Notch Below The White Man,
A Touch Above The Black
By Jawed Naqvi
09 September, 2007
am not surprised at all by the revelations in The Guardian last week
that British military scientists sent hundreds of Indian soldiers, their
colonial cannon fodder of many a foreign campaign, into gas chambers
and exposed them to mustard gas during World War II.
For the record we are talking
of a chemical warfare agent first used by the German army during World
War I. It causes skin disorders, blindness, cancer and finally death.
President Saddam Hussein, who used it, was hanged under the watch of
Iraq's Anglo-Saxon victors. Saddam's cousin was nicknamed Chemical Ali
for using it in the 1988 Anfar campaign, killing thousands of Kurds.
He got death for "genocide" this year. (Did we hear of anyone
getting punished, much less executed, for using Agent Orange in Vietnam?)
Documents uncovered by The
Guardian indicate that the British military did not check up on the
Indian soldiers after the experiments to see if they developed any illnesses.
Many of the soldiers suffered severe burns on their skin, including
their genitals. Some had to be treated
According to the report,
the controversial trials were thrown into the spotlight by newly discovered
documents at the British National Archives, which have shown for the
first time the full scale of the experiments. The Indian troops were
serving under the command of the British military at a time when India
was under colonial rule. The experiments took place over more than 10
years before and during World War II in a military installation at Rawalpindi,
now in Pakistan.
Scientists from the Porton
Down chemical warfare establishment in Wiltshire who had been posted
to the subcontinent to develop poison gases to use against the Japanese
had carried out the tests. The experiments are a little-known part of
Porton's huge programme of chemical warfare testing on humans. More
than 20,000 British soldiers were subjected to chemical warfare trials
involving poison gases, such as nerve gas and mustard gas, at Porton
between 1916 and 1989.
Many of these British soldiers
have alleged that they were swindled into taking part in the tests,
which damaged their health for years to come after the trials. The reports
record that in some cases Indian soldiers were exposed to mustard gas
protected only by a respirator. On one occasion the gas mask of an Indian
sepoy slipped, leaving him with severe burns on his eyes and face. The
tests were used to determine how much gas was needed to produce a casualty
on the battlefield. In 1942, the Porton scientists reported that there
had been a "large number" of burns from the gas among Indian
and British test subjects.
The Guardian report doesn't
surprise because we have always known that there was no major difference
in the worldview, or the methods of sustaining it, between 15 years
of Nazi rule in Europe and over 200 years of British colonialism across
the world. Lest we forget, their
common approaches included entrenched anti-Semitism which both practised
in different forms throughout their respective histories. But I am not
sure that India's current ruling elite would share the comparison. Britain
gave us vital civil values after all and good governance to boot, proclaimed
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Oxford University a couple of years
back. The comments of course reflected the arrival of the neo-con NRI-dominated
middle class at the helms of affairs in India.
There are cultural accoutrements
to go with this nouveau riche worldview. Here, the anti-colonial saga
is easily mixed up with the country's communal fault lines. One school
believes that fighting British rule was a heroic feat. The other takes
its history further back to the resistance against India's Turko-Afghan
rulers, followed by the uprisings against the Mughals. Thus rightwing
zealots deride fellow Muslims as offspring of Mughal emperor Babar.
The Dravid movement in the south and the Dalit movement in Maharashtra
pushed the history of their "occupation" to the Vedic period.
To the rational middle ground all three strands have their validity.
Why should anyone defend megalomaniac rulers, be they Hindu, Muslim
or of any other faith? But the current flavour is reflected in the recent
unveiling of the statue at India's parliament house of the mediaeval
warrior Rana Pratap. It comes across as an officially patronised Hindu-Muslim
paradigm as much as it is a scrupulously calculated shift away from
critiquing the former colonial masters, who happen to be today's neo-con
allies. If patriotism can be defined by opposing Emperor Akbar, otherwise
tomtomed as a secular icon, why needle Warren Hastings?
Sometimes inconvenient facts
are masked; sometimes they are refurbished with a new spin on history.
When New Delhi's India Gate was designed and built by Edward Lutyens,
it was originally called the All India War Memorial in memory of the
90,000 Indian soldiers who died in the campaigns of World War I, the
northwest frontier operations of the period, including the 1919 Afghan
fiasco. On the walls of the structure are inscribed the names of all
the Indian soldiers in the British army who perished. In other words,
the memorial stands as a towering reminder of our erstwhile slavery.
And though it got converted into a more contemporary version of war
memorial, honouring the Indian soldiers who fought in the Bangladesh
war, the walls of the India Gate memorial still bear the names of the
fallen victims of colonial wars, not those who fell in 1971.
When we refer to the NRI-dominated
middle class being today's dominant ideological force the allusion really
is to those non-resident Indians (as well as the ones who stayed home)
who have traditionally connived with colonialism for the crumbs they
were rewarded with. The old-fashioned school of sociologists called
them the comprador class. This lot shares the cultural manifestations,
including racism, of their masters. In the opposition were those Indian
expatriates who fought colonialism and its racist features wherever
there was on occasion to stand their ground.
History has shown that for
India's ruling elite, the most comfortable place on earth has been a
notch below the white man and a touch above the black, so to speak.
I always cite the example of South Africa's notorious tricameral parliament,
which was specially created during the Botha regime to accommodate Indian
immigrants as a buffer between the white rulers and the majority Africans.
Therefore, when many of the Indian migrants in South Africa were fighting
shoulder to shoulder with Nelson Mandela's ANC, the other half chose
to join the Apartheid rulers in a system in which the Black majority
This is of a piece with India's
current stance on the nuclear issue. The argument is not too different.
India can have the bomb but no other third world country is fit enough
to deserve one.
This coming form a nation
that spoke out against nuclear apartheid is nothing if not hypocritical.
The same desperation is reflected in our vain quest for seat at the
UN Security Council as a permanent member, no less, of the elite club,
never mind that we were ready to be assigned a humiliating non-veto
status in it. A little below the global ruling elite, and a little above
fellow third world nations, an NRI-inspired worldview, always looking
for that awkwardly added seat at the table, as those who have seen Peter
Sellers in The Party would understand.
That's precisely why there
will not be a statue of Bhagat Singh in the Indian parliament, the very
place from where the rebel signalled his revolt against British rule.
For that's where he dropped a small bomb from the visitors' gallery
at the colonial assembly. That's why there will not be a statue of Bahadur
Shah Zafar in the parliament, the last Mughal emperor who fought the
British. That's why India, the self-proclaimed champion of human rights
will not add its powerful voice against the daily outrages in Abu Ghraib
or Guantanamo Bay. That's why there will be more conspiratorial silence
than outrage over The Guardian story.
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