Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Last Trumpet

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar : The Last Trumpet

If Dr Manmohan Singh were mindless, one wouldn’t mind so much. The troubling part is that Dr Singh has a keen mind honed by a passion for reading. It is possible though that ever since he was catapulted from chiaroscuro to the national limelight in 1991, his primary reading has become files. Bureaucrats have a very simple methodology when they want to consume a minister’s time: they feed the minister with his passion. Since Dr Manmohan Singh is fond of reading, I am ready to wager a fair bit that the bureaucrats around him are making sure that he has enough files to read from waking-hour to goodnight-collapse.

The Prime Minister has been making some long-haul flights of late, a necessary part of his cumbrous duties in running the affairs of a virtual superpower. Last week he was in Scotland, with a place of honour in the waiting room of one of the most exclusive and glittering clubs, code-named G8.

The fact that the Prime Minister of China, Wen Jiabao, was also present in that resplendent waiting room added to the lustre. British hospitality at Gleneagles, the scene of the meeting, was at its finest. According to reliable reports, the British spent a hundred million pounds on the conference. This however is less impressive than the fact that France’s combative President, Jacques Chirac, who is known to sniff so loudly at the mention of British food that it can be heard across the channel, stood up after a meal and sent his personal congratulations to the chef.

Since academics is much higher on Dr Singh’s wish-list than food, the British were wise to feed him with what he wanted, an honorary degree from Oxford, the university that gave our Prime Minister a much-deserved degree in economics. Dr Singh was forthright. "I am truly overwhelmed," he told Oxford, adding, "…nothing can be more valuable or precious than receiving an honorary degree from one’s own alma mater… This is a day I will truly cherish". It was in such an expansive mood that Dr Singh remarked, in his speech, that "even at the height of our campaign for freedom from colonial rule, we did not entirely reject the British claim to good governance".

This week Prime Minister Singh takes an even longer flight, to Washington, where, when he rises to address the august Senate of the United States, he will warm the cockles of George Bush’s heart. Within a fortnight, Dr Singh will find a place in the hearts of both men who rule the world, and that is no small achievement. Some of the time on the long flight to America will doubtless go into polishing the speech, but I hope Dr Singh gets a chance to read some books apart from speeches and files.

The first book I would put on his table is Poverty and Famine, by a fellow-Indian, a fellow-economist, and a fellow-compatriot from Oxbridge, Dr Amartya Sen.

Dr Singh mentioned many names of those who had enriched the Indo-British relationship, men from public life, from academics (Dr S. Radhakrishnan and Dr Bimal Krishna Matilal) and literature. Even Salman Rushdie got a look-in. It is possible that Dr Singh might want to follow up this verbal honour by lifting the ban on Rushdie’s controversial book, The Satanic Verses. The Prime Minister of India did not mention Dr Amartya Sen, although the latter has received the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on hunger, and his conviction that nature has much less to do with famine than man. There could be a sensible reason for this omission. Dr Sen has been master of Trinity College in Cambridge, and it is well known that any positive reference to a Cambridge man is a scandal in Oxford. Be that as it may, even a quick glance at Dr Sen’s book would have led Dr Singh to Chapter 6, on The Great Bengal Famine.

In the last years of the British Raj, resplendent as it was with good governance, between 3.5 and 3.8 million Bengalis died of famine during the period 1942 to 1945, of which most died between March 1943 to November 1943. This total does not include the normal mortality rate of any population. I would suggest you read the figures again. Nearly four million Bengalis died in less than three years in the most wretched, painful and inhuman manner possible. Dr Sen shows that there was no major grain shortage in Bengal in 1943, despite a cyclone that affected the aman crop and the end of rice imports from Burma due to war. Even the official famine enquiry commission, whose conclusions were sometimes at variance with facts, admitted that the deficit in food supply was only about six per cent. There is no space to go into the details of this extraordinary tragedy, but I offer a few sentences from Dr Sen’s book in order to whet the appetite of the Prime Minister for facts. Dr Sen says, "no matter how a famine is caused, methods of breaking it call for a large supply of food in the public distribution system". Not very difficult to understand. But what did the good-governance Raj do?

"One curious aspect of the Bengal famine was that it was never officially ‘declared’ as a famine, which would have brought in an obligation to organise work programmes and relief operations specified by the ‘Famine Code’ dating to 1883; Sir T. Rutherford, the Governor of Bengal, explained to the Viceroy: ‘The Famine Code has not been applied as we simple have not the food to give the prescribed ration’."

Later, the government admitted, on the record, that "the food shortages were mainly due to hoarding". Of course Indians were involved in hoarding, but surely the good governance of the British could have sorted what was an administrative matter.

The British inaction was more mala fide than that. "As it happens, even the request for permission to import 600,000 tons of wheat was turned down in London on 16 January (1943, the year of the worst deaths), only a small part of it being met." On the other hand, and please underline this heavily, "On 26 January (1943), the Viceroy wrote to the Secretary of State for India: ‘Mindful of our difficulties about food I told him (the Premier of Bengal [Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy]) that he simply must produce some more rice out of Bengal for Ceylon even if Bengal itself was short! He was by no means unsympathetic, and it is possible that I may in the result screw a little out of them’."

You screwed a lot out of us, Viceroy! Nearly four million Bengalis were to die of starvation and the good-governance Raj was exporting rice from Bengal to Ceylon!

I do not blame the British for the sins of India. That is stupid. India fell to the British because it had decayed and, as Robert Clive said, was ready for conquest with but a few thousand troops. Clive may have been exaggerating but not by much. But Britain was an imperial power, and operated on the logic of self-interest rather than Indian interest. If there was good government in many aspects, it was only to reinforce British rule, not to save Indians from their misery.

A second book for the Prime Minister’s reading list: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy, a historian at Yale. It was pertinent of Dr Singh to mention the work of the Cambridge historian Angus Maddison who showed that India’s share of world income was 22.6% in 1700, almost equal to Europe, and collapsed to 3.8% by 1952. As an economist, Dr Singh should also have answered the question, why. Let me offer, within this limited space, another statistic, this time from Kennedy. In 1750 India had 24.5% of the world manufacturing output and Britain had 1.9%. In 1900 Britain had 18.5% and India had 1.7%. While there was definitely more than one reason for the reversal, may I suggest that colonialism had something to do with this?

A third book, Clive: The Life and Death of a British Emperor. For only one quote. When Clive entered Murshidabad after victory at Plassey, he noted that "The city of Murshidabad is as extensive, populous and rich as the city of London with this difference, that there are individuals in the first possessing infinitely greater property than any in the last city."

No one conquers a poor country, Prime Minister.

- M.J.Akbar


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