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Byline by M.J.Akbar: The Cotton Revolution
Last week the guardians of the civilised nations gathered in Moscow to commemorate the worst episode of sustained savagery in the history of the world. We do not know the exact figures of dead during the awesome and sweeping victories of a Chengiz Khan or an Amir Taimur between China and eastern Europe, for both victor and vanquished tend to exaggerate, one in pride and the other in anger. The less careful historians take recourse to that useless phrase "countless millions" which is both a tautology and an absurdity. At what point do the millions become "countless"? After twenty? Moreover, the population of the world in the 13th and 14th centuries was not enough to justify such casualties, even though whole cities were wiped out. But the dead of the Second World War, which ended 60 years ago in Europe and a few atom bombs later in Japan, were counted, more or less.
It was entirely appropriate that the political memorial services were being held in Moscow, with the victorious, defeated and bystander nations in attendance. (India was in the curious position of being both a bystander and an activist for reasons we shall address later.) For as much as 70% died in what is known as the eastern front, that vast expanse between Berlin and Moscow. It was on the eastern front and the conflict between Hitler and Stalin that the Second World War was won and lost. Compared to the Soviet Union, Britain and Winston Churchill were secondary players; America was a late but critical arrival and France was hors d’combat — out of the game.
Stalin won the war against Hitler and lost the propaganda against Hollywood. Vladimir Putin, his successor, was making a conscious effort to redress this injustice. A popular impression has been created that the tide began to turn against Hitler with the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944, D-Day. But D-Day only highlights the fact that no one was fighting on the European mainland for most of the war. The British empire retreated from Europe after the humiliations suffered in 1940, symbolised by the escape from Dunkirk and did not return till, bolstered by America, Allied troops crossed into Italy in 1943 and then into France (still with great trepidation) in 1944. The nadir for the British came with the fall of Singapore and the almost contemptuous Japanese victories that brought Emperor Hirohito’s rule up to the Burmese door of India. Japan lost the war when it provoked the United States at Pearl Harbour, and Hitler lost the war when he awakened the Soviet bear. Britain’s contribution to real war came in Africa under Wavell (made Viceroy of India after he was replaced) and Montgomery. More accurately, it was the British empire’s contribution, for empire troops were a critical element of the British armies.
Churchill, in a sense, was more important than Britain. His contribution lay in courage and conviction, and his power lay in rhetoric. It would be foolish to underestimate the importance of such qualities. Defeat begins in the mind and that is where Churchill refused to be defeated. This was in sharp contrast to France, where Marshal Petain, a genuine hero of the first war, compromised with Nazi evil. The figures tell the story: the Soviet Union lost 37 million dead. France does not advertise its casualty figures, although it was as key a battleground as eastern Europe.
America lost around a quarter million, but that is not a true measure of its contribution. Since the war was not fought on American soil it was spared the ravages of civilian agony. This was the true savagery of this horrific war. Nations who called themselves progressive and civilised (vis-à-vis the "barbaric" brown and black people of Asia and Africa) indulged in unprecedented rape and bloodlust against civilians. Women were raped and men killed. Nazi evil acquired an especially racist dimension against Jews and "non-Aryan" blood types such as the gypsies, who were treated as worse than vermin. Wars have always been fought between ruling classes in search of wealth and empire, but extermination of a race has rarely been a war objective. The nearest earlier instance was the Spanish Inquisition which eliminated Muslims and Jews from Spain and Portugal. Muslim kingdoms from Morocco to Ottoman Turkey provided space and shelter not only to the Muslims but also to the Jews who were welcomed as people of the Book and lived in those empires till the 20th century.
The Communists, who understand the relationship between motivation and definition, first ignored the Second World War as a clash between rival capitalist imperialists. Their analysis was right, but their complacency was wrong. Hitler turned towards the big prize, the Soviet Union, after he had occupied and pacified the rest of Europe and swept up to St. Petersburg and Moscow. But when Stalin began to fight back, he defined the war as the Great Patriotic War — a defence of the homeland rather than an offense against Germany. It was a war of liberation from the oppressor.
"Liberation" was a favourite word of the speech-givers in Moscow. But perhaps they should have extended the word into a term in order to complete its meaning. They were talking of self-liberation rather than liberation as a principle. In that sense, it was even a selfish liberation, for to the European powers liberation was never a universal virtue. Britain and France and even Holland and Belgium were the great colonisers in Asia and Africa, happy to brutalise black and brown people as immorally as Germany and Italy and Japan sought to colonise them. It is curious that even the horrors of the Second World War never taught Britain and France that imperialism was wrong and morally unsustainable in a changing world.
France, the weak link of the Allied coalition, and a nation which did very little to deserve the rewards of victory, was particularly insistent that its ravaged colonies be restored to French rule after the Allied victory. This led directly to punishing, wretched wars in Vietnam and Algeria: you put the millions who died directly to France’s account. General Charles de Gaulle, at best a pseudo-hero, was as contemptuous of the colonies of Francophone Africa as any dictator with a heightened sense of self. The Dutch had to be thrown out of Indonesia, which they happily demanded back from the Japanese after having done damn all to defeat Japan or Germany. Belgium, always pernicious in Congo, was eventually kicked out more than a decade later.
The British left India with less grace than they claimed, and might have been more stubborn had not the British electorate delivered a stunning defeat to Churchill in a general election just after he had saved his country from Germany. Churchill had vowed never to preside over the liquidation of the British empire.
Such duplicity (one principle of freedom and independence for Europe and another for the colonies) led inevitably to contradictions. In the same week that Dr Manmohan Singh was in Moscow to applaud the Allies for their victories in Europe, Shyam Benegal released his biopic of Subhas Chandra Bose in which the Indian nationalist’s escape from a British prison in Calcutta and his epic journey to Germany and Japan is a powerful theme. Bose, affectionately called Netaji, or the Leader, had a mature dialogue with Hitler who advised him to fight alongside Japan. Bose agreed, and led 80,000 Indians up to Indian soil before the tide of war changed. It must be stressed that Bose was critical of Nazi genocide against Jews, but he was willing to deal with Hitler as an enemy’s enemy. Does that make Bose a fascist? No. In his estimate, he was negotiating with one enemy to destroy another.
Similar sentiments persuaded Gandhi to keep the Congress out of the British war effort, although Gandhi had absolutely no sympathy for Nazism and was willing to describe Hitler as evil. Gandhi’s position was not quite the paradox it seemed: India would fight beside Britain, but only if permitted to do so as an independent nation. Jawaharlal Nehru took a dimmer view of fascism, and would have joined the war effort, but of course he would never break rank with Gandhi. Jinnah had no qualms about supporting Britain in the darkest days of British despair. The rewards were handsome.
The American President, Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat who was also a democrat, was sympathetic to the colonies and championed the vision of a United Nations (his term) of free countries. But he died before the war ended. His successor Harry Truman wore conventional glasses and remained indifferent to a change that Roosevelt could perceive. And so after the Second World War ended, a genuine world war began, for freedom and liberation of the colonies from imperialists. There was no alliance, but each nation rose in anger and eventually found freedom. During the Cold War many of the former colonies preferred to trust the official anti-imperialism of the Soviet Union to the neo-colonialism of the democratic West, but soon they realised that they had bought into an illusion. As East Europe proved and Afghanistan illustrated, the Soviet Union was an empire-monger as well.
Democracy has become George Bush’s leitmotif. He has all the zeal of a new convert since he discovered democracy only after he failed to discover the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But while zeal has its advantages, it is no substitute for understanding.
There is a basic and critical flaw in Bush’s prescription for the world’s ills. He is right to claim that democracy is the best medicine but he cannot seem to appreciate that democracy is impossible without sovereignty. Democracy is a flower, not a weed. It will bloom only if its conditions are honoured. Strangely, you can have independence without democracy, but you cannot have democracy without independence. The elixir becomes a killer if it is not administered correctly. That is the danger of the American policy in Iraq.
Gandhi understood this perfectly. It is a pity that his name is being erased from the scroll of memory at a time when his ideas have become indispensable. After Moscow Bush went to Georgia where he praised the "Rose Revolution" in which the people of Georgia got rid of dictators through non-violent struggle. This is the new dharma in a post-9/11 world, that even the fight against injustice should be non-violent. Surely the greatest of the non-violent wars was the Cotton Revolution led by Gandhi. It is unlikely that a speechwriter travelling with President Bush will mention the Cotton Revolution. But a speechwriter with Dr Manmohan Singh should have.
The slogan of the French Revolution was "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". The cry of the Cotton Revolution was "Liberty, Sovereignty, Non-violence". The Cotton Revolution did not devour its children as the French one did. Instead of unleashing terror it found space for children of many hues and a multiplicity of views, united not by any plastic ideology but by commitment to a nation.
I know that cotton is also called yarn in America, because it is spun. Trust me, President Bush: Gandhi spun a loom around the British empire, but his doctorate was not in spin. Raise a cheer to the Cotton Revolution!