Monday, December 04, 2006

A London Diary

Byline by M J Akbar: A London Diary

The red edge of dawn woke me up at 15,000 feet above Zurich. We had risen through a floor of thick, dark grey cloud that was both still and undulating, a sky-sea of waves at 10,000 feet. To my left an astonishing architecture of Alps rose above this sea, the top of the highest peaks jagged, rough-cut, utterly beautiful skyscrapers, slowly beginning to absorb into their pristine white the warm colours of a sun emerging out of a high horizon to start another day. Every horizon is relative to the eye. The blood red softened, and the Alps took on a pastel hue before suddenly becoming part of the dazzle of sunlight. Those five minutes of nature’s magic will last a lifetime in memory.

It was a relief to land in London and discover that this month’s panic about sudden death had nothing to do with the circumcised. Instead the Cold War was back in business, on-screen and off-screen. The latest James Bond is a spectacular smash in Casino Royale and on the front pages of the newspapers is a story about a space-age murder in a sushi bar that Ian Fleming might have had difficulty inventing. On 1 November an ex-KGB spy — you can always get asylum in Britain if you claim to be "ex" — called Alexander Litvinenko had lunch in Piccadilly with Mario Scaramella, an Italian "security consultant," which is a pompous term for the same profession. The Russian ate fish, the Italian, more circumspect, drank only water. Both ingested a radioactive isotope called Polonium 210, derivable from radium and apparently available on the Internet. But you have to be rich if you want to kill ex-KGB spies. Less than a pinhead is needed to destroy the cells in your liver, kidney and bone marrow, but the Russian had enough to kill him a hundred times. The cost of his dose has been estimated at over 20 million pounds. The Italian is also contaminated, but not lethally. Among other things the Italian is said to believe that his Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, is or was a KGB agent. I don’t know who did it, but every columnist in Britain thinks it is the current version of the KGB which is poisoning Vladimir’s enemies everywhere.

I am here as a guest of the Guardian and the British Museum to participate in a discussion on Faith, nation, culture: What Bengal’s history tells us about living with multiple identities. There is a serious level of eminence on the podium: Amartya Sen, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum since August 2002, Joya Chatterji, the fine historian now teaching international history at LSE and the young and very bright Tufyal Choudhury, who lectures in international human rights law at Durham. In the chair was Jon Snow, who personifies Channel 4 news. Amartya Sen, a great liberal in the finest traditions of his region, led the discussions with a well-considered and even impassioned analysis of the great virtues of Bengali humanism. Not everyone was equally sanguine about Bengal’s past, although its present under the secular Marxists has done a great deal to erase memories. Without trying too hard to be contrarian, I did suggest that Bengali Muslims, now in Bangladesh, were victims of a double irony. Bengali Hindus did not consider them Bengali enough, and other Muslims did not think them Muslim enough. At the nodal moments of history, it was all Bhadralok versus Chotolok and Ashraf versus Atrap. Perceptions of class proved more relevant than faith or culture. The Muslim ashraf came in 1204 but conversion in eastern Bengal was not by the sword. The Mughals actually forbade forced conversions when they conquered Bengal during Akbar’s time. East Bengal became Muslim because of the turn of a river: the Ganga migrated east and opened up forest lands for cultivation with her silt. That is a story that requires more space than a column. But this much is relevant and can be said here. The three great political formations of the last two centuries were the province of Bengal in the British empire, India and Pakistan. None of the three could survive the explosive overlap between culture, faith, identity and the dream of power that partitioned Bengal, India and Pakistan. The Bengali Muslim was censured as a traitor thrice, in 1905, in 1847 and 1971; but the plain fact is that all three were unable to contain the tensions of the social history of one people: Bengalis.

The idea of India defeated the British empire. The idea of Pakistan defeated India. The idea of Bangladesh defeated Pakistan. I am delighted that all three ideas, or idealisms, won their geography and independence, otherwise reality would never have been able to bear the burden of fantasy. Bangladeshis now cannot blame Pakistanis; Pakistanis can’t blame Indians; and Indians, thank God, can’t blame the British for the fact that 500 million of us still sleep each night with stomachs that are only half-fed or worse.

Apology, or even "deep sorrow", about the past is a limited virtue, particularly when there is so much more to apologise for in the present. Even sincerity about the sins of your ancestors is only a variable balm. Tony Blair has set the mood for the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slave trade in Britain (doubtless an occasion for much self-congratulation next year) with an expression of "deep sorrow" about this "shameful" past. Not quite an apology, which the right wing press is fiercely resisting, saying that slavery should be considered within the context of its times. That is why Blair added, "It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at that time". As a descendant of the first slave trader shrewdly told the Guardian, no one uses the excuse of contemporary mores to justify Hitler’s barbaric atrocities. Britain was responsible for carting around 2.5 million slaves in its trade ships, second only to Portugal. That the City should participate in profiteering out of human misery seems more understandable than the fact that the Church of England used slaves on its Caribbean sugar plantations and opposed abolition in Parliament. (The Church apologised earlier this year.) It needs to be stressed that there was nothing specifically Christian about this atrocity: Muslim Arab traders were equally guilty, and someone from there should consider an apology as well.

However, I would urge Blair and Britain to postpone the 200th anniversary by about ninety years to 2115. That would mark the genuine end of the slave trade by Britain. How? The Empire still needed slave labour for its sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations in remote, far-flung corners of the world. When it could not ravage Africa by law, it simply turned to its existing brown colonies. The new slaves were not called slaves; they were described as "indentured labour". Slavery by any other name still stinks. And so Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were shanghaied off across the "seven seas" to West Indies, Mauritius, Fiji. Where do you think a quarter of the present West Indies cricket team comes from, whether Hindu (Chanderpaul) or Muslim (Dave Mohammed)? Or where Mauritius’ Prime Ministers come from. India is going to get a base in the Indian Ocean on one of the Mauritian islands at least partly because of bonds that make Bhojpuri an integral part of the patois that is spoken in Mauritius.

When Blair’s successor in 2115 issues his semi-apology, he should thank a man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The abolition of indentured labour was Gandhi’s first notable success against the British Empire.

In the meantime, could Tony Blair please apologise for Iraq?

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