The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 1, 2001
Time Off

Hats off to the sahibs
By Manohar Malgonkar

WHEN one thinks of what the Germans did to the Jews of their own land, or what the Bolsheviks did to their political opponents in the Communist lands, one can only be thankful that it was the British who had conquered India and not the Germans or the Russians.

True, there is Jallianwala. But that was the act of a firebrand Militarist of the Kipling brand. After that, for the last twenty-eight years of their rule here, the British behaved like the sahibs they were supposed to be, meaning gentlemen. Of course, they were not angels. To the last there were people like Winston Churchill, who insisted that the British were here not for the perks of office and the power and privileges of the ruling race, but out of a sense of duty — as guardians. Then came Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi march and after that, the fire went out of the imperial concept.

Men like Reginald Dyer, who gave the empire a bad name were eased out. The last generation of sahibs could have had no illusions that the Empire’s days were numbered. They could not hold it together by Jallianwala methods. All they could do was to ensure that the laws they had enacted were not violated.

These laws had basic flaws: they were framed to make sure that Britain’s rule of India was not challenged. To question its legality was ‘sedition’, and to voice a demand for the British to quit, was "waging war against the king-Emperor."

So they broke up street demonstrations with lathi-charges, and jailed the leaders of the nationalist movement — all in strict conformity with the law. But they could not have relished what they were doing.

The fate of trees
February 4, 2001
Indelible memories
January 21, 2001
Small men too can make history
January 14, 2001
Of officers & gentlemen
November 19, 2000
Officers and gentlemen
October 15,2000
Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
October 1, 2000
The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000
What a tangled web !
June 25, 2000
Rivers for sale
June 4, 2000
Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000

These lathi charges are still with us, now become so commonplace that no one seems to be horrified by them. During the Raj, they invariably made the headlines. And as to political leaders being sent to jails, Indira Gandhi did what the British would never have condoned from their administrators — sent people she did not like for one reason or another to jails without the formality of judicial proceedings — and made sure that the newspapers could not give us news of who was in jail — or of the other excesses of the Emergency.

This is the sort of thing that Nicolai Lennin did, in Russia. It can only happen under dictatorial rule. The sahibs of the raj actually made a boast that whatever they were doing to put down the movement for their ouster was ‘inflexibly just’. They were doing no more than their duty.

But then if the laws of the empire were sacred to the men who ruled India, breaking those laws with as much publicity as possible was Mahatma Gandhi’s most formidable weapon.

Non-violent defiance. A dependable weapon against an adversary who plays by the rules — even his own rules. But against tyrants, it was pitifully ineffective. The Jews tried it out against Hitler. It did not work. But the British in India were altogether defenceless against it. They did not send Indians to death camps. They even allowed us to keep dogs. No Jew in Hitler’s Germany could keep a dog.

A refinement of non-violent law-breaking was that when Congress agitators were produced before judges to be tried for their crimes, they had to plead ‘guilty’, as a matter of principle. So even the kindest and the fairest of judges had no option but to give them punishments for the offenses they admitted to have committed. How a civilised judge dealt with such ‘criminals’ is revealed in Mourice Colliss’s ‘Trials in Burma’.

Burma, was a part of the Empire, as were Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Colliss who was a judge in Rangoon, was something of a black sheep to the Imperialists because of his liberal views. He had to try an eminent Calcutta Barrister, Mr Sengupta, who, on a visit to Rangoon had given a public speech which supported the agitation for self-rule. He was arrested, and produced before Mr Colliss.

Colliss had good reason to be annoyed with the police for registering the case at all, for Sengupta’s offence was slight. Now he, Colliss, had to deal with the case. If Sengupta had pleaded ‘not guilty’ the police would have found it difficult to prove his guilt. But Sengupta’s principles did not admit a ‘not guilty’ plea, since he had knowingly broken the law. That left Judge Colliss no alternative but to pass sentence: ten days’ simple imprisonment.

The subtleties of Indo-British relationships in the twilight years of the Empire are now seen at full play in the subsequent behaviour of the judge and the man he had convicted, towards one another. When, after serving his sentence, Sengupta was set free, he had little time left before catching his ship to Calcutta. Even so he made a trip to the Judge’s bungalow to say good-bye to him. It was early morning, and the Judge shared his morning tea with the ex-convict. Colliss had been a lifelong collector of Chinese jade. When Sengupta had drunk his tea and was ready to go, Colliss selected a precious jade horse from his collection and gave it to Sengupta as a memento of their coming together.

But, in the last days of the Empire, Colliss, and not Dyer, represented the Empire’s Englishman. The Koi-hais were still there, like Rivott-Carnac, a police officer in the U.P. who made a boast of chastising students with his cane if they shouted nationalist slogans. But they were an embarrassment to their own colleagues in the administration, the bully-boys of the Raj.

Jawaharlal Nehru reports a similar incident with amusement. He himself had joined the nationalist agitation right from his youth and had been in jail several times. Then his father, Motilal Nehru, too joined it, so that once, father and son both were marched to the Allahabad jail. Now Motilal was known as Allahabad’s most eminent citizen, so when he landed in the jail, its superintendent, an Englishman, paid a courtesy visit as it were, to him, and in the course of polite conversation, asked him if he had any dietary preferences. Whereupon Motilal, after telling his jailor that he preferred simple food, went on to give a long list of things he liked and how each one was to be cooked.

Not that the jail-kitchen would have given Motilal Nehru the food he ate in his own house, the point is that the British had learned to treat their high-profile prisoners with consideration and even goodwill. And the bizarre culmination of this new trait was that, for their superstar prisoner Mahatma Gandhi, they actually hired the Aga Khan’s palace in Pune — as though he were a state guest.

One wonders how Adolf Hitler would have dealt with such agitators against Fascist rule — or does one? — for the methods of Fascism are well known. But what is not so well known is that the methods of Communism in dealing with its opponents were no less barbaric. What is more, the High Priest of Communism, Nicolai Lenin, had nothing to learn from the Godhead of Fascism.

Nicolai Lenin. So venerated that, when he died, his devout followers embalmed his body and built a fancy mausoleum to put it on permanent display as a shrine of their cult...for Communists in their millions to gaze at in prayerful reverence; the substitute-god for a people who had renounced God and junked His temples.

The brutalities that Lenin inflicted upon those of his countrymen who opposed Communism, are only now coming to light, and they have been put together in a book called ‘The Unknown Lenin’ by Richard Pipe. They’re a saga of "unprecedented cruelty, dictatorial rule...and a legacy of tens of thousands of victims." He kept egging on his officials to "carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy," and demanded to know, "on a daily basis, the number of priests that were executed." And here is a blanket order to the men in the field during a campaign: "The greater the number of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing, the better."

In Lenin’s Russia, Reginald Dyer would have risen to high office. The Raj’s sahibs, it is good to recall, forced him to resign.