About Vinay Lal

Vinay Lal teaches in the History Department at the University of California at Los Angeles. He writes widely on the History, Politics and Culture of India.

‘Har Ghar Tiranga’:  The Heart, the State, and the Indian Constitution

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, August 15

In the wake of the “Har Ghar Tiranga” campaign, a campaign designed to encourage every Indian home (har ghar) to display the National Flag (tiranga, literally tri-colored), it is useful to think briefly about the evolution of the national flag, its place in the nationalist imagination during the anti-colonial struggle, and the particular way our relationship to the flag is a matter of the heart, the state, and the Indian constitution. Some people have thought that the orange in the flag represents the Hindu constituency, the green the Muslim community, and that all “others” are represented by the white in the flag.  Gandhi had said as much, in an article for Young India on 13 April 1921, except that at that time red took the place of orange, but he also added that the charkha or spinning wheel in the middle of the flag pointed both to the oppressed condition of every Indian and simultaneously to the possibility of rejuvenating every household.  The Constituent Assembly debates, which led to the adoption of the tricolored flag on 22 July 1947, suggest that some members were more inclined towards another interpretation, seeing the green as a symbol of nature and the fact that we are all children of ‘Mother Earth’, the orange as symbolizing renunciation and sacrifice, and white as symbolic of peace (shanti).  That may be so, but the tiranga cannot be unraveled without some consideration of how it emerges from the three-forked road of the heart, the state, and the constitution.

Just what, however, is a national flag and why do all nation-states have one?  The national anthem and the national flag are the bedrock of every nation-state; nearly all also have a national emblem, as does India.  India has a complicated history around the national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana”, and the country officially also has a national song, “Vande Mataram”; and, then, there is an unofficial anthem, “Saare Jahan Se Accha”, which has wide currency.  This makes the national flag especially and supremely important in India as an unambiguous marker of the nation-state. The honor and integrity of the nation are supposed to be captured by the flag, and the narrative of the nation-state everywhere offers ample testimony that the national flag is uniquely capable of enlisting the aid of citizens, giving rise to sentiments of nationalism, and evoking the supreme sacrifice of death.  In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and highly polyglot nation such as India, the national flag is there to remind every Indian that something unites them:  before their allegiance to a language, religion, caste group, or anything else, they are Indian. Thus, in every respect, the national flag commands, not merely our respect, but our allegiance to the nation.

The Ministry of Culture’s “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav” website, of which the “Har Ghar Tiranga” campaign is one component, adds something quite different to the discussion. It states that “our relationship with the flag has always been more formal and institutional than personal”, and the campaign seeks to evoke in every Indian a “personal connection to the Tiranga” and “also an embodiment of our commitment to nation-building.”  The idea, it says candidly, “is to invoke the feeling of patriotism.” To understand just what this means, we have to disentangle two elements:  first, the question of patriotism; and, secondly, the fact that the relationship of Indians to the national flag is sought to be altered from a formal, stiff, and institutional relationship to a more personal and engaged one. Let us first turn to the second point, before returning to complete the broader discussion on patriotism.

Unlike countries such as the United States and Canada, India for a long time did not in fact permit ordinary citizens to fly the flag from their residence or business. This right was preserved as the prerogative of the state.  “The Flag Code-India”, overhauled in 2002 and replaced by the “Flag Code of India”, and the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act, 1971, set down the protocols to be observed in flying the national flag. In a now little-remembered but highly significant ruling on 21 September 1995, the Delhi High Court directed that the then “Flag Code-India” could not be interpreted so as to prevent an ordinary citizen from flying the National Flag from their business or residence. This eventually brought into existence the “Flag Code” of 2002, which permits unrestricted display of the tricolor consistent with the dignity and honor that is owed to the National Flag. However, aside from the question of the material to be used for making the National Flag, which has been the subject of considerable discussion in recent days, the Flag Code still imposed restrictions, such as being flown only “from sunrise to sunset “ (Para 2.2, sec. xi). The changes, moreover, were never public knowledge, and as a consequence it is safe to say that Indians have had a distant and formal, rather than personal and intimate, relationship to the National Flag. It is precisely this relationship that the “Har Ghar Tiranga” initiative has sought to change.

What is striking, and no longer seems to be a part of public or even institutional memory, is that in the two to three decades before independence, Indians did indeed have a personal relationship to the Congress flag or, as English officials with some derision described it, the Gandhi flag—the very flag that, after modifications, including the replacement of the charkha with Ashoka’s Lion Capital, would become the National Flag adopted by the Constituent Assembly.  Congressmen and women fought government officials with zeal for the right to hoist their flag.  They found that hoisting the flag invariably attracted the wrath, and often the vengeance, of British officials, and invariably ordered the flag to be brought down. On the rare occasion that a government official allowed the Congress flag to fly, he would receive an instant reprimand from the colonial government.  This happened in 1923 in Bhagalpur, where the official consented to have the Congress flag flown alongside the Union Jack, albeit at a lower height.  Not only the Government of India, but the British Cabinet issued a stern note saying “that in no circumstances should the Swaraj or Gandhi Flag be flown in conjunction with even below the Union Jack.” During the Salt Satyagraha, boys as young as eight years old were whipped for the offense of flying the flag or trying to hoist it.  The indomitable Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, in her riveting memoirs, has described the tussle over the flag during the Salt Satyagraha, with the Congress Volunteers hoisting the flag time after time, and the police lowering it each time.  “Up with the Flag”, “Up with the Flag”—the echoes kept ringing in her ears.

The right to fly the National Flag, in other words, was won after an arduous struggle.  The flag evolved over time:  it was Bhikaji Cama, who edited the newspaper Bande Mataram and closely networked with Indian revolutionaries in Europe, who unfurled the first Indian national flag at the 2nd Socialist International Congress at Stuttgart in 1907,  and Kamaladevi rightly points out that she “installed India as a political entity” by doing so.  The same flag had been hoisted for the first time in Calcutta in 1906.  By 1921, the charkha had been installed at its center at Gandhi’s instigation, and the flag was again modified in 1931.  As Gandhi had written, “a flag is a necessity for all nations.  Millions have died for it.  It is no doubt a kind of idolatry which it would be a sin to destroy.”  Seeing how British hearts pounded with pride at seeing the Union Jack fluttering in the wind, Gandhi asked whether it was not similarly necessary that all Indians “recognize a common flag to live and to die for”?  If the Congress flag accompanied every campaign, artists similarly positioned the flag prominently in their artwork.  In a 1945 color print celebrating Subhas Bose and the heroes of the Indian National Army who were put on trial on charges of treason, we see the Congress flag with the charkha, and the INA flag with the springing tiger, on either side of Subhas Bose (see fig. 1).  Martyrs fell along the way, but their struggle was not in vain:  in Sudhir Chowdhury’s print from 1947, the heads of the martyrs, among them Bhagat Singh and Khudiram Bose, lie at the feet of Bharat Mata, who hands the tiranga to Nehru on the eve of independence (see fig. 2).  In her various hands, she holds the other iterations of the national flag before it evolved into the tiranga.

Fig. 1, Sudhir Chowdhury, I.N.A. officers with Netaji, c. 1945.

If Indians fought for the national flag with zeal, they did so because they believed in what it stood for and they did so from their own volition against colonial oppression.  The affection for the flag came from within, as a mandate from the heart rather than from the state.  In any discussion of what the flag means today, it must be borne in mind that though the business of the state is to produce patriotic citizens, a patriotism that is manufactured by the state cannot endure and is as ephemeral as a market commodity.  It is no less pertinent that the Constitution of India has nothing to say on the national flag.  Though former Chief Justice Khare, heading a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, stated in 2004 that the citizen had a fundamental right to fly the flag as guaranteed by Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution, the article in question is about the freedom of speech and expression, and the right to fly the flag was interpreted as being subsumed by the larger right specified by Art. 19 (1)(a).

Fig. 2: Sudhir Chowdhury, “Worship of Martyrs”, c. 1947.

The Constitution has, of course, nothing to say explicitly on thousands of subjects, and Chief Justice Khare did what courts must do, namely interpret the Constitution.  That is well and good, but we must confront the fact that many who honor the flag do not necessarily honor the Constitution. The state may be no exception; indeed, it is far likely to honor the flag rather than the constitution.  A rogue can fly a flag as much as a saint; it takes almost nothing to show one’s patriotism.  If patriotism can be purchased on the cheap, for a 5-rupee (7. 5 cents) plastic flag put together in China, which the present regime in India has derided as the mortal enemy, it is practically worthless.  That larger right to freedom of speech and expression which subsumes the right to fly the flag is critically important, but it is also equally important to recognize that the Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, itself subsumes the National Flag.  Now that the citizens of India have won the right to hoist the National Flag without restriction, consistent with respect to the National Flag, it is perhaps time to think about the corresponding duty they owe to respect the freedom of speech and expression, and the obligation, which the present government has shown little if any interest in honoring, to protect the Fundamental Rights promised in the Constitution to every citizen.

First published under the same title in a slightly shorter form at abplive.in, here.

Gujarati translation by abplive.in available, here.

The Art of the Freedom Struggle in India

As India prepares to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its independence on August 15th, attention will naturally gravitate towards those who were the principal architects of the movement that gave us azaadi. In the current mood, and under the present political dispensation, one can be certain that even though the putative “Father of the Nation”, Mahatma Gandhi, will be mentioned in the usual pious tones, many others will be celebrated as the greater architects of the freedom struggle.  The marginalization of Gandhi has, of course, been going on for some time, indeed long before the present BJP government came into power, and the extraordinary success of the South Indian film “RRR” tells us something about the film culture of our days, the political sensibility of many Indians, and the manner in which the narrative of the freedom struggle is being rewritten. The film is a visual extravaganza that celebrates most of the “real warriors” who delivered India from the yoke of colonial rule, and it comes as no surprise that neither Gandhi nor Jawaharlal Nehru are deemed worthy of inclusion in the galaxy of heroes. Quite predictably, the film invokes, particularly towards the end, the legacies of Subhas Bose, Bhagat Singh, and Sardar Patel among others.  The screenwriter of the film, Vijayendra Prasad, has gone on record as saying that online posts—from Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp—from some friends made him question five years ago whether Gandhi and Nehru had done anything for the country, and he says he began to reject the orthodox historical narrative that was being taught in Indian schools when he was a child.  When you learn your history from WhatsApp and Twitter, what you get is “RRR”—a visual spectacle, but absolutely brainless, and one that is curiously devoid of any understanding of the language of cinema. This is, of course, apart from the question of what the makers of the films understand by India’s adivasi culture, or their interpretation of caste and its political histories.

One way to comprehend what was transpiring during the freedom struggle and in its immediate aftermath is to understand how artists at that time responded to the events unfolding before them.  A very small if sophisticated body of work has emerged around this subject, but what has been written on it—often in obtuse language—is largely for scholars, all the more ironical because much of the art of that time is ephemeral, more like bazaar art, and one would imagine that the scholars who have sought to rescue this work from oblivion are sensitive to the fact that bazaar art is after all for the bazaar, that is for common people.  What becomes evident from a perusal of the art is that the artists and printmakers saw in Gandhi the supreme embodiment of the aspirations of a people striving to be free.  They unhesitatingly turned Gandhi into the presiding deity of the political landscape.  By far the greatest number of nationalist prints, as they may be called, feature him and the political events and the political theatre to which he gave birth—whether it be the Champaran Satyagraha, the noncooperation movement, the no-tax campaigns such as the Bardoli Satyagraha, the Salt Satyagraha, or the Quit India movement.  What is even more extraordinary is that the printmakers and artists also unhesitatingly placed him, and him alone of all the political luminaries of that time, as akin to the founder of religions and as the true inheritor of the spiritual legacy of Indian civilization.  Thus, for example, in the poster by P. S. Ramachandra Rao that appeared from Madras in 1947-48 entitled “The Splendour That is India”, Gandhi is placed in the pantheon of “great souls”—Valmiki, Thiruvalluvar, the Buddha, Mahavira, Shankaracharya, the philosopher Ramanuja, Guru Nanak, Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharishi—who are thought to have animated the spiritual life of a people (see fig. 1).

Fig. 1: P. S. R. Rao, “The Splendour That is India”, Madras, 1947-48.

Let us turn, however, to some more modest prints that came out of a workshop in Kanpur established by Shyam Sundar Lal, who described himself as a “Picture Merchant” and set up a business at the chowk. It is not possible to go into the details of how Kanpur came to have such an important though not singular place in nationalist art, but it is useful to recall that Kanpur [or Cawnpore, as it was known to the British] was the site of critical events during the Rebellion of 1857-58.  As a major manufacturing hub and production centre for supplies required by the army by the late 19th century, Kanpur also became important for labour union organizing and it was a city where communists and Congressmen both jostled for power.  We do not know exactly how these prints were circulated, distributed, or used.  Did they pass from hand to hand? Where they pasted on walls in public places or framed and displayed in homes?  We do not even know how many copies were printed of each print, and indeed how many designs were in circulation for around the twenty to thirty years that the workshop was in business. But the prints that have survived make it possible to draw some inferences about how printmakers viewed the nationalist struggle.

One of the artists who produced prints diligently for Sundar Lal’s workshop was Prabhu Dayal and we may confine ourselves to three examples of his artwork. In a print entitled “Satyagraha Yoga-Sadhana”, or the achievement of satyagraha by the discipline of yoga, Gandhi is shown centre-stage, with Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal positioned at either end of the Mahatma (see fig. 2).  He sits meditatively on a bed of thorns, reminiscent perhaps of the dying Bhishma as he lay upon a sheaf of arrows and delivered a last set of teachings on the duties of the king and the slipperiness of dharma. There are no rose bushes without thorns; similarly, there is no freedom without restraint and discipline. The resolution for purna swaraj had been passed in December 1929 by the Congress at the annual meeting in Lahore presided over by Jawaharlal, and it is the rays of full independence or “poori azaadi” that shine upon the three.

Fig. 2: Satyagraha Yoga-Sadhana, print by Prabhu Dayal, published by Rashtriya Chitra Prakashak Karyalaya, Kanpur.

More remarkable still is a print from 1930 which casts the epic battle between Rama and Ravana as a modern-day struggle between Gandhi and the British, between ahimsa (nonviolence) and himsa (violence), between satya (truth) and asatya (falsehood; see fig. 3). The ten-headed Ravana is incarnated as the hydra-headed machinery of death and oppression known as the British Raj. This struggle is represented as the Ramayana of our times. In this “struggle for freedom” (“swarajya ki larai”), Gandhi’s only weapons are the spindle and the charkha, though just as Rama was aided by Hanuman, so Gandhi is aided by Nehru.  There is no mistaking the fact that Nehru is rendered as the modern-day Hanuman, who, in his hunt for the life-saving drug (sanjivini), carried back the mountain.  A forlorn-looking Bharat Mata, Mother India, languishes in one corner of the print, cast in the shadow of the architecture of the new imperial capital built by the British as a monument to their own power. Gandhi in his rustic dhoti, bare-chested, presents a stark contrast to the Hun-looking British official in high boots whose hands bear a multitude of weapons of oppression: artillery, the baton of the police, military aircraft, indeed the entire arsenal of the armed forces and the navy. The oppressive and power-crazy British also wield Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which restricted the assembly of people and was used by the colonial state to foil nationalist demonstrations—and is still being used in independent India.

Fig. 3: Prabhu Dayal, “Struggle for Freedom” (“Swarajaya ki Ladai”), c. 1930, published by Shyam Sunder Lal Agarwal, Kanpur.

Prabhu Dayal, however, was ecumenical in his comprehension of the different strands of the freedom movement.  Contrary to the view which some had then, and which is increasingly becoming popular among those who deride nonviolence and imagine that Gandhi was an effete individual who placed before his country a worldview for which a muscular nation-state can have no respect, Dayal did not see Bhagat Singh or Subhas Bose as having an antagonistic relationship to Mahatma.  Much of his work suggests the complementariness between Gandhi and Bhagat Singh as in, for instance, this print entitled “Swatantrata ki Vedi par Viron ka Balidan”, or “The Sacrifice of Heroes at the Altar of Independence” (see fig. 4).  Here Bhagat Singh, Motilal, Jawaharlal, Gandhi, and countless other Indians are lined up before Bharat Mata with the heads of the immortal martyrs, ‘amar shahid’, who have heroically already laid down their lives for the nation: Ashfaqullah [Khan], Rajendra Lahiri, Ramprasad Bismil, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Jatindranath Das.  Prabhu Dayal did not doubt the sacrifice of the “Lion of the Punjab”, Lala Lajpat Rai, or of the many young men who took up arms in their quest for India’s independence.

Fig. 4: Prabhu Dayal, “Swantantrata ki Vedi par Viron Ka Balidan” (The Sacrifice of Heroes at the Altar of Independence), c. 1930, published by Shyam Sundarl Lal Agarwal, Kanpur.

Much of this artwork has only in recent years begun to receive the critical scrutiny of historians and other scholars.  These prints do not only tell the story of the freedom movement; rather, they helped to forge the identity of the nation.  What kind of art will do the same at this critical juncture of India’s history remains to be seen.

Note:  All the prints are part of the author’s own collection. This article is related to, and in part drawn from, his forthcoming book, Insurgency and the Artist (New Delhi:  Roli Books, c. Oct 2022).

This is a slightly revised version of a piece first published under the same title at abplive.in on 12 August 2022.

Published in a Marathi translation at ABP Network, here.

Also available in Bengali translation at bengali.abplive.in, here.

And in a Gujarati translation at gujarati.abplive.in, here.

Making Meaning of the Crime of Nagasaki:  American Power and Dehumanization in the Nuclear Age

It is on this day, August 9, seventy-seven years ago, that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.  Several air-raid alarms had sounded early that morning, but such warnings had by now become routine.  The Americans had been firebombing Japanese cities for months, and there was little reason to suspect that this morning would be any different. Two B-29 Superfortresses, as the gigantic bombers were called, had left Tinian air base and arrived at Kokura, the intended target, at 9:50 AM, but the cloud cover was too thick to drop the bomb with any degree of accuracy and the planes departed for the secondary target, Nagasaki.  Here, once again, visibility was sharply reduced owing to thick clouds, but then, fortuitously for the animated plane crew, the veil was lifted momentarily—just enough to drop “Fat Boy”, as the bomb was nicknamed, at 11:02 AM.  Nagasaki had thus far not been laid to waste: a deliberate decision, since the effect of the bomb could not be judged if it were dropped on a city that had already been reduced to rubble.  The clouds had parted, and the virginal city was now open to being ravished by “Fat Boy”.

Nagasaki, the Morning After: 10 August 1945. Photograph: Yosuke Yamahata.

At the moment of detonation, less than a minute later, something like 40,000 people were killed instantly.  Over the next five to six months, another 30,000 died from their injuries; the casualties would continue to mount over the years, some succumbing to their injuries, others to the creeping radiation.  At least 100,000 people had died within a few years in consequence of the bombing.  Almost ninety percent of the buildings within a 2.5-kilometre radius of the hypocenter, or “ground zero”, were entirely destroyed.  The following day, August 10, following the expressed wishes of the Emperor, the Japanese government conveyed its surrender to the Allied forces, though the American insistence on an “unconditional surrender” continued to be a stumbling block for several days.  It was not until August 15 that Emperor Hirohito, taking to the airwaves to speak to his people directly for the first time, announced Japan’s surrender.  On September 2nd, the Japanese foreign minister signed the instrument of surrender, and the hostilities of World War II were formally brought to a close.

Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signs the Instrument of Surrender on behalf of the Japanese Government, on board USS Missouri (BB-63), 2 September 1945. Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki has been, comparatively speaking, little explored and it is similarly less recognized and commemorated than the bombing of Hiroshima three days earlier.  It is, of course, the singular misfortune of Hiroshima that it ushered humanity into the nuclear age and catapulted humanity to new and heightened levels of barbarism.  “Little Boy”, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, killed 70,000 people instantly—at the moment of detonation.  The city was leveled, utterly ruined, and transformed into a mass graveyard.  The graphic photographs that survive tell the same story, but in different idioms.  There is the photograph of a young girl who survived initially but whose eyes were hollowed out; she was blinded by the bright light emitted by the explosion.  Thousands of people were literally rendered naked:  the intense heat and the fireballs stripped them of their clothes, and on one woman’s back the kimono’s pattern was seared into her flesh.  This is one kind of barbarism.

Blinded by the light and by “Little Boy”: Hiroshima, 6 August 1945. Photograph: Christer Stromholm.

It is another if related kind of barbarism to adopt the view, in the words of an American military officer at that time, that “the entire population of Japan is a proper military target.”  Fewer than 250 people who were killed in Hiroshima were soldiers; the targets, in other words, were the elderly, women, and children, Japanese men of fighting age already having left the city to serve in the armed forces or auxiliary services. The hyper-realists have always adhered to the position that, whatever restraints on warfare international law might impose, and whatever the ethical sentiments that soft-headed people may have, war is a brutal business and that at times nothing is forbidden in the pursuit of victory.  Historians generally encompass this view under the rubric of “total war”.

It is still another kind of barbarism, however, to continue to defend both the atomic bombings years and decades later, as many Americans especially do, on grounds that are at best specious.  As late as 2015, seventy years after the bombings and considerable scholarship calling into question the conventional view, a Pew Research Center survey indicated that 56 percent Americans supported the atomic bombings and another 10 percent declared themselves undecided.  Many arguments have been advanced in defense of the use of the bomb.  Some commentators resort to what I have already described as the argument that, in conditions of “total war”, nothing is impermissible.  Since such an argument often sounds crass and unforgiving, others prefer to speak of “military necessity”.  The defense of the bombings often hinges around Japan’s obdurate refusal to surrender on the terms that Americans had every right to impose.  

However, at rock bottom, there is but one fundamental claim on which the proponents of the bombings rest their case.  It is the argument that the atomic bombings saved lives.  We can all envision scenarios, so goes the argument, where one preserves lives by taking other lives.  Had the bombs not been dropped, the Americans would have had to undertake a land invasion, and the battle of Iowa Jima had shown the Americans that the Japanese would be prepared to defend their country to the last man—and perhaps woman and child.  Tens of thousands of American soldiers would have been killed.  The somewhat more sensitive adherents of this view, mindful of the fact that Americans are not the only people fully deserving to be viewed as “human”, insist on reminding everyone that hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians would also have been killed.  Thus, it is not only American, but also Japanese, lives that were saved when the United States decided to unleash destruction on a scale the like of which had never been seen in history. 

President Truman’s remarks on August 11 unequivocally suggest that saving Japanese lives was certainly not on his mind—and neither was it on the minds of the military planners or even the scientists charged with bringing to fruition the Manhattan Project:  “The only language they [the Japanese] seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.  When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him like a beast.  It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.”  There is but no doubt that the Japanese had been entirely dehumanized.  In prosecuting the war against Germany, the United States always made it clear that the Nazis, not ordinary Germans, were the enemy; however, no such distinction was observed in prosecuting the war against Japan.  Military planners and most ordinary Americans alike saw themselves as being at war against the Japanese, not just against the Japanese leadership.  The savage lampooning of, and racism against, the Japanese is to be found in countless number of cartoons, writings, and official documents, as well as in the expressly pronounced views of people in the highest positions in the American government and society.  The Chairman of the US War Manpower Commission, Paul V. McNutt, said that he “favored the extermination of the Japanese in toto”, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s own son, Elliott, admitted to the Vice President that he supported continuation of the war against Japan “until we have destroyed about half of the civilian population.”

A case can be made that the United States, in undertaking the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, committed war crimes, even crimes against humanity, and engaged in state terrorism.  Quite reasonably, we may expect that such a view will be aggressively countered, though the argument that the dehumanization of the Japanese—even if precipitated to some extent by Japan’s own wartime atrocities, some on a monumental scale—played a role in the bombings seems to be unimpeachably true.  Those who seek to defend the bombings appear, moreover, to be unable to comprehend that the nuclear bombs were not simply bigger and far more lethal bombs, and that the bombings were not merely a more aggravated and ferocious form of the strategic bombing carried out first by the Luftwaffe and then the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the U.S. Air Force. The atomic bombings breached a frontier; they constituted a transgression on a cosmic scale, bringing forth in the most terrifying way before humankind the awareness that the will to destroy may yet triumph over the will to live.  The sheer indifference to the idea of life, any life, on the planet suggests the deep amorality that underlies the logic of the atomic bombings.  In this sense, we may say that the crime of Hiroshima is the primordial crime of our modern age.

Still, is it also possible to argue that the crime of Nagasaki was yet greater than the crime of Hiroshima?  Why did the Americans have to drop a second bomb?  Why could they not have waited a few more days for Japan to surrender?  The defenders of the Nagasaki bombing argue that, since the Japanese had not surrendered immediately after the Hiroshima bombing, it was quite apparent to the Americans that they were determined to keep fighting on.  The Japanese may have believed that the United States had only one bomb; some argue that surrender was not an option for the Japanese since the warrior culture was pervasive in their society and “Oriental culture” does not permit such an ignominious ending.  On the other side, it has been argued that American military planners had a toy, and what use is a toy if it is not going to be put into play.  

As I have argued, and many others have argued this long before me, the atomic bombings were never just intended to induce Japan to surrender. Before the war had even ended, the United States was already preparing for the next war, and that against a mortal enemy—the Soviet Union. Japan, at this time, was an entirely decimated power; it was, indeed, of comparatively little interest to the Americans.  If this sounds implausible to some, consider that Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, the Director of the Manhattan Project, himself confessed that “there was never from about two weeks from the time that I took charge of this Project any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis.” It was imperative to convey to Stalin that the United States would not be prepared to allow the Soviet Union to spread the poison of communism around the globe and seek world domination; as Secretary of State James Byrnes remarked, “The demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia with America’s military might.”

With Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States sought to deliver a one-two punch:  knock out Japan and put the Soviet Union on notice that the United States was prepared to exercise its Manifest Destiny as the one indispensable country in the world.  “Power corrupts,” John Dalberg-Acton [Lord Acton] famously pronounced; “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

First published under the same title at abplive.in on 9 August 2022.

Available in a Marathi translation, here.

Available in a Tamil translation, here.

Available in a Telugu translation, here.

Jallianwala Bagh:  The British Empire and the Day of Reckoning

First of two parts.

April 13 is never likely to be forgotten in India, certainly not in the Punjab.  That day, 103 years ago, 55-year-old Reginald Dyer, an acting Brigadier-General in the Indian Army born in Murree, in what is now Pakistan, ordered fifty Gurkha and Balochi riflemen to commence firing without warning upon an unarmed crowd of over 15,000 and perhaps as many as 20,000 Indians gathered at an enclosure called the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, a stone’s throw from the Golden Temple.  The firing ended only when the troops ran out of ammunition; most of the 1650 rounds met their target, judging from the official tally of 379 dead and some 1,200 wounded.  Some Indian estimates of how many people were killed ran to about 1,000.  As the narrator Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children recalls, Dyer told his men: “Good shooting.”  The men had done their duty, order had apparently been restored: “We have done a jolly good thing.”

Jallianwala Bagh after the massacre, 1919.

It was Baisakhi, the first day of the spring harvest festival, and crowds from the city and adjoining countryside were milling around the Golden Temple and the vicinity.  But the days immediately preceding had been taxing, ridden with uncertainty and violence.  Though Indians had given their lives by the tens of thousands in World War I, a war which was scarcely their own, they got rewarded at the end of the war with increased repression. True, in mid-1918, the “Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms” led to a minimal increase in Indian franchise and similarly a limited devolution of power to the central and provincial legislative councils. From the standpoint of Indian liberals, these reforms were too little and too late, and the more militant-minded among Indian nationalists clamored for much greater concessions from the British. Nor did Indians seem prepared to accept the preposterous idea, which the English took rather too seriously about themselves, that their word was as good as gold or that they believed above all in the idea of “fair play”.  Unfortunately, British goodwill would soon be exposed as a mere chimera.  A committee appointed to inquire into alleged revolutionary conspiracies headed by Justice Rowlatt recommended the suspension of civil liberties, and repressive legislation followed in quick succession.  The British resort to preventive detention in an attempt to squelch nationalist agitation was captured in the headlines of one Lahore newspaper in early 1919 with the phrase, “no dalil, no vakeel, no appeal.” 

Mohandas Gandhi, who had returned to India from his twenty-year sojourn in South Africa four years ago, responded to the Rowlatt Acts with a call to the nation to observe a general hartal and so launched himself into national politics.  “The whole of India from one end to the other, towns as well as villages,” wrote Gandhi in his autobiography, “observed a hartal on that day.  It was a most wonderful spectacle.” This was just days before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Punjab was being governed by Sir Michael O’Dwyer, a firm believer in authoritarian rule who fancied himself a savior of the simple-minded Indian peasants who, according to him, had nothing to do with politics and deserved protection from treacherous urban Indian elites.  Like Reginald Dyer, with whom he is often confused, O’Dwyer was of Irish extraction, a perhaps not unimportant fact considering that the Irish were brutalized by the English and in turn brutalized those whom they colonized in policing the British empire. O’Dwyer did not at all take kindly to the defiance of authority and was certain, from his apparent study of history, that the great and firm hand of the British had not only saved the Punjab from the mutiny of 1857-58 but had been crucial in enlisting the aid of the Sikhs in suppressing the mutiny.  The government had no greater task than to uphold “law and order” and, watching the effects of the hartal initiated by Gandhi, he warned that the agitators “have a day of reckoning in store for them.”

Local people point to the holes in the wall to suggest how Dyer directed the firing on 13 April 1919, deliberately aiming with the intent to kill as many people as possible.

What transpired in the days just before the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh need not be recounted at length.  Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving inadvertently revealed what truly stoked the anxiety of the British when, in a telegram to O’Dwyer on April 9, he described the Muslims and Hindus of Amritsar as having “united.” That the Hindus and Muslims might unite was equally incomprehensible and alarming.  The British responded to this wholly unwelcome show of solidarity among Indians with the arrest and expulsion of two local leaders, Dr. Satyapal and Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, precipitating large demonstrations.  Twenty Indians died in police firings; British-owned banks were attacked by crowds.  Nothing infuriated the British more, however, than the assault on an Englishwoman, Marcia Sherwood:  she was badly beaten but saved by other Indians.  The white woman was nothing short of sacred, inviolable, “untouchable” to the Indian.  The men of the ruling colonial elite perceived the loss of her dignity as an affront to them.  Their humiliation had to be avenged, and so it was:  the street where Miss Sherwood had been assaulted was sealed off and Indians had to crawl if they wished to make their way in or out of the lane.  A flogging post was set up to whip sense and discipline into those Indians who might dare to act otherwise. 

The “Crawling Lane”.

Gandhi would subsequently describe “the crawling lane” as the site of a national humiliation. Once the firing at the Jallianwala Bagh had stopped, Dyer did not stop to render aid to the wounded. He would later state that no one asked for his help–who would ask for help from a butcher, one might ask–but his real attitude is betrayed by his confession that as soldier and officer of the law, his job was not to aid the wounded.  That was not his business.  The city was under martial law, and what the British described as “disturbances” had rocked other parts of the Punjab. Demonstrators were strafed from the air: this initiated a new phase in colonial warfare, and George Orwell in a scintillating essay noted the corruption of the English language entailed in describing such brutal suppression as “pacification.”  O’Dwyer, who signaled his approval of the actions taken by Dyer in Amritsar, was quite certain that the Punjab had been saved from a dire situation which recalled the Rebellion of 1857-58.  Indeed, in the months ahead, the spectre of the Mutiny loomed over the prolific debates about the measures taken by the British to contain the disorders.

1919, however, was not 1857.  The Indian National Congress was now a formidable organization and the British had failed to fully comprehend that politics had entered the phase of plebian protest.  Hundreds of people had been killed in cold blood, all because Dyer, by his own admission, had sought to “teach a lesson” to “wicked” Indians” and create a “wide impression” of the costs of defying lawful authority.  The idea of “fairness” and the notion that the British had instituted a regime of “law and order” that offered Indians deliverance from “despotism” had long been the principal pillars of colonial rule, and an inquiry into a massacre that threatened to stain the good name of the British was all but inevitable. It came in the form of the Disorders Inquiry Commission, presided over by Lord William Hunter of Scotland.  Many Britishers in India resented the intrusion into Indian affairs from London.  The theory of “the man on the spot” was one of the cornerstones of colonial governmentality.  Dyer had been confronted with what he perceived to be a mutiny-like situation, and as the “man on the spot” he alone knew what was required to create a suitable effect.  Armchair politicians in Britain had no business to impugn the judgment of experienced officers, they argued, and many in Britain also agreed.  When, months later, Dyer was forced to resign his commission, the British public, led by the rabidly racist Morning Post, opened a fund in his name–the antecedent of the modern-day crowdfunding campaign–and raised £26,000 for him, an amount worth over £1.1 million today.  The “Butcher of Amritsar” went into luxurious retirement, though I suspect that some Indians rejoiced that Dyer’s life was cut short by arteriosclerosis.

The “Punjab Disturbances” would come to occupy a distinct place in the annals of colonial Indian history.  Most people, even Indians, remember only the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, but Gandhi was quite clear in his mind that the “crawling lane” order was even a greater wound on the Indian psyche.  What the British created in the Punjab was a regime of terror. The Congress appointed its own committee of inquiry, and it took a much harsher view of British actions than the official Hunter Commission. Indian affairs had never commanded much attention in Parliament, but, rather unusually, the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity and its aftermath were debated vigorously both in the Commons and among the Lords. Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu opened the proceedings in the Commons with the observation that Dyer had a reputation as an officer whose conduct was “gallant”.  Montagu was grateful for the service that Dyer had rendered to the Empire.  Nevertheless, an officer who justified his actions with the submission that he was prepared to inflict greater casualties if he had the means to do so from none other than a motive “to teach a moral lesson to the whole of the Punjab,” was guilty of engaging in “a doctrine of terrorism.”  Montagu went on to charge Dyer for “indulging in frightfulness.”  The grave import of this accusation would not have been lost on his fellow Parliamentarians:  “frightfulness” was the English rendering of schrecklichkeit, the word first used to describe the terrorism inflicted upon Belgian civilians by the German army in World War I.  That an English army officer should stand accused of pursuing the policies of militaristic Germans was an intolerable idea.  The rampant anti-Semitism of the English elite already made Montagu, a practicing Jew, a suspect figure, and in 1922 Montagu himself was forced out of politics. 

There is by now a familiar narrative of the Indian reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Every school history textbook describes how Tagore wrote a moving letter to the Viceroy where he asked to be relieved of his knighthood, characterizing the massacre as “without parallel in the history of civilized governments, barring some conspicuous exceptions, recent and remote.”  More than twenty years later, Udham Singh, who was 20 years old at the massacre, sneaked into Caxton Hall in London where O’Dwyer was attending a lecture and shot him dead with a revolver.  O’Dwyer had spoken of the day of reckoning and now he got his comeuppance.  Remarkably, Dyer is the only person whose name Gandhi, with his own extraordinary flair for the English language, turned into an ideology.  He wrote of “Dyerism” to signify the terrorist apparatus of a state that bears no responsibility to its subjects. It was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the atrocities in the Punjab that, as Gandhi would describe at his trial in 1922, turned him from a “staunch loyalist” and “co-operator” to an “uncompromising disaffectionist” who was convinced that British rule had made “India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically.”

Much has been made of the fact that during the debate in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill condemned the “slaughter” at the Jallianwala Bagh as an episode “without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire.”  Churchill of course had a way with words, and so he continued:  “It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.”  But by what measure do we describe the incident as “singular”?  As wartime Prime Minister two decades later, Churchill was not merely indifferent to the plight of millions in Bengal facing acute food shortages, but almost certainly precipitated with his callous policies a holocaust that led to the death of three million people. It barely suffices to say that if ever there was an incident of the pot calling the kettle black, this would be it:  the monstrosity of it is that Churchill, a dedicated racist his entire life, appears as the guardian of English virtues in this debate.  As I shall argue in the subsequent essay, however great the atrocity of Jallianwala Bagh, the view that Jallianwala Bagh was somehow an exception cannot withstand scrutiny.  The British were then, as they are now, unrepentant and day of reckoning of the Empire has yet to come–even though British rule in India ended 75 years ago.

Additional Note: I published a 3-part piece on the Jallianwala Bagh atrocity on this blog in 2019. This first part is adapted from that piece, but some portions have been entirely rewritten. The second part that will follow in a few days is entirely new. Consequently, taken as a whole, this two-part piece is substantially new.)

This part was first published at abplive.in under the same title on 13 April 2022. Translations into Hindi, Punjabi, and a a number of other Indian languages are forthcoming.

Sangam and Agora:  A Forum of Poets, Philosophers, Scholars, and Autodidacts

A Short Note or Informal Manifesto

Vinay Lal and Grzegorz Kwiatkowski

Though the idea for a new international forum comprised of poets and philosophers, writers and scholars, and activists and public intellectuals was conceived by us some months ago and has been germinating in our minds for much longer, the recent turn of events signaled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the desirability of such a venture.  However reprehensible this act of aggression, and whatever the geopolitics that inform the present circumstances, we aver that war is always a crime against humanity.

The uncomfortable fact is that the world has been spiraling out of control for some years, oddly enough in the wake of the triumphant declaration by the United States, following the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that the entire world appeared to be gravitating towards liberal democracy and the ethos of the free market economy.  Even as countries such as China and Russia have hardened their resolve to suppress dissent at home, many established democracies have been veering towards authoritarianism in recent years. On the economic front, it is widely conceded that inequality in nearly every country has grown immensely, and the various goals that the United Nations and its myriad agencies have set from time to time for the elimination of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, or illiteracy are not even remotely close to being met. The goalposts, whether with regard to literacy, access to health care, schooling, and so on, have shifted an innumerable number of times in the last half century.

However, the tenor of our present malaise or, to use an overly wrought word, “crisis”, cannot be captured by the decline of liberal democracy or the obscene economic disparities that make a mockery of our pretensions to a world where considerations of equity, social justice, and peace reign supreme.  Beyond all this, the stark, brutal, and unremitting reality of climate change threatens to make every other misfortune or even catastrophe look puny in comparison.  The most recent “Sixth Assessment Report” (2021) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes for grim reading, unequivocally clear as it is that the efforts to mitigate global warming have been woefully insufficient.  It declares that “global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades”, and it goes on to warn that “continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation and the severity of wet and dry events.”  The extreme weather events that have plagued the world—not the least of them 100°F temperatures in Siberia—in recent years will almost certainly increase, though speaking of plague should of course remind us of the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic that gripped the world.

War, political authoritarianism, the drift away from democracy, unmitigated climate change, the spiraling increase in consumption, the reduction of the human to homo economicus:  catastrophic as all this is, it is insufficient to describe what ails us today.  Nor will it be adequate to add to the above narrative other elements of the global situation in the hope that we will better comprehend the temper of our times. It is entirely reasonable, for instance, to suggest that the seductions of globalization have given way to the recrudescence of nationalism.  Some of us, especially if we have been life-long students of anti-colonial movements and have partaken of them in our own modest ways, recognize nationalism as a ‘disease’.  The difficulty of persuading those who have been at the receiving end of colonialism to think beyond nationalism must be recognized, but nationalism cannot be deflected or confronted merely with anodyne expressions of the fact that people are fundamentally ‘good’ and affirmations of the necessity of being a ‘world citizen’.  All too often, the ‘world citizen’ is a citizen of nowhere, and therefore bears none of the responsibilities that attach to the idea of citizenship. The ‘world citizen’ is only another expression of the rights-bearing individual who in principle has become the normative expression of what it means to be human, a stark indication of how far we have moved away from the language of ‘duties’.

The malaise of which we speak points to something deeply disturbing in the human condition at present—something akin to the end of imagination, even as all around the world common people take to the streets to signify their dissent, publishing flourishes, and the internet seems abuzz with thousands of ideas.  Language can restrain, limit, and enslave us as much as it liberates us. Everywhere there is the injunction ‘to think outside the box’, though it should be obvious that anyone using so cliched a phrase is unlikely to ever do anything like that.  Whoever heard anyone proudly declaring that they would like to think inside the box?  (A similar problem exists with the vastly overused and banal word, ‘excellence’, regarding which Bill Readings made the most apposite observation, in The University in Ruins, that it signifies absolutely nothing.) T. S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding” (The Four Quartets), put it this way, “History may be servitude, history may be freedom.” To the great detriment of the world, the languages in which the human predicament has been framed in the post-World War II have been largely shaped by the practices of the social sciences in the United States.  The problems of America become, willy-nilly, the problems of the rest of the world; when America sneezes, the rest of the world sneezes.  When the master is sick, as Malcolm X put it inimitably, “we sick”.  Identity politics of the sort that is exceedingly common on the American university campus and has slowly made its way into other sectors of American society has now become part of the common conversation in many countries, but we do not think that ‘identity politics’ is a very productive way of delivering a just society or an equitable social order.

What is required is a greater appreciation of more fundamental questions that underscore the precarity, ambiguity, and uncertainty of human experience.  Every generation, admittedly, tends to think that its own woes are the worst, but we would do well to inquire what makes our malaise profound and distinct. We have already pointed to the conjuncture of various circumstances, at the apex of which stands the problem of the Anthropocene, but the gravity of the problem can be amplified by seeking to understand what makes our gross indifference to our common future, as well as man’s inhumanity to man, different in these times.  The 20th century was a century of total war, but first World War I—the “Great War”, the war that was supposed to wean us from all wars—and then World II put an end to the idea that humankind had freed itself of the addiction to war.  We need not add to the tally of these “world wars” the wars generated by the Cold War or modern-day genocides such as the one that decimated Rwanda in 1994.  In the last two to three decades alone, just exactly what have diversity training—little do the bureaucrats know that even dictators have to undergo “diversity training”—corporate social responsibility, “respect” training, and other respected shenanigans wrought except the great delusion that somehow we have become more sensitive and caring human beings and the idea that incrementally societies will free themselves of their prejudices.  The late David Graeber wrote wittingly and illuminatingly on ‘bullshit jobs’, but it is just as true that trillions of dollars are expended on ‘bullshit’ research that over the last several decades has yielded very little.

There is a character in Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, who says that at the end of the day there is only one way to address the plague—“decency”.  But whatever happened to decency?  Or, even more tellingly, whatever happened to the idea of “shame”?  Does the idea of ‘shame’ have any currency at all in most societies these days?  We would go so far as to say that “shame” has virtually disappeared from the public vocabulary of our times.  Whoever speaks of “virtue”—except perhaps students of Greek philosophy, immersed in the reading of Plato and Aristotle.  The malaise of which we speak is captured in the unimpeachable and disturbing fact that every language of dissent has been hijacked, first and foremost by the gargantuan world of the American university.

This enterprise, which seeks no corporate or foundation funding, and is premised on the hope that goodwill, intellectual appetite and rigor, and imagination taken singly and in combination can command an audience, is thus animated by the conviction that poets, philosophers, writers, public intellectuals, scholars, and others must assume a greater place in thinking about the human condition and working on producing an ethical praxis more in congruence with ideas of social justice, equity, compassion, and even wisdom. Poetry makes nothing happen, wrote Auden, but of course as someone dedicated to the craft over decades he secretly pined for the day when Shelley’s apotheosization of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” might bear fruit.  There is no such expectation on our part, but we would like to see what we can do across borders—the borders that persist between nations-state, between self and other, between disciplines, between the cerebral and the manual, and the other borders too numerous to mention that make radical transgression a key political and ethical imperative of our times.

Our modest hope is to convene this forum once a month, or at least every six weeks, and have a poetry reading, short presentations, and vigorous discussion.  Meetings will be held over zoom, and we may even in time use the transcripts to create volumes of collective authorship.  If, after several meetings, it appears that the enterprise does not inspire us enough, it can be abandoned—or passed on to others who are able to marshal creativity and intellectual insights more forcefully.

We will have our first meeting via zoom on Saturday, April 23rd, at 10:30 AM (Los Angeles), or 6:30 PM—London; 7:30 PM—Poland; 11 PM—New Delhi.  Registration at this link is required:

https://ucla.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJIvf-uqqjgqEtHmmbAMikxJcbUDWXXTuCye

Vinay Lal, Los Angeles/Delhi: cultural critic, public commentator, blogger, and Professor of History, UCLA [email:  vlal@history.ucla.edu]

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, Gdańsk:  poet, writer, musician, and co-host of the Oxford workshop, “Virus of Hate” [email:  gregor.kwiatkowski@gmail.com]

Sangam=from the Sanskrit, meaning confluence of rivers, especially of the Ganga, Yamuna, and the (mythical) Saraswati at Prayag; also refers to the Tamil Sangam poets, who flourished 500 BCE-300 CE; Agora=from the Greek, an open public space for markets, assemblies, and itinerant philosophers

Militants Strike, Britain Out:  The 1946 Naval Indian Mutiny

The Naval Indian Mutiny (RIN) mutiny, which ‘erupted’ on February 18, 1946, has long been overshadowed by the political trials of INA (Indian National Army) officers and soldiers which commenced in November 1945 and captured the nation’s attention. What was, of course, behind the INA was the charismatic figure of ‘Netaji’ Subhas Bose, whose storied exploits had been the talk of India and won him the affection of tens of millions of his countrymen and women.  In 1939, running for the Presidency of the Congress for a second time, against the express wishes of Gandhi, Bose had triumphed only to discover within weeks that the Congress machinery was behind the Mahatma and that he could not function effectively as President of the Congress.  In 1941, while placed under house arrest, Bose staged a daring escape from his Calcutta home from where he made his way to Afghanistan and eventually to Germany where he managed to get an audience with Hitler.  All this was theatrical enough, but merely icing for the cake:  in 1943, he took over the Azad Hind Fauj (INA) and in October that year he formed the Provisional Government of Free India.  The INA would see military action, most famously at Imphal and Kohima, and in Burma, but months before the war ended the INA had been decimated.  Bose’s own immediate future was uncertain at best, considering that Britain triumphed at the end of the war and that he had fought for the enemy, but providence had something else in store for Bose.  He is reported to have been killed in an air crash near Taiwan in September 1945.  Many in India refused to believe reports of his death; some still do so. It seemed a bizarre, certainly an unfair, death for one anointed ‘Netaji’, the hero of the nation.

The country was still reeling from the death of Subhas Bose when the British decided to initiate legal proceedings against some of its officers on charges of sedition, murder, and waging illegal war against the King-Emperor. That may explain, in part, why the RIN mutiny went into near obscurity, but oddly enough it was the saga of the INA that was, again in part, the catalyst for the RIN strike.  What cannot be doubted is that the naval mutiny was, as Sumit Sarkar, one of India’s leading historians, wrote, ‘one of the most truly heroic, if also largely forgotten, episodes in our freedom struggle.’  The rebels themselves underscored the importance of what they had achieved: ‘Our strike has been a historic event in the life of our nation.  For the first time the blood of men in the Services and in the streets flowed together in a common cause.  We in the Services will never forget this.  We know also that you, our brothers and sisters, will not forget.  Long live our great people!  Jai Hind!’

The enlisted sailors (or ‘ratings’, as they are known in naval jargon) had grievances galore. They were recruited under false promises of a decent salary, prospects for some advancement, good food, and a steady uniformed job in the defence of their nation.  What they got in return was rotten food, poor working conditions, and the racial insults that Indians were expected to bear chin up, even in good humour, with the alleged stoicism of their English officers.  It is not only conventional to think that subalterns cannot think for themselves, but also that they cannot look beyond their own little worlds to the world outside. Yet, the words of the ratings, and the pronouncements of the Naval Central Strike Committee, formed to represent the demands of the rebels, unequivocally suggest that they had other concerns as well.  The end of the war meant that men would be released back into civilian life and prospects for employment for demobilized men were poor.  Moreover, the ratings objected to the fact that they were being deployed in Indonesia, where the Dutch were determined to restore the colonial order after the Japanese interregnum, to stifle the genuine political aspirations of Indonesians. Besides all this, there was also the brute fact that there was a yawning gap between the treatment of British and Indian sailors.

On February 18, the ratings at the HMIS Talwar, a signals training establishment, struck.  The groundwork, one might say, had been laid weeks before.  The Commanding Officer of HMIS Talwar was given to vile racial abuse and contemptuous treatment of the ratings and had earned notoriety among them.  He commonly addressed them as ‘sons of bitches’, ‘sons of coolies’, and sons of bloody junglees’.  On 1 December 1945, the HMIS Talwar and other naval ships and shore establishments were expected to be displayed to the elites of the city, but early that morning British officers found the parade ground sprayed with signs, among them ‘Quit India’, ‘Revolt Now’, and ‘Down with the Imperialists’.  This was later determined to be the handiwork of Balai Chand Dutt, a senior telegraphist who had served with the navy for five years, and whose published memoirs furnish one of the key expressions of subaltern dissent.  Pramod Kapoor, whose book on the RIN mutiny is being released as this essay is being written, has shared precious and little-known details which suggest that, however spontaneous the uprising, the mutineers worked with the design of precipitating the revolt.  As one instance, the young journalist, Kusum Nair, later the author of such classics on Indian agriculture as Blossoms in the Dust and In Defence of the Irrational Peasant, engineered crushed stones to be placed on the evening of February 17 in the dal that was dished out to the ratings.  The food was customarily inedible; more so would it be on the day of the uprising.

“Rioting on the Streets in Bombay”, Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, 18-23 February 1946.

Just how widespread was the disaffection became clear soon enough:  in less than three days, at the height of the strike, the revolt had spread to over 75 ships, 20 shore establishments, and 20,000 sailors, all under the age of 26.  The British were inclined to respond with force, more particularly because, as Field Marshall Wavell, the Viceroy of India, put it in a telegram to Prime Minister Clement Attlee, the ‘example of the Royal Air Force, who got away with what was really a mutiny, has some responsibility for the present situation.’  The alarm in the establishment can be gauged from the fact that, astonishingly, Admiral John Henry Godfrey declared that he was prepared to see the navy decimated but that he would not tolerate insurrection.  What is not less remarkable is the widespread support the striking ratings received from workers and the residents of Bombay who responded to the Naval Central Strike Committee’s call for a city-wide hartal with enthusiasm.  Though, as shall be seen shortly, neither the Congress nor the Muslim League, the two main political parties of the day, were supportive of the strike, common people engaged in uncommon acts of fraternization. Many of the ratings had been on a hunger-strike; others, besieged by British troops, had run out of food; but, as the newspaper accounts and other testimonials suggest, people freely distributed food to the ratings and shopkeepers even encouraged them to take whatever they needed and refused payment.  Meanwhile, the strike spread to naval establishments over the country, and in Karachi the HMIS Hindustan was subdued after a gun battle.  The state of affairs in Bombay is suggested by the headlines, generally spread across the entire length of newspapers, that appeared on February 23, the day after Bombay no longer seemed under the control of the colonial state: ‘Bombay in Revolt: City a Battlefield’ (The Hindustan Times); ‘Nightmare Grips Bombay’ (Dawn—then published in Bombay); and ‘Rioters Machine-Gunned in Bombay (The Statesman).

HMIS-Hindustan after the British reasserted their control.

Around 400 people would be killed in the conflict.  Yet, after all this, the strike came to an end on February 23—suddenly, all too suddenly. The capitulation of the Strike Committee is said to have been forced by the fact that, barring Aruna Asaf Ali, none of the political leaders were behind the strike.  One might reasonably expect that Gandhi, who at least took a principled stand against violence, would throw in his weight to persuade the ratings to give up their arms.  Just how much influence he could still exercise in such an affair is a question that few have asked.  It is, nevertheless, the position of the other principal political figures that has in the historiography of the naval mutiny come under scrutiny and sometimes withering criticism. Nehru is said to have wanted to rush to the sailors and lend his support to them, but the conventional narrative states that Patel, who had been authorized by the Congress to converse and negotiate with the members of the Strike Committee, dissuaded Nehru from doing anything so rash.  It is on Patel’s assurance to the ratings that their grievances would be addressed, and that equally they would not be punished if they surrendered, that they are said to have called off the strike.

As Kapoor has detailed in his book, 1946—The Last War of Independence:  Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, the story of the betrayal of the ratings is one of the more wretched chapters in the history of Indian nationalism and the failure of political leadership. The sailors were imprisoned, put into camps, dismissed without payment of past dues, and sent back to their villages.  They would be lost to history. Yet ‘failure’ is an anodyne word to describe the hard-boiled realism that prompted Patel, Azad, Nehru, and Jinnah to throw the ratings to the wolves.  That is a reasonable interpretation, especially from the standpoint of those who have always been inclined to view the Congress as a bourgeois organization that was only interested in the trappings of power.  Independence was on the horizon and an insurrection in the armed forces of the nation—a nation that was about to be parceled out between the Congress and the Muslim League—was not to be tolerated.  As Patel (in)famously wrote in defence of his action to persuade the ratings to surrender, doubtless with the steely pragmatism and determination for which he is now admired by the country’s political leaders, ‘discipline in the Army cannot be tampered with. . . . We will want the Army even in free India.’

There are far too many other interesting questions that emerge from the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946 that cannot be addressed here, but two points may, in conclusion, be raised for further reflection on the part of the reader.  The communists alone are credited with having given the ratings their full support, but one must recall that communists had lost ground owing to their failure to support the Quit India movement.  They had now found an opening for redemption that they were scarcely likely to give up.  What is of course in many ways distinctive about Indian communism is the fact that there are many strands within it, and that most Indian communists have long been reconciled to working within the constitutional framework.  One suspects that a more nuanced reading of the communist support of the mutiny is needed, more particularly because in most countries communist regimes have been ruthless in suppressing dissent within the armed forces.  Secondly, nearly every commentator has pointed to the fact, highlighted by the ratings themselves, that Hindus and Muslims found themselves joined in a common cause and exhibited what appear to be feelings of brotherhood. If that was indeed the case, then there is all the more reason, given the fact that some within India would like to move the country towards the path of a Hindu rashtra, to celebrate the ability to transgress the religious divide.  It is a pity that this act of insurrection, coming at the tail end of the long struggle for freedom, has remained hidden from history considering that in its course and outcome it has something in it for nearly everyone, not least for those who think that it hastened the end of the British Raj.

This is a slightly revised version of a piece first published under the same title at abplive.in.

For a Gujarati translation, 1946નો ભારતીય નૌસેના બળવો: ક્રાંતિકારી હડતાલ, બ્રિટન ધરાશાયી, click here.

See also a companion piece, substantially different, published in The Indian Express in February 2018 and republished at this site called “An Inconvenient Insurrection“.

Our Very Own ‘Nightingale’:  Lata ‘Didi’ and her Enduring Popularity

(First of two pieces on Lata Mangeshkar)

Vinay Lal

There has never been any question that Lata Mangeshkar, who passed on at the age of 92 on February 6 in Mumbai, was the most popular singer in India.  There have been endless number of affirmations of her popularity, but just why she may have been so popular, to which I shall turn in the second half of this essay, has been much less frequently explored.  Lata certainly never had any equal among female playback singers, though it is sometimes argued that her sister, Asha Bhosle, held her own for at least a period of time, and among male playback singers Muhammad Rafi alone quite possibly rivaled her in popularity. If Lata was the ‘Melody Queen’, he was the ‘Melody King’.  But Lata had the advantage over Rafi Sahib, who was a mere 55 years old at the time of his death, of longevity.  Asha has a large following, to be sure, and many claim that she was more versatile than her older sister. Apart from the question of whether Lata was deservedly more popular than Asha, this ‘debate’ is unlikely to be ever resolved and is best left to those who are avid about their partisanship and who have the time and inclination to press their passionate conviction upon others. 

As a testament to Lata’s popularity, many in the media have since her passing four days ago mentioned her apparently unrivaled repertoire of songs.  Some say that she sang in thirty-six languages, while others are content to mention ‘only’ around 15-20 languages.  Considering that most people cannot sing well in one language, unless they have had some training, a handful of languages would be enough to point to her extraordinary gifts. The huge commentary in the established media and the even greater outpouring of thoughts and sentiments on social media have all coalesced around the staggering number of songs Lata is thought to have sung.  Some have mentioned as many as 25,000, or 30,000, and as far back as 2004 the BBC, in introducing an article by Yash Chopra on the occasion of Lata’s 75th birthday, mentioned ‘50,000 songs’.  The obituary in the New York Times speaks casually of ‘tens of thousands of songs’ that Lata reportedly sang.  Indians have long clamored to get into the Guinness Book of Records for one record or another, and to many Indians it was a matter of pride that the Guinness Book acknowledged her as early as 1974 as ‘the most recorded artist in music history’, though the claim was disputed by Muhammad Rafi.  Just how this dispute was handled is a long story, but in 2011 the Guinness Book acknowledged Asha Bhosle for holding the world record for the largest number of ‘single studio recordings’.  Neither sister holds the record today, that honor having passed on in 2016 to Pulapaka Susheela Mohan who is a veteran playback singer in Telugu films, though she also sings in other languages including Tamil. 

Considering that India is a country obsessed with records and also renowned as a powerhouse of statistics, and that Indian film music aficionados number in the millions, it may be surprising that no one really knows how many songs Lata performed.  However, in other respects as well there is something askance and quaint in the widespread approbation of her as the ‘Nightingale of India’. Growing up in India in the late 1960s, the ‘GK’ (General Knowledge) book assigned in school ensured that we knew that the ‘Lion of the Punjab’ was Lajpat Rai, ‘Frontier Gandhi’ was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Lokamanya (‘Beloved of the Nation’) was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and ‘Deshbandhu’ (‘Friend of the Nation’) was C. R. Das—and that the ‘Nightingale of India’ was Sarojini Naidu, not Lata Mangeshkar.  Sarojini Naidu was, of course, a feisty freedom fighter, a close associate of Gandhi and, after independence, Governor of the United Provinces.  It is a lesser-known fact that she was also an accomplished poet, indeed celebrated by more than one English writer as India’s best poet in English.  Sarojini Naidu was, however, no singer, and it was the expressive, lyrical, and emotive quality of her poetry that earned her, from Mohandas Gandhi, the sobriquet ‘Bharat Kokila’. 

Here Gandhi was following the English tradition that has long associated literature and poetry with the nightingale.  The English romantic poets, in particular, were enchanted with the nightingale, most famously among them John Keats whose ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ remains a staple in English poetry classes. It is perhaps this verse which captures the Indian public’s view of Lata’s ‘full-throated’ voice for the ages: 

                        Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

                             No hungry generations tread thee down;

                        The voice I hear this passing night was heard

                             In ancient days by emperor and clown . . .

His friend and contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his famous ‘Defence of Poetry’, did not doubt that the nightingale commanded the world—as did the poet:  ‘A Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.’  Gandhi knew, however, that the nightingale is not an Indian bird; thus, he refers to Sarojini Naidu by the word ‘kokila’, the indigenous bird that most closely approximates the nightingale. More tellingly, though perhaps few in India at all care for such matters, only the male nightingale sings.  The female does not sing at all; the male nightingale, which has a vast and astonishing repertoire of over 1000 different sounds, compared to around 100 for a blackbird—the bird celebrated by the Beatles with the lines, ‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly’—serenades the female, and that too mainly at night.

Still, even as one takes the measure of Lata’s popularity, a more enduring question remains to be understood.  What made her popular to the extent that she became practically the voice of the nation, and how did she remain at the top for decades?  To many, the answer is obvious:  she had a ‘golden voice’.  By this it is meant that her singing was flawless and her sur was perfect; her singing, it is claimed, was uniquely expressive and she could even get into the skin of the actress for whom she was singing.  Her biographer, Nasreen Munni Kabir, states that Lata also had the gift of capturing the mood of the song and the meaning of the words.  Lata had grit and determination—and discipline, too.  To sing in films in the late 1940s and into the 1960s one had to know Urdu, and Lata had to learn it; and the story is famously told of the time when Dilip Kumar rubbed it into Lata that her Urdu had a little too much of dal-chawal in it!  Lata worked on her Urdu, to the extent that, as Javed Akhtar has related in a recent interview, he did not once hear her mispronounce an Urdu word.  But he suggests that none of this was sufficient to produce the magic that one associates with Lata, and he points out that within fifteen minutes of getting the lyrics for the first time, and not having heard the music either, she had virtually mastered the song.  There was some other quality Lata possessed that was uniquely her own, and Javed Akhtar attributes this to her ability to penetrate to the subtext, the meaning of a song that lay beyond the words.

Beyond even this, I would argue, there is something else that made it possible for Lata to become the heartthrob of the nation. She emerged on the national scene with a bang in 1949 by establishing her presence as a singer in several films, many of which became hits:  Mahal; Barsaat; Andaz; Bazaar; Dulari; and Patanga.  The historical context that saw her take the country by storm is critically important.  India had acquired its independence in 1947 and one of the many questions before the country had to do with the status of women.  Gandhi’s noncooperation movement of 1920-22 had brought women out into the streets for the first time and the trend accelerated with the Salt March and subsequent satyagrahas.  But, in most other respects, women were not part of the public sphere, and though the Constitution that was being drafted by the Constituent Assembly envisioned an equal place for women in Indian society, the prevailing sentiment was that women belonged mainly in the domestic sphere. To take one illustration, though women played an important role in the communist-led Telengana Rebellion (1946-51), studies have shown that even their male compatriots expected women revolutionaries to give up their rifles and return to the kitchen once the rebellion was over. 

At the same time, the struggle for freedom was also built on the idea of service to, and sacrifice for, Bharat Mata.  The nation in most parts of the world is construed as a feminine entity, but in India this had resonance beyond the ordinary for many reasons, among them the fact that Hinduism, in contrast to the Abrahamic faiths, has still retained a space for the feminine in various ways.  This can be seen in the attachment to goddess worship that is still found in nearly all parts of the country, though it is more pronounced in some parts of the country, such as Bengal, than in others.  Indian art during the freedom struggle from the 1920s until the attainment of independence is suffused with invocations to Bharat Mata.  In the aftermath of independence, the idea of Mother India had to be given a new incarnation—and then, fortuitously, Lata came along.  She represented the idea of the feminine principle in its least threatening form.  Where the prominent female singers of the previous generation had heavy, contralto voices, often having to sound almost like a man, as is evidenced amply by Malika Pukhraj and Zohrabai Ambalawali, Lata started off with a voice that was somewhat girlish and somewhat desexed.  The contrast is all too apparent in the very first film, Mahal (1949), where Lata and Zohrabai, both uncredited, first appeared together:  Lata sang ‘Aaayega aayega aanewala, which blew everyone away, but the intoxicating mujra, ‘Yeh raat phir na aayegi’, is performed by Zohrabai.  Lata’s was a voice that domesticated women, so to speak, and put them in their place as keepers of the hearth and custodians of the nation’s morality.  This placed Lata at a considerable remove from the generation preceding her, some of whom also had to struggle against the stigma attached to female singers.

As historians of the Hindi film song have argued, but more importantly as every listener who has heard Lata and Asha Bhosle at some length knows, there is a marked difference in the artistic trajectories of the sisters in one fundamental respect which has a bearing on the argument that Lata speaks for a certain kind of femininity which places her in a different relationship to the idea of the nation.  If Lata’s singing was more soulful, Asha’s singing had more body to it and exuded a kind of raw sensuousness—in part because Asha sang for actresses who had taken up roles where the heroine could to some degree project her sexual identity.  It is common knowledge that Lata would not sing the songs of the vamp, but Asha gave a sexual feel to feminine identity in ways that went beyond simply being reduced to a vamp or someone who did mujra songs. The womanliness that Asha’s voice embodied hinted at sensuousness, a comfort with one’s own sexuality, but only occasionally did it border on the salacious. 

If we had to put this in simpler terms, we can find the source of Lata’s popularity not only in everything that has been ascribed to her—perfect sur, flawless pronunciation, expressive soulful singing, and a genius for comprehending the mood of every song that went beyond the words—but also in the fact that she came to embody the idea of a virginal womanhood almost at the very inception of the nation.  (Some may find the notion of ‘Bharat Mata’ and ‘virginal womanhood’ do not easily sit together, unless one was invoking some Indian conception of the ‘Virgin Mary’.)  No one, after all, speaks of ‘Asha Didi’.  Much work needs to be done to understand the magic wrought in India, and over India, by Lata Didi.

This is a slightly edited version of a piece published under the same title on 10 February 2022 at abplive.in.

Chauri Chaura and the Destiny of India

What is Chauri Chaura?  It is the name of a dusty market town not far from Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, where on this day, 100 years ago, the destiny of India may have been decided—and quite likely in ways that we have yet to comprehend.  Chauri Chaura boasts several martryrs’ memorials, in memory of those who allegedly gave up their lives to secure the country’s freedom from the yoke of colonial rule, and some years ago the Indian railways named the train that runs from Gorakhpur to Kanpur the Chauri Chaura Express.  Nevertheless, Chauri Chaura does not sit well besides the Champaran Satyagraha, the Salt March, or the Quit India Movement in the narrative of ‘the freedom struggle’ as a place that is to be remembered for the glory that it brought upon the country.  It is both present and absent in the national memory.

Shaheed Smarak [Martyrs’ Memorial], Chauri Chaura, Gorakhpur District, Uttar Pradesh.

In early 1922, India was in the thick of the noncooperation movement (asahayoga) that Gandhi had launched in 1920.  The Khilafat movement had also taken hold of north India.  The Gorakhpur Congress and Khilafat committees had taken the lead in organizing volunteers into a national corps, and volunteers had branched out into villages to secure pledges of noncooperation, persuade people and traders to boycott foreign cloth, and help in picketing liquor shops.  The police sought to crack down on such political activity, occasionally wielding the baton on a volunteer, and there was tension in the air. 

On February 5, though some sources say February 4, a procession of volunteers sought to blockade the local bazaar at Mundera and made its way past the local police station where the thanedar issued a warning to retreat.  The crowd responded with taunts and jeers; the thanedar in turn fired some bullets in the air.  The apparent impotence of the police further emboldened the processionists; as the historian Shahid Amin has recounted, they rejoiced with the proclamation that ‘bullets have turned into water by the grace of Gandhiji’.  Then came the real bullets; three men died and several more were wounded.  Incensed, the crowd pelted the policemen with stones and pressed on, and the policemen retreated into the police station.  The crowd bolted the door from outside and set fire to the thana with kerosene from the bazaar.  Twenty-three policemen died:  most were burned to death, and those who survived the flames were hacked to death.

The colonial state moved promptly to exact retribution.  In police language, ‘the rioters had absconded’, but the precise identity of those who had partaken of ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’ mattered less than the fact that mere association, signified for instance by having signed the pledge of noncooperation, was enough to establish guilt.  Neighboring villages were raided; suspects were ferreted out of hiding and rounded up; and before too long 225 men were charged and brought before the session court for a speedy trial.  Nineteen of the 172 men sentenced to death were eventually sent to the gallows.  They are now remembered as the ‘martyrs’ of Chauri Chaura.

The police station (thana) at Chauri Chaura, now reinstated in national memory as another site of martrydom.

No one, understandably, was as shaken up by the incident at Chauri Chaura as Mohandas Gandhi, already anointed the Mahatma.  Gandhi had pledged to bring swaraj to the nation in one year if the country was prepared to accept his leadership and adhere strictly to principled nonviolent resistance, and the Congress was on the verge of launching a campaign of ‘mass civil disobedience’ for which Gandhi had assigned responsibility to Sardar Patel.  On February 8, Gandhi wrote a confidential letter to members of the Congress Working Committee where he described himself as ‘violently agitated by the events in the Gorakhpur District’.  He also hinted that he was thinking of calling for the suspension of the Bardoli satyagraha: ‘I personally can never be a party to a movement half violent and half nonviolent, even though it may result in the attainment of so-called swaraj, for it will not be real swaraj as I have conceived it.’

Gandhi’s biographer, D. G. Tendulkar, wrote that he was at this time ‘the generalissimo of the Congress’; some others were inclined to use harsher language and would have characterized him as the ‘dictator’. Gandhi was of the view that the ‘mob’ violence at Chauri Chaura had shown that the country was not yet ready for swaraj.  The nonviolence of most Indians was the nonviolence of the weak, embraced not from conviction or even from an understanding of what is entailed by ahimsa, but only because it was expedient to use it among a people who were almost entirely unarmed.  Nonviolence was for Gandhi never merely a policy to be adopted or dropped at will, nor was it even just a mode of offering resistance; it was the only way of being an ethically informed person in the world. The conduct of volunteers pledged to use nonviolence had brought before him the palpable truth that India was far from being ready to embrace nonviolence, and that the continuance of the noncooperation movement boded ill for the country’s future.  Consequently, he prevailed upon the Congress Working Committee meeting at Bardoli, Gujarat, on February 11-12, to suspend the movement; moreover, the committee passed a resolution ‘deploring the inhuman conduct of the mob at Chauri Chaura in having brutally murdered constables and wantonly burnt the Police Thana and tenders its sympathy to the families of the bereaved.’

Headline from The Bombay Chronicle

It was but inevitable that the decision to suspend mass civil disobedience would be met with a storm of criticism.  His critics declared that, though the decision had come down from the Congress Working Committee, there was no question that it had done so at the behest of Gandhi.  The Mahatma was much lesser a person than he was made out to be, some charged, since he could not countenance opposition to his views and had acted unilaterally and with his customary authoritarianism.  The other serious charge was that Gandhi had shown poor judgment:  if he knew the country was behind him, he should also have known that India was on the cusp of freedom and that British administration had in some places been virtually paralyzed.  Jawaharlal Nehru, writing his autobiography in 1941, recalled the mood at the time: ‘The sudden suspension of our movement after the Chauri Chaura incident was resented, I think, by almost all the prominent Congress leaders—other than Gandhiji, of course. My father (who was in jail at that time) was much upset by it. The younger people were naturally even more agitated.’ It is sometimes said that Bhagat Singh, who was all of 15 years old at the time, was shattered by the decision—and that the revolutionary movement was born off the disenchantment with the thinking of the Mahatma.

‘I see that all of you are terribly cut up’, Gandhi wrote to Jawaharlal, ‘over the resolutions of the Working Committee.  I sympathize with you, and my heart goes out to [your] father.’  But to the argument that Motilal, Jawaharlal, Lajpat Rai, and many others had put forward, namely that it was absurd to let the unruly behavior of a ‘mob of excited peasants’ in some ‘remote village’ permit the outcome of a national movement, Gandhi had a clear and unequivocally straightforward reply that he issued in Young India on February 16.  Tendulkar has been nearly singular in recognizing, quite rightly, Gandhi’s long statement as ‘one of the most extraordinary human documents ever written.’  Gandhi explains why he commenced a five-day fast on February 12 and why he feels it necessary to undergo penance (prayaschit), and then cautions that the violence in Gorakhpur district should not be viewed as an aberration: ‘Chauri Chaura is after all an aggravated symptom.  I have never imagined that there has been no violence, mental or physical, in the places where repression is going on.’  In modern everyday parlance, the violence there was a wake-up call: ‘The tragedy of Chauri Chaura is really the index-finger.  It shows the way India may go, if drastic precautions be not taken.’

It is, in the historiography of Indian nationalism, a settled matter that Gandhi made a catastrophic mistake in calling for the suspension of the noncooperation movement.  His own reputation, on the standard account, took a nosedive; just a few weeks after the incident, he was hauled into jail on charges of sedition and fomenting disaffection against the government, and at a trial on March 20 he was found guilty and sentenced to a six-year term in prison.  For some years, Gandhi even appeared to some to have disappeared from the public view.  It would be another twenty-five years before India would attain independence, and his assassin was not alone in arguing that the supposed architect of Indian independence may have set back the cause of Indian freedom.  It is, of course, a contrafactual to argue that India may well have been free long before 1947 if Gandhi had not imposed his will on the Congress and pressed for a suspension of the civil disobedience movement.  But is another view possible?

In the years after Chauri Chaura and his release from prison, Gandhi would go on to grab the world’s attention with the Dandi march. His tour through strife torn Noakhali and his fast in Calcutta have been mentioned as among the most heroic moments in an epic life.  Chauri Chaura is, when not seen as a blot, largely obscured in the narratives.  I wish to suggest that, in withdrawing mass civil disobedience, Gandhi was extraordinarily daring and took what can be viewed as one of the boldest steps in world history to secure politics on an ethical footing. That colonial injustice was writ large did not allow him, in his view, to exonerate the participants in what he with characteristic bluntness called ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’.  The question of means in relation to ends in politics is inescapably present to those who have aspire to an ethical framework of action, but Gandhi’s much loftier conception of the ethical life did not lead to the calculus where the interests of a nation could be placed before the lives of even a few individuals. Who, he asked, was prepared to wipe the tears from the faces of the widows of the butchered policemen?  It is possible to argue that if India, far more so than most other countries that would be set on the path of decolonization, could persist with democracy and not slide into authoritarian political rule or military dictatorship, it may have had to do with Gandhi’s own principled adherence to nonviolence and the manner in which he took India along with him on that journey.

It is thus not ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’ but rather the miracle of Chauri Chaura that we are called upon to think about at this critical juncture in the country’s history when Gandhi is openly derided and the Republic of India is on the precipice of an interminable decline into authoritarianism. We should be haunted both by ‘the crime of Chauri Chaura’ and the possibilities of redemption that knot nonviolence to violence.

First published at aplive.in under the same title with a truncated last paragraph. Access it here.

The published version at ABP (Gujarati) available in Gujarati as ચૌરી ચૌરા અને ભારતનું ભાગ્ય

Norwegian translation by Lars Olden available as Chauri Chaura og Indias skjebne

Udham Singh and the Walled Garden:  The Mobile and the Immobile

Part III of 3 parts of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is not, then, a film without its insights.  Anti-colonial cinema in India has been prone to cast English officials such as O’Dwyer, or the officials who appear in Lagaan, as wooden characters.  It is immaterial that, even in a film claiming to be based on ‘true events’, Udham is shown—in the absence of supportive historical evidence—as having ingratiated himself into O’Dwyer’s good graces and found employment at his home, but this artistic license permits the viewer to be privy to exchanges between the two which furnish a few clues to some peculiarities of the colonial sensibility.  The British in India saw themselves as a transcendent force for the good, as custodians of law and order and firm adherents of the rule of law, and as exemplars of the idea of fair play whose keen sense of justice won them the goodwill of ordinary Indians.  The highly placed colonial official Major-General John Malcolm, one-time Governor of Bombay and a prolific author, was speaking for every one of his ilk when in 1823 he wrote that ‘almost all who from knowledge and experience have been capable of forming any judgment upon the question, are agreed that our power in India rests on the general opinion of the Natives of our comparative superiority in good faith, wisdom, and strength, to their own rulers’ (A Memoir of Central India, Vol 2, Appendix 18). And that was putting it in mild and even polite language, considering that James Mill thought of India as being in a ‘rude’ (primitive) stage of civilization and others wrote of the ‘savagery’ of Indians.  To the end of his life, O’Dwyer—a more critical character than the immediate perpetrator of the massacre since as the administrator of the Punjab he was responsible for shaping the policy in that province—persisted in holding to the view that it was the educated who had instigated the common folk of the Punjab to rebellion and that the yeomen peasantry could not be aroused to political consciousness except through the machinations of the Indian political elite.  Both O’Dwyer and Dyer remained wholly unrepentant, firm in their belief that the Amritsar shooting was a military necessity and a deterrent that alone could prevent India from erupting into rebellion as in 1857.  If, at the end of it all, there is not much else that one can divine from the filmmaker’s attempt to enter into O’Dwyer’s frame of mind, it is largely because Michael O’Dwyer, as his memoir amply demonstrates, was a man of singular mediocrity.

Statue of Udham Singh, Amritsar, 1990.
Statue of Udham Singh, Amrtisar, 2018.

Amidst the humdrum life of Michael O’Dwyer and the peregrinations of Udham Singh, there are two moments of cinematic illumination which set up what is the fundamental story of modern times, that is the dialectic of motion and stillness, the mobile and the immobile.  When Udham walked into Caxton Hall on 13 March 1940 with the intention of eliminating O’Dwyer, he carried with him an identity card that bore the name of ‘Mohamed Singh Azad’.  Popular tradition has improved upon historical fact and rendered the name, as does Sardar Udham, as ‘Ram Mohamed Singh Azad’.  What does this signify, asks a senior British official, to which Inspector John Swain somewhat haltingly replies:  ‘Sir, this name signifies the religious unity of India’. Udham’s acolytes hold this up, quite reasonably, as an illustration of their shaheed’s secular credentials, but this gesture, even as it anticipates the theatrics of Amar Akbar Anthony by a generation, is somewhat predictable.  Far more arresting is the fact that Udham assumed multiple aliases, traveling incognito with passports in the names of Sher Singh, Ude Singh, Udham Singh, and Frank Brazil.  We moderns like to think of ourselves as living in a (to use that dreadful cliché) global village, but ours is an era not only of passport control but draconian surveillance regimes.  The passport itself is a relatively modern invention just as the nation-state is the ghetto from which we cannot escape. What is most remarkable is just how mobile Udham could be, transgressing borders with relative ease.  Against this mobility is the indubitable fact of the immobility of the thousands who were trapped in the walled enclosure known as Jallianwala Bagh.  Some could run, but only a few metres before running into the bagh’s outer wall or being mowed down by the deadly hail of fire. Many others could not run at all; hundreds were trampled over in the ensuing stampede. In what is the film’s darkest and chilling moment, Udham crawls over the wall of the bagh later in the evening and stumbles upon mounds of the dead and the wounded.   In an extended sequence lasting over fifteen minutes, he leaves with the wounded and repeatedly returns to take them to safety: in the stillness of the night, there are at most the faint moans of the wounded.  It is Ghalib, writing on Delhi as a desolate city of the dead after the British had reduced Hindustan’s first city to abject submission, that comes to mind:  1857 redux, precisely what the two henchmen of the Raj thought they were averting.

*****

The Jallianwala Bagh Memorial has been mired in controversy since the present government sought to transform it over the last several years into what they call a ‘world-class’ tourist site. Though Amritsar has a statue of Udham Singh that was installed in 1990, a large new statue of Udham Singh, which though sponsored by the Kamboj community to which he belonged can also be seen as part of the renovation initiative, was put up in 2018 just outside the memorial complex.  The statue from 1990 shows Udham as a turbaned and bearded Sikh, holding a revolver in his right hand.  The sculptor was, one could say, attempting to capture a likeness of the man in the act of shooting Michael O’Dwyer; on the other hand, Udham was neither bearded nor turbaned when he carried out the fateful act.  Indeed, in the preceding six years that he lived in England, he abjured the external signs that identify the Sikh male.  The new statue has been mired in controversy: some have objected to the loose and ill-fitting turban that sits atop Udham’s head, while others cavil that his outstretched right hand is sans revolver.  The Government of India is said to have objected to a revolver in one hand, saying that it would ‘send a wrong message’, especially to the young; the clod of earth in the palm of his right hand is supposed to represent the soil of Jallianwala Bagh now sanctified by the blood of the hundreds who were martyred.  However, to understand what is at the heart of the controversy, one can do no better than to turn to Sunam, Udham Singh’s birthplace, where the viewer is confronted with the bizarre fact of two statues of him, installed in the same year of him, that stand cheek by jowl.  One depicts him as a Khalsa Sikh, with unshorn hair and a beard; the other shows a clean-shaven man, recognizable from most of the pictures of Udham Singh that circulated in the public realm in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and in the following two to three decades.

Close-up of the outstretched arm of Udham Singh holding a lump of earth in his right hand, from a statue of him in Amritsar, 2018

There is little if anything to suggest that Udham Singh was an observant Sikh, much less someone who swore by a Khalsa Sikh identity.  Many contemporary public commentators have expressed alarm at the propensity of the present government to appropriate the most renowned figures of the freedom struggle, including figures such as Bhagat Singh who was an avowed atheist, but the apotheosis of Udham Singh (and Bhagat Singh, for that matter) into a Khalsa Sikh is not any less troubling. It is unlikely that these controversies will die down anytime soon.  The functionaries of the state and the middle class in India have agreed upon a solution that deflects some of the fundamental questions and promises to satisfy the nation’s ego. This solution is captured in some of the scripted lines that appear on a dark blank screen at the end of Sircar’s film where it is solemnly declared that ‘more than 100 years later, India is yet to receive an official apology from the British government for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.’  An apology that has to be forced, as seems to be the case, from the British is no apology at all; an apology that may arrive when India is in the position of being a world power, if that day should arrive at all, would be nothing else but a demonstration of the coercive power of the strong and an instantiation of the maxim that ‘might makes right’. Little do those who would like an apology know that we are in the midst of an epidemic of apologies. Some would like an apology to be accompanied by substantial financial compensation, to put some teeth into it and make it hurt.  Perhaps we should think of an apology, unthinkable for the foreseeable future, which would entail the British erecting, of their own free will, a statue of Udham Singh alongside the one of Mohandas Gandhi that stands in Westminster. The pigeons, at least, will have a field day.

(concluded)

See also Part I:  The Making of Sardar Udham:  A Massacre, A Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge, here.

Part II:  The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh, here.

The 3 parts together were first published in marginally shorter form as “The Enigma of Udham Singh: Jallianwala Bagh and the Solitude of Revenge” in Open magazine (print and digital, 5 November 2021), available here.