India Abandons Pacifism

Article excerpt

My first impressions of India were from reading Teddy Roosevelt's friend Rudyard Kipling. I was both excited and mystified by the wild street riots between Hindus and Muslims, and quite horrified by the sacred Hindu tradition of burning widows to death on their husband's funeral bier.

A man would die, that is: no doubt a worthy citizen. His fellow believers would lay him out on his bier, then search out his widow and, as she writhed and screamed, lay her out on the bier too, sometimes tying her hands and feet to the framework. Then they'd set the whole thing afire and, in short, burn her to death. Before the British came this was an almost universal custom in India, although not one which they made much of when they were about to be admitted to the United Nations.

Both E.M. Forster and George Orwell cut their baby teeth as writers in the British Raj, and on both literary men it left a deep impression. Forster was your typical, liberal anti-imperialist, and his "A Passage to India" of 1932 marked a significant stage in the decline of the empire. Of India and the Indians (such sweet gentle people) Forster would not hear a word of criticism - the fact that he had a number of homosexual love affairs with Indians probably played a role here. Orwell's service in the Burmese Police had a very different effect. First, the Burmese weren't miserable enough for him. If he took off his uniform in Burma he'd still be a member of the master race. Thus - in order to be close to "the people" - he went off in the 1930s to the Spanish Civil War as a volunteer with the Radical Syndicalist militia, known as the POUM. As the POUM came under Soviet influence in Spain Orwell encountered his first Stalinists - the shock of his life. His celebrated "1984" was the result. Although in poor health, he served out World War II for his country in the Home Guard - deep patriotism having figured larger in his psychological makeup than he'd realized.

The end of World War II left Britain's anti-imperialists in a euphoric state, with India, the jewel of the imperial crown, now independent and Mahatma Gandhi a martyr and virtual saint. The Hollywood film of 1982, "Gandhi," captures the pious feeling that swept over Britain of the time - at least Britain's pious circles - at the destruction of the Empire.

Americans knew little about all this and when Eisenhower sent an advertising tycoon named Chester Bowles as our first ambassador to the newly independent India, he had thoroughly bi-partisan support. Liberal Democrats supported India, of course, but conservative Republicans supported India also as our candidate in the grand Asian sweepstakes. India was the horse we backed against Mao Tse-tung and the communist Chinese. This held for almost two decades.

The path that leads from America as champions of India and Hindus (believers in pacifism and vegetarianism) to the India that has just set off five underground thermonuclear weapons in Rajasthan (changing the whole balance of power in South Asia) is long and tortuous. …