India has been a place I have wanted to visit ever since as a teenager I read my father’s account of being interned by the British (for being a communist) in the Himalayan foothills in the 1940s.¹ My wish was finally granted earlier this month when my wife Doireann and I spent several weeks travelling through that mighty nation of 1.3 billion people, with all its brilliant ancient civilisations, spectacular economic advances and savage social divisions.
In this limited space I can only essay a few highlights. On the first day in Delhi, wandering through the lively slum streets of Chandni Chowk, we were fortunate to come across the local Sikh community’s noisy and colourful festival to mark the martyrdom of one of its great saints, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by a Moghul emperor in 1675 for refusing to convert to Islam. The turbaned Sikhs are a proud and martial people, warriors who have provided fighters for the British and Indian armies for a century and a half. They love marching bands and music and mock battles, and orange (the colour of welcome) is everywhere in their parades. In 1947 they were abandoned to a cruel fate by the British empire they had faithfully served – but more of that (and other possible parallels with Northern Ireland) later.
In Agra we utterly smitten, as countless thousands before us, by the shining, white marble magnificence of one of the world’s most famous buildings, the 17th century Taj Mahal, built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. The poet Rabindranath Tagore described this magnum opus of Mughal architecture as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”. It is the sort of celestial building that makes small European tourists feel very insignificant indeed.
In Udaipur in Rajasthan, we sat on the terrace of an elegant 18th century haveli (townhouse) and watched the sun set across Lake Pichola, surely one of South Asia’s most magical waterscapes. In nearby Ranokpur we were moved by the ancient spirituality of a marvellous Jain temple, the centre of a worship system based on ahimsa or non-violence to all living beings. Further south, in the Western Ghat hills of Kerala, we walked through tea plantations and tropical forests full of every spice and herb and exotic fruit under the sun. In Varkala in the deep south we bathed on Papanasam beach, beside devout Hindus who for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, have been coming to this place to pray and scatter the ashes of their deceased family members.
Kerala is a particularly fascinating and beautiful place. ‘God’s Own Country’, its inhabitants call it, and they’re not far wrong. In 1957 it became the first place in the world to democratically elect a communist government and coalitions of left-wing parties have been in power off and on ever since. The result is a unique kind of Indian consumer communism. On the one hand, high levels of literacy, education and health care, land reform and family planning; on the other a construction boom of skyscraping office blocks and giant billboards (interspersed with red Marxist flags) advertising everything from gold and jewellery to smart apartments and elegant women’s clothes. Many of the endemic Indian problems of poverty (although in less extreme form), corruption and pollution remain, and the economy is greatly buttressed by emigrants’ remittances, particularly from health, construction and IT workers in the Persian Gulf, North America and Europe (including Keralan nurses in Ireland). But there are clearly lessons here for how an under-developed society can begin to succeed.
And what about the poverty? As the celebrated BBC India correspondent, Mark Tully, wrote when he watched families and children bedding down for the night on the streets during a trip to the poor northern state of Bihar in the early 1990s: “When faced with the poverty of India, the temptation is to despair. I have always tried to guard against that: it is futile and does not help the poor. Despair is also frightening when you love the person or country you despair of. Nevertheless, I did despair that night. I despaired of those children, I despaired of Bihar and I despaired of India. I thought then that there did not seem to be any hope for the system, and that must mean bloodshed. But post-colonial history has shown that bloodshed is no answer to a nation’s problems. The strength of India lies in the resilience of the poor.That night I, like so many outsiders, had forgotten that the pavement-dwellers of Patna do manage to make lives for themselves, they have families and friends, they have their hopes and their fears. They are to be admired, not pitied. The poor may be fatalists, but that does not mean they have despaired.”²
The history of India over the past 160 years is littered with associations with Ireland, not least in the (British) Indian Army and the Indian Civil Service (ICS). General John Nicholson, the bloodthirsty evangelical Protestant who suppressed the 1857 Indian Mutiny – effectively the first Indian uprising against British rule – was Dublin-born and Ulster-raised (there is still a statue to him in Lisburn, Co. Antrim). The distinguished writer on India, William Dalrymple, calls him “this great imperial psychopath.” Sir Michael O’Dwyer, a Catholic from Tipperary, was the hard-line Governor of Punjab in 1919 whose harsh measures against social unrest and declaration of martial law set the scene for the notorious Amritsar massacre, in which 379 unarmed Indian protesters were shot dead. There were, of course, also many excellent Irish administrators in the ICS, personified by Louis Dane, from an Anglo-Irish family in Fermanagh, who was O’Dwyer’s popular, democratically-minded and Urdu-speaking predecessor in Punjab (and the man who in 1912 handed over the Delhi district to the British government in India to become its new capital).
In the 1930s and 1940s, as India approached independence, the Irish echoes continued. An extraordinary London-Irishwoman, Annie Besant (friend of Michael Davitt, George Bernard Shaw and W.B Yeats), had set up the Indian Home Rule League as early as 1914 and served as president of the Indian National Congress in 1917. Contacts between Irish and Indian nationalist revolutionaries went back to the 1916 Rising. Eamon de Valera, in his inimitable manner, did his relations with the wartime Churchill government no favours by sending a congratulatory telegram to Subhas Chandra Bose, the militant (and pro-Nazi) nationalist who had raised an ‘Indian National Army’ to fight alongside the Japanese as they marched through Malaya and Burma with the aim of invading British India. In the spring of 1947 Indian National Congress leader (and later prime minister) Jawaharlal Nehru vehemently turned down a farcical early ‘independence’ proposal by the new Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, that each of the 11 Indian provinces should be allowed to decide its own fate, warning that it would create ‘Ulsters’ all over the sub-continent.
It is often forgotten that far from being an example of a benevolent great power withdrawing peacefully from the ‘jewel in the crown’ of its empire, the British withdrawal from India was a chaotic, last gasp – and in the end horrifically violent – affair. Winston Churchill, an old-fashioned imperialist who believed passionately that Britain’s status as a world power rested on retaining its colonies, used to become unbalanced when the subject of Indian independence was even mentioned. During the Second World War he did precisely nothing to plan for a post-British India. This was despite repeated pleas from his senior officials that the growing strength of the the Indian National Congress and the rapid drift of the country towards civil war between Indian nationalists and followers of the Muslim League, who were demanding a separate Pakistan, urgently required a clear plan and timetable for independence. His Labour successor as prime minister, Clement Attlee, was paralysed by indecision. In the end it took a deep UK economic crisis in the spring and summer of 1947 – largely caused by the massive postwar sterling debt to the US – to force him into action, and to send Mountbatten to extricate Britain from this extremely expensive colony in as short a time as possible. That withdrawal plan was drawn up in barely three hours and implemented in an almost unbelievable three months. And the British knew it would lead to civil war.
The partition of India (drawn up by an utterly ignorant English lawyer) pitched the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh inhabitants of the two new countries, India and Pakistan, into a catastrophic ‘communalist’ conflict, with up to a million people killed and 14-17 million people uprooted from their homes in what was one of the largest forced migrations in human history.³
Which brings me back to the Sikhs and the lessons of India for the tiny part of the former British empire that I know best, Northern Ireland. For there had been a significant unionist current in Punjab, the Sikh heartland, until the death of its powerful Unionist Party Chief Minister, Sir Sikander Hayat Kahn, in 1942. Hayat Kahn had forecast that the establishment of Pakistan would lead to a massacre of Hindus by Muslims in his strategically and economically important, but deeply divided, province. Five years later, when it was partitioned by an ill-thought out border line, that is what happened, except that both communities massacred each other – and the Sikhs.
Britain’s partition plan effectively left the Sikhs to their fate. They were so inextricably intertwined in the new Pakistani territory that nothing short of a giant population transfer – rejected by the British as impractical and alarmist – would keep them in India where they wanted to be. In the event, that population transfer was forced anyway by a massive outbreak of violence. The Governor of Punjab, Sir Evan Jenkins, told Mountbatten that the British were now abandoning the community that had so loyally provided them with troops for decades.
There is a lesson here for Northern Ireland’s Protestants (although, of course, no parallel between faraway countries in very different times can be exact). Until 17 months ago I believed that I would not see Irish unity in my lifetime, trusting that the finely-tuned balancing mechanism of the Good Friday Agreement would allow the two Northern communities to share power into the medium future and the two Irish jurisdictions to find new and creative ways to live together short of a united Ireland.
However Brexit has changed everything. I believe that post-Brexit Britain will be a politically and economically unstable entity, dominated by English nationalism and out on its own as a third-rate power in an increasingly uncertain world. The country’s leadership is shaping up to be the weakest and most incoherent for at least 60 years, and I foresee that leadership being forced to tackle major economic problems in the not too distant future.
In these circumstances, the temporary alliance between the Conservatives and the DUP looks like a paltry thing. I believe that sometime in the next 10 or 20 or 30 years, a political or economic crisis in Britain – which by that time may consist of England, Wales and Northern Ireland only – will result in cold eyes in London being cast at its expensive, troublesome Irish province, which may by then have a narrow nationalist majority. Such a crisis, along with the deep lack of fellow-feeling of the vast majority of English politicians and people for Northern Ireland, may well result in a British decision, legitimised by a Border Poll, to finally withdraw from the island of Ireland. (I will come back to the role of the Irish Government in such an eventuality in a future blog.)
I don’t expect the small, fearful men and women leading the DUP to take heed of this warning. But more thoughtful Northern Protestants should. Never underestimate the ruthless self-interest of an imperial power when the chips are down and its economic survival is at stake.
¹ Strange Land Behind Me by Stephen Pollak (1951)
² No Full Stops in India (1991), p.305
³ Recommended further reading: two superb books by Patrick French – India: A Portrait (2011) and Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division (1997); The Last Moghul: The Fall of Delhi 1857, by William Dalrymple (2006); and Servants of the Empire: The Irish in Punjab 1881-1921 by my friend Patrick (Paddy) O’Leary (2011), mountaineer and Indian scholar.