The Rulers’ Gaze by Arvind Sharma is yet another in the now-long line of books that critically look at, or attempt to look at, the Colonial Legacy. Before I go deeper into the review – let me lay it out : the subject matter is not an easy read; neither is it well presented. This is along the line of those scientific papers that obfuscate everything to the point where it drives even very well informed readers like myself stark mad in frustration. Rated 3 stars : 5 for content, 1 for presentation, average 3 stars. The problem is the vacillating arguments, constant diversion of attention through proofs, links, arguments and what not. That the same proof can be achieved in scientific and research papers without this tardy method has been proven by some excellent papers that cock a royal snook at this style of writing, so much in vogue in The West. High Time we forgot this needless presentation style!

 

THE CONTENT

The content is a critical analysis along the Saidian Theory : according to Said, orientalism (the Western scholarship about the Eastern World) is inextricably tied to the imperialist societies who produced it, which makes much Orientalist work inherently political and servile to power. In my humble opinion, the content of the book, the weak presentation notwithstanding, comprehensively proves that. This entire book is a superb treatise on how power corrupts knowledge, and serves to add tremendous value, bringing to light many tiny and large facts that were previously not known to me despite my extensive reading on the Colonial Period. Full marks to the content aspect of the book.

 

THE NEGATIVES

It {the content} isnt without its weaknesses; at a couple of places, regrettably, I thought could spot places where the author has allowed the narrative to falter. In particular, the consistent reference to the First War of Independence as The Mutiny, and the slightly dismissive tone towards its claims as a war of independence – Pg 312 {Parag Tope, examined as an alternative in Pal etc} ; or the references to Sati {Pg101-102, 315-16, and others}. In fact, the author seems to maintain it as a Mutiny throughout the book, despite noting its widespread nature. What do I say to that – why? Doesn’t the Author know that we all regard it to be the First War Of Independence?

 

In the case of The First War of Independence, there is a treasure trove of documents of the British which themselves prove the reality. And yet – we find specific mention of the debatable killing of Europeans, and not one mention of the Genocide committed by the British! Yet again, in Sati, the author justifiably points out how the British exacerbated the problem, while ignoring the import of the actual numbers of Sati acts documented – 500, 600 or such like. Pavan Verma has given precise numbers, proving that Sati was already a dying practice by the advent of the British. Here, the book proves how it came back, but simply fails to analyse the full perspective, which it does painstakingly for other aspects. Saidian?

 

THE POSITIVES

The book is a scholarly, well argued and cogent analysis of the Saidian theory; this has been proven through the writings on India by Greeks, Muslims and The British. Each of these 3 had vastly divergent power equations with the local people during their time. The Greeks had only a relatively fleeting contact, and weren’t overpowering conquerers; the Muslims were conquerers but had a different local relationship with no oppression to note, and The British, plain rapists and looters. The difference in the attitude is evident in their writings, in themselves a proof of the hypotheses.

 

The content goes deep into large parts of the the British interaction, pulling out in fascinating though not comprehensive detail of the multi-faceted impact of British Rule. Sati {covered excellently by Pavan Verma}; Casteism {thoroughly stripped bare by Maria Misra in her top thesis}, Education {Indicated by, among others, Parag Tope}; Aryan Theory and more are gone into in relative detail. The objective is not to educate the reader on these topics – for that consult the books in the brackets mentioned. The objective is to analyse how a distorted power relationship leads to a distorted and fictional or tainted historical narrative by the ruling power.

 

This is brought out in fascinating fashion as we read how the British narrative changed during their occupation – from traders to minor power to major power to ruling power. The consequent increase in rhetoric, falsehoods, exaggerations, racism and inaccurate presentations over time can be seen quite thoroughly – something we first saw in Shashi Tharoor’s masterpiece book on the British rule. The comparisons with Muslim writings and Greek writings just serve to drive home the lesson deeper.

 

Perhaps the strongest emergence from this is the realization of how deep the divide is, and how much the inaccurate version is accepted worldwide. The obfuscation – sometimes deliberate – has impacted the historical record in many, many places in our historical telling; something we still feel today, as can be seen from the generally inaccurate impressions still held by the Western writers, as well as some sections of Indian Society.

 

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, I can state that this is not an easy read, given its irritating presentation style; and the needless and highly overdone Greek comparisons. I am aware theorists, scientists and theoretical researchers set great store by this style – I find it less than optimal, as it lessens the impact and diverts attention. A better, more structured approach, more user and reader friendly – something achieved in various writers’ books, is more than needed. This is a common problem in most Western university origin books, which have a fascination for this sub-optimal style – as it is the “Accepted” style!

 

That the West holds the Greek Civilization as the basis of Western philosophy and civilization is known; but the overtly extensive usage of their writings on India, given the fact of the relatively complete absence of Indian writings on the Greek attacks [Sanyal, Thapar] and rule is strange, to say the least. A far stronger lesson could have been driven by a greater focus on the British writings vis-à-vis facts. But then – the true facts of British Rule in India are way too gory for most Western Audiences – and this is a book written in The West. That is the lesson that I can draw from this, as also some facts mentioned in the negatives.

 

Furthermore, readers would do well to keep in mind this is not a record of British Rule in india, but rather an examination of and research on the link between power and knowledge, in the context of the British Rule in India. Let us not confuse the two. And in this basic premise – the book is a success, as it brings out the reality quite well, the many negatives notwithstanding. And it is this context that makes it a hard read – not for the average reader. This is for an audience educated in this field, or in its context.

 

Could it have been better? Of course it could have been better; but what is there is good enough for one read at least. You will revise more than several incorrect impressions. The problem of the negatives does nothing to take this simple fact away. I noticed them due to my extensive reading on this subject, now in its 9th uninterrupted year spanning dozens of books. And therein lies the real issue – the inaccuracies that I have pointed out are still accepted as Gospel in The West, when Indian books have emerged telling the true story in no uncertain terms…. Cant the West write a single book [Parag Tope notable exception] that accepts the reality fully? That is the ultimate triumph of the corruption of knowledge by power…..