When We Are Looters at the Site of History
SEVEN DECADES IS a long time. Surely long enough for anyone of that age to look back at their childhood with a measure of detachment. Yet, as we approach the seventieth year of India’s independence, our understanding of the context in which we attained freedom seems to be getting more warped. Instead of looking for newer ways to grasp and tell that story, we are increasingly eager to denude it of nuance. This is, of course, a direct consequence of the sharpening ideological turn in our politics over the past year or so. History, as always, becomes a handmaiden of political ideology.
However, there is a salient difference between the current attempts to yoke history to ideology and similar debates in the past four decades. Whether it was controversy over history textbooks written during the reign of Indira Gandhi or over the Babri Mosque, the terrain of historical discussion and distortion was India’s pre-colonial past. As the historian Sarvepalli Gopal once observed, the study of ancient history had a greater political charge in India than that of contemporary history. In our own times, though, it is the more recent past that has become the domain of ideological and polemical contestation.
The attempt by the Right to tar political adversaries with the brush of ‘anti-national’ has led the latter to espouse a competitive nationalism. The upshot has been a trivialisation of history on all sides, especially on the web and in social media. Thus it has become fashionable on the Left to pit Bhagat Singh against Savarkar on the grounds that the former never pleaded for clemency with the British, unlike the latter. The Right hits back with a protest against the description of Bhagat Singh as a ‘terrorist’ in a well known book on the freedom movement by left-leaning historians. Not far behind is the old claim about the Communist Party’s ‘anti-national’ opposition to the Quit India revolt. This, in turn, leads to questions about the Sangh Parivar’s contribution to Indian freedom and the legitimacy of its claim to don the mantle of nationalism. And so it continues. Interestingly, both sides also compete to appropriate some historical figures—most prominently BR Ambedkar and Subhas Bose—for their own versions of nationalism.
The first casualty of this bout of ideological ‘debate’ is plain historical fact. Whatever our views on Savarkar’s politics, it is absurd to suggest that he was any less of a nationalist—defined as someone who treats the nation as the highest political value—than anyone else on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Similarly, historians have shown long ago that whatever the CPI’s official ‘line’ on the Quit India revolt, many of its rank-and-file participated in the uprising. More serious, however, is the stripping of speeches and stances from their historical context. Part of the problem is the neglect by professional historians of the crucial decade of the 1940s—the very period that figures so prominently in recent discussions on nationalism.
Our understanding of those years remains in thrall to a teleological narrative: the resignation of Congress ministries in opposition to India’s participation in World War II; failure of the Cripps Mission and the launch of the Quit India Revolt; end of the war and the Cabinet Mission; freedom with Partition. The elephant in the room is the war itself. World War II did not provide some distant backdrop to the politics of the 40s, but rather was central to it. By airbrushing the war out of our accounts, historians have presented the politics of that period as essentially an insular affair and as continuous with those of the preceding decade. But World War II was a global conflict that precipitated a significant rupture in our political history. While seeing the 40s as the decade leading up to freedom, we also need to remember that the war shaped ideas of freedom for Indians across the political spectrum and social hierarchy.
WORLD WAR II IS routinely understood as the ‘good war’—a conflict in which liberal democracy and socialism, both legatees of the Enlightenment, joined hands to decisively defeat the challenge of fascism. The problem with this story is that some of the victors of the war were also the largest imperial powers of the time. And for the subjects of these empires, the moral and political dimensions of the war were far from self-evident. Few Indian politicians were blind to the brutality of the Fascist, Nazi or Imperial Japanese regimes. Indeed, Bose was exceptional both in the extent to which he was willing to avert his eyes to the reality of these powers and in his willingness to work with them to ensure India’s freedom. Most of his contemporaries, however, found it rather more difficult to make their choices. Their quandaries were compounded by the conservatism of war-time governments in London and Delhi.
This was true even of Gandhi, despite his opposition to all forms of violence. By his own account, Gandhi claimed to have broken down at the prospect of the destruction of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey in London. “India’s deliverance”, he insisted, could not come through the ruination of London. Conceding that Hitler knew “no God but brute force”, he thought that Indians would have to collectively decide what part to play in the conflict. At the outbreak of war, Gandhi advocated unconditional but non-violent cooperation with the Raj. Over the next three years, Gandhi was forced to change his stance more than once—primarily due to the unwillingness of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Viceroy Lord Linlithgow to make any concrete commitment to India’s freedom during the war. All along he remained reluctant to launch a full-fledged civil disobedience movement, one that could have paralysed India’s war effort. Even though Gandhi was in an unusually militant mood in the summer of 1942, he did not anticipate the scale of the Quit India revolt.
Most Indian soldiers who signed up during the war did so to find employment. War-time inflation and scarcity also made enrolment an existential choice. Freedom from hunger was what drew them to the army
Throughout this period, Gandhi was unable to get the Congress party to consistently follow his lead. For his colleagues struggled in their own ways to come to terms with the idea of fighting Fascism, Nazism or Japanese militarism by supporting rock-ribbed British imperialism. Nehru—the most avowedly internationalist of Gandhi’s colleagues— convinced the Congress at the outset to pass a resolution condemning Nazi aggression but also insisting that if Britain was truly fighting for democracy then it should logically dissolve the empire and give freedom and democracy to India. Even when the Wehrmacht swept through Western Europe in the spring of 1940, Nehru was clear that the Congress should not dilute its stance. Only in the wake of the Japanese onslaught of December 1941 and the dispatch of the Cripps Mission was Nehru willing to throw his weight behind the war effort. Although the failure of the Mission led to much bitterness, he felt that the Congress’ lurch towards the Quit India revolt—including Gandhi’s public statements—would convey the impression that they were resigned to a Nazi and Japanese victory. More vehement was his opposition to Bose’s efforts to sidle up to the Axis powers: “Hitler and Japan must go to hell. I shall fight them to the end and this is my policy. I shall also fight Mr Subhas Chandra Bose and his party along with Japan if he comes to India.”
Another stalwart Congressman, C Rajagopalachari, was even more forthright in breaking ranks with Gandhi. He also consistently held that the Congress should support the British war effort in return for a promise of freedom thereafter. At the time and later,Rajagopalachari was reviled for his stance on the war. The insinuation that he hankered after power continues to inflect posterity’s views of him. But Rajagopalachari was clear all along that India’s freedom could not be divorced from the freedom of the world—indeed, the latter might even be a precondition of Indian freedom.
Several other prominent figures of the time reached the same conclusion. Perhaps most striking—at least to contemporaries—was the position espoused by the legendary Marxist, founder of the Mexican Communist Party and interlocutor of Lenin: MN Roy. “So long as the war is with Hitlerism,” he declared, “no matter what may be the motive of British Imperialism, we cannot have any objection to India’s participating in it.” Although Roy was steadfast in his anti-fascist politics—unlike the CPI which shifted its ‘line’ in keeping with diktats from Moscow—he was also active in the campaign to protect the civil liberties of the Indian people against the draconian Defence of India rules and ordnances promulgated during the war. Freedom, in the context of total war, he argued, had to begin with that of the individual.
At the other end of political spectrum, Savarkar believed that none of the great powers were driven by “any moral or human principle” such as freedom, democracy or justice. Nevertheless, he thought that India should support Britain as the lesser of the evils. Besides, he believed that the war effort could result in a rapid industrialisation of India and in the militarisation of the Hindu community. Thus when the Viceroy hinted that at the end of the war India might obtain Dominion status, Savarkar was willing to take him on his word and work with the Raj. This was in contrast to the Congress, which sought nothing short of full independence. Nehru went so far as to claim that Dominion status was “dead as a door nail”. Still, it is worth remembering that Nehru and Patel accepted Dominion status in 1947 as the quickest route to full independence. Nor was Savarkar credulous about the British. For instance, when Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter that appeared to promise the right of self-government to all peoples, Savarkar wrote to the US president asking him to state specifically that India would be granted freedom within a year of the war’s conclusion. Soon enough, Churchill scotched any such claims and insisted that the pledge only applied to European states.
Ambedkar, too, believed that India should remain within the British Commonwealth and aim for Dominion status. While he criticised the British government for its unwillingness to consult Indians before taking their country to war, he did not think that Britain’s danger was India’s opportunity. India, he argued, needed no new masters. Ambedkar also believed that the war effort would provide opportunities for Dalits in the military and beyond. Interestingly, Ambedkar was at this time opposed to the idea of a constituent assembly elected on universal adult franchise to write a constitution for independent India. This proposal had been advanced by Nehru and seconded by Gandhi in the face of Churchill and Linlithgow’s claims that internal divisions in India precluded any political advance during the war. Ambedkar, however, held that such a proposal would only entrench the dominance of Hindu upper- castes. Working with the government during the war, he managed to secure 8.3 per cent reservation for Dalits in Central government employment—a precedent that would subsequently be embodied in the Constitution of independent India. Ironically, it is for the drafting of this Constitution that Ambedkar is best remembered today.
Ambedkar’s trajectory during these years is perhaps the best example of the gnarled politics of the 1940s. Indian leaders of varying political and ideological hues had to operate in a context that had suddenly and dramatically changed and had to make moral and political choices under conditions of radical uncertainty about the future. Examining these choices in retrospect requires a degree of historical judgment that is wholly absent in the ongoing attempts at ideological appropriation or denigration. In our desire to proclaim this or that figure as more or less nationalist, we do scant justice to the political and historical complexity of that period.
Whether it was controversy over history textbooks written during the reign of Indira Gandhi or over the Babri Mosque, the terrain of historical discussion and distortion was India’s pre-colonial past
What we also lose sight of are the many meanings of freedom for ordinary Indians in the run-up to independence. Consider those who signed up for the Indian armed forces during World War II. The Indian soldier scarcely figures in any of our schools of our historiography: nationalist, Marxist or post-colonialist. Even Subaltern Studies with its early interest in examining peasant ideologies hardly took any interest in the sepoy—as though by merely donning a uniform these men had ceased to remain peasants. The problem, of course, lay in our perception of the colonial Indian soldier as a collaborator and indeed the ultimate enforcer of British rule. Indian nationalism and its historians have always been comfortable with the figure of the soldier as a rebel. Think of how much we know about Bose’s Indian National Army, which had some 25,000 Indian soldiers, as opposed to the Indian Army that was a hundred times larger.
MOST INDIAN SOLDIERS who signed up during the war did so in order to find some employment. War-time inflation and scarcity also made enrolment an existential choice for many soldiers. Freedom from hunger was what drew them to the army. The prevalence of radio and newspapers ensured that most men who served in the Indian army had some idea of the larger political context of the war. Unlike the sepoys who served in World War I, these men had direct exposure to political mobilisation owing to the waves of civil disobedience during the inter-war years. Issues like disparity of pay between British and Indian soldiers struck these men forcefully. ‘In the eyes of Mahatma Gandhi all are equal,’ wrote a sepoy to his company commander, ‘but you pay a British soldier Rs. 75/- and to an Indian soldier you pay Rs. 18/- only?’
The experience of the war—including exposure to a range of countries and cultures—further politicised the Indian soldier. As one soldier who had fought in North Africa and Italy told a British official, “We suffered in the war but you didn’t… we bore this that we might be free.” Indeed, intelligence reports drawn up at the end of the war noted that many soldiers believed they were returning to a free India. British officials were also stunned to find widespread sympathy amongst Indian soldiers for the INA. Even grizzled veterans refused to treat them as ‘traitors’, preferring to see them as patriotic if ‘misguided’ individuals who had in their own way tried to make the idea of freedom a reality. Clearly, even across the chasm of total war, Indian soldiers were willing to accept that there could be many roads to freedom.
In pointing these out, I do not wish to make a case for a consensual historiography or for a ‘liberal’ middle ground between political extremes. Ideological contestation remains central to any conception of the political. My concern is with the use and misuse of history in ideological and polemical exchanges. Too often we behave as looters at an archaeological site, who pick up a piece of the past merely to flaunt as our own. In our hunt for historical facts or factoids to embellish our political claims, we lose sight of what it takes to learn seriously from history. The great Australian scholar Hedley Bull put it well: inquiry has a morality of its own and true scholarship is likely to be subversive of all causes and institutions, good as well as bad. As we enter the seventieth year of our freedom, there could be no better charter for a much-needed independence of mind.