Commentary / World

The shackles of history in a democracy

by Brahma Chellaney

History helps shape national perceptions and perspectives and undergirds national security. However, the boundary between historical fact and fiction is more porous than students of history might think. History is not only written by victors but also is used by most nations as a political tool in intrastate or interstate context.

Indeed, many countries create self-serving or sanitized historical narratives. Autocracies have a monopoly on presenting and interpreting history. China, the fairy tale Middle Kingdom, weaves legend with history to foster a chauvinistic Han Chinese culture centered on regaining lost glory.

Democracies are not free from historical revisionism, although their history debates are more nuanced, usually pitting the political right against the left. In Japan, for example, attempts to reform the U.S.-imposed national security, educational and legal systems are portrayed by the left as a potential revival of prewar militarism. South Korea’s historical revisionism, for its part, is still poisoning its relations with Japan.

India, which, like South Korea, fell prey to the ravages of colonialism, has had a static history debate, a reflection of its internal divisions and inefficient, British-style parliamentary democracy. In sharp contrast to South Korea’s or China’s still-continuing tirades against Japan over its colonial rampages in the pre-World War II period, India’s relationship with Britain remains free of historical rancor, in spite of the brutality and impoverishment that it suffered under British colonial rule.

Indeed, India embellished or distorted how it won independence in 1947. Indians are still taught in school that their country gained independence through nonviolence.

However, for the first time ever, India’s Republic Day parade this year featured veterans of the Japan-supported Indian National Army (INA), which waged an armed struggle against British colonial rule. Four INA veterans in their 90s rode in a jeep in a parade that, paradoxically, showcased through 22 tableaux the life experiences of the apostle of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi.

The juxtaposed roles of the INA and Gandhi at the Jan. 26 parade inadvertently highlighted a central contradiction in India’s historical narrative about independence. The INA veterans’ participation, in fact, helped underscore the Indian republic’s founding myth — that it won independence through nonviolence. This belief is deeply etched in the minds of Indians.

To be sure, the Gandhi-led nonviolent independence movement played a critical role, both in galvanizing grassroots Indian resistance to British rule and in helping to gain independence. But the decisive factor was the protracted World War II, which reduced to ruins large swaths of Europe and Asia, especially the imperial powers. The war between the Allied and Axis powers killed 80 million, or 4 percent of the global population.

Despite the U.S.-engineered Allied victory, a devastated Britain was left in no position to hold on to its colonies, including “crown jewel” India. Even colonies where there was no grassroots resistance to British (or other European) rule won independence in the post-World War II period.

The British had dominated India for more than a century through a Machiavellian divide-and-rule strategy. Their exit came only after they had reduced one of the world’s wealthiest economies to one of its poorest. Indeed, they left after they had looted to their heart’s content, siphoning out at least $44.6 trillion up to 1938, according to economist Utsa Patnaik’s recent estimate.

Had India, in the immediate aftermath of independence, proactively secured its frontiers, it could have averted both the Kashmir and Himalayan border problems. China was in deep turmoil until October 1949, and India had ample time and space to assert control over the traditional Himalayan borders, including its extraterritorial rights in Tibet. But India’s pernicious founding myth gave rise to a pacifist country that believed it could get peace merely by seeking peace, instead of building the capability to defend peace.

Here’s the paradox: Countless numbers of Indians died due to British colonial excesses. Just in the man-made Bengal famine of 1942-1945, 6 to 7 million Indians starved to death (a toll far greater than the Holocaust) due to the British war policy under Prime Minister Winston Churchill of divesting India of its own resources. Churchill had as much blood on his hands as Adolf Hitler, a fact obscured by the victors’ prevailing narratives.

Moreover, imperial Britain sent Indian soldiers in large numbers to fight its dirty wars elsewhere, including the two world wars, and many died while serving as cannon fodder. The Indian civilian and military fatality toll in World War II was far higher than that of Britain, France and the U.S. combined.

Indeed, the present Indian republic was born in blood: As many as a million civilians died in senseless violence and millions more were uprooted in the British-contrived and rushed partition of the subcontinent — the fruition of Britain’s divide-and-rule policy.

Yet the myth of India uniquely charting and securing its independence through nonviolence was propagated by the inheritors of the British Raj, the British-trained “brown sahibs.” Consequently, no objective discourse was encouraged post-1947 on the multiple factors — internal and external — that aided India’s independence.

In truth, the hope of Indian independence was first kindled by Japan’s victory in the 1904-1905 war with Russia — the first time an Asian nation comprehensively defeated a European rival. However, it was the world war that Hitler unleashed — with Imperial Japan undertaking military expeditions in the name of freeing Asia from white colonial rule — that acted as the catalyst. An emboldened Gandhi served a “Quit India” notice on the British in 1942.

While the Subhas Chandra Bose-led INA could not mount a formidable threat to a British colonial military overflowing with Indian recruits, the Bombay mutiny and other Indian troop revolts of 1946 triggered by INA prisoners’ trials undermined Britain’s confidence in sustaining the Raj, hastening its exit. Yet, independent India treated INA soldiers shabbily, with many abandoned into penury.

Against this background, the rehabilitation of Bose and the INA has long been overdue in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well to initiate the process, however low key, to give Bose and the INA their due, including recently renaming one Andaman island after Bose and two other Andaman islands to honor the INA’s sacrifices. Modi even wore the INA cap to address a recent public meeting in the Andaman archipelago on the 75th anniversary of Bose’s hoisting of the Indian tricolor flag there — the only territory that the INA managed to liberate from British rule.

Today, a rules-based international order premised on nonviolence remains a worthy aspirational goal. But Indian romancing of nonviolence as a supposedly effective political instrument has crimped national security policy since independence. The country long hewed to pacifism (with the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly bewailing in 1962 that China had “returned evil for good” by militarily invading India) and frowned on materialism (even after China surpassed India’s GDP in 1984-1985).

Such has been the burden of India’s quixotic national philosophy centered on nonviolence that it has imposed enduring costs, including an absence of a strategic culture despite the country’s location in the world’s most-troubled neighborhood. As the late American analyst George Tanham pointed out, the lack of a culture to pursue a clear strategic vision and policy hobbles India’s ambition to be a great power.

Recognizing unsung heroes is an essential step that India has initiated, however belatedly, toward rebalancing its historical narrative. As George Orwell famously said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

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