Government of India Carries the White Man’s Burden

Doing Good is Always a Good Excuse

If you want to be loved and admired by the people, do good to others. Unfortunately that only works sometimes. But if you wish do well for yourself, even if it means that it causes harm to others, make the people believe that what you are doing is for the good of others. That’s always guaranteed to work. It has worked like a charm in the past, works now, and will work in the future. Public perception trumps reality. Billions spent on false advertising attest to the fact that it works.

The past masters in this game of duping the public into believing blatant falsehoods are governments of all stripes, be they communists, socialists, fascists — and especially democracies.

One of the more important lessons to be learned from the British Colonial regime is the absolute necessity for governments to hoodwink the public. The British rulers cloaked their imperial drive with the noble enterprise of helping the natives as part of the “White man’s burden” to better the “half-devil and half-child” (phrases that the bigoted racist Rudyard Kipling so memorably penned in 1899.)

Helping the Native Half-devil/Half-child

In a September 2009 post — How the British Invented “Development” to Keep the Empire and Substitute for Racism — William Easterly wrote about the brilliant re-positioning of British colonialism: “A long-time colonial official, Lord Hailey came up with the idea in 1941 of redefining the Empire’s mission as ‘promotion of native welfare.'” Easterly quotes Lord Hailey:

A new conception of our relationship … may emerge as part of the movement for the betterment of the backward peoples of the world, which stands in the forefront of every enlightened programme for … postwar conditions.

The colonial impulse is always to dominate others, to make them submit to the will of the colonizer. The veneer of doing good wears thin over the primal drive to make others do one’s bidding. This is an universal drive and can be reasonably expected to reveal itself wherever and whenever conditions permit it. India gives ample opportunity for this drive to surface and dominate.

Serving the Captives

The British created an administrative system which survived intact upon their departure. The “noble” task of taking care of the natives — “to serve your captives’ need” as Kipling wrote — was eagerly taken over by the Indian government of India from the British government of India. Just like the British did, the Indian government enthusiastically took over the duty of minding the “half-devil and half-child” Indian.

The half-devil part of India was to be tamed by the heavy hand of the government which would keep order in society through complex, comprehensive innumerable legislative and bureaucratic laws and regulations. The half-child Indian would be taken care of by the paternalistic control of everything: education, employment, housing, sanitation, health care, etc. The government, it was evident, was to provide everything to everyone, in exchange for individual, social and economic freedom. It was supposedly an obviously beneficial trade that the British had offered Indians, and the same continued after the British left.


Of course, this is a pathetic deal that any free people would summarily reject. The position of free people would be one of laissez-faire — leave us alone. Don’t interfere in our affairs. We don’t want you to do us harm but we also reject, with force if necessary, your pretensions of doing us any good.

Indians apparently are not inclined to reject the deal that the Indian government has made and implemented — the freedom of Indians in exchange for paternalistic care by the government. Put more directly, the offer is one of despotic care of an irresponsible and helplessly immature populace.

Democratic Despotism

The 19th century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1858), wrote persuasively about this kind of despotism. He visited the United States on official business but undertook to study the American society.  Though his observations were related to contemporary Western civilization, they have relevance across time and space. He is best known for his book Democracy in America (published in French De La Démocratie en Amérique in two volumes, 1835 and 1840).

Allow me to quote extensively from a chapter from Democracy in America entitled “What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear”. Reading it in the Indian context is strikingly illuminating. (In an age of short attention spans, it is unreasonable to expect people to read de Tocqueville). Anyway, here goes a heavily edited excerpt:

… if despotism were to be established amongst the democratic nations of our days … it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them.

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. … Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood

[The government] provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances – what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. …

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. …

[The people] want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. … they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. … By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.

It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without possessing the other. Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day, and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience, which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions, only exhibits servitude at certain intervals, and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity. I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them. The democratic nations which have introduced freedom into their political constitution, at the very time when they were augmenting the despotism of their administrative constitution, have been led into strange paradoxes. To manage those minor affairs in which good sense is all that is wanted – the people are held to be unequal to the task, but when the government of the country is at stake, the people are invested with immense powers; they are alternately made the playthings of their ruler, and his masters – more than kings, and less than men. …

It is, indeed, difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people. …

… Despotism therefore appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic ages. I should have loved freedom, I believe, at all times, but in the time in which we live I am ready to worship it.

The fact that de Tocqueville wrote this nearly 200 years ago, and on observing Western civilization, and that his observations relevant today testifies to how acutely perceptive he was of the human condition.

India is Not a Free Country

We need to reflect a bit on these facts. India is an independent country but it is not a free country. It’s not a free country because the individual is not free. If individuals are not free, it is not possible for the collective to be free.

I believe that the first thing that Indians have to do is to wake up to the realization that (1) freedom matters, (2) they are not free, and therefore (3) they must fight for individual freedom.

Like de Tocqueville, Indians should not only love freedom but they should be ready to worship it. They must reject the assumption that they are half-devil and half-child who must be controlled and fed by the government hand. Indians must reject the government which has shouldered the White man’s burden.


  1. The Gutenberg Project has Democracy in America in various formats. The quoted chapter is here.

Author: Atanu Dey


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