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Squaring the imperial circle

Squaring the imperial circle

Author: Premen Addy
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 3, 2007

Albert Einstein was reported to have said that god never played dice with the universe. May be not. But the President of the Immortals, as the novelist Thomas Hardy chose to describe Him, does permit Himself the occasional joke on us lesser beings.

Narendra Singh Sarila, former Indian diplomat and now the distinguished author of The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition tells how the departing British played the Pakistan (and Islamic) card against the cussed Congress leadership of the day.

British imperial rule in the19th and 20th centuries was set against the broader canvas of rivalry with Tsarist Russia - Kipling's memorable Great Game - and its later mutation, the Soviet Union. Russophobia was rarely absent in British newspapers and journals during the Victorian age.

There were periodic war scares and military manoeuvres along the shifting marchlands of Asia's two greatest empires. Reputations were made and unmade in exercises of folly. Two disastrous Anglo-Afghan wars topped by Lord Curzon's decision to despatch the Younghusband mission to Lhasa in search of an elusive Russian presence in the Tibetan capital have seeded tomes and historical theses galore. It has made not a mite of difference to what passes as the received wisdom of Anglo-American chancelleries as Communism and its anti-Communist manifestations performed their anointed roles much like King Kong versus Godzilla.

Pan-Islam was seen by European godfathers as the thunderbolt that could disarm their adversaries. Napoleon made a bid for this weapon, so too did the German Kaiser on the eve of the First World War; Soviet policy against Britain was similarly driven and the British repaid this with interest.

So much for the international stage; domestically, the British manipulated the Islamist genie to retain control of the Indian sub-continent, in a bid to ensure that the sun never set on the Empire which had given them their global reach. From Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to Salimullah Khan, the Nawab of Dhaka who gave a command performance in 1906 at Lord Minto's behest, as one of the founders of the Muslim League, the object was to retain India as a house divided, which the Countess Minto related with considerable relish in her diary.

Winston Churchill as a young reporter produced an excoriating description of Sudan's Islamic society and values in The River Wars (1899). The medieval backwardness, the revolting oppression of women and much else besides were set out in stark detail. Yet the great man had few compunctions about pitting Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League against the 'Hindu' leaders of the Indian National Congress. His civilian and military peers were no different. All sought to play the "Great Game" of the unfolding Cold War.

On their imperial chessboard, India's role would be that of a rook or a knight or even a queen or a king to be moved at will by Whitehall. Britain demanded military bases in India, which was more than Indian leaders were prepared to countenance. India's sovereignty was to be secure and indivisible and not open to bargain. In the absence of an Indian agreement, Pakistan fitted the bill admirably. It would be Britain's gateway to the Arab and Muslim worlds; in the former lay Olaf Caroe's Wells of Power, which bespoke oil.

Jammu & Kashmir, non-alignment and India's perceived tilt towards the Soviet Union were collectively a refraction through a ideologically-oriented historical prism. The "special Anglo-American relationship" took a succession of Democratic and Republican administrations down the same road. Pakistan became the linchpin of Washington's regional policy.

The lacquered images of Pakistani rulers from Mohammed Ali Jinnah to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, from Ayub Khan, Zia ul-Haq to Gen Pervez Musharraf (with Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mr Nawaz Sharif as extras), became an indispensable part of the West's theatre of the absurd. Jinnah as a Sub-continental Count Dracula and Bhutto as its pocket Mussolini were proven practitioners of primeval hate.

The Muslim League resolution in April 1946 (I quote from memory) appealed to the British to depart from India, after which it threatened to lay the country waste in the primordial traditions of Tamerlane and Nadir Shah. 'Direct Action Day' in Calcutta on August 16, 1946 explained it all.

Not quite, perhaps. There was more to come, including Jinnah's opposition to the use of Bengali in East Bengal on the ground that it was a "Hindu language" as opposed to Urdu, whose pedigree, he believed, had a purer Islamic strain. The conflict arising from such intolerance led eventually to the Pakistan military's genocidal mania in East Pakistan and the emergence of an independent Bangladesh. The legend of a liberal Jinnah, sartorially decked out in a Saville Row suit with a tot of whisky and a rind of bacon, dies hard. Pakistan, with its Army rule, failed democratic institutions and perpetual sectarian strife, is Jinnah's truest monument.

According to Bhutto's American biographer Stanley Wolpert, the Pakistani leader hoped to preside over India's disintegration through 'Operation Panipat' (the planned attack on Delhi) and 'Somnath' (the planned reduction of Bombay). It is the intent, not the inability to execute it, that is at issue here. For Mr Henry Kissinger, Bhutto possessed a "world-class mind", a judgement that surely points to the desolation of Iraq and other manifold US disasters.

Meanwhile in Britain, Government and Opposition are joined in a display of catch-as-catch-can with alleged Islamic terrorists, mostly of Pakistani origin, who have already bombed the London Underground and a number of whose peers seek to emulate them. Equally disturbing is the expressed opinion of a sizeable section of the Muslim young that the United Kingdom should become an Islamic state, compete with Shari'ah law and veils for women.

Frankenstein's monster has seemingly turned on its creator. The Great Game has taken another turn. President Vladimir Putin has led his nation from the lower depths, to which it had been consigned by Mr Boris Yeltsin, to the high table of great powers. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh read the runes well.

The old imperial wheel has turned full circle. The gods must be smiling to see such sport. And so should we.

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