better understanding of India in terms both of her historical background and future potential. For the political historian Misra, India is an open, pluralistic and highly diverse society from which creativity flows. She is struck by how giant-sized statues of Hanuman, the Hindu god of “fluidity, practicality, compromise, change and connections,” dot the landscape of many Indian cities, reflecting the flourishing face of India today.

For Rothermund, “the Indian giant is rising like Gulliver after being released from the web of thread with which she had been pinned down.” And what does he think is the face of India today? “Indian society encompasses a spectrum representative of all of mankind, from the desperately poor eking out a living in remote rural areas to metropolitan professionals in the most advanced lines of work and highly talented scientists operating at the cutting edge of research.”

India recently became the fourth country in the world to send its own unmanned probe to the moon—no mean achievement. The Indian Giant, or Hanuman, has really and truly been flying high.

From the archives, the editors on the partition of India.

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