I was a school boy in Karachi when I first heard the name of Katherine Mayo, notorious author of a viciously anti-India book, titled Mother India. Mahatma Gandhi had condemned the book as a “gutter inspector’s report”!

Mayo was an American journalist who wrote this book around 1927, stoutly defending British Rule in India. She also vehemently attacked Hindu society, religion and culture.

About the same time, I heard of two other American authors who had written almost as passionately in favour of India and against the Britishers. The first of these, Will Durant, had the reputation of being one of the world’s greatest historians, and philosophers. The other was a Church leader, Rev. Jabez Thomas Sunderland.

Will Durant’s life time achievement is his eleven volume series “The Story of Civilisation” a monumental set of volumes written in collaboration with his wife Ariel. Will and Ariel were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1968.

Will Durant’s other largely popular work, The Story of Philosophy, brought philosophy to the lay person.

On his first visit to India in 1896, Sunderland met Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade and Bengali Nationalist Surendra Nath Bannerji. He was the first American to attend an annual session of the Indian National Congress.

I recall reading around 1945 a very powerful book of his, India in Bondage. Gandhiji and Rabindra Nath Tagore wrote to him letters of gratitude. The book was banned in India by the British Government.

Not many may be aware that when the British came to India in the eighteenth century this country was politically weak but economically very wealthy.

This wealth, wrote Sunderland in the above book, was created by the Hindus’ vast and varied industries.

“India was a far greater industrial and manufacturing nation than any in Europe or than any other in Asia.  Her textile goods – the fine products of her looms, in cotton, wool, linen and silk – were famous over the civilized world; so were her exquisite jewelry and her precious stones cut in every lovely form; so were her pottery, porcelains, ceramics of every kind, quality, color and beautiful shape; so were her fine works in metal – iron, steel, silver and good.  She had great architecture – equal in beauty to any in the world. She had great engineering works. She had great merchants, great businessmen, great bankers and financiers. Not only was she the greatest ship-building nation, but she had great commerce and trade by land and sea which extended to all known civilized countries. Such was the India which the British found when they came.

I have, however, come upon lately a short book written by William Durant in 1930 titled “The Case for India”, but which had been out of print for many decades. Strand Book Stall of Mumbai and its Founder T.N. Shanbagh have done signal service to history by procuring a photo copy of Durant’s book from Mohandas Pai of Infosys and having it republished in 2007.

In his introductory note to his “The Case for India”, Durant writes:

“I went to India to help myself visualize a people whose cultural history I had been studying for The Story of Civilisation

“But I saw such things in India as made me feel that study and writing were frivolous things in the presence of a people-one-fifth of the human race – suffering poverty and oppression bitterer than any to be found elsewhere on the earth. I was horrified. I had not thought it possible that any government could allow its subjects to sink to such misery.

“I came away resolved to study living India as well as the India with the brilliant past; to learn more of this unique Revolution that fought with suffering accepted but never returned; to read the Gandhi of today as well as the Buddha of long ago. And the more I read the more I was filled with astonishment and indignation at the apparently conscious and deliberate bleeding of India by England throughout a hundred and fifty years. I began to feel that I had come upon the greatest crime in all history.” (Emphasis added)

Durant refers extensively to Sunderland’s writings and says that “those who have seen the unspeakable poverty and physiological weakness of the Hindus today will hardly believe that it was the wealth of eighteenth century India which attracted the commercial pirates of England and France”.

It was this wealth that the East India Company proposed to appropriate, Durant says.  Already in 1686 the East India Company’s Directors declared their intention to “establish …a large, well-grounded, sure English dominion in India for all time to come”.

In 1757, Robert Clive defeated the Rajah of Bengal at Plassey and declared his Company the owner of the richest province in India. Durant adds: Clive added further territory by forging and violating treaties, by playing one native prince against another, and by generous bribes given and received. Four million dollars were sent down the river to Calcutta in one shipment. He accepted “presents” amounting to $ 1,170,000 from Hindu rulers dependent upon his favour and his guns; pocketed from them, in addition, an annual tribute of $ 140,000; took to opium, was investigated and exonerated by Parliament, and killed himself.  “When I think”, he said, “of the marvelous riches of that country, and the comparatively small part which I took away, I am astonished at my own moderation”. Such were the morals of the men who proposed to bring civilization to India.

India-analysts often talk very disparagingly about India’s caste-system. Will Durant, however, used the casteist metaphor to substantiate his condemnation of British dominion over India as the greatest crime in all history.

Under sub-heading “The Caste System in India” Durant writes :

“The present caste system in India consists of four classes: the real Brahmans i.e. the British bureaucracy; the real Kshatriyas i.e. the British army; the real Vaisyas i.e. the British traders; and the real Sudras and Untouchables i.e. the Hindu people.”

After dealing with the first three castes the author writes:

“The final element in the real caste system of India is the social treatment of the Hindus by the British. The latter may be genial Englishmen when they arrive, gentlemen famous as lovers of fair play; but they are soon turned, by the example of their leaders and the poison of irresponsible power, into the most arrogant and over-bearing bureaucracy on earth. “Nothing can be more striking,” said a report to Parliament, in 1830, “than the scorn with which the people have been practically treated at the hands of even those who were actuated by the most benevolent motives”. Sunderland reports that the British treat the Hindus as strangers and foreigners in India, in a manner “quite as unsympathetic, harsh and abusive as was ever seen among the Georgia and Louisiana planters in the old days of American slavery”.

Durant then quotes Gandhiji saying that the foreign system under which India was governed had reduced Indians to “pauperism and emasculation”.

Durant comments “As early as 1783 Edmund Burke predicted that the annual drain of Indian resources to England without equivalent return would eventually destroy India. From Plassey to Waterloo, fifty-seven years, the drain of India’s wealth to England is computed by Brooks Adams at two-and-a-half to five billion dollars. Macaulay suggested long ago, that it was this stolen wealth from India which supplied England with free capital for the development of mechanical inventions, and so made possible the Industrial Revolution.”

Will Durant wrote his book “The case for India” in 1930. When some time later the book was noticed by Rabindranath Tagore, he wrote an article in the Modern Review of March, 1931 warmly complimenting Will Durant. Durant observed: “I was surprised when I noticed in Will Durant’s book a poignant note of pain at the suffering and indignity of the people who are not his kindred. I know that the author will have a small chance of reward in popularity from his readers and his book may even run the risk of being proscribed to us, not having the indecency to deal with an unwholesome calumny against the people who are already humiliated by their own evil fortune. But he, I am sure, has his noble compensation in upholding the best tradition of the West in its championship of freedom and fair play.”


William Durant and Ariel Durant shared a love story as remarkable as their scholarship. In October, 1981, William fell ill, and was taken to the hospital. After he was hospitalized, Ariel stopped eating. On October 25, she died. When William learnt that Ariel had died, he passed away on November 7.

L.K. Advani

New Delhi

15 July, 2012

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