Monday, April 22, 2013

Britain and Hinduism 2: Murder as Policy

Over the centuries religion has been a standard tool of the British imperial elite. In manipulating victim populations ranging from Northern Ireland to the Middle East and India, their modus operandi has been simple: create a sense of grievance or entitlement in a religious group and use the resulting conflicts to serve British interests.

This worked well with Christian and Muslim populations with their well-established collective sense of their faith, but in India the technique came up short because our group identities compound religion with culture, caste, language and province. The extremist proxies the British promoted – the Muslim League under Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Hindu Mahasabha under Vinayak Damodar Savarkar – had very limited impact until the colonial regime introduced a historically unprecedented element: communal violence.

They did so first with the “Maplah (Muslim) Rebellion” in Kerala immediately in the wake of Gandhi’s first nation-wide Satyagraha in 1920. It succeeded in destroying the Hindu-Muslim amity created by the Khilafat Movement but there was no permanent communal split nationally.

The next stage came in the run-up to the 1937 elections, when “Hindus” suddenly began to make a series of unprovoked and inexplicable attacks on Muslims. The Muslim League blamed the Congress for the attacks in a series of written reports that made no mention of the Hindu Mahasabha (newly under Savarkar). The reports described the assaults with Dickensian bathos: the victims were invariably pious people at prayer or celebrating some happy holiday; the attackers came to their bloody business shouting “Gandhi ki jai!” Suspicion that it was all a British command performance was widespread, and the Viceroy (Linlithgow) only reinforced that with a series of unctuous speeches expressing his “deep conviction that upon [Hindu-Muslim] unity depend the position and prestige of India before the nations, and her capacity to take her due place in the world.”

The violence was meant to scare Muslims into supporting the League but it did not work. Within their reserved vote banks and in the general electorate, Muslims voted overwhelmingly for other parties. The North-West Frontier Province, with a population over 90 per cent Muslim, voted solidly for a close ally of the Congress, the Redshirt Party led by the great Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The Punjab, with a Muslim majority of about 53 per cent, elected the Unionist Party led by Sikander Hyat Khan who had broad Hindu and Sikh support. In Bengal, which also had a thin Muslim majority, a regional party won a plurality with support from all communities. Jinnah could not gain control even of his own native province, Muslim-majority Sind; the local leader, Khan Bahadur Allah Bux, opted to ally himself with the Congress.

Both Hyat Khan and Allah Bux rejected the notion that Hindus and Muslims were different “nations” and they would have been formidable obstacles to Partition. But neither lived to oppose it: Hyat Khan died suddenly of an alleged “heart attack” at the age of 50 and Allah Bux was assassinated. 

Mahatma Gandhi, the most effective foe of British rule, had become the target of deadly assault much earlier. The first attempt on his life was on 25 June 1934, when an unknown assailant threw a bomb at a car in which he was supposed to be travelling. As Tushar Gandhi (the Mahatma’s great-grandson), noted in his 2007 book Let’s Kill Gandhi! the bomb injured several policemen but “surprisingly, there [was] no record of any investigations or arrests.” As he also underlined, the attack took place in Pune, the base of operations for the gang that tried repeatedly to kill Gandhi and finally succeeded on 30 January 1948.

A second attempt on Gandhi’s life was in July 1944 at the small resort of Panchgani near Pune where he was recuperating from the near death experience of his final imprisonment. The assailant, Nathuram Godse, rushed at him with a dagger but was stopped and disarmed. Gandhi invited him to stay and talk but Godse stalked off; no police action followed. In September the same year, Godse tried again, joining a group at the entrance to Sevagram Ashram armed with a dagger; the police confiscated the weapon but once again, failed to take any action.

These incidents occurred well before the massive atrocities at the time of Partition that supposedly enraged Godse into killing Gandhi in 1948. They make clear that Godse's statement prior to his execution expressing outrage at the afflictions of of the Hindu community was pure propaganda. The available facts, especially the scandalous police inaction that extended from 1934 to 1948, point firmly to a long-standing conspiracy supported by the British and centred on Savarkar, Godse and Narayan Apte.

Apte has been generally viewed as little more than Godse's sidekick but he was in fact a key figure. A womanizing part-time recruiter for the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF), he declined a coveted permanent commission at the height of the Great Depression to continue his marginal existence as Savarkar’s henchman. The only believable explanation for that decision is that he was already employed full-time as an operative of British Intelligence.

A third plotter, Madanlal Pahwa, was a former radio operator in the Navy and probably kept Savarkar in touch with his British controllers. Another factor indicating a wider conspiracy to murder Gandhi is the mystery surrounding the provenance of the murder weapon. It was initially reported stolen from the armory at Nasik; later accounts said it was an almost brand new Beretta automatic brought to India from Italy by a former Army officer.

The 1944 attempts on Gandhi’s life followed his providential escape from death in custody, at a time when British leaders wanted him dead. Winston Churchill responded to news of his 21-day fast in 1943  by sending a “most secret encrypted message” to the Viceroy (Linlithgow) urging him against “any show of leniency.” Linlithgow assured the Prime Minister he would “feel no compunction” in letting Gandhi die. A later cable contained Churchill’s cold query why Gandhi was not dead yet. His survival probably had something to do with the interest Franklin Roosevelt took in the matter; at one point he had the State Department summon the British Ambassador in Washington and tell him flatly “Gandhi must not die in prison.”  

Gandhi fasted in prison to protest the "man-made famine" in Bengal with which the colonial regime responded to the Quit India movement. That punitive intent is clear in the fact that as some 3 million people starved to death, Churchill turned down requests to divert any of the numerous supply ships passing within hours of Calcutta carrying food from New Zealand to Britain. British diplomats also declined a Canadian offer of free grain.

Another object of Gandhi's protest was the brutal repression of the leaderless Quit India Movement. The colonial police and Army routinely beat, machine-gunned and bombed nonviolent demonstrators; torture and custodial death were common. Sushila Nayar's diary recorded that Indian sources within the government estimated the civilian death toll at some 50,000; she noted that the actual toll was higher.

Not all murders the regime committed were open and violent. There were also many quiet deaths  supposedly from natural causes. Three of Gandhi’s closest aides were eliminated in that manner. His nephew Maganlal, who founded and ran Sabarmati Ashram, the person the Mahatma considered his political “heir,” died inexplicably in 1928; that was when consultations were beginning for the declaration of Purna Swaraj the next year.

The next to go was the formidable business magnate Jamanlal Bajaj, who founded Sevagram Ashram in Wardha, where Gandhi moved in 1930. He dropped dead of a supposed brain haemorrhage in February 1942, as Congress was gearing up for what became the Quit India movement. It was reported to be a "staggering loss" to Gandhi, the most serious blow he had suffered since Maganlal's death.

Less than six months later, Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s private secretary, the only person who knew all of the Mahatma’s vast network of contacts and correspondents, dropped dead in prison. The three deaths not only affected Gandhi’s capacity for action at crucial times, they eliminated those most capable of carrying on his legacy.

Gandhi did not consider the deaths of his primary aides to be natural. On 2 March 1944 Sushila Nayar’s diary noted that he told her: “One after the other, you may all be taken away and I may be left alone. That will be a pathetic state.”

The death of his wife in prison also weighed heavily on Gandhi. In a rare personal complaint, he wrote to Viceroy (Wavell) disputing the regime’s public claim that Kasturba had been provided the best medical care and pointing out the many “pinpricks” the old couple had endured in prison. British “historians” have continued to repeat the canard that Kasturba’s death resulted from Gandhi’s refusal to permit the use of penicillin. Nayar’s diary makes clear that she (as the doctor in attendance), had asked the prison authorities for penicillin but was told it was unavailable.

All the foregoing pales in the light of the mass murders the British engineered in the final two years of their control of India. To understand why they did that we have to appreciate the global context.

World War II had pauperized Britain. Its main creditor, the United States, was pressing hard for an end to its Empire. Churchill’s hopes that Britain would have room to manoeuver by using the Soviet Union to counterbalance American power came to an abrupt end in 1945 when the United States became the world’s only nuclear Power. Without hope of holding India in the face of its massive nationalist mobilization and increasingly mutinous army. British strategists headed by Churchill decided that India had to be split.

David Monteath, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the British Foreign Office, summed up their rationale in a note for the file. “If India falls apart we may, I suppose, expect the Muslims to try and enlist British support by offering us all sorts of military and political facilities, to commit ourselves to what would be in effect the defence of one Indian state against another.”

To make India “fall apart” became the British objective from mid-1946, and the first step towards that goal was the "Great Calcutta Killing" initiated by the Muslim League on its “Direct Action Day,” 16 August. Jinnah was then secretly getting political advice from Churchill, who had arranged for letters to be routed through his private secretary, Miss E.A. Gilliat, at 6 Westminster Gardens in London.
The idea of using mass murder for political gain probably originated in that correspondence, for Jinnah was too fastidiously lawyerly to have come up with such an egregiously criminal plan on his own.

Whatever the origin of the plan, there is no doubt that the British actively facilitated the killings. The police did nothing as a crowd of Muslim League "hooligans" (as The Statesman described them), dispersed after Friday prayers on the Maidan and went on a spree of murder and arson, targeting Hindus and Sikhs. The Army, which had withdrawn all its outposts in the city the previous day, remained firmly ensconced in Fort William as thousands of people were beaten, hacked and burned to death over the next 72 hours. Retaliatory killings of Muslims did not get under way in the city until, on the third day of murder and arson, a group of Marwari businessmen assembled a band of hardened criminals and announced a bounty. Whether they did so under instructions from the British is a question that needs to be asked because without retaliation their whole project would have stalled.

The events in Calcutta set off a murderous rampage in the Muslim-majority area of Noakhali now in Bangladesh, and that led to mayhem in Bihar, and across North India. Descriptions of this process have commonly used the phrase “communal madness,” as if it were a natural contagion; but that distorts what actually happened. Those who witnessed the 1946-1947 riots up close have invariably reported that the killings were organized, and that goondas, criminals without any tint of faith, were always in the forefront of action.

Peace activist Muriel Smith who ran a relief centre at Noakhali made an additional important point when she wrote: “Perhaps the only thing that can be quite positively asserted about this orgy of arson and violence is that it was not a spontaneous uprising of the villagers. However many goondas may live in Bengal, they are incapable of organizing this campaign on their own initiative. Houses have been sprayed with petrol and burnt. Who supplied this rationed fuel? … Who supplied the weapons? The goondas seem to think that they really are the rulers of this beautiful area of Bengal. One sees no sign of fear [or] anxiety as to future punishment ….” Only the colonial authorities could have offered them impunity.

The tale of Partition has been told many times, but no historian has tried as yet to identify the Indians who helped organize the events that led to the murder of a million of their compatriots and rendered 14 million homeless in their own ancient lands. It is important to do that if only to see what role they have continued to play in the post-colonial evolution of Indian politics.

It is also necessary to bring into post-colonial perspective the evolution of the poisonous concept of "Hindutva" the British injected into Indian politics to dismember the country. That will be the focus of Part 3 of this essay.

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