The National Imaginary: Patriots and the Virus in the West

(Eighth in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part III of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”


A demonstration with around 2,500 people outside the state capitol in Washington against Governor Inslee’s stay-at-home order, April 19. Photo: Alex Milan Tracy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The contours of each country’s national history appear to be on display in the responses that have been witnessed across the world to the coronavirus pandemic.  However, in suggesting this, I do not by any means wish to be seen as subscribing to the ideas of distinct personality traits that were behind “the national character” studies undertaken in the 1940s, a project that involved what were many of the leading anthropologists of that time, among them Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.  The argument rather is that someone such as the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is perhaps more clearly implicated in such a view, judging from his observations about the “freedom-loving instincts” of the English people, and there is little doubt that “national character” studies were rather more common at that time as Orwell’s own essay is indubitably structured along those lines as well.  It is not difficult to see why the temptation to produce types such as “the freedom-loving” English, the “yellow” or cowardly Japanese, or the militaristic German might not have been irresistible during the Second World War.   Nor is it the case, keeping in mind the preceding two parts of this essay, that there is a seamless history of “Englishness” from Samuel Pepys writing in the second half of the seventeenth century to Britain’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, though it is striking that, to take one illustration, Britain was an outlier in its refusal to use quarantine in the nineteenth century when the question of controls over the movement of Muslim pilgrims came up at the Constantinople Sanitary Conference in 1866.  The French and the Ottomans had pressed the Government of India to impose quarantines as one measure to control the spread of cholera among Muslim pilgrims, but they encountered a wall of resistance.  Though the British argued that they were unwilling to consider any measures that were likely to alienate Muslim pilgrims, it is almost certainly the case that their then rigid adherence to the doctrines of free trade and free movement made them deeply suspicious of quarantine.

But let us return momentarily to George Orwell.  The modern world, he says, cannot be understood apart from the “overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty”, and perforce “one must admit that the divisions between nation and nation are founded on real differences of outlook.”  The English are far from being the only people who claim to have a special attachment to liberty, and the question of French national characteristics has come up in the debate that is now animating France on whether the proposed deployment of smart phone tracking apps to inform people if they have come in contact with an infected person can be reconciled with the tradition of individual liberties.  In late March, the French interior minister dismissed the idea of digital tracking, which has thus far been used with remarkable success in South Korea to contain COVID-19, as anathema to “French culture”.  The junior minister in the French government who is responsible for digital affairs and is charged with the development of the app, Cédric O, has similarly gone on record to suggest that the debate “has to do with French history and a sensitivity to freedom that is inherent to French culture.”  The supposition is that France as a constitutional democracy has a long-standing commitment to the “rule of law”, and that the individual’s love of liberty, subject only to the constraint that such love should not constrain someone else from their rightful exercise of liberty, is inextricably interwoven into the “rule of law”; correspondingly, Asian nations, even when they, as may be said of present-day South Korea, display democratic features, have only a historically contingent relationship to the idea of freedom as it is not intrinsic to their cultures.


President Macron’s Third Address to France on the Coronavirus Pandemic, 13 April 2020.

The official cue to frame the debate as one pitting the apparently severe constraints on freedom of movement deemed necessary to mitigate the coronavirus against the cultural and political inheritance of the French people may have come from the French President, Emmanuel Macron.  In addressing the nation on April 13th, he expressed the hope that the discussion in the National Assembly would make it abundantly clear to the nation that “under no circumstances should the coronavirus weaken our democracy or infringe on [our] civil liberties.”  It is telling, however, that if French officials have invoked the cherished principles of the French Revolution and its call to liberté, égalité, fraternité, they have not taken recourse to the idea that the French have an inalienable right to frequent their neighborhood café for the customary coffee or aperitif.  The English claim their liberties only for themselves:  as Orwell would have it, the English like their pub and their “nice cup of tea”, and are at heart a nation of flower-lovers, stamp-collectors, coupon-snippers, darts-players, and crossword-puzzle fans.  They had an empire, too, as Orwell—who was born as Eric Arthur Blair in Motihari, in present-day Bihar in India, and served in the Imperial Police Service in Burma from 1922 until his resignation in March 1928—knew all too well, but “the patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious.” France, that other freedom-loving nation on the continent, has in contrast always thought of itself as a country that sets an example to others: thus, in the present debate on whether digital apps might be used to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Sacha Houlié, a French lawmaker from President Macron’s own party, La République En Marche, put it quite candidly:  “We are France.  In terms of civil liberties, being France means something.  It means that, in a sense, the world is watching what we do.”


Protestors at the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on April 30. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

The world has better things to do than watch France. But let us put that aside. Given the long histories of European colonialism, and the unspeakable brutalities of colonial wars, one might with very good cause forthright dismiss all talk of the supposedly intrinsic attachment to the ideas of liberty among the British, French, or indeed other Europeans as nothing more than bunkum and balderdash.  To do so would be to fall grievously into the error of supposing that unearthing the hypocrisies of peoples, or nations, furnishes enough warrant to dismiss the motive force of the national imaginary in shaping a country’s social response to something like the coronavirus pandemic. The demonstrations over the last few weeks in the United States against the restrictions that have been placed on the movement of people, as well as against the mandated closing of schools, universities, government offices, indeed all “non-essential” businesses and private enterprises, provides yet another if more muddled illustration of how national histories and notions of national identity continue to play a critical shape in shaping the political epidemiology of a global pandemic such as COVID-19.  Demonstrations had broken out, as reported in major newspapers and media outlets, in mid- to late-March in Michigan, Ohio, Idaho, Kentucky, Washington, and other American states against the continued lockdown and stay-at-home orders that are now common to nearly all parts of the United States.  The protestors, judging from interviews, newspaper accounts, statements released to the press, and the placards that they have been carrying, have expressed a strong desire to be able to go back to work and have demanded that businesses, churches, and public spaces such as beaches be re-opened.  “My constitutional rights are essential”, read one placard held by a supporter of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, while in Richmond, Virginia, demonstrators held placards bearing slogans such as “End the Shut Down” and “We Will Not Comply.”  In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a boy held aloft a sign, “Freedom is Essential”, while another displayed a placard with a provocation, “Give me Liberty or Give me COVID-19.”  Whatever one may make of the inexpediency and perhaps insensitivity of such demonstrations, they cannot be dismissed merely as expressions of the entity to which modern man has been reduced:  homo economicus.  The demonstrators may want to return to work, but the recourse to another language—freedom, liberty, and rights—also impresses.


Demonstration at the State Capitol in Denver, Colorado, on April 19, calling for the reopening of the state. Photo: Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images.

Trump, a voracious consumer of Fox News, which has been vocal in its sharp dismissal of state governors who have insisted on more rigorous lockdowns as “authoritarian”, himself has egged on the demonstrators with the all-caps tweets with which his name is now indelibly linked:  “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Virginia, with its (in the American experience) hallowed history as the birthplace of some of the country’s most well-known founding fathers—Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, among others—has especially rankled Trump as a state that has gone over to the other side and Trump has called to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment.  It is under siege.”  There is ample evidence that the demonstrators have in part also been instigated by right-wing groups, white nationalists, militant supporters of the constitutional right to bear arms, anti-abortion activists, religious fundamentalists, even—what is more particular to the US with its own particular histories of resistance to any state-imposed intrusions on private life—anti-vaccination groups. Some of the protests have been funded by innocuous sounding organizations such as the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the Michigan Liberty Militia, and the Michigan Freedom Fund, but the link of some organizations to neo-Nazi ideology, white nationalism, or to such causes as the state support of Christianity or the militant advocacy of the unchecked right to private ownership of arms cannot be doubted.

(to be continued)

See also:  Part II, “The Pub Crawl and the Sprint of the Virus:  Britain, COVID-19, and Englishness”, here.

Part I:  “Life in the Time of Plague:  Samuel Pepys in London, 1663-1666”, here.

The Pub Crawl and the Sprint of the Virus: Britain, COVID-19, and Englishness

(Seventh in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part II of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”


“The Tavern Scene”, also known as “The Orgy”, third in a series called “The Rake’s Progress”, painting by William Hogarth, 1735, from the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

The diary of Samuel Pepys, which gives us unusual insights into everyday life in London among the upper crust during the Great Plague, raises some fundamentally interesting questions about what one might describe as national histories and the logic of social response in each country to what is now the global pandemic known as COVID-19.  The diary is taken by social historians to be the supreme example of the English sensibility at work, a claim that may appear to be controverted in my suggestion that much in Pepys’ representation of what the plague wrought appears to anticipate the questions that are being asked the world over in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.  It may appear to be the case that I am advocating for the view that if one has seen one plague, one has seen all; quite to the contrary, we ought to take seriously the view commonly encountered among epidemiologists, “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic.”  The so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-19 was, for reasons that have not been entirely understood to the present day, especially fatal to young men in their 20s and 30s, and even infants; on the other hand, COVID-19, though now known to strike people of all ages, has been the death knell more particularly for the very elderly.  If, thus far, the advanced industrialized countries of the West appear to have borne the brunt of COVID-19, in the influenza that accompanied the “Great War” countries such as India and Indonesia, both of which were under colonial rule, and China, which was mired in poverty and deeply fractured by internal strife, suffered the most. But, these differences apart, to what extent is it possible to say that the Englishness of the English informed Pepys’ thinking as it does of the English at present, and that the American, French, Chinese, Indian, or other responses to the coronavirus pandemic have, in turn, been shaped both by the contours of national histories and the sensibilities born of sharply varying conceptions of ‘culture’ and ways of experiencing notions of self, identity, and community.

The World Health Organization has from the outset of the pandemic pushed for “social distancing” as a universal protocol and national governments have generally followed suit, prescribing it to different degrees and designating the measures that have restricted the movements of people, confined them largely to their homes, and strangulated the public sphere under various names such as “lockdown”, “shelter-in-place”, “stay-at-home”, and “Movement Control”.  Yet, days before Britain on March 20th fell in with the rest of the world and Boris Johnson called for the closure of all non-essential businesses and a ban on public meetings, the British government had signaled its intention to defy the widely accepted international protocol on social distancing and continue to permit limited social gatherings and keep Britain, to use the clichéd expression, open for business.  As Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser to the British government, explained on Sky News, draconian measures designed to keep people entirely confined to their homes might work for a period of time, but the virus was bound to return once those restrictions were lifted.  Besides, as the Prime Minister had said, the British public would experience “behavioral fatigue” if they could not exercise their freedoms.  If, on the other hand, the onset of infections could be staggered by not shuttering the economy, thereby also relieving health systems of a crushing load of cases, “herd immunity” might develop among the people.

The public commentary on Great Britain’s “herd immunity” debacle has been profuse, but nearly without exception it has focused both on the quite possibly flawed epidemiological understanding of COVID-19 and the poor messaging of the government. It is vaccination that typically generates herd immunity, and the notion that an immune population might be created by a lethal infectious agent opens up the possibility that some lives, perhaps a great many lives, are viewed as expendable.  On March 12th, while warning the British public that the country faced “the worst public health crisis for a generation” and that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”, Prime Minister Johnson nevertheless said that he was neither prepared to close schools nor join Scotland in banning gatherings of more than 500 people. Johnson was prepared only to advise those over 70 that they should desist from taking cruises just as schools were to refrain from taking pupils on trips abroad. It is not in Britain alone that people were aghast at such pronouncements emanating from the highest offices of the land that seemed to suggest that the British government was aiming at creating an epidemic by having a significant portion, perhaps as much as 60 percent, of the populace get infected in the expectation that the “herd immunity” thus developed would eventually render the virus impotent.

The death toll in Britain from the coronavirus stood at 12 on March 12th; eight days later, when Johnson in a televised address to the nation declared the decision of the British government to reverse course and join the world in advocating for a total ban on public gatherings and the virtual shuttering of the economy, the number had risen to nearly 150. “We are collectively telling cafes, pubs, bars, restaurants”, Johnson said as indicated in the transcript of his remarks released by the Prime Minister’s Office, “to close tonight as soon as they reasonably can, and not to open tomorrow. . . . And listening to what I have just said, some people may of course be tempted to go out tonight.  But please don’t.  You may think you are invincible, but there is no guarantee you will get mild symptoms, and you can still be a carrier of the disease and pass it on to others.”  Counseling, as he had done earlier in the address, the public to stay at home, Johnson had this to add:  “I know how difficult this is, how it seems to go against the freedom-loving instincts of the British people.”  He appears also to have said, as reported in the liberal Guardian, “We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub”, though the more conservative Sun rendered it quite differently:  “Mr Johnson said he realized it [the government order] went against what he called “‘the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub.’”


English Pubs and London’s Night Scene, before the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020.

Let us not quibble at the moment over the differences, significant as they are, in the accounts of Johnson’s remarks as found in the Guardian and the Sun:  if it is only people “born in England” who have the inalienable right to go to the pub, that would seem to exclude the millions of immigrants who have put down roots in Britain and taken citizenship, not to mention the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh.  One can scarcely imagine a more offensive remark at a time when immigrant doctors and health workers who staff Britain’s National Health Service, which Johnson has more recently thanked profusely for restoring him to health after his dangerous flirtation with coronavirus-induced death, have clearly gone out of the way to render service to a nation that has often been inclined to treat them as something little better than second-class citizens.  There is yet a more grave consideration here:  In Johnson’s extraordinary invocation of the restrictions demanded by the pandemic as an affront to the freedom-loving instincts of the British and most certainly English people, and as a violation of their inalienable right to the pub, we are face-to-face with the political epidemiology of COVID-19.  Enough has been said by virologists, medical practitioners, and scientists about the epidemiology of the coronavirus; and increasingly, though this language is opaque to most journalists, we are also hearing a good deal about its social epidemiology and the visibly greater vulnerability of the poor, the working-class, and the socially and politically disadvantaged to COVID-19.  It is Friedrich Engels who, in his majestic The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), furnished the grounds of an incipient social epidemiology in his penetrating analysis of the greater susceptibility of the working class to deprivation, desolation, and disease.  The “usual consequences of inhaling factory dust”, he wrote in a characteristically blunt passage on the workers of Manchester amongst whom he lived and worked for two years, “are the spitting of blood, heavy, noisy breathing, pains in the chest, coughing and sleeplessness.”  It is in fact social epidemiology that is now helping us to chart the disproportionately detrimental effects of COVID-19 as it makes its way across prison populations, slums, chawls, ghettos, favelas, banlieues, shantytowns, immigrant neighborhoods, and working-class enclaves. [For an excellent discussion of what Engels saw in Manchester, the reader is referred to Howard Waitzkin, “The Social Origins of Illness: A Neglected History”, in Embodying InequalityEpidemiologic Perspectives, ed. Nancy Krieger (Routledge, 2016.]

Gustave Dore London 1872

London, by Gustave Dore (1872).

Political epidemiology, however, takes us still further afield to a larger set of questions on how national histories and conceptions of national character have shaped the response of politicians and the populace alike to the coronavirus across countries and political systems. England has long prided itself on its essential distinction from everyone else, but nothing is more critical to English political life and self-awareness than the idea that it is apart from continental Europe even as it partakes fully of the legacies of Western civilization.  The idea—the Englishness of the English—is present in Shakespeare; it is there in the novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; and it was cemented by what is commonly thought to be, and has in England itself been represented as, the crowning moment of glory in Britain’s modern history as it became the vanquisher of a militant Germany in World War II.  The Nazis took Paris almost effortlessly, a palpable demonstration (though this was not always loudly proclaimed) of Gallic effeminacy and cowardice:  all that stood between civilization and barbarism, as the English would come to believe, was their own indomitable will to resist naked militarism and keep out the barbaric German invader. Some have characterized the English demeanor through the expression, “the stiff upper lip”, but it is perhaps better captured in the storied history of the Londoner’s stoic and yet nonchalant resistance to the carpet bombing of their city.  People went into the Underground as the bombs incessantly rained down on their beloved city; once the air raid siren sounded the “all clear”, they emerged into the streets—and headed for the ale-house, Boris Johnson’s much vaunted “pub”.


“Behind the Bar”, a painting by John Henry Henshall, 1883.

“No man is an island entire of itself”, John Donne famously wrote, but the notion of Great Britain as an island complete unto itself, standing forth as something like the Rock of Gibraltar, never more so than in the face of adversity, has been pervasive in the history of English self-representation.  It has played a significant part in fueling Britain’s exit from the European Union, just as it informs both Boris Johnson’s initial decision to separate Britain from the herd, ironically in the name of attempting to have the British acquire “herd immunity”, and later his seemingly quaint invocation of the “inalienable right” of the English—or did he say British, which is quite a different thing, when one considers the history of England’s suppression of Scotland, or the virulent English hatred until comparatively recent times of the Irish as infernal Papists—to “go to the pub”.  George Orwell was mindful of “the insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously”, but if this has been “a folly that has to be paid for heavily from time to time” he also thought that the same characteristic had helped to “keep out the invader.”  Orwell’s war-time essay, “England Your England”, is a paean to this very Englishness:  “When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air.”  The feeling one has in England is bound up “with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes”—and, above all, with the awareness that this is one country where “the liberty of the individual is still believed in”, a liberty which has “nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit”, but rather the liberty “to have a home of our own . . . to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above”.  The freedom-loving instincts of the English people send them, Boris Johnson has told us, to the pub and the coronavirus pandemic must not be permitted to strip them of this ancient right:  as Orwell put it, the culture of England has hovered around the “pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea.’”

(to be continued)

See also Part I, “Life in the Time of Plague:  Samuel Pepys in London, 1663-66”, here.

*Frightfulness in Late Colonial India: Dyerism & the Aftermath of an Atrocity

Part III (Final Part) of The Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh

Gandhi would go on to 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 and thus he moved on.  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 was, however, not even remotely akin to 1857, if only because the Indian National Congress was now a formidable organization and, moreover, 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.  The Commission held hearings over several months, in Lahore, Amritsar, Gujranwala, and various other cities. Both O’Dwyer and Dyer chafed at this inquiry, and 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.


Amritsar was one of the many cities in the Punjab, and elsewhere in India, where the Hunter Commission collected testimony. The Evidence ran into five volumes, published by the Government of India in 1920.

The “Punjab Disturbances” would come to occupy a distinct place in the annals of colonial Indian history.  The Congress appointed its own committee of inquiry, and it took a much harsher view of British actions than the official Hunter Commission. Much as Indians such as Tilak, Nehru, and Gandhi had demonstrated their mastery of the courtroom, so the Congress showed that they had a command over the inquiry commission both as a form of governance and as a form of knowledge. Indian affairs had never drawn much interest in Parliament, but, quite 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 his criticisms of Dyer did nothing to endear him to the General’s supporters and the defenders of the political authoritarianism associated with the Punjab tradition.  Conservatives charged the government with throwing Dyer to the wolves.  For every person prepared to critique Dyer, two stood forward to defend him.  The Hunter Commission had found him guilty only of an error in judgment, exercising excessive force, and having a somewhat mistaken conception of his duties.  Dyer nevertheless could not be permitted to continue in his position, and he was dismissed from the army, even if many senior officers in the Army Council demurred, at half-pay. All this was enough to outrage the English public, for whom, the same Orwell had once remarked, liberty was like the very air they breathed.  A hero had been unfairly maligned, and the Morning Post raised funds in support of “The Man Who Saved India.”  At its closing, the Fund amounted to over 26,000 Pounds, or a little over 1.1 million Pounds in today’s currency.  The “Butcher of Amritsar” went into luxurious retirement, though arteriosclerosis cut his life short.

There is by now a familiar narrative of the Indian reaction to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.  Tagore described the incident in a moving letter to the Viceroy where he asked to be relieved of his knighthood 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.  The day of reckoning that O’Dwyer had spoken of had come, if unexpectedly.  What most accounts occlude is a stunning little detail: when captured, and in subsequent police documents, Udham Singh gave his name as Mohamed Singh Azad, so to taunt the British whose entire Indian adventure had been tainted by their willful determination to characterize India as a land of eternal communal tensions.  And then there was Gandhi, who with his gift for neologisms coined the word “Dyerism” to signify the repressive 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.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 1.07.22 PM

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.  Dyer, on all accounts, remained unrepentant to the end of his life, but was Churchill ever afflicted by remorse?  It cannot be said that remorse is part of the story of the Jallianwala Bagh.  Remorse, it should be clear, is not part of the lexicon of any colonial state.


Parts I and III together appeared, in a slightly different version, as “100 Years Later:  The Many Meanings of Jallianwala Bagh” in the Hindu Sunday Magazine (6 April 1913), with some original artwork commissioned by the newspaper.  Access the article here.

For Part I of this blog essay, click here; for Part II on “The Crawling Lane”, which is not included in the Hindu version, click here.

*‘The Greatest Threat to the Nation’: Manmohan Singh’s Carrot and the Stick

Two years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the Naxalites, or Naxals as they are often known in India, as the ‘greatest threat’ to the country.  Manmohan Singh, who has earned, deservedly or otherwise, something of a reputation in India’s educated middle-class circles as a man of integrity and even gentleness, is not known for the expression of extreme sentiments.  He was not even known as a fighter, though the steadfastness with which he refused last year to bow to pressure to undo the nuclear deal, and the ‘grit’ with which he rode the storm that threatened to remove him from power, surviving a dramatic vote of no-confidence in Parliament, have perceptibly altered some people’s previous estimation of him as a weakling or, to put it even less charitably, a mere instrument of Sonia Gandhi.  There is even the sense that Manmohan may well have mastered Indian idioms of power holding much better than those who openly flaunt their power.  Meekness may be the best disguise for strength, just as often allowing the impression of being subjected to manipulation may be a subtler exercise of power.  Sonia Gandhi’s mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, certainly learnt these lessons well as she put the old Congress leadership through spins and turns following the death of her father and, shortly thereafter, Lal Bahadur Shastri.

The Naxals have now surfaced again, in pronouncements from Manmohan and Home Minister P. Chidambaram, as the ‘gravest internal security threat’ to the nation.  Addressing a conference in mid-September of Director Generals and Inspector Generals of Police, Manmohan admitted that there had not been much success in containing the ‘menace’ represented by the Naxalites.  ‘It is a matter of concern that despite our efforts,’ Manmohan told the gathering of the country’s highest law enforcement officers, ‘the level of violence in the affected states continues to rise.’  Manmohan has admitted that reducing Naxalism to a ‘law and order’ problem is not likely to yield the desired results, and in a recent speech he argued for a more ‘nuanced’ approach, which consists in nothing more than putting forward ‘development’ alongside the ‘maintenance of law and order’ as the twin-fold way of fighting ‘the Naxal menace gripping several parts of the country.’  Is it Manmohan’s stint at Oxford, awareness of the repression unleashed against fellow Sikhs during the height of the Khalistan insurgency, simple humanity, or what passes for his gentle demeanor that has made him less likely to embrace the more totalitarian vision of his home minister, who does not mince words when he describes ‘left-wing extremism’ as ‘the gravest challenge to our way of life, our republic and our democracy.’

Perhaps there is nothing subtler in Manmohan’s sense of how best ‘the Naxalite problem’ may be contained than the realization that the carrot may soften the blow of the stick.  Everything in the language of the state is reminiscent of India under colonial rule.  P. Chidambaram, the enlightened voice of reason, one of the heroes of India’s ascendancy into the ranks of what we might call ‘seriously developing’ nations, has even offered to make available the old colonial remedy, first practiced by the British in the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), of bombing ‘Naxalite-infested’ areas from the air.  Indian Air Force helicopters with mounted guns, Chidambaram has argued, might legitimately be used to produce results.  As George Orwell noted in his essay on the debasement of the English language, the bombardment of people from the air came to be styled ‘pacification’.  The Naxalites are a ‘menace’, and the ‘infested’ areas must be rendered into submission:  but if all this sounds, as indeed it does, as though vast tracts of the land and people have become diseased, ‘tribal and other under-developed areas’ should be brought under the blessings of civilization.  I shall save for a later post my brief ruminations on the idea of ‘development’, which may be a slower way of leading ‘under-developed’ people to their death.  No state ever devised a more perfect recipe for the elimination of a people than by the promise that, for every atrocity committed under the name of ‘law and order’, they shall be compensated by the gift of a development project.  As one ponders India’s ‘Naxalite question’, it becomes transparently clear that the ‘greatest threat’ to India resides somewhere else than among the Naxalites.