India’s Green Revolution: Economic Gains and Political Costs
The Government and Politics of India
Under Two Masters
The second act in the classic drama of post-imperial dissolution in south Asia has been as turbulent and destructive as the first. Act One, on which the curtain went up as the British flag went down in August, 1947, saw what the British had ruled as India split—politically into two parts, physically into three. The centrifugal pull between the two widely separated and culturally diverse territories of East and West Pakistan seemed bound to cause the next break in what promises to be the progressive reversion of the subcontinent into the components from which the British constructed their India. For, as the servants of the Raj themselves saw, and one of them wrote at the turn of the century, “There is not, and never was, an India, or even any country of India, possessing—according to European ideas—any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious: no Indian nation, no ‘people of India.’ ” The working out of that truth began in 1947 and seems likely to inform political developments on the subcontinent for the rest of this century.
To put it another way: Pakistan was pregnant with Bangla Desh from the moment of its own birth. Labor was brought on unexpectedly by extraneous factors such as the decline of the Ayub regime and the great cyclone of late 1970; and birth was achieved by Caesarian section, with the Indian army acting as the scalpel. David Loshak, who watched the beginning of the labor as a foreign correspondent (for the London Daily Telegraph), has written a close and illuminating account, following the detail of developments but never forgetting the political and historical background.
As Mr. Loshak sees, Pakistan was “doomed from the start” because in a real sense it was never a nation at all. Bengali nationalism, the sense of ethnic and historical identity of the population of what was East Pakistan, was from the beginning a far stronger force than the sense of Pakistani identity. It was already clearly developed by the end of the 1950s, and looked, as early as that, to separation and establishment of a sovereign Bengal; through the 1960s it grew, fed by resentment at the disparity in economic and political advantage that left East Pakistan the poor sister, steadily and irremediably becoming poorer, notwithstanding the fact that its jute exports contributed largely to Pakistan’s foreign exchange earnings; and it issued in the Awami League’s six-point demand for regional autonomy. Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, the Awami League leader, and his associates used to deny that the six points were a secessionist program, but while “it might call for mere autonomy, and not spell out secession,” it was always plain—or should have been—that “secession would be its effect.” Mr. Loshak goes on:
…the paradox was this: while the six-point formula went far beyond what West Pakistan could conceivably grant, it was the least that East Pakistan could demand. The formula, in short, succinctly implied the fundamental irreconcilability of the two wings of Pakistan. It was not the six points that made the 1971 armed conflict inevitable: it was because that conflict was inevitable…that the six points were produced.
The inevitability of it all comes out strongly from this account. Mr. Loshak notes the political effect of the cyclone, which produced the central government’s “meanest hour,” as he describes the failure of Islamabad to respond quickly to the catastrophe—and a little free publicity for the Pope, who made a special touchdown at Dacca in order to present a relief check for $10,000 personally to President Yahya Khan. It’s an ill cyclone, Mr. Loshak notes, that blows nobody any good.
Mr. Loshak is no more sparing when he recounts the ferocity with which the Pakistani army, last March, moved to crush the separatist movement. But he sees too that if Sheikh Mujib was caught up in events he could not control, so was President Yahya Khan. Mr. Loshak thinks the President genuinely believed he could solve the problem of Pakistan. “But he found it was too big for him, in fact insoluble, and found too that he was torn between his conscience as a man and his duty as a president.” He chose duty, as he saw it: “After all, Sheikh Mujib had warned his Bengalis that they might have to sacrifice a million lives to win their nation; President Yahya took a similar, though less heroic decision: to take those Bengali lives to save his nation.” Well, up to a point this was, as Mr. Loshak says, the other side of the medal. But I would say that President Yahya took the Sheikh’s words for the heroics they were, when uttered; and that he believed until well after March that draconic military action would save his nation at a cost of no more than a thousand or so lives. By the standards of south Asia, small beer.
There was, I think, a time when his calculation would have been proved right. Sudden arrests of the Awami League leadership, right down to the party’s middle ranks; a curfew in all cities and towns, with the army immediately put in control, under orders to crush any disturbances—this technique of military suppression has been well tried in the subcontinent, with high success.
But President Yahya waited too long. The Bengali separatist movement developed a momentum and confidence which almost dared the army to do its worst, and which lifted the challenge to the central government beyond what could readily be met with the traditional means. So when at the beginning of March President Yahya ordered his military commander in East Pakistan to reassert the central government’s authority, the latter reported that the task was beyond the army’s capabilities. That officer, General Yaqub Khan, was promptly sacked (I do believe he had urged just such action nearly two months before) and the now notorious General Tikka Khan bloodily took up the task. Even as late as this he might have succeeded, and by force held together something calling itself Pakistan—but for India.
Mr. Loshak’s book has great virtues. It is lucid, engaged but not committed, vivid and powerful, understanding and therefore instructive. Its limitation is circumstantial, but still damaging: it is as if he had written a brilliant review of a three-act tragedy after seeing only the first two acts. He seems to have left the scene, and anyway brings his book to a close (except for a hurried postscript), in October of last year; so he missed the climax—and the climax was of a kind to cast fresh lights back on at least one important theme in the drama, the role of India.
Mr. Loshak, from his temporally foreshortened vantage point, sees Mrs. Gandhi and her government leaning over backward to avoid war, and suggests that it became Pakistan’s aim “to embroil India, to shift the onus of blame for the situation onto India.” The evidence now points rather to an Indian decision, very soon after March, to bring about the establishment of Bangla Desh even at the cost of war; and every Indian action after that can be seen to have served that end.
The convulsion in Pakistan fused two previously separate and indeed usually hostile political forces in India. One powerful element, identified with but by no means limited to the Hindu right-wing parties, has ever since partition looked forward to the recovery for India of the territories and peoples that had gone to make up Pakistan. The other, secularist and “modernizing” in style, saw now the opportunity to act out the old dream that India was the vanguard of the forces of democracy and enlightenment in south Asia. In April it was reported from New Delhi that the Indian army had asked for six months to prepare for decisive war with Pakistan; and the Indian government’s handling of the refugee problem suggests that the decision to establish Bangla Desh at the cost even of war was taken very soon after the Pakistani army tried to crush the Bengalis.
The Indians in effect made the surrender of the Pakistani government to the Awami League’s demands a prerequisite for the return of the refugees; while—genuinely—groaning under the huge burden of the refugees, they still clung to them, rejecting any proposals that looked to their return to a united Pakistan. Steadily, throughout the summer and autumn, Indian support of the Bengali resistance movement increased, the role of the Indian army becoming more open and more challenging until President Yahya was goaded into doing what he had all along declared he would have to do, and opened—suicidally—a front in the west.
This was certainly in the logic of India’s short-term national interest, as that was cogently argued last summer in a widely circulated paper from the semi-official Indian Institute of Defense Studies in New Delhi. In the long term, perhaps the Chinese have a point when they describe the capture of Dacca by the Indian army as “the starting point of endless strife and [India’s] defeat on the South Asian subcontinent.”
Of course, as it struck even a passing visitor like Germaine Greer when she was in Delhi last year, for the Indian government “Bangla Desh means East Bengal freed from Pakistan and by no means West Bengal freed from India”—or, she might have added, even Kashmir for that matter. The point is that India’s essential political problem is the same as that of the Pakistan that was—unity; and, although it is by no means so developed (because unlike Pakistan, India is a contiguous whole), the same centrifugal force of nationalism that destroyed Pakistan is already at work in India.
“How could it happen that [our] case has been so blatantly neglected all these years, and…the state has been discriminated against so [shamelessly]? The fact may be painful to a Bengali, but it is nevertheless true that in the [present] power structure he has no place except as a hewer of wood and drawer of water.” That could be an East Pakistani, writing at any time in the 1960s. In fact it is Ranajit Roy, an Indian, writing in 1971 about The Agony of West Bengal.1 West Bengali resentment against the Indian central government is not so widely and powerfully expressed as East Bengal’s came to be in the 1960s, but it is felt. So is the alienation from north India, whose interests New Delhi is seen in Calcutta to represent and serve. Mr. Roy’s small book may come to be seen as an early milestone in the development of a six-point autonomy demand for West Bengal.
Too little of the Bengalis’ rankling resentment against the Indian central government emerges from Geoffrey Moorhouse’s otherwise richly evocative portrait of Calcutta. Mr. Moorhouse’s study is partly drawn from life—he briefly visited the city in 1969 and again in 1970—and he has fleshed out those impressions with wide reading to put Calcutta’s grim present into historical perspective. This he does very well indeed, his intense but lively prose evoking the past as immediately as it does the present. As a guide, too, he is excellent. It is all here, the squalor and human wretchedness, the blind, arrogant wealth, the pustulating vileness of the great wen of Asia. Perhaps for fear of weeping, Mr. Moorhouse makes himself laugh occasionally, and from time to time some stretched literary allusion jars: he sees a leper woman using “the grey stump of her hand like a wooden spoon to stir a pot of steaming liquid, for it has no feeling left,” and this reminds him of “some particularly hellish production of the witches’ scene in Macbeth.”
Ananda Bazar Patrika (Calcutta, 1971), 113 pp., Rupees 5.↩
Ananda Bazar Patrika (Calcutta, 1971), 113 pp., Rupees 5.↩