Speak Easy: Rear View History
Journals that are peepholes into lived histories of the modern era.
Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Published: March 4, 2018 12:00 am
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The author of this book has been a resident of the United States for some time, partly because he wanted to be and partly because he was not persona grata in India.” That’s the first sentence of a review of The Political Future of India by Lala Lajpat Rai, who has perhaps been memorialised better at home by a Delhi neighbourhood and an electronics market than by public memory of his writings. Without a byline, it appeared in the 84th number of the Advocate of Peace journal, on January 1, 1920. Originally the official mouthpiece of the American Peace Society, it has gone through several avatars and is now World Affairs, the American bimonthly about international relations. The review, which is just 30 lines long, nevertheless concludes that India’s case for home rule and dominion status, based on the Morley and Montagu-Chelmsford reports, is expertly stated, and that “the author has indirectly indicated the sort of intellect that India can provide from its subtly trained, modernistic and democratic leaders, when it comes to discussion of theories and methods of government.”
At a time when history is being turned into a palimpsest for the ignorant to scribble the names of imaginary heroes and villains on, it is always useful to see what their contemporaries thought of historical figures, and what insights and manias infected the mind at the time. In the same journal, the number for March 1, 1914, carried a letter by Samuel B Capen, president of the Massachusetts Peace Society and “representative director” (whatever that meant at the time) of the American Peace Society, datelined “Indian Ocean, Dec 31, 1913”. He was en route from Bombay to Shanghai on a speaking tour. He wrote of tremendous interest in peace in China and Japan — the Great War was anticipated — but had expected nothing of the sort in India.
Nevertheless, Capen was met in Bombay with letters and telegrams requesting speaking engagements, where he addressed elites who understood English. “These audiences have been composed of Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsee students, as well as Christian leaders,” he reported. One meeting was in a “wealthy social club”, another organised by “the principal of the largest Hindu college, with 1,200 students.” The location is unfortunately not declared, but it has to be either Delhi or Calcutta — the latter’s Hindu College is now Presidency University.
A story in the same journal in 1898 dresses down the British MP William Randal Cremer who, five years later, would be the first solo winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, for promoting international arbitration. On a visit to Washington, he spoke of India coming to the aid of the cotton mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (whose products would later be burned in swadeshi bonfires) when the American South faltered in the wake of the Civil War. Apparently, the initial imports were low grade known as “Surrat”, but the supply from India improved rapidly, saving British mill workers from starvation. But then, “perhaps it is unpatriotic, but capital is not sentimental”, and British mills were exported to Bombay and Calcutta, to take advantage of “labour at a few pence a day as against fifteen or twenty shillings a week in England.”
So far, so good, but then the future Nobel laureate for peace argued forcefully for a “federation of the Anglo-Saxon race”, against “the great danger” of “the solid advances and growing power of the Mongolian races”. The American pacifists, being liberal, misliked statements like this: “The Japanese have entered our workshops and learned our trades, only to go back and produce goods at half the price that we can… They build ironclads, make guns, and with their countless millions of population it will take the united energies of the Anglo-Saxon races to compete with the Japanese and the Chinese in the markets of the world, and prevent them from swarming over the continents of Europe and America.”
Modern Mongols would be incensed to find themselves conflated with the Han and the Japanese but here, in the 19th century, we see the seeds of Pearl Harbour, of brands like Sony and Toyota, the rise of China as a military power, and London reduced to Washington’s poodle, a status which persisted from the Cold War to Tony Blair’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. The three stories referred to are small. The longest, headlined ‘A Mongolian Invasion’, is just over half of a magazine page. But they provide much insight into public thought at the time.
Back issues of the Advocate of Peace are available online at the University of Pennsylvania, the Internet Archive and JSTOR. And it is only one of numerous journals archived by various resources on the internet, which reveal modern history as it was lived at the time. To the independent mind, the little scintillae they provide are often as illuminating as the mainstream historical literature.
Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.
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