Two Zen monks travelling together reached a swift-flowing river where a beautiful young woman sought their help in getting across. The younger monk picked her up without a word, carried her across the water, deposited her on the other side, and continued his journey to the astonishment of his older comrade. An hour passed as they trudged, two hours, then three. Finally, unable to restrain himself any longer, the older monk blurted out: “We are forbidden to touch a woman. Yet you carried her on your shoulders?” The young stalwart looked at his senior, and said: “Brother, I carried her for only a few minutes because there was no other way across the river. You are still carrying her in your mind!”
Like the older Zen monk, Bharatiya Janata Party activists in Telangana who are threatening to demolish any building with a dome also carry the chains of a long-dead colonial past. Bandi Sanjay Kumar, the BJP’s state unit president, objects that the newly-built domed state secretariat symbolises slavery: domes recall the culture of the Nizams. He should be advised that Sikh gurdwaras and Buddhist stupas also boast of domes: must they too be demolished? Whatever the Nizam regime’s faults, pretending that a system that lasted for 133 years never existed is like the proverbial ostrich. Independence should mean rising above “baraso sal ka ghulami”, not changing names and inventing narratives in a futile attempt to wish away history.
Singapore experienced a similar phase of emotional immaturity when James Puthucheary, head of the Industrial Promotion Board, threatened to replace a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, the colony’s British founder, with Marx or Lenin. A troubled Albert Winsemius, the Dutch expert heading a team of United Nations advisers, wanted the statue to remain. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew agreed that moving the statue of Raffles would erode the confidence of investors who made Singapore’s miraculous growth possible.
India’s packing away the relics of the Raj arguably made psychological sense in the heyday of decolonisation. But repeating the process 76 years later – as threatened by the storm in Telangana’s teacup, Uttar Pradesh’s renaming spree and the revision of textbooks and syllabuses -- would invite ridicule abroad and expose the lack of confidence of a government that squanders energy on circuses instead of giving people the bread they need. It so happens that many historians credit the last Nizam, the “Architect of modern Hyderabad”, with stopping cow slaughter, abolishing the death penalty, separating the judiciary and executive, subjecting himself to the rule of law, and donating 5,000 kg of gold to the India Defence Fund.
It was in his domains, too, that the British Captain John Smith stumbled upon the Ajanta and Ellora caves while hunting in 1819 and braved fierce animals and fiercer tribals to explore them. The Asiatic Society which Sir William Jones, pioneer of Indological studies, had founded in 1784, had published a report on Ajanta’s wonders in 1836; Major Robert Gill, also British, spent 27 years copying the paintings. Another Englishman, John Griffiths of Bombay’s School of Art, continued his work for the next 13 years.
Honesty demands giving credit where credit is due. Foreigners are blamed for many things, but they preserved India’s past. As Kunwar Natwar Singh says in another context, Indians have no sense of history. An obsession with eternity means that the closer past is ignored. It was left to people like Francis Buchanan, the East India Company surgeon, surveyor and botanist, to explore Bodh Gaya’s Buddhist association so that external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar could take on his Nepalese colleagues the other day on the faith’s origins. An appreciative Jawaharlal Nehru felt that with his lively interest in monuments, Lord Curzon, Viceroy from 1899-1905, “will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India”.
James Prinsep, who succeeded Jones, discovered the Brahmi script, from which Devanagari evolved. Prinsep’s protégé, Alexander Cunningham, who joined the Bengal Engineers as a 19-year-old second lieutenant and spent 28 years in India, was the real father of Indian archaeology. Cunningham discovered the 2,000-year-old Indus Valley ruins at Harappa whose bricks were being used to lay a railway line. Excavating Sarnath and the Mauryan Bharhut stupa, he found villagers helping themselves to the bricks of sacred antiquity to build their own homes. As he wrote in his diary, “…few natives of India have any belief in disinterested excavations for the discovery of ancient buildings… Their only idea of such excavations is that they are really intended as a search for hidden treasure…”.
That greed explains the current furore over the “Kohinoor”, which a wise Prime Minister like Inder Kumar Gujral had dismissed as irrelevant to modern India’s primary concerns. If the diamond does come to India, it might well disappear like Rabindranath Tagore’s gold Nobel Prize medal or be destroyed like two volumes of Romesh Chunder Dutt’s scrapbooks that were so badly stored and carelessly handled that they disintegrated in a curator’s hands before my eyes. There were earlier reports of the gems being prised out of Mughal jewellery in a historic collection and replaced with coloured glass and of incorrect labels on priceless artefacts in one of our most august museums. When Singapore mounted an exhibition on Buddhism’s spread across Asia, it had to coax and cajole some custodians of major Indian collections to part with treasures that had remained locked up in their stores since colonial times and of which they were blissfully unaware. Perhaps ignorance is a blessing: knowledge might have led to a repeat of the Tagore medal tragedy. The past receives little respect from people obsessed with current wealth.
It’s fashionable nowadays to blame the West’s “colonial mindset” (as it’s called) for holding India back. The BBC documentary on the Gujarat riots, the Hindenburg report on the Adani empire and the “old, rich, opinionated and dangerous” George Soros’ comments have triggered fierce protests. A wounded civilisation’s outrage blazes from New Delhi’s Kingsway to Rajpath to Kartavya Path like the older Zen monk’s righteous puritanical wrath. The much more confident younger monk had no such misgivings. As for the usual culprits, the former colonial powers are too engrossed in superpower rivalry and the struggle for survival to wallow in the past. Only insecure newly independent nations seek an excuse for their failures by seeing a conspiracy behind every bush and complain of being permanently under siege.