Daily Archives: 2 April 2006

Muninn on Indian Political Traumas

Konrad Lawson of Muninn is too good a fieldworker to be a historian. Here are a few snippets of his account of a conversation with a Punjabi Sikh convenience store owner in Madison, Wisconsin, where he attended a conference on political trauma.

Hardeep gave me his own ten minute version of the partition [of India in 1947], which I will condense and roughly paraphrase, “The partition led to the unnecessary death of about a million people. It was the fault of three of the biggest fools of the 20th century, Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah. Lord Mountbatten warned them that this partition was crazy. It is like all of the Americans moving to Canada and all of the Canadians moving to the United States. Gandhi was an idiot who did not know the minds of the people. Jinnah was a troublemaker, and he refused an offer of the presidency. You know what I think? I think Gandhi and Nehru should have killed Jinnah, killing one man would have saved a million and there would have been no partition.”

I confessed that I knew close to nothing about Indian history but I was curious why 1) he didn’t seem to blame the English for anything at all. 2) Wouldn’t killing Jinnah have inflamed muslim sentiment and generated even more religious violence? To the former, Hardeep felt that, “The British gave us English and an education. They are the reason why India is so great today and there are Indians all over the world. Why the fuck should I care who is in charge as long as they are a real leader. The British were leaders – a leader can tell when something will be a disaster, Lord Mountbatten knew that partition would be a disaster.” Apologists for the imperial civilizing mission would have approved. In response to the latter issue he said, “Are you kidding me? You don’t understand India. I come from a small village. We didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on in the next village and it is the same all across India. If they had killed him at the right opportunity, most of India would have never known better.”…

I didn’t agree with much of what my new friend had to say but the conversation, which involved much more than what I have reproduced here, was very educational. Even if I found many of his views objectionable, and his generalizations and dismissals problematic, I was fascinated by the interesting combination of views he entertained and a particular kind of logic which he was perfectly at ease in deploying. He was adept at applying his religious and philosophical principles to any and all situations. On the other hand, nothing seemed sacred or absolute to him, and sometimes I couldn’t help getting the impression that he was consciously mocking his own his positions even as he defended them, a highly unusual blend of articulate conviction and perpetually ironic delivery.

Very educational, indeed. And entertaining.

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An Indian Army Refugee, 1942

With the creation of the Indian National Army, the connections that colonial rule had forged along the [British Southeast Asian] crescent were beginning to resurface. Nor was it just the politics of the Japanese Empire that were doing this, but also a flow of refugees that was beginning to make it across the crescent to territory still held by the British. Among the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons wandering through Burma in the later months of 1942 were a few members of the Indian army who had evaded capture in Singapore. These men bought valuable but disquieting news of the Indian National Army to the British. They included Captain Pritam Singh of 2/16 Punjab Regiment. Having seen Indian officers slapped and beaten by the Japanese in a ‘demonstration of love towards the Asiatic races’, as he put it, he decided to escape north by taxi and train in civilian clothes. He bought a false Japanese passport in Penang and got into Thailand. Further north, he stayed for some time with a Kiplingesque character called Khan Zada. The Khan was a Pathan who had spent twelve years in jail in Calcutta for murder, but ended up as a butcher on the Thai-Burmese border. Now aged seventy, he had recently shot his son in the thigh for some mild misdemeanor. Evading Japanese spies and staying in gurdwaras (Sikh temples), Pritam Singh eventually ended up in Kalewa, where the refugees had recently died in thousands. He shaved his head and beard to be less conspicuous and finally escaped into British India via Imphal.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 258-259

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Gandhi’s ‘Soul Force’ Turns Violent, 1942

Quit India began as another of Gandhi’s great non-violent displays of ‘soul force’. There were huge demonstrations and sit-ins (hartals) in major towns in the first two weeks of August [1942]. These were put down with police firings and baton charges. Labour unrest was quelled with particular vigour because the government was fearful of its consequence for war production. Within a few weeks this popular movement had taken on a rather different character. An organization began to appear at the grass roots rather than among the homespun-clad leadership, who were by now almost all in jail. By 15 August a new pattern had emerged of a systematic attempt to sabotage Britain’s war effort based on smaller population centres along major lines of communication or near important factory complexes. Telegraph lines were cut, railway lines were ripped up and bridges dynamited. In all 66,000 people were convicted or detained, of whom about a quarter, including most of the Congress leadership, were still in jail in 1944. About 2,500 people were shot dead.

This was undoubtedly a serious revolt, and one that directly threatened the war effort. Armed groups attacked several of the weakest points of the Indian railway network, derailing trains and bombing signal boxes at essential junctions. In one incident two Canadian military officers were pulled off a train and murdered…. Even sixty years on it is still difficult to say whether this month-long campaign was organized to a plan or whether the enraged local political leadership was reacting to British repression on the hoof. The savagery of the British response – police shootings, mass whipping, the burning of villages and sporadic torture of protestors – was testimony to the fact that the Raj was seriously rattled.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 247-248

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