Category Archives: nationalism

Prelude to Partition in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 3380-3420:

The war was ending. The two main political parties, the Muslim League and the Congress, were arguing over the future constitution. Both sides knew the British would soon leave India. But in what state? Would there be one India or two, a Hindustan and a Pakistan? What would be the fate of Calcutta, which was India’s largest city and the capital of Bengal, its largest Muslim-majority province? Everything was up for grabs.

Initially, the League’s demand for Pakistan – a separate nation state for India’s Muslims – seemed more like a bargaining tool at the negotiating table. But when the discussions between Congress and the Muslim League fell through in the monsoon of 1946, the League’s leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared 16 August 1946 to be Direct Action Day.

In Bengal, the Muslim League had formed a provincial government. Its leader Husain Suhrawardy declared Direct Action Day a holiday and called a bandh. The league organised a major rally at the Maidan. On 16 August thousands of Muslim men walked to Esplanade from all over the city and its industrial suburbs. Some of the first clashes of the morning happened in Maniktala as Muslim labourers were crossing the Beleghata Canal heading to the Maidan. In front of Maniktala Market, League supporters fought with Hindu shop owners who refused to close their shops. By afternoon those areas had become war zones. Guns had been plentiful during wartime. A bottle of whisky could get you a revolver from a GI. The strongmen on both sides were ready with arms. About three-quarters of the city’s residents were Hindu and one-quarter were Muslim, not very different from what it is today. But back then, the layout of the city was completely different. There were Muslim pockets in Hindu areas, Hindu pockets in Muslim areas, patchworked across the city.

On Direct Action Day, Calcutta was going to be liberated para by para. After the Muslim League’s rally, mayhem broke loose. Bands of men went lane by lane, house by house, burning, looting and killing. Smoke them out, burn them down, take over land. Drive the other side out. The strategy was area control. In Maniktala, Hindus drove out Muslims. In Park Circus, Muslims were driving out Hindus. In Kidderpur, Pakistan was being made, in Bowbazar, Hindustan. Barricades went up between neighbourhoods, like international borders that could not be crossed. On Chitpur Road, the buses stopped near the Nakhoda Masjid and detoured for several blocks before continuing onward. That stretch of Calcutta’s oldest street had become Pakistan.

In the first two days, the League had used its goons and guns to take the battle to Hindu paras. Worse, Suhrawardy used his power to hold the police back. Then the goondas of the Congress and the other Hindu parties had organised their war in Muslim paras. Even the full force of the state could not control the violence for several more days. The killings went on for a week. Hundreds of thousands were forced into refugee camps. Five to ten thousand people were killed; the actual figures will never be known. In the muggy August heat dead bodies began rotting on pavements as they had during the famine. There were so many bodies everywhere that the sanitation authorities could not figure out how to dispose of them. On the streets there were bodies being eaten by vultures. Bodies were thrown into the Ganga. Bodies were burned round the clock at Nimtala. Bodies were buried in mass graves at the cemetery in Bagmari. Bodies were chopped up into pieces and stuffed into drains. The water pressure of the city plummeted until, as the historian Janam Mukherjee wrote, Calcutta could finally ‘digest its dead’.

Partition was born on the cannibal streets of Calcutta. After this, there could be no more coexistence. There would have to be two nation states: India and Pakistan.

From August 1946 onwards the killings continued sporadically for months, first in Noakhali, then in Bihar, here and there across the land. It was a time when homemade bombs were going off in the Bengal countryside, when rumours of stabbings abounded. In their village, my uncles remembered Muslim schoolfriends suddenly brandishing knives and talking casually of murder. At that time, Dadu felt that it would be better to take the family with him to Calcutta. Not permanently – after all, his mother and brothers were still in the village, with families of their own – just until the ‘Hindustan-Pakistan’ troubles died down.

On 15 August 1947, the British partitioned their empire and left. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, delivered the radio address on that day in his clipped English accent:

‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.’

At the moment that Nehru celebrated India’s half-measure freedom, Gandhi, his mentor, wasn’t making sweeping Hegelian pronouncements. He was keeping vigil in a house abandoned by a Muslim family in Beleghata in Calcutta, meeting with Hindu and Muslim leaders and pleading with them to hold back their goons. It was a year after Direct Action Day. Pakistan had come into being; Bengal’s Muslim League government was being disbanded. The Hindu thugs began the attack, dreaming of a redux of the previous year’s mass killing, only this time initiated by them and not the League. The violence had resumed in Calcutta.

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Did the Sepoys Fight for ‘India’?

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

All the evidence from the great British listening post for the Indian troops’ thoughts–the censors office of Indian Expeditionary Force A in France that translated thousands of their letters–points to a communication gap still existing in mid-1918 between the educated urban Indian politicians and the uneducated rural Indian soldiers. The translated letters indicate among the Indian infantry and cavalry in France no nationalism as Gandhi and the Indian politicians articulated it at the Delhi War Conference. The letters’ anthologiser, the British historian David Omissi [also author of The Sepoy and the Raj], found this a ‘deafening silence’:

The ‘India’ that they wrote about… was very much a geographical expression, and one that was not central to a sepoy’s main sense of self. Even in Europe, the sepoys left little evidence that they imagined themselves to be primarily ‘Indians’… Prominent people never mentioned in the letters read like a political Who’s Who of the First World War: Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Lenin, Trotsky and Gandhi are among the many who failed to make any impression. [The] soldiers never discussed… international politics, except in cases which, for Muslims, had an obviously ‘Islamic’ angle… Nor were the troops aware of, or interested in, Indian ‘high’ politics… Two men voiced a hope for self-government after the war, but neither were soldiers: one was a labourer and the other was clearly an educated man. The only letter which could in any way be described as subversively ‘nationalist’ was written by a storekeeper.

Indeed, far from subscribing to the nationalist politicians’ argument in favour of the war, many village families were against military service for their own reasons. As the demand for recruits rose in 1918, so did villages’ reluctance to send their men to fight. Rural pandemics of malaria and bubonic plague made helping hands at home all the more precious in the fragile rural economy, and the new publicity boards’ propaganda posters and poetry only went so far to convince communities that had suffered losses at the fronts to give up more men. In some Punjabi districts volunteers became so unforthcoming that the local recruitment brokers, under pressure from provincial civil authorities to fill their quotas, grew desperate and strayed into unlawful coercion. Such brokers visited Punjabi villages with gangs to seize recruits against their will, and often took cash bribes to leave a village alone. There were also brokers who abused magistrates’ powers of summons to court, by arranging for summons only to grab men for the Indian Army when they showed up.

In Punjab’s Shahpur district, the young men of a number of villages stood up to the coercive brokers, entering into pacts to resist them with force. On occasion this led to violent fights and riots, leaving village streets running with blood. The active Punjabi resistance to recruitment deterred the Government of India from imposing conscription to make sure of reaching its new annual target of 500,000 recruits. This was despite local authorities’ pleas for conscription because their stretched recruitment networks were, in the words of one British civil servant in Punjab in May, ‘riding the voluntary horse to a standstill’.

There was also coercive recruitment in the Indian Empire’s remoter hill and jungle tracts of the north-east called on for non-combatants for labour corps.

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Each Pukhtun ‘a law unto himself’

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 64-67:

The Indian Army by 1914 had approximately 7500 independent Pukhtun soldiers, serving across forty regiments. They saw the world through their own passionately tribal eyes–as Afridi, the tribe of Tirah in the north of the tribal areas which provided a third of the Indian Army’s independent Pukhtun; as Mahsud, a major tribe of Waziristan in the south yielding 1300 recruits; or as Mohmand, Orakzai and others of territories which like Tirah and Waziristan were in the exclusive possession of their particular tribe. So self-assertive were these tribesmen that each man was a law unto himself, rendering their value as imperial soldiers highly ambiguous. As the Mahsud would say in their soft Pushtu dialect with a knowing shrug and a smile, ‘we are very untrust-worthy people’.

All the independent Pukhtun tribes lived by their ancient and egalitarian tribal code ‘Pukhtunwali’, meaning the way of the Pukhtun. Each individual closely observed its mores of honour, hospitality, rivalry, revenge and courage, giving rise to feuds in which retribution for insults was exacted personally to maintain pride. The feuds were typically between families of the same tribe over zar, zan or zamin–gold, women or land–and they were often settled in cold blood by both men and women. Feuding was exceptionally dangerous by the early 1900s because around 100,000 Pukhtun men had become the proud owners of their own European modern rifle.

The tribal areas had no ban on owning guns as British India did, and many tribesmen bought their rifles on the local arms market from cartels operating out of Europe that smuggled the weapons through Oman, Iran and the Afghan province of Helmand; others bought their rifles from Australia, or stole them from the Army in India. Murder by rifle was so common a feuding fate for men, women and children that the tribesmen who feuded the most, above all the Afridi, had come to live not in Punjabi-style villages but in spread-out homestead-forts topped with multi-storey towers, their gun-slits rising above gardens of roses and apricot trees. The tribal areas were a smouldering bed of resistance to the bordering Indian Empire. Their mullahs, the literate holy men learned in the Koran who commanded great respect as the authorities on the tribes’ rough and ready brand of Islam, continually preached against the British. They spoke of them as an existential Christian threat to Pukhtun independence, warning of imperial intentions to annex the tribal areas and impose western-style laws that would spell the end for Pukhtunwali as they knew it, collapsing their tribal universe. From time to time the mullahs called for jihad against the Christian imperialists at their door, stoking anti-British tribal feelings into flame in order to gather lashkars (war parties of between 20 and 300 men) to serve Islam as mujahideen, or holy warriors. The lashkars then broke into British India’s adjacent North-West Frontier Province to raid towns and villages, or ambush Army in India camps and patrols.

Tensions between the independent Pukhtun and the Indian Empire led to no fewer than sixty-six separate Army in India invasions of the tribal areas between 1849 and 1908. The invasions were known as small wars, and lasted weeks or months until a truce was brokered and the Indian forces withdrew. The invasions were never to conquer or annex, but to punish particular tribes for jihadist incursions into British India. The tribes bitterly opposed the invasions, fighting back with an absolute refusal to accept defeat–a tenet of Pukhtunwali, whose defence was their highest honour and motivation.

By the early 1900s, the Afridi and the Mahsud had fought the British the most and were particularly adept defenders of their homelands of Tirah and Waziristan with their modern rifles. In one Anglo-Afridi small war of 1897–8, deep in Tirah’s mountains and ravines, tireless Afridi lashkars inflicted a series of minor tactical disasters on the British Army. They outmanoeuvred and annihilated detachments of the Northamptonshire Regiment and Yorkshire Light Infantry, taking no mercy on some of the wounded Tommies. They stripped them naked and mutilated them as marks not just of their rage at the invaders, whom they utterly rejected as outsiders with no place in their tribal world, but of Pukhtunwali’s permanence too. ‘The Hague Convention,’ wrote the British officer Hugh Nevill in 1912, referring to the international law of the day on humane treatment of enemy wounded and surrendered, ‘is to them not even a name.’

In the Anglo-Afridi war of 1897–8, over 500 British soldiers fell to rifle fire–a third of them were killed and a few had limbs blown off by large-calibre sniper bullets. Indeed, some British battalions had to be withdrawn early from Tirah, exhausted by the intensity of the mountain fighting and flummoxed by the Afridi lashkars. To Winston Churchill, serving with the Tirah Expeditionary Force in 1898 as a young British Army officer, the campaign amounted to a ‘fruitless errand… To enter the mountains and attack an Afridi is to jump into water to catch a fish.’

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The Peasant’s University in British India

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 31-32, 36:

The men of the pre-First World War Indian Army were a tiny proportion of the Indian Empire’s population, just 0.07 per cent of 310 million. In July 1914 there were 217,000 volunteer Indian servicemen. Around 150,000 of them were active professional soldiers, 35,000 reservist soldiers and 32,000 non-combatants; altogether roughly two fifths were Muslims, nearly as many were Hindus, and a fifth were Sikhs. They were not remotely representative of India’s population as a whole. The combatant majority were members of an exclusive list of rural peasant farming communities to whom alone the British opened military service. These were the ‘martial races’, a mix of tribes, clans and castes mostly dotted about British India’s northern provinces–in the plains and hills of Punjab, the valleys of the North-West Frontier Province, and the southern slopes of the Himalayas in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh–or beyond British Indian borders in the independent Pukhtun tribal areas or in Nepal. The British selected them in the pseudo-scientific delusion that their offspring were genetically fitter for fighting than India’s more numerous ‘non-martial races’. As George MacMunn, the pre-eminent British buff on the subject, explained: ‘In India we speak of the martial races as a thing apart because the mass of the people have neither martial aptitude nor physical courage, the courage that we should talk of colloquially as “guts”.’

A dearth of sources on individual Indian soldiers’ pre-war lives makes it difficult to fathom their personal motivations. But by generally following their journeys from their villages to the Indian Army between the 1890s and 1913, using snapshots from veteran interviews and also the viewpoints of British officers, it becomes clear that illiterate men of the martial races willingly joined up for a professional career with distinct benefits. The Indian Army for them was more than just an employer: it doubled as an educational institution that taught them many things, not least on overseas assignments prior to 1914. One British civil servant, as an administrator of numerous Punjabi martial race villages, judiciously summed it up with his nickname for the Indian Army: ‘the peasant’s university’.

Certain Hindu, Muslim or Sikh village communities tended to provide recruits for particular Indian regiments, so that companies could be filled with fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and cousins serving together, or at least with local men of the same faith. This was another vital attraction of soldiering: the regiment was a home from home. The regimental British officers did much to make the regiment a comfortable professional environment where village religious or community customs were respected. They doggedly studied their men’s languages, faiths and social ways, becoming quasi-anthropologists in order to ensure that the regimental kitchen turned out curries, dairy foods and other staples in keeping with company religious requirements; that daily prayers and annual holy festivals were accommodated in the regimental calendar; and that recruits were free to wear their hair as they liked according to their own community traditions, for example the Sikhs’ waist-length uncut locks tied up under the turban, or the Waziristani style of curls about the shoulders. They also strove to make military service consistent with tending to village matters, allowing men generous home leave.

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China’s Repeated Unity

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 50:

Unlike Europe, where the Holy Roman Empire was but a faint echo of Rome’s glory, China’s medieval period was one of the most powerful and resplendent eras of her history. Once again a short unifying dynasty (the Sui) was followed by a powerful and long-lived inheritor the T’ang. In many ways, the T’ang was even more glorious an era than the Han had been, but after roughly two centuries, its lustre was rapidly dimming. By the end of the T’ang, the frontier marches were virtually independent, and the succeeding Sung dynasty was never able to solve its border problems. In the twelfth century, frontier defenses collapsed. North China fell once again into the hands of barbarians, this time from the region we today call Manchuria, and once again a refugee Chinese regime the Southern Sung was driven south to the lower Yangtze, the lands of Ch’u and Wu, where it made its “temporary” capital in the lovely city of Hangchow.

After the Southern Sung the late empire there were interregna but never again a long period of disunity. Ironically, however, this unity was twice imposed by non-Chinese peoples from beyond the Wall: the Mongols of Genghis and Kubla Khan, to whose court came Marco Polo; and then the last dynasty, and in some ways the culmination of the imperial process, the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty, which occupied the Dragon Throne from 1644 until 1911, when in one of history’s greatest not-with-a-bang anticlimaxes the abdication of a six-year-old boy emperor ended not only that dynasty but all dynasties, and more than 2,000 years of imperial history came to an end. These two alien dynasties the Yuan (1279-1368) and the Ch’ing (1644-1911) were the only two periods of foreign rule over all of China.

This very brief chronological survey introduces the names of the principal dynastic periods, and provides a reference chart, since I will be moving back and forth in time through most of the essays in this book. Periods of disunity also influence the story directly, since it was under the impact of barbarian onslaughts that Chinese influence was pushed into the Yangtze Valley more rapidly and forcibly than would otherwise have been the case. Indeed, during the three and a half centuries between the Han and the T’ang, refugee populations and exile dynasties so developed the lower basins of the Long River that by the time of the Sui-T’ang unification this region had replaced the North China Plain as the economic center, the grain basket, of China. A similar developmental pulsation took place again during the Southern Sung dynasty approximately A.D.1100 to 1300 when the north was lost to the Chin, before both were overwhelmed by the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kubla.

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Three Gorges Dam in Historical Context

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 108-110:

The truth is that the disruption of the dam, which seems massive to an outsider, is really nothing out of the ordinary when one considers recent history in the local context. Within the last fifty years, China has experienced Liberation, the radical (and disastrous) collectivization of the 1958–1961 Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Reform and Opening.

Fuling and the other Yangtze River towns have the additional experience of being a focal point of Mao Zedong’s Third Line Project, which had an especially large influence on the region during the 1960s. The early preparations for this project started in 1950, when Mao sent Deng Xiaoping to the southwest so he could research the feasibility of moving Shanghai’s military industry to remote mountain areas in Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. The American atomic bomb triggered this plan, as Mao became increasingly concerned that China’s heavily concentrated defense industry was too susceptible to a U.S. attack. The Korean War accelerated the project, and eventually three-quarters of China’s nuclear weapons plants were incorporated into the Third Line, as well as more than half of its aeronautics industry. The project was, as Harrison Salisbury describes it in his book The New Emperors, “something like that of picking up the whole of California’s high-tech industry and moving it bodily to the wilds of Montana as they existed, say, in 1880.”

In comparison it seems a small matter to turn the river into a lake. Much of Fuling’s economy had originally come via the Third Line Project, which made the locals accustomed to massive changes. The local Hailing factory, which now produces combustion engines for civilian use, had formerly been a defense industry plant moved from Shanghai. A few miles upstream from Fuling is the Chuan Dong boat factory, which in the old days made parts for nuclear submarines. All of the local Chang’an-brand cabs—the name means Eternal Peace—are made by a Chongqing factory that originally produced firearms for the military.

Many of the old Third Line factories had been converted in this way since Deng Xiaoping came to power and started dismantling the project in 1980. With China’s foreign relations rapidly improving, the American threat seemed less serious (and, in any case, it was clear that there wasn’t much protection in putting factories in places like Fuling). The Third Line had always been a huge drain on the economy; in some years as much as 50 percent of China’s capital budget was spent on the project. Never before had such a massive country reorganized its economy on such a scale—even Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan couldn’t compare—and according to some estimates, the Third Line did more damage to China’s economy than the Cultural Revolution.

Despite its enormous scale, the project had been developed and dismantled in remarkable secrecy, as few locals in Fuling and the other Third Line towns ever had a clear notion of what was going on. They knew that commands were coming in from Beijing, and that these commands were bringing factories from Shanghai; and they also knew that all of this had a military sensitivity that required secrecy. It wasn’t something you asked questions about, and after four decades of that it seemed natural enough not to ask questions about the dam. These things just came and went—just as the Chuan Dong factory, which arrived to build nuclear submarines, was subsequently converted to a boat plant, and eventually would disappear forever beneath the waters of the new Yangtze.

But even with all of this history in mind, I still found the lack of interest and concern about the dam to be remarkable.

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When Chinese Was a State Secret

From God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton, 1996), Kindle Loc. 240f.

Language might seem a problem, since in all of Canton and the foreign hongs there is no Chinese who can read or write in English or other European languages, and only a few Westerners who know enough Chinese to write with even partial elegance. This has not always been the case. In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government’s rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils’ lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company’s senior physician doubling as the librarian.

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company’s monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company’s roster as “proficient” enough to receive an annual student’s allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company’s former buildings and oversee their closing down. Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners’ restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China’s local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and “marvellous stories” to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

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