Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fear of the enemy within

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the relatively innocent world of the early-1960s in Calcutta, a ‘treat’ for children invariably meant a meal at a Chinese restaurant. I truly looked forward to these family outings. Apart from the fascination with dragons, laughing Buddhas and strange hieroglyphics, my childish imagination also equated the Peipings and Nankings with something sinister.  

The reason had much to do with what my father, an incorrigible tease, furtively whispered to the children. “They have secret transmitters in there” he would say glancing at the restaurant’s kitchen door. We would be scared, very scared. The ‘enemy’ was on our doorstep.  

Some 50 years after the Sino-Indian war left India in a state of emotional devastation, it is useful to convey the panic that gripped eastern India as Jawaharlal Nehru’s heart went out to the people of Assam, a state he had abandoned to the advancing Chinese army. A favourite uncle told me quite nonchalantly while bowling his leg-breaks to me: “Soon the Chinese will be here in Calcutta”. I didn’t grasp the political implications of his warning but the illustrations in a Bengali children’s magazine of the advancing Fu Manchu with bayonets warned me that something very bad was set to happen.

The next day, the uncle returned with two air-rifles and two boxes of metal pellets. He fired at a tin can hung from a tree and readied himself to become a second line of national defence!

Meanwhile, Dadu (grandfather)—who only wore khadi and swore by the Congress—organised loudspeaker vans that toured South Calcutta blaring patriotic songs; Ma brought home bags of wool and began knitting frenetically for soldiers who had coffee percolators but no warm clothes for the Himalayan winter; and every unit of the joint family assembled solemnly one day with gold bangles to donate to the National Defence Fund.

This frenzied activity to save India from imminent disaster was also accompanied by something else: the denunciation of the fifth columnists. In my experience this meant taunting the unobtrusive Commie next door. Recently, however, I read a report published in Ananda Bazar Patrika of October 28, 1962: “Chinese spies and Communists are secretly active in Calcutta. Each day they keep watch on the troop movements in Howrah and Sealdah stations.” In fact, the report warned that “more than half of the 32,000 Chinese residents of the city are Communists.”

The Red scare had unfortunate consequences for the city’s Chinese community. Many restaurants, including the iconic Peiping Restaurant on Park Street, were closed down. Many of the local Chinese were interned as ‘enemy aliens. No wonder a seven-year-old began seeing spies and secret transmitters hidden in every bowl of sweet corn soup.

Was the Red scare mindless xenophobia whipped up local Congressmen who didn’t share Nehru’s fascination with ‘progressive’ politics? The answers can never be conclusive but there are indications to suggest that many Indian Communists saw the People’s Liberation Army in the same way as the beleaguered Communists of Eastern Europe viewed Stalin’s advancing Red Army in 1944-45: as the agent of liberation.

The evidence from contemporary records suggests that all the developments in the Home Front wasn’t reassuring. Most of India rallied behind an army that had been badly let down by an inept political leadership. But there were exceptions.

The personal diaries of I.A. Benediktov who was the Ambassador of the Soviet Union to India during the conflict reveal that prominent Indian Communists were deeply unhappy over Moscow’s initial hesitation over supporting another socialist country. However, on October 25, 1962, the Soviet Union did a U-turn and this prompted E.M. S. Namboodiripad to meet Benediktov and convey his thanks to the Comrades in Moscow. “The most typical mistake of many Communists is that they cannot clearly distinguish patriotism and bourgeois nationalism.” EMS apparently believed that true patriotism lay in supporting China!

Nor was he alone. During a by-election meeting in Calcutta, the legendary Jyoti Basu had this to say: “It is being propagated that India has been attacked by China. We don’t know what is happening in the snowy Himalayas…If the country has been attacked, how is this by-election being held?”

Was the fear of the enemy within such a childish fantasy after all?

Sunday Times of India, October 21, 2012 

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