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Indian Passages

August 30, 1997

While there is something suspect about the celebrations surrounding India's fiftieth anniversary -- after all, for a people and a culture whose roots were planted some four and a half thousand years ago, fifty years is but a blink of the eye -- August 15th was indeed a milestone of sorts. India is today at a crossroads. Although the British left in 1947, the nation continued for decades afterwards to struggle with its imperial legacy, shutting its markets to Western corporations and bristling with indignation at the slightest perception of foreign interference in its internal affairs. In 1991, however, faced with bankruptcy, the government initiated drastic economic reforms that have since ushered in a wave of consumerism and Westernization. Among all political parties -- even the communists -- there is now a consensus in favor of continuing the reforms. And so, fifty years after the end of colonialism, the nation seems finally to be coming into its own. It seems a fitting moment, then, to pause and look back at a hundred and forty years of Atlantic Monthly articles on India. They reveal as much about the world's evolving view of India as they do about India itself.

As it happens, The Atlantic's first year of publication coincided with two important occasions in Indian history. In 1857, Great Britain marked its hundredth year of rule in India. Writing in the very first issue of The Atlantic, Charles Creighton Hazewell compared that rule to "the dominion which Rome held over so large a portion of the world" but argued that the British hold over India was even more impressive. "There is nothing like the rule of the English in India to be found in history," he wrote in "British India," (November, 1857).

Also in 1857, several units of the Bengal Army arose in rebellion against their British commanders; the revolt would come to be known as the Sepoy Mutiny, after the name given to native soldiers. It was the first time that the British had been seriously challenged by their Indian subjects, and the uprising spread rapidly across northern India before it was brutally suppressed. Today scholars believe that the mutiny sowed the seeds of popular resentment against British rule. But Hazewell was more skeptical, arguing in the next issue of The Atlantic "The Indian Revolt," (December, 1857) that "this great revolt had in very small degree the character of a popular uprising . . . as the vast mass of natives are in general not discontented with the English rule." Hazewell in his earlier article had in fact attributed the violence of the failed mutiny to Indians themselves:

We think it may be safely said, that never was there a career of conquest of such extent accompanied with so little of wrong and suffering to the body of the people.... The stop that has been put to the cruelties of the native rulers ought not to be forgotten in estimating the amount of evil and of good which that conquest has brought upon India. The World has been shocked by the cruelties of which the rebellious Sepoys have been guilty; but they can astonish no one who is familiar with the history of the races to which these mutineers belong. An indifference to life, and a love of cruelty for cruelty's sake, are common characteristics of most of the Orientals, and are chiefly conspicuous in the ruling classes.
Half a century later Indian nationalist sentiment was winning many converts. In "The New Nationalist Movement in India," (October, 1908), Jabez T. Sunderland argued forcefully that India's struggle to rid itself of colonial rule "should have the sympathy of the enlightened and liberty-loving men and women of all nations." Drawing attention to India's terrible poverty, he suggested that the British were to blame: heavy taxation, the large share of British military expenditures borne by India, and the funneling out of wealth by the East India Company, he argued, had all impoverished the colony.

By 1959, twelve years after independence, the initial exuberance of freedom had been tempered by the realization that poverty would not disappear with the British. In a vivid account of the travails of "India's Masses," (October, 1959), Arthur Bonner, then the CBS correspondent in India, drew attention to government inefficiency, creaking infrastructure and communications systems, and an overreliance on heavy industrialization. "Many factories and huge new dams spring up," he wrote, yet "per-acre yields remain among the lowest in the world, and thousands of ancient minor irrigation works are falling into disrepair." A few years later, in "Strong Medicine for India," (December, 1965), Leland Hazard echoed a similar theme. "It is humiliating for India to be dependent upon the industrialized countries for better agriculture and more industry," he wrote. "But she is, utterly."

Since that time, India has made rapid strides. Whereas economic growth stagnated around a dismal 3 percent well into the 1970s, today it hovers near 7 percent -- a figure that rivals the growth rates of India's "Asian Tiger" neighbors. And whereas India's many troubles used to elicit regular predictions of democracy's impending demise, the nation remains today the largest democracy in the world. But, as journalist after journalist has noted in recent months, there remain many difficulties, not least of which are the specters of religious and separatist strife. In "Holy War Against India," (August, 1988), Conor Cruise O'Brien, an Atlantic contributing editor, took these issues on in a discussion of Sikh separatists in the state of Punjab.

O'Brien at one point in his article paused to make a general observation. "The viability of the secular and democratic system in India is a remarkable phenomenon, and one that has received less attention in the West than it deserves." If this year's celebrations and special magazine issues and new novels are anything to go by, the world is finally catching on.

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