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.”
Mr. Moorhouse is not simply a camera, an unfeeling eye, and he does respond with horror and revulsion to much of what he sees. But he is still determined to find something positive to say about Calcutta, even if it is only that “life…pulsates and churns…and swirls in every direction. Though it marches angrily and viciously, it also laughs idiotically and infectiously…. Bruegel would have been at home here.” And Mr. Moorhouse is off again on an allusion.
Well, I don’t know about Bruegel, but Chou En-lai would be at home in Calcutta, which is not so different from what Shanghai was only twenty-odd years ago. Mr. Moorhouse has a chapter called “The Road to Revolution,” but to him it appears as a cul-de-sac. His closing vision is not of revolution, but of a pogrom of the rich. He quotes from Liberation, the journal (now banned) of the Maoist communists who are looking for a way to apply Chinese experience in the very different—and even more difficult—Indian setting; but only to pooh-pooh. But an Indian revolution, like China’s, is likeliest to find the real fuel for its prairie fires in the countryside—and Francine Frankel’s analytical report, India’s Green Revolution, shows that the political tinder is piling up there.
The concentration of new agricultural methods, fertilizers, improved seed, etc., in selected, high-response areas in India has been markedly successful so far as grain production goes, leading some of the compulsive optimists, Indian and foreign, to proclaim that India’s food problem is solved. That will be tested the next time the game of Russian roulette which India has to play with the monsoons turns up a bad season. But meanwhile Professor Frankel notes that
…the introduction of modern technology under the [government] programs has not only quickened the process of economic polarization in the rural areas, but it has also contributed to increasing social antagonism between landlords and tenants, and landowners and laborers.
A recent illustration of that increased tension saw a massacre of sharecroppers (ten reported shot and four burned alive) in Bihar, and, while this was on a larger scale than usual, otherwise there was nothing out of the way in it. Such clashes are frequently reported in the Indian press, with tenants or landless laborers usually getting the worst of it. Often what are in fact class conflicts are presented as if they were traditional caste disputes; in many instances the Untouchables are landless, while their caste superiors are also their landlords and creditors. Even two years ago agrarian unrest of this kind had become so acute and widespread that the Indian government prepared a special report on its causes and means of controlling it; and the situation can only have worsened since then.
Professor Frankel doubts that “without at least some sign of good faith on the part of the government…the mass of agriculturists and laborers will continue passively to accept their fate.” She points out that “outbreaks of rural violence demand more than a law and order program,” and concludes that the growing challenge of agrarian unrest can be met only by a genuine commitment to social reform by the democratic political parties.
There is a hint of skepticism in this conclusion, of doubt that such parties will in fact “risk alienation of the prosperous landowning castes.” This will not be appreciated at all by those who have been illuminated by “India’s political miracle,” as it is sometimes described, and to whom skepticism seems sister to heresy, if not blasphemy. The maintenance of parliamentary forms of government in India for a quarter of a century of independence is certainly a remarkable achievement, and a good understanding of how it has been done may be reached in a revised edition of Professor Morris-Jones’s compressed but comprehensive study The Government and Politics of India.
The continuance of India’s present form of government is held to be a matter of the highest value among Western liberals, and there is a tendency to excuse much on the simple ground that India is, after all, a democracy. The purest formulation of this attitude was perhaps this: “Democracy [is worth] a rather high price in irrationality,” which might be called the Hutchins rule, after the Harvard political scientist who promulgated it.2 It is richly adaptable. For an agronomist, “democracy is worth a rather high price in famine”; for a development economist, “…in stagnation”; for a student of administration, “…in corruption.” And perhaps one day someone in the White House will remark that “democracy is worth a rather high price in tyranny.”
Professor Morris-Jones’s detailed but lyrical study is one of a large canon of political literature, premised on, and in turn feeding, the assumption that there is something unique in Indian politics. This school also tends to neglect the social and economic background of the political processes its authors approvingly anatomize, and even belittle its significance—India’s political miracle is more important than any economic miracle, a British writer recently proclaimed. There is another view. In his book Mr. Loshak dismisses India’s parliamentary democracy as a “charade,” noting “the corruption of state politics and the open contempt for the democratic process displayed by Mrs. Gandhi…where she saw fit.”
There is, in fact, a striking and consistent contradiction in the perceptions of India’s political processes reached by academic political scientists on the one hand and by foreign correspondents based in India on the other. (I should perhaps here declare a personal interest: I was myself for several years a foreign correspondent based in India—and was once roundly rebuked by a trio of British political scientists for failing, in my reports about political developments there, to write with “charity.”) This disparity in perception no doubt partly reflects professional predilections. A serious journalist is not necessarily crisis-oriented, but if his sense of observed political trends points to disastrous developments he will feel obliged to state this clearly and without qualifications inserted merely to safeguard himself against the possibility of his own misreading.
Professor Myron Weiner has put the other side of this contradiction neatly:
…the scholar…likes to avoid predictions of cataclysmic changes; and because he is generally fond of the people whom he studies, he is likely to inject his own hopes into his predictions. Moreover, if the scholar has recently completed a study of the country’s elite, its dominant party, or its electoral process, he has an emotional vested interest in seeing that what he has studied does not change too rapidly. He has a tendency to see institutions and beliefs to be more deeply rooted than they may be.
Beyond this professional difference there is a political side. Scholars seem to be more subject than are journalists to the inhibitions prompted, as Professor Myrdal puts it, by “consideration of Western political and military interests in saving the underdeveloped countries from communism….” Scholars may be more likely to feel a genteel concern for the sensibility of their hosts than journalists. Academia may nourish a greater benignity or anyway hopefulness of disposition than does foreign corresponding, but more professional considerations may also come into play, even unconsciously. For a journalist the attitude of his host government toward him means little: at the worst he can be expelled, and there is no reason why that should affect his career. For an academic, on the contrary, the good will or at least neutrality of governments in his field of study can be essential.
So far as India is concerned, another factor, I believe, obtains. A foreign correspondent based there will approach the political system through his experience in the society; an academic political scientist on leave or sabbatical is more able to ignore the social background, studying the political system for its own merits. The resident foreign correspondent will be struck by the characteristics of the society long before he has come to an understanding of the operation of the political system, and his experience of the former will shape his appreciation of the latter. It is likely to be the “indifference, callousness, and selfishness” of Indian society, as Bernard D. Nossiter describes it, that strikes the resident correspondent most forcefully. (“This callousness,” another foreign correspondent, A. M. Rosenthal of The New York Times, wrote after he had served a spell in New Delhi, is “so strong in the country that it is the greatest danger for a foreigner living in India, for it is a frighteningly easy thing to find it creeping into one’s own soul.”) 3
Mr. Nossiter’s Soft State is a pungent account of the author’s disillusioning encounter with what his preliminary reading had led him to see as “the world’s largest functioning democracy, sustaining the Western tradition of representative government and individual liberty under the most harrowing conditions”; which he concluded was in fact “a slack, elitist order, suffused with caste.” Mr. Nossiter is an independent journalist for the Washington Post and certainly believes in democracy. But for him, as for Mr. Loshak, the present political system is an irrelevance. He sees the great problems of India as “bound up with indiscipline and indifference, nurtured by a religious and social system reaching back to antiquity,” and concludes, with Gunnar Myrdal (from whom he takes his title), that “there is little hope in South Asia for rapid development without greater social discipline.”
Mr. Nossiter expands the point:
In any society there is a gulf between what men say and do, between professed beliefs and actions. But in India I was struck by a new dimension of this abyss. Words, programs and policies flowed from Delhi and other nominal centers of authorities. In the fields and mills, where people worked, they rang with a faint, hollow sound. The crucial links of a modern society—the relations between governor and governed, employer and employee—were flabby, loose. More often than not direction from above was capricious, haphazard, imprecise; the response from below was feeble or non-existent.
At top and bottom, there was a disbelief that instructions instructed or orders ordered. To be sure, custom supplied a framework for behavior, and caste imposed an assignment of hierarchies. This was the order that had stood for several thousand years. But the efforts of modernizers…produced only a glancing, tangential effect on a society mired in traditional ways.
Mr. Nossiter’s is a personal but far from impressionistic account; what he reports in his “newspaperman’s chronicle” is always relevant and often illuminating.
Indians’ analyses of their own political system tend usually to adopt the approach and vocabulary of that system’s Western admirers—“starry-eyed,” as Dr. J. D. Sethi describes them in his India’s Static Power Structures.4 Dr. Sethi’s approach is exceptional, and his book is of high value. The general elections of 1967 marked a sharp intensification in the development of Indian politics, and Dr. Sethi’s essays and papers, collected in this volume, cover the period from the election of Mrs. Indira Gandhi as prime minister to just short of the Congress Party split in 1969. This, brought about by a struggle for power between Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress Party politicians who controlled the party organization, was part of the process which Dr. Sethi describes as the degeneration of democracy into populism—a “dysfunctioning democracy in which every party tries to outbid the other in first creating and then exploiting the resentment of the masses.”
Mrs. Gandhi’s assertion of her political authority since then may seem to belie some of Dr. Sethi’s analysis. But the appeal on which she based her successful election campaign in 1971—“banish poverty”—was populist in that it was almost wholly unrelated to any programmatic exposition of how that was to be done. When the immediate satisfactions of military victory have worn off, Mrs. Gandhi’s government is going to be faced with the same old problems, only multiplied.
So, although the mood and political developments that Dr. Sethi analyzes may seem a far cry from present attitudes in New Delhi, where it is almost as if victory over Pakistan is being taken to have answered all India’s problems (as Frontier, the Calcutta weekly, recently remarked, “Only sophists and sinophils would cynically suggest that India’s holy war for democracy and human rights” had any resemblance to other wars), in fact Dr. Sethi’s analysis is still apposite.
A striking companion study to the period covered by Dr. Sethi is provided in a book by Puri—an Indian Herblock, a political cartoonist who writes as sharply as he draws. Puri’s Crisis of Conscience5 concerns the events surrounding the Congress Party split, to which he had intimate access. Whatever else may be said of it, India continues to have an extraordinarily open political process, and Puri made full use of the access to politicians of all camps which the high respect in which he is held in New Delhi gave him. The result is a book that is as informative as it is amusing—his political judgments are acute and sometimes ferocious, but his cartoons usually make their point through laughter. An American publisher who reissued Puri’s book would be doing a service to Indian studies.
Puri sees the Nehrus, father and daughter, as generating a mass appeal “based on aristocracy and a hollow radicalism,” and the Indian political process as not being essentially concerned at all with the “ancient, grinding poverty” of the masses, but with the vigorous self-interest of the shallow elite. The system has certainly been effective to that extent:
Politicians as a class, big and small, in the ministries, in the legislatures or tucked away in the party cadres in the rural areas, the higher officials in the various government services, industrialists, large-scale traders, small shopkeepers, the higher ranks of the expanding professional and middle classes, the wealthier peasants and the men with political pull in the villages, all have far greater opportunities for worldly advancement and a wider material life than ever before.
That is the summary of the fruits of independence given by N. B. Bonarjee in his autobiography. That the classes benefited by twenty-odd years of democracy in India are a very small proportion of the population is of minor importance, Mr. Bonarjee notes, in view of their great political and economic power—of minor importance, for the time being.
Mr. Bonarjee was, from 1925 to 1950, a member of the Indian Civil Service, the “twiceborn,” the “steel-frame” with which Britain ruled her Indian empire; and his “two masters” were, first, the Raj, second, independent India—or Bharat, to give the state its second constitutional name. It is Mr. Bonarjee’s point that the names “India” and “Bharat” are the symbols of a profound and continuing conflict, “conducted very noisily in practice without being recognized for what it is.” The conflict is between two approaches to governance, two attitudes to the state and society, one Western and modern (British, in Mr. Bonarjee’s focus), the other Hindu and traditionalist.
He sums up the essence of the foreign system as disciplines, corporate feeling, orderliness, impartiality, and a deep sense of public duty as opposed to personal preferences. This, he says, was not only alien to the Hindu approach, it was profoundly antipathetic to it. In the Hindu ethos, “in which the key to an understanding of free India will be found,” there is no place for a concept of a public service as an institution with a duty to the people in general: “The Hindu way of life, the Hindu concept of duty, and Hindu values as a whole have always centered round the joint family, the caste, the geographical community….” And he makes an essential point which is often ignored—which is, indeed, easy to ignore: that “the general spirit of Hinduism lives on not merely among the masses but also in the minds of the intelligentsia.”
For men of Mr. Bonarjee’s generation there was no contradiction in combining a career of service to the Raj with a healthy and open anticipation of the time when the British would withdraw and leave the Indians to govern themselves. But very soon after independence finally came in 1947 Mr. Bonarjee was forced to realize that his “desire for political emancipation coupled with a simultaneous expectation that British administrative practice would be retained was fundamentally a contradiction in terms.” He saw his compatriots in the Indian Civil Service reverting quickly to Hindu patterns of conduct: with the withdrawal of the British the ICS officers “were automatically released from the discipline, conventions, and inhibitions of what was essentially an exotic service with an exotic code of conduct.” The Indian way of life and thought reasserted itself,
…according to which family relationships, personal friendships, and very often caste affiliations are made the yardstick for measuring efficiency…. The consequences of this attitude [since independence] have been far reaching, with nepotism and favoritism of all kinds seeping into every nook and cranny of the administration and an inevitable weakening of the country as a whole.
Mr. Bonarjee’s commendation of the Raj as, on the whole, a liberal and efficient administration may be welcomed as balancing the overdenunciatory or apologetic views of the British period in India now in vogue. But the special importance of his book lies in what he has to say about contemporary India; and, viewing that from within, his conclusion is close to Mr. Nossiter’s: “What is hailed in the West as an open, democratic society on closer inspection turns out to be a slack, elitist order, suffused with caste.”
Under Two Masters is, then, a comparative analysis of two opposed approaches to governance which illuminates much about the past and even more about the present of India. It is more than that too, a gracefully written, rather Edwardian memoir and the account of the education of a man, well-placed at a hinge period of history, in both his own nature and his society’s. Mr. Bonarjee does not really look forward, his focus is on the past and present. He notes that the introduction of new agricultural techniques to a rural society unchanged in its hierarchy and its attitudes (“Grind the underdog if you want ease and comfort”) is likely to do no more than create a new kulak class. And he sees that only a cooperative approach to farming could improve the lot of the Indian peasant. But his own attitude is disengaged. How the struggle between India and Bharat will end is open to speculation, he says, and goes on to conclude that for India, after all, the outcome of the contest does not signify very much. Perhaps in another book he will take note of what Professor Frankel identifies as “the growing challenge of agrarian unrest.”
March 23, 1972
Ananda Bazar Patrika (Calcutta, 1971), 113 pp., Rupees 5. ↩
Francis G. Hutchins, The New York Times Book Review, May 2, 1971, p. 28. ↩
Foreign Affairs, July, 1957, p. 623. ↩
Vikas (New Delhi, 1969), 212 pp., Rupees 25. ↩
Published by Puri himself from A-422 Defence Colony, New Delhi, 1971; 204 pp., $6.50. ↩