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THE CASE OF REBELLIOUS POONA
BALKRISHNA, Wasudeo, and Ranade lie in the central jail, two miles out of Poona. This is in June, and they have been there since early March; some day between now and the reading of these pages they will have been hanged by the neck until they were dead.
They are the last — some think; others think not the last — of the gang which on Jubilee night in 1897, headed by their elder brother, Damodher, murdered Mr. Rand and Lieutenant Ayerst. Since then two of the witnesses against Damodher, who was hanged, have been murdered; attempts have been made on others; and Wasudeo — aged seventeen, and a student, if I mistake not, at the same college which educated this year's Senior Wrangler — crowned his career by firing a pistol at the magistrate in open court. These crimes, added to trials for seditious writing and speech, such as those of Tilak and the brothers Natu, to difficulties between soldiers and people over plague work, and to reckless calumnies about the behaviour of British soldiers at that time, have given Poona the most evil reputation in India. Here is one centre in India which seems thoroughly and irreconcilably disaffected. A Poona Brahman is the type all over India of serpentine cunning and malignancy. "Poona was always a nasty place," I remember hearing an old engine-driver say years ago, when I hardly knew where Poona was. "It seemed different from other places, somehow. You didn't know what those chaps were up to. You didn't quite know where it was, but there it was. It was a nasty place." That sums up the general opinion about Poona with most accurate vagueness. Nobody quite knows what it is, but everybody is quite sure it is something. So Poona has a bad name, and from time to time bits of it are hanged.
There ought, you feel, to be some definite and tangible reason. But if there is I do not know it; and, though I have sought, I have not met the European or the native that can tell it me. Except for the murders, and the obviously widespread sympathy which permitted and screened them, Poona seems to have done no wrong beyond Calcutta or Lahore; except for the fine imposed by the quartering of extra troops on it after the murders, Poona seems to have suffered nothing beyond Bombay or Madras. Yet, when you leave searching for specific causes and fall back on general grounds of discontent, the case becomes plainer. Poona is the ancient capital of the Marathas, and there are a score of reasons why the Marathas should chafe under British rule more than any other people of India.
We must go back, after the fashion of the official reports, to the days of Aurungzebe. You must bear in mind that it was from the Marathas and the Sikhs, from Hindus not from Mussulmans, that we actually conquered India. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Mogul empire began to fall to pieces with the death of Aurungzebe. The Marathas and Sikhs were the Hindu reaction. Spreading from Western India, the Marathas overran the whole peninsula from the Punjab to Bengal. They made the Emperor of Delhi their prisoner, and governed and raided in his name; Maratha chiefs founded the dynasties of Scindia, Holkar, and Baroda; but the head of their confederacy was always the Peshwa of Poona. In 1789 they captured Delhi itself. According to the ordinary run of India's history they would in due time have been subjugated by some hardier race from the north. But the Sikhs formed a temporary barrier against the Mussulman hordes; and the death-blow of the Marathas therefore came from the other side — from the sea and the British. In two desperate wars, not unshadowed by British defeats, they lost, first Delhi in 1803, and then, fifteen years later, Poona itself. After about a century of rule the Maratha empire collapsed as swiftly as it had risen.
Other provinces of India were ceded to us or conquered from alien lords; the Marathas lost their all in war. So, later, did the Sikhs; but while the Sikhs have long since reconciled themselves to our dominion, the Marathas have never forgotten how high they were less than a hundred years ago, and who it was that brought them low. They lost more than others, and they feel the loss more. For others we were a change of masters; them we brought down from masters to slaves.
The case of the Marathas offers an unhappy and unique combination of everything that can embitter subjection. They were gallant warriors, if wanting stamina; they were also patriots, devotees, and a people of an extraordinary acuteness of intellect. The Rohillas, whom we conquered, were as gallant warriors; but they were adventurers, not a nation. The Ghurkhas, from whom we captured provinces, were both gallant and patriotic; but they were careless of religion, while to the straitly Hindu Marathas the very existence of British rule is a compulsion to daily impiety. The Sikh is brave, patriotic, and religious; but he is simple and unlettered, and easily forgets a beating in the satisfaction of having fought a good fight. The Maratha, more introspective, hugs the smart of defeat. The Bengali vaunts as acute a mind — at least until it comes to action, — but he has forgotten what it is to be free. Each has his compensation, except the Maratha. His empire, his nationality, his religion, his honour, his beautiful language — we have taken away his all.
It is not our fault. Some of his complaints are even. grotesquely self-destructive. For example, he seizes greedily on English education to fit himself for political and journalistic attacks upon us, and in elaborate Macaulayesque periods complains that the English tongue is killing the Marathi. Another of the Brahman's grievances is that he is poor; yet when he gets a Government post that would be great wealth for one, he divides it into pittances for a score of brothers and sisters, and uncles and aunts, and second-cousins, who all come to live in his house. This is his religion, and it is a most unselfish one; but it is his doing, not ours. Yet with all their illogic his complaints are sincere. The Maratha really does think himself most ill-used. He seems to bear a vinegar disposition on his very features. The type is very well marked as you meet it on descending from the north — a shaven head that looks small and square under its peony turban; a skin so darkly brown that it almost amounts to a scowl in itself; brows that press down on the gleaming eyes in a perpetual frown; a small, rather formless nose, often almost snub; a black or grey moustache that turns down stiffly over the corners of a tight-drawn mouth, — a face full of character, but of bad character. The harsh brows and precise moustache convey somehow a look of sour self-righteousness. The Maratha looks as if he were ever brooding over wrongs most undeserved. "These people," he is saying, "will all be damned when I am in heaven; and yet they rule me, and I cannot shake them off."
That at least is certain: he cannot shake us off. The Government of India had a bad turn of nervousness after the Jubilee murders; but it is safe to say that there will never be another Indian Mutiny without aid from outside; and if there were, it would not be the Marathas who could profit by it. Failing that, their discontent finds its vent in what a Brahman I consulted on the subject called "a vague feeling of unrest — with undercurrents." He himself was of the moderate party who favour reforms in Hinduism and constitutional methods of political agitation — agitation for what, they have not yet quite settled. The extremists — such as the now notorious Tilak — are the undercurrents. They find a vent for their vague feeling of unrest in kindling religious animosities among the common people. The common people, of course, have long ceased to sigh for the glories of Shivaji, hero and traitor, or for the great days of raid and empire: it was not they, we may conjecture, who got the best of the loot. But they cling like limpets to their religion. Compared with Orientals, we Western people do not know what religion is: Hinduism prescribes and enters into every single act in the lives of those who profess it. It tells them what to eat, what to drink, wherewithal to be clothed, whom to marry, whom not to touch with so much as their shadows. You may call it unspiritual — religion fossilised into unmeaning, stupid custom — yet it is their all, and they prize it beyond life. The Hindu, in a sense which the West cannot even comprehend, does all things to the glory — or the reverse — of God.
Now a simple thing like travelling in a tramcar is quite sufficient to defile a Hindu, if a defiling person happens also to be in that tramcar. Therefore you will see that the kind of improvements we have introduced into India are fertile of religious offence, and might in the long-run be fatal to Hinduism in its traditional form. That is why the better kind of Brahman favours a modification of the creed — it is really a life rather than a creed — and the worse sees his opportunity in doing all he can to keep it as rigid and formal as possible. A short while ago, for example, a quarrel occurred in Poona between Hindus and Mussulmans. In other parts of India Hindu processions are not allowed to pass mosques with cymbals and tom-toms during the festival of the Moharram. In Poona it had not hitherto been forbidden. But now the Mussulmans applied for its prohibition, and, in accord with the usage of other cities, jingling and tom-tomming was prohibited during that explosive and fanatical time. Thereon Tilak and his friends must get up a sort of Moharram of their own — a Hindu festival very similar to the Moslem one, except that it has no history and no meaning.
It happened not to matter, and now both sects join without prejudice in each other's tom-toming, as before the quarrel. As usual, nobody suffered but the doubly-deafened European. Yet this illustrates the attitude of the extreme Brahmans. Their game is to load the overloaded religion with more and more meaningless observances, in the hope that they may somehow one day lead to strife. To such the outbreak of plague in 1897 and the employment of British troops on house-to-house examination was a golden chance. The use of them may or may not have been wise. A knowledge of the Marathi language and of Hindu domestic ceremonial is not among the accomplishments for which we pay Atkins a shilling a-day, and he may have been wanting in tact. He generally lives away in cantonments, and his appearance in force in the native city was by itself disquieting to the timid coolie. On the other hand, somebody had to do the work, and with sanitary work even the most Europeanised native is hardly ever to be trusted.
If the Brahmans had been honestly desirous of doing good to the people they would have volunteered to go round with the soldiers and keep them from unconscious offence. Some of them, to their great credit and to everybody's satisfaction, have since done this. But at the first they preferred to let the public health go hang, and make mischief, wherein they succeeded richly.
But it seems that the worst of it is over now. Balkrishna, Wasudeo, and Ranade will be hanged by the neck until they are dead. There is an idea that the murderers of Rand and Ayerst were only the instruments of a more powerful backer — somebody who furnished money and ideas, but not his carcass. But those who know best think that though there was much sympathy with them — though they went to people and said, "We are going to kill a sahib," and they only replied, "Isn't it a bit dangerous?" — they are the last of the gang. To be sure, Tilak's paper called them brave and unselfish youths; but he is the kind of man that prefers hallooing capital crimes from a distance to putting himself inside the meshes of the law. The Maratha Brahman, for a native of India, seems singularly unwilling to die. A simple ryot, the other day, had said good-bye to his relatives, and was pinioned, when suddenly he asked to speak again to his brother. "Recollect," he said, "it's twenty Kawa seers of barley that man owes me. Not Dawa seers" — as you might say imperial pints, not reputed. Then he turned and was hanged without moving a muscle. Another man, a Pathan, was being hanged, when the rope broke. The warder bade him go up on to the scaffold again, but he objected. "No," he said; "I was sentenced to be hanged, and hanged I've been." "Not so, friend," argued the warder; "you were sentenced to be hanged until you were dead, and you're not dead." It was a new view to the Pathan, and he turned to the superintendent, "Is that right, Sahib?" "Yes, that's right." "Very well; I didn't understand;" and he went composedly up the steps and was hanged again like a man. But it seems that the Brahman, being a more complex creature, does not match this superb indifference. When Damodher saw the black-railed scaffold his knees were loosened; when they came to fit the noose he collapsed in a heap, and had to be supported into heaven like a coward. His three followers received their sentence with bravado, but now behind the bars they were beginning to go the way Damodher went. So that it appears likely that the punishment of this gang will prove an effective deterrent against any attempts to imitate or avenge them.
For the rest, plague looks like becoming a regular cold-weather visitor to Poona. The hot-weather sun killed it this spring; but the odds are it will recur. In any case, the able officers recently in charge of the segregations have quite soothed the people's nervousness. So it may be that the Government and Poona will rub along together again for a space, as they often have done before for years together. But you need not expect the Maratha to like it, and you cannot expect the Government to give him back India. He will go on looking vinegar, and there is no help for it.