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Friday, August 29, 2014

The ISIS challenge

By Swapan Dasgupta

The world, or at least that part that retains a measure of human sensitivities, has been both shocked and angered by the video circulating on the web of the decapitation of American journalist James Foley by a proud soldier of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS). The outrage has been most profound in Britain on the realisation that the executioner was in all probability an individual who is nominally British—in that he travels on a British passport and speaks in what has been identified as a distinctive East London accent. There are also indications that at least 25 per cent of the ISIS jihadists are probably Muslim imports from Europe, mainly Britain.

Even the US which has been slowly extricating itself from overseas involvements reacted strongly by sending bombers to pound ISIS positions in Iraq. Speaking at a Pentagon media briefing last week, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested that ISIS “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded…beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it…and get ready.”

Maybe it needed the tragic death of an American citizen for the Obama administration to realise that ISIS is much more than just another army headed by a warlord, exploiting Sunni anger in Iraq and the power vacuum created by the West-inspired destabilisation of the Assad regime in Syria. The tragic fate of the Yazidis—with whom Indians share a civilizational link—was largely ignored by hard-nosed apparatchiks who determine the affairs of state. After all, as British historian Tom Holland lamented, their murderous ethnic cleansing had no consequences for military and political strategies. “In cultural terms”, Holland wrote movingly, “it is as though a rainforest is being levelled to provide for cattle ranching. Not just a crime against humanity, it is a crime against civilisation.”

It is not that we in India did any better. I was recently told of the frustrating experience of an Indian writer (with impeccable academic qualifications) who chronicles the history of ancient cultures. When he heard of the ISIS assault on the Yazidis, including forced conversions and captivity for slavery, he wrote an article on the pagan brotherhood that links Yezdi and Indian traditions. Most of our ‘national’ press refused to print it, presumably on the ground that it would unsettle a fragile secular consensus that depends so much on denial and expedient silence. I compliment Indian Express for finally publishing it.

Our editorial class was guilty of the same perversity that made the redoubtable ‘secularist’ crusader Teesta Setalvad compare the depredations of ISIS with the Hindu worship of Kali and the deification of the sudarshan chakra. Her message was quite calculated: Hindus can’t protest against ISIS because they are as guilty of glorifying murderous practices. She was attempting to draw a moral equivalence between Hindu traditions and Islamic extremism.

Setalvad—one of the iconic figures of professional secularism—may have apologised and withdrawn her offensive tweet subsequently but the intervention provided a valuable insight into why the likes of ISIS gain from ‘liberal’ squeamishness.

For the past two decades, for example, under the guise of ‘multiculturalism’ the British government tolerated the dissemination of hateful and murderous theological messages from community mosques. The term ‘Londonistan’ may be an exaggeration but there are large areas of urban Britain where rebellious Muslim youth swagger about fantasising the virtues of sharia rule. It is this swagger and the sustained vilification of the West and Israel that created the foundations of the love affair with ISIS. Britain is paying the price of its own permissiveness.

The threat posed by the so-called Islamic Caliphate should not be minimised by India. ISIS flags have made their appearance in Srinagar and it is more than likely that a clutch of impressionable Muslim youth—mainly Indians working in West Asia—have joined the transnational jihadi brigade fighting in and around Mosul. For the moment their numbers may be insignificant but the larger ideological challenge posed to Indian nationalism is real. There is an ideological line that link so-called mass movements such as Jamiat-e-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood to the armed struggle of the likes of Hamas and ISIS. A section of the ‘liberal’ world chose to overlook Hamas’ determination to eliminate all Jews from Israel and now they are confronted with the systematic butchery of all non-Muslims from Iraq and, maybe, Syria. It is an open question whether Indian workers who were left stranded in Iraq after the ISIS’s summer offensive have survived to tell the tale.

The liberal capacity to be self-delusional is infinite. Last month we witnessed an attempt to prevent any modification of India’s Palestine policy on the ground that Mahatma Gandhi had once said something critical of the early Zionist movement. If it comes to the crunch, will the country now see the spectacle of ‘useful idiots’ ploughing through the Mahatma’s Collected Works to resurrect his pronouncements favouring the revival of the Ottoman Caliphate?

They will find lots of misplaced wisdom. In 1919-20, Gandhi made a colossal blunder by hitching Indian nationalism to a retrograde cause. This time, when the opportunity presents itself, we must ensure that there is no ambivalence. Indian nationalism and the Caliphate’s brotherhood cannot be reconciled. (END)




A Better Sense: How the Modi Government has fared for the first 100 days

By Swapan Dasgupta


There are many customary but meaningless rituals that govern politics in India. The 100-days stocktaking of a new government leads the pack. The exercise is quite meaningless because there are no similar audits at the end of 200 or even 300 days. Yes, there are annual assessments but even these—marked by a lavish media-spend by the government—are overshadowed by the one assessment that really matters: the verdict of the electorate at the end of a government’s term in office. 

Next week will witness the Narendra Modi government’s first 100 days in office. For a Prime Minister who received his popular mandate on the strength of a promise to change India in 60 months and even once spoke of 10 years in government, the importance of 100 days is purely episodic. At best it is a tentative indication of the way in which the government plans to move. 

However, there is an importance attached even to this tentativeness. As the first government after 1989 where a single party enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Modi is being viewed through a very different prism than the ones that shaped perceptions of all Prime Ministers since Rajiv Gandhi. Although the government still does not command a majority in the Rajya Sabha, there terms “coalition dharma” and “coalition compulsions” have ceased to enter everyday usage. Much more than V.P. Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee—Prime Ministers that enjoyed a measure of popular endorsement—the present National Democratic Alliance government is seen as the Modi sarkar. In a country where the parliamentary system of government is expected to work within a presidential mould, this total identification of the government with the captain of the team makes political judgments much easier. To put it bluntly, the buck stops at Modi. 

When he was sworn in on the evening of May 26, Modi wasn’t quite the untested gamble that foreign observers of India believe he was. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat for 12 years, Modi had always been a part of the political conversation in India. He was either adored or intensely disliked but never ignored. Following his energetic eight-month campaign that took him to nearly every part of India, the army of admirers increased exponentially. So, for that matter, did the legion of Modi-haters who, having based their assessment on his reputation as a juju man, were exposed to his aggressive campaigning style. Consequently, when Modi became Prime Minister there was no real neutrality surrounding him. Modi wasn’t quite deprived of the honeymoon that awaits a new occupant of Race Course Road. But it was more of a temporary cease-fire rather than a display of open-mindedness. 

The problem, as Modi quite rightly emphasised in his August 15 address from Red Fort, lay in his status as an ‘outsider’ who threatened to play by setting very different rules of the game. Beginning with his spartan, loner lifestyle—his penchant for simple but stylish clothes being the welcome aberration—to his maniacal work schedule and complete disavowal of humdrum media publicity, Modi has turned PM-watching into something akin to the Kremlin-watching of yesteryear. 

The reason lies only partly in the reluctance of ministers to speak out of turn and media gripe over lack of ‘access’. Ever since the government assumed office, Modi has been preoccupied with two things: familiarising himself with the totality of governance and relentless questioning of fundamentals. True, there have been the usual quota of government schemes where the Prime Minister has taken the lead and some energetic neighbourhood-centric diplomacy aimed at re-establishing India’s primacy in the region. However, in the main, the government has devoted the past 100 days in ironing out pre-existing glitches in the system. 

Yet, just because decisions weren’t ‘sexed up’ doesn’t mean they are inconsequential. The economic ministries have devoted themselves to a very big project: improving the ease of doing business in India. Starting with the modification of obscure excise and tax rules that made life hell for Indian entrepreneurs to clearing a huge backlog of approvals pending before the Ministry of Environment, the government has taken important steps to restoring business confidence in India. On his part, Modi has made “make in India” a priority. This implies that modifications in land acquisition laws, labour laws, power sector reforms and the streamlining of banking will be the focus in the coming months. The past 100 days have been devoted to strengthening the foundations of India’s imperfect market economy. The belief is that these small steps initiated by the government will have a knock-on effect on business confidence and facilitate large-scale investments whose effects will be felt after two or three years. 

There was a belief, particularly among those who rallied behind Modi during the elections out of a sense of total exasperation with the UPA’s economic policies, that Modi would rush through with big ticket changes. As of now, only the abolition of the Planning Commission, a move that has enormous implications for shifting the terms of the federal arrangement, is seen as being ideologically decisive. Disappointment has, however, been expressed over the intrusive, one-size-fits-all approach of the University Grants Commission, a body whose relevance in today’s world is questionable. Likewise, many friends of the BJP that expected a marked shift in the orientation of foreign policy have been bewildered by the underlying conservatism of the Ministry of External Affairs. Finally, there is bewilderment that the government has dragged its feet over the removal of over-politicised bureaucrats and pro-Congress functionaries from departments and government-funded institutions. 

Whether the tardiness stems from an exaggerated sense of caution or is evidence of ministerial ineptitude and cooption by the bureaucracy is the subject of constant speculation. However, Modi has to be mindful of the fact that his government’s circumspection has been interpreted by the relics of the ancien regime as evidence of dysfunctionality. In an article in Telegraph earler this week, for example, a writer suggested “there is no one in ( Modi’s) establishment who has the intellectual prowess to correlate intricate international developments to India’s diplomatic footwork…” Likewise, a New York Times correspondent in Delhi hinted at a growing realisation ( in which sections?) that India may have elected a “cipher” as Prime Minister. 

Driving these indictments is, of course, the enormous condscension that invariably accompanies a reordering of the establishment from the cosmopolitan to the rooted. But it is also accompanied by a combination of both smugness and fear: smugness over the belief that nothing will change and fear that change may be more far-reaching than initially imagined. 

Regardless of some by-election setbacks—which, ironically, help us quantify the Modi effect of the Lok Sabha poll—national opinion polls indicate that popular backing for Modi has actually increased since the general election. As such, having tested the waters for the past 100 days and blessed with a better sense of what changes are necessary and at what pace, Modi would do well to turn the underlying sense of fear of his critics into a self- fulfilling prophecy. He cannot afford to ever forget that the huge mandate he secured was for change, and for the better. It is how that belief in change in translated into action over the next nine months that will set the tone for the remaining four years of the term. 

The Telegraph, August 29, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Why Pakistan shouldn't read too much into Indian editorials

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

In the coming weeks, both civilian and military policy-makers in Islamabad are certain to mull over one of the most astonishing by-products of its latest spat with New Delhi: the legitimisation of Pakistan’s involvement in the internal affairs of Jammu and Kashmir by a section of India’s public intellectuals.

 

Whether this extraordinary development points to Pakistan’s success in nurturing Track-2 dialogues or is symptomatic of deeper schisms within India are issues that will be dissected by an otherwise beleaguered Establishment across the Radcliffe Line. Pending a considered assessment, the editorial pages of Indian newspapers will, however, produce many smiling faces in Pakistan.

 

The outpourings of rage against the Narendra Modi government’s supposed ‘over-reaction’ to the High Commissioner’s meetings with separatist leaders may even convince Pakistani strategists of the need to persevere with the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir. The coming months will definitely witness a concerted Pakistani bid—backed by international do-gooders—to roll back the new red lines drawn by India, perhaps with the use of some explosive pressure points.

 

In Pakistan, there will even be an understandable temptation to interpret the criticism of the Modi government’s unilateral withdrawal from the Foreign Secretary-level talks as evidence of a weakening of India’s resolve to withstand the war of a “thousand cuts”. That would amount to a grave misreading of India’s internal dynamics.

 

For a start, it is important to recognise that the decision to withdraw from the dialogue in Islamabad was widely supported within India. The opposition parties had initially taunted the Prime Minister for not acting on his promise to not tolerate any Pakistani transgression. However, once Modi lived up to his image as a no-nonsense leader, the opposition guns fell strangely silent. Indeed, there was the bizarre spectacle of Congress leaders reacting to the event in different voices—one lot participating in the hand wringing and another lot demanding the expulsion of the Pakistan High Commissioner.

 

The desire to test Modi’s reaction was not confined to the opposition in India. There are indications that the Pakistani Establishment too was anxious to see how far it could push the envelope. It clearly never imagined Modi would react the way he did. There was awareness that Modi was different from Manmohan Singh. But how different? Most important, Pakistan needed to know whether Modi’s neighbourhood thrust would also translate into a variant of I.K. Gujral’s asymmetry doctrine. It’s now apparent it won’t.

 

Any understanding of a foreign country involves more than poring over press clippings. Presumably, those involved in monitoring India in Pakistan, even if it is for subversive ends, delve deeper. However, the influence of the media, particularly international media, in shaping perceptions can’t be discounted. On this count, the India desks in Islamabad may have been guilty of accepting the rash judgments of Delhi’s foreign media at face value.

 

The foreign media has traditionally based its assessments of India on received wisdom from the local media and interactions with the type of people who work for international agencies, patronise NGOs and attend literature festivals. During the general election, it demonstrated a deep hostility to the BJP and a partiality for AAP. More to the point, Modi was invariably painted as a deeply ‘polarising’ figure whose victory would put a question mark over India’s future as a plural and tolerant country.

 

After the election, and once the awkward business of explaining the ‘unexpected’ verdict was done with, there has been a rash of reports—particularly after India said no to the WTO—suggesting widespread disappointment with Modi. The suggestion was that the job of governing India was proving too daunting for the “outsider”. On August 12, for example, the venerable New York Times reported that “this early wave of disenchantment is a reminder that the man India elected this year is, in some ways, a cipher.”

 

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary ‘cipher’ means ‘zero’, hardly a description that fits a Prime Minister whose presence in public meetings still evoke frenzy. Yet, when reportage becomes an exercise in affirming prejudices, misjudgements are bound to be recurrent. But then, for some people, any stick to beat Modi will do—even if means giving a helping hand to the patrons of terror and Islamist terrorists. 

Sunday Times of India, August 24, 2014

Friday, August 22, 2014

Talk straight, or don’t talk at all

YBy Swapan Dasgupta

 

Engaging-with-Pakistan has been one of Delhi’s big growth industries over the past 15 years. Apart from domestic investment (both from the public and private sectors), it has attracted generous quantities of Foreign Direct Investment, despite not having much to show by way of tangible returns. As such, its many well-heeled stakeholders feel an understandable anxiety over the Narendra Modi government’s sharp decision to call off a proposed meeting of Foreign Secretaries in Islamabad. It is not that the lack of official cooperation shuts off investments in an illusionary scheme; it merely reduces the number of journeys on the proverbial gravy train.

 

The hand wringing by Track-II travellers on English-language TV channels and the finger-wagging articles by members of the so-called strategic community should, ideally, not worry the government unduly. A reading of political history suggests that diplomacy often acquires a life of its own, detached from political realities. A jolt is often necessary to bring the players crashing back to earth.

 

In his magisterial book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Unionpublished earlier this year, Professor Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University has documented a surprising facet of US policy. Contrary to the gung-ho, ‘we won the Cold War’ proclamations that emanated after the red flag was lowered for the last time in the Kremlin on December 25, 1991, the reality was that the George Bush Administration tried quite hard to preserve the Soviet Union in the face of the pro-independence impulses of the Soviet Republics, notably Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Apart from Defence Secretary Dick Cheney (later Vice President in the George W. Bush dispensation), the senior members of the Bush Administration now saw their old adversary as the only guarantor of stability in the face of an uncertain future.

 

Ostensibly, the US policy-makers may have been prompted by their concern over the Soviet Union’s nuclear assets. But their conservatism and the reluctance to explore emerging alternatives to an over-centralised Soviet empire crafted by Stalin somehow seems a little more basic: a refusal to liquidate a Cold War-centric business that had been running successfully since 1945. The idea that the US would have to re-orient its diplomacy to factor in the particularities of a dozen or more independent republics seemed too daunting and troublesome. Dealing with a single command centre in Moscow seemed safer and more reassuring. After all, US-Soviet relations had entered a phase of dreary predictability.

 

Needless to say, these were academic discussions since Washington’s capacity to shape the eventual outcome in Moscow, Kiev, Minsk and the Asian capitals was negligible. The pro-independence feeling were just too strong (particularly in Russia) and the hatred for the Soviet system too deep for any patchwork solutions to take shape. Washington won the Cold War decisively but its role in securing that victory was entirely reactive. The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

 

Are there lessons for India’s diplomats and policy-makers from this this, relatively unknown chapter of one of the most momentous events of the 20thcentury?

 

Since last Monday’s decision to call off the visit of the Foreign Secretary to Islamabad, the Modi government has been severely criticised by the ‘strategic community’ for allowing its Pakistan policy to be guided by base populist considerations. The votaries of “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue are, quite predictably, livid. For them, Pakistan is more than a neighbour: it is an infatuation. On a more serious plane, the diplomatic historian Srinath Raghavan has articulated a concern that has also found an echo among ‘pro-democracy’ elements inside Pakistan. “At a time”, wrote Raghavan in an article in The Hindu, “when the civilian government in Pakistan is on the back foot, New Delhi’s digging of its heels will only comfort the military.”

 

The belief that Pakistan is witnessing another phase of the never-ending tussle between the elected civilian government and the military is, by now, conventional wisdom. The accompanying conviction that New Delhi must do its bit to bolster Pakistan’s democracy and edge out the military that nurtures visceral anti-India sentiments is also deeply ingrained in Delhi’s strategic thinking. Judged from these perspectives, India’s redrawing of the red lines of engagement at a time when the Imran Khan-Tahirul Qadri combine is questioning Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s legitimacy is inopportune.

 

Even if, for the sake of argument the dubious assumption of a Pakistani civilian government conducting its India policy without military oversight is accepted, a question arises: what is India’s capacity to modify the power equations in Islamabad? The answer is obvious: zero. Whether it was the Lahore bus ride of Atal Behari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh’s Sharm-el-Sheikh capitulation, Pakistan hasn’t moved an inch from its determination to both view bilateral relations through the Kashmir prism and to inflict pain on India wherever possible. Bending over backwards to accommodate a civilian government sounds noble but the returns from such an approach are either negligible or negative. India’s Pakistan policy has to be detached from seasonal variations in Islamabad.

 

Secondly, all the evidence suggests that Pakistan is experiencing a profound existential crisis. Apart from normal democratic turbulence, it has been affected by different schisms: Shia versus Sunni, state versus jihadi Islam and Centre versus states. The very “idea of Pakistan” has been changing over time and the existing elites are being constantly challenged by elements that draw inspiration from wild, antediluvian ideas. Despite the all-pervasive fear of the shadowy ISI, the writ of the Pakistan state does not run uniformly.

 

For India to cling on to an idea of Pakistan as a member of a once undivided family is exhilarating for those for whom life is one big mushaira with generous helping of kebab.  The reality may less appetising. Since geography can’t be altered India will have to engage with Pakistan. But let’s do so with eyes wide open and without any illusion that our magnanimity will lead to an onrush of brotherhood. An approach centred on benign neglect may be in order till the time Pakistan sorts itself out first. 

Asian Age, August 22, 2014

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Conventional politics can't explain Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has turned the element of surprise into a fine art. Maybe it is because he is, self-admittedly, an ‘outsider’ in the political establishment of Delhi or maybe because his route into democratic politics followed a very different set of impulses, he has become adept at breaking the mould and setting his own rules.

The reason why the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech from Red Fort attracted disproportionate attention had, of course, a lot to do with the change brought about by the electorate in May. But equally, if not more, it had everything to do with the personality of the man who addressed India as its “pradhan sewak”.

That Modi did not disappoint is an understatement. For many Indians, who had invested emotionally in the change Modi promised to bring about in both governance and political thinking, the Prime Minister was on test. For three months, even as the impatient rushed to premature judgement, Modi had burnt the midnight oil familiarizing himself with the totality of the Government of India. It was a daunting project that many of his predecessors abandoned after a few days. They had preferred to learn on the job. But then, apart from Rajiv Gandhi who was blessed with an unequivocal mandate in 1984, no other Prime Minister in the past three decades had been catapulted by an electorate that wanted change-both decisive and immediate.

If Modi chose three months to prepare for the next 57 months-some would say ten years, it is because he has learnt a few things as Chief Minister in Gujarat.

First, that embarking on an uncharted course is always a lonely journey. True, there are ministerial colleagues, political associates and officers who extend a big helping hand. However, it is the captain of the team-whose captaincy has been endorsed by India’s voters-that always unveils the larger vision of change. A flippant captain like Rajiv Gandhi can easily lose the plot and end up disappointing the voters and a non-playing captain such as Manmohan Singh can drag the country into institutionalized waywardness.

Second, Modi must be painfully aware that the ‘system’ is inherently anti-change. There is a certain grandeur to ministerial office in Delhi-and more so, for a Prime Minister-that puts inordinate pressure on an individual to uphold status quo and continuity. The principle of we-know-best, is so deeply etched into babudom that it takes both intellectual courage and ruthless clarity of purpose for a politician to undertake something different.

Modi knows that the corridors of power are full of individuals who are waiting anxiously for the politician to commit a mistake so that they can both rescue him and cure him of the desire to be audacious. If Modi has proceeded with extra caution for the past three months, even retaining many officials who should ideally have been booted out for their unprofessional conduct during the final years of the UPA, it is not because he is overwhelmed by the project he has undertaken. It is because he has to be sure he is doing the right thing.

I am not privy to the details surrounding the welcome decision to bury the Planning Commission and replace it with a body fit for purpose. However, I am sure that the proposal was not enthusiastically endorsed by a bureaucracy that views Yojana Bhavan as another instrument of control. In the coming days, as the successor body takes shape, there will be a concerted attempt to make the changes as cosmetic as possible and obfuscate the larger vision driving the change. Articles will proliferate in the media arguing that a ‘developing’ country such as India cannot do without a body of enlightened souls moulding the course of development. The idea won’t be to reverse the decision but to intimidate the Prime Minister into abandoning his desire to effect fundamental changes in other fields.

In his Red Fort speech, Modi narrated his intense disappointment at the frequency and tone of inter-departmental squabbles and turf wars in the Government. He was, of course, berating the bureaucracy for not looking beyond their noses but I am sure he was alluding to some of his Cabinet colleagues who have become mere custodians of their departments and, consequently, impediments to change.

Where the political-bureaucratic elite may have misread Modi is in thinking that he is driven by broadly the same impulses as most other politicians. In their criticism of the August 15 speech, some anti-Modi commentators have berated the Prime Minister for delving into ethical concerns-particularly on questions of gender and sexual abuse. One critic even suggested Modi was speaking like a RSS pracharak delivering a boudhik.

The analogy isn’t misplaced. Where Modi differs from many others in the political arena is that he does actually view politics as part of the nation-building renaissance that someone such as Swami Vivekananda spoke about in the last decade of the 19th century. Actually, the more I observe Modi, the more I am convinced that he is propelled by Vivekananda’s blend of spiritualism and nationalism acting in concert. Don’t be misled by the special attention the Prime Minister devotes to his public appearance-his sartorial tastes are often more discussed than his politics. In reality, Modi combines an attachment to making India a global power with an unlikely detachment from the trappings of office. This is what makes him deliver the blunt message to Indian parents to keep their sons in check and his strong pro-women bias.

Conventional politics, it would seem, can’t explain Modi.

Sunday Pioneer, August 17, 2014

 
 
 

Friday, August 15, 2014

A CONTEXT FOR FREEDOM - Force alone cannot command loyalty

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last month saw the publication of the English translation of the diaries of the French writer, Jean Guéhenno, among the most authentic accounts of Paris under German occupation. It is easy to understand why Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944, enjoys cult status in France. Guéhenno was one of the towering figures of the quiet intellectual resistance to the new dispensation. He didn’t pick up a gun and join the Resistance but he refused to publish as long as the army of occupation was in place. “I am going to bury myself in silence,” he wrote in his private journal. “I will take refuge in my real country. My country, my France, is a France that cannot be invaded.”

Guéhenno’s private resistance is unquestionably important in demonstrating that the national will cannot be broken by a catastrophic military defeat. It bolsters the mythology that built up around Charles De Gaulle and the Resistance and serves to negate the alternative National Revolution of Marshal Pétain and his collaborationist Vichy regime.

Yet, Guéhenno’s diaries don’t quite live up to the larger political project. The writer no doubt filled his diary with his voyages of intellectual discovery and re-discovery that lifted his spirits in gloomy times. However, what may strike the reader is the vitriol poured on fellow intellectuals and “mediocre” journalists engaged in ‘collaboration’. Guéhenno seems obsessed with debunking the Vichy regime.

By contrast, the Germans get a perfunctory look in, and are mentioned in passing as the overbearing “guests”. They are about as remote as individual Britons were in Nirad Chaudhury’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a life-tale centred on undivided Bengal. As an idea, Nazism dominated Guéhenno’s consciousness, just as an interest in Western civilization never left Chaudhury. But in the end, occupation — minus some of the lived irritants, such as food shortages, lack of heating and the despair over the unending execution of “communists” — comes across as an abstraction.

This blurred image of the real adversary seems significant. Whether in occupied France or colonial India, the day-to-day dealings and confrontations (both real and symbolic) were with the forces of collaboration. It would seem that those who believed that France suffered a humiliation in 1940 on account of the moral decay of the Third Republic were far more numerous and influential than is admitted. In hindsight, Pétain and Laval may seem pathetic and despicable boot-lickers. However, as a re-look at the film clips of the time suggests, their popular acceptance after the reality of military defeat had sunk in was far more widespread than the history books would have us believe.

On February 24, 1941, for example, Guéhenno went with a friend to see the inaugural rally of Rassemblement National Populaire, a body claiming to be both ‘European’ and ‘socialist’ and urging even greater collaboration between France and Germany. The gathering, the diarist was forced to admit, wasn’t exclusively from the “particularly low order”: “There were five or six thousand people in Salle Wagram. Not one worker. The great majority was composed of shopkeepers, clerks, office-workers, and pseudo-intellectuals… The common species of frenzied petty bourgeois in shiny cotton oversleeves was the only species represented.”

What is relevant is not Guéhenno’s distaste for the collaborators but his observation that the treacherous lot actually represented a definite social constituency. This grudging admission is at odds with the stereotype — particularly in films — of the typical collaborator being either a sadistic policeman or someone from the dregs of society. Indeed, what really angered the likes of Guéhenno was the extent of intellectual support for the Vichy regime. This is something that France has never been able to come to terms with since it violated a notion of French enlightenment.

The reason for dwelling at length on the four-year experience of France on the day India celebrates its 67th Independence Day is actually a little perverse. Every nation, particularly one that achieved self-government after a prolonged struggle, needs an ‘official’ history that is bequeathed to future generations. For India, the discourse is one of sporadic but unending struggles against British rule that reached its culmination with the mass movements under Mahatma Gandhi. Earlier, the script permitted little deviation. Today, however, the Gandhian movements are seen to be complemented by other struggles, notably the revolutionary nationalism of the likes of Bhagat Singh, the endeavours of Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA, and lesser-known ‘subaltern’ insurrections. From Siraj-ud-Daula, Tipu Sultan and Nana Saheb to Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, Independence Day is dedicated to their collective memory.

This is exactly as it should be. Nations live by stories that are handed down through the generations. These permit embellishments and even exaggerations. But, even in a land exposed to the myriad convoluted plots of the Mahabharat, caveats and awkward details are often seen to be needless and unduly confusing. This search for twitter-like simplicity and certitudes may explain why one facet of history has been blotted out: the phenomenon of loyalism.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the British Empire in India would not have lasted for as long as it did without the active — and sometimes enthusiastic — collaboration of Indians. There were never enough Europeans to maintain control over far-flung areas. French citizens who remained in their posts as policemen, magistrates, tax collectors and teachers, serviced Germany’s occupation of France. Likewise, Indians serviced the Britishraj, including its formidable army. Indeed, until the late-1930s, the larger belief in the endurance of British rule remained intact in the minds of most Indians. All attempts by the Congress to create a parallel authority came to nought. The structures of administrative control, including the loyalty of the army, remained firmly intact till 1947 and were inherited in totality by the successor regime.

This phenomenon demands explanation. The loyalty of Indians wasn’t secured by coercion alone. Had force been the only motivation for adherence to British rule, the character of India’s freedom struggle would have been very different and may even have resembled the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya or the armed struggle in Southern Africa. A Gandhi would have been irrelevant had India experienced, say, Portugese rule.

There was a large measure of ideological acceptance of British rule in India, especially after 1858, when the rulers chose to insulate indigenous society from experiments with Western modernity. For Hindu communities accustomed to varying degrees of subordination under the Sultanate, the Moghuls and their successors, self-government seemed too abstract and unrealizable. Unlike many Muslim communities that saw in British rule a loss of power, ‘Hindu’ India didn’t attach a premium to political power. Many prominent Hindus, particularly in Bengal, even saw British rule as liberation from the dark ages. Demolishing this political fatalism, in fact, made Gandhi’s achievements all the more significant. He was more than a Hindu leader but he motivated Hindus to break out of their defensive social ghettos, encounter public life and challenge authority. Most important, he did it without mounting a military challenge.

Political choice is born of circumstances. In France, collaboration remained intact from the armistice of June 1940 till the D-Day landings four years later when Germany’s final defeat seemed inevitable. France was liberated by a military re-conquest and loyalties were again re-negotiated. The French who cheered Pétain in 1940 embraced De Gaulle in 1944. Subsequently, the unhappy Vichy chapter became a subject of national denial.

National histories don’t permit awkward moments. This is as true of India as it is for France. After all, in similar situations, how many Frenchmen could honestly say they would have resisted Vichy? And how many Indians would have disavowed Queen Victoria for an uncertain future?

Independence and freedom are never inherent. They always need a context.

The Telegraph, August 15, 2014

August 15 is not just about the Red Fort speech

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

A glance at the writings of India’s public intellectuals may well reveal a curious phenomenon. Whereas many are likely to view 1947 as point of departure between ‘history’ and ‘modern’ India, there are others who prefer to distinguish between the Raj and the Republic. Some of the usage may well be stylistic but the choice also suggests a hierarchy of values—between nationalism and republican values.

 

To the irreverent cosmopolitan, January 26 easily prevails over August 15. Republic Day always seems more glamorous: the weather is more agreeable, the pageantry is spectacular and the announcement of the Padma awards invariably adds an extra zing to the President’s ‘At home’. By contrast, the a humid Independence Day is excessively focussed on the Prime Minister’s Red Fort speech that, judging by the past, has usually left the nation underwhelmed. If the parade on Rajpath on an overcast winter morning is obligatory viewing, the Red Fort speech is often eminently worth a miss.

 

It is not merely the choreography of ‘official’ Independence Day that needs repair. What could be far more consequential are the reasons why, in the mind of an influential section of India, the Republic is a notch above the nation.

 

For a start, it is intriguing why the Republic should be shorthand for post-Independence India. After all, Britain isn’t always described as ‘monarchical’ Britain for added emphasis and neither is any political prefix used before the US. In the old days, it was always “Nazi” Germany, “Communist” China and, more recently, “Islamic” Iran. In highlighting its republican credentials, some of the chroniclers of the ‘idea of India’ are certainly placing the country in dodgy company of states that flaunt official ideologies.

 

Some parallels are, of course, not so toxic. Germany has discovered something called “constitutional patriotism”—a conceptual jugglery that seeks to separate the present from a troubled past. The idea appeals to post-national Indians.

 

These are asides. In the Indian context, the over-emphasis on the Constitution as the arbiter of national identity hints at the importance attached to state and authority. For the custodians of the Republic, a plasticine Constitution isn’t what symbolises Republic Day. The object of worship is state power.

 

The choice of the Asokan lions by Jawaharlal Nehru to epitomise sovereign authority was inspired. The resurrected icon conveyed an imperial-like authority and blessed the Indian state with gravitas. A powerful symbol of the Mauryas was an appropriate replacement for the Crown over the King-Emperor’s head.

 

A facet of British rule that appealed to Indians was its ‘ornamentalism’. The more imperial-minded of Britain’s representatives in India—Lord Wellesley and Lord Curzon in particular—took exceptional care to create monuments to power and authority. Even Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy entrusted with the job of unravelling the Empire, purposely made his first public appearance in full ceremonial regalia, leaving nothing to the imagination.

 

Republic Day is centred on this celebration of the spectacular. It is above all a celebration of the state by the state.

 

The contrast with August 15 couldn’t have been starker. Going by the calendar of the freedom movement, Independence Day should have fallen on January 26, not August 15. It was on that day in 1930 that the Congress adopted the Purna Swaraj resolution and put an end to all British hopes of retaining India as a self-governing dominion. Unfortunately, Mountbatten’s haste and Clement Atlee’s helplessness ruined old calculations. Nevertheless, despite this seasonal departures, August 15 has turned out the way January 26 was originally conceived—an occasion that commemorates democratic vibrancy, historical memory and the functioning anarchy of politics.

 

 

Not everything, however, has turned out the way it was conceived in 1930. The nationalist leaders chanted Vande Mataram while unfurling the tricolour; today, perhaps as an unspoken tribute to Subhas Bose’s INA, we chant Jai Hind. For a few, Vande Mataram’s associations are insufficiently secular. In 1930, even Jawaharlal Nehru wore the ubiquitous dhoti. He discarded it altogether after Independence and ‘modern’ India took that as the cue to mock the dhotiwallah. Nehru’s sartorial preferences became the ‘national dress.’ Finally, unlike the past when I-Day was spontaneous and improvised, Nehru made the ramparts of the Red Fort the permanent venue for the big speech. He was again prompted by symbolism. Red Fort stood for the sovereign authority of the Mughal badshah, even when actual control of the territories had passed to others. For independent India, the Red Fort came to epitomise the sovereignty of Delhi and, by extension, the unity of India.

 

Yet, there was one facet of national life that was defied the intrusions of the new Republic: popular memory. Despite many attempts to impose some order into India’s myriad past, there remains a fundamental gulf between ‘history’ and memory. The sanitised version sees Independence as a seamless journey from darkness to light. But that’s not how most Indians recall narrations of the past by grandparents and elders.

 

These stories are a mixed bag. There are tales of heroism peppered with the exaggerations of time; some are curious stories of, say, a kindly zamindar or a benevolent English District Magistrate, that defy stereotypes; and others are tales dotted with chronological silences. The past, as seen through the prism of August 15, is about all these experiences--family experiences that zigzag across political faultlines.

 

That is why there is something very special about August 15 that goes well beyond the Red Fort speech and the Manoj Kumar films on TV. This was the day the disparate expressions of hope and even despondency coalesced into an expression of nationhood. Independence was (and is) about the people’s own visions of the achche din. Together they add up something more potent and substantive than the philosophy of the Republic. 

Hindustan Times, August 15, 2014