Friday, September 09, 2005

Heroes and charlatans (September 9, 2005)

History has become a rarefied conversation among historians

By Swapan Dasgupta

Over the past few weeks, I have busied myself trying to understand the dynamics of an encounter that agitated corporate India of the 1920s and 1930s—the conflict between the fledgling Scindia Steam Navigation Company and the well-entrenched British India Steam Navigation Company (BI). It was a vicious and, occasionally, no-holds-barred battle for dominance over coastal shipping and international routes. The conflict was ultimately resolved in favour of Scindia after 1947 when the Government excluded foreign players from domestic shipping.

For a historian, there are various ways of studying the subject. He could, if he chose, assume a position of theoretical loftiness and treat the Scindia-BI war as an incidental brush-stroke in the wider canvas of imperialism. Mapping the contours of an allegedly exploitative relationship between the metropolitan centre and the periphery would, consequently, become the focus. Alternatively, he could look upon the shipping war as a powerful case study of the confrontation between Indian economic nationalism and the British Empire. It would involve exploring the fascinating but complex relationship between Indian business and the nationalist movement, and between British commercial interests and the Government of India, in the final decades of the Raj . Both approaches would be perfectly valid and would make for scholarly monographs and even a Ph.D thesis or two.

Fortunately, the Scindia-BI war was not merely about trade statistics and the proceedings of various commissions of inquiry on maritime matters appointed by the Governments of India and Great Britain. It was primarily the story of two men who spoke differently, dressed differently, came from very different backgrounds and were yet temperamentally exactly like each other. The tale of the confrontation between Walchand Hirachand, one of the pioneers of Indian capitalism, and James Lyle Mackay, the first Earl of Inchcape, is worthy of both a Jeffrey Archer novel and a Bollywood extravaganza.

It’s a story that has to be handled with great sensitivity and, if I may say so, some degree of imagination. Walchand, or ‘Sethji’ as he was called by his employees, was both a self-made entrepreneur and a nationalist. It could even be said that his robust sense of nationalism arose from his entrepreneurship—by the 1920s he could sense the end of Empire. Apart from being India’s first shipping magnate, his business ventures included shipbuilding, the manufacture of motor cars and aircraft, sugar mills, engineering and construction. Had Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies not been so heavily biased against capitalist enterprise, Walchand would probably have been among the first Indians to make a global impact.

Pitted against him was Lord Inchcape, a self-made Scot who came to India at the age of 23 as a clerk in Mackinnon Mackenzie and rose to become the Sheriff of Calcutta, President of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and a non-official member of the Viceroy’s Council. As head of BI, he effected the merger of his company with the redoubtable Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) in 1914, which established him as the czar of British shipping. He was at one time considered as a possible successor to Lord Minto as Viceroy and was even offered the crown of Albania after the Great War. Fanatically committed to the Empire, he was a high imperialist who combined his romance with India with an uncompromising hatred of Indian nationalism.

The war between Walchand and Lord Inchcape was in many ways an unequal battle in which the Indian finally prevailed because he was on the right side of history. Yet, it was not a straight forward battle between a ‘good’ Indian and an ‘ugly’ imperialist. In their different ways, both men were deeply committed to India. Walchand believed in a self-governing India where the greatest opportunities would be reserved for Indians. Lord Inchcape was completely sincere in his conviction that the transition of India from medieval backwardness to quasi-modernity had been made possible by the dedication and duty of countless Britons who were committed to the idea of Empire. Lord Inchcape believed that network of coastal shipping had been developed by British companies in the face of grave uncertainty. He was damned if he was now going to allow Indian interlopers to run away with the profits of his investment. To him, Walchand was a “pirate”. To Walchand, Lord Inchcape was the real “pirate” for preying on the wealth of India.

Judged through the prism of post-colonial realities, the judgment of history is unquestionably in favour of Walchand, never mind the awkward reality of Scindia subsequently becoming “sick” and being incorporated into the state-run Shipping Corporation of India. At a time India is rediscovering the virtues of entrepreneurship and global capitalism, Walchand is an inspirational figure, on par with the stalwarts of the Tata family and G.D.Birla.

India, on the other hand, has not been kind to Lord Inchcape. For all his contributions, he won’t even merit a mention in the Indian history books of today. Those who are on the wrong side of history tend to end up as non-persons, victims of what E.P. Thompson, in a different context, called the “enormous condescension of posterity.”

The reason does not lie in political correctness alone. The fault lies with the priorities and preoccupations of professional historians. In the quest to make history “scientific”—a mission lauded in these columns earlier this week (“Clio is not for worship” by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, September 4)—the practitioners of the craft have chosen to forget that the past is ultimately a narration of human achievements and follies, a compendium of interesting stories about real men and women. To reduce the Walchand-Inchcape battle to a clinical dissection of imperialism, capitalism, et al, would be a criminal folly. Walchand was more than just another member of the national bourgeoisie and Lord Inchcape was more than another ‘nabob’ with an estate in Scotland.

E.H. Carr bears a heavy responsibility for the degeneration of a discipline that once epitomised the liberal arts and was considered the training ground for the enlightened exercise of power. His disavowal of the “Bad King John and Good Queen Bess” approach to history writing in the 1961 Trevelyan lectures had a crippling impact on historiography. The negation of individual-centred story-telling made the study of history an abstruse, specialised discipline. With post-modernists and the humourless disciples of Edward Said chipping in, history became a rarefied and, occasionally unintelligible, conversation between historians. Since communicating with non-specialists was no longer obligatory, historians began talking in code. It was the end of History as we knew it.

The battle over history teaching is not a simple tussle between nation-building and the celebrations of fragmented diversity. These constitute the toppings of a more fundamental divide. The fuss is essentially an expression of anger against historians who have lost sight of their primary obligation to tell a true story creatively. Today’s historians are less concerned with actual men and women than with the weight of impersonal forces.

No wonder Bollywood is stepping in to fill the void. Their films tell charming stories based on heroism and perfidy. They have no “scientific” pretensions—as if human responses to their surroundings are clinically pre-determined. Predictably, there are distortions born out of either ignorance or artistic licence. Yet, they must suffice because the alternatives—state-sponsored treatises on mercantilism and false consciousness—are more fearful.

The cheerful dumbing down of our past by Bollywood is a direct consequence of mindless pandering to the pseudo-intellectualism of academia. It is time to rescue Clio from the charlatans.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, September 9, 2005)

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