Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tunzelmann's Indian Summer

Just finished reading Alex von Tunzelmann's book "Indian Summer: the secret history of the end of an empire. An amazingly dishonest piece of work.
It doesn't take a literary detective to find out that Tunzelmann is a propagandist more than a historian. The very first paragraph of the book is a tipoff. "On a warm summer night in 1947, the largest empire the world has ever seen did something no empire had done before. It gave up. The British empire did not decfline, it simply fell; and it fell proudly and majestically onto its own sword. It was not forced out by revolution, nor defeated by a greater rival in battle. Its leaders did not tire or weaken. Its culture was strong and vibrant. Recently it had ben victorious in the century's definitive war."
The only truth in that paragraph is that the summer night in Delhi was warm. For the rest: imperial rule ended in India in a welter of blood and treafcheries after the second World War left Britain bankrupt and without the will or means to resist the nationalist movement under Gandhi or the pressure from Washington to decolonize. The last British viceroy, Luis "Dickie" Mountbatten engineered one of the great atrocities of the 20th century when, in a fomented atmosphere of fear, panic and violence he rushed to divide the country to create a "homeland" for India's Muslims. As the communal animosities the British had promoted for nearly a century boiled over in a brutal civil war that killed about a million people, Mountbatten and the British military forces in India sat back and watched. It was as ignoble an end to empire as anyone could imagine.
Later in the book Tunzelmann quo0tes a highly questionable passage in Louis Fischer's The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, which portrays the most temperate of leaders in the summer of 1946 "at his most intemperate." The quoted passage has Gandhi, who was then amidst the most delicate political balancing act of life as saying: "Jinnah is an evil genius' Gandhi told him. He believes he is a prophet." Tunzelmann goes on: "He alleged that Jinnah had 'cast a spell over the Muslim who is a simple-minded man.' He concluded that he thought the Muslim League would ultimately join the interim government. 'But the Sikhs have refused. They are stiff-necked like the Jews.'"

The quotation is so obviously aimed at riling up Muslims and Sikhs, one has to wonder about the author's motivation. Or perhaps it is her connection with reality that should cause concern. For a few pages later, she comes up with this: "As the chimes sounded and the unexpected blast from a conch shell startled the delegates in the chamber of the Constituent Assembly, a nation that had struggled for so many years, and sacrificed so much, was freed at last fromthe shackles of empire. Yes, Britain was finally free." The idea of imperialism as humanitarian service was, of course, not a Tunzelmann invention; Rudyard Kipling gave self-pitying voice to it long before she was born:

"Take up the White Man's burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your son's to exile
To serve your captive's need"

But Kipling wrote that in 1899, when it was fashionable to be racist; in 2007 it is merely loony.

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