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Raja Rammohun Roy and the British Rule

Raja Rammohun Roy, known as the first modern man of India, was firmly convinced that despite the evils inherent in imperialism, the British rule in India was destined to play a historic role. He saw how the country had fallen apart and got divided into numerous kingdoms and principalities mutually antagonistic following the decline of the Mughal Empire that was supposed to have begun with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. A central rule under a constitutional system of governance was the need of the hour and the British with its long and cherished democratic-administrative traditions could meet the demand of time, he strongly felt.

Rammohun considered British rule in India as a historical necessity, a divine providence, albeit as a stopgap proposition, to facilitate India’s transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era. He was convinced that if the forward movement of history was somehow reversed it would mean the restoration of the antediluvian mode of governance right from the Middle Ages. He was of the view, till such time as the country’s progressive historical forces would not get rightly integrated on way to becoming capable of taking over the responsibility of running the country by themselves there was no alternative to accepting British rule. He was aware though of the evils of the alien rule in respect to the interests of the natives and he made no bones about them.

Rammohun along with others like Dwarakanath Tagore was in favour of unrestricted trade as well as settlement of the Europeans in India, as he thought it would bring European capital and machinery to pump new life in the long vegetating arenas of industry and agriculture. He asked the Europeans to settle down in India and invest their newly acquired capital here in setting up industries and in modernizing agriculture. He argued for unfettered trade and considered this inevitable in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution in England. He knew around 11 crore pounds had been shipped into England from the country between 1765 and 1820.  Opposed as he was against the flight of this capital, he was for this capital to be used in India’s industrialization. He took the side of the ‘industrial capital’ that the bourgeois class in post-Industrial Revolution England represented against the ‘merchant capital’ that the East India Company was identified with. The latter remained focused on increasing revenue through merchant trade and was against setting up new industries in India with the European capital. The orthodox group led by Radhakanto Deb opposed Rammohun’s move and took the side of the East India Company. They were for continuance of the trade monopoly being enjoyed then by the Company.

This was nothing short of a revolutionary thinking, given the mood of the time. Even now the debate as to whether such opening would be beneficial for the long and short-term interests of the country keeps occupying the central space of the national discourse with arguments and counter- arguments generating grueling heat.

Let us now see what Jawaharlal Nehru wrote about him in his The Discovery of India. “…Ramakrishna represented the old Indian tradition. Before him, in the eighteenth century, another towering personality had risen in Bengal, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who was a new type combining in himself the old learning and the new. Deeply versed in Indian thought and philosophy, a scholar in Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic, he was a product of the mixed Hindu-Moslem culture that was then dominant among the cultured classes of India. The coming of the British to India and their superiority in many ways led his curious and adventurous mind to find out what their cultural roots were. He learnt English but this was not enough; he learnt Greek, Latin, and Hebrew also to discover the sources of the religion and culture of the west. He was also attracted by science and the technical aspects of western civilization, though at that time these technical changes were not so obvious as they subsequently became. Being of a philosophical and scholarly bent, Ram Mohun Roy inevitably went to the older literatures. Describing him, Monier Williams, the Orientalist, has said that he was ‘perhaps the first earnest-minded investigator of the science of Comparative Religion that the world has produced’; and yet, at the same time, he was anxious to modernize education and take it out of the grip of the old scholasticism. Even in those early days he was in favour of the scientific method, and he wrote to the Governor-General emphasizing the need for education in ‘mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, and other useful sciences.’ He was more than a scholar and an investigator; he was a reformer above all. Influenced in his early days by Islam and later, to some extent, by Christianity, he stuck nevertheless to the foundations of his own faith. But he tried to reform that faith and rid it of abuses and the evil practices that had become associated with it. It was largely because of his agitation for the abolition of suttee that the British Government prohibited it. This suttee, or the immolation of women on the funeral pyre of their husbands, was never widespread. But rare instances continued to occur among the upper classes. Probably the practice was brought to India originally by the Scytho-Tartars, among whom the custom prevailed of vassals and liegemen killing themselves on the death of their lord. In early Sanskrit literature the suttee custom is denounced. Akbar tried hard to stop it, and the Marathas also were opposed to it.

Ram Mohun Roy was one of the founders of the Indian press. From 1780 onwards a number of newspapers had been published by Englishmen in India. These were usually very critical of the Government and led to conflict and the establishment of a strict censorship. He was associated with several newspapers. He brought out a bi-lingual, Bengali-English magazine, and later, desiring an all-India circulation, he published a weekly in Persian, which was recognized then as the language of the cultured classes all over India. But this came to grief soon after the enactment in 1823 of new measures for the control of the press. Ram Mohun and others protested vigorously against these measures and even addressed a petition to the King-in-Council in England. Ram Mohun Roy’s journalist activities were intimately connected with his reform movements. His synthetic and universalist points of view were resented by orthodox sections who also opposed many of the reforms he advocated. But he also had staunch supporters, among them the Tagore family which played an outstanding part later in the renaissance in Bengal…”

The views of Swami Vivekananda on the matter were no different from those of Rammohun.  “Conquering another country is very bad; foreign domination is also very bad; but sometimes good comes out of evil. British conquest of India is an amazingly novel occurrence. They were a new and strange power. Their flag was the chimney of a factory; their force consisted of commercial ships; their equipment of war was the world’s merchandise… Such a powerful and all-pervasive system of government had never before taken over the administration in our country. Consequently peace, discipline and rule of law have been established. In the course of establishing domination over trade and commerce, merchandise from one end of the world is being carried to another end. The ideas and thoughts of many countries are penetrating Indian marrow. As a result of this impact, a nation long in slumber is gradually waking up. This awakening has resulted in a slight unfolding of free thinking. The admixture of the two civilizations would give birth to an ideal society in India and a new age would be ushered into the world.”

Let us now see how Rabindranath Tagore viewed the Colonial State and its potential for India. In two essays in Kalantar and Chotto O Baro, he made his ideas about the Islamic and British rule clear.

“Islam was not a modern power; it was inhabited by the centuries of the past. It did not possess the spirit of new creations. It did not open our eyes to the world outside.” Referring to the British, he said: “But the arrival of the British was an unprecedented occurrence in the history of India”. Visualizing the British as the harbinger of the Occidental spirit, he said: “European dynamism had a tremendous impact on our static minds.”

Rabindranath divided Englishmen into two categories-the large- hearted liberals and the small-minded traders. He termed the first one as ‘who were creative, who were among the principal performers in the great movement known as European civilization; the prime ideal in life of the English nation being veneration for justice, truth and freedom’.”(Chotto O Baro). He termed the other as “those who did not advance at all, who have made the country immobile…Initially they did some creative work but thereafter, for ages, it became their sole objective to protect and enjoy the privileges of their imperial power and commercial domination.” (Chotto O Baro)

It would not be out of place here to mention that the Bengali intelligentsia which was in the vanguard of the ascendant nationalism in the country, by and large, turned its back on the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny which was later glorified in history as the first war of Independence.

– Romit Bagchi

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