Apr 202015

A great article in the Times of India here. Well done Anvar Alikhan – humorous, subtle and apposite.

Counterfactual history is always good fun, and it is a fairly democratic sport, in that most people can have a go at it. The downside is that, of course, the conclusions are always provisional and sometimes outright insane. Most obviously what happens is that people use the technique to reinforce their existing prejudices; no one’s mind is ever changed. So articles like the above serve less to stimulate elevated historical discussion than to act as barometers of current popular opinion. And this one has unleashed the residual admiration, even yearning, for Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a man who never ruled India and did very little for anyone apart from himself throughout his life. His ego was fragile and his judgement poor. But many Indians to this day forgive his failings and his failures because he was indisputably, in their eyes, a patriot.

And here he contrasts very favourably in the popular imagination, as expressed in the scores of comments that the subject of Netaji always provokes, with the figure of Jawaharlal Nehru, who stands accused of lack of patriotism, corruption, the imposition of English education, wrecking the economy, inventing dynastic politics, permissiveness etc. etc..

Here we immediately see the contrast between a man who never had to deal with the practicalities of government and one who did, between a man who strode around in uniform claiming he could solve all India’s problems – by his very being – and one who actually wrestled with the daunting task of governing a cash-starved country full of conflicting interests. Bose dodged all the difficult decisions, and instead repeatedly backed losers, yet for his patriotism alone he is stll revered as a figure somewhere between King Arthur and Santa Claus.

Nehru’s own patriotism, which was subtler, was nevertheless sufficiently deep and sincere to drive him to spend over three thousand days in prison, not being saluted by anyone. That is forgotten, and the sins of his daughter have been held against him.

It should also be pointed out, as I seek to do in my latest book, that it was not Nehru that imposed English on India. He was keen to be rid of it in favour of Hindi, and only the reaction of the non-Hindi-speaking states ensured its preservation as a link language. It was not Nehru that instituted corruption; it was a combination of long-term factors that led a small, over-powerful bureaucracy into the heart of commerce. It was not Nehru that turned the Congress into an organ of patronage; that was the result of the stampede of India’s existing social elites into the party for their own purposes. At most he can be reproached for doing too little to stop any of these things from happening; he did not actively connive in any of them.

If Indians are glad they live in a democracy, they have more to thank Nehru for that they ever would have had reasons to be grateful to Bose.

Sometimes I wonder whether I should have written Rope Trick. At times like this I am glad that I did.

 Posted by at 8:31 am

  6 Responses to “Netaji vs.Panditji”

  1. “Most obviously what happens is that people use the technique to reinforce their existing prejudices;”

    Maybe counterfactual history is the historians’ answer to science fiction. Science fiction, although set in the future, is usually about the present. Then there is the counterfactual present, such as David Mamet’s script for the television drama about Phil Spector. I have not seen it but apparently he mixes fact and fiction so successfully that it is impossible to tell which is which. According to the Telegraph Mamet said ‘I don’t give a damn about the facts’.
    It will be claimed that people will be misinformed by writing that is not factual and accurate, leading to problems with gullible readers, but this happens anyway. A number of people seem to think the Da Vinci Code is factual, which probably explains how urban myths start. Without any evidence of course, I predict that someone will believe the article you linked to and will claim that Netaji did in fact return to India under an assumed identity. In London in the 1970’s there was this graffiti; “Will Lord Lucan please call home”. If there wasn’t so much CCTV maybe someone could spray “Will Netaji please call The Times of India”.

    • “…and will claim that Netaji did in fact return to India under an assumed identity”.

      Oh yes, bang on. Not dead yet, returned as a Buddhist monk, is lying frozen beneath the Himalayas awaiting his country’s call, was sacrificed to end perpetual winter… no, wait – that was Aslan the Lion.

      I like the parallel with sci fi.

  2. Very clever article.

    There are rather choice arguments, clever pickings of dates from history where the Brits had to deal with their own follies of dividing which forced them to work on re-unification etc. For someone who claims to come from an “unbiased” standpoints and claiming to know the facts, it was rather … disappointing!

    Also comparing Bose to Nehru is rather convenient. Yes, Bose had follies, but he did have the capability to create armies, and a violent throw off of a foreign entity, which if it had happened, would have resulted in Indians today having some pride in their history, instead of the junk we’re fed in our educational institutions about just being oppressed all the time.

    Instead why don’t you compare Patel to Nehru who were within the same party and within the same position as well, as both were part of the first free Indian government.

    Nehru’s follies include:

    1. Gladly claiming the position of power despite being defeated decidedly in a democratic vote, thus leading to a broken foundation of “democracy” which became a farce at the time.

    2. Having the disgrace of being the only country where a General has resigned after winning a war, because he went to the UN and returned the territory which was annexed in retaliation thus insulting the soldiers sacrifice.

    3. We have actually lost one war with Pakistan because of Nehru (incorrectly taught in history as India winning it).

    4. Leading many Indian soldiers to a massacre in the Sino-Indian conflict which wasn’t even needed. To top it off, he refrained from using Indian air-superiority to suppress the conflict at the time.

    5. He’s responsible for reducing the defence forces and spending and numbers, by at least half in a country with quite a few hostile borders. This is after he is responsible for the above inexcusable follies.

    6. Despite Patels advice against it as Home Minister, he even is responsible for segregating portions of the populace in the name of “integration”, by providing a separate low-cost housing area to them and letting them get labelled. Patel warned of the resultant in future and we’ve already seen the umpteen issues (and they’re ALWAYS politically motivated).

    … and there’s more.

    Kind of defeats anything positive he’s done and clearly points to a man more interested in self-aggrandizement in history than for the benefit of the country.

    It’s also rather convenient to give the Brits the kudos of unification which history tells us is actually yet another historical re-unification of the territories. You need to go back in time a bit in history. I’d recommend you focus on the entire British history of India from a non-emotional standpoint and purely research and see how a substantially and relatively small number of people can overcome quite a large population, especially at the time they stepped in. The alliances, promotions and their policies etc are very telling.

    Differences between peoples are always there. Taking those differences and using them against two peoples has been done not once in history, but many many times as you so aptly pointed out starting with the Romans. It has even led to many genocides. The people who use these differences for their profit, usually return when there is nothing more to be had and leave the populace to fend for themselves in a rather distraught position of war and strife.

    It’s then easy for them to sit and point fingers at whom they call “savages”, despite their own history of violence, religious crusades, witch hunting and burnings, biological genocide using diseases, slavery and oppression, and of course the famous divide and rule. A country that took forever to acknowledge the scientific achievements such as 0 without which there really wouldn’t be any physics, the invention of flush toilets which ironically is a problem today in the country and other scientific, medicinal and agricultural knowledge of the time.

    The fact is that history is written by the victors and they would never ever like their own to be portrayed negatively. Don’t forget that the early works were not really endorsed by unbiased scientists but required blessings of the rulers (kings and or other institutions of power), prior to publishing because they had their own agendas of control.

    Sadly, the state created then is being exploited now and will continue in the name of politics and religion.

    • Hello Ocid,

      a very long and interesting comment… and I will need to digest it before replying in detail.
      But first up I would like to say that I was more trying to dismiss the overblown claims made for Netaji than to laud Nehru. And such lauding as I did was about the way that he secured India’s democratic future, which would not have been sure and safe under Bose.

      • I don’t know.

        How can you be so sure?

        Yes, there could have been terrifying consequences if the Russians or Germans actually sided with Bose against the Brits in the long-term history … but it’s all speculative isn’t it?

        As far as Nehru’s lack of patriotism, that already shows in his treatment of his defence forces, which is ridiculous. I really question his patriotism post-independence. It would also have been “patriotic” to bow down to popular vote and respect democracy especially considering that is what they were aiming for. He also demonstrates a poor understanding of how to govern a people as shown by his divisive policies which hurt us to this day (This is what caused a rift between him and Patel, or at least that’s what the known history tells us). I don’t have issues questioning even Mahatma Gandhi’s patriotism in this regard.

        The fact is that historians are humans and more often than not biased, and biases are easily created by education and the exposure to one-sided knowledge. That’s why you have to take pretty much all history with a grain of salt, including anything I’m saying … as I’m not immune to personal bias either.

        Now, since it’s easy to speculate as words only cost a bit of energy (most of the time):

        Lets say that Bose actually led the front and created armies within India to get the British out, and somehow got the popular swing he needed to recruit a large majority of the Indian soldiers serving in the British forces. I think it would be reasonable to assume that he could have successfully kicked them out, so to speak … possibly a lot earlier than what happened.

        It would be reasonable to assume, that the defence forces would have been given way more importance than they’ve been given in Nehru’s time and even today, which is sadly really lacking to even be considered adequate. We would arguably have a very strong border with not much interference as it would perhaps be dealt with militarily if required (Which can be a bad thing at times too).

        I really doubt there would be internal strife and riots etc, as they also would be “dealt with”, but as with all military regimes, there is a possibility of too much army control and internal corruption, which is of course a risk. There’s also a risk that it would not have been a democracy at all (which may or may not be a good thing either, as democracy is a flawed concept giving people who have no clue about anything, a right to choose a person who possibly has no clue either. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a more acceptable alternative today. It’s much better than being forced to have an idiot leading you … but wait … democracy has umpteen examples of that happening).

        The question is, would we be worse off than today?

        And, it’s not as simple as dismissing Bose. Nehru obviously is ego-driven, based on the proofs as his policies are almost always self-aggrandizing. The same characteristics are attributed to Bose in the article including his very poor judgement. Bose did have a capability of connecting with and organizing people, as it’s not easy to convince people to join an army. It’s very speculative, and I don’t think one could make judgemental decisions on such.

        What-if scenarios usually don’t play out as planned.

        • Well… briefly again:

          “How can you be so sure?”

          Bose was not a democrat.

          “it’s not easy to convince people to join an army”

          Yes, but the INA was better than a Japanese prison camp.

          Bose was never truly tested in the real difficulties of handling power, Whenever he got any, he stumbled. Nehru on the other hand had power for too long. He didn’t abuse it personally, but you have picked out several areas in which he did less than well.

          You seem to dislike/suspect Nehru much more than I am sceptical that Bose would have been the great saviour.

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