India—Of What Are We Afraid?

The Difficulty of the Inexperienced in Assessing the Indian Mentality and Other Matters

By Shelland Bradley

(Who for many years acted as magistrate in several Indian Provinces, such as those of Chota Nagpore, a little-known outpost of Empire etc.)

When you have spent something like thirty years in India, living amongst the people, settling their disputes, trying their law suits, helping them to build hospitals and schools, to make roads and bridges, devoting yourself day in and day out to improving the conditions under which they live, it is a little difficult to listen with patience to the theoretical prosings of politicians who have never even seen India, or to the still more dangerous hastily-acquired conclusions of globe-trotters who have gained but a smattering of the vast problems it presents. How vast those problems are no one can realize unless he has studied them on the spot. Even so, thirty years is all too short a time in which to master them; at the end of them, with all the knowledge and experience acquired, one can only realize how little one knows. Take the case of the Viceroy himself.

At first thought one would imagine a Viceroy better equipped than anyone else to obtain a real knowledge of India and her problems. It is only from personal knowledge one comes to realize that, on the contrary, it is easier for a camel to pass through the needle’s eye than for a Viceroy to gain a real insight into Indian character and conditions. Generally at the outset a Viceroy arrives with no previous knowledge of India or of the East at all. He can learn much from books and reports, he can learn more from his members of council and secretaries, but to force his way through all these second-hand sources of information and come to personal grips with Indian life and thought is a hard thing. He is so surrounded from the moment he arrives with State and affairs of State, he is raised so far aloft upon a throne, everywhere he goes such preparations are made to show him things as they are not in everyday life, that he never comes in contact with the common task and daily round. He sees the glitter and the tinsel, the smiles and courtesy, the company manners, he knows nothing of the drab routine that lies behind, the real character of the men he meets.

A Viceroy after three years of office once said to me that he thought no Indian had a sense of humour. Nothing could have brought home to one more forcibly how little of the real character of the Indian the Viceroy gets to know. Having learned early in one’s career that the surest way to an Indian’s heart and understanding is through his keen sense of humour, it was cause for astonishment to find that a Viceroy could have lived in India for three years without making the same discovery. But on reflection one realized that this very striking Indian characteristic is hardly likely to have free play in the Vice-regal presence. An Indian having an interview with the Viceroy is either too nervous or much too anxious to obtain the object for which he has sought the interview to give vent to his sense of humour. Yet to anyone who has come into real contact with Indians it would be easy to give a score of instances where an Indian’s sense of humour has clinched an argument or saved a situation. Two instances immediately spring to mind to refute the Viceroy’s conclusion, one concerning the highest type of Indian, socially and intellectually, the other concerning the members of a local mofussil bar.

It was at a large private dinner during a session of the Legislative Assembly, when after-dinner speeches were the order of the day, and a well-known Indian was deprecating the agitation for the further introduction of representative government, and stressing the point that though that form of government might be good for England it was not suited to India. “What is good for one person is not always good for another,” he said. “Let me put it to you in the form of a story,” which he proceeded to do in his own inimitable way. “There was once a bathing costume, which was really a very nice modest bathing-costume, but every time it was taken out by its owner to bathe on the beach a crowd collected to stare at it. The bathing costume, as I have said, being a nice modest bathing costume hated being the cynosure of every eye and sought every possible means of avoiding such publicity, but without success. Greater and yet greater grew the crowds that collected to stare at it.

“At last one day greatly distressed it met a little violet and said to it: ‘You are really much more beautiful than I am. Yet there is no crowd collecting round you. ‘How do you manage to escape publicity?’ Whereupon the violet answered modestly, When I see anyone coming I shrink.’ So the bathing costume greatly comforted went away, and the next time it was taken out on to the beach to bathe and the crowd collected as usual to stare at it, it immediately began to shrink. But the more it shrank the more people stared. The moral of which is that what is good for one person is not always good for another. The representative parliamentary form of Government may be very good for England, but it is no use trying to fit it on to India.”

The other instance of an Indian’s sense of humour that came to mind concerned a certain district to which, owing to an outrage that had been committed, no Governor had paid a visit for some years. I thought it high time that the Governor should pay it another visit, and after being told from headquarters that the Governor would come, with the encouraging rider that I should be held responsible for his safety, I proceeded to make the necessary arrangements. The members of the Bar and other local notabilities expressed themselves delighted at the visit, and were eager to show their loyalty by according the Governor the most elaborate and ceremonious welcome.

In consultation with the Governor’s Staff I proceeded to arrange the details. The railway station being two miles away from the town, it was decided that all those who were to receive His Excellency should assemble in a shamiana on the maidan in front of the Courts to await his arrival. I, with the Superintendent of Police, was to meet him at the station and escort him to the shamiana, where all those gathered there would be introduced in formal Durbar. But as soon as this arrangement was known trouble began. An idea occurred to one of the local busy-bodies that, with all the amazing rapidity of thought transference in the East, quickly spread itself throughout the town. The idea was that when at last after so long an interval a Governor was again coming to pay a visit to the district it was absolutely essential that the notabilities should show their loyalty by greeting him at the very moment he first set foot on the district’s soil.

It was a good sounding phrase, an excellent rallying cry which goes such a long way in India, and they worried it for all they were worth at the tops of their voices. “At the very moment His Excellency sets foot upon the soil of our district.” The hard-hearted district magistrate was preventing them showing their loyalty by refusing to allow them to meet His Excellency at the very moment he set foot upon their soil. It was impossible to reason with them, pointing out that most of them being without any means of conveyance of any kind—it was in the days when motors were rare and no aeroplane had as yet been seen in India—it would be physically impossible for them to meet His Excellency at the railway station and yet be at the shamiana two miles away to great him in Durbar when he arrived there in his car, which would cover the distance in five minutes. No argument or persuasion was of any effect. They even had an article on the hard-heartedness of the district magistrate in suppressing their loyal desires in the chief Indian daily paper. The Shibboleth had mesmerised them. They must meet His Excellency the very moment he set foot upon the soil of their district.

It was all too absurd and childish, but the incident, again in a truly Oriental way, had been magnified out of all proportion and it filled the air to the exclusion of all else as the great day approached. With strange but typical confusion of thought, they were accusing the very man who had suggested and arranged the visit as an expression of loyalty of preventing them showing that loyalty. The Englishman, unaccustomed to the working of the Oriental mind might be inclined to brush the whole thing aside as too childish to be considered, or ride roughshod over it, but any one who knows the Oriental mind will understand that such things cannot be ignored and that trivialities may easily in the East become tragedies. There is so great a gulf between the Occidental and the Oriental way of thinking that each in certain respects regards the other’s ideas as childish, and in all one’s dealings with the masses of the Indian people one has to bear this divergence of thought in mind and endeavour to understand their point of view.

On this occasion it was impossible to give way not only as a matter of principle but simply because the thing could not be done. Yet it was extremely undesirable that there should be any note of discord with regard to His Excellency’s visit and as a last resort I determined to try and make them see reason by appealing to their sense of humour. I asked ten or twelve of the leading men to come and see me, and I can still see them filing into my study, full of expectancy, and seating themselves in a semi-circle in front of my desk. There could only be one subject concerning which I had asked to see them and they were all alert to hear what I had to say.

“I have considered very carefully your very natural desire to meet His Excellency the moment he sets foot upon the soil of your district,” I began slowly glancing round at the semi-circle of attentive faces, “and I fully appreciate the loyal enthusiasm it implies. So I shall be very glad”—as I paused they all sat forward thinking they had won—“if those of you who have aeroplanes will meet His Excellency with me at the railway station and then fly quickly ahead to await him formally in Durbar. “But for those of you who have not aeroplanes I fear it will not be physically possible as there is no other means of getting you there more quickly than His Excellency will go in his car.” I shall never forget how from an eager look of triumphant expectation their faces gradually fell first into a look of blank surprise and disappointment then slowly succumbing to their sense of humour and dissolving into mirth. Within a minute I had them all laughing good-humouredly and we parted a few minutes later the best of friends and I heard no more of the matter.

It is the personal touch that is wanted in India, not political theories and elaborate Constitutions on western lines. The Simon Commission realised this great truth and it is to be greatly deplored that these lines, summing-up one of the great conclusions to which it came after its exhaustive enquiries, have not carried greater weight. “The great mass of the people,” reads the report, “desire personal rule and we believe that, for many years to come, there can be no adequate substitute for it.” Everyone with any intimate knowledge of India and the Indian will endorse that view, yet ever since those lines were penned we seem to have been wandering in an entirely opposite direction, losing ourselves in floods of eloquence and grandiose schemes that would wipe out personal rule. It was the personal touch that was the secret of our first success in India. We formed contact with the Indian in a way no other European nation did, inspiring him with confidence in our integrity, our sense of justice, and our desire to see his side of the question and to make every allowance for it.

The first English district magistrates in India were fathers of their people in a real sense, in close personal touch with them, easy of access, ridding them from the oppression of landlord and moneylender, devoting themselves to their service. In those happy days the Central Government was a long way off. There were no telegrams and telephones by means of which to obtain orders or seek advice. The District Magistrate was practically supreme in his district and India has never been better ruled than under his personal sway. Even to-day when the District Magistrate has been shorn of half his authority, and has become little but the mouthpiece of a far-away Central Government, one has only to ask an Indian in a country district whether he would prefer an Englishman or an Indian as his District Magistrate, to meet with no uncertain reply in favour of the former. The mass of the people is with us and for us. Of what are we afraid?