Book Review: The Raj at War

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?
— Mahatma Gandhi

The Indian subcontinent was under the colonial rule of Great Britain during the two World Wars. Indians participated as combatants and non-combatants in both wars, which was not theirs but of the British Empire.

Yasmin Khan, Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Kellogg College,has brought out a lucid account of the contribution of the two and half million Indians who fought in World War II in her book The Raj at War.

What made Yasmin Khan choose this subject? She says, “I was born in London but my family is from all over the world; on one side my grandfather was Anglo-Argentinian, and my grandmother was from Ireland. My grandfather from Buenos Aires, Godfrey, had actually been in India in the 1940s and served in the Indian Army as a young officer. He volunteered and was sent out to India on a troopship. He was like so many imperial citizens, joining up. On the other side, my grandparents were refugees from Uttar Pradesh (India) to Pakistan after 1947.

I loved hearing these stories as a child. So I had to understand modern Indian history to understand my own family history, and how I had ended up being born in 1970s London. I’ve spent a lot of time in India.”

The book portrays the life of people in India during the war — the rich and the poor, the elite and the ordinary, the soldiers and the civilians. With the Indian freedom struggle in the background, the author describes how the war tore lives apartand led to the loss of young lives, dislocation of people, the strange presence of the new Allied armies, the rise in prostitution etc. The breakdown of the British Raj is the central theme of the book.

Khan says, “It is a story that belongs to all the countries in the region — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Historians wrote nationalist histories everywhere at first but there’s more awareness now of the empire and war. On the African side, there has been some amazing work by historians about the role of Africans in World War II.”

Some Indians joined the Army because their family had been part of it, some joined because of the adventure it offered while many enlisted as it provided them steady wages. It is noteworthy that non-combatants played a pivotal role and made the Army function: tailors, washermen, barbers, boot-makers, cooks, and orderlies. Even religious teachers, mule-handlers and vets accompanied the troops.

During the war, the British and the Indians fraternised, especially when fighting abroad in North Africa or Middle East, yet Indians felt the racial discrimination. It reflected the real paradox in the British Raj. The author believes that it was because of this fact that the system itself had its foundations in inequality. Indians footed the war bill through taxes as well as voluntary subscriptions. This impacted the middle class and the peasants, which contributed to people’s disenchantment.

The Raj in India was weakened by the war, and the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 coupled with the invasion of Burma acted as the final nail in the coffin. As per estimates, 600,000 Indians fled Burma, of which 80,000 did not make it through. The government believed India would be attacked next. At the same time, the freedom struggle was at its peak. “If there had been no World War II, it might have taken several more years for India’s independence. It might also have been more peaceful when it arrived,” says Khan.

Indian industries surged due to the war but it was accompanied by inflation. Industrialists such as the Tatas, Birlas, Walchand Hirachand, and Mohan Singh Oberoi rose during this time.

The most devastating incident in India during the war was the famine in Bengal province in 1943, which resulted in the death of millions. Satyen Basu, who returned to India after participating in the war in North Africa where he was captured and held as prisoner of war, provided terrible testimony to the famine: “Witness a baby barely two years old lying in the lap of his brother of about six, both so devitalised that they are not able even to move from the street corner and are biding their time to be shifted by somebody, sometime, alive or dead.” The British government, however, chose to focus on the war.

The Raj At War is an essential read for those interested in the history of pre-independence India and the British rule.

(Published in The Hindu)

Book Review: A Scrapbook of Memories

The Indian publishing industry has flourished considerably in the last few decades. It got a boost when international publishers like Penguin, Harper Collins, Hachette and others entered the market. A Scrapbook of Memories offers an insider’s view about book publishing in India. Written by Ashok Chopra, currently the chief executive of Hay House Publishers India, it is an account of his encounters and associations with people from varied backgrounds — authors, writers, poets, singers, actors, filmmakers, artists.

Beginning with a chapter on Chandigarh, where he studied and got his first job, Chopra talks about finding the love for the written word in the city. He describes Chandigarh, in terms of colours, as rosy with a tinge of light green. Apart from Chandigarh, Chopra talks about three more cities — Shimla, Delhi and Kolkata. He laments about changes in the first, not only in name (Simla to Shimla) but also in landscape (lush green to dull grey) as well. Chopra draws a comparison between Delhi and Kolkata, which are the major book markets in the Indian subcontinent.

Going down memory lane, Chopra brings forth numerous stories about his friendships, working relationships, associations and a few disappointments; of how he pursued people to write and then acquired manuscripts. There are interesting accounts of Balwant Gargi, Begum Akhtar, M.F. Hussain, Dom Moraes, Dev Anand, Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, Khushwant Singh, I.S. Johar, Zail Singh, Shobhaa De, Dilip Kumar, Raaj Kumar.

As a publisher, Chopra regrets that he could not publish two books in particular — Khushwant Singh’s translations of Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa and Dev Anand’s autobiography. The first was published in June 1981 by Oxford University Press, then headed by Ravi Dayal, Singh’s son-in-law. And Chopra has not forgiven himself for losing Anand’s Romancing with Life, as he had urged the actor to write his autobiography.

He talks about waiting 24 long years to publish Dilip Kumar’s autobiography, The Substance and the Shadow, which came out last year. The most surprising part is about actor and filmmaker I.S. Johar whom Chopra terms ‘sex obsessed’. He recalls the contents of Johar’s autography, which never saw the light of the day. “It was like a blue film on paper — enjoyable for the first few minutes or so, sick after that.He had churned out 50,000 words or so on his sexual orgies and each one was more descriptive than the previous one, with graphic details and names of all the ladies involved with him — big or small, known or unknown.” Chopra has also written about his interactions with another Bollywood veteran Raaj Kumar, well-known for his eccentricities.

Talking about poetry, Chopra argues that, though writing poetry in English is in fashion, there are hardly any takers. His reason is that much of Indian poetry in English is vapid and further adds that, as English is not our language, ‘poets’ are incapable of expressing emotions with depth. His observations about religion, gods, godmen/women are interesting too.

Chopra calls publishing both an art and a business where market acceptability is the final criterion of excellence. He classifies book releases into two types: genuine releases where the publisher organises the event and vanity releases where the author has to bear all the expenses though the invites go out in the publisher’s name.

Chopra ends by talking about publishing as a career and says it is not for those who are eager to earn money quickly or make a name but for those who are interested in books. He has not minced words while describing people he has met or worked with. Forthright and honest in his narration, the book is truly a ‘journey with, and through the written word’.

(Published in The Hindu)

Narendra Modi must talk to Kashmiri Hindus

The summer has arrived in Kashmir. Tourism is picking up in valley after the devastating floods. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his deputy Dr. Nirmal Singh was in Mumbai recently for promoting the state as prime tourist destination and shooting location for Bollywood movies. Meanwhile, Kashmiri separatists are back in action in valley, protesting against the proposed plan of the resettlement of Kashmiri Hindus in ‘composite townships’. The separatists’ views are echoed by the mainstream political parties like National Conference and Indian National Congress.

Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani has issued a diktat that the annual Amarnath yatra should be restricted to 30 days for “safety of pilgrims and protection of environment”. In the summer season, hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees from all over the country arrive in Jammu and Kashmir to take part in pilgrimage to a holy mountain shrine – Amarnath Cave. This year, the yatra to the holy shrine will be for 59 days starting from July 2. These Kashmiri separatists and their supporters have a habit of fomenting controversies and trouble whenever the holy Amarnath Yatra is going to take place – a routine exercise every year.

Amidst this entire hubbub, thousands of Kashmiri Pandits gathered today in sweltering heat at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi demanding from the Indian Government that the community of Kashmiri Hindus must be consulted and taken in to confidence before proposing any plan for their return. For the return and rehabilitation of the minority Hindus back in Kashmir, there are only two stakeholders – the Government of India and the community of Kashmiri Hindus. No one else has a say in this. I reiterate – no one else.

Kashmiri Hindus don’t have faith in present Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Whatever little faith was there with the formation of new government in J&K state, it was marred by controversies like thanking separatists and Pakistan for successful elections in the state, release of separatist Masarat Alam, doing a U-turn on the townships for Pandits in Kashmir etc.

Frankly speaking, Pandits don’t trust Kashmiri politicians – be it Abdullahs, Muftis or others – because of their demeanour in the last two and half decades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his NDA government need to understand that. The onus lies on Narendra Modi on whom the Pandit community placed faith in resolving their issues as he emerged as a person of hope and optimism not only for Pandits but also for the entire country.

The return plan of Kashmiri Hindus must include the following key things:

  1. Setting up of a commission/inquiry committee for probing the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus
  2. Prosecution of those responsible for the killings and the forced mass exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from Kashmir
  3. Restoration of all the desecrated temples and shrines of Kashmiri Hindus in valley

In addition to that, the issues of those Kashmiri Pandits who chose to stay back in Kashmir need to be addressed. These non-displaced Pandits are very much part of the community and their demands – social, political or economic – need to be taken in to account. They are also part of the larger debate of the resettlement of the ethnic Pandit community in Kashmir once and for all and must not be ignored.

On the return of Hindus back to Kashmir, there are divergent views. Panun Kashmir, one of the frontline organizations of the community, demands separate homeland to be carved out for Kashmiri Hindus in valley which will be a union territory without any fetters of Article 370. There are others who don’t subscribe to this view. Though, there may be difference in opinion but one thing is common cutting across all the Pandit organizations – safe and dignified return back to Kashmir valley.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi must talk to the community of Kashmiri Hindus – all the Kashmiri Hindu organizations – before formulating any plan for their resettlement. A one-on-one discussion between the Prime Minister of India and the Kashmiri Hindu community is a must without any meddling by the separatists or valley-based mainstream politicians.

A placard in today’s protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi sums up very well the current predicament – Modi blinks, hope sinks.

(Published in The Newsminute)

Kashmiri Pandits and the rhetoric of their return

On April 7, 2015, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister (CM) Mufti Mohammad Sayeed called on Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh in New Delhi. In the meeting, the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits back to the Kashmir valley was discussed, among other things. Union Home Minister has reportedly asked the CM to provide land for composite townships for Kashmiri Pandits. The CM, in return, gave assurance to the Home Minister on this issue and has reportedly stated that it will be done at the earliest.

As soon as the news of townships for Pandits was out, Yasin Malik, Chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, held a press conference and vehemently opposed it. Malik is accused in more than 20 cases, including the killing of four Indian Air force officers in 1989.

Kashmir valley observed a complete shutdown on  April 11 against the government’s plan to create “composite townships” in Kashmir for Kashmiri Pandits, who are in exile from the past 25 years. A day before the shutdown, on April 10, there were protests in Srinagar led by Malik.

Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani while opposing the proposed Pandit resettlement plan, termed it an “RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] plan of creating Israeli-type settlements in Jammu and Kashmir.” The separatists were joined by mainstream opposition parties in opposing separate townships in the Kashmir valley for Pandits.

The J&K CM, succumbing to the pressure from separatist groups, said in the Assembly on April 9 that there won’t be any separate townships for the Pandits in the Kashmir valley.

The comparison of townships for Kashmiri Pandits with Israeli settlements is repugnant. Kashmiri Pandits are no Israeli-settlers. They are rightful settlers, the original aborigines of the Kashmir valley with a history of 5,000 years. Kashmiri Pandits have a right of “home” in the valley.

On the subject of Kashmiri Pandits, there seems to be no difference between mainstream politicians and the separatists of the valley. All are united under the garb of so-called Kashmiriyat. Look at the charade of these politicians and separatists. They say Kashmiri Pandits are their brethren and they are welcome in valley. At the same time, they dictate terms to Pandits for their resettlement in Kashmir. If anyone should have a say on how to return back to their homeland, it should be the exiled community of Kashmiri Pandits. They are the ones who got uprooted, they should be the ones who should be consulted and taken into confidence before proposing any plan for their return and rehabilitation.

So far, there’s only been a meeting between a state CM and Union Home Minister. There is just a proposal for townships for resettlement of Pandits. Nothing tangible has been promised to Pandits yet and the valley has erupted over it. This exhibits that communal fanaticism is still prevalent in Kashmir valley (though not all are fanatics) even after more than two decades of armed insurgency.

Time and again, the displacement of Kashmiri Hindu community from Kashmir has been trivialised. Rubbing salt to the wound, Engineer Rashid, Member of Legislative Assembly from Langate constituency of Kupwara district, has demanded an unconditional apology from the minority Pandits for their forced migration from Kashmir. These obnoxious statements from Rashid are not new, who is known for his anti-India propensities even as he holds an office under the Constitution.

The exiled community of Pandits hoped that with the change in the government at the Centre, there would be a positive change concerning issues related to the community. Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government will complete one year in power on May 26. Kashmiri Pandits are yet to hear from their Prime Minister, who claims to be the Pradhan Sevak.

What happened to KashmiriyatInsaniyat and Jamhooriyat which the PM talked about?

The Bharatiya Janata Party is in power in J&K as well. The common minimum programme on which both BJP and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have agreed to govern the state has nothing substantial about Kashmiri Hindus. It says, “Protecting and fostering ethnic and religious diversity by ensuring the return of Kashmiri Pandits with dignity based on their rights as state subjects and reintegrating as well as absorbing them in the Kashmiri milieu. Reintegration will be a process that will start within the State as well as the civil society, by taking the community into confidence.”

For the resettlement of Pandits, creating a safe environment for them in the valley is indispensable. How will that environment be created? That environment will be created when people like Malik and Bitta Karate are brought to book. That atmosphere will be created when the likes of Geelani will be prosecuted for their role in the Pandit exodus of 1990. Creating a safe environment for Pandits in Kashmir will entail punishing those who are responsible for the homelessness of Pandits. For laying the foundation of a safe future, the past needs to be corrected. Before asking Kashmiri Pandits to move forward, let there be justice first.

The talk of the return of Kashmiri Pandits back to Kashmir is exasperating. These return and rehabilitation plans are humbug till the time the fundamental issue of ethnic cleansing is not addressed. Talking about the resettlement of Pandits in Kashmir, where will the Kashmiri Pandits go? The homes of majority of Pandits were either burned, ransacked, or encroached on. Many Pandits sold their land under duress when they were living in exile under extremely difficult circumstances. Whether it will be townships, smart cities or a separate homeland for Pandits, this ought to be debated extensively by the government with the exiled community.

Does the chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest) have the guts to take on these anti-national separatists head on? Does the chhappan inch ki chhati have the guts to challenge the Islamic fanatic hegemony in the Kashmir valley?

(Published in Newslaundry)

Book Review: A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories

A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories by Siddhartha Gigoo is a collection of short stories which takes you to the world of turbulence and banishment. The short-stories are about the loss of human lives, longing for the home, the resurrection of the exiled people, old friendships, memories, desolation and sufferings. The stories will move your heart, make you shudder and think about the happenings described in them.

The book begins with a story The Search which is about a researcher interested in histories and biographies of banished people. His study in the museum library leads him to the discovery of a disappearing clan. The story is attributed to extinct human species of Kashmir valley – Kashmiri Hindus. The author hints at loss of culture, language, and desecration of ancient Hindu heritage in Kashmir. In this story, the author mentions about eleven original specimens left in the entire world. The author actually refers to the time in Kashmir, centuries ago, when only eleven Hindu families survived in valley during foreign Islamic rule.

Another story titled The Last Haircut is the depiction of time in Kashmir when the Pandits were getting killed by their acquaintances. The two young boys who have taken to guns were given the task of killing their teacher who was a Kashmiri Pandit. But they didn’t succeed as the teacher never returned home that day. After some days, the young boys came to know by a chance encounter with the teacher’s wife that he never returned back to his home that day when the boys had planned to kill him. This story highlights the period in Kashmir of 1989-1990 when Hindu families were planning to leave their homes after selective killings of their community members.

In Poison, Nectar, the author narrates poignantly about a family of Kashmiri Hindu refugees living in squalid camp in exile away from their home. Around two years ago, the author has made a short-film The Last Day based on this story.

There are, in total, sixteen stories in the book which portray the different aspects of the lives of human beings. The book ends with a story A Secret Life which is about a monk, who upon having a chance encounter with a young man at a railway station, doubts his own knowledge and understanding of human nature and life.

Siddhartha’s stories are very allegorical. Even without mentioning Kashmir explicitly, he narrates very well the varied narratives of people who faced turmoil without taking any sides. Through fiction, the author has tried to paint the cataclysm of the land – to which he belongs – on paper. The stories talk about conflict societies, and how the conflict takes toll on the people and changes their lives. His stories unravel the predicament people face in conflict regions. These stories are the author’s stunning imagination put on paper.

While some stories are easily understandable, deciphering of a few stories is not so easy. There are some stories which you may not understand in first reading. Nevertheless, the effort you take to read those stories again and interpret them is worthy.

This book is a beautiful addition to Indian writing in English, more so, an addition to the literature on Kashmir. Read this book for its metaphorical writing and stunning imagination and of course, for Kashmir.

(Published in DNA)