April 3rd, 1996
Akhilesh Mithal

Reminiscing About 1947


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14th August 1996 will be the day on which the 50th year of Independence will commence for one part of a country once called India (which is a subcontinent now!).

As the part which became independent was called "Pakistan" when this even occurred, and more populous portion of that fragment broke away in March 1971 to form what we now call "Bangladesh," the young of the area who were not around when any of these momentous events occurred may well wonder what it was all about and whether it has any relevance to their own lives today.

It is not easy to address such a weighty question in the slender columns of a newspaper. At least not without considerable trepidation and alarm. But history has the whip-hand over its devotees and therefore an attempt must be made, howsoever feeble and ineffectual it may turn out to be. Perhaps a personal anecdote is permissible in order to give the reader a "whiff" of the atmosphere in 1947.

Your columnist was 21 years old and unemployed though B.A. (Hons.), M.A. from the premier educational institute of India where he had been President of the College Union, President of the Hindi Sahitya Sabha and actively involved in the Shakespeare Society (Dramatics), Bazme Adab (Urdu Literary Society), editor of the college magazine etc.

The cultural activities of Dillee (population 250,000 and extended from the Ridge in the North to Lodhi Road in the South) were confined to "variety entertainment" which amused and diverted Tommies, B.O.R.'s and Indian officers on R&R (Rest and Recreation) leave from the various "fronts."

At a function of the "Caravan of India", an acquaintance was made with a striking looking Englishman distinguished by his shock of snow white hair. After some time the stranger inquired, "What are your plans for employment and work?" The answer was "Compete for civil service. If I fail to make it I'll become a clerk in the government of India. There is no money or experience of business. So it has to be service either at the top or the bottom."

Stranger: "Have you ever thought of management as your career?" Columnist: "The only managers I know are the manager of the college cafe, the manager of the Coffee House and the managers of the cinema halls. I cannot see myself in any of these roles."

Readers will have seen the utter ignorance and helplessness of the young Indians. They had been slaves from 1757 onwards and had been hemmed into a no-win situation. Very few jobs in the civil services which were suitable for officers and gentlemen were open to them. The King's Commission in the army was open to a very small number of Indians. They had to be from the "martial" races and have histories of "loyalty" to the British for many generations. Your columnist as a Dillee bania had not chance at all in the defense services. (Being bandy legged and knock-kneed would have eluded him out as unfit for being recruited in any event!)

Today the young Indians, Pakistani or Bangladeshi has all avenues of employment open to him or her and there are no color or nationality barriers. The world is at his or her feet.

What has been said about government employment also applied to "superior", "covenanted" and "executive" jobs in the private sector. All industry and trade was in British hands. Their senior management cadres were exclusively White. In Burmah Shell Oil Storage and Distributing Company the first Indian to join as a "covenanted" officer was the colorful Jaipal Singh from Chutia Nagpur in Bihar, Ranchi.

He had been brought up by a missionary and educated at a premier English University. His colleagues hated him so much that he did not survive long and took to national politics where he had a good innings. Your columnist first met him in Ranchi in 1950. He had applied for membership of the Ranchi Club and the English manager of the Burmah Shell Divisional Office in Ranchi wanted everyone to keep Jaipal out by the "black-ball device." As readers know, a proposal for the club membership had to be made formally and thereafter left open for vote by members. Those who opposed could put a negative in the ballot box. An approving vote was a white ball, and the negative vote was a black ball, hence the term "to black ball someone." The next two Indians to join were greeted by a disapproving din caused by the clattering of cutlery on china when they entered the common lunch room.

These were the days when clubs like the Yatch club of Bombay had signs forbidding entry to "Dogs and Indians." As a result of Independence, Indians hold jobs and pursue careers all over the globe. Under British rule, Indians were "indentured" labor working in British plantations and factories in India and abroad. The tea gardens of the North-East were staffed by poor illiterate tribals of central India and Bihar and by equally poor Nepalese. Their labor and women were on tap for the young men who came from Scotland and England to "shake the pagoda tree." An institution called Dr Graham's Homes was there to look after the offspring of these unions. The level of education and training was barely adequate at this "Home" to enable its students to get and hold the lowliest of jobs.

The difference between the British and Indians was caused by their rulers' perception of the divisiveness of color and culture. The earlier invaders (e.g. Kushans, Huns, Shakas, Afghans, Mongols etc) had all settled down here and become another layer deposited like list on the soil of India. Only those who were looters like Nadir Shah had gone back. The British were Nadir Shah. The difference was that they stayed on and on and extracted all the wealth they could over nearly two centuries. They destroyed the industries of India by producing cheaper machine made "look-alikes" which were to replace the genuine article and make it unremarkable. The riches country the world had ever known from dim distant antiquity up until the 18th century AD became a basket case. The people who had been looked upon as sages and teachers in eras earlier and had given concepts like "zero," "infinity," the decimal system, the place value number system and some of the most fascinating games like chess (chaturangi or shatranj) and religions like Buddhism, Jainism etc. became a mass of undernourished illiterates who were practically sub-human. What was worse is that they had a very low self esteem because the judge was their white master and his only justification for lording it in India was the claim that he was carrying "the White man's burden" by governing the country as its own population were imbecile and unable to fend for themselves.

As a Dilleewaalaa accepts the duration of British rule in India only from the deposition of the Emperor (September 1857 - August 1947), we have to take into account some 90 years. In this period there were 30 famines admitted by British authorities. Of these, the last, the Great Bengal famine of 1943 (which also affected Orissa, Andhra and Karnataka, though they are rarely mentioned) accounted for five million lives, the population of Denmark. The British never admitted that it was a man-made famine excepting for blaming Indian merchants like Isfahani for hoarding. Hoarding was a criminal offence attracting the draconian rules promulgated during World War II (1939-1945). As rulers, the British could have got all the hoarded food disgorged from the very entrails of the earth. But they did not. Feasting frolic an festivals continued unabated in the White localities of Calcutta. The restaurants of the Grand and Eastern Hotels and the legendary "Firpo's" continued to to function throughout the famine while lives were ebbing out due to hunger.

Whatever our relations with China now, there were cases of students at Chinese universities fasting a day or giving up a meal and sending the money saved to India.

The British have successfully sold the world the myth that they "prepared Indians for self-government" and "quit of their own accord." They have run down those who fought for India's freedom including the great patriots like Bhagat Singh, Jatin Das and Chandra Bose."

The reality is that the British stayed as long as they could. The left because they realized that the only way to hold India would be by force administered through an all-White army of some 10 divisions. This was the impact or fallout of the revolt of the much maligned Indian National Army. The process of freedom was accelerated because the Whites were afraid that anti-British feelings would take the upper hand. Also, their playboy governor general had a royal function to attend in London.

The great administrators who gave themselves a Graeco-Roman ancestry were responsible for the greatest mess the world has ever known. The presided over the "Partition of India." It cost between a quarter and half million lives, the rape of tens of thousands of women and the uprooting of the largest number of human beings in the history of the world.

The second half century of freedom should see a proper history of the period of subjugation of "India which was a country when the British came and is a sub-continent now."


Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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