Orwell’s Greater India

Orwell is in the air in the UK. 2013 marks the 110th anniversary of his birth. The BBC, the Orwell Estate, the Orwell Prize, and the author’s publisher Penguin are all primed to celebrate his writing this year and “explore the profound influence he has had on the media and discourse of the modern world”. I collected a copy from the mass giveaway of one of his most potent essays, ‘Politics and the English Language’. Raged as he had against political euphemism and ‘sloppy language’ (as necessarily reflective of sloppy thinking), Orwell is being commandeered as a paradigm for jargon-free and integrity-fuelled values from politicians, journalists and bankers alike. “Every single consultant on David Cameron’s PR team will have cut their teeth on Orwell at some point in their political education; they will only craft their spin all the more judiciously”.


In the first part of the Second World War Orwell (born Eric Blair, son of a civil servant in Motihari, Bihar) worked at the BBC in the section responsible for broadcasting to India. He was outlining plans for a series on the great writers of Britain. ‘Sedition’ was rife in India then but who could listen to broadcasts, Orwell wondered, except on short-wave radios which cost close to an Indian peasant’s takings over 10 years? Known for engaging in non-pukka activities while in Burma (an adjunct of British India, also referred to as being part of Greater India) he worked for the British Imperial Police. Burmese Days (1934) was to arise from his experiences there.

In the novel Flory, the protagonist, explains to the aspirant, mimic man Dr Veraswami: “They’ve made a perfect fetish of keeping this Club all white, as they call it”. A generous account of this psychically split physician speaking Babu English would be to see him as living on the cusp, dealing with two contradictory pulls at the same time. Or, doublethinking, in the Orwellian phrase from his novel 1984 (where incidentally India is divvied up between Eastasia and the “disputed area”). The doctor’s investment in English civilization is of course a function of his location within that inner incompatibility, that between-empire-and-nation condition.

Orwell’s unforgiving portrayal of colonial society was felt by old Burma hands to have “rather let the side down.” When he delivered the manuscript (Che-like, one rather likes to imagine, on his Rudge Whitworth motorbike) to his agent, it was to be turned down by publishers Victor Gollancz, worried as they were about libel action. His diary entries (selected so that they go back in time here) from late 1942 reveal, not his concerns about tyranny through technology, but the fear felt on account of war, and the solace and solidarity that people in Britain sought. His language is directed against totalitarian excess, press censorship, liberal hypocrisy, and his concern about events in India. Just a day before the massive hurricane and flooding in Bombay which was to leave 40, 000 dead, he writes:

15.10.42   A little bit of India transplanted to England. For some weeks our Marathi newsletters were translated and broadcast by a little man named Kothari, completely spherical but quite intelligent and, so far as I could judge, genuinely anti-Fascist. Suddenly one of the mysterious bodies which control recruitment for the BBC (in this case I think MI5) got onto the fact that Kothari was or had been a Communist, active in the students’ movement, and had been in jail, so the order came to get rid of him. A youth named Jatha, working at India House and politically OK, was engaged in his place. Translators in this language are not easy to find and Indians who speak it as their native tongue seem to tend to forget it while in England. After a few weeks my assistant, Miss Chitale, came to me with great secrecy and confided that the newsletters were still in fact being written by Kothari.  Jatha, though still able to read the language, was no longer equal to writing it and Kothari was ghosting for him. No doubt the fee was being split between them. We can’t find another competent translator, so Kothari is to continue and we officially know nothing about it. Wherever Indians are to be found, this kind of thing will be happening.

Flanked by entries about the Dieppe raid and the “invasion of Europe”, Orwell attends to imperial impotence.

15.9.42   Ghastly feeling of impotence over the India business, Churchill’s speeches, the evident intention of the blimps to have one more try at being what they consider tough, and the impudent way in which the newspapers can misrepresent the whole issue, well knowing that the public will never know enough or take enough interest to verify the facts. This last is the worst symptom of all – though actually our own apathy about India is not worse than the non-interest of Indian intellectuals in the struggle against Fascism in Europe.

25.8.42   One of the many rumours circulating among Indians here is that Nehru, Gandhi and others have been deported to South Africa. This is the kind of thing that results from press censorship and suppressing newspapers.

14.8.42   Horrabin was broadcasting today, and as always we introduced him as the man who drew maps for Well’s Outline of History and Nehru’s Glimpses of World History. This had been extensively trailed and advertised beforehand, Horrabin’s connection with Nehru being naturally a draw for India. Today the reference to Nehru was cut out from the announcement – N. Being in prison and therefore having become bad.

12.8.42   Appalling policy handout this morning about affairs in India. The riots are of no significance – situation is well in hand – after all the number of deaths is not large etc., etc. As to the participation of students in the riots, this is explained along “boys will be boys” lines. “We all know that students everywhere are only too glad to join in any kind of rag”, etc., . Almost everyone utterly disgusted. Some of the Indians when they hear this kind of stuff turn quite pale, a strange sight.

Most of the press taking a tough line, the Rothermere press disgustingly so. If these repressive measures in India are seemingly successful for the time being, the effects in this country will be very bad. All seems set for a big come-back of the reactionaries, and it almost begins to appear as though leaving Russia in the lurch were part of the manoeuvre.

On the 8th, Quit India resolution is passed by the AICC, which leads to the start of a historical civil disobedience movement across India.

10.8.42   Nehru, Gandhi, Azad and many others in jail. Rioting over most of India, a number of deaths, countless arrests. Ghastly speech by Amery, [Secretary of State for India] speaking of Nehru and Co. as “wicked men”, “saboteurs” etc. This of course broadcast on the Empire service and rebroadcast by AIR. The best joke of all was that the Germans did their best to jam it, unfortunately without success.

Terrible feeling of depression among the Indians and everyone sympathetic to India. [Even Bokhari, a Moslem League man, almost in tears and talking about resigning from the BBC.] It is strange, but quite truly the way the British Government is now behaving upsets me more than a military defeat.

22.7.42   From Ahmed Ali’s last letter from India.

Here is a little bit of old Delhi which might interest you.

In a busy street a newsboy was shouting in Urdu: ‘Pandit Jawaharlal saying his rosary the other way round’. What he meant was that he had changed his attitude towards the Government. Questioned he said: ‘You can never be sure of him, today he says side with the Government and help in the war effort, tomorrow just the opposite’. He turned away from me and began shouting his cry, adding: ‘Jawaharlal has given a challenge to the Government’. I could not find this ‘challenge’ in the papers.

Other newsboys selling Urdu papers: ‘Germany has smashed Russia in the very first attack’. Needless to say I read just the opposite in my English papers the next morning. Obviously the Urdu papers had repeated what Berlin had said. No one stops the newsboys shouting what they like.

One day going in a tonga I heard the driver shout to his horse as he shied: ‘Why do you get back like our Sarkar! Go forward like Hitler!’ and he swore”.

10.4.42   British naval losses in the last 3 or 4 days: 2 cruisers and an aircraft carrier sunk, 1 destroyer wrecked. Axis losses: 1 cruiser sunk. From Nehru’s speech today: “Who dies if India live?” How impressed the pinks will be—and how they would snigger at “Who dies if England live?”.

The question posed comes from a Kipling text which also has the line: “The Hun is at the gate!” In an entry from the first of April that year, he quotes himself from his Homage to Catalonia: “It is the same in all wars…the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench… Perhaps when the next great war comes, we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him”. (Orwell was after all a user of guns not only during the shikaar shoots in Burma but in the Spanish Civil War, where he got a hole in the neck; he was to suffer nightmares about Stalin’s agents out to gun him down).

He ends the entry with the line: “Here I am in the BBC, less than 5 years after writing that. I suppose sooner or later we all write our own epitaphs”. Recruited for anti-fascist wartime Raj propaganda by the Beeb, and coiner of the phrase “cold war”, he was prescient enough 66 years ago to say: “India is potentially a nation as Europe, with its  smaller population and great racial homogeneity, is not”.


Filed under Art & Culture, Media, Politics

3 responses to “Orwell’s Greater India

  1. Stefan

    Really interesting article!

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