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What's In A Label?

By Monish R. Chatterjee, Ph.D.

26 October, 2006

This entry is a review of the book Calcutta: a Cultural and Literary History by Krishna Dutta. I focus primarily on Ms. Dutta's treatment of Subhas Chandra Bose and Bengal's freedom fighters.

An excerpt of a book (Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History, Interlink Publishing, 2003) by Krishna Dutta was brought to my attention by a friend well-known among my circle of friends as being uncommonly patient, kind and forgiving even towards those that might treat him wrong. This friend, who has that rare Gandhian (I use the word a little cautiously) gift of finding only the good and virtuous in even those lacking such qualities in common perception, mentioned to me that he was rather disturbed by Krishna Dutta's treatment of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. My comments in this review will be limited to Ms. Dutta's unwarranted smear job on Netaji Subhas and Bengal's freedom fighters.

I know- as soon as I, a Bengali from Kolkata mention Netaji Subhas, defenders and upholders of the Krishna Dutta school of transferred occidental enlightenment will proclaim- here is another starry-eyed, sentimental Bengali rant on Subhas Chandra Bose. That school, founded in part by the redoubtable Nirad C. Chaudhuri (whom Krishna Dutta uses profusely as reference material)- often enjoys the limelight provided by "turning the gaze from the West to the East" (I use the quotations to let the metaphor stand out), and bashing eastern society and institutions works rather well in the pursuit of this goal. Just take a look at Arundhati Roy- who has made quite a career branding "Hindu" India a glaring example of imperial cruelty and arrogance that, in her twisted logic, compares with, and exceeds, that of America or England or Europe. In her somewhat jaded vision, India's efforts at keeping the state of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian union (however imperfect that effort may have been at times), and prevent continuing violence sponsored by her neighbor ruled by a fundamentalist military junta- is the same as, if not worse than, the U.S. invasion of Iraq based on blatantly false premises! Hooray- say America and England- and here we were, wallowing in self-pity about our centuries-old imperial enterprise! I need to mention here that recently when Arundhati Roy launched her diatribes against India using the imperial analogies, her interviewer, Amy Goodman, hardly a person with any pro-Hindu axe to grind, seemed rather nonplussed by her assertions. My kudos to Amy Goodman for having seen through Roy's hyperbole.

On the question of the starry eyed, Netaji-loving Bengalis that are brought up for ridicule so graphically by Krishna Dutta- first of all, let me mention that I find it more than a trifle amusing that she managed to find some Bengali students that asserted to her that Netaji marched into Delhi and evicted the British. Not knowing who these students were, and still maintaining a considerable amount of respect for the intrinsic intelligence of my fellow (and younger) Bengali students (I ascribe the label "student" upon myself here from the oft-taught idealism of being a lifetime student)- I am almost driven to wondering whether these students were in fact speaking tongue-in-cheek, simply to rile Ms. Dutta, in view of her frustration with sentimental, irrational Bengalis. Be that as it may- I find it simply ludicrous to assert (in support of the negative thesis on Bose) that Bengalis are irrational enough to believe that Bose was not lost to India following the flight from Taihoku in 1945, or that he was (even is?) around to pick up the hero's mantle for years afterwards. This is a kind of smear that, when applied to Bose's admirers (and I must say, Bose had, and still has, plenty of admirers across India, and not only in Bengal)- actually serves to make Subhas Chandra look like a pathetic, misguided, cartoon-figure in the history of India's freedom struggle. And to further bolster this caricature of a much-loved Bengali hero, authors such as Chaudhuri and Dutta do not spare any effort to give a special sheen and polish to the substantially Westernized (and hence illuminated) Nehru, and the highly sainted Gandhi (who must be upheld without the slightest criticism).

I grew up in Bengal in the 1960s and '70s (as well as in U.P., where Netaji was greatly admired in the 1960s), and have come across then, and since then, many Bengali college students that admire Bose for his courage, unifying vision, and unsurpassed courage (next to which, I consider that of Nehru not even 2nd tier)- who nevertheless would never jump on the "I believe Netaji is alive, and will be back to rescue India" bandwagon. India's loss of Bose is simply a wrenching heartbreak to them, and, given all that has happened to India since 1945- it is also the source of a deep sense of tragedy vis-à-vis what might have been. It is rather incredulous to me that even with its apparent decline on a national scale in recent years, education in Bengal will have sunk so low as to produce naive "believers" that suffer pure fantasy and willingly renounce reality. Ms. Dutta certainly picked her representative samples well. Does this mean there may not be the occasional deluded souls that are irrational about Netaji as a consequence of their devotion? Of course not. But for an otherwise renowned author (some of whose works on that other Bengali obsession, Tagore, I have read and on balance, though not unequivocally, appreciated) to assert that the fantasizing youths she holds up, somehow represent Bengali naiveté, is truly unfortunate. I would in fact like to know if Ms. Dutta ascribes to Americans as a whole the attributes of an impractical, fantasizing people because some of them regularly
declare Elvis sightings, or others yet, decide to commit mass suicide because they believe they will ride to heaven aboard the Haley-Bopp comet? Honestly, is there any dearth of irrationality in the Western world when it comes to beliefs, sightings and convictions? If anything, I would maintain that there are, in all likelihood, more fantasy-believing and reality-denying individuals in Ms. Dutta's beloved West than I have personally come across or read about in Bengal or India (to cite a political example, notice how the Indian population manages to diagnose political malfeasance every so many years, and throw out the rascals in an effort to clean house? By comparison, here in the bastion of liberty, what have the American and English voters given to the world? A chimpanzee and a poodle! And a House, Senate and Parliament full of numbskulls). If nothing else, the experience of the last 5 years proves beyond any doubt
how deeply reality-deprived a sizeable fraction of the population in the vaunted West really is!

Before going back to the matter of Subhas Chandra Bose, let me also record here my dismay at Ms. Dutta's use of the word "terrorist" in describing the young freedom fighters Benoy, Badal and Dinesh. The words "terrorist" and "terrorism" are today simply obscene tools in the hands of corporate killers and imperial marauders. The word terrorist itself has a long, inglorious history, and has been used by looters and plunderers in defining the militant actions of a subject race. In a colonized society, clearly, the colonial masters have all the tools of power and repression, and exercise them at will to keep control over their ill-gotten dominion. In such an unbalanced environment, it is rather common anywhere in the world, and anywhere in history, to find colonial subjects, often young and idealistic, taking up arms against a murderous and tyrannical system. Granted, there is a rare, alternative instrument in the stupendous fight against repression and exploitation- ahimsa or nonviolence- an instrument used by Gandhi, and later by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela with varying, albeit tangible measures of success. However, it is especially convenient for the very demonic, imperial, repressive power that kills by the thousands and millions, and loots by the billions or trillions, to castigate and vilify more militant forms of resistance to their racist and corporatist designs by the generic term "terrorism." The expression one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter has been around for a long time, and is not without merit. Except, of course, that through common usage in an imperially trained world it is treated with a sense of implied derision, often by authors and journalists. In today's parlance, such derisive usage is very similar to the oxymoronic phenomenon called "imbedded reporting" that has been witnessed in the imperial campaign of the past four years.

I would likely honor the use of a term similar to "terrorism" relative to any militant action in pursuit of freedom if such usage came from a true practitioner of nonviolence and pacifism, such as Gandhi himself. Yet, I am fairly convinced that a deeply illumined spirit such as Gandhi would resist using such a term because he would immediately perceive the service to imperialism and tyranny implied by its usage. Imperial powers are the least qualified purveyors of nonviolence and pacifism, yet demonization of the opponent by any means necessary (invoking divinity, freedom, liberty, rights, values and so forth, are common tactics) is a common strategy in their dark, Orwellian world.

What I find particularly objectionable about an author using the label "terrorist" much the same way as the British and American imperialists always have is that it dishonors the spirit and yes, anger of oppressed people attempting to bring justice and humanity to their land and their lives. Millions in Bengal were moved deeply by the exhortations of a Kazi Nazrul Islam who wrote the stirring revolutionary poem Bidrohi (The Rebel) and lines such as Awaken, Oh Youth! All this talk about peace is giving us a massive case of arthritis. Not surprisingly, this most compassionate and humane of poets was tried in English court for sedition, for inciting youth to
rebel, with arms if necessary. In my youth, when India was freshly free from British rule, I watched in rapt fascination a biographical film on India's beloved Netaji in which there was a powerful song of Khudiram (incidentally, Khudiram Bose was a teenaged freedom fighter who attempted to assassinate the British Viceroy, and was later hanged). In the song, which is a heart-rending ballad (and was apparently sung by common folk in Bengal, from peasants and laborers to office clerks), Khudiram (a "terrorist" by Ms. Dutta's measure) expresses regret that he missed his target, and managed to kill an innocent British citizen. A freedom-loving, justice-loving human being driven to a violent act- hardly a "terrorist" in my books.

The question may well arise if there is such an entity as a terrorist. In other words, are the concepts of terrorists and freedom fighters simply interchangeable under all circumstances? Obviously not, and I do not profess such a thesis. To me, terrorism is that process or act by which a fundamentalist, racist, hegemonistic, supremacist, or zealotry-driven agenda is imposed upon innocent people anywhere by unprovoked acts of violence. Groups such as the KKK, nations such as imperial, territorial conquerors, profit-seeking corporations, and religious fundamentalists or fanatics fit this definition. Using fear to propagate a narrow, sectarian view is terrorism. But rising up in opposition to occupation, oppression and injustice, sometimes with arms, is not terrorism. It is, as is historically borne out throughout the world, an act of desperation by decent human beings pushed to the very limit of their human capacity to tolerate injustice and tyranny.

Like so many others, I have the greatest regard for the Gandhian method- the ideas of soul force, civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance, satyagraha, and the like. The primary difficulty with this noblest instrument for a just struggle is that for a people faced with genocide or slaughter, mass deprivation, hunger or famine- time is hardly an asset in their hands. From this standpoint, even though I regard myself as an avowed pacifist, and wish the power of pacifism would spread across this world like the cascades of justice visualized by Dr. King- I nevertheless do not, and never will, brand freedom fighters, young or old, men or women, as terrorists. I leave that to the nefarious neo-conservatives, ultraconservatives, self-righteous imperial, racial and culture supremacists to apply to their victims or their protectors.

I do not hesitate to regard swarajists, sangramis and revolutionaries of the world, driven by the desire to bring freedom and justice to an oppressed people, as noble souls impelled by a just cause much the same way as Gandhi was. Certainly the pacifist approach is to me the preferred path, but I would not dare to be judgmental against a human being struggling to overthrow oppression. I am curious to know if Ms. Dutta brands Bengal's beloved freedom fighters Benoy, Badal and Dinesh terrorists because somehow that label has Western approval, and makes her scholarship more legitimate to the Western readership. To me it is bad enough that Ms. Dutta smears these young men in such cavalier manner- but it is even worse that she goes a step farther to implicate Bengalis as a whole as somehow guilty of coddling "terrorists" by naming the erstwhile Dalhousie Square the Benoy, Badal, Dinesh Bag. Astounding indeed! Where else have we seen a nation honor its freedom-fighting heroes in this manner? In Mexico City, I walked down Hidalgo Square (named after the father of Mexican independence, Miguel Hidalgo); in Vietnam, the nation's capital was renamed Ho Chi Minh City; Russians renamed St. Petersburg Leningrad shortly after their revolution; I am totally convinced that somewhere in South Africa there has to be a public place named in honor of Steven Biko; the same goes for Garibaldi, de Gaulle, and yes, Horatio Nelson in Ms. Dutta's most beloved England. And this list could go on and on. I have difficulty associating any of these honored names remotely with pacifism. Then why the unjustifiable ridicule upon Bengal and Bengalis? Why invent a ridiculous word association that the acronym Be-Ba-Di (drawn from the first syllables of the names of the freedom fighters honored in the renamed square) stands for a garden of conflict? Further ridicule, I suppose. Further exemplification of Bengali naiveté, probably. It is one thing to believe Gandhian pacifism, of which I presume Ms. Dutta is a proponent; it is quite another to dishonor the sons and daughters
of one's own land that stood in opposition to the imperial and colonial stranglehold upon India. The worst part of this is that it panders directly to the sanctimonious West and its well-oiled propaganda machine in teaching those third-world savages a few lessons on civics, ethics and nonviolence! The irony is deafening.

Finally, back to the matter of Subhas Bose. To me it is not the least surprising that Ms. Dutta used Nirad C. Choudhuri's well-known screed on Netaji to build up her caricature of Bose. We have known for decades how Choudhuri began his writing career long after he spent time as a secretary for Bose's elder brother, Sarat Chandra Bose. In his distorted portrayal of Subhas, Choudhuri even stooped as low as calling him "a kind of Mephistopheles." I am prepared to cut Choudhuri some slack in that he was a contemporary of Bose, and, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. But I also believe that time and history straighten out the kinks (favorable or otherwise) of immediacy, and in that test, Netaji to me has emerged far more glorified, a heroic figure to millions (interested readers please read Brothers Against the Raj, by Leonard Gordon, and The Forgotten Army, by Peter Fay- excellent portrayals by two highly accomplished historians), a leader that inspired more than a generation, but was tragically lost while relatively young, much as Abhimanyu was in the Mahabharata. Ms. Dutta, who understandably has a high regard for Rabindranath Tagore, appears to question Tagore's judgment in anointing Subhas the Deshanayak (the Nation's Leader). For Ms. Dutta, this is a tough dilemma in trying to gauge Tagore's thinking in placing Bose on a high pedestal. Therefore, she settles the score by concluding that Tagore was later disillusioned. In my view, Tagore, as with so much else, was absolutely correct in his assessment; I do not subscribe to the thesis of his disillusionment- after all, Tagore passed away (1941) several years before Bose embarked upon his most heroic journey in the mission to free India. Had Tagore been alive then, and witnessed the plunder and pillage in the West during the genocidal war of the 1940s (whose early rumblings he had heard prior to his death, and in response written the famous monograph Crisis in Civilization)- there is no telling where he might have stood in the matter of ending imperialism and colonialism. He greatly admired Gandhi (after all, he was the one who gave him the now universally used label Mahatma)- but he also understood well the pathology of Western violence (and also human violence in general; Tagore was greatly opposed to Japanese imperialism as well, and spoke firmly against their atrocities in China). But Tagore perceived in Bose an idealistic leader that understood India's diversity, India's historic strengths and values, India's destiny in the future of humanity. Ms. Dutta further distorts Bose's record by insinuating that he was kind of rudderless in his political affiliations. We know rather well his mistreatment by the Indian National Congress. We know he founded the Forward Bloc as a political party. I believe that although, like Nehru, Bose too leaned left in political thought- he would be appalled that the Forward Bloc affiliated itself with the Marxist government of Bengal in the past 30+ years. In her diatribes, Ms. Dutta also sullies the names of India's women freedom fighters, including the Rani of Jhansi Brigade created by Bose as part of the famed Indian National Army (INA). When all is said and done, what stands out most about Bose is his unshakeable regard for diversity and secularism. The makeup of the associates that Bose worked with during his heroic struggles bears incontrovertible testimony to this. Eamon de Valera in Ireland; Punjabi Sikhs during his Great Escape from house arrest in Calcutta; Habibur Rahman and Shahnawaz Khan within the INA; Captain Laxmi Swaminathan within the INA's Rani of Jhansi Brigade; Rashbehari Bose in Japan- and the list
goes on and on. Netaji could teach the secular leaders of post-independence India a lesson or two on secularism (but with principles). I am not particularly excited by Netaji's association with Hitler or Tojo- however, given the Allies and their own dismal history with aggression and atrocities, I would not be in a hurry to pass judgment upon their opponents. Netaji, to me, was a modern day Shivaji of India- perhaps even greater still, in terms of his futuristic vision. And I am confident Bengalis and Indians will honor him for years to come.

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