Prof.Irfan Habib’s insightful criticism of the PM!
What is at stake?
Dr.Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, had been duly honoured by Oxford University with a honorary degree. It is Doctor of Civil Law, not D.Phil, as the Hindu newspaper’s typical longer than usual ponderous editorial wrongly carried it! On reflection I thought it is how the Indian mind still works! Dr.Singh’s speech to suit the occasion with lots of scholars present was mild and quite typical of the man, soft spoken Singh had soft pedalled many touchy topics. The India-British connection is at best a controversial one.
As we grow into a mature country, with a sense of mature independence and with some wisdom, we Indians must also grow into a more assertive self confidence. By this we don’t mean we should be offensive to other’s sentiments. At the same time an occasion like the Oxford crowd gives one a rare opportunity to give an indication of what India today means to Indians as well as to the outside world. In this perspective the Prime Minister of India hadn’t done his job in keeping with the power and prestige of his high office. The PM had dwelt with certain light-hearted, if not lightweight observations. May be he and his speech writers would have wasted quite a lot of time as to come up with some typical English sahibs’ style self-deprecatory humbug! There is every indication in the carefully written (or constructed) with many juicy ordinary jocular-like remarks on Indian English is “okay” provided you also give some “embs” to the so-called stiff upper lips in the audience!
Yes, the only rare remark of Dr.Singh in the whole India-British encounter was the statisitcs that showed how India lost out in the industrial growth. This had been noted but as Prof. Habib had pointed out the many other myths also needed to have been busted. In fact. Prof. Habib (who is also, like Dr.Singh, is already an Oxford D.Phil, an earned degree) had highlighted how “good governance”, unlike Dr.Singh’s admission we didn’t learn from the Brits, we needn’t have given a good certificate, as Dr.Singh to! Brits atrocities have been too much and too brutal. As I write these lines the bookshops are filled with mountain-like big volume of a biography of the Jalianwallah Bagh butcher General Dyer! I thought in my fury I would buy the entire lot and burn it in open place! Indians are being reminded again, I wondered! The butchery of “Sepoy Mutiny”, the many dishonours to the Indian princes and queens and the religious groups, the way the notorious doctrine of lapse was used to simply deprive the rajas their ancient kingdoms! The many famines Prof. Habib had pointed out. As it happened again I just now got hold an old copy of the notorious Katherine Mayo’s “Mother India” book.
In fact, Gandhiji had discredited the book, rightly of course, by one line dismissal as a “drain inspector’s report”. It might be. But what moved me when I couldn’t but sit down for a fast reading of the pages was her deligious research, her statistics astounded me.
In fact, her story of the Indian famines was too much to read through. The facts were so nauseating! I closed down the book. I am afraid whether I have the stamina to try it again! Yes, I clearly feel when a Prime Minister of India stands before an august audience of great many experts and thinkers, a true leader would have been emotionally charged. I would have! But not Dr.Singh. He clearly had let down his countrymen! He had not chosen, in his wisdom, to mention even what the English language had given Indians! Today India is a software super power! Why the Indian PM is so afraid before white men and women audience? I can’t excuse the PM for what he failed to deliver!
The Hindu editorial is of course is written to defend the PM.Nothing wrong, considering it is the duty of a leading national newspaper whose editor was present on that occasion courtesy of the PM’s invitation to accompany him. But the editorial betrays its ignorace by wasting lot of space to Karl Marx and he wrote in 1853. Also the editorial is ignorant to write ‘Dr.Singh’s radicalism of his Oxbridge days’. This is nonsense! I was contemporary of Dr.Singh and I was an ‘undergraduate’, the three year course where you study under individual tutors of high competence, a rare privilege, while Dr.Singh was just a Government of India research scholar. That meant that he was on government deputation and like others these research scholars were people on the periphery of the Oxbridge’s other privileges, like speaking at the Debating Union, joing the many undergraduate clubs and also indulging in much social life that revolves around the younger students.
I studied PPE and my teachers were Sir John Hicks and Sir Roy Harrod and others. I also knew Ian D.Little who supervised Dr.Singh’s thesis. Dr.Singh like other such research scholars went back and became academic and government servant. Dr.Singh didn’t publish any books and we don’t know his well-thought-out economic beliefs and views. In fact Dr.Singh became a faceless bureaucrat all his life serving under different governments of all ideological persuasions! Like most Oxbridge products became in my generation.
Prof. Habib, rightfully, takes pot shots at the IAS and its parent ICS. My own Oxford friends were sons and daughters of many ICS families and I can say with authority they didn’t have any love for their country! In fact, I remember my friend, son of a distinguished ICS official, who built the Chandigarh city, told me once when he mentioned about my khadi kurta and dhoti (which I carried with me for some occasion!), his father warned him: “Beware of the khadi fellow! He might come back and preside over us’!
So, I have to say sadly that Dr.Singh’s Oxford speech is like any of his other speeches! We need not give it any special value. However, the points raised by Prof. Habib are still valid. We somehow hadn’t risen over the British trickery of making us believe in so many of their so-called achievements in India. I have so many good friends in UK and I don’t blame the ordinary Britons for what their past masters did in India.
However as a citizen of India I have to make the point that Indians have to develop more spine! We have to identify the deficiencies of our national trait (inferiority, servility before the white man) our intellectual bankruptcy in believing whatever is printed and published in UK.It is of all people only the late Nirad Choudhari who had the audacity to live and tell the white men: “You were no more what your great thinkers were like”. Even such great economist like Prof. Amartya Sen is less than forthcoming when he criticises James Mill whose history of India did damage to Indian character. So, what can we expect from a Prime Minister who can’t have the freedom of speech anyway!
Now, Prof. Habib, as a historian and thinker has warned Dr.Singh in his mission to America. Yes, India has to be very uncomfortable with the two countries, UK and USA. UK for pretending to be still a power (which it is not) in international affairs. USA believing in its own wisdom of playing the policeman of the world. Both the countries wont like to see India emerge as a power! So, India has to do much introspection in every move we make.I hope the Oxford speech and Prof. Habib’s intervention triggers some refreshing intellectual debate on the Indo-British encounter.
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