The Emergence of Modern India Analysis

Arthur Lall

The Emergence of Modern India

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Arthur Lall belongs to one of the last generations of Indians to reach maturity during the colonial period. At the time of his birth (1911) Europe ruled much of the world’s landmass. Western values and technology represented the highest accomplishments of civilization, ideals which educated Indians believed their country must strive for to gain admission to the modern world. As the independence movement gathered momentum, particularly after 1917, these values and accomplishments were increasingly questioned and often rejected, in whole or part, as Indians sought to break English cultural as well as political control over their nation.

The author was both a witness to and a participant in this cultural and political turmoil. He was also a career diplomat with wide exposure to other countries’ traditions and beliefs. Under these circumstances, he has developed a personal synthesis of the various values and beliefs, some Western, some Indian, to which he has been exposed. The Emergence of Modern India is the product of the author’s efforts to achieve this synthesis. It is also an insider’s account of many of the events and personalities of modern India’s history.

The first half of the book is devoted to the period leading up to independence in 1947. In it, Lall delineates several themes which are then traced throughout Indian history. The “pursuit of synthesis,” obviously a significant force in the author’s own life, is the most prominent of them. The discussion of this theme culminates in an analysis of why the pursuit of synthesis broke down in the twentieth century, allowing the emergence of a separatist movement among Indian Muslims. He also treats the “peaceable influence of the Indian system” on the world at large.

The second half of the book is devoted to the postindependence period, into which he traces themes developed earlier. He draws on his personal knowledge of contemporary India’s leadership to illuminate developments during this period. His friendships with these leaders, however, ultimately inhibit a critical examination of their personalities and policies.

A basic feature of Indian culture has been its ability to absorb and integrate a number of diverse ethnic and cultural strains. Lall admits, however, that this adaptability has been forced on India as a result of her being the victim of so many foreign invaders. The first of these, the Indo-Europeans, established a pattern followed to a greater or lesser degree by all subsequent invaders up to the time of the British. After an initial period of resistance, they succumbed to the allurements of the country they had conquered, and their own culture mixed gradually with that of the conquered. The highest flowering of this intermixing was, in Lall’s estimation, the Vedanta system of philosophy. Nevertheless, this synthesis on the ideological plane was not matched, he says, by a synthesis on the practical level, since India remained fragmented into a number of diverse ethnic and cultural groups. The author’s comments suggest that what was really produced by this historical process was a conglomerate, rather than a synthesis.

An aspect of this synthetic tradition, undocumented by Lall, is that it has stifled criticism. The way it dealt with Buddhism is fairly typical. This creed, which posed a threat to the Hindu caste system, was disarmed by incorporating its less dangerous elements into Hinduism and by admitting the Buddha to the Hindu pantheon, leaving the social system untouched.

Lall maintains that this synthetic tradition distinguishes India from the rest of the world, but every society in history has been influenced by its contacts with other societies. The real question is exactly how these influences are dealt with by a society. It is arguable that Western society has incorporated influences from outside with as great an alacrity as India. In the West, however, foreign influences—gunpowder, printing, and the magnetic compass are frequently cited—were absorbed by a basically dynamic society. The “pursuit of synthesis” in the West became a force for change, whereas in India it became a profoundly conservative force.

If this tradition was as strong as Lall argues, he must explain why it broke down in the twentieth century, specifically, why Indian Muslims rejected inclusion in a single state with their Hindu conationalists. This he attempts to do. He sketches the long history of Hindu-Muslim relations, which, he argues, by no means made this outcome necessary. The original Muslim conquerors of the subcontinent had represented the first significant external threat to the continuity of Indian tradition, but, like the Indo-Europeans before them, they, too, gradually accepted much from the culture of their subjects, which was in turn influenced by Muslim culture. By the second half of the eighteenth century, he says, a tradition of cooperation between Muslims and Hindus had been established.

In Lall’s opinion the ultimate cause of the breakdown of relations between Indian Hindus and Muslims was the conquest of the Indian subcontinent by the British. Their policy of divide and rule, compounded by a sense of racial superiority, represented a significant break with prior tradition. Though it is true that racism certainly became a strong force in British attitudes toward Indians, it is also true that, up to the end of the eighteenth century, many of the British who came to India “went native,” adopting Indian customs and very often Indian mistresses. By contrast, the first Muslims to appear in India left a trail of destruction, laying waste Hindu shrines and temples. Many explanations have been offered as to why British attitudes grew harsher, while those of previous invaders seem to have softened. One of these, to which Lall seems oblivious, is that, while other invaders had ultimately made India their home, in part out of necessity, the British, as a result of modern developments in communication and transportation, had no need to do this. They were able to maintain close ties with their homeland, taking frequent home leaves, in many cases bringing their wives to India with them, and sending their children home to be educated. These factors probably made it easier for the British to develop and maintain their racist attitudes.

Lall argues that the British deliberately exploited the divisions in Indian society to consolidate their own rule. This was particularly true after the “Mutiny” in 1857. Thereafter, the British...

(The entire section is 2668 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XVIII, July, 1981, p. 1596.

Library Journal. CVI, June 1, 1981, p. 1219.

Publishers Weekly. CCXIX, February 27, 1981, p. 146.