Saturday, March 22, 2014

The fear of the Ummah

It is interesting to note that while the West has reconciled with the transfer of power to Hindustan it has not yet managed to hand over the baton in "Muslim lands" of Middle East and North Africa (Pakistan included as part of MENA).

If we were inclined to conspiracy theories, we would say it is all about oil. Oil is no doubt important. But what appears to be much more of a determinant is the western fear of facing an united Ummah (which may also capture the West from within). After all this is an old (and familiar) enemy.

The same play-book that was used in India was also put in action in the Middle-East. The Ottomans were deliberately destroyed to remove the (native) power structure in the name of federalism. The Shias have been aligned as being opposed to the Sunnis and vice versa (for the last 1300 years we are told). And now we have  the entire MENA up in flames breathing new life into theories as to why the natives are unfit for self-rule and why the good old, white commonwealth should re-colonize and restore order.

In contrast to the handful of partitions in South Asia we are presently witness to a hundred partitions in MENA with no end in sight (Kurdistan and Eastern Libya are the latest mini-states to take shape). A far-sighted project that has been excellently managed by the best minds in the West.

Ironically (and sadly enough), one effect of these divide and rule games will be the extinction of local, native Christian populations in MENA. The contrast with the Christians in India, even in a future Modi-fied country, seem to prove the point that less western interference is better for the health of eastern populations.

The rise of Gandhi and the demand for Swaraj (independence) was unpleasant for many folks: the British (obviously), the aristocrats (fear of socialism). Even many common Indian folk felt a strong sense of loyalty to the (british) royalty. The British also masterfully neutralized the dominance of Congress by playing one community against the other. Gandhi managed to keep the dalits onside by coming to terms with Ambedkar in 1932, however he would not be able to stop Jogendranath Mandal from locking arms with Jinnah in 1946.  

During WWI (and even afterwards) the British feared a Sikh revolt and Muslim resentment but never a Hindu uprising- Hindus were too weak, passive and divided before Gandhi.

However the Great War (followed by WWII) made independence inevitable.

It is easy to see why the Great War of 1914-1918 is so often seen as the great turning point in India’s modern history and the moment at which freedom from British rule began to seem possible. Indeed, we can see at work three great transitions that occurred almost simultaneously: their cumulative effect was, or so it seemed, to weaken both the British will to rule and the sources of their power. 

Before 1914, it would have taken a visionary to imagine the astonishing campaign of satyagraha that Gandhi was able to orchestrate between 1920 and 1922. The British had acknowledged the wisdom of drawing more of India’s Anglophone elite into their system of government by offering very limited representation on the provincial councils. They were careful not to permit the creation of large popular constituencies and happy to concede separate electorates to Muslims. 

The Congress deeply resented the refusal to grant parliamentary government at the centre (the key demand in their constitution) and the effective exclusion of Indians from the ranks of the ruling oligarchy, the Indian Civil Ser­vice. But its leaders (with the exception of Balgangadhar Tilak) rejected an appeal to the masses, and viewed with horror the recourse to civil disobedience, let alone violence. 

To later generations, this ultra-cautious appr­o­ach suggested a lack of commitment to Indian freedom, a lack of nationalist ‘fire’. This verdict is wrong. What the pre-war leadership grasped was that India could only be united and free if the nation was built from the top down not the bottom up. That meant winning control of the legislature and then drawing the masses step by step into the ‘political nation’. Their model was obvious: it was Gladstonian liberalism which worked on exactly this principle. In the light of India’s later history, we might commend their wisdom but regret the impossibility of their plan ever working.

What the Congress leaders wanted was for the British to hand over control of the Indian legislature and the civil service without a struggle, because a struggle would damage the very institutions they valued so highly as the machinery for nation-building. But the British were never going to do so, partly because they denied the claim of the Congress to represent anyone but themselves, partly because they remained utterly confident in their power to repress any symptoms of political unrest. Before 1914, therefore, Indian politics was in a form of stalemate. 

The British had created a small public space in which representative politics could be practised. But it was carefully ring-fenced and the ‘exit’ closely guarded. However, almost as soon as the war broke out, the Congress leaders sensed a new opportunity. India’s loyal response, the dispatch of the Indian army to the Western Front and the Middle East, would create a political debt that the British would have to repay. They needed the vocal support of India’s public men to rally volunteers to the army and to soothe the resentment that India’s wartime mobilisation aroused—as prices rose, transport links became strained and taxes grew heavier. 

There was an old tradition in Britain’s Indian policy that London would lay down the outlines of any new constitution for India but leave the details to the experts—the Indian Civil Service. Montagu decided to take this bull by the horns. He came to India in 1918 to discuss a new constitution with the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, but really to persuade the Civil Service ‘barons’. Their reaction was cool, their obstruction Machiavellian. The outcome, much revised and amended, was the notorious scheme for ‘dyarchy’ in which elected Indian politicians would gain some limited executive power in the provinces (but not over finance or security) but none at all at the centre. After all the promises, it seemed to the most moderate of Congressmen a bitter betrayal. 

To make matters worse, with the ‘Rowlatt Act’ the British announced the continuation of the stringent coercive powers they had employed during the war against those suspected of treason. To many in the Congress, it seemed the end of the political road.

In fact the Rowlatt Act was symptomatic of a crucial new factor in the political game. During the war, the British had been alarmed by the fear of a Sikh conspiracy. But their real cause for anxiety arose from the fact that they were fighting a war against the Muslim power in the Middle East (the Ottoman Empire) with an army that contained many Muslims. To some of the most vocal ‘Young Muslims’ in India, this war was an outrage. The British reaction was to lock them up. With the end of the war, this ill-feeling might have been expected to fade. In fact it grew worse, much worse. 

This was because the British were determined to break up the Ottoman empire for good, and to banish the sultan, who was also the Muslim Caliph or Khalifa, from his historic capital in Istanbul. The spectacle of the British invasion of the central Islamic lands and their contemptuous treatment of the greatest Muslim dignitary aroused a furious reaction (and helps to explain why the British passed the Rowlatt Act). It created a completely new political climate in India of electrifying possibilities. There was someone on hand who knew how to exploit them.

Gandhi had returned to India in 1915 to engage in ‘social uplift’. His manifesto, Hind Swaraj, which outlined a plan for the peaceful rejection of British authority by a moral revolt, had been promptly banned on publication, and its contents had little appeal to most active Congressmen. But during the war Gandhi had demonstrated an impressive capacity to mobilise but also control wider public participation in local campaigns while avoiding a con­frontation with the British. Thus when he proposed a large-scale public protest against the indignity of the Rowlatt Act, many Congressmen sym­p­­athised. The terrible outcome at Amr­­­itsar in April 1919 might have con­firmed the unwisdom of this experim­ent in mass politics. But Gandhi ski­­l­­fully denounced the immorality of British rule and then found a new con­stituency. He appealed to Muslims to join the Congress, and with their sup­port swung the Congress behind his great campaign of non-cooperation in 1920.

So what difference had the war really made? The British had been given a fright but the Raj was still there. To many Congressmen, Gandhi’s new politics had been a terrible failure. The British comforted themselves that the strange Gandhian moment had passed. Those masters of the constitutional small print, the Indian Civil Service, set to work to devise a new political system that would enlarge Indian politics but disarm Indian nationalism, or at least the Gandhian variety. Their solution was federation: devolving most power to the provinces whose political differences would make all-Indian nationalism a shadow of its Gandhian self, and leave the British at the centre in command of the army, the rupee and trade —the things that mattered. 

The Gan­d­h­ians did not give in without a struggle: the second round of civil disobedience came in 1930-32. But they were hampered by exactly the force that Gandhi had mobilised in 1920, the sense of a Muslim identity. Once more the Cong­ress was forced to bite the bullet and ‘work’ the constitution that the British imposed. The result was a stand-off, for the Congress proved far more successful at winning provincial votes than the British expected, and formed most of the new provincial governments in 1937. But it was far from clear that they would be able to force the British into new concessions.

On the eve of the Second World War, even Nehru was doubtful whether Ind­ian independence could come in the foreseeable future. In the event, he had not long to wait. For all the horrors of the First World War, it had been a great strategic victory for the British. Their empire had been made safe. But then World War II inflicted three decisive defeats on British world power, one in Europe, one in Asia and one on the eco­nomic front. From these, there was to be no real recovery. As their world- system fell apart, they lost control of India. There was never to be the peaceful transition of which the pre-1914 Con­gress had dreamed. The subcontin­ent still lives with the consequences.


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