Kipling was a famous English writer/poet who was born in second half of 19th century and died in 1936. He was the first English writer to have won Nobel prize, in literature in 1907. His most famous works of fiction include The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, Kim and The Man Who Would Be King.
Kipling was born in Bombay, Malabar Hill photo of olden times displayed above, and died in London. He lived in India when the British Raj was at its peak, world over. Some of his writings do have the shade of white supremacy! But he was definitely not out and out a Hitler. Like every coin has two sides, the Britishers felt that Raj was their birthright, though for us it was colonial supremacy which needed to be overthrown. There were many Indians who had taken up jobs with British Government in Police, Army and Civil services in India. Did it mean that they supported the British Raj? Except for a minuscule number, all people took up jobs with British as their lively hood. Naturally, during those times, the rules required to remain in the service, had to be followed. I am sure many of these rules were anti Indian, but the people had to follow them to continue in service. Did it mean that they supported the British? No way!
The poem, “If”, which had been painted on the wall of the students’ union building, in Manchester, was removed by the Students’ Union on Tuesday, 17th July, in a bid to “reclaim” history on behalf of those who have been “oppressed” by “the likes of Kipling”. Student leaders at Manchester University declared that Kipling “stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment, and human rights”.
Besides Kipling’s racist poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ and there is plethora of other work which sought to legitimize the British Empire’s presence in India and De-humanize people of colour. This logic by students’ union is deeply inappropriate. The students’ union thought that to promote the work of Kipling, in the Students’ Union building, named after a prominent South African anti-Apartheid activist, Steve Biko, is inappropriate. Is it not a mockery literary activity? Is it not hypocrisy? Literature gives us an opportunity to compare world from different times and place, perspective of which may or may not match with our own. Literature teaches us nuances and the importance of engagement instead of “my way or highway” attitude. It also fore warns us against the pitfalls of being judgmental. Removing the poem from the wall is not the way to show dissent.
What would have been the right way to dissent? The poem “If” is about real life and puts forward very positive thoughts about our day to day life. Following are two lines from the poem
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
Kipling has expressed positive thoughts in these two lines! All our life, we face Triumph or Disaster; but Kipling says that you treat them just the same. If we are able to follow his advice, if we do not get too excited with triumph and too dejected by failure, we will travel our life’s journey without many ups and downs in our mind, we will be able to avoid pitfalls! The poem “If” just talks about keeping positivity in life though we may face many storms! You can read the poem “If” here.
What was the point in erasing this poem which promotes positive thought process? The students’ union representative who explained their view point was an Asian lady. This incident took place in Manchester. England is known for its freedom of expression. At the Piccadilly Circus in London, every day you can watch people of different race, caste, creed and religion expressing their views openly. With this atmosphere, students’ union team did what they wanted to do. However, my view is that since the Poem on the wall was “If” and not “White man’s burden”, they should not have erased the poem but should have written the poem by Maya Angelou “Still I Rise”, alongside! “Still I Rise” poem can be read in one of the photos below. This poem is equally positive about life, and tells downtrodden people how to overcome difficulties, though obstacles keep arising!
The British ruled us for 150 years and looted a lot of things from here, including the Kohinoor! They were brutal many times and showed their cunning ways by following the policy of divide and rule! But they had good side too! Recently, Elphinstone Road station on Mumbai suburban railway line was renamed, as Prabhadevi. But basic fact does not change that the railway system in India was built by the British for troop movement! But when they left India in 1947, they did not take railways away. Before British time, there was never one country called India, as is known today. We have been singing paeans of Bharat all the time, but complete Bharat never existed. There were many small and large kingdoms all over which were run by various Kings. British, to take full control over these kingdoms, won over some of them by trickery and some in war. Credit for formation of Akhand Bharat goes to the British, our number one enemy before Independence.
The literature helps us to look at both sides of a point of view, it has also helped us to look at the British Raj from different viewpoint. Bad points about British need not be elaborated, as they are well documented, but there are many good points too; I am writing in English, which is a gift from the British. Especially after proliferation of computers, importance of English has increased tremendously world over. British society has allowed the students’ union to remove “If” from the wall, they have shown great tolerance by allowing this to happen in England. Will we allow a foreigner to remove a Shloka from some wall in an institution in India? Are we as a society mature enough? If, if only we had that maturity.. It’s always “If” which was written by Kipling more than 100 years ago!