*Jolly Good Fellows and the Mau Mau Insurgency

Mau Mau Rebellion

British policemen stand guard over a group of villagers while looking for Mau Mau rebels. Photograph: Popperfoto/Popperfoto/Getty Images

The ruling by a high court in London two weeks ago allowing three veterans of the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s to sue the British government for damages for torture is quite likely the most significant admission in recent years that British colonialism was far from being the gentleman’s form of oppression that it is often made out to be.  One of the many idioms in which the great game of colonialism survives today is in those numerous discussions that seek to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ colonialisms, between the barbaric Germans or King Leopold’s Belgian officials in the Congo and, on the other hand, those colonialists who allegedly brought the fruits of European enlightenment to underdeveloped people.  It has long been held by some apologists of empire that the British were jolly good fellows: they may have committed excesses every now and then, but the country that gave the world cricket, a gentleman’s game complete with half-sleeved sweaters, finger sandwiches, tea, and, in the version that reigned supreme until relatively recent times, the likelihood of a drawn result after five days of genteel competition, cannot have bred mass murderers or genocidal fiends.  On a state visit to east Africa in 2005, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown candidly declared: “I’ve talked to many people on my visit to Africa and the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it” (Daily Mail, 15 January 2005).

The British repression of the Mau Mau rebellion forms one of the more gory chapters of violence in a century filled with brutality.  The subjugation of Kenya commenced in the late 19th century when the European powers carved up Africa amongst themselves.  British interest in Kenya was mainly strategic, and a railroad line was built in 1901 from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to Lake Victoria in Kenya’s interior to facilitate access to the source of the Nile.  The settlers who arrived immediately thereafter were offered farmlands in the Central Highlands at nominal prices.  The indigenous Kikuyu were driven off the land, forced into reserves, and subjected to a draconian regime of taxation.  Those outside the reserves became squatters on white-owned plantations and labored as virtually serfs.

Over the next few decades, following a long established British policy of developing a creamy layer of native elites who would serve the empire faithfully as collaborators, a small number of Kikuyu were also drawn into schools run by Christian churches.  By the late 1930s, a movement of resistance had built up on several fronts, one among squatters whose pauperization had become unbearable and, secondly, among radical intellectuals centered in Nairobi.  Moreover, though over 75,000 Kikuyus served the British empire during World War II, the veterans who returned home found themselves barely acknowledged and became part of a drifting and embittered slum population.

The economic and political conditions at the end of the war were thus ripe for a full-blown rebellion against British rule.  Anti-colonial movements were sweeping Asia and the example of Indian independence, achieved in 1947, was paramount.  By 1950, Kikuyu political formation would converge around three blocks, among them the militant nationalists who invoked the critical issue of landlessness and were thus able to forge ties of resistance among the working class, peasants, trade unionists, and the urban proletariat.  When, in October 1952, a prominent loyalist, the term used to characterize those wealthy conservatives, usually Kikuyu chiefs, prominent landowners, businessmen, and churchmen who had thrown in their lot with the white settlers and the colonial regime, was assassinated in broad daylight, Governor Evelyn Baring imposed a State of Emergency.

British soldiers checking identity papers of suspected Mau Mau insurgents.

British soldiers check identity papers of suspected insurgents.

The four years of the Mau Mau insurgency, which ended with the decimation of the rebel forces in late 1956, furnish a grim history of the naked violence of the colonial state.  One part of the British campaign against the Mau Mau rebellion was directed against the rebels who fought from the cover of the forest, another against the larger civilian population that was thought to have taken the Mau Mau oath and provided the insurgents with food, shelter, and moral succor.  Though a vast system of “detention camps” was set up to contain the rebels and their supporters, the British achieved something much more sinister, indeed something quite without parallel in history.  Unlike the Nazis, who deported Jews to concentration camps, the British struck on the expedient of transforming extant Kikuyu villages into “emergency villages”, each of them complete with barbed wire, trenches, watch towers, and armed patrols. Nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million was rendered suspect and thus placed in “detention”, and it is the civilian population that had to bear the greater burden of a war allegedly fought against insurgents.  This was scarcely the first time that an oppressor failed to make a distinction between civilians and insurgents, but the concept of “emergency villages” puts a whole new complexion on our understanding of the history of concentration camps.  Of course, no such narrative is without its complexities:  the rebellion pitted insurgents not only against the colonial state, but as much against the “Home Guard”, comprised of Kikuyu “loyalists” who feared a change of regime.

An "emergency village" in 1954. Photograph: Terrence Spencer/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images

An “emergency village” in 1954. Photograph: Terrence Spencer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Much of this history has been written about previously, but the quest for justice by a group of Mau Mau veterans –– Wambuga Wa Nyingi, Jane Muthoni Mara and Paulo Muoka Nzili –– who alleged torture at the hands of the colonial state’s functionaries led earlier this year to a previously undisclosed archive of documents that provides bone-chilling details of the suppression of the insurgency.  One is not surprised that knives, broken bottles, and rifle barrels were inserted into women’s vaginas, or that Kikuyu men were anally raped.  Some details, such as the account of a man roasted to death, are gruesome.  Those who are familiar with the wretched history of British colonialism will not be surprised by some of the other matters recently brought to light, such as the fact that ministers in London were fully aware of the murder and torture being waged in the name of empire.  The perpetrators of the worst atrocities were given full legal immunity.  There is a warning in all this, though not the one drawn by counter-insurgency experts such as John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, who in September 2003 wrote apropos of the British strategy of setting up Kikuyu “pseudo gangs” against the Mau Mau:  “What worked in Kenya a half-century ago has a wonderful chance of undermining trust and recruitment among today’s terror networks.”  The United States, which has in many respects become the successor imperial state, should not delude itself into thinking that it can emerge from its own military adventures without a similarly heavy toll on its own psyche and culture.

— A slightly abridged version has been published as “Jolly Good Fellows”, Times of India – Crest Edition (27 October 2012), p. 14.

*How Vijay Was Born: Bachchan’s Urban Landscapes


The persona of the angry young man, a role that Amitabh Bachchan would earmark as his very own, is commonly thought to have emerged in Hindi cinema in the first half of the 1970s, in films such as Zanjeer (1973) and Deewaar (1975).  The 1970s were certainly turbulent times:  early in the decade India and Pakistan went to war, and not long after India would attempt to have itself partly admitted into the club of nuclear states with a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’.  Whatever Indira Gandhi may have gained with these spectacular displays of her will to triumph, she is commonly thought to have squandered these victories with the imposition of the emergency, the stifling of dissent, and social policies calculated to arouse the opposition of the poor.  However, the malaise that afflicted the country was much deeper:  industrial production had slowed down, the labouring classes were in a militant mood, shortages of essential commodities were palpable, and unemployment was rampant.  Azaadi had wrought little; the dream had soured.


There is every reason, then, to think of the 1970s as preeminently the decade when the genre of the ‘angry young man’ planted itself in Hindi cinema, a theme taken up with considerable gusto in Tamil films of the 1980s.  But Bachchan’s films of the 1970s demand attention for another compelling trope, namely the idea of the city.  The migrations from the countryside to the city, which might be constituted into one epic narrative of the history of India after independence, continued unabated –– and we should recall that Vijay, in Deewaar, flees with his mother and brother Ravi to Bombay from the hinterland.  Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray are commonly thought of, particularly by film aficionados, as two filmmakers who were heavily invested in the nexus of the city and the film.  Sen has described Calcutta as his El-Dorado, his muse:  the city features prominently in his work, perhaps nowhere more so than in his films of the early 1970s when young men floundered about in search of jobs.  Ray’s ‘Calcutta Trilogy’ –– Pratidwandi (1971), Seemabaddha (1971), and Jana Aranya (1974) –– likewise captures with extraordinary subtlety the anomie of city life, the dislocations the city creates in social relations, even the transformations in emotions under city life.


Many of Bachchan’s films of the 1970s are also eminently city films.  Signs of the urban landscape are unmistakably present in Zanjeer, even if the city is somewhat undeveloped as a character in its own right.  The city must have its dens of vice, where Sher Khan rules supreme before an encounter with Inspector Vijay Khanna (Bachchan) sets him on the path to reform.  Mala, the street performer, lives in Dongri Chawl; at the other extreme, the underworld don Teja lounges relaxes by the side of a luxurious swimming pool.  Four years later, in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), the city would have even greater visibility:  many of Bombay’s landmarks and public institutions –– Nanavati Hospital, Victoria Terminus, Haji Ali Dargah –– feature prominently in the film.


It is Deewaar, however, which carved out the space of the urban in a wholly distinct manner. As Vijay, Ravi, and their mother arrive in the city, they leave behind a social order that is simultaneously more intimate and more unforgiving:  one cannot escape one’s social markers so readily in the village or the small town. There is also a tacit assumption that as the breadwinner of her family, Sumitra Devi’s prospects are better in the metropolis. Vijay’s adolescent years are captured in a few, albeit critical, scenes in the film; and then a match cut transports us to the angry young man, now a worker at the docks.  As he takes on the mafia, one senses the explosion of urban India; the ‘angry young man’, a new hero emerging from the bowels of the city, represents the anger of a generation whose dreams lie shattered.


As Vijay wrests control of the docks from Samant’s men, we are tempted into thinking that he is increasingly embracing the urban world as his own, refusing to be beaten into submission by the unruliness and hurly-burly ways of the city.  The docks are among the many signs of the urban.  The city is everywhere in Deewaar and the film skillfully signposts urban spaces.  Newly arrived into the city, Vijay’s mother finds works at a large construction site.  Sumitra and her two sons make their home under the bridge:  it is not the overhead traffic over the bridge that makes the city, but the tens of thousands indeed millions sheltered under it who, yet again, give birth to the unintended city.  The great migrations into the city gave rise to the slums, with their population of labourers, tradesmen, prostitutes, and petty criminals, and it is from the housing tenements, some under the bridge, that one gets what Ashis Nandy has described as the ‘slum’s eye view of Indian politics’. From their modest home under the bridge, the young Ravi arrives at the gate of the nearby school.


Slowly but surely, the plot of Deewaar drifts into other ineluctable spaces of the urban landscape:  high-rise buildings, five-star hotels, night-clubs, indeed the city streets themselves through which Ravi gives furious pursuit to Vijay.   But the singularity of Deewaar resides in something quite different, namely that it is the first film in Hindi cinema which establishes a dialectic between the footpath and the skyscraper, the two preeminent signs of the film’s urban landscape.  The ubiquity of the footpath as home to the homeless, migrant labourers, and myriad others living at the margins of society is self-evident.  One can think of it more imaginatively as a school where life’s lessons are imbibed:  while Ravi goes to school, Vijay takes up shining shoes on the footpath.  Soon enough, Vijay gravitates from the footpath to the skyscraper:  he even attempts to gift his mother one. No sooner has he gained possession of the skyscraper than his fall commences, as if the footpath were beckoning him to return to his roots and plant his feet on the ground.  The fact that his claim on this skyscraper is ephemeral, and ultimately undeserving, is underscored by the fact that the viewer’s sight of the building is barred throughout the negotiations.  The skyscraper holds no intrinsic interest for Vijay, indeed its very existence is refracted through the footpath.  The footpath is literally that:  the path where the foot trod, where every footfall becomes a trace of memory.  At every turn of his confrontation with Ravi, Vijay seeks, unsuccessfully, to remind him of their shared histories on the footpath:  ‘Ravi, tume yaad hain bachpan mein kitni raaten footpath pe khaali pet guzarin?’


One could go on in this vein; but, in conclusion, I would point to one of the dialogues on the footpath that have now become part of India’s cultural memory.   The young Vijay, refusing to pick up money thrown at him as a shoeshine boy, says with dignity, ‘I polish shoes and do not beg for money.  Pick up the money and place it in my hands.’  Davar, the mafia don, tells his henchman:  ‘Yeh umar bhar boot polish nahi karega.  Jis din zindagi ki race mein isne speed pakdi, yeh sab ko peeche chorh jayega.  Meri baat ka khayal rakhna.  Ek din yeh ladka kuch banega’.   Looking back at the life of Amitabh Bachchan, one has the feeling that much in it was prefigured in the figure of Vijay.  More than anyone else in India’s film industry, Bachchan has proven to be the lambi race ka ghoda.

(Also published in Times of India, Crest Edition, 6 October 2012, p. 10, as “How Vijay Was Born”)