Celebrations last week of two political thinkers and activists from the previous century who are dear to the Hindu right opened up room for a discussion about the love of and trouble with the army that dominates post-colonial societies, including South Asian democracies.
Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was in the news because of claims by his right-wing Hindu supporters that he first described the uprising of 1857 as India’s first war of independence, while colonial historians saw it as a sepoy mutiny. The fact, however, is that the tag of India’s first war of independence was the title of the book with a collection of 31 articles by Karl Marx in 1857-58 published in The New York Daily Tribune.
The other person idolised in the news last week was Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP. It was JP’s birthday on Oct 11 when he would have been 117 years old. The government issued a postage stamp in his memory. JP toyed with Marxism while studying at Berkley. He later embraced agitational politics centred on Gandhi’s non-violence. He died in 1979, five years after launching a massive anti-Congress movement from Bihar, which gave the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) critical legitimacy in India’s mainstream politics, paving the way for AB Vajpayee and LK Advani to join the federal government in 1977.
In 1975, JP called on the military and police to revolt against the elected government of the Indian republic. The RSS had become the spine of his movement, feigning as it did its transient passion for India’s secular and socialist constitution.
Did the RSS not hold JP’s hand in exhorting the army and the police to disobey Mrs Gandhi’s orders? Mrs Gandhi declared emergency citing the threat and put down the call to rebellion. Savarkar applauded the failed anti-colonial mutiny, which was brutal and costly for both sides, while JP called for the military to intervene politically in Indian democracy.
It is a tribute to the Indian army that it remained loyal to the constitution. Others in India’s neighbourhood have not been so lucky as they succumbed to the lure of ‘stability’ that a politicised military usually promises in post-colonial societies, as opposed to the rough and tumble and periodic chaos that is an inevitable part of free people jostling for the attention of fellow compatriots.
It is useless to debate today whether the RSS would brook a similar call to the army — to not heed the government’s orders in Kashmir or Manipur, for example — were it to be given by an opposition party today. We have to search for an opposition party before posing the question, however.
The human dilemma of the soldier has been discussed intellectually at length. Makhdoom Mohiuddin penned a searing poem to the soldier fighting a foreign war. “Where is he headed, someone should ask the departing soldier,” Makhdoom wrote. A chasm exists between retired military officers in India. Former navy chief Admiral L Ramdas, for example, opposes Prime Minister Modi’s militarist policies and works for Indians and Pakistanis to work for peace as he believes the alternative would be unacceptable. Other former officers are fans of Modi’s Pakistan policy.
In Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man, the adorable Swiss mercenary soldier, Captain Bluntschli, forces himself into the home of the heroine Raina, engaged to a Russian army officer. Bluntschli, a fugitive from the Russian troops, tells Raina to remember that “nine soldiers out of 10 are born fools”. He admits to her, however, that he uses his ammunition pouches to carry chocolates rather than cartridges for his pistol. When he leaves, Raina quietly drops her photo in his pocket with the inscription: “To my chocolate-cream soldier.”
Do such soldiers exist? I have to admit I have met a few. I was once travelling in an army truck from the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, which was under military siege. The soldier sitting next to me was a Dalit from the Mahar community of Maharashtra.
Looking least interested in the troubled world around him, he was engrossed in a Marathi classic called Mrityunjay. It was the story of the valiant Karna from Mahabharata, he told me, who was caught in an existential crisis about which side he should be fighting for. Former US soldier Mike Prysner would endorse Captain Bluntschli but not Karna’s critical decision to fight anyhow. The young former US soldier was posted in Iraq, an assignment he describes as toxic. Prysner was revolted by the brutality and racial abuse of Iraqis he witnessed from his colleagues. He was last reported to be making a documentary on the daily nightmares of the Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank.
“They can spend millions on a single bomb, but that bomb only becomes a weapon when the ranks in the military are willing to follow orders to use it,” Prysner wrote, echoing his compatriots who stopped the Vietnam War with brave and relentless street protests.
“The billionaires who profit from human suffering care only about expanding their wealth, controlling the world economy. Understand that their power lies only in their ability to convince us that war, oppression, and exploitation is in our interests.”
So let me leave you with a soldier visualised by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, his searing portrayal of Hitler’s racist regime. In an epochal moment in the film, Chaplin, playing a Jewish barber with striking resemblance to Hitler albeit with a caring heart, surprises the assembled troops with an unusual appeal. “Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes — men who despise you — enslave you — who regiment your lives … You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate — the unloved and the unnatural!” Chaplin and Prysner seem to believe that all soldiers are potential chocolate-cream soldiers, given the chance. It’s not clear though what JP was thinking.
By arrangement with Dawn...