Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Friday, June 15, 2007

Ear-ie, ear-ie

Off on a plane again tomorrow and I haven't gotten around to talking about the books I read while in transit last time. Both absolutely fascinating. The best part about being ignorant is the joy of finding out! Although I have to say that none of this was light material -- squeamish people, skip to the NYT right now.

Did you know that the Japanese made a strong play for India during WW2? I'd like to say I hadn't remembered, but, put more honestly, at the time of reading I had no idea. I'd known that Subhash Chandra Bose had flown off to join them, but I'd had no idea that they had come this close. The dense jungles of North Burma was where the seemingly unstoppable Japanese surge through Southeast Asia was finally slowed. However, having thrown the Brits out of Burma back into India, the Japanese made a concerted attack on Imphal and Kohima -- the two major eastern cities -- during the first few months of 1944. At stake was more than a bit of territory. These two cities, and with them the strategically vital railhead of Dimapur, controlled access to plentiful stocks of grains and provisions. The Japanese, in their whirlwind conquests, had over-extended themselves. Their invincible army was winning battles while dying of starvation. They needed this food. Donovan Webster's The Burma Road details this critical yet neglected face of WW2 in gripping detail.

On the afternoon of April 6, 1944, Lt. General Kotuku Sato's 31st Division had Kohima encircled in a vice-like grip. Further south, Imphal, better defended, was also cut off from supplies. Sato communicated with Lt. General Reyna Mutaguchi of the Fifteenth Army, and they agreed on the next step to be taken. As Webster puts it, "With the British off-balance, the time was right to strike forty-six miles northwest of Kohima and take the railhead at Dimapur. Once the rail yard was captured, severing the flow of supplies and ammunition, the Brits and Indians would being to weaken daily." They communicated this plan to their superior, General Masakazu Kawabe, the man in charge of all the Japanese forces in Burma.

Kawabe disagreed. The plan was "not within the strategic objectives". He vetoed it.

In the end, the aborted attack on Dimapur may rank as the greatest missed opportunity in Japan's invasion of India. With the Dimapur railhead left open--allowing the flow of weapons, soldiers, and supplies to Kohima and Imphal--the potential for the overwhelming Japanese invasion of India was lost. And possibly the successful Japanese invasion of India was lost as well.

Who knew? All because of one man's insistence on sticking to the book. I wonder how he felt the morning after he found out? I wonder what he thought.


From the uncannily providential to the grotesquely whimsical. The Japanese army was unstoppable during the first few years of WW2. Part of the reason was their strategic brilliance, another part was their overwhelming force applied at incredible pace. A third part was the savagery with which they fought. The story of the Rape of Nanking has now had many retellings that stand testimony to Japanese brutality. The Burma Road highlighted another - possibly more positive - aspect of this.

The Brits were unable to stop the Japs as they swept all the way up from Singapore to India. However, even after they managed to turn the tide at Kohima and beat the invasion back, it was not as if they won Burma back in a stroll. They had to fight for every inch, like I said, even against an opponent who was starving to death. Japanese soldiers had performed their funeral ceremonies at home before leaving to fight. They were not scared of death. Of every company of a hundred, the British had to kill ninety-eight. Usually individually. And the last two would embrace each other, hold a grenade between their swollen bellies, and pull the pin. All the way across Burma, as the Brits followed the Japs through the murderous jungle, they had to fight in this manner mile by sweltering mile.

Indeed, reading the descriptions in this book made me see for the first time the logic behind dropping the bomb. I still don't agree with it, but now at least I see it. The bomb was only the second time during the entire war that the Japanese lost morale in any sense.

The first was in Burma.

Here's the story.

May 1942, the Allies were beaten out of Burma in the most ignominious manner possible. Lt. General Joseph Stilwell, a three star general and commanding American officer of the WW2 China operations, was chased along with a few dozen comrades for three weeks on foot westward into India. For the next two years, the only Allied presence in Burma was that of a handful of spies co-ordinating covert operations. One of the most successful of these counter-occupation forces was the Northern Kachin Levies. The Kachins are a tribal people. The NKL was formed to harass the Japanese occupation forces. They would come up on the Japs in the jungle, unseen, and only engage them if they were sure of winning -- greater numbers and the element of surprise. They made it a point to take no prisoners. They would kill their victims. And, according to their tribal custom, they would cut off their victims' ears.

As reports of victim tolls started growing, Stilwell started questioning the figures. In his diary, he reported his first meeting with a Kachin. "How can you be so sure?" In response, the Kachin pulled out a bamboo tube and, unplugging one end, dumped a pile of "small, blackish lumps" on the table. "The blackened lumps resembled bits of dried fruit, apricots perhaps, or peaches." Japanese ears.

So why did this freak the Japs out? Not because they were being taken by surprise. Not because of the vast numbers of casualties. By freakish coincidence, this struck a chord with Japanese superstition. It was part of the belief system of the vast body of the Shinto/Buddhist soldier population that dead bodies are pulled to heaven by the ears. The unseen ghost enemy in the steaming jungles of Burma had hit unerringly at the core of their superstition. That's what it took to shake the Japs -- that, and the bomb.


I am now also extremely interested in knowing more about the Japanese. Throughout history they have been an isolationist race, leaving others well alone. Interclan rivalry and samurai movies notwithstanding, also a peaceful one. What caused the sudden explosion of WW2? Out of character behavior?

Speaking of interclan rivalry I also learned a lot from the other book I read: The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr. I'd been wanting to read this ever since I saw the NYT review last year, and was glad to find it in paperback last month. Not going to talk about it in detail -- just going to say it gave me *heaps* more understanding of the mess that is the Middle East. Well-written and all, of course, plus it personifies history and that's always nice. Very highly recommended.

Also speaking of interclan rivalry, I may be offline till the end of this month. Am headed to one of my least favorite place-times on earth, and for a wedding at that. It's TPB's younger brother - call him Junior, "getting spliced" (as my hysterical father put it) with a PYT. TPB, all well-meaning no doubt (and well-inspired to boot), wants me to blog about it. However she also tells me there's no decent internet connection yet at Junior's new apartment. So maybe I'll just do something else instead.

I've heard that's possible.

And these streets
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven


Blogger km said...

There are these big, thick swathes of Indian history (and geography - usually linked) that one *just* doesn't know. The North-east is one of those areas.

So thanks for blogging this (just put up a more prominent link to that book, will ya?)

//BTW, Van Gogh was a big fan of Japanese art. Some Japanese lost their ears. Van Gogh lost an ear.

6/16/2007 12:46 AM  
Blogger wildflower seed said...

Please see "Letters From Iwo Jima".

6/16/2007 12:51 AM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Neat, Prof. More on the same lines?

Strikes a chord because I saw Bridge #277 (on the Kwai) recently. And many years ago I saw that cemetery with the inscription about 'for their tomorrow / we gave our today'.


6/16/2007 2:18 AM  
Blogger Veena said...

Hmm..should look up the book. Just the other day, moi was having this email conversation (with a guy who goes by the name of Ludwig) about the weirdness of this country called Japan where he spent some time. He's promised us a "Shakespearean solil. on Japanese weirdness" when we meet - looks like we will have to pull you into this meeting now.

Yes, yes, pls to blog about bedding. See some people trying to follow moi's path but seriously, they are all below par (Very modest I am today, aren't I?) But I have high hopes for the Professor. So please to blog.

6/16/2007 3:29 AM  
Blogger Heh Heh said...

Another interesting bit of world war II history is the story of the Burma road itself.. and that off all the airfields (now mostly abandoned, except for Kalaikunda, Dibrugarh and Guwahati) that dot the plains of Eastern India and the Brahmaputra valley from where the flights across the Hump were staged. Here is a link, for instance.

The other day I ran into an old guy in a Brooklyn deli who had been stationed in Kharagpur. The XX bomber command had its headquarters in the same building where the IIT was later founded. Most people are aware it was a jail for political prisoners, but very few are aware that it served this purpose during the war. This was incidentally the same Bomber group that was later responsible for dropping the atomic bombs.

6/16/2007 7:45 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

aye-aye, buddy! sorry for not having linked earlier.

// ... hey i knew somebody who did that in high school too.

yes, it's been on my must-watch list ever since you told me the first time :-)

thankee. more on the same lines would basically give you a toothless precis of the book. it's a must-read, *i* think, failing which the link heh heh has posted does a great job of telling part of the story.

the book also has a whole chapter devoted to the bridge on the river kwai, comparing fact with fiction. riveting stuff. (heh)

that would be nice, thanks :-) about the bedding -- you know -- TR is tempted but the Professor says he worries about his safety.

heh heh:
great link, thanks!! yes, last night while i was typing this out i was wondering whether to go into the story of the Hump or not, and decided that would be a bit of a digression (and too much typing for my current condition :-P). until i read this book i used to think that ww2 was over-analyzed to pieces but now i feel that's only the western front. from what i've seen of reports (written in english) the eastern front has largely been either neglected or caricatured -- yet feelings run SO deep in this part of the world.

6/16/2007 9:23 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Actually, I did know that - long ago peregrinations in the North East having taken me to the site in Kohima that the Japanese reached - somebody's tennis court as I recall, now converted into a cemetery. It felt really strange to be standing there, mostly because growing up in India one always felt that WW II was something that happened to other people, yet here it was, literally in our backyard.

I'm not so sure about the "sudden explosion of WW II" and the Japanese staying pretty much to themselves, btw. They fought the Chinese in 1894 and the Russians in 1904. Also, didn't they occupy Korea, Sakhalin and the Pacific Islands?

I'm not a historian and know little about Japan except what I picked up studying their economic development, but I suspect if you look into it you'll find the old, old, story of a nation rising out of feudalism (and the fractured, inefficient administration that goes with it), experiencing rapid economic growth and recognizing the need for colonies and proceeding to follow a program of Imperialism which, because all / most of the available lands had already been taken, meant pushing other established powers off their colonies. Nothing particularly obscure or oriental about it.

6/16/2007 11:44 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Surprisingly I knew this one too. Part of family lore. Greatgranddaddy was Bose's founding partner for the Forward Bloc. We all know how *that* went. Sigh. I think the man was just unlucky. And a little impulsive. And greatly undervalued as a freedom fighter.

6/16/2007 1:39 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Re Japan -- I always found their movies disturbing. They seem to have an unsentimental, matter-of-fact cruelty to them. About their WWII thing, I think the point is that they are essentially an imitative people, and at that point in their history they were imitating Western imperialism.

As for Bose -- I never understood why he's a hero. He tried to collaborate not only with Japan but with Nazi Germany -- at a time when everyone knew what the latter were up to, and people like Rajaji were urging the Congress to support the British in the war. The Brits were bad, yes -- but if the Japs had occupied India, Jalianwala Bagh would have seemed like a minor skirmish. As the Chinese and Koreans can testify.

6/16/2007 8:03 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

I went through a phase where I was fascinated with WW2 and read a fair bit about the Burma front. I recommend "Slim: The Standardbearer". (Or you could just read this)
Slim is a great read about the Burcorps, the fall of Rangoon and the story of the tens of thousands of Indian civillians who walked along with the Brit army from Rangoon to India to flee the Japanse - starving and constantly under attack.
A family friend was a part of that march as a young girl. It's a heartbreaking story and (as you point out) lost from memory.

6/17/2007 12:17 AM  
Anonymous manasi said...

I wonder how things would have been if Kohima had fallen. I am not convinced that we would have been much worse. Also, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were removed of imperial presence and lyrically renamed Swaraj and Shahid islands. Arguably, the first outposts of a free India.
As for Rajaji and the rest of the collaborators, as Anne Coulter once said, I would probably be sent to therapy if I used the right word to describe them. Rahul I think you are too quick to forgive the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, which was a manmade famine that killed far more people than the Brits sacrificed. These were people who were compelled to give their lives for other peoples tomorrows.

6/17/2007 2:19 AM  
Blogger km said...

Re Rahul's and Revealed's comments:

What exactly was Bose's contribution to India's freedom struggle?

/I'm asking, not challenging.

6/17/2007 7:53 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Manasi - thanks for quoting Coulter. Now I know where you're coming from.

6/17/2007 11:22 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

km -- I doubt I can answer without making it sound like a "challenge" to numerous nationalist bongs. So here's the wiki, which I haven't edited, but it seems to cover all angles...

As the wiki says, Indians excuse what he did as "realpolitik." (Ie, never mind what the Nazis were doing at home if they could help us here.) But even on those grounds I find it pretty misguided. Why did Bose think the Germans or Japanese would grant us independence, or would treat us any better than the British did? Both countries were on an annexation mission and India would have been a huge prize.

6/17/2007 11:29 AM  
Anonymous Manasi said...

Rahul, my political affiliations are diametrically opposite that of Anne Coulter. Nevertheless, her comments seemed especially appropriate here. Perhaps, I should have quoted Isiah Washington instead.
As for those of you rubbishing Subhas Bose, I submit that even a Vichy France or Quisling Norway would be a better model than what we had then. Indeed, your faith in the British sense of fairplay is quite touching. What else do you believe in fairy godmothers? American democracy? Thumbelina?

6/17/2007 11:27 PM  
Blogger km said...

*casting a guilty look at TR*

I knew I shouldn't be asking *that* question.

And for the record, I do believe in fairy godmothers and Thumbelina.

6/18/2007 12:31 AM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I want More from Manasi! (Does she have a blog?)

I'll even accept that Anne Coulter is Real Hot.

No, seriously.

(I once wrote an encyclopaedia article on SCB. Not surprisingly, the encyclopaedia was never published. Anyway, my research rid me of any hagiographic urges where the Great Man in the Balloon Pants was concerned.)



6/18/2007 9:24 PM  
Blogger km said...

@JAP: can you post that essay?

6/18/2007 11:04 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

JAP - km's request seconded.

6/18/2007 11:51 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Manasi said it a lot better than I could have done. Esp re: British sense of fair play and our gameplan at the moment.

And also SCB was not an idiot. I don't really think he based his entire strategy on a general belief that Everything Would Be Alright In The End.

MKG was (in my opinion and I don't want to open a can of worms here but still) a bit of a megalomaniac. His call to the people to expressly not support SCB if he made it into India was, I have always believed, largely out of fear of the consequences from the British and his own need to be the sole architect of our freedom.

6/19/2007 2:42 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

revealed -- who (other than our voluble friend Manasi) said anything about the British sense of fairplay? I only said the Germans and Japanese in the 1930s/1940s would have been worse. I doubt you'll find many people, whether colonised by those countries or not, who disagree with that statement.

The British were bad. No question about that. But asking the Nazis for help beggars belief. Do people who claim Vichy France was better than British India have the slightest clue what was going on there? Or is it your thesis that Jews don't matter, people who help Jews don't matter, people who are suspected of helping Jews don't matter, everyone else was ok? If so, I have news for you: the others weren't OK either.

Some Indians think the Nazis were for "Aryan" racial purity, and we call ourselves "Aryans" too, so the Nazis would have helped us. On principle, even if true, such an argument is beneath contempt. But in practice, too, we certainly didn't fit the Nazi ideal of Aryan-ness. Aryans were meant to be tall, blond, fair, blue-eyed.

My father was in Poland in the 1980s and everyone was complaining about the awful Russians. He commented, "It seems you hate them more than anyone in the world". They immediately said "No, the Germans were worse." The Germans had left 40 years earlier, the Russians were still there, but the memories of what the Germans did had still not faded.

In India, on the other hand, Gandhi, Nehru et al (you can hardly call them stooges of the British, no matter what you think of their methods) were immediately ready to join the British Commonwealth. They were only unwilling to accept the Queen as head of state, so the rules were amended to let India join as a republic. There was no serious ill-will towards the British.

OUtside the privileged classes there was even less ill-will. Whatever the British did to Indians pales in comparison to what privileged Indians have done for centuries to Dalits and other "backward" classes. Ambedkar is sometimes accused (especially by our rightwingers like Arun Shourie) of being soft towards the British. But if it weren't for the British neither he nor his father would ever have got an education.

6/19/2007 5:16 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

On the SCB question - if we're discussing his contribution to the freedom struggle, surely we should be talking about what he actually achieved instead of what he wanted to. Whether or not tying up with the Axis powers was a good idea in theory (and I'm with Rahul on it being a bad idea) the man didn't actually pull it off did he? I'm sure plenty of people had crackpot ideas about how to save the country. Thumbelina, for instance, wanted to booth capture the UK elections to vote Churchill out of power. My own fairy godmother assures me that she was all set to turn all the top British officials into frogs. This hardly constitutes a contribution to the freedom struggle.

Oh, and manasi, the next time you 'submit' something, you may want to back it up with facts, reasons, or this thing we have called an argument. Otherwise you're not saying anything.

6/19/2007 7:36 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

What's touching, actually, is the faith that people seem to have in the idea that self rule = freedom.

Let's say the SCB had managed to drive the British out of India with Japanese help. Let's say that he'd then managed, miraculously, to get rid of the Japanese as well, again presumably using military force (since it's hard to imagine the Japanese voluntarily giving up their new colony immediately after it was established). We now have a 'free' India that is ruled by a military junta, with a group of hard line generals in power. Nothing in the history of countries like Burma or Cambodia, or in the history of 'successful' revolutions in Latin America, suggests that this would lead to peace, stability or the establishment of personal liberty / civil rights.

I'm not saying the British (or the Japanese, or the Nazis) were any better. But if we are making up fairy stories about what would have happened if SCB had succeeded, we might as well consider the one where he (or whoever succeeds him after he's assassinated - remember Aung San?) ends up being a ruthless dictator who goes the Pol Pot way.

6/19/2007 9:33 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

falstaff: Exactly. If by some strange sequence of events Bose had succeeded in his plans (for example, if the Japs won India but then surrendered after Hiroshima), where would it have left India? We can credit the early post-independence leadership with building up democratic institutions that have endured 60 years (excepting two). Most countries that became independent at that time weren't so lucky. And I don't believe Indians have some sort of inner gift for democracy. Not a single political party of any significance observes internal democracy.

Still, all that's hypothetical, and what Bose did achieve, as you say, is very little.

6/20/2007 12:29 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

Not sure why an attempt does not count as success in some partial form.
SCB managed to gather public support, cobble together an army, led it into battle and made some initial progress before being defeated. That is not equal to not having tried at all.
It is impossible to assess to what extent his attempt weakened the British resolve to continue their occupation of India (They did leave soon after their 'victory'). But it is certainly true that he fired the public imagination to some extent and may have contributed to the general resolve to kick the firangs out.

6/20/2007 3:05 AM  
Blogger km said...

Philosophically, I am with Rahul and Falstaff. But I think MT makes a good point. That SCB tried could be his real contribution. (It sounds dismissive, but it's not.)

Besides, labels like "hero" are best left for Amar Chitra Katha stories.

6/20/2007 5:46 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

@falstaff: George Washington raised an army to drive the Brits out, but did not rule the country with a 'military junta' afterwards. There was a peaceful transition to democracy afterwards.
Why do you assume that the same would not have happened in SCB's India?

6/20/2007 5:48 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

@rahul: I don't share your view that a victorious Bose would have been a fascist dictator because Indians lack the "inner gift for democracy".
Read page 8 of this. Bose spoke often of democracy and the need for individual freedoms.
Besides, he always had a soft spot for Gandhi (read this, and I find it unlikely that he would have brushed aside Gandhi's plans for a democratic independent India.

6/20/2007 6:07 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

MT: Fair enough - as you say yourself it's impossible to quantify how much his actions helped convince the British to leave - I'm inclined to suspect the effect was marginal at best, but I'm no expert. i'd love to hear more evidence to support the idea that SCB's actions weighed heavily with the British.

I have no problem with the idea that SCB contributed to the freedom struggle by giving the British a bit of a scare - my point was just that all this talk about whether his ideas made sense or not is irrelevant because he never managed to carry them out anyway (unless you're suggesting that the whole thing was a ploy and all he wanted to do was scare the British). There's no contradiction between his being seriously misguided and his actions managing to have a positive impact nonetheless. So if we are debating his contributions let's talk about what he actually achieved, not what he planned to.

As for the George Washington example, I'm tempted to point out that whether or not Washington helped establish a free, democratic state depends on whether you were black or white / male or female. But let it go. My larger point is that all speculation about what could have happened if things had turned out differently is silly - and there's as good, if not better, historical precedent to suggest that things turn out badly when power is gained through military means. i'm not claiming that SCB's coming to power would necessarily have resulted in a dictatorship, just that the chances of that happening were fairly high, and that to assume blindly that SCB driving the British and the Japanese out would have made everything fine and wonderful is ridiculous.

oh, and Bose's being pro-democracy doesn't necessarily mean much. So was Aung San. But he got assassinated and replaced by more hardline military men. Again, 'what would have happened' stories are cheap, and you can find a historical precedent for pretty much any scenario you care to come up with.

6/20/2007 8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If SCB's contributions are marginal because he was unsuccessful then what about Rani Jhansi, Tantiya Tope, and all those good men and women who fought perhaps the first battle against imperialism. Are they too irrelevant? Bose was a stirring figure in his time. My grandparents still talk about huddling by a radio to hear the intermittent broadcasts of Azad Hind Radio. The INA trial riveted the nation and drove yet another nail in the imperialist coffin. Even the bourgeois textbooks tell you that. His was a vision of India which emphasized the equality of all people.The Rani Jhansi regiment was a stirring testament of his vision for the role of women in modern India. But what to do? No European writer has written anything favorable of him, so I guess he couldn't have been that great after all. Alas he waits to be discovered by an American academic.

6/20/2007 9:11 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

I agree completely. Speculation is silly and 'what would have happened' type of conjecture is pointless. That is why I was surprised by your assertion that Bose would have given rise to an "India that is ruled by a military junta, with a group of hard line generals in power".
As regards the whole conversation about contributions that were "actually achieved"; there are very few direct action reaction sequences in social history. Major decisions taken by a state usually take into consideration a wide array of parameters. There is (as we have both said) no way to know exactly why the Brits really decided to quit India. It is as likely that Attlee decided that he didn't have the energy to keep fighting Gandhi as it is likely that Bose filled him with dread at the thought of a second mutiny. More likely, Britain was financially and emotionally drained after the war and decided to shrink back and lick her wounds.
So Bose 'achieved' just as much as any other freedom fighter. They were all men with strength and vision who decided to make a stand. None of them individually "actually achieved" anything, but together their actions contributed to an independent India.

6/20/2007 9:30 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

manasi: See my response to MT. The point is not that SCB is irrelevant - the point is that the wisdom or advisability of his plan, which you seem to admire and that I consider severely misguided is irrelevant. Certainly SCB, like the 1857 mutineers, has great PR value as a rallying point for popular support; he, like the mutineers, makes for a beautiful failure, and his lack of success makes for great press. That doesn't mean it's not a good thing that he didn't succeed.

To be clear - I have no issue with the point of view that the SCB episode played an important role in the freedom struggle. Just as long as we're clear that his contribution is to provide a rallying point for national awareness (all these people huddled around the radio listening to the trial), and NOT that he was a visionary who came up with a supposedly great idea to force the British out by force. Remember, the issue here is not so much whether SCB has a contribution, but what, exactly, that contribution is.

MT: Oh, I wasn't asserting that the military dictatorship would have happened (SCB managing to get rid of both the British and the Japanese is so unlikely an eventuality in my view, that what would have happened after that is meaningless speculation in any case), only that it could have happened - a fact that I find most champions of SCB tend to conveniently overlook. Just painting one extreme picture to demonstrate how inherently silly the other extreme picture (where SCB single-handedly saves India from the British, the Japanese, and apparently, gender inequality) is.

6/20/2007 11:25 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

MT: Oh, and completely agree with you on the impossibility of tracing historical events back to individual actions. Except that where that leads you to conclude that everyone had a contribution, it leads me, in a Henry Higgins sort of way, to conclude that no one did. Frankly, this whole contribution business is mostly an exercise in fiction. But it makes for a fun debate, no?

6/20/2007 11:28 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

It certainly does

6/20/2007 11:43 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Falstaff, MT -- the military dictatorship thing certainly could have happened if Bose had won, despite his personal inclinations. Jinnah wanted a secular democracy and look what he got. Once you put the army in charge that's where you are.

manasi -- I didn't respond to you on Abi's blog, not wanting to further pollute his space, but I'm sure TR won't mind... Instead of pointless name-calling and accusations about motives ("bourgeois" seems your favourite word), how about addressing the basic arguments here, or offering some of your own?

To remind you, the argument in summary is: an occupation of India by the Japanese or the Germans would have been BAD (there's plenty of evidence from other countries), and if they did leave eventually, a military-dominated independent India would have been equally bad (again, there's plenty of evidence from other countries, including our neighbours).

I won't dwell much on the second point (which wasn't mine anyway, though I agree). But do you have an answer to the first? That is, do you believe that the Germans or Japanese would have done good things to India, and on what evidence?

Oh wait, yes, you do. On the evidence of Vichy France.

Never mind.

6/20/2007 11:46 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Think the George Washington crack was uncalled for. There is no such thing as a pre-packaged perfect democracy. We all do the best we can and what seemed perfect an age ago is constantly remodified no? And yes, India does have a long tradition of public discussion at least which contributes a large deal to democracy. Even today every auto guy on the road has an opinion on the current political situation in any part of India. It might be a crappy opinion but it's still an opinion. Of course, reconstructing with what-ifs is pointless but at least there is some likelihood that SCB would have established a democracy.

@rahul: Noone might have said anything about the British sense of fairplay other than Manasi, but I can still agree with her statement *even* if noone disagreed with it, no? Or does that not happen in this space?

Re: Your argument that the Japs ruling us would have been worse. Definitely. The Nazis too. But I think the point was not to be ruled by anyone, no? I don't know if selfrule justifies all the wars in its name but I do know that it's man's most primitive instinct. Maybe you can't fight that.

@Falstaff: Saying that everyone contributing might as well mean that noone contributed is (even for Henry Higgins-thinking) pretty ridiculous.

6/20/2007 1:13 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

revealed: Whatever. I'm just trying to be clear on what we mean by contribution.

If contribution means having a coherent, well thought out plan and succeeding in implementing it then SCB doesn't come close. On either count. (Oh, and enough with the "I don't really think he based his entire strategy on a general belief that Everything Would Be Alright In The End." & "I think the point was not to be ruled by anyone, no?" pussyfooting already - care to explain how this miracle of self-rule was going to be achieved? According to SCB and / or according to you)

If contribution means doing something that, in the way it turned out, had a directly traceable impact on getting the British to leave, even if not in the way it was originally intended to, then clearly SCB has some contribution, though again it's not clear to me that SCB had more than a marginal impact - at best his failure served as a convenient rallying point for popular opinion.

If contribution means having done something brave and difficult (no matter how foolish) shortly before India became independent, and we agree that since causes and effects in history aren't really traceable anyway, we'll just assume that everyone has an equal share of the glory, then certainly SCB has as important a 'contribution' as anyone else. But by that definition of contribution he's not particularly undervalued, is he? If anything he's probably overhyped. Compare how many people have heard of him vs. how many people have heard of countless local / regional congress leaders who, arguably had as important a contribution. How can SCB be undervalued (as you claim he is) when he's one of the 4-5 best known figures of the time, and his contribution is equal to everyone else's?

Look, I understand why you want to be sentimental about the guy - everyone needs heroes and SCB makes a particularly convenient and striking one - but let's not pretend that he was some deeply misunderstood and historically ignored visionary who would have effortlessly established egalitarian self-rule and cured all of India's ills if only he hadn't been a little unlucky. If anything, for someone who came up with an ill-conceived plan, failed to implement it, and maybe, just maybe managed to scare the British a little and hasten their exit, SCB gets a hell of a lot more attention in our popular imagination than he deserves.

And yes, the Washington crack was unfair. Which is why I didn't make it. Also, well, i wouldn't want to be accused of believing in American Democracy

6/20/2007 1:45 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Noone might have said anything about the British sense of fairplay other than Manasi, but I can still agree with her statement *even* if noone disagreed with it, no?
Sure. It's called a straw man. It's quite a popular technique.

6/20/2007 3:03 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

wow. i go offline for three days and this is what you kids kick up?

i'm sneaking a few minutes at a cybercafe so there's no way i can read through all this, but heck - keep it going!

6/20/2007 4:07 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Rahul: I happen to know what a straw man is. How surprising, no?

6/20/2007 4:19 PM  
Anonymous madhya said...

*Extreme* laudatory views are based on nothing but hearsay - be it from a Gandhi supporter or a SCB supporter or others. Falstaff's excellent arguments just nailed it and anything more I say will be just redundant.

" leads me, in a Henry Higgins sort of way, to conclude that no one did"

"Just painting one extreme picture to demonstrate how inherently silly the other extreme picture is."

6/20/2007 5:15 PM  
Blogger km said...

TR: Remember what I said about conversations.

6/20/2007 10:35 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

falstaff, rahul: not trying to start up an argument or anything, but just thought that this merits pointing out...
I don't think either Manasi or Revealed ever actually expressed any of the extremist opinions you seem to be attributing to them. Saying that Bose was 'not an idiot', and was undervalued as a freedom fighter or that a quisling state is better than a colony - none of that translates to "SCB single-handedly saving India from the British, the Japanese, and apparently, gender inequality".
Again, nothing against your overall point, but just wondering how a set of pretty harmless opinions led up to a heated argument.
If you were just trying to spice things up, then I'm all for it. I'm a big proponent of chavying people up to make the blogosphere a more interesting place, but if not then I think its sort of a Bushist strategy to brand a harmless opponent as an extremist and then use that to justify your own extremist response.

6/21/2007 3:17 AM  
Blogger km said...

"chavying up"! Thanks, MT, I hadn't heard that in like 15

6/21/2007 3:46 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

MT: Oh, this is entirely about spicing things up. The trouble is, I don't actually know what revealed's argument is because she hasn't bothered to state it - all I've got is a) a lot of guff about how she's sure he didn't think everything would be all right in the end and how the point was not to be ruled by anyone, without any explanation of how he planned to bring about self rule and why she thinks this plan would have worked; and b) a claim that he was undervalued without any explanation of what his contribution was, according to her, or why his current valuation in popular history doesn't do it justice.

ditto for manasi - how do I debate the claim that a quisling state would have been better than "the model we had then" when I'm given no argument about what basis we're comparing on, what the "model we had then" means, why manasi thinks a quisling state would have been better, or how she thinks Japan's relationship with India would have evolved if they had taken us over. Instead I get a lot of talk about the man's great 'vision' and his work for gender equality.

yes, I'm deliberately distorting what revealed and manasi are saying, but I'm hoping that doing that will force them to actually say something substantial, instead of giving us nothing but non sequiturs.

Plus, well, it's more fun.

6/21/2007 3:51 AM  
Blogger just said...

Great debate folks, makes for very interesting reading. Takes me back to the summer of 1998, when I spent a few months trekking through the hinterland of Bundelkhand and Chattisgarh covering assembly elections. Growing up in Bengal, I had always thought, that Subhas Bose was primarily a Bong phenom. I was greatly surprised to see the regard with which he is held in Central and Western India, from the Netaji Club in Raipur to the fervent discussions about how Netaji had been shafted with RSS pracharaks in Nagpur, it was quite clear that the man still has a mystique around him that transcends religion and caste and all that crap. Two observations, judging from the discussion here. Firstly, Netaji probably did not have much of a following in the South and that could be the origin of the ambivalence of some of the commentators here. Secondly, I think Manasi is quite right, there is a little bit of a class issue going on. Netaji, Rani Laxmibai, Tope and such are icons of mofussil India, not of the chattering classes. No English, no accent, no phoren degree, no Fabian socialism and Proust reading. How vernacular no?

6/21/2007 6:39 AM  
Blogger km said...

Firstly, Netaji probably did not have much of a following in the South and that could be the origin of the ambivalence of some of the commentators here

That argument's so old it has whiskers :) (thanks, Coen Bros.)

@Just: Sounds like you are saying *some* people here can't appreciate SCB only because they belong to a different socio-economic class?


6/21/2007 9:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well falstaff and gang, I think we need a poppy day for India so you can be thankful to the white man for carrying his burden so well. Should we call it pansy day?
I still haven't heard a response to how despite killing millions of Indians the Brits are supposed to be morally superior to the Japs and the Nazis. Now I know there is no Schindler's list, and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan just does not hold a candle to Elie Wiesel but bear with me. Surely, the genocide in 1858 and many famines thereafter were pretty BAD, or do they not matter because only the subalterns were affected? Look at pictures from the Great Bengal famine Calcutta circa 1943, some of them look like they could very well have been taken at Auschwitz. Besides, Subhas Bose was not looking to turn India into a Japanese colony as many others have mentioned before me. The thrust was to be led by the INA. The hope was that the INA would be strengthened by a wave of desertions from the British army.

Rahul your comments
I think the point is that they are essentially an imitative people is remarkably pejorative. I ask that you reflect upon the anglophilia with which you view the rest of Asia.
MT I think you make an important point about how it is not obvious that a military junta would inherit an independent India, but it seems quite obvious that people here no little about Bose and have little interest in anything but pigeonholing him as some sort of glorified warlord. That seems to me like a travesty but hey as the previous gentleman/lady mentioned
war is an uncivil matter. Best left to the unwashed, what will they think of us barbaric Indians.

6/21/2007 9:53 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

just: sorry, but I totally fail to see what your second point has to do with any of this

manasi: as far as i can tell you're the only person commenting here who has even considered the idea of British fairplay, or who is remotely interested in what the west thinks of SCB / India. If you ever manage to get the chip off your shoulder and actually feel like engaging in the debate we're having here instead of the one doubtless raging in your head, feel free to do so.

MT: And you were accusing me of misstating the other side's position!

6/21/2007 10:44 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Just - nobody is talking about, or disputing the greatness, of Rani Laxmibai, Tope, Nana Sahib, etc. It's another strawman.

Manasi - congratulations on at last making a semi-coherent point (for the second time; the first time it was buried under the personal aspersions against anyone who dares disagree with you, this time it was just barely visible). I refer to the British complicity in the Bengal famine. (I doubt the deaths in 1858 were in the range of "millions".)

Well, it was man-made, but through errors of judgement and negligence, not ethnic cleansing like the Nazis. Independent India has not had famines but has had a continuous history of starvation and malnutrition -- pictures from Kalahandi (Orissa) equally remind you of Auschwitz. The difference is Auschwitz was active ethnic cleansing. And many of the inhabitants came from Vichy France. Indians may have suffered an uncaring, arrogant, occasionally brutal government -- we still do -- but did not suffer a fascist, supremacist one inclined to active eradication of "undesirable" communities -- which we do now in states like Gujarat.

But, sorry, neither British India nor today's Gujarat come close to Vichy France.

6/21/2007 11:10 AM  
Blogger Arun said...

hey TR, stumbled on this and thought i might as well knock on ur door: jerry garcia on the cover of fader's recent issue. free dwl here -->

btw, sorry for the off topic comment. and 50+ comments! WOW!

6/21/2007 3:16 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Update -- apparently it's not entirely a hypothetical question how the Germans would have dealt with India. Apparently, when Lord Halifax met Hitler in 1937 and mentioned the British troubles in India, Hitler said: "Shoot Gandhi -- and if that does not suffice to reduce them to submission, shoot a dozen leading members of Congress; and if that does not suffice, shoot 200 and so on until order is established."

Why am I not surprised? Nevertheless, I'd like to find an authoritative version of this story; I found references here, here, and here.

6/21/2007 8:02 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Also, Here's a very interesting article about Bose, his history, ideology, plans, and the actual impact of what he did. The comments on his impact to some extent bear out MT's point, or as the article says, the INA "lost the war but won the peace"; if they had won the war things would have been very different.

6/21/2007 8:19 PM  
Blogger AakASH!!! said...

Interesting facts. Japanese valous makes fables of its own. But the greatest of courage rests on keystones of belief, perhaps that was their undoing.

6/21/2007 9:03 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

@ rahul: You're right. I AM wise, all knowing and perpetually right. Thank you for pointing out to the masses that argument with me is futile.
...but in all seriousness, good article. Sheds a lot of light on the mood of the times.

6/22/2007 5:28 AM  
Blogger just said...

Falstaff: The point I was trying to make is that the icons we revere often tend to be people we can best relate to. In that sense, Bose is not a very urbane, English-as-a-first-language hero, but more of a mofussil and aspirational middle class hero. I guess that is what Manasi was trying to say.
Otheriwise, here is something that I found somewhat amusing. Instead of this being a left vs. right argument as it could easily have become, there seems to be more of a liberal left vs. hard left debate going on here (readership of this blog or the Indian blogosphere?). The liberal left complaining, splitting hairs and obfuscating (yes Falstaff you and Rahul too :-) ) and the hard left shrill and hard-hitting (that would be Manasi and revealed too perhaps?). To be fair, I dont think either Manasi or Revealed are as extremist as you would portray them Rahul and Falstaff, neither do I find their comments particularly impolitic. Does calling people name-callers qualify as name calling lol?
But thanks Rahul for the links, I indeed learnt something new. As with most things, the truth I suspect lies somewhere in between the two extreme positions staked out here.

6/22/2007 7:20 AM  
Anonymous m.... said...

i dont think rahul or falstaff are obfuscating here. Instead I would say the reverse. They are not hell bent on portraying SCB to be an idiot (just questioning his motives). But, comments by some others project the argument to be just that...and going as far as to call MKG a megalomaniac. Not extreme?

btw, this debate is taking a different turn now. ;)

6/22/2007 8:59 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

m -- if I was not obfuscating, at least it seems I was (unintentionally) obscure. I was not questioning his motives, I was questioning his wisdom. (But either his motives or his wisdom must be questioned. Also, the last link I gave above suggests that his motives were suspect too, in that he was not a democrat but, technically, a fascist.) I was saying that his plans, which would have led to Japanese or German occupation, would have been a disaster.

I think falstaff was clear enough: even if the Japanese or Germans had occupied and left the country in the hands of Bose and the INA with a decimated Congress, it would have been a disaster for "free" India, which would have been another of the numerous tinpot dictatorships that sprung up everywhere at that time. The author of the link above agrees.

6/22/2007 10:30 AM  
Anonymous m.... said...

re: falstaff's interpretation -

it would have been a disaster for "free" India

I think falstaff meant it *could* have been a disaster, thus showing the unreasonableness of those looking into the past and glorifying their "idols" per their predilections.

6/22/2007 7:01 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

m...: thanks. Yes, exactly.

And just to be clear, saying SCB's success could have resulted in a fascist / authoritarian regime does not equal saying SCB would have become a dictator (though that's possible, of course). Even if SCB was well-meaning (which we have some reason to doubt) he could simply have been got rid off. As the Aung San example I've mentioned a couple of times suggests "well-meaning leader" + "military government" = prime assassination candidate.

just: Ah, but how is 'reverence' relevant? You're right - I don't revere SCB, any more than I revere any other popular 'hero' of the freedom struggle, or indeed anyone connected with history / politics. This 'reverence' business is precisely the problem - if manasi and others were to set aside their sentimental childhood attachments to SCB and focus on logic for a minute we might be able to get a sensible assessment of the man's contribution. No one's saying their comments are "impolitic", only that they're insubstantial - they seem to consist mostly of feeling persecuted and making scattered claims about SCB's greatness without any consistent clarity on what his contribution really is.

I realise the fact that I've used several polysyllabic words and tried to make a distinction between two very different concepts means that you'll probably find this comment hair-splitting and obfuscatory. Ah, well.

6/23/2007 12:08 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

And Baron F strikes again :)

True, I didn't present substantial arguments.

1. S.C.B is undervalued because he basically became a postscript in our freedom struggle. Sort of like yeah ok and he was also there doing something weird with the nazis while our neta, our savior, our gandhi was frowning upon him patiently and begging indians not to become traitors by siding with him

2. The Forward Bloc was an interesting party set up with pretty decent ideology behind it and I think if it had survived to become popular (by which I mean if it hadn't been squashed ruthlessly by the disapproval of Bapu) might have presented a worthy competitor for the Congress and maybe saved us some heartache. More ifs and maybes, so the lot of you can pile on me.

3. I believe he thought he could hold India with his own military troops against the Japs because he thought our own army would defect to his. Which didn't happen. But that was his strategy and not a laughable one. It could have worked.

4. What he achieved or what he tried to achieve was a genuine attempt at wresting freedom for us (which itself I'm not convinced isn't a dubious exercise worth nothing like the number of lives lost on it) and did manage (as others pointed out) to rouse a sense of identity with the struggle. There is nothing like war, after all, to stir the blood of men.

Those are my points. All clear? Still unsubstantiated? We need facts, figures and dates now?

@mt: Thankoo muchly :D

6/23/2007 2:17 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

@just: shrill and hard-hitting? Heh. I don't think either Rahul or Falstaff were obfuscating. Anything but. I might have been accused of that considering I was making generalized statements.

@m: Gandhi dearest was quite the power-hungry one, especially later on in his career. I don't think anyone can call that an extreme opinion.

@falstaff: Didn't see your earlier comment. Sorry. The main reason I think SCB is an underrated freedom fighter is cos his botched up Nazi plan is what he's remembered for and not the parts where he actually did something worthwhile, like for eg creating the Bloc and contending very patiently and with sustained respect with the Gandhi Nehru duo. He was a redoubtable man. It's definitely sad that he's used as a cautionary tale rather than as an example of a pretty intelligent Indian who would have made (in my opinion) worthwhile contributions to post freedom administration in India.

And I never said anything as ridiculous as American democracy. That came from *your* fingertips.

6/23/2007 2:30 AM  
Blogger km said...


Gandhi dearest was quite the power-hungry one, especially later on in his career.


6/23/2007 4:04 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

revealed: Much better. Agree with the bit about SCB's pre-World War II work getting pretty much overshadowed by the whole INA thing. I think the real shame here (as you suggest) is that SCB chose to go off on this fascist-befriending wild goose chase of his instead of sticking around and continuing to provide a counterweight to the Gandhi-Nehru legacy. We can, obviously, only speculate how things would have turned out if he'd stuck around, but I for one would have liked to see what he would have done as leader of the opposition.

I still think his wartime strategy was poorly thought through - if the combined might of the Allied powers hadn't been able to keep the Japanese out of India why would an army patched together from disparate units with shoddy equipment have managed it? It's possible, of course, that it would have worked (anything is) but it seems extremely unlikely to me that in the event of a Japanese victory in the War India would have managed to escape becoming a Japanese colony. And my concerns about the establishment of a military government and Bose's apparent comfort with fascism remain. So on the whole I'm happy that Bose's plan failed, especially given how useful that failure turned out to be from a PR perspective.

Ironically, I suspect it's his very usefulness as a symbolic martyr that makes his pre-war efforts ineligible for serious discussion. As the comments here demonstrate, once you start asking probing questions about the man's ideology and motivation, and what a victory for him would actually have meant, you very rapidly run into sticky territory. For him to be useful as a popular figure, then, it's much better to stick with the romanticised Bollywood version of the man's legacy - which necessarily precludes any consideration of his pre-war activities.

One final thought - I can't help feeling that at least part of your support for SCB comes from your manifest impatience with the Gandhi myth. I may be wrong, but I think you're embracing SCB partly because doing so puts Gandhi in the wrong, and there's one figure who definitely needs knocking off his pedestal. I empathize - and share your frustration with how popular history unquestioningly accepts Gandhi's greatness - but one mustn't let all of SCB's sensible criticisms of Gandhi blind one to all that was wrong with the man's own ideas.

6/23/2007 5:47 AM  
Anonymous m.... said...

@revealed: don't u see that your resentment of Gandhi's apparent glorified stature (which, IMO, is unreasonable, as much as any other personality's glorification) is one of your driving force on your stance for elevating SCB's stature (which is what is being questioned here), and thus this stance is no better than those who are romanticizing Gandhi.

6/23/2007 6:46 AM  
Anonymous m.... said...

(which, IMO, is unreasonable, as much as any other personality's glorification)

By which I mean, I find Gandhi's glorification as unresonable, and not your resentment of his glorification. Just clarifying.

commenting on my own comment! what hath the virtual world more in store? :))

6/23/2007 8:52 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

@km: Heh. Dya want to be in my story?

@falstaff: I shall have to concede to some extent that my opinion of Bose is colored by my opinion of Gandhi.

I even go so far as to confess that SCB's belief in the Japs was always a little puzzling to me. I think he overestimated his own charisma as a leader (he was pretty charismatic though and a very effective youth leader) and thereby his ability to rid the country of the Japs after it was liberated.

His apparent leanings towards fascism is rather strange and inexplicable because though he was a bit of a loose cannon he actually seems to have been a man of inspiration with several excellent ideas in his head. I need to do a little more research on this before I can satisfy myself about the facts of the matter. Or at least the facts as they exist today (probably mauled beyond recognition but oh well).

Actually, sadly, I agree with most of what you said in the last comment :). How utterly boring. I almost feel compelled now to make up several extremist compulsions for myself.

@m: I'm not elevating his stature, I don't think.

6/23/2007 1:06 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Good, so apparently we all mostly agree (except Manasi who seems AWOL...)

6/23/2007 4:28 PM  
Blogger Revealed said...

One important consideration though. Could the Japs have really sustained any sort of rule over us for any real period of time? I doubt the Japs would have seriously considered biting off so much more than they could chew. I dunno but that SCB might have just been making what was at least a slightly hedged bet. No?

6/23/2007 6:54 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

Could the Japs have really sustained any sort of rule over us for any real period of time?

Well the British, a comparably tiny nation, did rule us (and many others) for 200 years... and to go back to TR's article, the Brits had a tough fight even against a Japanese army that was turned back, in disarray and starving.

I suspect that, whoever won the war, they would have been sufficiently weakened that the colonial project would be over... as turned out to be the case with the British. We got independence largely because they were drained after the war and didn't have the energy or will to hold on to us. If the war hadn't happened, I think we would have moved slowly towards dominion status, with gradually introduced autonomy, but still under the Queen -- something like Canada or Australia, independent in practice but not in theory. Indeed, limited self-government was already happening.

6/23/2007 7:27 PM  
Blogger Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Subhash Bose wanted the Brits out of India. The Japs and the Germans wanted the Brits out too. So Bose hitched up with them. Ideology? Not relevant in realpolitik.

Stupid, though. If Bose had survived WW-II, he'd have been chewed up and spit out by whoever won. Maybe that was what happened to him anyway.

But he did put together an organisation. Men, materials, cash, arms, a system. Can't take that away from him.

Finally, somebody here suggested that Bose was brushed aside because he was 'subaltern'. My ass. He was from a fat cat family, 'gora chikna', went to the right school and college, sipped tea with his pinky raised, the works.

The worst thing about him was that he lost.

6/24/2007 7:28 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...


you guys can really get it on, can't you?

i just skimmed the comments and the one thing that i think hasn't been said was that aung san had made a similar calculation to that of scb -- use the japs to kick the brits out and let the homies live happily ever after. didn't work out that way.

i'll be back in a few days.

6/25/2007 1:10 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

ok, i'm back.

interesting discussion, y'all. it's over now but to sum up i guess i need to state my pov, and that's that i pretty much line up with falstaff on most points. thanks, falsie.

6/30/2007 8:49 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

What, is the party over here?


7/01/2007 4:03 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

which party? it started off looking like the forward bloc but then turned into a state of congress.

7/01/2007 10:15 AM  

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