A.K. Kulshreshth's Blog: Book Reviews

June 1, 2018

Meira Chand's "Sacred Waters"

Sacred Waters

The setting of an all-woman combat regiment, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR), in the Indian National Army during World War II is an episode that has not got the attention it deserves from writers. I was happy to read a historical account Vera Hildebrand’s historical account of the RJR, and delighted to see Sacred Waters in a local bookshop.

This is a two-track story, with one track set in modern Singapore and the other in the life of one of the “Ranis” (queens) of the RJR. Sita is the veteran Rani who has turned into a recluse as she brings up her daughter Amita, a professor of gender studies, who does not know much about what her mother went through in the way years.

Sacred Waters stands out for bringing together a lot of history and social commentary together. While the stories of Sita and Amita unfold, and Amita begins to understand what her mother has been through, there is a lot of ground this novel covers - the ideals that RJR stood for, the contrasting and terrible suppression of women in India then and now (there are some pointers to female foeticide in modern times), and some (I think) lesser but still complex challenges still facing women in Singapore. It is impressive that all this comes through without any pedantic writing.

As this Straits Times review points out, the novel really “sings” in the RJR parts – but that is because of the events of the times. There are some truly touching descriptions of the changes Sita has to go through as she trains with the RJR.

The retreat from Bangkok, when Subhash Bose risked his life several times to make sure the Ranis were returned to their homes, is a story that needed to feature in a novel, and I am glad it finally did.

I thought the one action military action that Sita participates in – which is clearly a case of the writer using artistic license – was less than convincing. I also thought some of the sequences did not make complete sense, for example, the Ranis watching POWs building the “death railway” from their train (I would imagine the railway was built where there no tracks). I also believe that Bose spoke his famous words, “Give me blood, and I will give you freedom,” later than portrayed in the novel. All these are minor nit-picks; this is a book that deserves much more fame than it seems to be getting.
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Published on June 01, 2018 09:02

November 24, 2017

India's War, by Srinath Raghavan

India's War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia

India’s war is a great work that took too long to come out – an account of the Indian army’s effort during World War II, from North Africa to Myanmar, written by a former officer of the Indian Army. This is a work that mostly does justice to the very impressive blurbs from Ramchandra Guha, John Keay and Sunil Khilnani.

Its span, depth and detail make this an outstanding book. Raghavan goes into the strategy, economics and politics of the context, before describing the military aspects in some detail. He does all this keeping the reading very easy. That is a great achievement.

It helps that the author zooms in and out very fluently. The very first line has an interesting detail – the Viceroy of India announced India’s entry into WWII without consulting a single governing body. As a result, the Indian Army would increase in strength from 200,000 to 2.5 million. Many such details follow – including that India was a member of the League of Nations, reflecting its importance even as a colony, and that there was a run on the Post Office savings bank in India following the German Blitzkrieg.

As I expected, the accounts of military action are very detailed. For the first time, I got a sense of the huge spread of theatres that the Indian Army saw action in, from Italy to Hong Kong. There are a few places where the maps don’t really support the detailed narrative, though.

On the other hand, there are aspects that I liked a bit less about the work. First, the sense that the “Indian” armed forces were the foundation of the British Raj, and that the Raj crumbled mainly because of mutinies in it – the Royal Indian Navy in particular – is not quite strong enough. The book does describe the naval mutiny briefly. It is interesting that the great leaders of Indian independence were super-quick to supress disorder in the Indian Navy, but not that effective in keeping murder and mayhem in check outside.

I did like it that Raghavan quickly dismisses Mountbatten, who has been subjected to an incredible amount of hero-worship elsewhere, as a “train-wreck of a general” and implies that his main achievement was to leave the fighting to Slim. However, that brings up what I see as a second shortcoming: the lost opportunity to re-examine General Slim and the glow of his Caesar-like conquest of Burma, versus the “military losers” reputation of the Indian National Army.

The investment in re-training, logistics, fighting spirit, medical infrastructure etc. and the turnaround of the 14th Army to a winning force make a very interesting case study. However, I am inclined to believe Pater Ward Fay came closer to the truth when remarked that some British Generals were better at winning battles in the bookshops than in the battlefield. As Bayly and Harper put it, right on the first page of the preface to Forgotten Armies , “the ultimate victors forged heroic legends around the later successes of British Arms in the Eastern War.”

I am no historian, but it is clear to me that Slim lied in print in Defeat to Victory when he wrote that the main contribution of the Indian National Army was to smilingly lay down arms at the point of crossing of the Irawady River. Equally, one doesn’t have to be a genius or historian to figure that the Japanese were preparing for an assault on Iwo Jima when the British Indian Army launched its offensive in Burma (Fay points this out). I would have liked more detail in Raghavan’s work on what happened when the British Indian Army and the Indian National Army came face to face. Too often, Bose and the INA are still treated with either crazy veneration or Raj-initiated contempt.

Yashpal, in his classic Jhhootha Sach, notes that the Indian Army did not overturn the “British” Indian Army’s attitude towards the INA after indepence. As a result, the INA “found itself to be the ghost at the feast in Prime Minister Nehru’s independent and non-aligned India” (Bayly and Harper).

A revised edition of India’s War with a more in-depth and balanced treatment of this sub-plot will be a great addition to the telling of Indian WWII history. The author is quite dismissive in this work – “ the Indian National Army was no match for the Indian Army” – which, of course, is the common narrative. It would not hurt to dwell more on the establishment of the Indian National Army, its dismantling of religious divisions and its few credible military actions. There are authors like Fay, Toye and Lebra who seem to suggest that the INA was a military disaster on the whole, but did have some moments of success and did demonstrate courage.

I was shocked to read in Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies that Mohan Singh, who led the INA before becoming disillusioned with the Japanese, was leading a Sikh militia unit and in the thick of the genocide of partition a few years later. Raghavan clearly notes that the demobilization of trained soldiers was a factor in the large-scale butchery that prevailed during the partition. The 2.5 million strong army could have been demobilized at a slower rate, and could have been used as a peace-keeping force, if Indian independence was not also badly botched up by the Great Leaders who ruled over it.

An even wider coverage of India’s war would include the Indian Legion that served in trained in Konigsbruck and served in Normandy under the Germans, and the POWs sent to Rabaul.

All of this doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy India’s War. It’s one of those books I set aside for a second cover-to-cover reading later, and I will also look forward to Raghavan’s next book.
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Published on November 24, 2017 23:11

August 5, 2017

Women at War: the Rani of Jhansi Regiment

Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment

Subhash Chandra Bose, “Netaji” as many Indians know him, was an Indian leader who established a provisional government in exile in Singapore in 1943, and created a rebel Indian National Army (INA) to fight for Indian independence.

Vera Hildebrand describes his creation of the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR), an infantry regiment of women within the INA in 1943, as “one of the more improbable events of the Asia-Pacific theatre in World War II”.

I see RJR as proof of Bose’s ability to think beyond barriers and push for pan-Indian unity. He had already taken a huge unifying steps by creating common messes where neither beef nor pork were served, and soldiers of all faiths ate together. His choice of an Urdu motto for the Indian National Army (Ittehad, Itmad aur Qurbani – Unity, Faith and Sacrifice) helped to reassure Muslims of his secular credentials.

Hildebrand’s work is a solid product of research and impartiality. It is a huge achievement that in 2008 she was able to trace out all the survivors of the RJR, conduct interviews with them and correlate them with secondary sources, including some which she uncovered for the first time. Today, there would of course have been fewer survivors to talk to.

One of the lines of the book that stayed with me is that "the facts are nearly as impressive as the myth". Interestingly, the back-cover text chooses to mangle this to “the truth is every bit as impressive as the myth”.

The distinction is important because Hildebrand’s work is very impartial. It is clear that there are no sacred cows for her. She points out that Bose abandoned his wife and daughter in Europe at a time when the tide had turned against the Axis, and that his concern was more for his image than for their safety. On the other hand, he was truly fatherly towards the RJR, and ensured that they were safely withdrawn from Rangoon to Bangkok, travelling with them and refusing to take a safer and faster passage out for himself. Hildebrand documents some issues that the “myth makers” would never touch upon – for example romantic relations between the women of the RJR and the rest of the INA. I found it interesting that Captain Lakshmi’s transfer was likely to have been an effort to contain the fallout of her affair with her future husband. Also, there were cases of Ranis being discharged after they became pregnant. Equally interesting was the fact that apart from Bose’s charisma, oratory and sincerity, it was brute force applied by his “evil genius” aide General Chatterjee that helped to raise funds for the INA. Another aide, Anand Mohan Sahay, directly used methods borrowed from the Japanese Kempetai to motivate Indians in South East Asia to “donate” funds. She does note, however, that C. Hugh Toye, Head of British Intelligence in Burma, was emphatic that Bose himself did not directly sanction any torture.

What role Bose really had in mind for the RJR if the INA’s military campaign had been more successful remains unknown. They were clearly trained for combat and nursing, with a focus on combat. This, at a time when the Japanese Army was using comfort women, was an act incredibly far ahead of its times.

Sadly, Bose’s legacy of communal harmony and gender equality was shattered during the genocide of Indian partition, and for decades he was relegated to the status of a regional hero of West Bengal – an ironic fate for someone who smashed barriers of caste, religion and even gender. Shyam Benegal’s 2005 film was titled Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: the Forgotten Hero. An interview with the Captain Lakshmi Sahgal (the leader of RJR) provides some interesting context to the film.

While Hildebrand does discuss Bose’s limitations and failures, I thought one piece that was missing – given the context of the book – was an analysis of how the RJR is one of the many proof points that Bose was completely anti-Nazi in his beliefs, and it was only lack of alternatives that led him to ally with the Nazis and the Japanese. The Nazis had clearly defined roles for women: church, children, home.

Still, Women at War deserves to become a classic for its painstaking, impartial and exhaustive approach to a grossly under-studied topic. And the bottom line remains that it is enough that the facts are nearly as impressive as the myth.
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Published on August 05, 2017 23:32

June 28, 2017

Netaji in Europe

Netaji In Europe

I was looking for material on Subhash Chandra Bose's work and the Indian Legion in Europe in 1942, and was very happy to be pointed to this book. Having read it, I have mixed feelings. I think the best way to describe is that it is outstanding for both the wrong and the right reasons.

Coming to the wrong reasons first: the book starts off on the wrong note in the second line of Chapter 1. Bose is described as a Kshatriya - he was a Kayastha. At one point the author states that the Indian National Army played a role in the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. These bloopers are a bit disappointing given that the introduction has a literature survey in which works are described as "scientific" and the implication is that this book, being extracted from a Ph.D thesis belongs to the scientfic category. From a larger perspective, there is complete disarray and mayhem when it comes to timelines. The narrative switches from Schedai (a rival of Bose's) back to Bose, from his departure for Japan in 1943 to the formation of the Indian Legion in 1942. Almost every second page seems to have jumps in time and space that do not make sense. I explained this to myself as a case of a Ph.D. dissertation being too hastily converted to a book, without the right editorial effort. The lack of an index at the end is particularly surprising (in the Rupa edition that I have). Given the title of the book, there is a complete absence of any kind of emotional connect with Bose during his Indian Legion years. The real topic of the book is "India-Politics" (which makes sense for a doctoral dissertation) and not Netaji.

This still remains an extremely valuable work for quite a few reasons. First: the literature survey in the introduction brought many more relevant works to my notice. Unfortunately, most of them do not seem easily accessible to me, but that is a problem I can work on.

Most importantly, there were a few angles that the author brings up, and that I did have the faintest inkling about. For example, that Hitler refused permission for unequivocal Axis support of Indian independence because in 1941 , he didn't want to spoil the chances of coming to a peace agreement with Britain.

The story of Rudoph Hess's flight to Scotland, which I had not heard of, is very interesting. It has been covered by Der Spiegel and Smithsonian magazine, among many others.

I finally found interesting material on what I was looking for, the experiences of the Indian Legion, towards the end of the book. In summary: this could have been a gem of a book on a topic that has not been widely studied, and the raw material is all there, but it doesn't quite come together as well as it should.
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Published on June 28, 2017 02:05

February 6, 2017

Midnight's Furies

Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition
The independence of India and creation of Pakistan were accompanied by brutality and violence, and the events of 1946-47 “explain the world that troubles us today”, according to the inside jacket of this book. Who is “us”, and what are the troubles, are interesting questions which I would like to discuss later.

First, it needs to be said that this work, published in 2015, will probably be hard to match for completeness and balance in its coverage of the Partition.

The treatment of the first large-scale violent acts following the Muslim League’s call for a Direct Action Day brings out many of the tragic aspects of what happened then, and still lingers on. It was interesting to learn that the leader who clearly must bear much of the blame for the first large-scale pogrom, the Muslim League’s Suhrwardy, was fond of drink, lining his pockets and blondes—so, not a very religious person from the little that I know about religion. Also, it is instructive that neither Jinnah nor Nehru went to Calcutta immediately, despite the scale of violence. The police had become partisan; Suhrwardy’s parting shot at the end of his speech to his supporters was that the police had been instructed not to “interfere” in their work. Hajari’s sense of balance comes from making it clear that it is simplistic to say that “the Muslims” started the trouble in Calcutta and “the Hindus” retaliated. The call for Direct Action Day itself was the Muslim League’s doing, but the League’s Guards, the Hindu RSSS and paid thugs all conspired in the “madness”.

Unfortunately, the “madness” spread to other parts: Noakhali in Bengal and then large parts of Bihar. The riots in Bihar targeted Muslims in retaliation for the events in Bengal, and were led by the Congress. In spite of the Congress’ secular and pan-Indian claims, it refused to acknowledge responsibility and take action.

From what I have understood, this string of events had already created the base for the horrors that would follow. The leaders who were responsible for genocide—Suhrawrdy being one example—would get away scot free. The police were compromised. It was fair to take “revenge” on Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs (depending on who was outnumbered) for the acts of their fellow-religionists hundreds or thousands of miles away.

One of the interesting anecdotes is about Gandhi’s fast unto death to pressurise Nehru and Patel to realise 550 million rupees that India owed Pakistan. Nehru and Patel had decided, with their cabinet backing them, that they would withhold the money till there was armed conflict in Kashmir. Gandhi’s fast made them relent and give away the money, and that strengthened Pakistan’s hand in the Kashmir dispute. What I found interesting is that Gandhi took his stance in response to Mountbatten’s suggestion that it was “dishonourable” to not give the 550 million. I wonder if there are any other instances in which a country has made a payment to another country with which it was at war. I had read about this incident, and Mountbatten’s role in it, in Yashpal’s Hindi epic Jhootha Sach , (which means "False Truth", and was translated into English as This Is Not That Dawn by his son), and wondered if it could be true—in the novel this is inserted into a conversation, and I wasn’t sure how then factual it was. I do recall wishing that Gandhi had chosen to fast against Partition itself.

Hajari’s book has a huge amount of detail on the many “theatres” of the Partition—Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagadh in particular. There are also many references to the inflection points at which Partition could have been avoided. An interview with the author provides an interesting overview of the book.

I think one angle that needs a little more exploration is the link between the 1947 Jihad in Kashmir to the present-day terrorist outfits. The West did finance the Mujahideen who fought against the Soviets, and there perhaps a very strong connection between the “good” Mujahideen and the “bad” Taliban.

The big flaw that I see in the “positioning” of this work is that it takes a view that the events of Partition matter because from terrorism funded by Pakistan and the threat of Jihad (presumably more to the Western world—I don’t recall think Jihadi actions against India before 9/11 mattered that much to the world media). That threat is real enough, but I would like to believe that there is a more important and immediate effect.

The hastiness of dismantling the Raj led to a situation in which governance was missing. Genocide prevailed while leaders made flowery speeches; women were subjected to horrifying abuses (the phrase “worse than animals” doesn’t make sense, because animals don’t do that stuff). “Systems” were established to maximise political gain out of riots. No historical document will deal with this, but the question that comes to my mind is: if the preparations for the Calcutta riots were known to be targeted at British civilians, would they still have been allowed to build up? The police under the Raj was an instrument of oppression, and not a force trusted by the average citizen to protect rights. This did not change with independence. In India, the Congress(I) and the BJP have remained the main political parties till date, with the Congress having “run” the country for the longest time. Though life expectancy in India increased from about 33 at independence to about 65 now, the weakness of institutions for security, education and health—which affects the daily life of a huge population—is the most troublesome legacy of Midnight’s Furies.
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Published on February 06, 2017 06:17 Tags: india-partition-independence

January 28, 2017

Shameful Flight

Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India
“Would it not be a world crime…that would stain…our good name for ever?” Churchill asked, in response to Mountbatten’s monstrously stupid “plan” to execute the shameful flight that this book is titled after. I found this (p. 132 of the 2006 edition), a most interesting question.

Cut to about 2011. In a group of Indians, we had a Harvard graduate (b.t.w. it could have been any university) going on about what a terrible thing the Holocaust was. I replied that it’s interesting that the Holocaust is remembered as a tragedy for humankind, but the deaths of almost as many Indians (in the absence of lists, the Indian numbers are not really known) between the Bengal famine and the Partition of India are somehow “less” tragic in the world’s eyes. The lady thought about it for a minute, then said that the Holocaust was different because the victims were gassed to death. (Before I am accused of being a holocaust denier, let me swear that I am not.)

It is an astounding fact that the world crime that Mountbatten and the Empire’s officials perpetrated, and the Indian/Pakistani leaders abetted, has not stained their name for ever. Today, the sun never sets on the Empire’s boot-lickers. In the popular narrative, the Raj unified India for the first time, and the Indian freedom movement won over the Raj with non-violence, which would not have worked with any other colonial power. Who was responsible for the horror of partition? We don’t know, and we don’t care all that much.

Shameful Flight , like any other work that deals with a genocide, is not easy reading, but it is essential reading for those (like me) who have formed some opinions earlier by watching Gandhi and reading Freedom at Midnight. Wolpert pretty much lays out his conclusion by the second page of the introduction, with Mountbatten’s own admission of guilt to a BBC correspondent. Of course, he does much more than that, with his meeting-by-meeting description of how a partition that was a bargaining chip turned into a bloody reality. The author’s use of research to put together a story accessible to the average reader is very impressive. Almost every sentence has a phrase in quotes, with an end-note, but the text remains very readable.

From a general reader’s perspective, I thought the shortcomings to this work become more obvious when you ask if it tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Now of course there is no such thing, but the question is if it comes close.

On the subject of Mountbatten, I did not read anything about him falsifying his war record, and perhaps not being the great hero that he successfully made himself out to be. Most importantly, his record in (read here and here) dodging responsibility for the Dieppe disaster seems very relevant to this book.

Then there is the subject of “Netaji”, Subhash Chandra Bose. He is always a controversial figure, but he was, perhaps, more than “Japan’s puppet leader” as Wolpert describes him. Or if the description is right, I would conclude that de Gaulle was the Brit’s puppet leader. There are books on Bose that helped me understand him better: Peter Ward Fay, Leonard Gordon and Hugh Toye have written books published decades ago, and the first two were professional historians. Toye was a British Intelligence officer and his account is quite sympathetic to Bose. Gordon spoke to Japanese officers who saw a Samurai spirit in Bose.

The launching of the Jihad in Kashmir, and the events leading to and after it, are covered with more relevant detail in Nisid Hajari’s Mignight’s Furies.

Finally, there is evidence dating back to 1976 that Atlee’s government was motivated mainly by the INA trials and the 1946 naval mutiny in deciding to leave India. Atlee’s comment that the Quit India movement and the Congress had a “minimal” impact on the decision should at least get a small section in any account on independence.

So, in spite of the author’s credentials, there are some holes in the narrative, which is perhaps not such a surprise given the complexity of the topic.

The biggest gap, however, comes from not raising the right questions. Why did Mountbatten and the others who were responsible for an unnecessary partition do what they did? Why was the date for independence advanced? This is where fiction proves itself superior to history. In his haunting work Kitne Pakistan (literally “How Many Pakistans?”, but the English translation is called Partitions ), the Hindi novelist Kamleshwar notes (as Wolpert also does) that Jinnah was the only Muslim leader who could have made Pakistan happen. But he goes further, and asks the question: what were the chances that British Intelligence did not know Jinnah was terminally ill?

It is easy to be a critic and go on about shortcomings. The positives remain what they are: this is a great work that at least urges us to stop pretending that the “world crime” of Partition happened without any criminal intent.
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Published on January 28, 2017 22:50

January 23, 2017

This Is Not That Dawn/ Jhootha Sach

This Is Not That Dawn

Jhoota Sach has been described (here) as the War and Peace of Indian literature. In her essay, Rockwell goes on to explain how the comparison breaks down because Yashpal himself had a history that Tolstoy didn’t.

Why does Jhoota Sach matter?

Jhoota Sach is the work which meticulously documents the horrors of partition and the extremely weak foundations that the great Indian leaders laid for the modern Indian republic. I am sick of talking to my brown sahib colleagues (among them quite a few native Hindi speakers) who will insist that the Brits were the first to “unite India”, and that Hindi has no literature—and who haven’t heard of either Jhoota Sach or Kitne Pakistan.

Running through multiple threads, across decades, with finely developed characters, Jhoota Sach documents the trauma surrounding Indian independence and the decay of the decades after it. The style is almost journalistic. The horrors that befall Tara, one of the leading characters of the novel, are told (in Volume I) in a direct and matter-of-fact style that makes her story all the more heart-breaking. It takes decades for her wounds to heal.

A particularly interesting touch is Yashpal’s merciless treatment of politicians and the glitterati of society, and his portrayal of changing fortunes of the “refugees”. Yashpal himself was a communist, but he was quite harsh in his depiction of the Communist Party as a tyrannical outfit obsessed with controlling the personal lives of its members. An interesting line in Volume II is his note that all the characters in the novel are fictitious, including the Prime Minister. I am guessing that very few dispassionate readers of Jhootha Sach will reach the end of the book with hugely positive feelings for the late first Prime Minister of India. And that is not because of any tirade against Nehru, or sly sarcasm. The treatment of Nehru’s foibles is very matter-of-fact, and Yashpal takes care to acknowledge some of Nehru’s good moments as well.

Critics have written about Yashpal’s very modern, ahead-of-his-times feminist views. That is not surprising for a person who fought for independence along with Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad.

Among the many qualities of Yashpal’s work is the credibility of his characters. One expects the idealistic journalist, Puri, to develop into an epic hero, but as one reads on, one realises Yashpal has a few surprises in store for the reader expecting a soap opera. No one is perfect; even Tara, the only one who has a bit of a halo about her, has a flaw or two.

I heard of Jhoota Sach, and read it in Hindi, after I turned forty and realised how much I was missing by not reading Hindi literature. I ended up reading Volume II about a year after I read Volume I. When I bought Volume I, I didn’t know that I was only picking up half of the work. By the time I travelled back to India to look for Volume II, the shop I used to head to (Landmark in Gurgaon) had closed. I finally ordered it online. So my journey to the last page turned out to be as long as it was rewarding.

I usually read or listen to an audio book for a couple of hours a day. Jhoota Sach will remain one of the books that stood out above the hundreds of others I read before and after it, and changed the way I think about an important slice of Indian history and society. If we were a progressive society, we would have revered a work like this.
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Published on January 23, 2017 05:11 Tags: india-partition-independence