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Why India & China, Both War-Torn, Chose Opposing Systems of Govt

Is China expansionist due to centuries of war? And is India pacifist due to our mostly non-violent freedom struggle?

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Opinion
7 min read
Why India & China, Both War-Torn, Chose Opposing Systems of Govt
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Why is China expansionist? And India a relative pacifist? A part of the answer lies in the strikingly different colonial infarctions suffered by each country. In Part I of this essay, we covered the history from Day Zero to the mid-19th century. In Part II, we shall now traverse the last 100 years of colonial rule until independence for India and China.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, a young lawyer, stood before the British parliament in 1833. He made an impassioned appeal, saying the role of British colonisers was to ‘give good government to a people to whom we cannot give a free government’.

Later that year, he set sail to India, charged with two gigantic tasks:

  • of codifying the law and
  • revamping the education system
Photogravure of the British historian and Whig politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay by the French photographer Antoine Claudet. (Circa 1860s)
Photogravure of the British historian and Whig politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay by the French photographer Antoine Claudet. (Circa 1860s)
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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History may have taken an entirely different course if Macaulay had set sail to China, but there, the colonisers were happy to protect their watering holes, imbued by no such spirit to ‘civilise’ a war-torn country.

Macaulay created a new charter for the British East India Company which completely transformed India’s legal edifice. An all-India legislative council replaced regional legislatures. Law-making powers were taken away from the provincial governments in Bengal, Bombay and Madras Presidencies. One set of laws and courts were established for everybody.

In his other task, Macaulay’s famous Minute on Education (1835) brought English out of its imperial closet; with one stroke of his powerful pen, he made English the official language of India and the medium of instruction in all educational institutions. His objective was to create ‘interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and intellect’.

By 1882, over 60 percent of the primary schools were teaching the Queen’s language.

English was called the ‘milk of tigress’, supposedly creating a new energy and opportunity for the natives. Several publications sprung to fill the need of a swelling readership: the Englishman, the Friend of India, the Asiatic Mirror, the Calcutta Advertiser, the Bengal Gazette, and the Madras Courier, among others. At the time of Independence in 1947, over 6 million people in India knew English.

The ‘Burra Sahibs’ At Dining Tables And In Gymkhanas

But the First War of Independence in 1857 (which British historians call a ‘sepoy’, or soldier, mutiny) was a bloody scar of history that altered the character of the British Raj. On 2 August 1858, the British parliament proclaimed Queen Victoria as India’s ruling monarch; ‘in conceptual terms, the British, who had started their rule as ‘outsiders’, became ‘insiders’’. They now strengthened what was called the steel frame of the British Indian Empire: the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the police and the army.

A scene from the 1857 ‘sepoy mutiny’ aka First War of Independence (Bengal Army). 
A scene from the 1857 ‘sepoy mutiny’ aka First War of Independence (Bengal Army). 
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier, ‘fifty to sixty extended (British) families contributed almost all the civil servants who governed India’. For instance, John Cotton was the sixth generation in an unbroken male line to join the ICS. But soon the rules were changed to introduce a competitive entrance examination in London. Satyendranath Tagore (elder brother of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore) became the first Indian to pass the exam in 1863.

By 1871, three other Indians had qualified, but all of them had to go to London to take the exam. After nearly half a century of struggle, Great Britain conceded a separate local recruitment exam in Allahabad in February 1922. By 1941, there were more Indians than Europeans among the ranks of ICS officers. The British Indian army, dominated by men recruited from Punjab, Nepal and North-West Frontier Provinces, cloned several traditions of the parent country. Clubs and gymkhanas created an aura of British social etiquette for India’s English-speaking upper classes.

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Archival image of the Madras Gymkhana, which was established in 1884.
Archival image of the Madras Gymkhana, which was established in 1884.
(Photo: Facebook / Venkataraman Prabhakar / Madras Local History Group)

The dining table replaced the floor in middle class homes; people began to use spoons, knives and forks, instead of hands, to pick food from plates. European food habits were voraciously localised, for example, English pork chops were still grilled, but marinated in spices and chillies. Soups and salads became part of an Indian menu —Mulligatawny soup, for instance, comes from the Tamil words ‘malagu tunni’, meaning ‘pepper water’, or a western version of ‘rasam’. Cutlets, cakes, sausages, croquettes, puddings, jams and biscuits became as Indian as curry and rice. Football, tennis and cricket became a rage with sporty locals.

In China, It Was Time For Revolution...

Over the Himalayas, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 allowed America to ship military assistance to Japan via the shortened route, emboldening Japan to rout China in the 1895 war. The Sino-Japanese treaty went beyond trade, allowing foreigners to freely set up industries in China. Within two years, thirty cotton and silk mills had sprung up in several provinces. The colonial powers ‘carved up the Chinese melon’ with undisguised relish; the Russians got Port Arthur, the British got the New Territories around Hong Kong, the Germans got Shantung, and the Americans pushed strenuously for an ‘Open Door Policy’ in 1899.

Ultimately, the burden of humiliations became too heavy to carry for the Qing rulers; led by Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese Revolution of 1911 put paid to the monarchy.

Archival image of Dr Sun Yat-sen.
Archival image of Dr Sun Yat-sen.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Chinese Revolution of 1911 aka the Xinhai Revolution in Shanghai-Nanjing Road (Nanking Road) after the Shanghai Uprising, hung with the Five Races Under One Union flags then used by the revolutionaries in Shanghai and Northern China. Archival Image.
Chinese Revolution of 1911 aka the Xinhai Revolution in Shanghai-Nanjing Road (Nanking Road) after the Shanghai Uprising, hung with the Five Races Under One Union flags then used by the revolutionaries in Shanghai and Northern China. Archival Image.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It was perhaps an accidental symmetry, but Mahatma Gandhi took charge of India’s civil disobedience movement at around the same time that Sun Yat-sen led the Chinese Revolution in 1911. It was a hairpin turn in history: while China got trapped in merciless strife among Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, Mao Zedong’s communists and Japanese invaders, India’s political movement nudged it ever closer to a Westminster-style democracy.

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India Experiments With Democracy; China Fights a Civil War

As the self-rule ideal gathered momentum in India, Gandhi recast the Congress into a ‘parallel government-like’ structure (in another instance of truth being stranger than fiction, Gandhi’s Indian National Congress was set up in 1885 by an Englishman, Allan Octavian Hume; little did Hume know that his organisation would lead the movement to end British rule in India).

The central working committee began to function like the de facto ‘national cabinet’, and provincial Congress committees were reorganised along linguistic lines.

The first attempt at setting up an Indian Constitution was the Nehru Report of 1928 for Dominion rule.

It spoke of common electorates with seats reserved for religious minorities. The people were given a set of fundamental rights. The British ignored the proposals, but these came in handy for the Congress when it agreed to contest elections under the Government of India Act of 1935. The country had its first brush with widespread electoral democracy.

In China, an anguished students’ movement erupted against the country’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles and the end of the First World War in 1919. Called the May Fourth Movement, it turned into a nationalist agitation. Ultimately, the Chinese Civil War broke out in 1927 between the Nationalist party and the Communist party. Mao Zedong orchestrated the Long March, a military revolt against Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Nationalists.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Commander-in-Chief of the National Revolutionary Army, emerged from the Northern Expedition as the leader of the Republic of China.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Commander-in-Chief of the National Revolutionary Army, emerged from the Northern Expedition as the leader of the Republic of China.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese army jumped into this cauldron in 1937; the second Sino-Japanese War lasted until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Mao Zedong led a fierce guerrilla resistance to the Japanese invasion. But the civil war between Mao’s and Chiang’s forces continued even after Japan had been ousted from the mainland. Ultimately, in 1949, Chiang’s Kuomintang was defeated; Chiang fled to modern Taiwan, politically separating it from mainland China. (Later, in 1954, Mao planned to invade and ‘liberate’ Taiwan. But the Soviets gave half-hearted support, and America threatened to use nuclear weapons against Mao’s forces; eventually, Mao abandoned the military adventure.)

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Finally, Independence!

Finally, China’s and India’s destinies converged, for a fleeting moment in history, in the late 1940s. The British parliament passed the Indian Independence Act, 1947, and royal assent was granted to free India from colonial rule on 15 August 1947. Barely over two years later, on 1 October 1949, Mao founded the People’s Republic of China at a massive rally in Beijing.

History’s tangential moment was all too brief. China became a totalitarian state. India became a parliamentary democracy.

Once again, these ancient civilisations were flung apart. The British would often pompously describe their rule as one which ‘civilised’ India. On the other hand, China’s colonial history was far more turbulent under several rapacious rulers, without an ‘institutional osmosis’.

Did centuries of wars and strife make China’s leaders (and segments of the population) vengeful and expansionist? As against this, did the largely non-violent character of India’s independence movement reinforce pacifism? It’s worth a thought, isn’t it?

(Source: ‘Superpower? The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, Penguin Allen Lane, 2010, by Raghav Bahl)

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