The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 25, 2000
Time Off

What a tangled web !
By Manohar Malgonkar

"FOOLS and madmen speak the truth," says an old proverb, meaning that most ordinary people don’t. But when it comes to what are called ‘spokespersons’ for their countries or for their political parties, it is generally assumed that what is called ‘The whole truth and nothing but the truth’ is mostly hot air. "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful," George Orwell wrote.

Orwell should know, for after all he made the dishonesty of politicians — or of people in power — the subject of his most important novel Nineteen Eightyfour.... indeed the study of deceitfulness in political life became something of an obsession with him.

He got his first strong dose of it at the start of his career as a police officer during the Raj days. He soon became so disillusioned with the morality of the imperial enterprise that he resigned his job, and became a writer. His own considered verdict on the British Empire was that it was a "capitalist mechanism to exploit the subjugated poor."

How does this ‘insider’ view of the Raj fit in with its image created by its own spokesmen such as Sir Henry Newbolt and Rudyard Kipling, that it was somehow a charge and a challenge taken up by the British from the noblest of motives. An obligation, no less, imposed by the Public School code.

Rivers for sale
June 4, 2000
Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000
The lingering memory
May 7, 2000


To be sure, by the nineteen-thirties, such an image of the Raj was no longer sustainable. Nonetheless, the Empire’s propogandists never relaxed their efforts to put a new gloss on it.

Phillip Woodruff, who began service under the Raj at about the time that Orwell left it in disgust, was here right until the end, and after retirement he wrote a two-volume history extolling the achievements of the ‘Men who ruled India’. These men who were drawn to Indian careers by the lure of easy pickings, dizzy prospects of advancement and ‘Sahib’ status, were to Woodruff, ‘Guardians’ no less. His dedication of the book ‘To the People of India’ says it all. Their "tranquility was our care."

So much for George Orwell’s mechanism for exploitation.

This is not a raking over of ashes long gone cold, and still less an exercise in bashing the Britts. On the contrary, I wish to show how even today’s Britain, described by some as ‘The Sick Man of Europe’, has the best exponents of the tradition of Newbold and Kipling, of dressing up lies in the grab of truth, or at least of making physical chastisement of a country appear to be an act of benevolence.

"Yes, we’re kicking you in the teeth. But we assure you, it’s for your own good!"

The NATO’s campaign in Serbia last year is a good example. Relentless pounding with the latest, indeed, hitherto untested, weapons of war. They reduced entire localities to rubble, blew up bridges, destroyed roads, railways, power installations and killed thousands.

But only for the ultimate good of the country, so the ritualistic daily briefings to the world’s press corps at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels told us. They were conducted by NATO’s spokesman, Jamie Shea. The ease, the aplomb, the air of rectitude, the conviction of moral authority with which Shea explained away the day’s atrocities was a treat to watch; its excellence accentuated by the almost apologetic statements of the generals and admirals who were often called in to act as sidekicks to Shea.

By and large, in their campaign in Chechnya, the Russians are doing the same things that NATO did in Serbia. But the Russians don’t hold daily press briefings. The consequence is that they’re judged by what the world sees of that war on TV, and what there is to see is horrifying enough. Most of the civilised nations have raised their voices against the atrocities and the crimes against men and women. Indeed, the European Union has made an official complaint to the United Nations that the Russian army has been guilty of "mass murder, torture and rape."

This charge was stoutly denied by the Russian representative at the UN, "as being based on rumour and disinformation."

As we saw them on our TV sets, both these campaigns, NATO’s against the Serbians and Russians against the Chechanyan separatists, were not easy to tell apart; both have been conducted with the same degree of ruthlessness. And yet the first was looked upon with approval by most of the world’s nations and even applauded by some, and the second censured as an exercise in calculated overkill. Would not someone like Jamie Shea have made the Russian campaign, too, look like a gentle, headmasterly caning instead of merciless flogging?

The classic case being that of Pakistan’s official spokesmen.

Remember Benazir Bhutto? Daughter of a disgraced Prime Minister who was actually hanged as a murderer? And Benazir herself made to live under on-again, off-again house arrest? She was elected as prime minister and trumped up by her image-builders as the very personification of a vibrant Pakistan breaking out from the shackles of dictatorial rule. A Joan of Arc, no less.

One day she was summarily dismissed, dismissed and accused of heinous crimes: graft, stashing away billions of dollars in Swiss banks, even of being implicated in her brother’s murder.

Oh, forget Ms Bhutto! Like father, like daughter! We gave her a chance, she failed. But we now have someone whom our people have elected with a huge majority. Old Punjabi family, rooted in the soil, pious, honest. So meet Mian Nawaz Sharif. He will make us prosperous, strong, great. Realise the dream of our founder.

These spokesmen were actually doing some nimble-footed damage control in the aftermath of Kargil, and praising him for having ‘internationalised’ the Kashmir problem when poor Nawaz Sharif was being arrested and bundled off to jail...and he, too, within a matter of days, was denounced as a crook and indeed deep-dyed schemer who had given orders that a whole planeload of passengers should be killed in a crash because that would rid him of his Army Chief whom he had sacked anyhow.

And so, yet another prime minister. Oh well, ousted Prime Minister, being lined up for the hangman by his successor.

But this time, it’s for keeps. Really, really. Someone who will make the country strong, rich, great. It can only happen under military rule!

Sorry if you’ve heard all this before; but that’s how things go here. Even Jamie Shea could not have done a better job of patching together this crazy quilt than we have.