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  Opinion   Columnists  19 Sep 2020  Farrukh Dhondy | The politics of erasing Gunga Din

Farrukh Dhondy | The politics of erasing Gunga Din

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : Sep 19, 2020, 4:41 pm IST
Updated : Sep 19, 2020, 4:41 pm IST

The Black Lives Matter upheaval has resulted in this reappraisal of history

Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour, during a Black Lives Matter protest rally, in Bristol, England. (AP)
 Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour, during a Black Lives Matter protest rally, in Bristol, England. (AP)

“Do all plagues pass?
Manu: Yes, life has its span.
Do Gods decree one’s fate?
Manu: No, your Karma affects the plan.
Can we take our wealth to heaven?
Manu: No, only to hell!
Does love indeed last forever?
Manu: Only time can tell.”

— From Parabolic Parables by Bachchoo

A prep (junior) school in Oxford, known improbably as the Dragon, had since the 1920s named one of its boarding houses Gunga Din after the character in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem. Last month the governors of the Dragon decided to change the name to ‘Dragon House’.

The reason for the decision was conveyed to Old Dragonians, of which glorious fraternity, gentle reader, I am not one. I got my information about the change and the reason for it from an article by one Alexander Felling-Bruce, who is. He wrote about his objection to the change.

The name was instituted by a headmaster of the 1920s who chose the name because he felt that the character Gunga Din embodied the qualities of “equality, fairness and human dignity” which “aligned” with the core values of “Kindness, Courage and Respect” which the school endeavoured to impart.

The reason for removing the name, the letter from the governors said, was because the word “Gunga” has become a racial slur.

While apologising for my insular unworldliness, I can swear that I am aware of all the racial slurs in contemporary British and American usage (this is not counting the choice ones about a person’s origins and circumstances of birth that we Indians throw at each other) but have never come across ‘Gunga’ as one of them. The commonest anti-Asian term is ‘Paki’ and the one that racially-minded West Indians use is ‘coolie’ — and, yes, there are others more colourful or hurtful.

I am, gentle reader, an enthusiastic reader of Rudyard Kipling’s work and have frequently stooped to defending him against the charge of unflagging ‘racism’, while recognising that his works are unabashedly imperialist.

I can recite bits of Gunga Din by heart. As you too perhaps know, Gunga Din is a bhisti in the service of a Raj regiment. He is abused and cuffed by the white soldiers of the regiment and, in the narrative which Kipling places in the words of one of these troopers, Gunga while bringing water to the thirsty fighters on the frontline of battle and saving the wounded narrator by carrying him away from flying bullets, is hit by one and dies. The narrator concludes the poem with:

“Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

The poem is rife with illusions to race and colour. The narrator uses the phrase “whiter than white” as a mark of ultimate virtue. He uses the word “black-faced crew” for the Indians and characterises Gunga Din as a “heathen”.

Since my first reading of the poem I have thought that Kipling misspelt the name Ganga which, far from being the alleged racial slur, is the name of the river goddess of India. And apart from the racial assumptions of the narrator of the poem and apart from his conclusion that this “black-faced heathen” is the “finest man I knew” and a “better man than I am”, one may consider what poor Gunga Din is employed as.

He is killed by an enemy bullet. Who is this enemy? Gunga Din is in the employ of a Raj regiment and they are presumably in a battle against some native Indian forces. Does this make poor Gunga, a willing servant of the colonial power, a traitor to his own kind?

A similar question hangs over what has been called the Indian Mutiny and the First War of Independence. The troops who began that historical episode were employees of the East India Company, which was, throughout the previous century, fighting the armies of Indian rulers and virtually annexing their territories. The Indian regiments recruited by them were mercenaries hired to fight and kill fellow Indians and subdue Indian kingdoms, which the British would then take over. So, can’t they justifiably be called mercenaries who mutinied? Perhaps historians are accurate in calling the episode the First War of Independence when and only after the Indian kingdoms joined the “mutiny” to attempt the expulsion of the colonising power. Even so, some Indian regiments and sections remained loyal to the East India Company and fought with them.

To call it the first war of independence might assume that there was a second. There wasn’t. The Independence movement led by Gandhi was a non-violent one and can, by no stretch of vocabulary, be called a war. Perhaps the word ‘first’ should be deleted from the historical record. And wasn’t Tipu Sultan’s effort before 1857 dedicated to expelling the Brits?

So, back to the decision of the Dragon School’s governors. Would it have taken place if there were not today a mood in the country, after the manifestation of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the subsequent toppling of statues, renaming of streets and promises from the BBC and other national institutions to rectify any racial or anti-minority bias? Were the Dragoneers just being careful, acting before someone castigated them for retaining a name clearly from a work of colonial literature?

The Black Lives Matter upheaval has resulted in this reappraisal of history. It’s not really a discovery of new facts but a reorientation of the point of view from which historical truth is assessed. In the USA, in rough terms, there exist two nations, the descendants of slaves and the rest — among them, a tiny percentage, the descendants of slave-owners. The practical, political demands that could emerge from the BLM upheaval is a reform of every institution of state to purge it of racism. The intellectual advance could be a progress toward the one nation the American constitution declares the US to be.

Tags: gunga din, rudyard kipling, british colonial history, black lives matter