First Read | A quest to rediscover India brings out shocking facts

As Bharat celebrates 75 years of Independence from British colonial rule, it is also an opportune moment to delve deeper into the systemic d...

As Bharat celebrates 75 years of Independence from British colonial rule, it is also an opportune moment to delve deeper into the systemic destruction and demonisation of Bharatiya social institutions by the British.

This truth is exposed by the writings of Dharampal, a Gandhian philosopher and historian. Like Sita Ram Goel, Ram Swarup and many other nationalists, Dharampal’s writings haven’t got their due recognition yet.

For those who aren’t aware about Dharampal and his works, he did pioneering work by going through the British and Indian archives of 18th and 19th century and proved that the picture of Indian society of that era was painted wrong.

Dharampal’s overall work is enormous in terms of depth as well as volume as far as rediscovering Bharat’s past is concerned. However, for the beginners, reading Rediscovering India could be the first step if you decide to undertake this journey to discover India’s true past.

Rediscovering India is a collection of prominent essays and speeches of Dharampal from 1956-1998. This title was first published in 2003. The same title was updated and republished in 2022 by Bhopal-based Dharampal Shodhpeeth and Mussoorie-based Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas(SIDH).

An Egalitarian Society, more advanced than Britain

The first chapter of the book ‘India Must Rediscover Itself’ is an eye-opener as it tells you Bharat was very advanced as well as egalitarian society and the caste discrimination was probably only an exception and not the rule as it has been portrayed erroneously by the Colonial chroniclers and their intellectual heirs.

In this chapter, while replying to Dr GSR Krishnan’s specific question (for an interview that was published in Deccan Herald, Bengaluru in March 1983), whether India was ahead of Britain around 1750 and the status of common people during that era, Dharampal says, “I am not sure if, on the basis of the available data one can compare the two societies. But there are certain facts that give us a very different picture of Indian society. For instance, the question of agricultural productivity and wages in India was discussed in Britain, in the Edinburgh Review of July, 1804. In comparison it was found that the productivity in India was several times higher than in Britain. What surprised the British even more was the finding that the wages of the Indian agricultural labourer in real terms were substantially higher than his counterpart in Britain.”

Dharampal cites very interesting data that busts the myth of widespread discrimination in Bharatiya society. “In Tanjore in 1805, the number of mirasdars (those with permanent rights in land) was put to 62,000 out of which 42,000 belonged to Sudras and castes below them… Alexander Read, who originated the Madras land revenue system said that the only noticeable difference between the nobility and servants in Hyderabad around 1780 was that the clothes of the former were more clean.”

In an interesting take on the caste system, that puts upside down all the notions about ‘caste’ as a discriminatory social institution, Dharampal says, “Contrary to the accepted assumptions and perhaps to Manusmritic law, when the British began to conquer India, the majority of Rajas had been from Sudra varna... It can also be argued that the existence of castes added to the tenacity of Indian society, to its capacity to survive, and to be able to stand up again… For the British, caste was a great obstacle, an unmitigated evil not because they believed in castelessness, or a non-hierarchical system but because it stood in the way of their breaking Indian society. I think caste did hinder the process of atomisation of Indian society and made the task of conquest and governance more difficult. The present fury and theoretical formulation against the organisation of Indian society into castes, whatever, the justification or otherwise of caste today, thus begins with the British rule.”

Bharat’s achievements in Science and Technology

Dharampal has done a separate book on how advanced Bharat was in the field of Science and Technology when the British colonisation started here. However, in Rediscovering India also you get some interesting details that can propel one to read more on this less talked about subject.

Talking about how advanced Bharat was in the field of Mathematics and Astronomy, Dharampal cites certain instances, “There is an interesting paper by Sir Robert Barker, who was the British Commander-in-Chief in Bengal and later a member of the British parliament, on the famous observatory at Benares. In fact, the Encyclopaedia Britannica till its 1823 edition considered this observatory as one of the five celebrated observatories of the world. There is a paper published in 1790 by John Playfair, FRS and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. Playfair’s paper is actually a detailed review of a book, the famous French historian of astronomy, Bailly wrote on Indian astronomy.”

“Around the same year, a paper by Ruben Burrow on Binomial theorem was published. Then we have the account of Le Gentil who was an assistant to famous Cassini, about how the Tamils calculated the eclipse, without pen and pencil, computing with shells on the basis of memorised tables. Regarding technology there are many papers that speak of our excellent agricultural techniques.”

“There is a big report by Col Alexander Walker written around 1820 on the agriculture in Malabar and Gujarat. There is a very interesting paper on inoculation against smallpox written by Holwell, who himself was a medical man and was for a short period Governor of Bengal. He described in great detail the practice of inoculation in Bengal and other areas. The British banned the Indian method of inoculation against smallpox in 1802-1803.”

There is a paper by Captain Halcott on the drill plough employed in south India. He has said that he never imagined a drill plough, considered as a modern European invention, at work in remote villages in India. He also described the construction of the drill plough as very simple and neat. There are accounts of the Indian process of making steel which was called ‘wootz’. The British experts who examined samples of ‘wootz’ sent to them by one Dr Helenus Scott have commented that it is decidedly superior compared to any other steel they have seen. There are also accounts of ice making, paper making and making of mortar.”

Former prime minister Chandra Shekhar aptly summed up the essence of this book in a preface he wrote for the 2003 edition: “The British historians tried to depict us as backward, ignorant and uncivilized people. It was a calculated deception to establish their central authority and, in the process, it destroyed our ancient institutions of self-government at the local level.”

Incidentally, Dharampal’s research that brought out all these facts started while studying the institutions of self-government at village level around six decades ago. His original research has revealed facts about Bharat’s past especially in the late 18th and 19th century that could leave the readers in utter disbelief!

(‘Rediscovering India’ by Dharampal; Published by SIDH & Dharampal Shodhpeeth, Swaraj Sansthan Sanchalaya)

The reviewer has authored several books. Views expressed are personal.

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