Letter from India
Ру́сский ве́стник (Russian Messenger), May, 1880
[Translated from the original Russian]
Poona, 18 February, 1880.
Some twenty years ago, as a warning, there was exhibited in triumphant procession all over India, Nâna-Sâhib, locked in an iron cage, delivered for that purpose by his cousin, the Mahârâja of Gwalior. Very proud of this acquisition they showed him almost continuously for all of six weeks, and they only stopped doing so when inquiries proved that the captive was not the bloodthirsty avenger, but merely a pseudo Nâna-Sâhib, some unfortunate shepherd. What they did with this miserable man remains unknown. It is said that in order to clear their conscience, they killed him so that he could not talk. How the Mahârâja extricated himself from this predicament and what sort of an explanation he gave for this clever hoax is hidden to this day in obscurity. It is said, however, that he justified himself by stating he had never seen the captive himself, but relying on the word of his subordinates, sent the captive straight to the English.
At present, there is in Madras a new exhibit of a rebel but not a live one. The curious populace can see, pickled in alcohol, the head of Chendry—the famous rebel leader of Rumla.
For over a year, without any material resources, and with a handful of men armed with obsolete weapons, this Chendry successfully fought the armed forces of one of the most powerful nations of the globe. He entered a very dangerous arena, declaring in advance that if necessary he was determined to sacrifice his own life and that of his family, and he kept his word. The Daily Amrita-Bazaar-Patrika, representing the native opposition party in Calcutta and all the malcontents of India, declares Chendry a hero, placing him incomparably higher than Phadke, another leader of the rebels, recently exiled from Poona. “While the latter,” says the paper, “never rose in the estimation of the government higher than the chieftain of the Dakoits, Chendry, from the beginning of his career was promoted by the government to the high rank of a rebel.”
The beginning of the mutiny at Rumla was caused by the inhuman treatment accorded its inhabitants by the police. The law of
Abkari,1 which did not apply in their district and to which they were not subject, suddenly, and without warning, was enforced, as a result of an arbitrary step taken by the police. From time immemorial, the inhabitants of Rumla drank their toddy without paying a tax for the coconut palms on their own land. The police demanded the payment of a tax on every bush and tree and not only did they beat all those who opposed them, but they also brutally raped the wives and daughters while helping the tax collectors. The Rumla people killed a police official. They were declared rebels and an armed force was sent to suppress them. At this time, Chendry, known for his prowess, who was hiding in the mountains of Narasapatnam, rushed to the rescue of his countrymen in Rumla, and was unanimously chosen as their leader.
Chendry’s first move was to go to the hills of Vizagapatam, where he burned several police stations, beat several policemen and having confiscated their uniforms, ammunition and fire-arms, disguised his men in the uniforms of the unfortunate Sepoys he had killed. A large contingent of police, sent to capture him and his band, was dispersed by the people of Rumla, as it was impossible to distinguish them from the Sepoys, because they were wearing identical uniforms. Following this, Chendry fought a hand to hand encounter with Captain Blaland until the latter turned tail and fled. Mr. Millett, chief inspector of the district of Godâvarî, then came to avenge the captain, but Chendry not only gave his detachment a thorough trouncing, but chased the fugitives for seven miles after which he besieged them for three days at Chodavaram. The detachment was saved only by the timely arrival of the garrison of Godâvarî. It is remarkable that, not only did Chendry refrain from attacking anyone else, but he also protected those natives and Englishmen who did not belong to the police. All his energy and mad vengeance appeared to be directed exclusively against the police and those who had dealings with them. He hacked police Sepoys and agents to pieces, with calculated cruelty. Having caught his victim, he took him to a nearby Pagoda and once there, forced him to circle three times around the idol and then, with one stroke of a sharp sword, beheaded him. Fanatically believing in his idols, he thought that there could be no more pleasant gift to the gods than the heads and the blood of police inspectors and Sepoys.
Until recently, the mere name of Chendry made the latter tremble and turn pale.
Finally his daring rose to such a point that he sent an offer direct to the government, as if from one warring faction to another. He asked the English to release his mother, wife and brother from prison and to recognize him as the leader and commander of the Rumla people. In which case, he would promise not to disturb them further and to grant life even to the hated police. In the last year Chendry had exasperated the English regime to distraction.
And now that Chendry’s head has fallen from his shoulders, the Rumla people are not discouraged; an hour after his death they chose another leader who likewise will stop at nothing and who is ready for the most fanatical exploits. On the day that Chendry’s head was sent to Madras, four hundred rebels attacked a strong police garrison, but this is not all. The government expects a sequel to the mutiny at Rumla in the district of Mysore, where there has appeared a band of from 400 to 500 Dakoits. Again the leader of the band is “a young and daring Brâhmana ”—after the type of Phadke—but more clever and courageous than the latter, to judge from the remarks of Amrita and of other papers, which are advising the authorities who don’t know what to do with the head of Chendry, to send it to the “Brâhmana”—for timely cogitation.
“The head of Chendry”—remarks the same paper, making fun of the government—“very evidently contained very little arithmetical capacity. The computations that went on therein were so poor that it didn’t take pains to figure out what awaited it in this fruitless struggle with the government. But if the head did not possess the gift of arithmetical deductions, it was however, replete with logic—that special kind of logic which alone can bring to reason a stubborn government. The logic of Chendry must convince the government, sooner or later, of the fact which its well-wishers have tried to make it see for such a long time, namely, that there is a straw which will break the back of even the most patient and long-suffering camel. The logic of Chendry opened the eyes of the government and proved that there are limits alike to the constantly increasing taxes and to the arbitrary persecution of the police.”
“This head,” propounds another paper, “could have been sent from one police station to another, where the officials, while looking at it, could have drawn from their own reminiscences some most philosophical deductions. Later it could have been converted, with great usefulness for India, into a paperweight and placed in the study of Sir John Strachey, where he is wont to squeeze from the bottomless depths of his creative imagination new taxation laws; in this manner, the severed head, reminding the noble gentleman of the limits of human patience regarding taxes, could have served as a yardstick for his future speculations; it could have whispered in his ear that there is a limit beyond which even the most patient of people refuse to be driven even by him, a limit where even the most peaceful and dependable of her majesty’s subjects lose not only all their patience, but even, all joking aside, their heads. With equal success, our rulers could send ‘the head’ to those of their clique who first conceived and formulated as a law, the universal disarmament of the country (Arms Act). This severed head alone can solve the problem as to the extent the above-mentioned law became a serious obstacle to the plans and armed maneuvers against the government, at least in the case of the ‘Dakoit’ Chendry. And only when we arrive at a categorical solution of the problem of disarmament, and consequently that of India’s ‘helplessness’ in case of a newly-conceived mutiny, only then, we say, will the government have a perfect right to exhibit such heads in the squares, loudly proclaiming to the whole world: ‘look and tremble; thus perish in the lands conquered by us, those who dare to take up arms against the power of Great Britain!’ . . .”
Local newspaper expressions of discontent, of course, do not carry much weight with the British administration in India. But an outside observer might naturally ask how is it that 60,000 Europeans can be the rulers of a discontented mass of nearly 240,000,000 people, even if that mass is lawfully disarmed. It is not arms or courage that is lacking in the Hindus, but harmony and unanimity of purpose. Century-long hatred between various sects as well as the caste system—that is the plank of salvation for Great Britain in her Indian Empire, and more particularly, the moribund patriotism and the lack of the feeling of self-respect. The Brâhmana whose naked foot rubs the Śûdra into the dirt, in turn, cowers in the dust before every European. Only yesterday, while saying goodbye to a friend on the platform of the railroad station, one of the most distinguished princely descendants of Poona received a deadly insult, and he suffered it in absolute submission. For no reason, a half-drunk Englishman, who was passing by, loudly shouted, “Here is one of those traitors and intrigants—a Poona Brâhmana,” and with one fell swoop knocked his turban under the wheels of the train. A great many native policemen were around and the Brâhmana, who is personally known to the Governor-General of Bombay, with whom Sir Richard Temin often dines, just blanched and helplessly looked around with amazement. The law does not permit a native policeman to arrest an Englishman, even if the latter were to commit a murder before his eyes, and there did not happen to be on the platform at the time, any European constables. And even if there had been, it would have been ten to one, he would not have arrested his countryman at the request of a native and he might even have appeared in court as a witness for the former. The drunken Englishman seated himself in the train and went away laughing . . . I am describing this scene as an eyewitness.
Native princes in their turn have every reason in the world to be dissatisfied with the English administration and have no reason whatsoever to love the Englishmen and to nourish feelings of loyalty.
It is true that the Prince of Wales, as well as the Duke of Edinborough, were received with honor by these same princes and have been praised and wined and dined and assured of loyalty. It seems that these Princes live in perfect harmony and friendship with Lord Lytton; they constantly send through their political Residents their assurances of perfect adherence and loyalty to the administration. When the Prince of Wales fell dangerously ill and the doctors feared for his life, the Hindu Princes ordered the Brâhmanas to conduct public services for his recovery, fed the poor, spent big sums of money on idols and priests and sent telegrams every day to London. When the Prince recovered, the Mahârâjas almost went broke on public festivities. Many of them were the first to offer help in the war with Abyssinia and finally, when the Afghân war was declared, all of them, to the last one, offered help and money. In spite of all this, it is hardly possible for the British government to rely upon this seemingly sincere loyalty. The Examiner, summing up things, comes to the conclusion that it is utterly impossible for the Hindu Princes, if they are men and not blockheads, to love the Englishman. This paper reminds us that when the government took India from the East India Company, a solemn proclamation was sent all over the country, in which the Queen gave her royal promise to the native princes that as long as they remained loyal, nobody would interfere at any time with their internal affairs. The inviolability of their rights and privileges, of the customs of their land, their religion and their laws were especially guaranteed and the honor and dignity of their rank—the proclamation assured—were from now jealously guarded by the government of the mother-country. Well, what then? The British government in India did not abide by a single one of the promises expressed in the royal proclamation; it circumvented each one of them, one after the other; and while the Princes carried out every one of the clauses, they were persecuted and insulted on every possible occasion; there were interferences, not only in the affairs of state, but also in their local administrations and their every step was under the strict supervision of the Residents.
The Princes are being pushed about like pawns; they are being deprived of their legal heritage, they are being shoved about and denied their thrones. The Mahârâja of Rewah who, more than any other, helped the English crush the rebellion of 1857 and whose services were so great that the Queen herself ordered him elevated to the illustrious rank of Grand Commander of the Star of India—this Mahârâja was ordered either to abdicate and receive a pension or to expect a shameful dethroning—and all this without any reason other than that of suspicion without evidence. What can we expect from Sindhia, the most important of the independent Hindu princes? “During the rebellion,” says the Examiner, “he stood by us all through the difficult times, and since then proved more than once, his loyalty and goodwill, while we—we did not carry out a single one of the promises we gave him. We interfered with his public and private affairs, insulted him by false denunciations and treated him with the greatest distrust. We declare without the slightest hesitation that the most solemn guarantees of three Viceroys have turned out to be false . . . while Sindhia has also been raised to a Grand Commander of the Star of India for his loyalty in the years 1857-1858, our armies are occupying his capital and fortress and our guns point to his palace . . . at this very moment there is in England a Râjâ who has been denied his lawful rights by the British Administration of India; the throne to which he had a lawful right became vacant, but the rulers of India, contrary to laws, customs and proclamation and everything else, refused him the right of succession. They put in his place a bastard relative, whose behavior became so shameful that they were forced to remove him in less than a year . . . after his removal they undertook the administration of the state and its revenues themselves. As we have pointed out, the rightful heir is in London, living almost as a beggar. There are no obstacles whatsoever to his succession. He is a trustworthy and able man and, most important of all, he is the direct heir. And now, you see, while he is starving in London, trying to find justice, the British Resident receives 6,000 pounds sterling from his revenues, for peacefully ruling in his stead.”
The voice of the “alarmists” such as the Examiner doesn’t have much importance after all. The British government is quite secure in its domination over India. Whom could the Englishman fear in this land of conquered and weakened slaves—could be asked by the native press (in India there are published more than 3000 daily, weekly and monthly papers and journals in English and in more than fifty vernaculars)? Surely it wouldn’t be the alliance of native princes, whose every step is being watched by the English Residents, who hold them on a leash and do not let them out of their sight, even in their own bedrooms. These princes divided among themselves by mutual distrust and envy, demoralized by English education, are not to be feared by England. There remain the people as a whole. But can such a people be dangerous? These teeming millions are timorous, patient beasts of burden, despised by the higher castes, spat upon by their own people and by strangers, ready to sell for a mere pittance or for a piece of bread, their own gods, fathers, mothers and children, accustomed to centuries of slavery and utterly indifferent to who rules the country, if only they could be less beaten and fed a little more; and who vaguely sense that were the English to retire tomorrow, they would be more badly treated by their own. A general rebellion is unthinkable in India; and local uprisings are quite familiar to Englishmen and they will always be able to crush them.
Nevertheless, this domination is bought for a high price. India has cost England in the last years more than all her colonies put together, from the time of their acquisition. England neither sleeps nor eats, but that she is thinking of how to safeguard not only the highway to India, but every nook and cranny around it as well. Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, all these places serve as outposts and require soldiers and money. For the sake of India alone, England has bought up all the shares of the Suez Canal, taken Cyprus from the helpless Turks and Hong Kong from the Chinese. On account of India, England gets constantly entangled with China, Burma, Persia, Afghanistan and especially with Russia. Her main concern at present is to watch every move of Russia. Local papers assure us that all these difficulties would vanish if the British authorities would decide to transfer the administration to the hands of the natives, giving them the right to choose and establish their own laws and to administer the country according to their best discretion. For the purpose of conducting foreign affairs, the papers favor an English governor, appointed from England. The collection of taxes must remain in the hands of the natives, who would assume the responsibilities of paying out of these, sums for the upkeep of a certain number of British troops in India. It is permissible to have grave doubts as to whether such a plan would meet with approval from the English government and the English people . . .
1. An old law dug up by Sir John Strachey and by him put into effect as an excuse for new taxes on the toddy—a coconut drink.