Friday, August 19, 2011

The Indian Press - 7 A: The Foreign Hand

In tracing the evolution of newspapers in India from the beginning of the colonial era, I have kept the British role constantly in view. However, the primary focus has been on Indians. That must necessarily change in the following section for it deals with the postcolonial British manipulation of India. I begin with a brief look at the colonial roots of such manipulation because that is essential background – of which most Indians, including journalists, are blissfully unaware.

In 1756, the East India Company factor in Calcutta withheld taxes due to the new Nawab of Bengal, the raw and impetuous 19-year old Suraj ud-Dowlah. The boy sallied out with his army from his capital, Murshidabad, took Calcutta without a fight and occupied Fort William, where he believed the English kept their treasure. Angered at not finding it, the agent reported to London, the Nawab ordered 146 British prisoners thrown into the dungeon at Fort William and kept without water until they divulged the information he sought. The agent described how, in the stifling heat of June, packed into the dark and airless dungeon, 123 of the poor souls died of suffocation and thirst in a single night, bearing bravely the mockery of their cruel captors.

The story of the “Black Hole of Calcutta” served to explain and justify the subsequent British attack on the Nawab: in 1757 Robert Clive came up from Madras at the head of 2000 men (1200 of them Indians), and at the “Battle of Plassey” routed the Nawab’s army of 20,000. These tales of Indian infamy and British valor became the founding legends of the British Empire, featured in history books and taught to generations of schoolchildren in India and around the world.

However, neither story was true.

The “Black Hole” story was patently absurd, for the dungeon at Fort William measured 14 by 18 feet and 146 Europeans could not possibly have fit into it. All accounts of the atrocity are rooted in a report the Agent wrote six months after the alleged incident as he sailed back to Britain. Clive’s heroic victory in the “Battle” at Pilashi was also a concoction. He had borrowed money from the fabulously wealthy “Jagat Seth” of Calcutta and bribed the leader of the Nawab’s forces to lead his men off the field without a fight. (Only some French gunners, evidently ignorant of the fix, put up even a semblance of a fight.)

In the century after the British took Bengal, as the Company slowly extended its death-grip across India, there was a separate mendacious justification for every aggressive step. One ruler was vicious to his own people; another was mentally incompetent; a third had no legitimate heir; others interfered with trade. These individual explanations slipped easily into the self-righteous narrative of colonial history that excluded such details as the death of several hundred million Indians in the “man-made famines” created by extortionate British policies. The net result was an official record surreal in its dishonesty. Based on it, Winston Churchill could claim (in his 1956-1957 History of the English Speaking Peoples) that the British were a progressive force in India and, in fact, not “imperialist” at all; they had gained control of India “in a fit of absence of mind.”

Britain’s overall colonial record received the same self-congratulatory treatment. Where the other imperial Powers of Europe chose only to engage in what Adam Hoschild in his1999 book King Leopold’s Ghost termed “the Great Forgetting,” the British actively twisted the most brutal of colonial records into a tale of civilizing adventure. School textbooks excised any mention that Britain accounted for more than half of all the slaves taken out of Africa. The Opium Wars in China became a worthy struggle to establish free trade. Genocide became pacification and social progress. (In Australia, that particular delusion allowed the government to continue into the 1970s a programme that – “for their own good” – forcibly took aboriginal children from their parents, for rearing in White families.)

Some British historians have acknowledged the falsification. P. J. Marshall noted with irony in the 1996 Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire how Britain had invested a “great deal of national self-esteem” in the view that its colonial record was virtuous. “Other European countries oppressed their fellow citizens overseas and drove them to revolt; the British, after the American misadventure, learned to nurture links of freedom, which evolved into that unique institution, the British Commonwealth of Nations. In the tropics, while the Spanish and Portuguese imperial regimes were sleazy and corrupt, the Dutch nakedly mercenary, the Germans and Russians brutally militaristic, and the French overbearingly chauvinistic in imposing their own cultural values, the British ruled with a high-minded concern for the good of the ruled. Others tried to resist the pressures of nationalism, only to go down to defeat — for example, the Dutch in Indonesia and the French in Algeria; the British entered into partnership with their nationalists and extricated themselves from empire with grace and goodwill.” (Marshall himself was not without fond delusions, for he went on to claim that the British had civilized the world.)

The whitewashing of their bloody past has continued into the 21st Century. Niall Ferguson hailed by The Times of London as the “most brilliant British historian of his generation,” has made a career of arguing that colonialism was beneficial to the world. In his 2002 book, Empire: The rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power, he cited Adolf Hitler to argue that India was lucky to have had the British as rulers. Ferguson claimed that in a conversation with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Halifax in 1939 Hitler was “disarmingly frank in admitting that his version of imperialism would be a great deal nastier than the British version.” If Germany took India, Ferguson quoted Hitler as saying, “the Indians would certainly not be enthusiastic and they’d not be slow to regret the good old days of English rule.”

Among the youngest crop of British historians, the most comically dishonest is Alex Von Tunzelmann, author of Indian Summer, the secret history of the end of an empire (2007). Her book begins with a passage of pure fiction: “On a warm summer night in 1947, the largest empire the world has ever seen did something no empire had ever done before. It gave up. The British Empire did not decline. It simply fell; and it fell proudly and majestically onto its own sword. It was not forced out by the 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 been victorious in the century’s definitive war. … 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 from the shackles of empire. Yes, Britain was finally free.”

That 21st century rendition of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” went unnoticed in the uniformly good reviews the book got in the elite Indian Press, a phenomenon that suggests either that none of the reviewers actually read the book, or that its publisher paid for them. The book is reportedly soon to be a “Bollywood” movie focused on the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten.

An important component of the British distortion of history has been a consistently negative presentation of Indian realities. In a continuous stream of “histories,” novels, television and film productions the British have continued to tell the world that India is a cauldron of caste and religious hatreds, of benighted beliefs and twisted oppressions; they have comprehensively trashed the country’s humane and tolerant traditions, which compare well with Europe’s history of oppression, war and genocide.

To sustain this flow of calumny the British have continued the colonial practice of rewarding a handful of “Indians” to join their side. The most prominent of them are Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga, all awarded the £50,000 Booker Prize for dankly negative books about India.

The Booker Prize is often described as “Britain’s most prestigious literary award,” but it has no literary antecedents. The Booker Corporation that established it was a right-wing outfit with a decidedly unsavoury colonial-era reputation; it endowed the prize at the suggestion of Ian Fleming, a psychological operations specialist in British Military Intelligence who authored the James Bond novels. Booker juries change from year to year and members are never asked back, an arrangement that empowers the shadowy sherpas guiding the selection process.

Three of the four “Indian” Booker Prize winners grew up outside India and are thoroughly deracinated; the fourth, Arundhati Roy, came from a broken Christian-Hindu home and led a vagabond existence until the founding head of Penguin India, David Davidar (who comes from the same small community in Kerala as she does), “discovered” her. Roy, for her part, claimed initially that she had written The God of Small Things without the knowledge of her husband. (Any writer will tell you, that is an impossibility.)

It is important to note that Penguin and Penguin India dominate the field of India-related publishing. Penguin India published three of the “Indian” Booker Prize winners. Adiga might have appeared under its imprint too if Harper Collins had not hired away two of its senior staffers. The Penguin backlist is replete with books presenting the preferred British view of India, and they tend to stay on the market long after they should have disappeared from sight.

A typical example is BBC correspondent Mark Tully’s No Full Stops in India (Penguin 1991), still available in Indian bookstores two decades after publication. The book is filled with familiar colonial stereotypes, beginning with its title, which reflects Tully’s “insight” that “India’s Westernized elite, cut off from local traditions, ‘want to write a full stop in a land where there are no full stops’.” That long-standing imperial theme – that the British understand India better than its own elite – leads easily into the book’s contents which, as another blurb on the cover says, throws “more light on this vast tragicomic country than anything since V.S. Naipaul’s Area of Darkness.”

It is not just Booker Prize winners who represent the British hand in Indian affairs.

A measure of Britain’s postcolonial success in shaping Indian opinion is that in February this year, 14 Indians, most of them prominent in their fields, were comfortable calling publicly for the continuation of British propaganda aimed at the Indian heartland. In a letter to The Guardian in Britain “pleading for the continuation of broadcast of the BBC’s Hindi service” they made an argument that should have caused a sensation in the world of Indian mass media. 

The letter said that for “nearly seven decades BBC Hindi radio has been a credible source of unbiased and accurate information, especially in times of crisis: the 1971 war, the emergency in 1975, the communal riots after the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992. Today India is facing other serious problems: the ongoing conflicts in Kashmir, in the north-east and in vast areas in central and eastern India, where Maoist militants are fighting the state. Ten million listeners in India – most of them in rural and often very poor areas – need BBC Hindi radio and the accurate, impartial and independent news it provides.” The service “cannot be silenced in times when democracy is under threat,” the letter added, as if India were North Korea or Iran.

In addition to Britain's dependable mouthpiece Arundhati Roy, the signatories were Vikram Seth (writer), Ramachandra Guha (historian), Amjad Ali Khan (musician), Kuldip Nayar, Inder Malhotra and M.J. Akbar (all three senior journalists), and Sunita Naraian (environmental activist). Others on the list were Swami Agnivesh the costumed social activist, Kiran Bedi the ex-policewoman, and Prashant Bhushan (lawyer), all members of Team Anna. (There were also a Dilawar K. Singh billed as “financial adviser, defence services, Ministry of Defence”, and Neelima Mathur of the “Foundation for responsible media, New Delhi”.)

There was no reaction at all in the Indian media to the public insult. No one asked any of the 14 for an explanation. Because of that, the leaders of Team Anna are now able to carry on with their deeply mischievous work as if their Indian loyalties were not seriously in question.

To be continued.

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