Friday, March 21, 2014

Past Forward

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the eight terms I spent in Oxford in the early-1980s, I developed a slight distaste for Neville Maxwell, then a Fellow at the Queen Elizabeth House. Differences over perceptions of Indian politics owed very little to the incompatibility. I saw Maxwell as a man whose understanding of contemporary India was caught in a time warp. To me he appeared to be a man frozen in his conviction that neither India nor its democracy was destined to endure—a belief he had stubbornly held ever since he pronounced the 1967 general election to be the last Indian election. I still recall the extra gleam in his eyes the day we got the news of Operation Bluestar. To him, the end of India was indeed nigh.

It is indeed possible that Maxwell’s gloomy prognosis for India stemmed from his bitter experiences with our country’s officialdom after the publication of his India’s China War in 1970. The issue was not so much that Maxwell’s portrayal of India as the inept aggressor who ended up with a bloody nose was in direct conflict with the injured victimhood of Jawaharlal Nehru. China, it must be remembered, was the flavour of the season for those who Leon Trotsky had described as “radical tourists”. Much before the horrific excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were known to the wider world, China was deified as a socialist arcadia by misplaced radicals in the West. Mao Zedong-worship resembled the intellectuals’ worship of the equally barbaric Stalin and the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Maxwell’s book became a great favourite of the Maoist-leaning radicals in India in the 1970s. Although I wasn’t remotely interested in the abstruse disputes over the McMahon Line, there were always enough Sinophiles in Delhi in the early-1970s who used to flaunt the Pelican edition of India’s China War—along with Edgar Snow and Han Suyin’s tracts on China—to remind us of the socialist paradise we were missing.

Equally, there were enough grim-faced babus holding an official brief who saw Maxwell as the contemporary equivalent of Major-General Dyer of Jallianwala Bagh fame. Not only had this journalist-turned-academic questioned Nehru and Krishna Menon’s version of the truth, he was also condescending towards India. Even after he settled down to a semi-scholarly existence at Queen Elizabeth House lecturing Third World bureaucrats on development and other lofty themes, he continued to be tarred with the brush of ‘anti-Indianism’, whatever that meant. And, since Indian officialdom was inclined to be incredibly petty and mean-minded towards anyone it perceived as being hostile to the great Nehruvian consensus, Maxwell must have been rubbed up the wrong way on innumerable occasions. I can only presume that his encounters with ‘official’ India made him quite bitter towards the country and, at the same time, endeared him to every Indian dissenter—and there were lots of those who hung around aimlessly in the universities of the West.

This exploration of the man who hung on to a copy of the ‘classified’ Henderson Brooks report on India’s military debacle in 1962 is by way of a diversion through a scenic route. But the detour is worth it for the very simple reason that Maxwell’s release of the closely typed report is likely to be partially submerged in the interrogation of the singer as much as the song. No doubt, Maxwell’s credentials as a Maoist fellow-traveller are likely to be resurrected.

Mercifully, 50 years is a very long time in the life of a country where the sense of history is fragile. Conceding that the Indian army’s own inquiry into the 1962 humiliation got the highest security rating, 50 years is about the absolute maximum that a report can be deemed to be classified. Just as Pakistan couldn’t permanently suppress the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission Report on the break-up of the country in 1971—it was published by India Today in 2000—the Henderson Brooks Report has finally been outed. For his faith in the importance of history, Maxwell deserves unqualified praise. I don’t care what collateral motives he may have had. As someone who appreciates the importance of documented history, I have nothing but fulsome praise for his disclosure.

There are reports that some agency of the Indian Government has blocked access from India to Maxwell’s website that contains the full report. Apart from being a futile move—since copies of the report are obtainable through other websites—it displays a characteristic bureaucratic churlishness. The tendency of the government to declare almost every official file as classified is well known. But what is insufficiently appreciated is that this paranoid insistence on secrecy has led to only a small number of official records being transferred to the archives after the mandatory 30 or 50 years. It is bizarre that while the history of pre-Independence India is richly documented (thanks in no small measure to many of the files being lovingly preserved in the United Kingdom), the study of post-1947 India suffers on account of the huge gaps in official documentation. Crucial files are just not transferred to the archives. India does not have a proper policy for the preservation of historical records and access to these.

It is said that the Congress had a vested interest in keeping the records of the Nehru-Gandhi years under wraps. Access to the Jawaharlal Nehru papers, for example, is only possible after Sonia Gandhi has given her consent. The personal correspondence between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten is still blocked because the former Indian Prime Minister’s heirs haven’t allowed access. These anomalies have got to be sorted out and to that extent the unofficial release of the Henderson-Brooks report punctures the wall of secrecy.

Maybe, if India votes in a government unhindered by dynastic pressures, the study of contemporary history will receive a significant boost. 

Asian Age, March 21, 2014


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