When Mr. Keir Hardie was in India he satisfied himself that the standard of living among the working classes in India has been deteriorating. This is interesting psychologically, and one would like to know by what means Mr. Keir Hardie attained to satisfaction on such a great and important question. Doubtless he had the ungrudging assistance of Mr. Chowdry.
The poverty of India has for a good many years been a handy weapon, like the sailor's belaying pin, for everyone who wanted to "have at" our administration of that country; and if "a lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies," then this one must be as black as Tartarus, for it is indubitably more than half a truth. The common field-labourer in India is about as poor as man can be. He is very nearly as poor as a sparrow. His hut, built by himself, is scarcely more substantial or permanent than the sparrow's nest, and his clothing compares very unfavourably with the sparrow's feathers. The residue of his worldly goods consists of a few cooking pots and, it must be admitted, a few ornaments on his wife.
But a sparrow is usually well fed and quite happy. It has no property simply because it wants none. If it stored honey like the busy bee, or nuts like the thrifty squirrel, it would be a prey to constant anxiety and stand in hourly danger of being plundered of its possessions, and perhaps killed for the sake of them. Therefore to speak of a Hindu's poverty as if it certainly implied want and unhappiness is mere misrepresentation born of ignorance. In all ages there have been men so enamoured of the possessionless life that they have abandoned their worldly goods and formed brotherhoods pledged to lifelong poverty. The majority of religious beggars in India belong to brotherhoods of this kind, and are the sturdiest and best-fed men to be seen in the country, especially in time of famine.
But the Hindu peasant is not a begging friar, and may be supposed to have some share of the love of money which is common to humanity; so it is worth while to inquire why he is normally so very poor. There are two reasons, both of which are so obvious and have so often been pointed out by those who have known him best, that there is little excuse for overlooking them. The first of them is thus stated in Tennant's Indian Recreations, written in 1797, before British rule had affected the people of India much in one direction or another. "Industry can hardly be ranked among their virtues. Among all classes it is necessity of subsistence and not choice that urges to labour; a native will not earn six rupees a month by working a few hours more, if he can live upon three; and if he has three he will not work at all," Such was the Hindu a century ago in the eyes of an observant and judicious man, studying him with all the sympathetic interest of novelty, and such he is now.
The other reason for the chronic poverty of the Indian peasant is that, if he had money beyond his immediate necessity, he could not keep it. It is the despair of the Government of India and of every English official who endeavours to improve his condition that he cannot keep his land, or his cattle, or anything else on which his permanent welfare depends. The following extract from The Reminiscences of an Indian Police Official gives a lively picture of the effect of unaccustomed wealth, not on peasants, but on farmers owning land and cattle and used to something like comfort.
"Yellapa, like all cotton growers in that part of the Western Presidency, profited enormously by the high price of the staple during the American war. Silver was poured into the country (literally) in crores (millions sterling), and cultivators who previously had as much as they could do to live, suddenly found themselves possessed of sums their imagination had never dreamt of. What to do with their wealth, how to spend their cash was their problem. Having laden their women and children with ornaments, and decked them out in expensive sarees, they launched into the wildest extravagance in the matter of carts and trotting bullocks, going even as far as silver-plated yokes and harness studded with silver mountings. Even silver tyres to the wheels became the fashion. Twelve and fifteen rupees were eagerly paid for a pair of trotting bullocks. Trotting matches for large stakes were common; and the whole rural population appeared with expensive red silk umbrellas, which an enterprising English firm imported as likely to gratify the general taste for display. Many took to drink, not country liquors such as had satisfied them previously, but British brandy, rum, gin, and even champagne."
A few pages further on the author tells us of the ruin by debt and drunkenness of the families which had indulged in these extravagances. The fact is that to keep for to-morrow what is in the hand to-day demands imagination, purpose and self-discipline, which the Hindu working man has not. He is the product of centuries, during which his rulers made the life of to-morrow too uncertain, while his climate made the life of to-day too easy. No outward applications will alone cure his poverty, because it is a symptom of an inward disease.
When a healthier state of mind shall awaken an appetite for comforts and conveniences, and create necessities unknown to his fathers, then degrading poverty will no longer be possible as the common lot. And it was to be hoped that the British rule would in time have this happy effect. Tennant evidently thought that it had begun to do so even in his day. "The existence," he says, "of a regular British Government is but a recent circumstance; yet in the course of a few years complete security has been afforded to all of its dependants; many new manufactures have been established, many more have been extended to answer the demands of a larger exportation. We have therefore conferred upon our Asiatic subjects an increase of security, of industry and of produce, and of consequent greater means of enjoyment."