Category Archives: India
Ian Hall, Griffith UniversityThis piece is part of a new series in collaboration with the ABC’s Saturday Extra program. Each week, the show will have a “who am I” quiz for listeners about influential figures who helped shape the 20th century, and we will publish profiles for each one. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
Jawaharlal Nehru was not just the architect of modern India and the country’s first prime minister. He also played a central role in the discrediting of European imperialism and gave a voice to people across Asia and Africa struggling for self-determination and racial equality.
An unlikely revolutionary, Nehru was born in 1889 into wealth and privilege. His father was a Kashmiri, a high caste Brahmin and a successful barrister, able to fund the best education for the young Jawaharlal the British system could offer.
After attending Harrow School and Cambridge University, Nehru, too, became a lawyer and could easily have settled into a comfortable life.
Instead, Nehru was swept by the enigmatic Mahatma Gandhi into the campaign against British rule in India. For the next 25 years, he dressed in homespun cotton, endured long terms in prison and campaigned relentlessly for the cause.
Successes and failures
Once the British were overthrown and he rose to power, Nehru quickly set about ensuring his vast, impoverished and hugely diverse country was governed by democratically elected leaders and the rule of law.
In parallel, he tried to make India economically self-reliant, so that it could no longer be exploited or manipulated by foreign powers.
Perhaps inevitably, given the scale of the challenges involved, the results of these efforts were mixed.
Nehru’s hopes for a peaceful transition from British rule were dashed by the horrific violence that accompanied partition — the division of the British colony into the separate states of India and Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands died in clashes between Hindus and Muslims, and millions more were displaced and traumatised.
Nehru did succeed in the herculean effort of transforming India into a constitutional democracy, but his ambitious plans to modernise the economy proved harder to realise.
To be sure, India avoided mass famines like those that ravaged Bengal in mid-1940s and China during the so-called “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But most Indians did not see major improvements in their standard of living.
A vision for a post-colonial world
Where Nehru really shone was on the world stage. Urbane, well-read, charismatic and eloquent, he was convinced India had a special role to play in international politics, despite its poverty and relative weakness.
And to ensure that happened, Nehru served as his own foreign minister and ambassador-at-large.
Initially, Nehru’s principal concern was the struggle against European imperialism, especially in Asia. Britain, France and the Netherlands all reasserted control over their colonial possessions in the region after the second world war. In response, Nehru and Gandhi rallied anti-colonial leaders, holding the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947 to chart the way forward for the continent.
In Nehru’s view, Asia’s newly liberated or soon-to-be liberated states should show the world a different way to conduct international relations.
They need not be suspicious of each other’s intentions, nor greedy for each other’s territory, he argued. And they should not waste their scarce resources on building armies or atom bombs. Committed to social and economic development and to treating others with mutual respect, they could — and should — create a more just and peaceful world.
He campaigned against nuclear weapons, calling in 1954 for the superpowers to halt their tests of increasingly destructive bombs. This paved the way for a partial ban on testing in 1963.
He called for an end to racial discrimination, most notably in South Africa. He also commissioned India’s diplomats to offer their services to mediate in a series of disputes, including the Korean war and France’s disastrous attempt to cling to its colonial possessions in Indochina.
The birth of non-alignment
Throughout, Nehru made the case for what became known as “non-alignment” — perhaps his greatest contribution to the 20th century world.
India and other post-colonial states, he argued, had no good reason to take sides in the Cold War and plenty of reasons to maintain cordial relations with both the US and Soviet Union.
Allying with one or the other was too costly and compromising. It brought obligations to build armies and fight distant wars. And it meant renouncing the ability to criticise your ally when it did things with which you disagreed.
Non-alignment annoyed Cold Warriors in both Moscow and Washington. But it proved popular elsewhere, especially among newly independent states.
It helped inspire a series of major meetings intended to promote African and Asian cooperation in the shadow of US-Soviet competition, including the Bandung Conference in 1955, as well as the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1970s.
Today, 120 states belong to the movement, though India’s interest in the bloc has waned as it has grown stronger and wealthier.
Nehru’s greatest failure
Nehru helped delegitimise imperialism and usher in a new world no longer dominated by the Europe powers. He laid out principles that he hoped would encourage mutual respect in international relations – principles eagerly embraced, if not always followed, by other post-colonial leaders.
It is ironic, then, that arguably Nehru’s greatest failure – the one that irreparably tarnished his leadership and broke his health – concerned foreign policy.
Convinced China would abide by the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” agreement it struck with India in the mid-1950s, Nehru failed to anticipate a military conflict over the long-disputed frontier. When Mao Zedong ordered a surprise attack in 1962, India’s forces were humiliated. And to Nehru’s dismay, neither the UN, nor the superpowers, intervened.
To critics, the Sino-Indian war exposed Nehru’s naivety and the limits of non-alignment. It compelled India to retrench and rearm, and laid bare his dream of an Asia free from “power politics”.
India has travelled far since Nehru’s time and left much of his legacy by the wayside. It now possesses the world’s second largest military – after China – and a nuclear arsenal. It has forged a strong security partnership with the United States.
But New Delhi still remains wary of alliances or anything that might compromise independence of voice or action. And it is as convinced today as when Nehru was in power that India is destined to play a special role in the world.
Sayan Dey, University of the WitwatersrandWhen I was a child growing up in Kolkata, I would hear stories about the European colonisation of Bengal – the precolonial name of India’s West Bengal. These were selective narratives from a particularly male perspective, and presented colonisers as transforming social benefactors installed to provide a civilising influence. The rich histories of Indian philosophy that were once associated with religion, education and health were replaced by the colonial philosophy of conversion, modernising and improvement.
But it was not just European men; women too played a pivotal role in normalising colonisation in Bengal in the 19th century. The wives and daughters of merchants, engineers, ministers, doctors and architects came to India and not only supported their husbands and families, but took on what they saw as humanitarian roles where they felt they could be useful in the community.
But you wouldn’t know this from reading any European colonial histories of Bengal, because the stories of these women have largely been ignored. The majority of existing narratives about the Scottish influence on the colonisation of Bengal reduces women to just “partners”, or those who came to India “because they wanted to find husbands”.
My research rediscovers the stories of such women interred at the Scottish Cemetery in Kolkata, the West Bengal city that was once the administrative HQ of British India (previously called Calcutta). I wanted to highlight and explore these forgotten social histories through a “hauntological” perspective. Rather like a ghost, these unearthed stories were a returning of the past to “haunt” the present.
By uncovering the complicating histories of colonial women, I wanted to highlight the challenges of the decolonial gaze, which seeks to counter traditional historical narratives created by colonisers. In other words, the untold stories of the Scottish women in Calcutta revealed in my documentary (below), returned to the present to disrupt the accepted interpretations of European colonial history in West Bengal. This now invites people to engage with a different and overlooked perspective of the period.
While their husbands were building, buying, managing and administrating British India, wives and daughters were working in hospitals, teaching in schools and helping to provide community services. But their efforts and contributions went unacknowledged in the historical unfolding of empire.
A documentary approach
In 2019, I collaborated with academics from Bridgewater State University in the US in making my documentary to unpack these issues. The documentary argues that the physical death and decay of the human body does not necessarily erase the social and historical narratives that have shaped a person’s existence.
Through their discovery and circulation, the cemetery stories of the Scottish women endure beyond graveyards that decline with time, and now exist in the present and the future. The women’s stories make an effort to “honour and resurrect the future inside the past” because they have laid bare another dimension to European colonisation that previous interpretations had overlooked.
The documentary engages with the narratives of 11 Scottish women, selected from the available list of names in the cemetery records. Initially, 24 women were identified for documentation, but less than half could be used as the carvings on so many of the gravestones were too faded or degraded to use. The film shows that these stories have not come from existing written or oral accounts. Instead, these tales of real and often difficult lives have been resurrected from the information chiselled onto gravestones.
Here we find stories of Scotswomen like Jane Elliott, who worked as a missionary and looked after homeless children in Calcutta; or Christina Rodger Wighton who worked with people suffering from cholera, malaria and dysentery and died herself of cholera aged just 27; or Caroline Leach who arrived in India in 1850 just as epidemics broke out and worked as an apothecary in a leper colony; or Anne Baynes Evans who worked with the poor through the Baptist Missionary Society and was committed to educating young Indian women. Apart from their gravestones and cemetery records, no account of these women’s lives and achievements exist.
Many other colonial women’s lives in India follow the same pattern. Here were Scotswomen who saw their role as benevolent colonisers, contributing towards the “growth” and “development” of Calcutta by establishing schools for girls, health centres, nature parks and places of worship. But the ultimate goal of their high-minded and no doubt well-meaning contributions was to justify why colonisation was necessary.
Voices from stone
But these women played an important role as doctors, teachers, apothecaries, nurses, missionaries and even piano tuners. The gravestone stories reveal the various ways Scottish women independently played an active role towards shaping the European colonial administration in Bengal, and particularly in Calcutta.
But their stories have remained mostly undiscussed due to lack of documentation – their lives not seen as even deserving a note for posterity. The stories that remain on their gravestones function as what anthropologist Fiona Murphy calls “unpacified ghosts”. Their stories call out to be heard, and to challenge the practice of “conditional inclusion” which preserves historical colonial power structures, by unearthing untold stories of women’s lives and contributions.
This research not only makes an effort to document the historical narratives of these Scottish women, but also illustrates how cemetery gravestones literally remind us of the past, revealing stories that show once again how history is so often written from a singular – and male – perspective. But now the lives of these woman have at last been illuminated. Even in their silence, the dead have a story to tell.
1918 flu pandemic killed 12 million Indians, and British overlords’ indifference strengthened the anti-colonial movement
In India, during the 1918 influenza pandemic, a staggering 12 to 13 million people died, the vast majority between the months of September and December. According to an eyewitness, “There was none to remove the dead bodies and the jackals made a feast.”
At the time of the pandemic, India had been under British colonial rule for over 150 years. The fortunes of the British colonizers had always been vastly different from those of the Indian people, and nowhere was the split more stark than during the influenza pandemic, as I discovered while researching my Ph.D. on the subject.
The resulting devastation would eventually lead to huge changes in India – and the British Empire.
From Kansas to Mumbai
During the early months of 1918, the virus incubated throughout the American Midwest, eventually making its way east, where it traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with soldiers deploying for WWI.
Introduced into the trenches on Europe’s Western Front, the virus tore through the already weakened troops. As the war approached its conclusion, the virus followed both commercial shipping routes and military transports to infect almost every corner of the globe. It arrived in Mumbai in late May.
When the first wave of the pandemic arrived, it was not particularly deadly. The only notice British officials took of it was its effect on some workers. A report noted, “As the season for cutting grass began … people were so weak as to be unable to do a full day’s work.”
By September, the story began to change. Mumbai was still the center of infection, likely due to its position as a commercial and civic hub. On Sept. 19, an English-language newspaper reported 293 influenza deaths had occurred there, but assured its readers “The worst is now reached.”
Instead, the virus tore through the subcontinent, following trade and postal routes. Catastrophe and death overwhelmed cities and rural villages alike. Indian newspapers reported that crematoria were receiving between 150 to 200 bodies per day. According to one observer, “The burning ghats and burial grounds were literally swamped with corpses; whilst an even greater number awaited removal.”
But influenza did not strike everyone equally. Most British people in India lived in spacious houses with gardens and yards, compared to the lower classes of city-dwelling Indians, who lived in densely populated areas. Many British also employed household staff to care for them – in times of health and sickness – so they were only lightly touched by the pandemic and were largely unconcerned by the chaos sweeping through the country.
In his official correspondence in early December, the Lieutenant Governor of the United Provinces did not even mention influenza, instead noting “Everything is very dry; but I managed to get two hundred couple of snipe so far this season.”
While the pandemic was of little consequence to many British residents of India, the perception was wildly different among the Indian people, who spoke of universal devastation. A letter published in a periodical lamented, “India perhaps never saw such hard times before. There is wailing on all sides. … There is neither village nor town throughout the length and breadth of the country which has not paid a heavy toll.”
Elsewhere, the Sanitary Commissioner of the Punjab noted, “the streets and lanes of cities were littered with dead and dying people … nearly every household was lamenting a death, and everywhere terror and confusion reigned.”
In the end, areas in the north and west of India saw death rates between 4.5% and 6% of their total populations, while the south and east – where the virus arrived slightly later, as it was waning – generally lost between 1.5% and 3%.
Geography wasn’t the only dividing factor, however. In Mumbai, almost seven-and-a-half times as many lower-caste Indians died as compared to their British counterparts – 61.6 per thousand versus 8.3 per thousand.
Among Indians in Mumbai, socioeconomic disparities in addition to race accounted for these differing mortality rates.
The Health Officer for Calcutta remarked on the stark difference in death rates between British and lower-class Indians: “The excessive mortality in Kidderpore appears to be due mainly to the large coolie population, ignorant and poverty-stricken, living under most insanitary conditions in damp, dark, dirty huts. They are a difficult class to deal with.”
Death tolls across India generally hit their peak in October, with a slow tapering into November and December. A high ranking British official wrote in December, “A good winter rain will put everything right and … things will gradually rectify themselves.”
Normalcy, however, did not quite return to India. The spring of 1919 would see the British atrocities at Amritsar and shortly thereafter the launch of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. Influenza became one more example of British injustice that spurred Indian people on in their fight for independence. A periodical published by the human rights activist Mahatma Gandhi stated, “In no other civilized country could a government have left things so much undone as did the Government of India did during the prevalence of such a terrible and catastrophic epidemic.”
The long, slow death of the British Empire had begun.
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