Punjab under martial law during the Non-Cooperation Movement
On 5 October 1920, Mian Fazl-i-Husain, a rising star of Punjab politics and member of both Muslim League and Congress, called an urgent meeting of his political colleagues to his Lahore house. His objective was to convince them to reject Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement and the League’s Khilafat Movement, both of which were reaching fever-pitch at the time. Such unconstitutional agitation would only lead to lawlessness, he argued. Common masses were incapable of sticking to the idea of non-violence; eventually, blood will be spilled. But even before the meeting started, he knew that he was in a minority. Gandhi’s appeal of populist politics was simply too irresistible for Punjabi politicians to ignore. Defeated, Fazl-i-Husain tendered his resignation from both Congress and the League. In Rohtak, a similar story was playing out at the time. Chaudhary Chhotu Ram, a Jat peasant leader, thought Non-Cooperation Movement was dangerous and futile. Gandhi’s call for not paying taxes would only lead to confiscation of land from poor farmers, driving them further into the hole of poverty. Chhotu Ram’s arguments were shouted down, leading him to leave Congress as well.
As it turned out, loss of these two men was more than Congress could afford. Together, they went on to form the formidable Unionist Party, which dominated Punjab politics for the next two decades. Neither Congress nor Muslim League were be able to gain a foothold in the province when faced against the power of the Unionists. By late 1930s, the Unionists emerged as the most powerful political party in India which was truly built on a united Hindu-Muslim constituency. Yet, in the end, the Unionists, unable to adapt to the increasingly polarized political landscape of India, went the way of the dinosaurs. Forces of communalism, which had engulfed the nation by mid-1940s, swallowed the party whole, until it became a footnote in history. Continue reading →
At the end of his term in 1936, Lord Willingdon, the departing Viceroy of India, could look back in satisfaction. Five years ago, when he had arrived, the country was in disarray. In the throes of the Great Depression, discontent amongst the public was widespread. Congress’s Civil Disobedience campaign was proving to be successful, having paralyzed the British administration. Worse, Willingdon’s predecessor, Lord Irwin, had tried to buy off the movement by negotiating one-on-one with Mahatma Gandhi, leading to the famous Gandhi-Irwin Pact. In Willingdon’s book, this was a grave mistake, which elevated Congress to a level equivalent to the British government.
During his tenure, Willingdon tried to put things back on track. He crushed the Civil Disobedience campaign, rounding up thousands of Congressmen and outlawing most of Congress organizations. By 1933, the campaign had to be suspended due to lack of enthusiasm. Willingdon never granted Gandhi a one-on-one audience and insisted that Congress was just one of many political voices in India. Over Congress’ vehement protests, he introduced a new constitution to govern India in 1935. All in all, by the time of his departure, things were looking up. Congress seemed to be in disarray and British officials felt confident that the party will soon split because of the infighting between the Gandhians and the Socialists. The upcoming elections of 1937, in which they expected Congress to perform poorly, would prove for once and for all that the party could not claim to speak for the entire country. Willingdon could have scarcely believed that only months after his departure, Congress would emerge united and stronger than ever before. And it would do this by using the instrument he had left behind – the 1937 elections. Continue reading →
Gandhi and Sir Stafford Cripps at the steps of Birla House after a crucial meeting in 1942
From the late 1920s onwards, whenever Mahatma Gandhi visited New Delhi, he was usually found at the house of business tycoon Ghanshyam Das Birla. Some of the most important political decisions of this period were taken in this house. On 30 January 1948, Gandhi was gunned down in its garden. Today, this building is known as Gandhi Smriti, a memorial dedicated to Bapu. On the surface, the image of world’s most famous “half-naked fakir” living under the same roof as one of India’s richest men appears strange, if not an outright contradiction. In fact, the friendship between Birla and Gandhi symbolized the powerful alliance between big Indian businesses and the Congress party, which was forged in the mid-1930s. From this point onwards, India’s industrial magnates began to play an important role in the country’s Independence Movement, and eventually ended up influencing the course of history. Continue reading →
Propaganda poster showing the German Socialist Party crushing Nazis (before Hitler came to power)
By the early 1930s, the ideological battle between capitalism and socialism had been enveloping the entire globe. Rise of Hitler in Germany, Stalin’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union, victory of Social Democrats in Sweden, collapse of the Liberal party in Great Britain, the Spanish Civil War, the Infamous Decade of Argentina, the 1931 Communist revolt in Indo-China, the 1935 rebellion in Iran, the Long March in China and birth of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – in their own ways, all of these were various fronts of the ongoing global war between ideas of the Left and the Right. Two factors – success of the Soviet Union and the failure of capitalism during the Great Depression – had thrown the world into an existential crisis. Confused, the humanity was struggling to figure out whether its salvation lay in the promised socialist utopia or the capitalist jungle.
Inevitably, the war came to India as well. By 1934, Congress was facing a brewing insurgency which threatened to split the party into two. On one side stood Congress’s Right Wing led by the party boss Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. On the other were the young radicals like Jayaprakash Narain and PD Tandon, who sought to carry out a coup within the party and establish hegemony of the socialists. On one side was decades of experience in political infighting, and on the other, firebrand radicalism of the youth. Many feared that an open civil war might break out within the party at the time when it was at its weakest and the British government was looking for any way to break it into pieces. But they were underestimating one man who was watching all of this from afar. Mahatma Gandhi was about to give everyone a master class in political maneuvering. Without stepping in himself, he was about to defuse this ticking bomb. Continue reading →
On Tuesday, 29 October 1929, the New York Stock Exchange opened under a cloud of fear. The market had been plummeting for the last five days and the brokers sensed that the worst was yet to come. They were not wrong. As the story goes, the opening bell of the exchange was never heard because the shouts of “Sell! Sell! Sell!” drowned it out. Within first thirty minutes, US$ 2 million evaporated into thin air and the slide continued. Phone lines were clogged and telegram service exhausted. By the end of the day, the market had lost US$ 14 billion – about 180 billion in today’s dollars. The ticker tape that recorded transactions ran for 15,000 miles! This was “Black Tuesday”, the beginning of the Great Depression, the longest, the deepest and the most widespread economic depression of the 20th Century. It would take the world twelve years to recover from it.
The news of “Black Tuesday” reached India only two days later. Even then, it wasn’t taken too seriously. The Times of India printed the story on its page 10. After all, how much effect could the Wall Street have on streets of Agra or Madras? As it turns out, a lot. The Great Depression ended up plunging Indian peasantry into years of misery and indebtedness. The economic distress was further exacerbated by sheer greed and mismanagement of the colonial government. Ironically, the same governmental greed also ended up unwittingly helping the nascent Indian industry, which emerged from the depression stronger than ever before. Continue reading →
Jinnah, even as a young man, was famous for never wearing a silk tie twice
On 4 October 1930, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was aboard a ship called Viceroy of India, setting sail from Bombay to London, ostensibly to participate in a political conference being called by King George V. However, unbeknownst to even the ones closest to him, Jinnah did not plan on returning to India for a long time, possibly forever. There simply seemed nothing to come back to in India. His wife Ruttie Jinnah, the love of his life, had died last year. The same could be said for his political career. While fifteen years ago, Jinnah was one of the fastest rising politicians in the country, now he was a marginalized figure with little political power or following. Despite all his brilliance and talent, the political climate of India seemed to have become too petty and self-destructive for him to succeed. So, instead, he had decided to embark on a new chapter of his life at the age of fifty-three by moving his practice to London and seeking a seat in the British Parliament. By the next year, his passport would list England rather than India as his place of residence. For the most part, Jinnah and India seemed finished with each other.
The idea that Jinnah would not only return to India but be at the helm of its second biggest political party by the end of the decade would have sounded farfetched at the time. The prediction that this barrister would singlehandedly altered the course of South Asian and world history by the end of the next decade, would have sounded down right impossible. It would be one of the greatest stories of comebacks in Indian politics. Aboard Viceroy of India, even Jinnah couldn’t foresee what the future held in store for him. Continue reading →
On 29 January 1939, as Subhas Chandra Bose sipped tea at a party in Calcutta celebrating the wedding of his eldest nephew, his mind was elsewhere. As the Bose family engaged in festivities, votes were being counted across the country for the election of Congress Party’s Presidency. For Bose, it was a make or break moment. He had positioned himself as a challenger to the party establishment and gone against some very powerful people. The electoral contest had been bitter, with dirty tricks and harsh invectives being hurled by both sides. By the day of the election, it had become a nail-biter. As early trends poured in, Bose allowed himself to relax. Province after province began to turn his way – Bengal, United Provinces, Assam and a sweep of the South. To those who called in to congratulate, he happily declared, “we are winning”.
Two thousand kilometers away, on the other coast of India, Mahatma Gandhi was meeting with peasants of Bardoli, Gujarat, as election results trickled in. This frail-looking man dressed only in loin cloth was the most powerful politician in India. For the last two decades, he had single-handedly picked men to run the Congress Party. Although his modesty would have never allowed him to admit it, often a mere nod from Gandhi had been enough for leaders to become Party Presidents unopposed. Now, however, it seemed that the unchallenged hegemony of Bapu was coming to an end. His name did not appear on the ballot, but everyone had known that this election was between Bose and him. And the people wanted Bose. By the end of the day, Bose had won the election with 1,580 votes against his opponent’s 1,375. There are no records of this, but one can easily imagine Gandhi going about his daily chores after hearing the news, not showing any signs of distress. Yet it is likely that he knew that this battle was far from over. In fact, it was just beginning. Continue reading →
I am pleased to announce the launch of a project that I have been working on for the last couple of months: Kingmaker, a television show on Indian political history, written by me and produced by the very talented Rishi Sinha. The show chronicles sagas of men and women jostling to get to the highest office in the land – the post of Indian Prime Minister- how they got there and how they stayed there. This show is about political struggles and palace intrigues, persons who tried to attain power and others who paved the way for them.
We began our story in the 1960s, with the first power struggle of Independent India – ascent of Lal Bahadur Shastri to the throne. We plan to end it with the arrival of the UPA Government in 2004. All in all, the show will run for ten episodes, covering the political backstory of every prime minister since Shastri.
The show is on a new Hindi news channel called Focus News on Friday nights at 9:00 pm and Saturday nights at 7:00 pm. You can watch one of the episodes right here:
This is the second post of a four-part series on India-Pakistan 1971 War. First part can be read here
Richard Nixon (left) and Henry Kissinger, two most controversial figures of the 1970s
Six days after Pakistan Army began massacring its own people, a meeting on the East Pakistan Crisis was held in the White House Situation Room. It was chaired by Henry Kissinger, the US National Security Adviser and President Richard Nixon’s right-hand man when it came to the American foreign policy. Kissinger, a former Harvard academic, was brilliant, ruthless and extremely powerful. Perhaps the most controversial figure in the American foreign policy of the time, he was an ardent worshipper of realpolitik in foreign policy, which often translated to celebrating cold-blooded calculations.
On this day, the calculation was about East Pakistan and Yahya Khan. A week into the crisis, Kissinger and his boss, Nixon, had already made up their mind to stay out. Despite the mounting reports of a bloodbath coming in from their own consulate in Dacca, the mood in White House was to let Yahya do what he wanted. In the meeting, Kissinger’s main concern was whether Pakistan Army could actually succeed or not. As the meeting progressed, Kissinger asked about the people killed in Dacca University. “Did they kill Professor Razak? He was one of my students.” He was informed by a CIA official that Razak probably had been killed. Kissinger, apparently referring to the previous rulers of South Asia, replied, “They didn’t dominate 400 million Indians all those years by being gentle.”
This detached statement perfectly represented the American attitude towards the East Pakistan genocide. And it was about to get worse. Within a month, US will shed its disinterested neutrality and will actively begin aiding Pakistan in the massacre. Why? Because Nixon and Kissinger were secretly working on a project to change the world.
This is the first post of a four-part series on India-Pakistan 1971 War. The second part is available here
Yahya Khan: The man responsible for the genocide
On the night of 31 March 1971, two men huddled under a small culvert somewhere on the India-East Pakistan border. A week ago these men – Tajuddin Ahmad and Amirul Islam – were riding the greatest high of their lives, a landslide victory in the Pakistani elections. And now they were hunted men, escaping from their own country like criminals. Their boss – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – was already in jail and the Pakistani Army was rounding up thousands of their supporters as of that moment. As the morning came, Ahmad and Islam, cold, hungry and scared for their lives, heard the familiar footsteps of army boots. Soldiers in green uniforms began to appear around them. Islam breathed a sigh of relief. For these were Indian soldiers, here to give them refuge.
It was still hard to see, but the entry of these two men into India was going to set in motion a chain of events leading to perhaps the most significant war in South Asia since the Second World War.
The crisis that had brought Ahmad and Islam to India had its roots in the end of the British Raj. Independence of India and its consequent partition into two countries had left resultant Pakistan as a geographical anomaly unique in the world. Two wings of the nation – West and East Pakistan – were not just separated by a thousand miles of a hostile India, but also by ethnicities and languages. While the west was dominated by Urdu-speaking Punjabis, the east was almost entirely made up of ethnic Bengalis. Further, accidents of history had ensured that the West Pakistan enjoy a certain political dominance over the East. Invariably, this had led to a build-up of resentment that the Bengalis had nursed for decades. The relationship between the two parts of the country was always rocky and periodically worsened over issues like national language. Enter an alcoholic dictator – General Yahya Khan.