Tienanmen Square Redux

In this essay I comment on “Tienanmen Papers” by Vijay Gokhale.  Mr Gokhale was India’s top diplomat, serving as Foreign Secretary until his retirement in February 2020. He served three stints in China, ending up as Ambassador, and has the distinction of also serving as India’s top diplomat in Taiwan (as head of the India-Taiwan Association in Taipei that serves as India’s unofficial embassy).  

Vijay Gokhale’s “Tienanmen Papers”  is a wonderful read. It shows the depth of understanding Indian diplomats have of the People’s Republic and the undercurrents of Chinese politics.  They have a level of expertise as good as the best western commentators when it comes to China. This is good to know and augurs well for India. 

In his book, Gokhale states that the death and destruction on the night of June 3 is highly exaggerated and nowhere on the scale that has been reported by the Western Press.   Accounts in the Western media stated that thousands of students were run over by tanks and massacred by PLA troops on the night of June 3. While he will not be drawn into comparisons of scale, and he is not hewing to the official Chinese line, he believes it was not as big as reported.  Western diplomats and their media chose to see and hear what they wanted to see and hear, he says, and hence would believe any account without cross-verification. He accuses journalists of the same crime.

Why these conclusions need to be taken seriously is because of his impressive credentials and his scholarship.   Gokhale was a junior foreign service officer in the Indian Embassy in Beijing in 1988-89 when these events took place. He was lucky enough to be allotted diplomatic accommodation at the Qijiayuan Diplomatic Enclave, with a balcony that opened on Chang’An Avenue.  If you step out of the Enclave and walk  west on Chang’An Avenue, you will reach Tiananmen Square in a couple of kilometres.  This gave him a ring-side view as events unfolded. His fluency in written and spoken Putonghua meant he could follow what was said and written at that time.  He supplements his first-hand accounts with deep scholarship on Chinese history,  and he helps explain the chain of events that led up to this seminal punctuation point in Chinese politics.  He says he had to wait until he retired as India’s top diplomat to write this book and one can understand why.

He correctly observes that during any kind of turmoil, rumours and innuendo fly around and it is the job of serious diplomats to winnow the chaff and wait for verified facts to emerge.  This, he says, American and British diplomats failed to do and their media doubled down on it.  He quotes specific cables sent by the US Embassy back to the State Department and now unclassified,  and contrasts them with the reality of what was actually happening. 

American and British commentators, as observed, chose to see these events through tinted glasses.  The result is that the liberal West thinks in terms of Chinese human rights. As he points out, after the dust had settled down,  none of these liberal views were a factor in subsequent hard-headed American economic and strategic diplomacy with respect to China. 

His description of events over the previous decade that culminated in Tienanmen is masterly. The spark of the student protests, as we know, was the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989.  Hu Yaobang was the man handpicked by Deng Xiao Ping to succeed Hua Guofeng as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party – the most powerful of positions in the Party and hence the State.  Hua was the man chosen by Mao as his successor.  Getting rid of Hua was essential to Deng’s vision of getting rid of the legacy of the Cultural Revolution,  modernising China’s economy and bringing China into the 20th century.  Deng was always very clear that nothing or nobody could compromise the supremacy of the Communist Party. For him, the Party was everything. Within the broad supervision of the Party, Deng wanted to introduce economic pragmatism which involved liberalisation. However over the years Hu started to talk of political liberalisation instead of focusing on economic liberalisation, and this message was heard by youth who were anyway unhappy with lack of opportunity. As a result Hu was ruthlessly removed from his post of General Secretary by Deng in 1987.  And his death in 1989 caused youth to come out on to the streets and squares in Beijing to mourn someone who seemed to advocate for change. 

Deng had Hu Yaobang replaced by Zhao Ziyang as General Secretary of the Party in the belief that Zhao would also keep the focus on economic liberalisation without compromising on the hold of the Party.  However Zhao Ziyang had his Prime Minister Li Peng, who was supposed to handle the economics agenda for Deng, to contend with in a power struggle. 

The power struggle lead to a number of missteps and miscommunications on the real intent of the Party which were misread by Western observers and diplomats as an unraveling of the one Party state.  It led to the embarrassing situation in the middle of May 1989, when the head of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev was supposed to visit Beijing to end thirty years of rivalry and bad blood with the Chinese. It was one of Deng Xiaoping’s personal objectives and he was going to meet and talk to Gorbachev to rejuvenate relations between the two Communist giants.  Tienanmen Square and most of central Beijing was reduced a squalid mass of students squatting there. Instead of being swept to Zhongnanhai via the grand Chang’An Avenue, Gorbachev had to be taken via a bunch of back roads.  It was hugely embarrassing for the Chinese and for Deng in particular. 

From then on, Deng asserted his authority.  He had Zhao pushed aside, and got the party elders to pick the relatively unknown and colourless Jiang Zemin (from the Shanghai unit of the Party) to become the General Secretary. Zhao was later dismissed and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.  Li Peng was punished for his powerplay by being denied the big job of General Secretary.  Martial Law was declared on May 20 and all demonstrations were banned. The troops surrounding Beijing entered the city and moved towards the Forbidden City.   The Army slowly and relatively peacefully, cleared Beijing of the students.  Most of the moderate students, who did not want to topple the government but were making simple demands like more jobs and more opportunities, had anyway been side lined by extreme radicals, who were attacking the Party and its leaders with personal remarks.

This was observed by Gokhale and Indian embassy staffers when they drove around the city on May 24 after the initial clean-up had taken place.  They noted that Radio Beijing had started referring to Deng as “Chairman Deng” and they took this as a sign that the Party had reasserted control, and informed New Delhi as such. They did not believe the Chinese Government was going to fall. By the time the night of June 3 arrived, only the Tienanmen Square had students. According to Gokhale, there was some firing, and in other parts of Beijing, clashes between students and the troops. Indian Embassy officials saw a line of destroyed PLA armoured personnel carriers, and assumed there must have been some fightback or perhaps a clash between PLA troops.  

Without hazarding numbers or estimates, he does not believe the killings were on a scale shown in the documentary “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”  or in any of the documents and books written in the years since.   If there had been, he implies, he would have seen it.  He dismisses the “Statue Of Liberty” erected out of plastic material facing the Heavenly Gate, and does not refer to the famous man in front of the tank. 

As we know, the real significance of the events of April and May 1989, culminating in whatever happened on Tienanmen Square on the night of June 3rd, is that cemented in place the trade-off that the Chinese have lived with since then.  Since that day, the Chinese GDP went up from US$500bn to US$14trn today. Per capita incomes are approaching middle-income levels at around US$12,500 per annum.  The Chinese have the ability to travel freely, get wealthy, enjoy their money and their lives. Gone are the drab days of the 1980s – even in 1993 I could see ten bicycle lanes on the wide Chang’An Avenue and two car lanes. Today you cannot spot a bicycle on Chang’An Avenue. 

But there is no political liberty.  Given that the Chinese Government drew a curtain of lead on the entire happening, there is no possibility that any truth will emerge. Even the heartfelt observances in Hong Kong have been snuffed out.  The relentless march of Xi Jingping to take on the mantle of Mao and Deng means that there is no chance of any form of coming to terms. 

Democracy, human rights, individual freedoms – these are values that underpin the way the West sees itself ever since the end of World War II, and chooses to judge the rest of the world on these benchmarks.  These are indeed universal values and everyone is entitled to choose his leader, enjoy his individual freedoms and have his basic rights to life, liberty and property protected.  But other societies need not see things the same way.  In post 1991 China, as long as individual economic liberties coincide with the objectives of the State, there is no conflict. But there can be no political liberty for individuals because the Party will never give up control.

The Chinese people have had a long and unhappy history ever since the humiliations began in 1840 at the hands of the opium-selling British.  Since 1979 they have made huge advances towards education, opportunity and economic freedom of a kind that is unprecedented.  The way ahead is going to be harder. Geopolitics and financial mismanagement may limit the rate at which wealth increases.  An aging society will impose additional care costs on younger people. Will this lead to rising dissatisfaction, and a fresh push for a greater say in how the State is run?

After all Chinese youth activism is not new.  They go back to May 4 1919, when Chinese youth burst into the streets protesting the supine manner in which the Republic of China acquiesced to the handover of German colonies on the Chinese mainland to Japan as part of the Versailles peace settlement. 

What about his claim that the disturbances were not as bad as CNN and the NYT made them out to be?  It could well be so. But as he implies, the real confrontation is what took place between April 15 1989 (when the mourning for Hu Yaobang’s demise began) to May 20 1989 (when martial law was declared).  There was a genuine demand for political freedoms of a limited nature.  These demands were amplified beyond their original intent due of a power struggle within the Party, in which Zhao and his allies were fully complicit in leading the West to believe that a fundamental reworking of the Chinese state was underway. This was music to Western ears in the context of what was happening in the USSR at the same time. There was a genuine danger that the Party could lose control.  And once Deng stepped in and took charge, the Party reasserted supremacy.  And that, he says, is how things will stay.

Indian Islam and British Colonial Rule in India

This is an abbreviated version of a longish paper I wrote recently on this subject. If you would like to read the paper please email me on ravir1208@gmail.com and I will be glad to mail you a copy.

The terms Deoband and Barelwi have come to be associated with militant Islam, thanks to the Taliban and to several violent incidents in India and Pakistan. In India, the recent incident in Udaipur was blamed on two individuals who claimed affiliation with the Barelwis and also were visitors to the Dargah at Ajmer.  Given that  in the days before 1947, the Muslim League advocated for and successfully partitioned India on the basis of religion, there were always going to be elements in India who consider Indian Muslims to be fifth-columnists for Pakistan at worst or working to bring Islamic law to India.

Hindu nationalism in India is not new, and it can be dated back to the assumption of British Crown rule in 1858. But it has gained steam in the last thirty years since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1991, as evidenced by the rise of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).  This force is here to stay.  The Hindu nationalist message of the Hindu Mahasabha was similar to that of the Muslim League – Hindus and Muslims are two nations.

The Indian National Congress that lead the Independence movement believed in a composite nationalism based on India being the home of all Indians regardless of religion.  They were staunchly opposed by the Muslim League who voiced the two nation theory right from 1930 onwards, resulting in the formal claim for Pakistan in March 1940.  The Muslim League was always loyal to the British Crown, and their unwavering view was that if the British leave, they have to split the country rather than leave India’s Muslims to the Hindu hordes.

They were also opposed by the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS who wanted a Hindu nation, were equal votaries of the two nation theory, and who essentially sat out most of the Independence movement due to this basic disagreement with the Congress.

But did the Muslim League truly represent all shades of Muslim opinion? And were all Muslims loyal to the British to a fault, to ensure the British would protect them from Hindu nationalism?  

The upper-class Muslims in India were the first to be affected by the increasing military and political might of the British. The decline of Muslim political power in India was precipitous following the death of Aurangzeb, and nearly complete by 1764. It took a few more decades until 1803 for the last rites to be performed.

The Muslim angst at this loss was directed towards the British. As early as 1730,  a Muslim thinker and preacher, Shah Waliullah Dehlawi, was indoctrinated into the concepts of the extreme form Islam in Medina that first surfaced in the 13th century. He was taught these concepts by a preacher of Indian origin, and his fellow student was another fiery young man, Muhammad al-Wahhab.

Al-Wahhab internalised these extreme interpretations and helped the Al-Saud tribe conquer most of Arabia, and where they hold power today, and where Al-Wahhab is revered.  Waliullah returned to India and taught his Indian Muslim students to purify themselves and wage holy war against the British at a Madrassah in Delhi that was very prestigious amongst the Muslim elite.  

His mantle was taken up by another student, Syed Ahmad. In 1803 when the Mughal Emperor signed away what little power he had in exchange for a pension from the East India Company, he was enraged. He tried to interest a local warrior to wage war but that person was a freebooter. He then preached and taught the Wahhabi message of unrelenting holy war against the British, quite unnoticed by the Company, and helping found the Wahhabi hub in Sadiqpore, in Patna.

After a pilgrimage to Mecca, he launched the first of such Holy Wars – against the Sikhs. He was killed in battle in 1830.  Since then his disciples launched several such actions against the British while all the while expanding the Wahhabi presence in India via a network of cells operating independently of each other. Some of these were nipped in the bud thanks to alert Company officials, who by 1840 were aware of “Hindustanee Fanatics” operating in India. 

As Muslims became increasingly marginalised, thanks to the switch to English in education and administration, the intensity of the Wahhabi angst increased.  In 1857 the Mutiny broke out, lead by upper caste Hindu sepoys. Attempts to convert this into jihad failed but the Wahhabi Muslims fought the British hard along with their Hindu counterparts. Thanks to a lucky arrest in Patna of the entire Wahhabi leadership, the Wahhabi cells did not participate in the Mutiny – if they had, the outcome for the British would have been far worse.  The Mutiny ended with the British cleansing Delhi of its Muslims and regarding Muslims with suspicion everywhere. 

At this juncture, the Wahhabis from Delhi made a crucial switch. The remaining Wahhabi leaders in Delhi understood that violent action was neither feasible nor productive given the extreme repression of the Muslims by the British. Muslim rule was never going to return. So they chose a town north-east of Delhi called Deoband, and there they established a school called the Deoband Dar-Ul-Uloom where they taught young Muslims how to live an Islamic life and the basics of modernity. They abandoned violence and focused on purification while retaining their basic premise – that the British should leave India. 

The Wahhabis in Patna continued to be active but now disconnected from their former Delhi counterparts.  Their paramilitary activity continued in a low-key manner until 1871. Two high-profile assassinations by these Wahhabis – one of the Chief Justice of Bengal and another of the Viceroy Lord Mayo – lead to a crackdown on the Wahhabis and most of them were sentenced to very long terms in the Andaman prisons. The Wahhabi headquarters in Patna was demolished and converted into a public garden.

As we know, after 1857, the Hindu revival began as Hindus occupied almost all administrative positions offered by the British.  Indians started to get co-opted into decision-making councils.  The Deoband school started to develop a reputation for their views on religious matters and by the last quarter of the 19th century, was considered second only to the famed Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

The Deobandi leaders now made an important and seminal pronouncement. They instructed their followers to collaborate and co-operate with the Hindus in the mission to rid India of the British. All of this was long before any formal independence movement began.  Though the Indian National Congress was founded around this time, it was just a talking shop for Indians loyal to Empire. It was not until Tilak in the late 1890s that the Congress started to talk of self-government. Independence was much later.

From here on this remained the philosophy of the Deobandis – work with Hindus to rid India of colonial rule. And when the Congress started to espouse the cause of self-government, the Deobandis were with them every inch of way.  Predictably this caused a reaction amongst the orthodox Muslims.  The Barelwi Sunni movement launched in the late 19th century. While they had religious differences with the Deobandis, the biggest point of divergence was they believed Muslims were a separate nation and could not co-exist with the Hindu majority. They were loyal to the British Crown on the basis that the Christians were people of the Book.  Well before the Muslim League began to talk of two nations, the Barelwis were ahead of them by twenty years. These developments coincided with the first all Indian census which showed how much of a minority the Muslims were.  And, it coincided with the launch of modern Western style education for Muslims in Aligarh by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. 

The turn of the century saw the formal establishment of the Muslim League, with the now anglicised elite from the Aligarh school in its ranks, who warned the British that in any future political dispensation the Muslims deserved an out-sized carveout.  This demand took the form of reserved electorates to start with, and then progressed on to the two state formulation. Loyalty to the Crown was the foremost consideration.

The political battleground in India from the Jallianwala Bagh killings is often reduced to the byplay between the Congress and the Jinnah-lead Muslim League. We also hear of Savarkar, the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS.  What we do not hear about is the complete support the Deobandis gave to Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress through and through, and championed the cause of Hindu Muslim unity. As we know the communal situation frayed through the 1920s. As the Hindu Muslim estrangement grew, the League and the Barelwis acted in tandem – the League consisting of the anglicised Muslim upper class and the Barelwis addressed the uneducated Muslim lower classes.  

After the wreckage of the Round Table Conferences had been cleared, and after another round of Civil Disobedience (with the Deobandis in lockstep with the Congress),  the Government of India Act 1935 was passed and that lead to elections in the provinces. The electorate in total consisted of 30 million people pre-selected on the basis of education and property.  The Congress won a resounding victory overall with Deobandi support. The League, supported by the Barelwis, finished a very poor second. The Congress refused (rightly) to accommodate the League in government, which Jinnah took as a personal affront. 

In 1939, the Congress resigned the ministries to protest the British decision to commit India to war without any promise of self-government or independence in return for support.  And in 1942 the Congress announced the Quit India Movement. Though it was supposed to be non-violent, it was actually (in Lord Linlithgow’s words) the most serious challenge to British rule since 1857.  In both decisions the Deobandis supported the Congress. In both cases the Muslim League was quick to rush into the breach and promise eternal loyalty and support to the British, supported by the Barelwis. In retrospect both these decisions were blunders, because it evacuated the public space and allowed Jinnah a free hand, and the violence of the Quit India movement did not endear the Congress leadership to the British who were fighting for survival. 

Driven by American pressure and domestic compulsions, the British freed all the Congress leaders in 1944 and started to move India towards some form of self-rule – the stated objective of the Attlee Government that took power in October 1945.  In 1946 elections were held in British India – roughly 50% of the country; the other 50% under the Princely states sat them out. The election was conducted on the basis of reserved seats for Muslims where only Muslim candidates could stand.  The Muslim League captured nearly all these reserved seats, giving them 423 seats in contrast to the Congress’s 923 seats. Pakistan was now a reality. 

Right through, the Deobandis kept the faith in favour of composite nationalism and unity between Hindus and Muslims.  They believed they were Indians first as Muslims had been buried in Indian soil for centuries.  Their belief system was compatible with their basic belief in Islamic purification – that India was a country in which two nations lived and each of them had the right and duty to peaceful co-existence. 

When Partition was hurried through, it was not a day of happiness for the Deobandis. By this time the Deobandis had split into a Pakistani entity who started to go back to the Wahhabism that the Deobandis had abandoned some 80 years before.

Correcting these misconceptions is essential to the future of India, which has a large minority of Muslims for whom India is their home.  The constant suspicion that Muslims do not deserve to be Indian because the Muslim League forced the creation of Pakistan is unfair to our fellow citizens. Islam needs to address genuine problems within its followers in terms of education, attainment and opportunity.  Islamic terrorism has given the whole religion a bad name. The religion needs to modernize further and complete its transition to the modern era. Threatening violence in the name of religion is wrong – whether it is Muslim or Hindu.  If Muslim leaders pull their kids out of secular schools it hurts those kids and feeds into the narrative of the right wing. Moving today’s Indian Muslims more into the mainstream is the function of not just the Indian state but also of Muslim thought leaders with Hindu support.  And this is why it is important that we all understand the past.      

Ukraine, Finland and Mannerheim

The parallels between Finland and Ukraine are uncanny.   Both countries were part of Russia. Both of them broke off from the Russian Empire in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Both of them suffered civil war as a result. And both of them fought on the side of the Nazis in the Second World War. 

The similarities end there. The single biggest factor that differentiated Finland from Ukraine was essentially the leadership of one man. Field Marshal Gustav Mannerheim. Now forgotten everywhere except in Finland, it was this man’s hand on the wheel from 1918 to 1945 that saw Finland fight off the communist threat not once, but thrice.

Finland is a very young nation. Until 1809 it was part of the powerful Swedish Empire which dominated Northern Europe especially around the Baltic Sea.  Towards the East was the rising Russian Empire, with its relatively new capital in St Petersburg. In 1808 war broke out between the two Empires and ended in a Swedish defeat.  Finland was the prize for the Russians – a dirt-poor country, hard to live in, and the source of cheap labour for wealthy Swedes.

Now the Russian Tsar did something very wise. He made Finland a semi-autonomous part of the Russian Empire and called it a Grand Duchy.  The Tsar became the Grand Duke of Finland, and he appointed a Russian Governor General.  But the local language of education and administration continued to be Swedish and Finnish – with local noblemen very often speaking no Finnish at all.  Finns could move to Russia, and find employment or join the Russian Armed Forces. 

One such person who went to Russia to find a living was Carl Gustav Mannerheim. Born in 1867, he came from a genteel but impoverished Finnish noble family who were more Swedish than Finnish.  He managed to get into the best cavalry school in St Petersburg and when he graduated in 1887, he joined the Chevalier Guard Regiment, the Praetorian Guard for the Tsar himself – the smartest, fittest, most attractive unit in the Russian Army.

To serve in the Russian Army one needed to be fluent in Russian, which Carl Gustav was. And as a smart Chevalier Guard, he was part of the Russian elite and the toast of St Petersburg society.  Tiring of his largely ceremonial duties, he volunteered to serve with a cavalry unit in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, in which he learnt a number of lessons from the Japanese.

In 1905, he volunteered to lead a small Russian spying expedition across Central Asia into China, accompanying the French linguist and sinologist Paul Pelliot who acted as his cover, to map the area and study the state of the Chinese Army.  He learnt Chinese, met the Dalai Lama, and stumbled on the caves at Dunhuang – but did nothing about them. His companion Paul Pelliot stopped, as had Aurel Stein a year before, and Pelliot gained fame as the man who brought the Silk Road manuscripts to the Western world. 

He came back to St Petersburg with a successful expedition behind him and regaled the Tsar with stories of his adventures.  He gained promotion to Major General.  This was Tsar Nicholas II, who came to the throne in 1894, and had a reputation for being quite dim and obtuse. 

When he came to the throne, Tsar Nicholas made the mistake of trying to Russify Finland by banning the Finnish language and forcing all Finns to learn Russian. Disaffection against the Russians started to grow in Mannerheim’s homeland.  And elsewhere in Russia, feelings against the Tsar were increasing fueled by the disastrous defeat Russia suffered against the Japanese. It lead to the 1905 Revolution.

When the Great War began in 1914, Mannerheim commanded divisions of the Russian Army in Poland that were facing the Austrians. Mannerheim did very well, scoring some spectacular successes against the Austrians. The Tsar was pleased and he was promoted to General.  Elsewhere the war was going very badly for the Russians. The Tsar then made the mistake of assuming personal command of the army. That simply made him the target of the resentments of Russian troops fighting against superior German forces.

The Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, and Mannerheim realised that being a General in the Russian Army of the Tsar was not wise. He was in St Petersburg when the army mutinied, and he had the narrowest of escapes from the Bolsheviks.    He made his way to Finland.  Finland, meanwhile, was split between the Finnish Socialists (or Reds) and the anti communist Whites. The Red included the Russian garrisons in Finland. The Red were allied to the Bolsheviks and wanted a closer embrace with the new Soviet movement. The Whites were Finnish nationalists who wanted independence. A civil war broke out.

Mannerheim took charge of the Finnish White Armies, and lead them to victory against the Reds. Finland became an independent nation, a republic, for the first time in its history in 1920. Mannerheim continued on in Finland, but he was now at odds with the Socialists who were half the electorate and remembered his brutal tactics in several of the battles he won in the Civil War.  He was slipping out of national life, when in 1939 tensions arose with the Soviet Union.

The casus belli was the proximity of the Finnish border in the Karelian Peninsula to Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg).  It was just 35 miles of flat country. Though the Soviets had concluded the infamous pact with Germany in August 1939, Stalin did not trust Hitler (he did not trust anyone for that matter).  Stalin knew that the Finns had a lot of affinity with the Germans and pondered whether the Wehrmacht would, with or without Finnish support, attack Leningrad via the Karelian Peninsula. It would be a short cut.

Mannerheim had all along been warning the Finnish President that the Soviets will attack Finland at some point due to this very issue. He had advocated taking St Petersburg when the Soviet Union was weak but the Finnish leadership would not approve. Now he was being proved right.

On November 30 1939  the Soviet Army attacked Finland, expecting to overrun the country within ten days and welcome a new Soviet Socialist Republic to the USSR.  Mannerheim assumed charge of the Finnish Armed Forces that very day. It was a mismatch made for the ages. Finland had barely 100,000 men at arms out of her total population of 3.5 million. There was no anti-tank weaponry, artillery, mortars or guns worth the name. The Finnish Air Force was a joke. Mannerheim was not discouraged. He had two advantages the Soviets did not have – his part-time soldiery were men of the woods, used to the cold, very hardy and naturals on skis. And they knew the terrain.

And so began one of the most unequal wars in history. The Soviets won, but some 400,000 Soviet soldiers lay dead and wounded and some 3500 Soviet tanks and 500 Soviet aircraft were destroyed.  The Finns lost 70,000 dead and wounded, 25 tanks and 60 aircraft.  It was a brutal conflict.  The Finnish sniper Simo Hayha notched up some 500 kills, lying prone covered by snow and picking off clumsy Soviet soldiers at 1500 yards.  They also invented the Molotov cocktail – so called because when Soviet aircraft bombed Helsinki, Vyacheslav Molotov – the Soviet Foreign Minister – claimed that they were just dropping food packets.  So here are some cocktails Mr Molotov, they seemed to be saying. The tactics against heavy armour of the Soviets was low-tech but inspired.  Finnish troops would scuttle through to the advancing tank and plant a Molotov cocktail on the tank tracks. Finnish riflemen would walk up as close as possible to a Soviet tank, and shoot right into the driver’s  sight of the tank, killing the driver.

Mannerheim was a pragmatist. He was getting some aid from Sweden but no one wanted to get involved against the Russians. He realised that the war would have to end in a way that the Soviets would get some of what they want but leave the Finns alone. It was approaching March. The spring thaw would begin, negating the weather advantage. Second, the Soviet Army had learnt their lesson, and had begun to co-ordinate artillery, tank, infantry and air support to overwhelm the Finnish line. The Finns had started to fall back as their lack of numbers began to tell. And despite promises of British and French help, not much was going to materialize – and no one wanted to take on the Soviet Union. 

Stalin was also keen to reach a settlement. He made a crucial concession – he would not insist on full occupation of Finland. This “police action” had now taken up a third of his armed forces, and forced seasoned generals like Marshal Voroshilov into retirement.  

The Swedes opened a back-channel with the Soviet Union.  While the Finns did their best to hold the Soviet Armies in check,  a Finnish delegation made its way to Moscow where they were met by Molotov.  On Stalin’s orders, he asked the Finns to give up nearly 18% of their territory – the Karelian peninsula and the northern port of Petsamo (which had anyway been occupied by the Soviet Union at the start of the war).  The Finns were appalled. 

While negotiations were going on, the Soviet Army surged forward against heroic Finnish resistance. The Mannerheim line – a set of Finnish defences near Leningrad where the Soviets had been held for nearly three months – was breached by the Soviets and tank divisions started to roll forward towards Helsinki.

Mannerheim immediately advised the Finnish President to sign. He told the President that defeating the Soviet Union was now impossible. The Finns did not have the numbers. The Red Army had absorbed the harsh lessons from the war and had completely revamped tactics. It was now a disciplined force.  A full-scale military defeat was very much on the cards. 

On March 11 1940 a cease-fire took effect. The Finns arose from their trenches, and along with Finnish civilians living in the Karel, they made their way back to the new border.  Stalin kept his end of the bargain. Finland ceded the northern port of Petsamo, and the entire Eastern Karelian peninsula that included the historic Finnish town of Viipuri – now the Russian town of Vyborg. 

Stalin, of course, knew that one day Germany and the USSR might be at war, and that at that time, Finland might side with the Germans. But there was no war yet. Inevitably, the Germans broke their pact with the USSR and attacked.  As soon as hostilities began, the Germans reached out to Finland to ask if they would join them in the assault. Mannerheim was only too willing but with some stringent conditions. One – it was not an alliance, they were co-aggressors. Two – no anti-semitism.

A much modernized and re-armed Finnish Army invaded the Soviet Union in August 1941 and retook at the lands they had lost in 1939. They stopped outside Leningrad but did not move further inland, and did not join in the siege. Germany made representations to woo Finland closer into the German embrace, including a surprise visit by Adolf Hitler himself to greet Mannerheim on his 75th birthday. 

Ever alive to the military situation, Mannerheim watched as the German war machine began to falter. In May 1943 he noted the defeat of German armour in the Battle of Kursk. The Soviet Army was beginning to counter-attack with vigour and the lifting of the 900-day siege of Leningrad was imminent. In January 1944 Soviet forces broke through to Leningrad, relieving the siege. The Germans were in retreat.

By this time, the Allies had also declared war on Finland and in fact, the RAF had mounted a raid on Petsamo. Churchill wrote privately to Mannerheim regretting that war had to be declared on a German ally because he held Mannerheim in high esteem.  In return Mannerheim ensured all British subjects in Finland were safe and respectfully escorted back home via Sweden.

Finland soon began discussing peace terms with the USSR but abandoned these talks as they found the terms too onerous.But before the peace talks began, Mannerheim wrote directly to Hitler, asking him to understand that he had a duty to Finland and appreciating the fact that the “Germans in Finland were certainly not the representatives of foreign despotism but helpers and brothers-in-arms…nothing whatsoever happened that could have induced us to consider the German troops intruders or oppressors.”

In June 1944, the Soviet Union attacked the Finnish positions. This time, with concentrated combined artillery and tank assaults, they rapidly pushed the Finns back and re-occupied Petsamo and Viipuri (Vyborg).  The Finns were not done – getting Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons from the Wehrmacht they fought Soviet tanks in fierce engagements.  War raged on in July and August.  By then the Soviets were throwing the Germans back in Eastern Europe and heading for the main prize – Berlin.  Mannerheim judged this to be the right time for peace talks, assumed the Presidency of Finland, and sued for peace.

The peace terms came into effect in September 1944. Essentially, Finland was to disarm, cede all territories occupied in 1941, pay reparations and throw the Germans out of Finland. The Germans left relatively peacefully except in northern Finland. Henceforth Finland was to foreswear any alliances against the Soviet Union.   There was no talk of occupation.

The deal struck then is still in effect today. There was talk of Mannerheim and other Finnish leaders being indicted for war crimes at Nuremberg but this did not last. Even the peace terms, in retrospect, were quite generous.

So why Stalin was so generous?

It appeared that Stalin really liked the old man.  He knew Mannerheim had served in the Russian Armies, still wore all the medals from the Tsar with pride, and still had a portrait of the Tsar in his home, which he saluted on the Tsar’s birthday.  He also knew that Mannerheim spoke fluent Russian (his Finnish remained rusty to the end).  He liked (and was equally upset by) Mannerheim’s inspired defence of his homeland. He trusted Mannerheim to maintain neutrality. In fact it was Stalin who told the victorious Allies that Mannerheim was not to be arraigned in the Nuremberg trials. He had committed no crime – just mounted a passionate and principled defence of his homeland. And who could blame him for that.

Once Finland was safe, a tired Mannerheim died in March 1946.

Reading Barbara Tuchman

Reading Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece “The Guns of August” again, in these times, is an educational experience. She brilliantly documented the series of interlocking events that lead to the declaration of war by the belligerents in the First World War and the onset of conflict in August 1914. Even if you are not a history buff, it is a wonderfully written work – when it came out in 1961, the Pulitzer Committee created a separate General Non Fiction category so that they could award it. The book influenced politicians like President Kennedy who encountered Soviet belligerence almost as soon as he took office. And then when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened, the book helped inform him of the danger of the world sliding into a global nuclear conflagration. 

Europe is the crucible for much that is good in the world, but it is also the blast furnace in which the major fault lines in the world have been cast. Ideology has little role to play.

The Kaiser, the Prime Minister of the UK, the President of France, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary and the Tsar of Russia, who dominated the European stage between 1900 and 1914, at least were not hypocrites. There was no talk of shared values and systems. It was all about power. A restive Germany that had newly joined the ranks of European powers in 1870 was seeking to dominate. Its natural ally was the (largely) German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite ties of blood between the monarchs who ruled four of the five powers, it was down to the Germans wanting land for expansion, with the support of the Austrians who had their own aspirations to own all of the Balkans. (They did – in the form of a loose association but now wanted full control. It’s complicated and the study of the Austro-Hungarian multinational Empire is fascinating in itself.) Naturally, this expansion was going to come at the expense of the French and the Russians. 

Tuchman’s account of the final thirty-seven days is literally like watching a slow-motion train crash. There were no ideological or religious motives – just land, power and influence, and the monstrous ego of the Kaiser.   The ideological element came in when Hitler declared War on Poland but there again, the Western powers were less concerned about the anti-semitism of the Nazis and more about keeping a balance of power. 

The Cold War seemed to be a simmering brew of ideological positions – democracy v authoritarianism, capitalism v communism.  In reality it was about the balance of power.  The global struggle between the West and Communism which was fought out amongst the newly decolonised third world was little more than good old imperialism masquerading in new clothes. 

Western economic orthodoxy of free markers imposed on these nations often meant little more than access to raw materials and markets for the West, which immediately created a two-tiered society in the former colonies. Democracy implied a fig-leaf of institutions that repeatedly elected the same set of pro-western puppets who would cater to the demands of the West. The type of person did not matter – after all, did not Franklin Roosevelt supposedly describe the despicable dictator of Nicaragua Antonio Somoza as “He may be a son of a bitch, at least he is our son of a bitch”. 

At least the Soviet Union did not preach democracy – they talked of class war. But like the Soviet Union, class war was good as long as a local set of nomenklatura loyal to the Soviet Union held the reins of power in a one party state run by the Communist Party and supported by the thugs of the local army.

The end result was the same.

The recent events in Ukraine came as no surprise.  What was the end of the Cold War and the dominance of the United States was, in retrospect, nothing more than the slow tightening of the noose around Russia by the West, who were never again going to allow the Russians to stray outside their borders. Justifiable, perhaps, in one sense.  The Soviet Union wreaked terrible havoc amongst her own citizens in the 1930s. Millions died in the purge of the reactionaries and in the forced farm collectivization drives.  While the Soviet Union fought Germany matching ferocity for ferocity, the Soviet troops did little to endear themselves to the local populations of the countries they liberated in 1945.  Very few have pleasant memories of the Soviet Union. 

In effect, while the USSR collapsed and Russia’s economy and power fell off a cliff, the West continued to execute on the plan to contain the former Soviet Union.  There had to come a point where the Russians got the memo. That probably happened in 2014 when the Ukrainian Government began pressing for NATO membership knowing fully well that the Russian bear on the East was not going to be too happy.

All along the calculation seems to have been that no one in Russia would risk casualties, economic sanctions, the loss of reserves and being cut off from the modern economy (like SWIFT and Visa) by taking military action.

Until President Putin just upped the ante and decided to invade.  People do not understand just how deep the resentment against NATO expansion runs in Russia – especially the fact that Ukraine seems to be doing everything to deny its Slavic links. Not least of which is to allow the existence of some rank evil Nazi formations like the Azov Battalion in the east, whom Facebook had banned until two days ago.  And then unbanned them because they were anti-Russian.

Since the unthinkable has happened, there could be many more such unthinkable consequences. Meanwhile the economic isolation of Russia has begun. SWIFT access is being cut off – which means Russia cannot pay for purchases or receive moneys for exports. Most exports and imports have been embargoed. Visa and Mastercard have cut off international connectivity. Local alternatives for most things exist, and given that Russia has things everyone wants, trading arrangements that do not require SWIFT will come up. May be this is the time a Central Bank Digital Currency running on blockchain will emerge. After all Russian technical talent is very very good and they do not lack ingenuity. It’s just that they will have to get used to not being able to travel to the West as easily as they did, spend money in the West and have homes and property there. Of course, the reason these gazzilionaires liked London and Paris is because no one believes that Russia would preserve and protect private property. Not least these oligarchs. So everyone has a fortune stashed away for the day the security people come calling.  

Will this mean the end of Putin? I think so, at some point. The change when it comes will happen the way rulers have changed in Russia in the past.  There will be a denunciation and a new man will take over, try and undo some of the kleptocracy Putin encouraged to stay in power. It is too much to expect that all of a sudden, the Russian people will rise up and become a Western democracy.  We should not expect too much. But expect that fundamental re-alignments are about to take place.

So why read Barbara Tuchman at all? When the current confrontation began, the term “Munich” was thrown around all too casually by the foreign ministries of the NATO countries. It refers to the meeting that took place in Munich in September 1938, when Prime Minister Chamberlain of the United Kingdom supposedly “surrendered” to Hitler and let Germany divide up the Czechoslovak Republic. Do not surrender to Putin, they say. Rather than evoke this half-baked, historically inaccurate analogy, they would do better to go back and understand why President Kennedy read every page of Tuchman. He was afraid that if events were left to themselves, the interlocking set of events that lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis could very easily lead to a nuclear war. It was not just President Kennedy who had this fear at the front and centre of his mind, it was also the Soviet leader General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had seen the horrors of the Second World War first hand as a political commissar in the Soviet Army, and privately, he did not want the world to slip into a nuclear exchange. After all, they were “eyeball to eyeball”, as the then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it. As the recent history of the Missile Crisis by the Ukrainian historian Serkhi Plohi details, when the chance arose to establish a back-channel out of the public eye and bypassing their own diplomats, both leaders took it. The interlocutors were the Attorney General Robert Kennedy (and the President’s brother) on the US side and a lowly KGB official on the Soviet side stationed in Washington DC. They ensured a nuclear war was avoided with a de-escalation that made Khrushchev come off second best in the public eye. The actual deal – which involved the US removing missiles from Turkey – was never publicised.

I hope the two sides are talking.

Tiger Cubs

This is a short story based on a true incident that took place in the Kashmir War of 1947-48, and it involves the Kumaon Regiment. I found this story referenced in the Indian Army’s Official History of the War, and in Lt Gen L P Sen’s memoir “Slender Was The Thread”. Lt Col Khanna was indeed the CO of the Battalion referenced here. The Battle of Badgam took place in November 1947, in which Major Somnath Sharma and his Company died to a man protecting the approaches to Srinagar Airfield. Maj Sharma was the first winner of the Param Vir Chakra (Independent India’s highest battlefield gallantry award). 
I added a few embellishments to the story (mainly names of characters) to make it more readable,  but the facts are all true. This is a fascinating incident and it’s a wonder it’s not more widely known. 
Kalika Mata Ki Jai is the war cry of the Kumaon Regiment.

It was a cold December day in 1947. The tribal offensive (backed by Pakistani regulars) had been met by a determined Indian Army effort, hamstrung by logistics and weather. The Army was pressing ahead on the road to Muzaffarabad.  Uri had just been taken, and trucks were arriving into Uri from the direction of Baramulla, grinding their way up the narrow road, throwing clouds of dust from the surface. The Jhelum river flowed swiftly on the right-hand side of the road heading west. Each of the trucks carried men from 4th Battalion Kumaon Regiment. Sentries raised the barrier to let each truck in. Platoon Commanders jumped out to marshal their men into formations. Each platoon formed up to meet trucks with equipment and supplies, to unload them as directed by the Subedar-Major. Speed was the essence. The Battalion was headed for immediate deployment to keep the pressure on the Afridis.

Lt Col Manmohan Khanna, CO 4 Kumaon, a grizzled veteran, was watching the arrivals near his jeep. His company commanders joined him as they got down.  The noise of trucks arriving, the shouted orders of subedars and platoon commanders, the sound of stores being unloaded all created a clamour of activity.

The last truck stopped. Out of the back of the truck jumped down a slim lad in uniform, carrying a rifle bigger than him. He wore the lion insignia of Russell’s Brigade on his shoulders. He looked around him cautiously, and then signaled to the others in the truck to emerge. All of them were boys. Thirty of them. None of them more than four feet tall, wiry and lithe, a few of them sporting wisps of growth on their lips and chins but the rest of them beardless. Mere boys.

The noise died down for a few minutes, just long enough for Lt Col Khanna to look at the truck to see why.  The sight of the boys met his eyes. He was aghast. He turned to the Subedar-Major and summoned him.

“What is this. Why are the boys here”, he asked.  The SM was also surprised. He said “Sir, Regiment HQ must have sent all the troops they had including the Boys Company. It is a mistake.”.

The Boys Company consisted of young boys who received an education and military training from the Kumaon Regiment, so that they could become future NCOs and possibly officers.

Lt Col Khanna’s face darkened. The arriving troops were going straight into deployment north of Uri. He would unleash his famed temper on the Regiment tomorrow. Right now, his priority was to deploy before it got dark and he could not spare any troops or trucks to escort these boys back to Srinagar.

He nodded to the SM and asked him to accompany him, and they walked towards the truck, where the boys were falling in on their own. At the sight of the CO, the first boy who got down shouted out an order.  Like real soldiers, the boys came to attention.

Lt Col Khanna walked up to the boy who issued this command. “At ease”, he said. “What is your name?”.

“Alam Singh Sir!”, said the boy, snapping a salute that any soldier would be proud of.

“What are you boys doing here?” asked Lt Col Khanna.

“Reporting for duty sir! Regiment has sent us to fight, Sir!”, replied Alam Singh.

The CO said, “Listen, son, the battalion is going to face the enemy in the next few hours. It is a tough situation. You are in the Boys Company now so that you can prepare to join the Regiment when you are eighteen. It is too dangerous for you. You will rest here for the night and tomorrow transport will take you back to Srinagar”.

Alam Singh just stood still. He was intimidated by this tough looking man who was also his CO. In the Regiment, the CO is like your father, like a God, and you never disobey him. Still, he stood there and looked steadily at the CO.

The CO sensed the boy wanted to say something. So he said “Yes Alam Singh. What do you want to say?”.

“Sir, I apologise for speaking to you. Your orders are orders, Sir. That is what my father told me. We want to stay with you and help the Battalion, Sir. So please can we stay and help, Sir”.

The CO said, “Yes you can stay tonight and help the kitchen staff. There is enough to do”. So saying the CO started to move back to his jeep.

“We wish to fight, Sir! Not work in the kitchen!” blurted Alam Singh.

The CO stopped in irritation and strode back. Alam Singh continued. “Sir, our seniors have died in Badgam Sir. We wish to fight. We will fight hard and well for the battalion sir!”

The mention of the word Badgam stopped Lt Col Khanna. In November 1947, a company of 4 Kumaon had been attacked by a much larger enemy formation near the village of Badgam. Severely outnumbered the Company stood and fought the enemy. Had the enemy gotten through, Srinagar Airport would have been in enemy hands and with that the Kashmir Valley. The Company had fought to the very last man and held the position. The Company Commander Major Sharma had died with his men.

The CO came right up to Alam Singh and said, softly. “Son, your time will come. These are Pathans. Dangerous men from the mountains. They are not professional soldiers, they are animals.”

“Kalika Mata ki Kasam, Sir. We want to fight and we will not let you down, Sir”, repeated Alam Singh, firmly. Tears had formed in his eyes and he blinked them back, furiously.

Lt Col Khanna thought for a minute and shouted out. “Sandeep!”

Captain Sandeep Khatri, a young officer in the battalion, was inspecting his riflemen’s backpacks. He looked up and jogged over to the CO.

The CO took him aside and said “Sandeep, I know you love a challenge but this is a special one for you. This is the Boys Company sent by mistake to Uri by the Regimental Centre. They are children. You need to look after them”.

Capt Khatri looked at the boys, and then looked at the CO, a little disappointed. “Look after them how, Sir?”.

“Sandeep, these boys are eager to see some action. What I want you to do is to deploy them near the Nalwar point but well away from danger. Do you understand? No fighting. Just let them feel like a part of a deployment, and then send them home tomorrow.”

Capt Khatri looked uncertain. “Sir but…”

The CO said “I know what you are going to say. But here are my orders. Deploy them near the peak. Protect them all you can from danger. Not a single child must come to any harm. You have to promise me. Is that clear?”

Capt Khatri saluted and said “Yes Sir. That is clear!”.  He turned to the Subedar Major and requested him to accompany him. Capt Khatri walked over to the Boys Company. Again, Alam Singh issued a command to stand at attention.

“At ease!”, said Capt Khatri. “I am your Company Commander Capt Khatri. You will follow my orders. You will be deployed near Nalwar in defence of the 4 Kumaon position on the peak. Subedar Major Saab here will help you get rations, ammunitions, blankets and covers for the night. Alam Singh, you will take some of the boys with you and take rations from the Subedar Major and distribute.” Capt Khatri noticed the smiles on the faces of Alam Singh and the boys.

Alam Singh asked some of the boys to accompany him with the SM. An hour later, Capt Khatri was checking the personal packs and stores of the Company. His priority was to keep them alive in the cold and protected from the elements. He had asked SM to make sure the boys had just enough ammunition for their rifles – about 30 rounds each. There were extra blankets and warm wear, and extra dry ration for each boy. Every boy was ready with backpack, pickaxe, and rifle.

The terrain north of Uri was suited to the Afridis – mountainous, uneven, dotted with trees, ideal for the Pathan to take on regular armies, as they had done for decades. Accompanying them, the Pakistan Frontier Scouts in battalion strength were dug in towards the west. The Kumaonis were on a feature called Nalwar Point – the highest point north of Uri and they lay east of the Pathans. The previous day, the two companies had engaged the enemy and had to withdraw – and that too, thanks to the fortuitous arrival of a lone IAF fighter-bomber, who happened to be overhead and had been guided to strafe and drop his two bombs on the Pathan positions. They were still pinned down. The new reinforcements were tasked to reinforce them and possibly cover their withdrawal from Nalwar Point to a more defensible position. 

It was snowing. There would only be a few hours of daylight. Judging that it would be better to be dug in before nightfall, Capt Khatri hustled his boys aided by Alam Singh, who ably corralled the boys behind Capt Khatri and they set off on the climb.  He selected a point about 3500 metres above MSL, a few hundred metres below Nalwar and further east of Nalwar.

These boys were like mountain goats, fit and sure-footed, and the climb was easy.  The boys finished the climb and sat on the uneven ground, while Capt Khatri surveyed the terrain and selected a knoll. It was well away from the known enemy position, south east of Nalwar Point, and could rely on the companies at Nalwar Point for defence. If the enemy moved forward Nalwar, the Kumaonis would engage them before they got to where the boys were. He told the boys to dig in and settle down for the night  The boys went to their task with enthusiasm. If they were afraid, they did not show it.  They ate their rotis and drank some water, and settled in.

The regular Kumaonis had also started the climb towards Nalwar Point to reinforce the position.  The enemy Scouts commander must have been watching the troop movement and must have worked out what was going on.  He must have obviously decided to outflank Nalwar before the position was fully reinforced. Under cover of dusk, he sent a company on a wide movement towards the south and east to attack Nalwar from the rear. They had determined that a knoll south the point was ideal to ambush the Kumaonis, and furtively made towards it.

The boys were ensconced at this very knoll.

Sounds of movement alerted Capt Khatri, and he took out his field glasses. To his shock he saw the company of Pathans moving east and south of Nalwar Point towards the knoll.  They were about a 150 yards away.

He remembered his promise to the CO. He realised that their escape  route back to Uri was being rapidly cut off by the advancing enemy. He used his field telephone and alerted the Nalwar point picquet, keeping his voice as low as possible and as normal as possible, and warned them of the flanking attack. His message was acknowledged.

He looked again at the Pathans, and they were now 100 yards away and closing. The Pathans were not aware that the knoll was occupied and hence did not take too many precautions and were making for the knoll at speed. They would be upon the knoll soon. This meant the time window for the Kumaoni regulars to come to their rescue had also closed. He had no choice but to engage his company of boys.

Capt Khatri made his way to Alam Singh and showed him the advancing Pathans with his field glasses. Alam Singh took a look and asked Capt Khatri, “What do we do Sir?” in a whisper.

Capt Khatri said, “We have to fight. I will tell you when to fire”.

Capt Khatri told the boys to gather round and listen up, and said in a low voice. “The enemy is approaching our position. It’s too late for the Battalion to come and help, and we cannot leave this position. You wanted to fight, so this is our chance. It is OK to be afraid. You are Kumaoni tigers. All you have to do, is aim your rifle at a man, and shoot. Do not waste your bullets. Remember your fathers and grandfathers. You are their sons. Stay calm. Kalika Mata Ki Jai”.

Alam Singh helped position every boy get in cover, rifle at the ready.  He spoke to them in the hill dialect and told them to wait for Captain Sahab’s signal.

Capt Khatri was hoping the Pathans would turn away but they were now 70 yards away. He took position with his rifle and waited. No help was coming. He had not seen how these boys operated as a unit nor had he seen how they handled their rifles. The Pathans were brutal and were known to disembowel their enemy. He hoped that whatever happened, the boys would die quickly. He offered up a prayer to Kalika Mata and waited.

He waited until the Pathans were 50 yards away. There were about forty of them, walking confidently and barely bothering to conceal themselves. This was close enough for the boys to hit the Pathans if they aimed properly and held the rifle in steady hands. He counted off three seconds, then shouted “Fire!”

Almost on cue, thirty rifles fired. As the smoke cleared, Capt Khatri saw to his amazement that some of the Pathans were lying on the slopes, dead or wounded. It was the disciplined fire of experienced warriors, not of a bunch of boys with no hair on their faces.

“Fire!” yelled Capt Khatri again. The boys reloaded and fired. A few more Pathans dropped.

By now the rest of the Pathans were in defensive positions and they returned fire. The bullets pinged harmlessly against the boys’ defences. As soon as the Pathans stopped to reload, the boys fired again, this time at will, picking their targets carefully. Capt Khatri kept moving through the line, encouraging the boys, checking for injuries and making sure his wards were fine.  There were none. They boys had their faces flushed and hands trembling. But every time they fired, their keen mountain eyes and steady hands meant that another Pathan dropped.

The Pathans were now yelling in confusion to each other. The Pathan is not a man who likes standard infantry war. He is happier shooting from the tops of mountains with his jezail. Their commander shouted to the men, urging them to advance. The keen fire of the boys however was telling. The boys fired again, hitting a few more of those exposed. Reloaded, and fired again.

Capt Khatri used his field glasses and found the most heartening sight a field commander can witness. The Pathans were breaking contact and fleeing west.

Capt Khatri shouted to the boys. “Firing band karo!”

The boys stopped, peering over their defences, rifles at the ready.

He looked through his glasses again. Then he beckoned Alam Singh and showed him. The Pathans were now half their number and rapidly moving away. Through the evening gloom, they could see that Pathan dead and wounded lay all over the field. Alam Singh surveyed the scene, lowered the glasses, and smiled. He looked at Capt Khatri and Capt Khatri nodded.

Alam Singh stood up, raised his rifle and yelled “Kalika Mata Ki Jai!”.  And all the boys returned the war cry with all the fervour in their hearts

Boys had become men.

The Afghan Church

The most poignant reminder of Britain’s Imperial folly in Afghanistan can be found in the Church of St John The Evangelist, situated inside the Military Cantonment, in Colaba in Mumbai. It is more popularly known as the Afghan Church. 

Britain has always remembered its great military disasters in art and words, and the beautiful Afghan Church in Colaba is a typical example. In 1808, a British Army went into Spain  to help their Spanish allies fight an invasion lead by Napoleon of France.  Sir John Moore commanded the British Expeditionary Forces. The Spanish were a ragtag army who were no match for the highly experienced French, boosted by victories at Austerlitz and Eylau. Midway through the British advance into Spain, the French completed their demolition of the Spanish Army and went after the British. Realising that he was outgunned and outmanned, Sir John decided to retreat some 400 kilometres through mountainous terrain towards the port of Corunna, which is right at the north western tip of the Iberian Peninsula, to rendezvous with the Royal Navy.  

They were chased and harried by the French. It was winter and conditions were terrible. Wherever possible, the British Army stood and fought and in two cases scored remarkable victories over the French. But mostly, the lack of food and hence the drop in morale reduced the disciplined army into a mob. Wherever possible, wounded were left behind, as the skilled French Army pressed them hard.  

They finally reached the port of Corunna, surrounded on all sides, on January 11 1809. There was no Royal Navy there yet.   Sir John decided to stand and fight. The battle commenced – it was fierce with no quarter given.   On 16th January Moore was hit by a cannonball that took off his left shoulder all the way to his neck.  He lay mortally wounded and handed over command.

On 17th January, the French paused the assault, not having been able to penetrate British lines guarding access to the port. Hundreds of British troops lay dead and wounded. That night, with the second commander also having been killed, the British fought a rearguard and kept up a pretense of staying at their posts while the bulk of their forces silently withdrew to waiting ships from the Royal Navy.  The wounded and sick were left behind. The next day the French discovered the deception and opened fire from the surrounding hills on the Navy transports. Four of them were sunk. Returning fire from Navy frigates allowed the transports to leave. The French then overran the port.

It was a humiliating retreat, but one that the British celebrated for the pluck and bravery with which they withstood fierce fighting to keep the port in British hands until the Royal Navy got there.   A retreat very similar to the more famous one at Dunkirk in 1940, which allowed the bulk of the professional British Army to escape across the Channel to regroup and rebuild. That was also a military disaster which has since been celebrated in art and cinema.

The Afghan Church was built to mark the British Retreat from Kabul in 1843. The Afghan invasion was officered and lead by the British Indian Army (though they were not called that) from the Presidencies and the regular British Army.  The Bengal Presidency contributed Skinner’s Horse, the Forty-third Native Infantry and the Second Light Cavalry,  The Bombay Presidency contributed the Nineteenth Native Infantry and the Poona Local Horse.  Maharana Ranjit Singh offered to contribute troops from the legendary Dal Khalsa but later declined, preferring to wait and watch what happens. The ensuing disaster was inevitable – the hubris and arrogance of local British commanders, and the prurience of the British Resident who brazenly took to partaking of the feminine delights of local Afghan women – all contributed to the disaster, which Dalrymple and (earlier) Jan Morris have described so well.  

The romantic return of Dr Brydon is well known – he furiously urged his tired horse to gallop towards the gates of Jalalabad, chased by baying Afghan horsemen. When they were gaining on him, the first ranging shots from the fort’s walls started to sound. They chased him until they were just short of rifle range from the Fort, and miraculously hung back, watching Dr Brydon reach the gates. His horse collapsed and died.  

What is not celebrated or well known is that for years after, sepoys would show up at Khyber Pass, having been freed from some Afghan dungeon, maimed and reduced to bones. 

The retreat was marked by the same mawkish art that hid the disaster and the shameful collapse of an entire army. Nevertheless, since the Company Armies had taken the brunt of the casualties, the Bombay Presidency decided to erect this church. It was designed by Henry Conybeare, who among other things,  also built much of Bombay’s water supply systems and some of the Great Peninsular Railway.  

Consecrated in 1853, the Church stands in a quiet corner of the Cantonment, shaded by trees, and blessed by peace and quiet. Inside, the Church’s walls are lined with the regimental colours of all the regiments that were destroyed in the retreat. They are torn and tattered due to bullets of the jezail and the swords of the Afghans.  Just the rustling of bats in the roof timbers disturb the peace. The pews still have the slots to enable soldiers to have their rifles to hand in case of emergency. These “rifle pews” were brought in after the 1857 Mutiny which began in Meerut when the garrison was attending evening service unarmed. 

War is a terrible business. People die in the most undignified of circumstances, screaming with pain and dying of thirst. We add solemity to the sacrifice by giving them the honour they deserve. Regardless of the merits of the first Afghan War – or indeed any war – the Church is a beautiful memorial to all soldiers who die in battle, and is a reminder of the folly that causes men to go to War.

Do visit it when you get the chance.

Is Science Insular?

This is a rebuttal of an article published by a friend. You can find the article here.

Last week I had the opportunity to spend long hours in the hospital with my father keeping watch on my mother. My father is a moderately well-known vector control scientist. Even though he is 91, he has written quite a few articles last year explaining to lay people that this virus is zoonotic and originated in bats. Yet, he also personally believes that the Chinese manufactured the virus. When I asked him to explain the contradiction, he said “The evidence clearly says the virus originated in bats. Unless I can find evidence that shows beyond any doubt that the virus is manmade, my personal beliefs will remain personal, and my scientific opinion that the virus originated in bats will remain”.

That is science in a nutshell. It is a mechanism to understand the world around you, based on observation, experimentation and inference. It is very fuzzy and there are lot of uncertainties. By rigorous scrutiny of data, and cross-checking results with peers, and putting in place mechanisms to reproduce experimental results, scientists hope to eliminate bias and opinion from verifiable fact. So my father has a personal bias that says the Chinese cooked this up. But until such time as he can be shown the evidence this is the case, he will not change his scientific opinion.

There is no such thing as a fact that is 100% true – there are always caveats. Even the truism that we are taught in school that mass of an object is always constant but its weight may change depending on gravity, is false – when an object approaches the speed of light, its mass reduces by converting itself into energy.  This is the essence of relativity.

Unfortunately science is also conducted by human beings, who bring their biases and prejudices to the mix. This is where science gets even more rigorous. Sometimes these biases escape into formal dogma and do untold damage. Two examples come to mind – Andrew Wakefield’s paper on how MMR vaccines cause autism reduced measles vaccinations in the UK to the point where it started killing children again. Cold Fusion – the favourite of anyone wanting to solve for the world’s energy problems – is another. In both cases science righted itself through the same process that produces verifiable research. Both these papers were repudiated and the concerned people struck off or blackballed.  People want certainties, but science cannot deliver certainties because of the inherent probabilistic nature of the universe. Therefore charlatans come into being who feed people snake-oil.

To illustrate, let’s get right into the cow and human urine treatments (sorry for the mental image!). It is absolutely not true that science has ignored these urine therapies. Based on a cursory review of the NIH, PubMed and Lancet databases, let me give you a precis. The first formal naturopathic western work on the use of urine therapies dates from 1945[1]. From the world of formal science, there is an excellent review of urine therapy through the ages in the Journal of Nephrology, which admits that right through the centuries human beings have been using either their own urine or that of domesticated animals (cows and dogs) to cure illnesses[2].  Science has examined several traditional uses of urine for therapy. The use of urine in paediatric treatments in Africa has been scientifically evaluated[3]. Dermatological uses have also been scientifically evaluated – in treating acne vulgaris[4] and in improving skin epidermis to aid skin therapies[5]. In fact dermatologists agree that complementary medicine (that includes urine) should be offered to patients[6]. The use of urine in the treatment of eczema was evaluated by scientists[7] [8].

When it comes to ingesting urine of any kind, formal science seems to have problem. This is not because of prejudice – it is because urine is the by-product of digestion and respiration, and is likely to have toxins ejected by the body. The chemical structure of urine from any animal is very well known. While scientists do not reject the anecdotal evidence from people who clearly use auto-urine therapy, they are sceptical about its use as a general therapy for anybody. The second problem is the presence of urethral bacteria present in the body, which can contaminate the urine as it exits the body. The same African paper by Adeyayo et al cited earlier also warns about the presence of toxins. The respected Journal of Clinical Microbiology carried a paper making this warning explicit[9].  So much so, that the United States Army Field Manual specifically warns troops NOT to drink their own urine when short of water.

The review above is by no means comprehensive and neither do I offer any warranties that it is free from errors. I am open to being corrected.  I hope the cursory review I have offered of this alternate therapy shows that science has an open mind on this. If you ask me, the reason people don’t drink urine is because of that scientific characteristic called “the yuck factor”!

The biggest problem that science faces is not its unwillingness to tackle the unknown. The nature of scientific research requires membership into a guild or club, in which a set of previously known and now accepted scientific concepts are taken as given, on which the next set of propositions are built. Every now and then the fundamental assumptions on which these theories are developed change. Given that human beings do science – with their biases and prejudices and egos – these beliefs get ossified into dogma, and it takes enormous effort to break the old and bring in the new. This is what Thomas Kuhn wrote about in 1962 – he termed these “models” as “paradigms”[10].  However, this has not come in the way of genuine science, and more than ever, scientists are conscious that paradigms can become dogma and watch out for it.

It is ironic that we talk about the failure of science at a time when the biggest ever triumph of science is unfolding before us. This is the global response to the pandemic. The foundation stone had already been laid – this was the success with genome mapping, which is likely to be the technology breakthrough of the 21st century. Using this technology, the gene mapping of the COVID 19 virus was published on January 9 2020. By January end, the mRNA vaccine was ready. Moderna and Astra-Zeneca also got into the act. By middle of the year, vaccines were undergoing clinical trials. By the end of the year vaccines were in production. In India alone, some 35 million have been vaccinated.  The mRNA vaccine technique is so revolutionary that it has the potential to be used for almost any disease, especially certain types of cancers. By the middle of the year, Illumina and Oxford Novapore have announced cheap genome sequencing availability. It is now possible to track the variations of the Covid 19 virus within days, and soon it will be within hours. It is now possible to track community transmission in real time between floors of buildings[11]

It is very difficult for laymen to understand what goes on in science today, and it’s almost as if these scientists are grand panjandrums conjuring up their cures dressed in flowing robes speaking a strange language and offering worship to a deity that ordinary mortals cannot address. To a very great extent, we are asking laymen to take science on faith – very much like a religion. This is contradictory to the scientific process itself. The scientific pursuit of truth can get very abstruse. It turns out a dear cousin who is an Oxford don founded a school of physics that has its own conferences, where he is welcomed with respect like a visiting pontiff[12]. Not many physicists have heard of it.

This is inevitable in the world we live in, that has gotten so complex that the generalist of the 19th century cannot survive beyond high school. The fact that this world is incomprehensible to many does not mean it is not rigorous and at the same time, open to new ideas and willing to investigate new phenomena. Rigour is everything. This makes those who push faith cures unhappy because science insists on formal proof – whether through statistical testing or by seeking empirical evidence. Simply asserting that something has been done for a thousand years is not enough –  let us examine the evidence. Clearly the methods to document and test evidence across centuries has not existed. In some areas like medicine, enough large data is available to test across generations if not centuries.

You say “Science and self-proclaimed progressives are today rather insular or perhaps even afraid of any alternative observation, explanation or inferencing methods or alternative methods of evidence. Instead of dissecting to understand it is lampoon and derision”.  This is a sweeping assertion, in my view, unsupported by facts.

[1] Thompson, J, “The Water of Life”, Health Science Press.

[2] Savica V, Calo LA, Santoro D, et al. Urine therapy through the centuries. J Nephrol. 2011;24(Suppl 17):S123–S125.

[3] Adenike Adedayo O, Ogunshe, Abosede Olayemi Fawole, Victoria Abosede Ajayi. Microbial evaluation and public health implications of urine as alternative therapy in clinical pediatric cases: health implication of urine therapy. The Pan African Medical Journal. 2010;5(12)

[4] Totri CR, Matiz C, Krakowski AC. Kids These Days: Urine as a Home Remedy for Acne Vulgaris?. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2015;8(10):47-48.

[5] Grether-Beck S, Felsner I, Brenden H, et al. Urea uptake enhances barrier function and antimicrobial defense in humans by regulating epidermal gene expression. J Invest Dermatol. 2012;132(6):1561-1572. doi:10.1038/jid.2012.42

[6] Ernst, E. (2000), The usage of complementary therapies by dermatological patients: a systematic review. British Journal of Dermatology, 142: 857-861.

[7] Chen YF, Chang JS. Complementary and alternative medicine use among patients attending a hospital dermatology clinic in Taiwan. Int J Dermatol. 2003;42(8):616–621.

[8] Magin PJ, Adams J, Heading GS, et al. Complementary and alternative medicine therapies in acne, psoriasis, and atopic eczema: results of a qualitative study of patients’ experiences and perceptions. J Altera Complement Med. 2006;12(5):451–457

[9] Hilt EE, McKinley K, Pearce MM, et al. Urine is not sterile: use of enhanced urine culture techniques to detect resident bacterial flora in the adult female bladder. J Clin Microbiol. 2014;52(3):871-876.

[10] Kuhn, Thomas: “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, University of Chicago Press, 1962

[11] For a lucid layman’s account do read https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/03/25/magazine/genome-sequencing-covid-variants.html

[12] Dr C V Sukumar is now Emeritus Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Wadham College, University of Oxford. The paper he wrote that kicked off the “Super Symmetric Quantum Mechanics” school can be found here:  C V Sukumar 1985 J. Phys. A: Math. Gen. 18 2917. 

Distributing vaccines

An entirely new perspective on the vaccine situation, thanks to John Cochrane of Stanford University.

COVID 19 is not a disease like Ebola or Smallpox which are highly infectious, visibly symptomatic and have very high mortality rates. COVID 19 is infectious but not as much as Ebola or Smallpox, it is possible to be asymptomatic, and mortality rates nowhere near as deadly as ebola/smallpox.

The public health response has been to ask people to quarantine and isolate until such time as a vaccine comes along.  While mortality amongst the young and the relatively healthy is very low, the virus affects the older, the weaker and those with poor health more adversely, causing morbidity and prolonged suffering. However since the young and the old are all in quarantine, the infection rate may slow but the economy – which pays for development of the vaccine – is in a downward spiral. Every government is borrowing money to pay for COVID relief.

Now that the vaccine is here, it is being distributed to the elderly, the vulnerable and to those on the front lines of health care first.

One can argue this is an inefficient allocation mechanism.  The elderly and the infirm are relatively isolated (in the medical sense) than the young. They are at home, at care homes or in nursing homes, being looked after.  They get the disease because the infected visit them.   On the other hand, the young and healthy who are also isolated are the ones who need to man the shops, the farms and the factories, run the trains, fly the aircraft, and otherwise make the economy work. These are the people who are very likely to be asymptomatic or are not very badly affected by the virus in majority of the cases.

If those are young and healthy get the vaccines first, shops and establishments can re-open and people can go to work.  Schools can re-open. Teachers can go back to teaching kids. Asking these people to stay at home has disastrous results for the economy. If these people are emboldened to go to work, with the vaccine, the economy will recover.

Why not let companies buy these vaccines and inoculate their employees? It need not be an auction – it can be an allocation on first come first served basis. After all this is in their direct interest.  The same privilege can be extended to utilities, to transport, to education – to pretty much any government department. Empanel a set of delivery companies to fetch and send the vaccine, and empanel any local GP to administer the vaccine. Allocate a percentage – I would say 20% – to go to the old and the infirm, and health care workers.  

The vaccine is a “Leave Home and Go To Work” pass. Those who have to go to work, should get the vaccine first.

Administrators and governments need to look beyond the (correct) moral impulse and look at how to achieve a re-opening and cut the R rate.  COVID 19 may have come under control to an extent, but this will not be the only pandemic.

India’s Marxist Historians

Historical revisionism is alive and well in India, and has taken hold in the last ten years.

The Hindu right wing believe that Indian history has been hijacked by leftist historians who see Indian history as an interplay of power, caste and class, and not for what it actually is – which is 900 years of religious war and colonisation first by the Muslims and then by the Christians.

Therefore, India’s Muslim rulers are to be regarded as foreign rulers and colonisers, instead of being studied and written about as Indian Kings and Emperors.

They believe that when India became independent in 1947, there was an opportunity to bring Hinduism back as part of the State, since for the first time in over 900 years no foreigner was ruling India. This used to be the case when India was a set of princely states where the prince had a faith. Instead, the new government opted to separate church (or temple!) and state and deny the Hindu religion a place in government.

Under British Rule, India underwent a rapid modernisation of thought and ideas and issues of identity were hotly debated. The Hindu right wing, and its counterpart in Islam, were both alive and well during the early part of the 20th century. In the battle of ideas, the centrist, broad-church Indian National Congress won, headed by people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Sardar Patel. When India became independent, power was transferred to the Indian National Congress who proceeded to set India up as a secular state.

India suffered a violent partition in August 1947 as the British left, leaving nearly 40% of undivided India in Pakistan. Nearly five million people migrated from one country to another in one of the largest population exchanges of all time. The population movement was accompanied by horrendous violence and exact number of those killed on both sides runs into hundreds of thousands.  Despite Partition, a large number of Muslims remained in the new State of India. Prior to Partition the population of undivided India was approximately 435m consisting broadly of 100m Muslims and mostly Hindus forming the rest (Christians and Sikhs are a very small part). After Partition, the population of Pakistan was 75m (with 10m Hindus and the rest Muslim) and India’s was 360m with 35m Muslims. 

Partition is taken as evidence that India’s Muslims have always had extra-national loyalties and Pakistan is nothing more than a visible symptom of these tendencies.

When India became a Republic with our own Constitution in 1950, it embraced secularism as a founding tenet – the separation of church and state. To restore religious harmony in India immediately after Independence and focus on building a new nation, the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, consciously downplayed any visible demonstration of India’s Hindu majority to give the Muslims who remained in India the sense of belonging to the new nation.

In 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist who accused him of pandering to Muslims. The loss of the Mahatma was met with revulsion by the peaceful Hindu majority. It ensured that secularism succeeded.

Was this process of secularisation of public life taken too far? In schools, for example, the teaching of history downplayed the violence that conquest brings. As one observer put it, the Islamic conquest of India was treated as a ‘cultural exchange program’ by some historians writing school textbooks[1]. One can argue this both ways – why did Nehru not attend temple openings, for example. Or why did Nehru allow the Haj Pilgrimage to be paid for the exchequer. India’s Muslims were allowed to keep Muslim Personal Law (the right to polygamy, divorce by uttering the word ‘talaq’, no alimony on divorce). But Hindu personal law was brought in line with modern civil law.

Nehru was not anti-Hindu. He was an atheist and had no love for any religion. He frowned upon any display of religious fervour of any description by anyone in his government. He was a moderniser who regarded religion as an obstacle. His economic model was Soviet Union which had undergone the fastest industrialisation of the 20th century so far. The USSR was a strong influence, but not to the extent of making Nehru a communist. Having said that, no one could ever mistake Mr Nehru’s rationalism for lack of love for this country. He had an almost mystical and emotional fascination with India.  As long as he was alive, and his love for and childlike fascination with the people of this country remained palpable to most Indians, the secular approach to public life was tolerated.

Today, the pendulum of public opinion has swung to the other extreme and there are a good number of Hindus who feel aggrieved.  They believe minorities have been pandered to, that Muslims are multiplying in droves, that Christian missionaries have actively targeted Hindus for conversion, etc. The Mahatma is no longer revered, indeed some people celebrate his assassin as a true patriot.

Rising economic prosperity, the availability of the internet, social media and the surge of Islamic terrorism over the last 25 years has only served to amplify these fears.  Christian missionaries in Tamil Nadu have sometimes crossed the line (these are Indians by the way), and Muslims have underperformed the majority in almost all areas including size of families. Repeated border wars with Pakistan (1965, 1971, 1998) and the terrible terrorist assault on Mumbai (2008) have kept relations with Pakistan in a state of suspended enmity. Since it was carved out of India as a Muslim state, it serves as a hook on which question the loyalty of Indian Muslims to the Indian Republic. This feeling persists even today among many Indian elite.

These feelings of Hindu hurt have caused a backlash against Indian historians who have traditionally treated India’s Muslim rulers as Indians first and Muslims second. The Mughals, the Khiljis, the Iltutmish, the Mamluks and myriad other Muslim dynasties may have made their way to India from Iran or Central Asia as conquerors but they settled down and ruled as domestic rulers. The new Hindu wants these rulers to be treated as colonisers, who destroyed temples, converted Hindus, raped Hindu women and stole Hindu wealth to be taken to Central Asia.

The truth is rather more complicated. The first Islamic invasions were just that – violent attacks. Once conquest was complete, society seems to have settled down into co-existence with Muslims. A ‘Persianate’ culture evolved based on imported Central Asian art, music, literature and cuisine, thoroughly indigenized, and which had a huge impact on Indian language, art, music, styles of rulership, warfare, attire – you name it[2].  This Persianate culture is under attack.  For example Urdu, the language born out of contact between Hindi and Persian, is dying out because it is strongly identified with Muslims.  Urdu was the language of class and refinement once upon a time, but no more.

As for temple destruction, it definitely happened. We could always say that one temple destroyed is a temple too many. Scholars have tried to piece together the exact number of temples destroyed by Muslim rulers over six centuries. The number is placed at around 500[3].  We could debate whether this destruction was systematic, targeted  and intentional due to Islam’s abhorrence for idol worship[4]. Or we could ask why the destruction was not more complete, as happened in the Arabian Peninsula once Islam became dominant. Was it because the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, which was the predominant school of Islamic law in India, was more conciliatory towards non-believers? That Muslim elites were vastly outnumbered by their Hindu subjects and hence adopted pacifism and symbiotic co-existence[5]? There is some evidence that temple destruction was not only a Muslim practice, but that it was also practised by Hindu kings[6].

The cultural cohesion was deeper than people believe. An American scholar has produced evidence, based on her deep scholarship in Persian and Sanskrit, that shows Muslim rulers and themes entered Sanskrit in poetry and literature[7].

Claims are made that India was a vastly wealthy nation whose riches were systematically drained by Muslim rulers in a systematic manner. This is a frequent assertion by interlocuters these days but it does not stand up to scrutiny. The fact is that the last big foreign Muslim ruler to take over the Indian empire was Babur in the 15th century. But for four centuries after the founding the Mughal dynasty, his descendants settled in India and ruled as Indian kings. It was a fabulously wealthy country, and this is what attracted the Portuguese and the English to come to India as traders. Once the English established supremacy in India, the East India Company systematically drained India of treasure, financing the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the West[8].

The most polarizing Muslim figure is the last great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who reigned from 1637 to 1707. He is routinely considered a monster who persecuted Hindus, taxed them to death[9] and destroyed some 30,000 temples and did his best to eradicate the religion[10]. Other historians contend otherwise, that he was a ruler of his times who had a complex relationship with his subjects[11][12].

The points made above are to illustrate that contact between cultures and peoples is always complex, and cannot be simplified into tweetable memes. Further, there is no such thing as definitive history given that records get lost, monuments are broken, and memories fade. When Sir William Jones and like-minded Company officers started to uncover India’s Buddhist past, they found that the memory of the faith had been completely lost, and very little trace remained other than a few monuments and inscriptions. And it was not that the invading Muslims destroyed them all[13]. The Buddhist learning centre at Ratnagiri in Odisha functioned until the 15th century before being abandoned, as the religion had died out. It was not due to violence. With so many unknowns, historians struggle to posit reasonable conjectures about the past supported by as much evidence as possible and if that is not available, they leave it as a question.

How these are presented to school children struggling to learn Math and Science and two languages will mean simplification which is sometimes astonishingly naive, as I have alluded to earlier. The lay person has no patience to piece the evidence together for herself and will rely on interpretations. And therein lies the danger, not just in India but in any country.

The new brash right wing Indian is justly proud of being a Hindu. But she believes Hindu pride and pride in our multi-cultural past are mutually exclusive. This is unfortunate. Even if Indian history was not written by Marxist historians (as is now alleged) how can one hide the complexity and the rich texture of cultural assimilation?  You can only simplify by substituting assertion for argument, volume for intellectual rigor.  For these reasons, Indian historians of the old school are under attack.

The struggle to understand and accept the past is a huge step in the evolution of a nation. When the Normans landed on the coast of England in 1066, they brought with them a new language and new practices. The process of conquest was violent. Norman landowners displaced their Saxon predecessors. The practice of droit du siegneur or jus primae noctis  was commonplace.  Yet no one remembers that today. Germany and France fought three wars over a hundred years (1870, 1914-18, 1939-45). Yet they made the European Union a reality. The transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa has not been perfect but has gone better than expected, and the role that the Truth And Reconciliation Commission played in that process should not be underestimated. 

We have to understand and accept the past because there is nothing we can do about it other than learn from it. Revising the past is not the answer; understanding and appreciating it is what is needed. Sadly, India seems to be headed the other way.

[1] Kapil Komireddy. “Malevolent Republic”, 2014

[2] Richard Eaton: “India In The Persianate Age”, 2019

[3] Richard Eaton in “Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identity in Islamicate India” (ed. Gilmartin and Lawrence), 2000.

[4] Andre Wink: “Al-Hind: The Slavic Kings and the Islamic conquest”, 2002

[5] Richard Eaton in “Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identity in Islamicate India” (ed. Gilmartin and Lawrence), 2000.

[6] Romila Thapar, “Somanatha: The Many Voices Of A History”, 2003

[7] Audrey Truschke, “The Language Of History” 2021

[8] Several: Jon Wilson ʼIndia Conquered, 2016; Shashi Tharoor ‘Inglorious Empire’, 2017; and William Dalrymple ‘The Anarchy’ 2018.

[9] Sir Jadunath Sarkar, ‘A History of Aurangzeb’, 1912.

[10] See the writings of Francois Gautier, a French historian living in India.

[11] Audrey Truschke, “Aurangzeb”, 2014.

[12] Romila Thapar and Percival Spears: A History Of India.

[13] Charles Allen ʼThe Buddha And The Sahebs’  2003 has a great account of how the Buddha was ‘rediscovered’!

The Lights Go Out…

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

  •  W H Auden, “September 1 1939”

This is a short account of the last four days before the start of the Second World War. I wrote this for my daughter from well-known sources. I enjoyed writing it and thought I would share it with a larger audience.

Was it possible, in the last days of August 1939, to avoid war? That would have required all parties to back down – the Poles to agree to a hand over of Danzig, for Hitler to agree to yet another peace conference like what he did in 1938, and for the British and French to abandon the Polish guarantee and give Hitler a free hand.  Given the recent past of Hitler’s behaviour, these were unlikely options and it was left to a few men to chart the course that ultimately brought one of the most destructive wars on the world. 

Reflecting on the last few days before the war actually began, it is possible to conclude that there were misconceptions and miscalculations, which usually precede any conflict. Hitler had been playing cat and mouse with the British and French for three years. The British and the French were understandably reluctant to commit to another war so soon after the last horrendous one that had concluded less than twenty years ago.  Every statesman involved had either fought in the Great War or had lost family and friends to it, especially in France. Hitler assumed that Britain and France will blink only in order to avoid a second international war. The actions of the men involved were rooted in domestic preoccupations and expectations from their counterparts in this interplay of personalities.

Germany nearly went to war on August 25th itself. Plans and preparations had been made for the Wehrmacht to move to the Polish border.  SS and Wehrmacht troops had been smuggled into Danzig to seize the city once war began. Yet on the evening of August 25th, with forces about to strike, Hitler cancelled the assault.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been signed only on August 23 1939. Hitler had hoped this would deter the British and French from confronting Germany, since ideologically this was an improbable alliance and hence might give them pause. Unknown to Hitler, the surprise element was already lost. British and French Intelligence were aware of the developments between Germany and the USSR. As a result, when Hitler did not see any change in British and French positions after the signing of the agreement, he cancelled the attack.

The single most important reason Hitler called off the invasion of Poland was because he did not want a World War. He did not want to internationalize his invasion of Poland and he was hoping that the pact with the USSR and German overtures would dissuade the British. He considered them the more important power to reckon with.

While British resolve was firm, the French could be excused for appearing less resolute. Many French politicians had fought in the Great War and had lost family and friends. The carnage at the Somme and the Marne was still fresh in French minds and there was a strong pacifist streak that arose from the memories of the previous war, scarce twenty years behind. They did not want to be rushed into defending Poland when it was clearly impossible to do so. To them the German-Soviet pact was hugely disconcerting.

There was a better basis for Anglo French resolve largely due to two factors. First, the British and French militaries were much better prepared and the French in particular had a very good army and air force. They also had the Maginot Line of fortifications to counter the kind of infantry thrusts from Germany that occurred in 1914.  Second, public opinion had changed in favour of confronting Germany after March 1939.

Prime Minister Chamberlain, who came from a merchant background in Birmingham, had never met anyone like Hitler who could give his word and then break it. He was deeply disappointed when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939. From then on, he was firm with Hitler without losing any opportunity to stop yet another European war, and any assertion that he was too weak in September 1939 is incorrect.  Even more than Chamberlain, his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (who was Viceroy of India in 1931) was resolved to ensure that Hitler would not get away this time. Both Lord Halifax and Mr Chamberlain were not averse to preventing war through discussions on the principle that all war was bad. But they were equally resolved to make sure Hitler did not repeat March 1939.

The French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier was a man of great energy. French politics of the 1930s was marked by fractiousness between the Right and the Left. In order to govern he had armed himself with near dictatorial powers. Despite internal troubles, by August 1939 he was as resolved as Chamberlain that Hitler should be stopped. More than the British he also hoped that Italy would join the British and the French.

On August 24th, Chamberlain made a statement in Commons expressing concern at the situation and in defence of a Government motion asking for Parliament to arm HMG with special emergency powers in the light of the situation. The motion was carried almost unanimously. Hitler received this news with some alarm, and next morning he summoned Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador to Germany at the Chancellery. In a meeting marked by great cordiality, Hitler offered a similar no-war pact along the lines of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to Britain and offered to guarantee the integrity of the British Empire, once the Polish business had been settled. He was hoping for a local war, not an international one.  The next day Henderson flew to London to convey Hitler’s requests.

That very morning Hitler asked the army to prepare to invade Poland.

At this point Hitler was still unsure about whether he had Mussolini’s support. He needed Italy so that he could put pressure on the British and French to keep from internationalising his imminent assault on Poland.  He hoped that Italian naval presence in the Mediterranean would be an advantage. But the Italians were alarmed by Hitler’s expansion into Central Europe and Italian public opinion was not yet inclined towards war. The German-Soviet pact had the effect of signalling to Italy that they were no longer centre stage in European affairs as they had been before the Pact, and this caused concern to Mussolini who had territorial ambitions.

On August 25th the Italian Ambassador to Germany delivered a letter informing Ribbentrop that Italy would stay neutral in any German war in Poland.  That evening at 530pm, the French Ambassador to Germany called on Hitler to tell him, very firmly, that France would stand by the guarantee she had given to Poland. This did not do wonders for Hitler’s mood.

Later that evening at 630pm, Ribbentrop was stunned by the announcement of an Anglo-Polish Pact for Mutual Assistance which the Polish Ambassador to the United Kingdom signed just a few minutes ago. Though the agreement had been in the works for two months, the fortuitousness or otherwise of the timing of the signature was not lost on Lord Halifax. Ribbentrop and other advisers pressed Hitler to find a way to isolate Britain. It was at this juncture that Hitler called off the attack but asked the German Chief of Staff Wilhelm Keitel to carry on preparations.

On August 27th at 1pm, Henderson reached London and conferred with the Prime Minister and with the Foreign Secretary. A letter had to be sent to Germany that was firm and yet did not leave any opportunity for misunderstanding. On August 28th, Henderson flew back to Berlin with the reply. The letter stated that Germany and Great Britain must discuss how to protect Poland’s essential interests and that failure to do so would be calamitous. The exact words used were: “A just settlement of these questions between Germany and Poland may open the way to world peace. Failure to reach it would ruin the hopes of better understanding between Germany and Great Britain, would bring the two countries into conflict, and might well plunge the whole world into war. Such an outcome would be a calamity without parallel in history”. 

Shorn of diplomatic language, its meaning was clear. When Hitler and Henderson met, Hitler read the letter and again told the Ambassador that he would negotiate and provide guarantees to the British Empire. Henderson replied that Hitler would have to choose between friendship with Poland or war with Britain.

Observers who saw Hitler at close quarters in those days commented adversely on his state of mind. He was unsure of himself, having brought Germany to the brink. Once before, at Munich, Hitler pulled back from the brink. Now was he going to do this again? This had not gone down well in military circles, and indeed within the Nazi Party. Hitler was risking being considered weak minded and less than firm, a man who loses his nerve when at the brink.   The hesitation shown on August 26th was not lost on the French who believed that when confronted with force, Hitler would climb down. It only served to strengthen their resolve.

The mood in London and Paris was optimistic about peace even at this stage, and this was founded on two points. First, Germany was experiencing economic difficulties and the Anglo-French view was that Hitler would not choose this time to risk a bigger war. 

Second, they believed Hitler was facing opposition from the Nazi Party and the German High Command. Many in London believed Hitler was more vulnerable than he actually was to a coup. The reality was that while there were rumblings, they were limited and conditional and not enough to stop Hitler. The Wehrmacht was concerned about an international war and Hitler was shown a military paper that laid out the difficulties of fighting a multi-national war. Hitler dismissed these concerns since he was confident of isolating Britain and fighting a local war. A number of German politicians of the old school who opposed Hitler as a charlatan and a chancer were happy when he called off the attack on August 26, and expected him to lose power quickly as a result.  Word was sent to the British Embassy asking the United Kingdom to stand firm and not let Hitler wriggle away from a difficult situation of his own making.  The British had also been given the impression that Hermann Goering, second only to Hitler in the Reich, was waiting for an opportunity to seize power for himself. This was conveyed by a Danish businessman Dahlerus, who mounted his own peace mission to stop any impending war between August 24th and 28th . But these notions were discounted by the British Foreign Office as being a bit too fanciful and no credence was given to them.

The private diplomacy of Dahlerus and the general reasonable tone of the British seemed to strengthen Hitler’s view that the British could be detached from the French and hence prevent an international war. He gave firm orders to the German Army to cross the Polish border on September 1st.  Meanwhile Hitler and Ribbentrop lost no opportunity to tell the world that they did not want war and that they just had a local dispute in Poland based on genuine German grievances.

In the hope of preventing war,  the British Ambassador to Poland conveyed a message to Berlin asking if they would be willing to meet the Polish Government for talks. Nothing came of it. The Polish Army had anyway been mobilizing, but in the light of these peace moves, Poland stalled forward movement. Valuable time was lost. On August 29th the Polish Army moved into forward positions on the German border.

On August 29th, Hitler handed his reply to Henderson. Hitler and Ribbentrop stood and watched as Henderson read it. The demands it contained were an unacceptable basis for any discussion: the return of Danzig and the entire Corridor territory, safeguards for the other German minorities living in Poland, and the necessity of involving the Soviet Union in any settlement in Poland. At the end of the reply Henderson read the demand that the Polish government send a negotiator with full powers to sign by the following day, 30th  August.

On August 30th, Lord Halifax replied to Hitler that it was unreasonable to ask for a Polish plenipotentiary to be available at such short notice, and that besides, no formal request had been made by Germany to Poland. This reply was delivered by Henderson to Ribbentrop late that night. The reply angered Ribbentrop, who produced his own set of demands on the Polish Government, which he read out but did not hand over to the British Ambassador. The meeting had both men shouting at each other and ended on a hostile note.  The sixteen points were conveyed informally by the Danish businessman Dahlerus to the Polish Ambassador to Germany, who tried and failed to meet Ribbentrop. By the time he was given time to meet Ribbentrop, it was 9pm on August 31st, and the attack was due to begin. The phone lines between Berlin and Warsaw were severed shortly thereafter.

Even as late as August 31st the mood in London was optimistic that Hitler would not go to war, thanks to their reading of the German situation and their view on how vulnerable Hitler was. In Paris however the mood was less certain, and Daladier was committed to confronting Hitler. In Germany, the interval between the cancellation and the final invasion of Poland on 1 September was used to bombard the German public with inflammatory propaganda against the Poles. Details of Polish ‘atrocities’ were magnified by the German press; publicity was given to alleged reports that Germans living in Poland had been castrated. All of this was designed to ensure that the outside world would understand the German casus belli, and that the German public would wage a Polish war with sufficient enthusiasm after years in which they had become accustomed to the bloodless victories achieved by threats, menaces and bluff.

In secret, Germany had begun preparing for instituting lebensraum in Poland, as much as five months prior. Groups were formed and attached to military formations, to round up and murder the Polish elite, destroy synagogues and disable any resistance after occupation.  These groups were now activated and mobilised along with the Wehrmacht.

To give spurious cause, Himmler’s Deputy and Head of the Secret Police Reinhard Heydrich ordered the staging of what is now known as the Gleiwitz incident. On the night of August 31st, a small group of German operatives from the Abwehr seized the radio station at Gleiwitz on the German-Polish border, and broadcast a short anti German message. A mock Polish attack was staged at two other places. German prisoners dressed in Polish Army uniforms were shot and bodies left as proof of a Polish attack. The incident was claimed as evidence of Polish double dealing and as the trigger for military action.

At 4am on September 1, the German Naval vessel Schleswig-Holstein, which was visiting the free city of Danzig on what was ostensibly a training mission, opened fire on a nearby Polish naval fort, signalling the start of the War. German troops and Nazi party officials who had been smuggled into the Free City took control of the city and unveiled the German Swastika.  At the same time, the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht began offensive operations. The Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground.

News of the German attack reached London at 7am on September 1, and Paris shortly after. Chamberlain and Daladier conferred to co-ordinate their responses. Both countries had picked up information on a Polish assault on Germany the previous night but they had the good sense to discount it for what it actually was. A note was sent to Berlin asking them to stop the aggression and withdraw troops promptly, failing which HMG would have no choice but to act on its guarantee to Poland. Chamberlain announced this in Parliament that night and told the Members that no time limit had been given.  The French prepared a similar reply despite the objections of some members of the French cabinet on its peremptory tone.

At 930pm on September 1st, Henderson called on Ribbentrop and conveyed HMG’s response formally, and insisted on an immediate reply.  At 10pm the French Ambassador followed suit.

The German response was puzzling, to say the least.  Party functionaries gathered in the chancellery lobbies still thought the West was bluffing. Hitler was unable to decide if the notes were formal ultimatums or not. Henderson had been told by the Foreign Office, according to Halifax’s later recollection, that he was authorized to say that the note ‘was a warning and not an ultimatum’, though he did not relay this to Ribbentrop. 

In London, blackout curtains were hung in all windows. But, among MPs there was a sense of puzzlement about the failure to give Germany a definite time by which to comply. One could argue that adding a time limit would have made it an ultimatum – which the Foreign Office wanted to avoid – but at the same time the insertion of the word “promptly” in the demand for troop withdrawal made it clear it was actually one.  The uncertainty thus created around British intentions caused consternation amongst the many critics of Chamberlain.  So why did Chamberlain not actually declare war if that was his intent.

This could be explained by a few factors. First, the French wanted to mobilise and also move six million reservists close to the frontier. It would take them a couple of days to do so. There were fears that the Luftwaffe would do in France what it did in Poland. The Luftwaffe did not have that capacity but the French were not to know that.  Second, Mussolini suddenly intervened with an offer of mediation between the powers at a conference proposed to be held on September 5th.

London was lukewarm and so was Daladier, but not his foreign minister George Bonnet, who made no secret of his desire to stop war even at the risk of appeasing Hitler. Bonnet went to the extent of telling Ribbentrop that France was in favour of a peace conference and put out a statement to the press to this effect. The Italians were delighted and on September 2nd, they talked to Hitler who wanted to know if the British and French notes were ultimatums or mere requests. He also told the Italians he would reply only the next day.

Historians attribute this to Hitler’s desire to further confuse his adversaries while holding out hope for peace. He may have also believed that attending the conference with Danzig in his pocket might increase his bargaining power. Bonnet, without consulting either his Prime Minister or the British, told Hitler the notes were not ultimatums. 

Daladier, who was also Bonnet’s political rival, told London only Parliament could make or stop war – and he had no intention of backing down, essentially disowning Bonnet’s statements purportedly made on behalf of the French Republic. 

Lord Halifax was taken by surprise by the Italian overture as well as Bonnet’s actions. At 630pm that evening, Lord Halifax phoned his Italian counterpart to tell him that regardless of any Peace Conference, immediate withdrawal of German troops and the restoration of Danzig as a free city were non-negotiable pre-conditions.

Chamberlain and Halifax found themselves in a difficult situation with British MPs who were not happy about their failure to indicate a time for compliance by Germany in the British note. They were not persuaded by the French request to hold off on specifying exact dates and they accused Chamberlain of confusion and weakness. On September 2nd, Chamberlain came to Parliament at 7pm after keeping MPs waiting the whole day. In what is regarded as one of the significant days in British Parliamentary history, he made a brief and unimpressive address, explaining the nuances around a possible peace conference brokered by the Italians and that the French were also in the process of confirming their position. He further stated that if the Germans agreed, they would have to vacate Poland and restore Danzig. He sounded tired and it was not the firm and definitive statement that MPs wanted to hear.

The Leader of the Opposition, Sir Clement Attlee was in hospital, and deputising for him was Arthur Greenwood, who rose to respond. Apparently as he rose, Leo Amery, the Conservative MP, shouted out to Greenwood, “Speak for England Sir!”.  Greenwood rose to the occasion by challenging Chamberlain thus: ‘I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilization are in peril.’  There were more shouts and confusion in Parliament and MPs refused to hear Chamberlain’s reply.  Parliament adjourned for the day and the British Cabinet huddled into a meeting at 9pm.

The French Ambassador to Britain Charles Corbin was summoned to Downing Street. Chamberlain was convinced his government would fall the next day. Corbin was asked to get Daladier to agree to an ultimatum and was told failure to do so might cause a collapse of the British Government.  Daladier agreed to send an ultimatum to Germany the next day. The cabinet met again at 1130pm to draft the note to Germany.

At 9am on September 3rd Henderson entered the Chancellery to convey the ultimatum in person to Hitler. It was short.

 “In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on 1st September I informed you, on the instructions of His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, that, unless the German Government were prepared to give His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom satisfactory assurances that the German Government had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

“Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks upon Poland have been continued and intensified. I have accordingly the honour to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a. m., British Summer Time, to-day 3rd September, satisfactory assurances to the above effect have been given by the German Government and have reached His Majesty’s Government in London, a state of war will exist between the two countries as from that hour.”

If the assurance referred to in the above communication is received, you should inform me by any means at your disposal before 11 a. m. to-day, 3rd September. If no such assurance is received here by 11 a. m. , we shall inform the German representative that a state of war exists as from that hour.”

Hitler’s reaction apparently was one of partial surprise, indeed he was a bit stunned. Perhaps he did not believe it would come to this.  He had been assured by Ribbentrop that Britain and France were in no mood to fight. Germany now found herself confronted by the very thing she wanted to avoid, a World War.

For close to two hours Halifax and Chamberlain waited for a German response. By 1050am it became clear there was going to be no German response. At 1115 am, Chamberlain went on BBC Radio and delivered a sober speech informing the British public that despite his very many efforts to keep the peace, German intransigence meant that Britain was now at War with Germany. In France, a thumping speech by Daladier said that France was now at War with Germany.

While Chamberlain was speaking, a long and rambling reply justifying German conduct was handed over to Henderson in Berlin. Hitler made a bellicose speech to Germany over radio but in private expressed his hope that Britain and France would fight a limited war! Observers say the public mood was sombre and anything but triumphant.

Polish Government officials heard the two declarations of war with some happiness. But that was short lived, as they quickly realised that in practical terms there was no assistance forthcoming from the British or the French.  The Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe completed their demolition of the Polish state. Two weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, as agreed with the Germans in the secret codicil to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Poland ceased to exist.

The evening of September 3rd was calm and the mood sober in all three capitals. That evening, British and French diplomatic staff posted in Germany, and German diplomatic staff posted in London and Paris, were repatriated according to international law.  

Europe, and shortly the world, was at War.