By Swapan Dasgupta
I have spent the past few days in a country where history is a constant preoccupation. Two days ago, the British Library released the unpublished manuscript of the memoirs of Anthony Blunt, a much acclaimed art historian who sullied his reputation by spying for the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. Blunt wrote his life story shortly after he was named by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the “fourth man” of the notorious Cambridge spy ring. He deposited the manuscript with the British Library with the proviso that it would not be released for 25 years.
The Blunt revelations will shed further light on a generation which believed Stalin was the antidote to Hitler. The explanation that these well-heeled spies were motivated by high idealism and a fierce anti-fascism has generally been accepted. Blunt, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and others haven’t been formally rehabilitated but they certainly haven’t been tarred by the same notoriety as, say, those renegades who batted for Hitler in World War II.
Elsewhere, they are getting ready to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. Of course, it will not be a time for celebration but canny publishers, forward-looking media houses and a market-savvy hospitality industry have drawn up elaborate plans to make a decent amount of money from history. I, for one, would certainly like an opportunity to own a MP3 recording of Neville Chamberlain’s speech that fateful Sunday morning when the lights went out all over Europe for the second time in 25 years.
Britain and, for that matter, Europe’s obsession with history has been a source of amusement to Indians. Many of our dynamic countrymen cannot understand why anyone would spend their leisure hours reading about the past when the time could have been so much better utilised in self-improving pursuits like reading motivational books by management gurus.
The reason is simple. The past 100 years has been Europe’s bloody century. By all reckoning, the inconclusive World War I, fought in the trenches of France was the bloodiest. It brought to an end a settled way of life and killed off an entire generation. World War II brought physical devastation of cities, the massacre of European Jewry and the uprooting of entire communities. For the subcontinent, the most traumatic event of the past 100 years was Partition. But you have to multiply the physical dislocation caused by the political division of India some six or seven times to get a sense of how much different parts of Europe suffered.
I refer to the European passion for the past in the context of a brief flicker from contemporary history in the form of another remarkable confession by Gen Pervez Musharraf to the indefatigable Karan Thapar last week. Ten years after the bitter war for the control of the hills that overlook the road to the Kashmir Valley, Musharraf has finally admitted what was known all along in India but never formally acknowledged in Islamabad: That the Pakistani Army was very much a participant in the conflict that could just as easily have escalated into a full-scale India-Pakistan war.
Predictably, the cocky Musharraf is not in the least apologetic of his role in the deaths of at least two thousand young soldiers from both countries. In his view, it was the Pakistani Army’s audacity in Kargil that resurrected the Kashmir issue. Even though Pakistan was coerced into a humiliating retreat by President Bill Clinton, Musharraf believes that the country has gained in the long-term. The threat of a war involving two nuclear weapon states has contributed to Western pressure on India to meet Pakistan half-way on Kashmir. Although India has so far resisted Uncle Sam’s intrusive diplomacy, the likes of Musharraf firmly believe that it is only a matter of time.
This may not be the occasion to assess the veracity of Musharraf’s boast that he advanced the Pakistani national interest by waging the Kargil war. All that can be said is that prima facie, it doesn’t seem that the old guerrilla commander’s contention is entirely fanciful. Kargil didn’t revive an old secessionist movement. The credit for that goes to Rajiv Gandhi for the rigged election of 1987, the kidnappers of the then Home Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s daughter in 1989 and the men who masterminded the ethnic cleansing of Hindus from the Kashmir Valley. What the Kargil war did was to elevate a covert Pakistani role in Jammu & Kashmir into an overt one. Musharraf showed to the world that there are enough desperate forces in Pakistan willing to subvert an elected Government and trigger war with a neighbouring country. The nearest historical analogy for what Musharraf did was the privately-funded Jameson raid which led to the three-year Anglo-Boer war in South Africa in 1899.
I suspect that Pakistan is going to lap up Musharraf’s version of what was hitherto regarded as a colossal “misadventure”. In a very clever way, the General is not merely preparing the ground for a possible political comeback but setting the parameters for his own rehabilitation in Pakistani history.
And what about India where history has been at a permanent discount, overtaken by either metaphysical escapism or commerce (actually, both combine rather well)? Predictably, the commemoration of Kargil has been confined to the appreciation of the heroism and martyrdom of those soldiers who died for India. But there has been less scrutiny of the mindset that created the conditions for the death of our young soldiers. When Britain discusses Blunt and Chamberlain as part of their date with history, Indians should listen carefully. They will find striking parallels with Kargil.