On Indian Nationhood

On Indian Nationhood
From Tamils To Kashmiris And Assamese And Mizos To Sikhs And Goans

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page

May 25 2007

By Subroto Roy

In the decades before 1947, imperialist critics of Indian nationalism accused the movement of being less about creating Indian nationhood than about supplanting British rule with local Indian oligarchies. Sydenham, for example, in the upper house of Britain’s Parliament in August 1918, gleefully quoted from the “Madras Dravidian Hindu Association” (forerunners of today’s DMK etc): “We shall fight to the last drop of our blood any attempt to transfer the seat of authority in this country from British hands to so-called high-caste Hindus, who have ill-treated us in the past and will do so again but for the protection of British laws.” Also quoted were “Namasudras of Bengal”, allegedly numbering “ten million men”, protesting “gross misrepresentation” by “so-called high-caste leaders” of the desirability of “Home Rule or self-government”. Besides caste and class there was always religion too by which India’s inhabitants could be classified and divided, and it must have delighted Sydenham to quote the “South Indian Islamic League” saying “Nothing should be done which will weaken British authority in any manner whatsoever, and hand over the destinies of the Moslem community to a class which has no regard for their interests and no respect for their sentiments”.

Home Rule League

Sydenham was attacking the Montagu-Chelmsford Report which had stated that India had “a core of earnest men who believe sincerely and strive for political progress; around them a ring of less educated people to whom a phrase or a sentiment appeals; and an outside fringe of those who have been described as attracted by curiosity to this new thing, or who find diversions in attacking a big and very solemn Government as urchins might take a perilous joy at casting toy darts at an elephant.”

Annie Besant, herself an Englishwoman, was, along with BG Tilak and MA Jinnah, a pioneer of Indian nationalism at the time and headed the new Indian Home Rule League on the Irish pattern. The League stated its membership at 52,000. Sydenham multiplied that by five and asked if a quarter million could purport to rule 244 millions in an Indian democracy. Where, he demanded, was the “voice that cannot yet be heard, the voice of the peoples of India”? The imperialist jibe was that the British Raj would be replaced at best by a “Vakil Raj” of “high-caste” Hindus and at worst by anarchy and bloodshed.

Thirty years later India’s was partitioned and independent under Attlee’s Labour Party. Churchill took over the imperialist mantle and found solace in the new India agreeing to remain in Britain’s “Commonwealth”, saying that India doing so as a Republic did not impair “the majesty of the Crown or the personal dignity of the King”.

The ghosts of Churchill and Sydenham today would heartily cheer our Republic’s current President APJ Abdul Kalam agreeing to receive the “King Charles II Medal” from the Royal Society, and our current PM Manmohan Singh accepting honorary British degrees also while in office. Britain’s Crown Prince has proposed a cricket match between India and Pakistan to mark the 60th anniversary of 1947, and what, after all, could be less inappropriate to mark the event in British eyes? All that Indian nationalism would have been firmly put in its place.

Now Pakistan mostly goes unmentioned in the history of Indian nationalism because the new Pakistanis as of 14 August 1947 hardly felt or even wished to be independent of the British. Instead they longed only to acquire control over any kind of Muslim-majority Government that they could, and as much of the resources and joint military assets of the old India they could get their hands on.

The Kashmir dispute and India-Pakistan conflict have not been ones between Hindus and Muslims, regardless of what the BBC, CNN etc make themselves believe. As much as for any other reason, Kashmir escalated out of control because of British irresponsibility during the process of disintegration of the old Indian Army between the two new Dominions. Newly demobilised Mirpuri soldiers who had formed loyal British battalions were drawn into the cycle of Partition-related communal violence and reprisals in Punjab, which inevitably spilt over into Jammu and culminated in the attack on J&K State that commenced from Pakistan’s NWFP in October 1947 ~ plunging J&K into civil war with Sheikh Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s National Conference allied to the new secular India and Sardar Ibrahim’s Muslim Conference allied to the new and soon to be Islamic Pakistan. Field Marshal Auchinlek, the Supreme Commander of both Indian and Pakistani Armed Forces, had the decency to resign and abolish the so-called “Supreme Command” as soon as he realised his own forces were at war with one another.

It would not be too inaccurate to say Pakistan and Britain continued in a neo-colonial relationship throughout the 1950s and 1960s ~ all the way until Ayub Khan (who had been warmly entertained at Chequers during the Christine Keeler-Profumo matter), overplayed his hand by attacking India in 1965. That war followed by the East Pakistan cyclone in 1969 brought to a head the inherent political contradictions of the Pakistani state accumulated until that time, and soon led to Bangladesh’s creation in 1971. Britain has had no real interest in Bangladesh but as Pakistan had allowed dual nationality with Britain, Britain found itself with a lot of Bangladeshi immigrants whose “Indian” restaurants give modern Britons today something to look forward to every weekend.

Britain and its American ally continued to have deep interests in Pakistan, mostly because of the geopolitical importance of Pakistani real estate and the generally obsequious and compliant nature of the Pakistani military and diplomatic elite. All that began to change fundamentally when the real declaration of Pakistani independence occurred in the world with the AQ Khan nuclear bombs exploding in 1998 followed by the September 11 2001 attacks upon the USA.

Nationalism today

As for ourselves in India, we have developed some coherent and recognisable design of a modern political economy with a Union Government and more than two dozen State Governments, and we have abolished the imperialist lackeys known as the “princes”. Our Governments at Union and State levels change peacefully by periodic elections under the 1950 Constitution. This in itself would be seen as an astonishing democratic achievement relative to where we were one hundred years ago at the time of the Morley-Minto policies. Thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru, we have had universal franchise since 1952 (at a time when the USA still had its Jim Crow laws against black citizens) ~ yet the imperialist jibe of an infinitesimally small elite purporting to represent hundreds of millions of India’s people remains to be addressed.

It would be interesting to know how many descendants of the 52,000 members of Annie Besant’s Home Rule League remain in India and how many have emigrated to the USA, Britain, Australia etc. The children of our top military, bureaucratic, business, professional and academic elite have cheerfully led an exodus out of the country. E.g. the son of a former commanding general of the Indian Army’s Artillery Regiment is now a British businessman and member of Tony Blair’s new House of Lords. Indian Nationhood in the 21st Century no longer has to include Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who have ended up seeking to develop their own nationalisms, but it remains hard enough to try to include everyone else ~ from Tamils to Kashmiris and from Assamese and Mizos to Sikhs and Goans. Cleaning up our government accounting and sorting out our public finances nationwide so as to establish a sound money for everyone to use for the first time in sixty or seventy years, is among the first steps in defining our common goals as an independent nation.

(Postscript: The original text stated Independence and Paritition came “forty years” after the only date mentioned until that point in the text, which is of the 1918 Montagu-Chelmsford period.   Unconsciously, I was counting from the Morley-Minto period of 1906-1908 which was the constitutional precedent to Montagu-Chelmsford.)

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