Thursday, February 28, 2013

APOLOGY EXCHANGE - The debate about Cameron at Jallianwala Bagh is rather silly

By Swapan Dasgupta

The accomplished British cartoonist Martin Rowson is—as befitting his profession—naturally attracted by the absurdities of public life. Last week, he directed his fire at the Think Tanks. “Let’s form a Think Tank”, he suggested to his Twitter followers, “Call it… ‘Policy Carousel’…Front it up with a couple of nerdy teenagers in suits…and start issuing press releases…arguing the dumbest things that comes into our heads. Insist that children reared in trees are better at French; nurses who eat nothing but jam have better mortality outcomes; if the moon was painted mauve reading standards would improve among ‘White British’ mice living in buckets…Then see how long it is before lazy news editors at the BBC makes our latest batshit…the third story on their main morning news…”

As a response to my endorsement of the whacky scheme, Martin suggested I open a Delhi chapter of Policy Carousel. Ever helpful with identifying the bizarre, he suggested an opening initiative—an ‘Apology Exchange: Amritsar for Black Hole.”

Since the authenticity of the Black Hole of Calcutta remains in some doubt—there are grave suspicions that an imaginative account by a survivor written many years after the event was responsible for the infamy that was bestowed on the area around the majestic General Post Office—there are other possible initiatives that Apology Exchange can mentor. How about restoring the beautifully crafted Angel of Cawnpore to the original site of the Bibighar massacre where an estimated 120 people, including large numbers of women and children, were massacred by the troops of the ‘perfidious’ Nana Sahib on July 15, 1857? After Independence, the memorial was relocated to a corner of the All Souls Church in Kanpur.

And, just to demonstrate that it is not merely the loathsome Lt-General Dyer who is being pilloried by history, how about an appropriate memorial in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk to commemorate one of the worst massacres of civilians in India? I am, of course, referring to the massacre of Delhi by Nadir Shah on March 9, 1739 in retaliation for the mob fury the night before that led to the killings of some 3,000 Kazalbash troopers. According to a contemporary account, the Iranian troops began the carnage at 9 am “and forced their way into shops and houses killing the occupants and laying violent hands on anything of value… No distinction was made between the innocent and the guilty, male and female, old and young.” By the time Nadir Shah called off the pogrom after six hours, the roads of Delhi were blocked by heaps of bodies. The death toll was said to be anything between 8,000 and 40,000—a darn shade more than the highest estimates of those killed in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

Nadir Shah, who continues to be celebrated in modern Iran as a great national hero, also made off with the Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor diamond (which subsequently found its way into the Tower of London). Indeed, to this day, the term ‘Nadirshahi’ is used is northern India as a synonym for brutality and oppression. How come, therefore, the frequent visits of Shah Reza Pehlavi in the past and more infrequent visits of the stalwarts of the post-1979 theocratic regime these days isn’t peppered with calls for either the return of the Peacock Throne to Delhi or at least a heartfelt but grovelling apology? Instead, the representatives of Independent India lose absolutely no opportunity to emphasise the “deep civilizational ties” that bind the peoples of Persia and Hindustan.

Going back a little further in time, there was also the invasion of the Moghul Tamerlane in 1398, a mere 615 years ago. That invasion was marked by an equal show of blood-thirstiness by the Moghul army. Having taken nearly a lakh prisoners during the course of his advance from the Indus, Timur was apprehensive that they would “join their countrymen against him” when he attacked Delhi. To forestall that possibility, he massacred the lot of them in cold blood. Having taken Delhi, Timur allowed his soldiers to go berserk. According to a contemporary account Firishta, “the Hindoos, according to their custom, seeing their females disgraced, set fire to their houses, murdered their wives and children , and rushed out on their enemies.” A massacre followed and, like in 1739, the streets were clogged with corpses. “The desperate courage of the Delhiyans was at length cooled in their own blood, and throwing down their weapons, they at last submitted themselves like sheep to slaughter…”

The irony is that 228 years later, a scion of the Timurid dynasty established the Moghul empire in India, an empire that is celebrated as an authentic encapsulation of the Indo-Islamic encounter. In 1857, when the sepoys and dispossessed chiefs rose against the firinghees of the East India Company, they did so in the name of the bewildered and bedgraggled Mughal who was perceived as the alternative pole of sovereignty. In the 459 years between Timur being loathed as the barbaric invader and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s emergence as the symbol of what some historians regard as patriotic resistance to the British, the Moghuls had been recast. Their legitimacy was no longer a contested issue, a reason why street names in the showcase Capital of the Republic bear the names of Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Shah Jehan and even Aurangzeb.

There are many reasons why the absorptive powers of India which Rabindranath Tagore wrote about—and, incidentally, included the English, along with the Huns and the Moghuls, as communities of ‘them’ who became ‘us’—has escaped the British Raj. One of the possible reasons could be expedient erraticism that accompanies the already feeble Hindu grasp of chronology. In contemporary discourse, for example, the Great Calcutta Killings and the accompanying bloody Partition of India is ‘history’, as is, say, the Emergency of 1975-77. At the same time, the Jallianwala Bagh butchery that happened 94 years ago still warrants a limited debate over whether visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron should have opted for an unequivocal apology—akin to his predecessor Tony Blair’s ‘sorry’ for the Irish famine or former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s famous genuflection in Poland in 1970—rather than mere ‘regret’.

Without underplaying the importance of the Amritsar killing which effectively broke the moral backbone of an Empire that had cast itself in a paternalist garb, today’s debate is rather silly. For a start, the pressure to distance an economically beleaguered United Kingdom from its Empire inheritance hasn’t originated from the Dominions and the former colonies. Its origins are strictly rooted in the post-colonial angst that has gripped the younger and more cosmopolitan generation of Britons. In India, the Raj is well and truly history and a toy wheeled out by the tourism industry for hard currency. Apart from politicians and xenophobes who peddle pop history as political slogans, the mass of young India crave for proficiency in the English language, western culture and global opportunities. M.K. Gandhi and Tagore would have squirmed in despair.

Ironically, that doesn’t make them any less nationalist. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction Indians drew from Cameron’s visit was not the ‘regret’ in Amritsar but the caricature in a British publication depicting Cameron as the supplicant before the throne of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. The perverse like me  would say that this wasn’t a parody of Sir Thomas Roe in the court of Jehangir; it corresponded more to Lord Clive extracting his due from a cowering Shah Alam whose realm, as we all know, extended from Delhi to Palam.

History is cruel but fun. Why kill it with pedestrian earnestness?

The Telegraph, February 28, 2013 

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