Wednesday, Dec 01, 2021

Reprise Of A Shameful Legacy

Are we to believe that we can feather our nest by any means, even if it meant oppressing other people in the same manner as we were in the not so distant past?

Reprise Of A Shameful Legacy
| AP
Reprise Of A Shameful Legacy

Considered by many to be one of the finest Hindi short stories, Chandradhar Sharma Guleri's Usne Kaha Tha, written in 1915, is a war story. The plot of the story deals with the life of an Indian solider, Jamadar Lahan Singh of the 77 Sikh Rifles.

Lahan Singh and his comrades are doing duty for the British Empire during the First World War and are fighting against the Germans in France and Belgium. Before leaving for the battlefront, in now-faraway Amritsar, Lahan Singh meets, after many years, the girl he loved, now the wife of his superior, the Subedar. He promises to protect her husband and son (who is also going to war under his father's command) just as he had once saved her life. Set in the bitterly cold, wet and merciless trenches of Europe, the chilling but inevitable denouement of the story is Lahan Singh's death, who sacrifices himself to fulfill his promise and save his comrades.

Like all great stories, Usne Kaha Tha reveals to us a glimpse of Truth and it does so by a ruthless reflection on loyalty, fraternity and love - all telescoped into a few blurred hours alternating between wakefulness and memory. While he immerses us in the psychological universe of one man, Guleri is ever so careful to consistently remind us that Lahan Singh, like countless other soldiers, is also an unfortunate pawn in the game of a larger political arena.

When the Subedarni's son falls seriously ill, Lahan nurses and protects him and, unmindful of his own danger, gives the boy his own warm clothes. For this wanton disregard of his own life he is rebuked by a comrade, Vazira Singh, "Pneumonia se marne wale ko murabbe nahin mila karte" (which roughly translates as "There are no rewards in dying of pneumonia").

While the metaphor may seem quaint to the modern reader, the message is clear : Dying soldiers don't add up to much in the modern political calculus. If Indian troops are indeed sent to Iraq, Guleri's poignant story will be relived by many of our jawans who, as proxies for American soldiers, will inevitably be sacrificed at the altar of realpolitik.

In every age, there comes a time when the shifting registers of history are marked off by a single question. The answer one provides becomes the prism through which we begin to view the world. In Usne Kaha Tha itself we meet Vazira who dreams of asking for a few acres of the fertile French land he was defending and settle down there as a farmer. But as thousands who staked their life on the war-front on behalf of the British Empire were to understand later, their dreams of being treated as equals by their British rulers were mere illusions. On the political front too, this shattering realisation was brought forth in the same Amritsar where Lahan Singh had once lived and loved.

In 1919, Jallianwala Bagh and its aftermath set the tone for Indian perceptions of the Raj; men like Tagore had to sorrowfully shed their cherished goal of a reconciliation between East and West (Tagore famously renounced his knighthood in protest). One result of this changed world-view was India's invention of a non-violent struggle for freedom that helped unleash a wave of decolonisation across Asia and Africa, forever altering the map of the world.

In the three decades between 1919 and 1947, the legacy of India's remarkable struggle for freedom was invented and bequeathed to us. But as social critic Ashis Nandy points out, contemporary India has spent a considerable amount of energy in shedding that legacy, as exemplified by the decision of Indian rulers to go nuclear in 1998. Writing right after the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, Nandy said, (in Preface to An Ambiguous Journey to the City):

"In India at least, the new generation of a well-educated, urbane elite has been bristling for years at the limits imposed by the legacy of the country's freedom movement on hard-eyed political 'realism'. ... In place of these encumbrances have come the grim instrumentality and rationality of the rootless, deracinated, massified, urban middle classes ..."

At that time, we were told that Pokhran II would help us gate-crash into the 'elite club of nations', a nuclear India would claim its 'rightful' place at the table of the haves of the world. Half a decade later, we are now being given the very same justifications on the "Troops for Iraq" question. Sending our jawans to do duty as constable for the global hegemon, we are being told, will help us sidle up to America and thus earn us a place at the table where the wealth of Iraq is to be carved up and feasted on.

It is a measure of our times that every thoughtful person is forced by his conscience into taking a stand on crucial questions. Troops-for-Iraq is one such issue for it has provoked an uncharacteristically forceful response from a usually measured and understated writer (Amitav Ghosh, Lessons of Empire, The Hindu, 24 July 2003). Like Guleri, Amitav Ghosh is a fine, thoughtful writer well aware of his history, one who seamlessly weaves his prodigious scholarship and historical understanding into richly nuanced tapestries of grand narratives.

It is therefore both apposite and distressing that it has been his task to remind us that by sending our troops to Iraq we would be embracing a most dubious part of our colonial history. The British had used Indian sepoys to quell obstreperous natives both home and abroad (including in Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq) and as so much fodder for their great war machine. As Ghosh points out, the Indian soldier is still a part of a dark memory in many once-colonised lands (as is the Indian trader, lest we forget East Africa and Idi Amin).

One could perhaps claim with some justice that such an ignoble legacy was not of our making and that the blame should lie at the doors of our erstwhile rulers. But what are we to make of this new incubus within which our very Indian rulers want to forge a new, powerful, self-assured India? Are we to believe that we can feather our nest by any means, even if it meant oppressing other people in the same manner as we were in the not so distant past?

The arguments for sending our troops to Iraq are manifold and need to be addressed carefully for however unfortunate, even repulsive, they do seem to represent a substantial part of public perception, at least amongst the opinion-makers. In that sense General Satish Nambiar's comment is understandable. In a recent article (Why We Should Say Yes, Outlook, 7 July 2003) he says,

"It has long been the lament of many voices within India that despite our size, geo-strategic location, manpower resources, military capability and democratic traditions, we have not realised the potential of being a regional or global player of significance. An opportunity to demonstrate whether we have the will and determination to play such a role has again presented itself."

But then what are we to make of this most inventive justification from the redoubtable General:

"Most importantly, with India's historical links and traditionally friendly relations with the Iraqis, our participation would be an article of faith in terms of assisting them at this crucial juncture. In the last 24 years, they have seen three wars and over a decade of economic sanctions. The Iraqis need our assistance in rebuilding their country and society."?

Pointing our guns at an occupied people is a curious form of assistance and indeed the surest way to reiterate our historic friendship! Its bad enough that we are tripping over ourselves in complying with the barely whispered wishes of the global potentate. Why do we - a country that hardly cares to clothe and feed its own people - try to cloak our avarice in the language of bringing succour to benighted Iraqis ? This is indeed a curious reprise of the White Man's Burden.

The suggestion bandied around that we could make oodles of money in contracts reminds me of a tiny little footnote in the history of Indian journalism, one with striking import. In February 1947, in the midst of massive political shifts, a small column appeared in a now forgotten journal, Gram Udyog Patrika - the organ of the All India Village Industries Association, an organisation founded to further Gandhi's ideas of gram swaraj and village industries. Its author was the economic philosopher J C Kumarappa who had a poser for the industrialists of India.

Kumarappa was reacting to the news that some 51 German industrial plants were available for sale in India. These units were stripped out of Germany as war reparations by the victorious Allies and now soon-to-be-free Indians could place bids to buy them. In his article titled "A Share in the Booty", an outraged Kumarappa asked if the foundations of modern India's industries were to be laid with "war loot"? Were these industrial plants, "stained with injustice, cruelty, avarice and human blood", to form the basis of our industrialisation?

For Kumarappa (best remembered in some circles for his book "Economy of Permanence"), a man who had done much to infuse the moral question into economic considerations, the means were as important as the ends. While his question had remained unanswered, today it takes on even greater urgency, what with many in India salivating at the prospect of a few minor contracts that might be thrown our way if we were to do America's bidding. And for those who are able to disengage our stated opposition to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq from the question of troops, here's what Kumarappa said in the same article,

"When we buy a stolen article knowing it to be such, we become morally responsible for the stealing that had preceded the transaction. India refrained from entering this war. Can we now ask for a share in the booty consequent on this war without assuming moral responsibility for the carnage?"

As many sane columnists have reminded us, comparing this new situation with India's past record of peacekeeping is at best being economical with the truth. Our troops arriving in Iraq will be there not as peacekeepers but as enforcers of an American occupation. And most certainly they would earn the enmity of many a self-respecting Iraqi. Comparing this with India's disastrous misadventure in Sri Lanka is also equally untenable. The certainty of conflicts and loss of lives of Indian soldiers in Iraq has ominous implications for the uneasy and fragile peace between Hindus and Muslims in India.

Most assuredly, there are many in our polity who will reap a grim harvest at the slightest opportunity presented to them. But in a much larger sense, the day Indian troops set foot in Iraq, we would be committing patricide - twice over. Having buried the moral vision of Gandhi's ahimsa in Pokharan, an unscrupulous alignment with American interests will at a stroke disown the ethical legacy of Nehru's non-alignment. In biting, black irony, we would be turning our backs on the foundational principles of our nationhood and the great heritage of our freedom movement that fought the very same colonial powers who used had Indians soldiers in Iraq.

However, all of this will presumably leave General Nambiar unmoved for he says,

"India's response to the American request for troops to stabilise Iraq needs to be free from rhetoric and moral posturing, and should be solely based on our national interests, ground realities and considerations of realpolitik."

Apparently, having a moral view is mere rhetoric and posturing whereas kowtowing to the global hegemon is in the 'national interest' which should auto-magically put all debate to rest. If our hard-nosed General were around in the 1920's to proffer sage advise, presumably he would have given the likes of Gandhi and Rajaji a lesson in realpolitik and asked them to stop their "moral posturing" against the omnipotent British Empire.

While Gandhi and his life is a sepia-tinted shadow in Indian life today it is well worth remembering that he was a great conscientious objector. In 1921, he was hauled up in Court for spreading disaffection against the British Empire by his articles in Young India (one of them with a characteristically short title, "Disaffection A Virtue"). Interestingly Gandhi pleaded guilty to the charges:

"Before I read this statement I would like to state that I entirely endorse the learned Advocate-General's remarks in connection with my humble self."

and went on to read a statement that is famed for laying out a man's supreme duty to his conscience. Gandhi called on his judge to either punish him for his guilt or resign from his office to "dissociate from evil".

While hard-eyed Indian realists have no use for such a conscience, we are provided a forceful object lesson in our own history by armymen from an unusual quarter. While Lieutenant David Zoneshine and Major Rami Kaplan might not sound to us as Gandhians - Zoneshine, Kaplan and many others are convinced that they are walking in the footsteps of the Mahatma. For some years now, a small, remarkable group of Israeli soldiers have been refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Going by the collective name of 'Courage to Refuse', these professional soldiers conscientiously object to performing their duties in the Occupied Territories (that Israel illegally holds since the Six Day War of 1967) which requires them to oppress and make life miserable for the civilian population of these areas.

Strikingly, they have each in turn asserted their moral beliefs and requested to be court-martialed under Military Justice Law. The nonplussed Israeli Army has refused to court-martial them and had instead incarcerated them without a trial. Interestingly, in their affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court of Israel, the only non-legal document they quote from (in the context of a discussion on a free conscience) is the Mahatma's famous statement in Judge Broomfield's Court.

And the question still remains : If Israeli soldiers are defying immoral orders from their Government and are quoting Mahatma Gandhi in their defense, are Indian jawans, as the legatees of Gandhi's moral bequest, going to accept equally immoral marching orders to go to Iraq ?

Afterword: It is being said that both India and Pakistan are carefully watching each other over their responses to the American request for soldiers. Presumably this is one more move in the game of trying to win the help of the Americans in a ceaseless battle over Kashmir. Such unseemly loyalty to America on both sides reminds me of the katha in which two monkeys fighting over a roti approach a cat to adjudicate. While General Musharraf might not know the Panchatantra, it would be churlish on my part to remind acclaimed upholders of the Great Indian Tradition like Shri Vajpayee and Advani, of what the cat's judgment was.

Venu Govindu's research interests are in computer science and contemporary social issues. He divides his time between Panaji and Visakhapatnam.


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