119 years of Trust BOOK REVIEW
Sunday, July 4, 1999
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Cover your Indian heart with kurta
Review by Rumina Sethi
Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India by Emma Tarlo. Hurst and Co., London. Pages xxi +360. 19.95.

Adman’s second life
Review by Kavita Soni-Sharma
A Double Life: My Exciting Years in Theatre and Advertising by Alyque Padamsee with Arun Prabhu. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 320. Rs 295.

Review by Kuldip Dhiman
The Penguin Sri Aurobindo Reader edited by Makarand Paranjape. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 373. Rs 295.

Psycho profile of an icon
Review by Manu Kant
Challenge to Imperial Hegemony: The Life Story of a Great Indian Patriot Udham Sing by Navtej Singh. Punjabi University, Patiala. Pages 320. Rs 350.

The RSS: genesis & growth
Review by Bhupinder Singh
Hindutva Reawakened by G.S. Hingle. Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi. Pages 221. Rs 175.

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50 years on indian independence



Cover your Indian heart with kurta
by Rumina Sethi

Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India by Emma Tarlo. Hurst and Co., London. Pages xxi +360. 19.95.

Choosing a wardrobe, as Emma Tarlo says early in her book, is always associated more with fashion magazines than with any intellectual gravity. Seldom do we find it a serious problem to select what to wear with our social, historical, political and cultural identity. While there are many studies on the psychological conflicts which governed political action and thus shaped identity, there are few works on the relationship between the ruler and the ruled based exclusively on dressing, undressing, and re-dressing. Since identity-formation is linked so closely with representation, clothing becomes the inevitable, if not the ostensible, issue to examine.

Tarlo is concerned with the way certain kinds of clothes determine specific identities of individuals, families, caste, class religion and nation just as, for a long time, it was the lack of clothing or nakedness that was the preoccupation of a number of European ethnologists and historians and governed their representations. It is the author’s intention to depart from similar essentialisms while venturing her defence.

It is partly for this reason that Tarlo examines the political dimension of British clothing habits in India along with her major concern with the adoption of European dress by Indians. The layers of European clothing worn in the excessively warm and sultry Indian climate revealed more than simply a desire to maintain British decorum and civility: it was also to insulate themselves from familiarity with those whom they governed.

As a matter of fact, after the 1830s legislation preventing the East India Company officials from wearing Indian clothes, formal European dress became an even more defining characteristic of the British. This poses the significant question as to why a different dress code was advanced when British policies, in the time of Hastings in particular, sought as much as possible to rest on likeness and even friendship with Indians.

Further,while Tarlo examines the political reasons for the need to maintain a sartorial British image, her study would benefit from examining, in some detail, the “deviant” British — those who adopted Indian sartorial manners, especially since it is her intention to break with homogeneity and stereotypes. Instead of a dismissal of the “de-Europeanised white baboos”, as Lord Lytton referred to them, they can be used as prime examples of the displacement of the concepts of fixity and stereotyping which characterise the discourse of colonialism as a discursive strategy. In terms of recent studies of the ambivalence of colonial discourse, it is important to scrutinise the forms of both identification and difference.

Despite the strict sartorial code which is crucial to its exercise of power, one can also see within colonial discourse limitless possibilities of attraction and inseparability with the “other”, what Homi Bhabha has famously called “phobia and fetish”. Beneath the stable patterns used to schematise and govern lie the many phantasmatic images of fear and attraction, sameness and difference, and, within Edward Said’s context, both manifest and latent orientalism.

But Tarlo’s aim here is an exposure of “the dominant racist stereotype” rather than that of the views of the sympathetic few. Besides, she intends to study the Indian attitudes to European dress than vice versa. Here again, while the author gives us an insightful account of the partial or complete adoption of European dress by some Indian quarters and the resulting conflict between different value systems, she shows little desire to chart the psychological categories that governed the adoption of these styles.

What we do get is an accurate portrayal of the social milieu through male dressing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of a cultural dualism which kept Indian men in different public and private images. Nayar, a high caste man, whom Tarlo cites, is quoted to have said, “When I put on my shirt to go to the office, I take off my caste, and when I come home and take off my shirt, I put on my caste.”

Tarlo then leads us through Gandhi’s recreation of Indian dress, particularly his promotion of khadi, to a different historical context where she discusses women’s clothing issues. She takes contemporary Gujarati village women as her canvas, having had little access to their ideas and opinions in the colonial period. While Tarlo explains her reasons through helpful footnotes, the jump from examining identity in a male context in a particular period of India’s colonisation to women’s clothing in a contemporary and “free” India is uncertain and a little contrived in an otherwise excellent study.

In my view, had the author limited herself to researching the preferences of either men or women in tracing the theme of identity through clothing codes in a colonial-national-modern urban trajectory, the disjunction between chapters 2-4 and 5-8 could be avoided. Besides, the attraction for the indigenous in the case of men and the rejection of the very same cultural mores by women in a different historical setting could be played out more thoroughly if one didn’t have to tune one’s mind to a changed gender situation.

However, despite this drawback, Chapter 9 is a remarkable exercise in coalescing contemporaneity and antiquity. Embarking on her field work, the author found village women in Gujarat rapidly rejecting the ancient art of embroidery which she had first undertaken to study. The question soon arose: how could she examine an art which the villagers found so uninspiring?

With westernisation making inroads into the village, the women had practically abandoned the textile tradition, and embroidered clothes had made way for shiny, synthetic salwar kameez not considered backward like their ghagro-kapdus.

In the context, what could be better than the study of a “carefully marketed village life”, the Hauz Khas village, in the heart of cosmopolitan South Delhi, which is being celebrated as an “ethnic” shopping centre, and where “clothes of the type worn in Saurashtra village were being converted into exclusive designer fashion garments”?

What is extraordinarily “authentic” about Hauz Khas village is that it takes its simulation from its creator’s “sense of foreignness”. The making of this “Indian” village, in fact, is similar to constructions of village India by, first, the colonial administrators and then by the nationalist intelligentsia.

The Hauz Khas village, as I see it, is a combination of the orientalist and the nationalist views that have together effected the idea of India as a land of villages in their efforts to approach its “reality”. Such a village community can serve as an attractive centre of preserved culture for many romantic conservatives.

But the particular paradox of Hauz Khas village lies in the destruction of the village atmosphere in the very efforts to preserve it. As it turned out, the villagers gradually metamorphosed into shrewd capitalists with the sudden influx of the urban elite, demolishing their mud and cowdung jhuggis to build concrete apartments much to the horror of the commercial “preservationists”. Yet the original inhabitants of Hauz Khas did not abandon the ghunghat or the veil which the fashionable socialites were quick to discard.

The creation of invented authenticity also underlines an aspect of the Indian character which first seeks endorsement from the West before enacting its cultural revival. At the same time, the culture which is revived is part of “ethnic chic” and thus is as distant from the West as it is from the village masses it chooses to imitate.

Indian clothing and one’s choice of what to wear, has remained a major dilemma. With its history of colonialism, it is difficult to look “modern without appearing western” and “Indian without appearing traditional”, what Partha Chatterjee has called the “liberal rationalist dilemma” of nationalist thought. Perhaps there ought to be a celebration of fluid identities than an assertion of the “pure” and the “indigenous”. The story of the birth of the nation must be accompanied by its inevitable ruptures and confusions, where the metaphor of hybridity and decomposition becomes more significant than any kind of authoritative orthodoxy of an older India.

Emma Tarlo’s answer to the issues she has raised is well summed up in the 1955 ditty, picturised famously by film star Raj Kapoor: “Mera juta hai japani”..(My shoes are Japanese/These trousers are English/On my head is a Russian red cap/Yet my heart is Indian.) These lines have now found a parallel in Alisha Chinai’s music video which echoes Kapoor’s theme four decades later: the singer is clothed head-to-toe in western apparel, even sporting a blonde look, but desires a loving relationship with a dhoti-clad man whose heart is “made in India”. Such an appeal is nothing if not an invocation of cosmopolitanism even though it is dictated by the pulls of an “Indian” heart.

Rich and picturesque in its detail, “Clothing Matters” is a pioneering study, linking an everybody concern to its socio-historical origins. From Gandhi’s loincloth to Bina Ramani’s ethnic chic, Tarlo has raised important questions about ethnicity, nationalism and multiculturalism.Top


Adman’s second life
by Kavita Soni-Sharma

A Double Life: My Exciting Years in Theatre and Advertising by Alyque Padamsee with Arun Prabhu. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 320. Rs 295.

People either remember Alyque Padamsee for his elegant portrayal of the founder of Pakistan in Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” or as a much married Indian media man. But there is a great deal more to his high voltage life which this book brings out with much panache.

Essentially this autobiography of his traces his career not only in the world of business, but also in the world of theatre and film —now that is what I call “A double life”. However, unlike traditional autobiographies, it does not necessarily move in a chronological order, rather it remains episodic, time and its constraints be damned.

Padamsee has been dubbed India’s communication guru, having held the august offices of both the director of the Theatre Group of Bombay, producing and directing 50 full length plays and former CEO of Lintas, India, which ranks among the country’s leading advertising agencies.

Hailing from a middle class Kutchi family, Padamsee ventured into advertising for his bread and butter in the hope that he might be able to add a little jam to it soon and put the result in a BMW thereafter. Being an artist, even a serious one, he felt, need not condemn him to the garrets and attics. And wearing a comfortable kurta and Kolhapuri need not mean that he could not travel in the latest fancy car and have a plush penthouse for himself. The girls came by the by and eventually each decided to leave after having a bit of him for herself.

Padamsee’s entry into the business world set a trend of sorts and soon hungry (literally!) art began to take over plush advertising. The revenous theatre boys, strapped for cash and in pursuit of the good life, crossed over to the proverbial greener grass. What was interesting was that for the same things these artists did in theatre for free — creating words and pictures — they were paid generously in advertising.

Padamsee talks of how advertising helped his theatre and how theatre helped his advertising. He employed his skills in mass communication and his commitment to the ideal that corporates who make a profit out of society must put a little of these profits back into society. He also began to encourage them to use the media to address major issues confronting contemporary Indian society. Hunger, drug addiction, social inequality, racial and religious conflict, all these became the subject of his pontificatory advertisements.

He does believe that he did his bit for society since such efforts contributed to creating a general awareness on specific issues. Through his public service activities he was able to heighten sensitivity, change attitudes and, most concretely, mobilise resources.

The autobiography offers interesting insights and answers to a multitude of provocative questions from these two inextricably linked occupations. He recalls little known facts behind his successful productions like his Indira-oriented Evita, an adaptation from a Broadway play, which had as its theme a woman in power and how easy it was to be led astray from your noble objectives to bases ones. The play went on to run for about five years and led to the creation of a whole new galaxy of stars — Sharon Prabhakar, Shiamak Davar, Rachel Reuben, Suneeta Rai, Alisha Chinai and Javed Jaffery, among others.

As he matured, Padamsee concentrated on learning through meditation and he tried to unite his being with his actions. He started on a personal Zen journey called “Jesus Christ Superstar” amidst the flowering of the Bombay hippie culture. What was unusual about his version of JCS was that it started off in Roman times delineated through costumes, and as the play progressed it transcended 2000 years ending in the jeans generation of the 1970. The “Superstar” experience went on for almost two years but in spite of packed houses, he had to close the show. The stars of the play were getting to be superstars!

International recognition came his way more intensely when he played the role of Jinnah in Attenborough’s “Gandhi”. It was during the making of this movie that he wrote the most successful advertisement of his career featuring the Mahatma’s funeral. Released in the Hindustan Times on January 30, 1981, it simply said, “On 31 January, history will be recreated. Will you be there?” The response to the advertisement was awesome. Thousands of people showed up at Rajpath to take part in the filming of Gandhi’s funeral procession.

Aside from having earned a reputation for being the patriarch of English theatre in India, Padamsee also has to his credit a host of brand children in the field of advertising. There was the water sprit Karen Lunel in her lime green bikini wriggling under a waterfall for the Liril advertisement, who caught the imagination of thousands. Then there was Kavita Chowdhry as Lalitaji, modelled after his own mother, a hard headed bargain hunting housewife buying Surf.

A bow to Hollywood had him bring Cherry Charlie for Cherry blossom shoe polish. And a bow to Bollywood had him bring a sky-clad Pooja Bedi with Marc Robinson to inform people about the goodness of Kamasutra condoms to instruct the Indian masses that condoms were for pleasure and not for family planning. Padamsee’s genius turned these products, good as they were, into mega-brands in the fast changing Indian market.

Memorable one-liners informed the Indian mind of the goodness of other products too. “Lifebuoy hai jahan, tandurusti hai wahan” for Lifebouoy soap, “Whitening strikes again and again with Rin”, and “Sher dil jawanon ke liye” for the tea were all associated with mega brands that Padamsee helped build.

Padamsee’s autobiography inevitably tends to highlight his achievements in life. Those who entered his life only to leave because of his self-centredness find little space in the book. But it does give us an insight into his 25-hour-a-day stamina, his enthusiasm and clarity of thought, his sense of humour and more than anything else, his desire to make a difference.

But the best part of his autobiography is that it remains inspiring without becoming patronising, or tedious. For that we need give credit to the writing skills of Arun Prabhu who helped Padamsee pen the book.Top


by Kuldip Dhiman

The Penguin Sri Aurobindo Reader edited by Makarand Paranjape. Penguin Books, New Delhi. Pages 373. Rs 295.

Had Sri Aurobindo boarded the ill-fated steamer that sank on its way to India from England in 1893, Dr Krishna Dhan Ghose would have lost his dear son, and India a great revolutionary, poet, philosopher, yogi and saint. It is rather ironical that the opposite happened. Dr Krishna Dhan Ghose could not take the news of the supposed death of his son, and before he could be told that Sri Aurobindo was not on the steamer, he died of a heart attack. He was denied the pleasure of seeing his son flower into one of the great thinkers of modern India.

Most of us remember Sri Aurobindo from his latter photographs that portray him as a fragile, harmless, saintly figure. Many will be surprised to learn that the man who devoted most of his life to Vedanta in his Pondicherry ashram, was once a firebrand revolutionary intent on winning freedom for his motherland. “The Penguin Aurobindo Reader”, a collection of original essays, reflections and poems written over a period of five decades or so, offers the reader an opportunity to get an insight into the multifaceted personality of Sri Aurobindo.

Although the introduction by the editor, Makarand Paranjape, draws a vivid picture of the life and works of Sri Aurobindo quite well, it is the writings of the great man himself that bring out the real Aurobindo for us in flesh and blood.

When the Congress Moderates were trying to negotiate some sort of autonomy from the British, Sri Aurobindo believed in purna swaraj — total freedom and nothing less than that — because “to be content with the relations of master and dependant or superior and subordinate, would be a mean and pitiful aspiration unworthy of manhood; to strive for anything less than strong and glorious freedom would be to insult the greatness of our past and the magnificent possibilities of our future”.

And Sri Aurobindo did not disapprove of armed struggle if the situation demanded it. Aggression, in his view, is unjust only when unprovoked, and violence is unrighteous when used without thought or for unrighteous ends. It is foolish to apply the philosophy of ahimsa to all situations. Besides violence has its place in society, the “sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfilment of justice and righteousness as the holiness of the saint. Ramdas is not complete without Shivaji.”

The British jailed Sri Aurobindo for revolutionary activities. They imprisoned his body, but unwittingly set his soul free, for it was during his year-long jail term that he had visvarupa darshan or the experience of the cosmic consciousness, and from then on he was a totally different man. He tells us how God protected him from the unscrupulous prison staff of the Alipore jail: “He [God] made me realise the central truth of the Hindu religion. He turned the hearts of my jailers to me and they spoke to the Englishman in charge of the jail. . . . I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was Vasudeva who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell, but it was not the tree, I knew it was Vasudeva, it was Sri Krishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me His shade.” No doubt, Aurobindo cannot be taken lightly, but at times he does sound like a man suffering from delusions or megalomania.

Whether God really took over his life or not, Aurobindo’s commentaries on the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Gita make interesting reading. His interpretation is insightful and original. But though he was seriously into Indian philosophy and tradition, he believed that in order to catch up with the rest of the world, we must not shy away from western ideas because it is a “psychological necessity of the situation. Not only when a lesser meets a greater culture, but when a culture which has fallen into a state of comparative inactivity, sleep, contraction, is faced with, still more when it receives the direct shock of, a waking .... it is impelled by the very instinct of life to take over these ideas and forms, to annex, to enrich itself, even to imitate and reproduce, and in one way or in another take large account and advantage of these new forces and opportunities.” But if this imitation is slavish and mechanical, then it amounts to subordination and servitude.

It is interesting to compare Sri Aurobindo’s commentaries with that of C. Rajagopalachari, Mahesh Yogi, Bhagwan Rajneesh, Chinmayananda et al. Aurobindo’s critique on Kapila and the Sankhya philosophy — the law of enumeration and generalisation — is thought provoking.

In another chapter he talks about self-realisation through yoga. The first realisation through yoga is nitya nityanam — the One Eternal in many transient. The second realisation is the one consciousness in many consciousnesses, and the third, “the most important of all to our race — that the transcendent self in individual man is as complete because identically the same as the transcendent self in the universe; for the transcendent is indivisible and the sense of separate individuality is only one of the fundamental seemings on which the manifestation of phenomenal existence perpetually depends.

In this way the Absolute which would otherwise be beyond knowledge, becomes knowable; and the man who knows his whole self knows the whole universe. This stupendous truth is enshrined to us in the two famous formulae of Vedanta, “so ham, He and I, and aham brahmosmi, I am Brahman, the Eternal.”

How does yoga make you one with the creator? First of all, anyone practising yoga has to make the sankalpa of atmasamarpana. That is, surrender yourself with all your heart and all your strength into God’s hands without making any conditions, without asking for anything, not even for siddhi in yoga. As a yogi you must ask for nothing at all except that in you and through you God’s will may be directly performed. The next stage is to stand aside and watch the working of the divine power in you. The final stage of yoga is to perceive all things as God.

For the ultimate realisation, a yogi could choose one of the two paths available to him. He could either withdraw from the universe, or he could take part in the creation and perfect it. By following the first method, the objective is achieved by asceticism, and by following the second the objective is achieved by tapasya. Hence “the first receives us when we lose God in existence, the second is attained when we fulfil existence in God. Let ours be the path of perfection, not of abandonment; let our aim be victory in the battle, not the escape from all conflict”.

Another interesting aspect of the Aurobindo thought is that man is not final but “a transitional being. Beyond him awaits formation [of] the diviner race, the superman”. As man progresses spiritually and becomes one with the creator, he becomes a superman. But unlike the familiar concept of superman in our minds, Aurobindo’s superman is not someone who has extraordinary strength, knowledge, power, intelligence, saintliness. According to him superman “is something beyond mental man and his limits, a greater consciousness than the highest consciousness proper to human nature....”

The evolution of man is not yet complete because out of the seven-fold scale of consciousness he has realised only three powers, mind, life, and matter. Because man is endowed with a brain that is supposed to be superior to all other known creatures, he believes that mind is the creator of the universe. This is a great fallacy because “even for knowledge mind is not the only or the greatest possible instrument, the one aspirant and discoverer. Mind is a clumsy interlude between nature’s vast and precise subconscient action and the vaster infallible superconscient action of the Godhead. . . . There is nothing mind can do that cannot be better done in the mind’s immobility and thought-free stillness”.

There might be a temptation to compare Aurobindo’s superman with that of Friedrich Nietzsche, but this would be totally out of context and unfair to Nietzsche because, thanks to his overzealous sister Elisabeth Forster and misguided scholars, he is a much misunderstood man.

Makarand Paranjape, Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, and the publishers need to be lauded for their efforts. It is not easy to edit a book of this sort, but why have they forgotten to add an Index? The section “A New Global Agenda” should have been clustered with Aurobindo’s political writings; it looks out of place among his philosophical work. Top


Psycho profile of an icon
by Manu Kant

Challenge to Imperial Hegemony: The Life Story of a Great Indian Patriot Udham Sing by Navtej Singh. Punjabi University, Patiala. Pages 320. Rs 350.

Icons are like gods. The more you try to challenge their hegemonic popularity in the minds of the people, the more firmly the icons get entrenched in the hearts of the masses. Like gods, icons are indestructible in public memory.

But, in the deep recesses of intellect, one has always questioned the existence of God. Does He really exist? In the same way, public icons have, time and again, come under the scrutiny of intellect. And the moment some sentimental soul stands up to question the infallibility of God and the icon, the whole edifice of constructed theory on which they stand starts to crumble.

In fact, icons and Gods should be left alone. No treatises or books should be written to justify their infallibility. Shaheed Udham Singh is such an icon in Punjab.

But, then again, the task of the historian-biographer is to write the biography of a man which is rooted in history. Gods are the subject for mythology. And lovers Heer and Ranjha — for folklore. Human icons who have shaped history are legitimate subjects for history. They ought to be questioned. And their role, if any, ought to be put in a historical perspective.

Dr Navtej Singh of the department of Punjab Historical Studies, Punjabi University, Patiala, has attempted to do just that — place the “heroic” deed of Shaheed Udham Singh and his personality itself on a more firm historical footing based on new and original evidence retrieved from the archives in England. The result is a book which goes by the extravagant title of “Challenge to Imperial Hegemony: The Life Story of a Great Indian Patriot Udham Singh”.

Little is known about the life and role played by Udham Singh in India’s freedom struggle, apart from the fact that he killed the ex-Lieutenant Governor of Punjab Michael Francis O’Dwyer, who had defended the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919.

Navtej Singh in this book has sought to correct the disinformation and lack of information surrounding Udham Singh. In the first place, the writer has tried to dispel the impression popular in some quarters that Udham Singh was not a true Indian revolutionary but a half-crazed individual who took a vow to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh slaughter.

Second, by taking a Marxist approach, the author has attempted to show that Udham Singh was a product of the circumstances then existing in Punjab — namely, the British presence and the feudal nature of agrarian relations in the province. These twin oppressive forces, in turn, led to numerous peasant uprisings and the emergence of individuals and parties in Punjab committed to overthrow British rule and the feudal-bourgeois structure of society.

Let it be reiterated again: Udham Singh will remain in popular memory as a great martyr of Punjab in particular, and India in general, who by sacrificing his life redeemed the honour of the men, women and children who died while trying to escape the bullets of the butcher of Jallianwala Bagh — Brigadier General R.E.H. Dyer.

Having said that, some questions still remain: Was Udham Singh a revolutionary in theclassical mould? Was Udham Singh a great patriot? An internationalist? Or, was he simply an uprooted individual who got caught in the vortex of tumultuous times then prevailing in Punjab, and undertook activities which were harmful to the British government?

And, above all, did the murder of O’Dwyer in any way serve the cause of India’s freedom struggle? And if Udham Singh was a great patriot, why did he have to wait for 21 years to execute his deed? And what was he doing in the intervening period?

With painstaking effort Dr Navtej Singh has tried to project Udham Singh as an individual who had a meticulous plan not only to ultimately kill O’Dwyer but also to overthrow British rule in India. But sadly, this book and the life of Udham Singh offer a strong and direct denouement of the agenda set by the author.

The million dollar question least often asked is: If Udham Singh’s aim was to seek revenge against the perpetrators of the Jallianwala Bagh killings, then why he did not seek out while in England the real butcher of Amritsar tragedy, Brigadier General R.E.H Dyer? Dyer was our man. Dyer took into his hands the law and took the lives of hundreds of people gathered on that fateful day in Amritsar.

In the book it is stated that Udham Singh never intended to murder even Michael O’Dwyer, not to speak of General Dyer. In fact, O’Dwyer himself informed him during a tete-a tete that he was the Governor of Punjab at the time of shooting in Amritsar. Further the book says Udham Singh wanted to shoot in the air, “be arrested , and then make a speech telling ‘leave India alone, mind your own business’ “(pages 177-178).

As an Indian, and as a Punjabi, one wishes that Udham Singh had emerged as a revolutionary with coherent and well-worked out dialectical ideology. But nowhere in the book or from the letters does one get an idea that he was an ideologue. Udham Singh’s letters written during his last days in the Brixton prison in England are of an individual who was not widely read and who, against his better sense, got carried away by the situation he found himself in.

In one of his letters to one of his sweet hearts he writes, “It is you who brought me to this country. Still I don’t blame nobody — it is myself.” Further in the letter he continues, “The time is all over now. I have seen all I could, I think more than anybody else has seen” (page 277).

In another letter to a granthi of a Sikh temple in California, Udham Singh continues his lament, “ She (Kumari, his girl friend) brought me in to this hall; otherwise I would be somewhere else also peace mind. I wish all of you good health.” (sic: page 276).

It emerges from the book that from 1931 onwards, Udham Singh managed to travel all over Europe. He visited places as far flung as Lithuania. In a matter of just eight years, he travelled to England, France, Germany, Russia, Hungary, Latvia, Austria, Greece Norway... almost every imaginable country in Europe. Not to mention his stay in the USA before 1931.

The inevitable question then is : From where did he procure so mush money for his travel? Was he organising the international proletariat in Latvia and Lithuania for a world revolution?

In England, while Udham Singh was awaiting his execution, very few Indians came forward to his help. Even before that, it was well-known that he kept himself aloof from the Indian community in England. Udham Singh was given to boasting. Apart from that, he had numerous girl friends. In England, till the time of his arrest, he was staying with an English woman named Rose Palmer.

In fact, the story of Udham Singh is the story of a fellow Punjabi, who had lost his way in life. A story of man who never managed to overcome the deep wounds suffered during his childhood (Udham Sngh was brought up in a Sikh orphanage) and the humiliations of the later years at thehands of the White ruling class and their cohorts. Also, Udham Singh took to heart the shooting down of innocent people in Amritsar in 1919.

All this, plus the fact that he mingled with the Irish terrorists in England proved to be an explosive cocktail for an over-sensitive and hyper-politicised Udham Singh. And the result was the overly delayed killing of the 76-year-old ex-Governor of Punjab, Michael Francis O’Dwyer.

Last, the book is written in English, which is manifestly un-English, to say the least. To quote from the book: “That is why one witness overs that Udham Singh with a burning revengeful heart, in September 1919, stirred his footsteps towards the Kashmir valley to alleviate his mental torments through climatic change in his demeanour” (page 56).

Also, the book abounds in repetitions, which tire the reader and obstruct the smooth flow of the story. Almost the entire chapter “In Conclusion: Challenge to Imperial Hegemony” is a verbatim reproduction of what has already been mentioned in the preceding chapters of the book. Most of the book is constructed on heresy, is anecdotal, and unaccompanied by any convincing documentary evidence.

Nevertheless, it should be said that the book is compulsory reading. Least of all because it will trigger the debate afresh in Punjab as to who was Udham Singh. And this debate will ultimately set the record straight for us. The historiography in India, and Punjab in particular, has suffered from sentimentalism, both religious and political. It need not be so. History is what really transpired, literally. Give or take one or two fallacies.

A murder, and a fiery letter on the eve of death don’t make a lasting impression on human intellect nor enduring historical figures. History has rightly been called a fickle muse.Top


The RSS: genesis & growth
by Bhupinder Singh

Hindutva Reawakened by G.S. Hingle. Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi. Pages 221. Rs 175.

GANDHI achieved a breakthrough in nationalist politics by successfully shifting the discourse away from the Moderate-Extremist mode which had plagued the Indian National Congress (INC) till then. The breakthrough dislodged the earlier urban, upper caste leadership as Gandhi’s movement spread and brought villages to the centre stage of the anti-imperialist struggle.

The demise of the Extremists, led by urban-based Brahmins resulted in many of them opting out of the struggle altogether. Having been displaced from what they felt was their “natural” position as leaders of society, they sought to re-establish themselves on a different terrain. Some of them adopted a non-confrontationist, if not a benign, attitude towards British colonialism, abandoning their former radicalism.

Hedgewar was one such person, who after his initial years with the Bengal terrorist group Anushilan Samiti and then the INC, moved towards “culturalism” and set up the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). As the RSS’s subsequent activities have shown, this “culturalism” was nothing but politics by other means.

Right from the beginning, the RSS directed its attack on the Muslims, keeping its agenda as away from anti-imperialism as possible.

Another person who turned away from early militant action was Aurobindo who after the defeat and his subsequent disillusionment with militant action, went into spiritualism. His path was to be followed by relatively fewer adherents and it remained always an esoteric and fringe band.

On the other hand, the RSS has expanded as an organisation with a primary membership of one lakh in 1998, according to its own estimates. Despite its size, it remains an organisation based on unquestioning belief in the RSS chief, the sarsanghchalak and complete absence of internal democracy.

The RSS never accepted the Indian nationalist leadership even 20 years back. Gandhi and Patel were anathema to it. Its hostility to Nehru and his vision of nation-building has never been in doubt. Its top leaders, however, have remained leaders only within the organisation and have hardly been known outside, though within the RSS they have been little short of idols.

The present work by a veteran RSS member is aimed at acquainting the layman with the “story” of the RSs founder K.B. Hedgewar who, according to the author, reawakened Hindutva. Hingle has been an RSS member since 1942.

The first chapter gives, expectedly, a rather hagiographic account of Hedgewar’s account of Hedgewar’s early life. We are informed, with absolutely no historical reference or evidence, the seven-year-old Keshav Baliram Hedgewar asking his father: “How could a handful of Muslims, coming from the Arabic countries, win over India when we had had many epochs of glory, many great warriors and men of art, thought, science and literature?” This is followed by the usual anti-Muslim rhetoric that is the RSS’s USP.

In between the different stories and incidents purportedly related to Hedgewar, we are told how he graduated from an extremist to a Congress nationalist and finally to what is probably the closest Indian version of fascism. The book is nothing but a series of one-sided and one-dimensional questions apparently raised in Hedgewar’s mind and which the author has a seemingly fantastic ability to read and decipher, half a century after Hedgewar’s death.

The book provides no new insight into the subject’s life. In fact, it becomes hazier still by the author’s own interpolations of dubious stories that have no historical or textual basis. Strangely, Savarkar’s influence on young Hedgewar goes completely unmentioned.

It is needless for the present reviewer to rebut the author’s flimsy and erroneous understanding of Indian history. The interested reader is referred to a host of erudite books by historians and activists (see D.R. Choudhary’s review of “Secular Challenge to Communal Politics” by P.R. Ram in these columns a few weeks back).

For an account of Hedgewar himself, one can gain more by reading two pages from Christopher Jafferlot’s “The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics” (pages 33-34) or five pages of Ashish Nandy’s “Creating a Nationality” (pages 81-86) than the entire 221 pages of Hingle’s effort.Top

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