BBC BLOGS - Soutik Biswas's India

Archives for October 2009

Faith and pelf

Soutik Biswas | 15:11 UK time, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

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Indian holy man"It is a mistake to regard modernity as something which is sounding the death knell of India's highly diverse religions," says William Dalrymple, as the din of traffic floats into the lawns of a hotel in downtown Delhi where we are sitting.

The 44-year-old historian-travel writer is promoting his new book Nine Lives, an Indian Canterbury Tales of sorts, where he tells the stories of the lives of nine ordinary people across the country - and in one case, across the border in Pakistan - to explore the power of the sacred in modern India.

"Faith is not dying in India even as people become more materialist," he says. I couldn't agree more: faith in India is changing and mutating. We are witnessing the rise and rise of cults, and a thriving, cosy co-existence of local deities with the big, pan-Indian ones.
Divine enterprise is also flourishing - religion is big business.

Some of the stories in Nine Lives - presented largely in reported speech - are stunning examples of how the quotidian makes for the most engaging material - an austere Jain monk who starves herself to death, a Buddhist monk who joins the Indian army to fight the Chinese and ends up fighting the Pakistanis, a tantric who is a fan of Test match cricket, a low-paid prison warden who plays God for two months a year. Some of the early story drafts date back six years; and Dalrymple says he whittled it down to "nine lives, nine moral universes" from a long list of 23 stories.

Some years ago, Mark Tully worried about "spiritual pollution" due to the unbridled rise of materialism in India. I thought Tully was worrying too much. Even Dalrymple wonders in Nine Lives: "Does India offer any sort of real spiritual alternative to materialism, or is it now just another fast-developing satrap of the wider capitalist world?" I lob the question back to him.

"There has always been materialism in India," he says. "And one of the reasons there have been so many great renouncers in the country was because they were reacting, in part, against the excesses of materialism". Dalrymple says that when he is quizzed by inquisitive readers on his book tours abroad about materialism in India, he says: "My Punjabi neighbours in Delhi are some of the most brutally material people I have ever seen in my life!" Tantric man in India

Dalrymple is correct. In a hierarchical and class conscious society like India, open display of wealth and a desire to hoard acquisitions has existed since time immemorial. Only the rich could afford the excesses once upon a time. Now as the middle class reaps the gains of liberalisation, it flaunts its riches too. The poor aspire equally. So when their representative, a poor, untouchable politician gains power, she splurges on birthday parties and jewels, builds her statues and shows off her new-found wealth. Her dirt-poor supporters say her ostentation inspires them to aspire for a better life. How much more materialistic can a people be?

A quarter-of-a-century's experience of travelling and living in India and writing on it has given Dalrymple the opportunity to avoid the "western gaze" and offer a deeper perspective of things. So he sets out, as he writes, to explore how religion and faith are coping with a fast-changing India. The non-fiction short stories, he hopes, will "have avoided many of the clichés about 'Mystic India' that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion".

I ask him about the "western gaze" that leads to a lot of such writing. Dalrymple says that by allowing his subjects to talk about themselves in these stories, he is trying to "reduce the danger of my own presence on the material". It works to a large extent and is reminiscent of the Naipaulean approach to non-fiction. "I want to be an insider and outsider," he says. He succeeds here as well, with a sort of semi-detached approach to the pithy narratives. The only thing that I am not sure about is whether the stories offer very powerful examples of how faith is trying to adapt to a fast-changing society.

An idol maker's son wants to study computer engineering. The prison warder who plays God worries whether his children will carry on the family tradition. A singer of epics bemoans that the younger people in his village are hooked to TV and prefer abridged versions of his work on CDs. The tantric at a cremation ground is hooked to Test match cricket. None of this is really unexceptional and entirely unexpected. None of them convey a sense of any intense battle between religion and modernity. So are there no such battles at all? I suspect a few are taking place - and is reflected in the way, say, a muddled Hindu nationalist party like BJP is fast losing ground in India. I hope Dalrymple will shine a light on some such tales one day.

Nine Lives is published by Bloomsbury


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An engrossing spy history

Soutik Biswas | 17:41 UK time, Monday, 12 October 2009

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Christopher AndrewHistorians working on India face formidable challenges. Many of our archives are not up to the mark. There is almost an Orwellian consensus in government not to declassify information about key events.


This is not the case for historians working in more advanced democracies. Christopher Andrew, a leading British historian of intelligence, is known in India for his book The Mitrokhin Archives, which blew the lid off the KGB's penetration in Indian politics and government during the Cold War. His new book The Defence of The Realm, a magisterial authorised history of Britain's fabled security service MI5, also has fascinating insights into the service's relationship with Indian intelligence and how the bond weakened as India moved closer to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Professor Andrew had virtually unrestricted access to 400,000 security service files and there is much in his new book to excite Indian readers: an intelligence entente of sorts between India and Britain, a mutual distrust of a maverick left-leaning diplomat and friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, and much later, the unearthing of a plot to kill former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi during a visit to London.

What I found most interesting is the cosy relationship which India established with British intelligence after independence.

"India set an important pattern after the second war for MI5's relation with newly independent states," Professor Andrew told me. "It is very little known that Nehru agreed that an MI5 officer should remain in India after independence. His relations with MI5 were frequently closer than with the Nehru government."

The relationship was forged very early in the day - according to declassified documents quoted in the book. MI5 got a security liaison officer to be based in Delhi after the end of British rule. The secret agreement was agreed with the Nehru-led government in March 1947, a good five months before independence.

Soon enough, there appeared to be a convergence of interests between the newly-independent nation and its former rulers when it came to intelligence assessments. MI5 Deputy Director General Guy Liddell and TG Sanjevi, the first head of India's intelligence agency, which was curiously called Delhi Intelligence Bureau (DIB), were "united in their deep distrust of the first Indian high commissioner in London, VK Krishna Menon, the Congress party's leading left-leaning firebrand," writes Professor Andrew.VK Krishna Menon

Menon, an old friend of Nehru's, was a flawed man of protean talents: he studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), was the first editor at Pelican Books, Penguin's famous non-fiction imprint, and somebody with whom Nehru could discuss, according to a diplomat who knew both the men well, "Marx and Mill, Dickens and Dostoevsky." He is also remembered for a record-busting eight-hour-long speech on Kashmir at the United Nations, and as a federal defence minister who presided over the Indian rout in the hands of China during the 1962 war.

"We are doing what we could to get rid of Krishna Menon," Liddle wrote in his diary, about a man who, in Professor Andrew's words, had a "passionate loathing for the British Raj which independence did little to abate". How it wanted to "get rid" of the Communist-loving high commissioner is not clear. "The attempt failed," writes Prof Andrew.

The love affair between the DIB and the security service continued unabated: the two shared intelligence on "Communist subversion" freely, and the Indians, according to Professor Andrew, even asked for an experienced counter-espionage officer to visit the DIB headquarters and for help in training transcribers.

Most of the service's special liaison people appointed to Delhi were "gregarious people, fond of India and good at getting on with both the DIB and their high commission colleagues," writes Professor Andrew. Even a chill in Indo-British diplomatic relations after the Anglo-French invasion of Suez which Nehru roundly condemned "had little impact on collaboration between the DIB and MI5."

But one special liaison officer, John Allen, was prescient when he feared that "with so many unfavourable winds blowing between India and Britain, if Nehru realised how close collaboration between the DIB and MI5 was, he would probably forbid much of it."

But that was not to be.

"Nehru, however, either never discovered how close the relationship was or - less probably - did discover and took no action," writes Professor Andrew.

As the 1960s arrived, the relationship evidently grew feebler. There was mounting frustration inside MI5 over how it was losing out to the Soviets as India became a key ally of the Soviet Union. "In the view of the security service," writes Professor Andrew, "the DIB was increasingly unequal to coping with the Soviet intelligence presence in India, greater than in any other country in the developing world." Rajiv Gandhi in 1985

In February 1964, a senior MI5 officer reported that the Russians were "having almost a free run for their money both in the espionage and subversive fields" in New Delhi.

Two decades later, the service was taking note of the "increasing danger" of Sikh extremism in the UK. It had, Professor Andrew writes, become a major threat during the summer and autumn of 1984. The invasion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by Indian troops to put down a separatist rebellion and the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 triggered off by the killing of premier Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards had produced an upsurge of support within the Sikh community for the creation of an independent Sikh state of Khalistan in India.

Prof Andrew reveals "plots" to kill prime minister Rajiv Gandhi during a state visit to Britain in October 1985 were unearthed by MI5. "Good intelligence, combined with the arrest of Sikh and Kashmiri extremists, was believed to have frustrated plots to attack Rajiv Gandhi during the state visit," Professor Andrew writes.

It is for all this and more that we owe Professor Andrew some gratitude. He will be possibly surprised to know that India's prime minister's office alone sits atop some 28,000 files which it resolutely refuses to declassify. Two years ago, it declassified 37 files dating back to 1947, up from a single file in 2005. It is a wonder that history gets written at all in India.

What's love got to do with it?

Soutik Biswas | 05:55 UK time, Wednesday, 7 October 2009

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Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal NehruThere are no full stops in India. A few months ago a largely insipid book by a Hindu right-wing politician offering faint praise of Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, led to the expulsion of the writer from India's main opposition party. The nation erupted in an orgy of debate over whether Jinnah was the villain of the partition of India.

Now India's chatterati, again egged on by a hysterical section of the media, is deliberating ad nauseum on the alleged affair between India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten.

The provocation for this latest gabfest over India's most famous love affair is the Indian government's Orwellian-sounding Information and Broadcasting Ministry throwing a spanner into the works for a planned British film on Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, based on the book, Indian Summer, by British historian Alex Von Tunzelmann.

The killjoy mandarins at the ministry who vetted the script - presumably because the film had to be shot in India - apparently have a few grouses.

Firstly, the film is not based on "recorded facts" - whatever that means in native bureaucratese and whose facts are they anyway - and so it should be declared a work of fiction. Also no scenes of physical intimacy between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten are allowed, no gestures or actions or words of love or affection between the two.

The damning word "love" has to be excised from six dialogues in the film. No intimacy and sex please, we are Indians. Joe Wright, the hapless director, is now free to film a sterile dirge on one of the most interesting relationships in India's history. (One report says the film has been shelved for the moment.)

Now let's clear the air on the book on which the film is based. Tunzelmann's book is a first class, scholarly account of the Independence and the partition of India.

Only 31 pages before the end of her book, Tunzelmann delves into the relationship between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. She paints a picture of a deep and complex affinity bound by fondness and a strong sense of mutual respect and concern. The two, says the historian, wrote "intimate letters" to each other until the end. Nehru sent her presents - sugar from United States when it was rationed in Britain, cigarettes from Egypt, ferns from Sikkim, a book of erotic photographs from Orissa's famous sun temple.
Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru

The book of photographs evoked a stirring response. Lady Mountbatten wrote to Nehru that she found the photographs of the sculptures fascinating. "I am not interested in sex as sex," she wrote. "There must be much more to it, beauty of spirit and form and its conception. But I think you and I are in the minority. Yet another treasured bond." The two also spend a lot of time with each other - there is even a scene of the two in embrace as a governor's son opens the door of the prime minister's suite in an Indian hill station in what is Tunzelmann's only concession to the sensational, as far as I can remember.

There was a whiff of scandal about the relationship in those less prurient times. "Break open Nehru's heart and you will find Lady Mountbatten written on it", an anti-Nehru party in Delhi purred. The two ignored the chatter. "I have come to the conclusion that it is best to ignore them as any argument about them feeds them or at any rate draws people's attention to them," Nehru wrote, interestingly, to Lord Mountbatten.

In fact, Tunzelmann writes that before undergoing a risky surgery in 1952, Edwina entrusted her love letters from Nehru in a sealed envelope to her husband. "..they are a mixture of typical Jawaha (sic) letters..some of them have no 'personal' remarks at all. Others are love letters in a sense, spiritual - which exists between us. J has obviously meant a very great deal in my life in these last years and I think I in his. Our meetings have been been rare and always fleeting but I think I understand him, and perhaps he me, as well as any human beings can ever understand each other," she wrote movingly about the correspondence. Tunzelmann writes "it was an odd sort of confession, and not an apology."

Edwina recovered after the surgery, and her husband opened the envelope. He later told her that he did not feel jealous about her relationship though "faintly hurt" at times when "you didn't take me into confidence right away."

That the two were more than fond of each other is fairly clear from the correspondence. Even Pamela Mountbatten Hicks, daughter of the last viceroy, has said in the past that she believed that her mother and Nehru were in love. A relative of Mr Nehru also agreed on a recent TV interview that the two "had a relationship of love." So what is the big deal about a film on the two?Jawaharlal Nehru

Indian politicians and bureaucrats have a a schizophrenic relationship with history - figures like Nehru and Gandhi are treated as 'sacred cows', and hagiographic accounts of their lives abound in school and many college books. The censoring of the the latest film script also, according to a top social scientist, boils down to the colonial mantle that the Congress party "finds difficult to shake off". Journalist MJ Akbar says the "desire to guard a reputation is institutional."

On the street, Indians no longer care whether Nehru and Lady Mountbatten had a relationship or not; a film on the two will not scandalise them. And Indians, so far, haven't even cared much for the sex lives of their politicians. Even when a news channel ran fuzzy black and white tapes purportedly of some local politicians making out in a guest house in what looked suspiciously like a Buster Keaton film on high speed, viewership rocketed for an evening or two, and then plumetted again. Especially after one of the politicians alleged to be on one of the tapes exclaimed: "But I am in that film with my wife!".

One historian says that talk about Edwina-Nehru liason is much ado about nothing. "Did the relationship impact the course of events?," she asks. There is no evidence to show that it did. But personal lives sometimes offer interesting cues to how people perform in public and even impact decisions they make. "I think it's the personal lives that make our politicians more interesting," says sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan. I couldn't agree more. But try explaining that to India's touchy politicians and the information and broadcasting ministry.

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