Bernard Houghton

The Isolation of India

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 9, August 1927, No. 8, pp. 506-509, (1,460 words)
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

India is more than a peninsula: it is practically an island. On the North the iron rampart of the Himalayas shields it from all invasion not only of men but of ideas. The barriers on the East are scarcely less formidable, for dense forests and malaria make up for lower height. All the South is bathed by great oceans, and even on the West there are ranges of mountains difficult to traverse. Small wonder, then, that in the past, separated from the outer world, the Indian community has crystallised into the caste system, the most elaborate expression in history of a stationary agricultural society. In more than one respect it has analogies with that of ancient Egypt, isolated from other peoples by deserts and the sea. As in Egypt, religion, the handmaid of the ruling landlords, looms gigantic on the horizon of Indian thought and civilisation.

Long since has the insularity of India begun to disappear. The seas are no longer barriers, but pathways. On to the background of this ancient culture has been precipitated, first, the trader with machine-made goods, demanding raw materials and building railways for transport; and, secondly, the factory system itself.

Nevertheless, a vast mass like the three hundred millions of India, bound by religions which enter to so striking an extent into the daily life, possesses no little inertia. It is not lightly to be shaken from its traditional beliefs and immemorial customs. Conceive yourself an Indian village. Agriculture will appear the supreme occupation of mankind; factories a far-off portent; the absurd anachronism of the spinning wheel cult a quite feasible proposition. The caste system, strange, almost fantastic as it is in the eyes of the modern Englishman, will be the most natural thing in the world. Foreigners come, but over long distances of ocean, and, excepting a few missionaries, they do not touch the social life and the religions of the country. They do not touch them for the excellent reason that their own dominion depends on the party walls which divide and weaken the teeming millions of India. These old beliefs act as chains tying India to a past which the rest of the world has finally outgrown.

Obviously it is in the interest of the British rulers that Indians should, in thought at least, remain apart from other nations. When a warrior has made a man captive, he does not desire him to exchange views with outsiders. He would have him remain subject to his influence alone, in order the better to inoculate him with the ideology of slaves. Moreover, does not all religion, and in a peculiar degree the Indian religions, preach and disseminate established authoritarian ideas? Is not authoritarianism best guarantee in the mental sphere of the permanence of foreign rule? Precisely as the Government of Burma endeavours to keep that province aloof from the larger world of India, rulers at Simla strive to hold the Empire of India separate from this our modern world and cherish every institution which may conduce to that end. For in the north of Asia are new ideas dreaded by all imperialists, ideas which are spreading southward and which even now knock at the doors of the Indian Empire.

Politically, this insularity of mind so characteristic of India serves admirably the purposes of the British ruling class. Indians are not good Asiatics. They are concerned with the troubles of the colonists in Africa, but the mighty events which are changing the face of Asia seem to awake comparatively little interest. The use of Indian troops to seize Mesopotamia evoked little opposition. The protest against the despatch of regiments to China was, with one exception, more formal than real. So far as Asia is concerned, India thus remains a passive tool in the hands of the imperialists. Nor does the advantage of the latter’s wider outlook end here. They see the world as a whole, and they can regulate their Indian policy accordingly. If hard beset elsewhere, they will be gracious to their subjects, lavish, as during the war, with promises of rainbow gold. When, on the other hand, in the imperialist sky the clouds are few and small, they become autocrats again; snubbing contemptuously the puzzled but still subservient bourgeoisie. Before Indians can counter their masters’ strategy and understand their politics, it is necessary that they lift their eyes beyond the Indian horizon. They must cease to look on India as a land apart, and see it as it is, a pawn of imperialism on the chess-board of the world. Englishmen are often enjoined to think imperially. So also should Indians. From this wider viewpoint they will then more and more identify imperialism for what it is. They will see in it no selfless system for the security and the uplift of Asiatics, but an organism which exploits them for the purpose of winning great profits. They can then discard the illusions of Liberal ideology, and understand that in the relations of foreign conquerors with subject Asiatics it is no question of slow reform, but of class war.

Nevertheless, the spiritual isolation of India, useful to her masters, is visibly dissipating. In hoping to keep her mentally separate whilst materially exploited, they are dreaming of the impossible. For it is not only from the wide spaces of the North that new ideas come. They come with the machine, with the factory system. The industrialisation of India, now the settled policy of the British, sounds the knell of the caste system and of the great religions based on an agricultural order of society. A new order comes into being with but two classes, the capitalist and the worker. The Press supplants the altar as the organ of class domination. Here the masters of India are up against a contradiction. With the crumbling of the old system disappear also the stiff barriers against modern science and modern thought. The minds of Indians become plastic, open to the inrush of all kinds of subversive notions, to doctrines of equality, to republicanism, even, horribile dictum, to Marxian dialectics. Our imperialists, it is to be feared, cannot have their cake and eat it too. They cannot exploit India through the factory system and expect India to remain conservative, passive, and submissive as of old.

It is true that the number of industrial workers is as yet but small, a mere two millions or so. But they swiftly increase. They have already proved that they can unite and most grimly endure. Not improbably, now that the bourgeoisie has lapsed into impotence, it will be they who will form the spear-head of a new national movement that shall emancipate India. A century ago in England the industrial workers played a part vastly more important than their numbers indicated, and we all know how in Russia the Bolsheviks formed the vanguard of the masses of peasants. So also in China, the general conditions of which, if we except the religious incubus, are comparable with those of India.

The factories may also form centres from which will spread new ideas dissolving and transforming the primitive society of India. Thus far the process has proceeded slowly. Untouchability and religious feuds still affront a world that, whatever its vices, has elsewhere outgrown these puerilities. But we live in a day of quick and astonishing changes. Given a great wave of emotion, a patriotic and emancipating movement, and all these dark relics of a landlord civilisation will be swept away as suddenly as a river in spate sweeps away the debris collected in its bed. An Indian Kuomintang would give birth to a new India unthinkable alike to the imperialists and to the priests and princes of the old order.

One thing is certain. Asia has awoken from her slumber of aeons. She is moving and moving fast. In a single decade Turkey has changed, Persia and Afghanistan are stirring, Siberia and Turkestan have been revolutionised, China is transformed.

Millions whose lives in ice lay fast
Have thoughts and smiles and tears.

The tide of a new world surges even closer to the ramparts that isolate India. From over the seas come strange ideas, penetrating on all sides her ancient society. Within her, by the very power which holds her captive, the seeds of a new order have been sown. Is it likely that she alone will remain stationary dreaming of a past that is dead? When all Asia is being revolutionised, will India stand still? Imperialists may point to defeat of Gandhi’s movement. True, he failed, but also so failed John Brown’s raid into the Southern States. That did not prevent the speedy emancipation of the slaves at the hands of another and a greater force.