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How Asia rose from the devastation and debris of colonialism

Author: Makarand R Paranjape
Publication: Daily O
Date: February 21, 2018
URL:      https://www.dailyo.in/lite/voices/asia-reborn-colonialism-china-japan-britain-subhas-chandra-bose/story/1/22467.html?__twitter_impression=true

At a time when world historiography has been preoccupied with exploring metahistorical questions on the one hand and writing microhistories on the other, all of a sudden comes a rare, unabashed mega-history.

That too researched and crafted not by an academic or trained historian, but by a management expert, a banking consultant, financial columnist, commentator and, yes, fellow-Stephanian. Why would such a person spend over 20 years of his life trying to understand and record the rise of Asia? There can be only one reason: pure passion. In addition to inordinate and inveterate curiosity.

Asia’s rebirth

Prasenjit K Basu has delivered a really important tome that attempts the very difficult if not impossible task of telling us how Asia, the largest, most populated, and soon possibly the richest continent in the world, rose from the devastation and debris of colonialism. The book in question, with its rather fulsome title, is Asia Reborn: A Continent Rises from the Ravages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism (Aleph, 2017). All it’s close to 700 pages are packed not only with information and analysis, but with some major, over-arching, game-changing theses and themes.

Before I proceed to list some of these, I must congratulate David Davidar of Aleph for publishing the work, that too handsomely in hardback. The mark of a great publisher is that he puts his money where not so much his mouth but where his mind is: in other words, to source, support, and produce books he believes in as worthy of reaching a larger audience. Unfortunately, books such as these are often lost in the noise of stop-press headlines or the usual political commentary that dominates our media.

In fact, one reason for returning to Basu’s book today is to step back from the latest sensational scoop to something more lasting and worthy of our attention, even in a tabloid. Nothing is quite as important as trying to understand who we are, what we were, how we got here, and where we are headed. This is as true for India, which is right now, certainly after 2014, once again in the throes of a historiographical crisis. Our overriding secularist historians have papered over the terrible travails that our civilisation suffered during Islamic rule. Even a proper assessment of British rule is only now reaching the educated masses. The elites, of course, still remain in post-colonial thraldom, as illustrated by the mandarins of Lutyens’ Delhi.

Not surprisingly, Basu’s book has received very little notice. The book review columns, over the years, have unfortunately shrunk. To take on a series and revisionist tour-de-force of the scale and ambition of Asia Reborn is quite outside their purview. Similarly, academic historians, with their traditional disdain for outsiders and the gatekeeping mentality that closes its doors to those who are not of their tribe, have also, by and large, ignored the book. It is thus left to a nonhistorian public intellectual, albeit from the academy, to try to make amends.

Colonial narrative

What struck me first when I read Asia Reborn is just how mesmerised we still are by our former masters, United Kingdom, and their post-World War II successors, the United States. Our view of the world remains coloured by their master-narratives. This is especially true of how we view Japan’s brief tryst with imperialism.

Roundly condemned by all prevailing accounts, including our own leaders of that period such as Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru, we were raised to view Japanese imperialism as much worse not only then British colonial rule but also more evil and wicked than Dutch, French, Portuguese, or other forms of European colonialism that prevailed in large swathes of Asia.

Not true, says Basu. One of his stunning counter-theses is that the countries ruled by Japan, including Manchuria, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, not to mention Japan itself, rose the fastest and grew most rapidly in the post-colonial, post-war era. No wonder, he is an admirer of Subhas Chandra Bose, not Jawaharlal Nehru.

He argues that India won its freedom, not because of the efforts of Gandhi and Nehru, but because Bose, knocking at the eastern doors of the empire, proved that it was possible to defeat the British. The “mutiny” of naval ratings and the enthusiastic public response in support of the INA undertrials in Delhi, according to Basu, were among the decisive factors that prompted the British to leave India rather hastily, if brutally.


Basu, not surprisingly, is also an advocate of Asian cultural unity, premised not only on our rice-eating habit but also on cultural, social and religious commonalities. Weaving a fascinating tapestry of interconnected stories of countries and communities as diverse as Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Tibet, Thailand, Vietnam, and of course India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives, Basu offers a refreshingly different way of looking at ourselves and our neighbourhood.

The West Asian and Middle-Eastern nations such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Soviet Central Asian states no doubt come in for less scrutiny or coverage, but that is not necessarily a drawback. After all, Asia is too vast to contain and encapsulate in one single story.

What is, however, significant is that Basu manages to throw new light on old plots in a manner that we must pay attention to, especially if we are not only to look but act east.
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