Having now looked at so much wild theorising, it is perhaps worth saying a few things about what conspiracy theories are, how they are constructed, and how they relate to other forms of bad history.
Conspiracies are suspected when bad things happen. No one ever considers that a conspiracy lies behind a good harvest, or civic harmony, or if a plane does not crash, even though all these things require cooperative effort. Conspiracy logic works backwards. It assumes that bad things, especially bad man-made things, must be the handiwork of bad men. This applies to diseases, recessions, riots, unexpected deaths, defeats in wars or even in sporting events. After disaster or disappointment, the questions are always: who was behind it, and why?
Once enemies are identified, onspiracies are quite easy to construct. Simply cherry-pick your facts, ignore chronology wherever necessary, and allow all your evil protagonists a quite unusual degree of foresight about what they were/are doing.
All this is much more important than ‘evidence’, as that word is usually understood. Conspiracy theories are not about evidence; they are ways of connecting villains and bad outcomes by the shortest means possible. In the process, everything ‘friends’ say carries more weight that anything that ‘enemies’ say. Belief in conspiracies relies on believing almost anything your friends say over absolutely everything your enemies say.
The idea that conspiracy theorists are highly sceptical people with a non-judgmental viewpoint – that they stand at a rational distance from received, ‘official’ versions of events – is not really true. The scepticism involved is guided and highly selective, and is not truly sceptic in nature; it is simply another form of bias, invisible to its holder, and often of a very extreme form.
Spiritual knowledge comes from the exhortation ‘Know thyself’, but any well-grounded and persuasive conspiracy theory relies on the instruction ‘Know thine enemy’. Who gets chosen and what motives they are assumed to have are what counts. It should also be noted that conspiracy, as a technique, is really only good at detecting or explaining evil motivations. Enemies within – saboteurs, foreigners, deviants, minorities and outcasts – are favourite culprits, because they can easily and credibly be awarded deviant and anti-social motivations.
For instance, within the literature on Partition, the British are always the suspects, because they fit into a great many of the categories outlined above. The British are followed closely by Muslims in the minds of many Hindu nationalists, for much the same reasons. So Jinnah-Churchill alliances are entirely believable within this world. Taking the villainy a little more loosely, if an individual can be found with defective moral fibre – say, the ambitious and shallow Nehru – then Mountbatten-Nehru alliances fit the general ‘outsider meets evil fifth columnist’ recipe just as well.
Film plots are often constructed this way, in order to lend a clear motivation to all decisions taken within the unfolding story. Notably, there is a lot more double crossing in thriller scripts than there ever is in conspiracy theories, because movie plots need to shimmer and twist, to mislead and deceive in order to maintain an engrossing level of tension. Conspiracy theories cannot cope with these gymnastics and need to stay simple and unsubtle. So the ‘real life’ villains within conspiracies are unusually dogged, and can manage to maintain single aims for decades, if required. For an illustration of the absurdities that creative villain-making can produce, it is worth noting that Almeida, with his Nehru-Attlee pact, and Das, with his Jinnah-Churchill alliance, have come up with two entirely separate and largely contradictory explanations for the same set of events. And of the four theories outlined above, we have the same outcome in all of them, but with four different motivations.
In contrast to their powerful villains, the heroes within conspiracy narratives always come out rather weakly. This is partly because they are usually the losers, but also because their motivations seem banal by comparison. So, Prakash Almeida has all sorts of reasons why Cripps and Nehru are villains, but absolutely no convincing reason for why Sardar Patel did not do the right thing and lead India to unity and freedom. FDR, despite all his power and on-the-record scolding of Churchill over India, has to slide into an ignominious decline, betrayed by Stalin and Churchill, in order to explain why, as India’s friend, he did not press harder.
It is far easier to attribute bad motivations to bad individuals and to show how they got their way than it ever is to show why the good people didn’t win. Thus it was just bad luck that Tilak died, and this has to be shown to cast a very long shadow to explain India’s poor showing against the omnipotent Brits.
Such demonising is an essential element in the creation of conspiracy and its subsequent ‘marketing’. Villains are not only easier to understand, they are frequently detected by the very unsafe technique of working backwards from final outcomes. Thus Nehru became Prime Minister because events were rigged for him, Pakistan was created because the British wanted it, and so forth. Doubtless Lenin set up the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, because he was, eventually, the undoubted personal winner of the First World War. The other leaders that apparently started it all lost their jobs and positions, whereas he got one – and one that he really, really wanted, and had wanted for years.
But the central fallacy in the ‘cui bono?’ technique – of working out who did the crime by seeing who benefited most from it, is that clever people exploit situations as they develop. It is precisely what politicians do all the time, and the most skilful among them not only seize opportunities when they occur, they also find ways of making it look like they were in control all along. When Humpty Dumpty falls, smart people everywhere will try to turn the moment to advantage. There is no logical necessity that the eventual winner was the one who pushed him. Politicians live their entire lives wading around in the debris of a series of greater and lesser eggs.
This is exactly what has given such a strong impetus to the whole Subaltern-Dirks-Cohn school of anti-colonialism. It is not that colonialism was good – it wasn’t – but the cui bono approach has enabled these intellectual types to fall unwittingly into the exact same trap as the crudest amateur conspiracist. Colonialism, in the undifferentiated, undefined form in which it is constantly used, is a mock villain of exactly the type that Mountbatten is for Almeida and Churchill is for Das. Detailed proof of guilt or involvement is not really needed. It is obvious that ‘colonialism’ is the bad product of bad men, and that it benefited from its presence in India. Therefore it caused all the bad things that happened in India.
Is there not a wider, subtler case to be made that the various outcomes attributed to colonialism are actually more properly merely aspects of modernity introduced under colonialism? Colonialism itself was not new – empire and domination are key elements of colonialism in the crudest sense, and these things have been known since the dawn of time all over the world. I refer specifically to the remodelling of caste (assuming that this did indeed really happen as Dirks says) or the construction of self-consciousness by religious communities (if indeed that was a phenomenon of the 1920s, as Pandey believes).
Can we definitely say that none of these things would have happened without colonialism? Would there have been no developments within the social practice of caste or the self-awareness of religious communities between 1765 and 1947? Are not many of the effects identified by Dirks and Pandey actually just the side effects of bureaucratisation and electoral politics? And could these things, and modernity in general, not have come to India or grown there, in some other way? Or are we trapped in an Orientalist bind, believing that India would never have changed? Or must we concede a ‘patriot’ argument, saying that India was in all ways better off in her eighteenth century condition and always would have been, in all circumstances?
Modernity and colonialism are not identical, and whatever state or states might have developed in an India without colonial rule, they would have had to adopt some kind of modernity, like Japan did, if they were not to be subsumed into either another European empire or even the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere itself. Colonialism used modernity: telegraphs, printing, railways, filing cabinets, photographs and international trade were all part of the package. It had its modes of modernity but it was not identical with it.
It would perhaps be preferable to use the expression ‘colonial government’ rather than ‘colonialism’. Why do so many of these writers use the vaguer word? Reading back a few decades, the favoured term was always ‘imperialism’, which has rather lost its currency now, perhaps because it was so debased by the Maoist students of the 1960s. But it was a better word in some ways. Colonialism was always about practicalities, whereas imperialism was about ideas and attitudes. It is imperial ideas executed via colonial government that seem to be the culprits for Dirks and co. Perhaps this was simply too long a phrase to use repeatedly. But as an aid to understanding, the colonialism of which they speak is rather a pantomime villain. Let us hope that the future will give us better words and subtler understanding.
Finally, we must return to the complex issues within Independence-Partition. Legitimate questions exist, but they are of the type: could Jinnah have accepted a different kind of settlement, when did Partition become inevitable, was Mountbatten really at all even-handed, what precisely was it that convinced Congress to compromise, did Jinnah create the demand for Pakistan or did that demand create him? These questions are hard to determine. Some depend upon forming opinions of the half dozen leading players in the drama, all of whom had different political and personal motivations, and questions of motivation are always the hardest to determine exactly within historical events. Certainly it makes it easier to come to decisive judgements if you first determine whose motivations are essentially good and whose debased. This is why the conspiracy route is so attractive within the issue of Partition. Once simple motivations are ascribed, the rest follows easily, regardless of facts. For if we are looking at ruthless people we need not believe what they said, and they probably had something to hide. Partition had an extremely complex logic of its own, which has been gradually teased out over decades. Mountbatten’s hastiness and vanity, Nehru’s impatience and desire for power, Jinnah’s elusive mentality, the gradual unfolding, or rather crumbling, of Britain’s long-term social strategies across India – all these things played a part.
The unpleasant thing for Indians is that they have to live with the consequences of Partition in a way that British people do not. Most British people have never given a second’s thought to the whole issue, beyond knowing that Gandhi made the whole thing non-violent and that everything worked out fine – the Indians got their freedom and the British left with honour. Wiser heads in Britain have gradually faced up to the negative role the British played in the whole event; it has become much easier to see the colonial machine across the cultural chasm that separates modern attitudes from Empire’s verities.
But sheltering within the citadel of conspiracy is still too easy for those Indians who do not wish to take up any responsibility in the whole ghastly business. Despite the many mistakes the British may have made, and no matter whether they resulted from ignorance, deviousness, impotence, or whatever, still it was Indians that killed each other in such large numbers. The popularity of conspiracy theories about Partition does not just relate to the enormous simplification they bring to the subject, there is also the positive attraction that if Indians can believe that they had nothing to do with the violence, that the whole thing was a plot foisted on them by exceptionally evil, exceptionally powerful beings, then the whole tragedy becomes easier to bear. More like an earthquake, less like social disintegration, or sectarian madness.
Since 1947 there has been genocide elsewhere on a scale nearly as large. Indians need no longer feel alone in the stigma of mass neighbour-murder. Irish, Bosnians, Rwandans, Sri Lankans have all fallen prey to the same collective insanity. Indians are not different, or especially reprehensible or strange; they simply reacted to a desperate situation in an extremely desperate way. Conspiracy and super-beings are not required. The banality of evil was real enough in the Punjab that summer, and it may well arise again in India, or elsewhere, whenever situations of mistrust and physical proximity align to make it seem, at least temporarily, that murdering one’s neighbours is the most logical option.