Interpret history, but without prejudice

Interpret history, but without prejudice

By V.Balachandran | 5 January, 2013
Agnes Smedley
Agnes Smedley did not find any anti-Indian feelings among the Chinese in the 1930s.

I usually like reading Dawn columnist Jawed Naqvi's pieces for his lyrical prose. However, one has to join issue with him when he selectively quotes imperial history for bashing India. He forgets that Pakistan was as much a part of Imperial Britain as India. On 14 December 2012, he wrote, Indian troops "fought in Europe and Africa. And they fought in Afghanistan for the British" ("India poking China, again").

What did Pakistan do even in the 1980s?

Then Naqvi quotes Pankaj Mishra (From the Ruins of Empire) in trying to establish that India was disliked by the ordinary Chinese even during the Imperial days as they "fought the Chinese in China" for the British; as Parsi middlemen from Bombay traded in opium; and Sikh policemen in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Hankou suppressed Chinese crowds. According to him, "Indians were regarded with suspicion, even contempt" by the Chinese. He then tries to interpret our Navy chief's "Navy Day" statement on China as "India's current search for an apparently comprador role in the regional and global power play".

However, Mishra's book is not a primary source of history. Sameer Rahim found it "hugely disappointing"; it "has little to say about what the ordinary Chinese, Indian or Ottoman subjects thought of their absolute rulers" (Telegraph, UK, 6 August 2012). Had Naqvi read Agnes Smedley's Battle Hymn of China (1943), he would not come to such an atrocious conclusion.

Mao, whom Smedley met in Hunan, “asked a thousand questions. We spoke of India; of literature…” Agnes knew India well having worked with Lajpat Rai.

Smedley, who became a close follower of the legendary Lu Hsun, was one of the earliest Western journalists visiting China at a crucial period, travelling its length and breadth between 1929 and 1941. She witnessed the 1931 Japanese Manchuria conquest, the1936 "Sian" (Xian) revolt against Chiang Kai-shek, leading to his arrest and release, and the Long March. She closely worked with Chu Teh, MaoTze-tung and Chou En-Lai. In 1932, Madam Sun Yat Sen appointed her as a member of the "First League of Civil Rights", which was closed down by the Kuomintang after it exposed the drug trade of General Ku Chu-tung, governor of Chinkiang (Zhenjiang). Yang Chien, Kuomintang's nominee in the League, was shot dead for taking up the case of Ting Ling, a woman writer. She gives a graphic account of the atrocities committed by the Kuomintang through the "Blue Shirts" to suppress "the poor half naked peasants" and how the Kuomintang officials were controlled by the Japanese while the elite "lived in sprawling houses guarded by White Russians". "The debasement and oppression of millions of the common people under feudal absolutism explain in part Japan's success..." The Japanese dominated the poor Chinese workers in factories. If the workers ran away, the Kuomintang police hunted them and brought them back.

Contrary to what Pankaj Mishra might have read and reproduced, Smedley did not find any anti-Indian feelings anywhere. In 1930, Smedley was asked to contribute "articles on India" by two teachers, followers of Lu Hsun. Similarly Mao, whom she met in Hunan, "asked a thousand questions. We spoke of India; of literature..." Agnes knew India well, having worked briefly with Lala Lajpat Rai — in New York University — "who began tutoring me in Indian history, preparatory to sending me to India as a teacher" for which she was arrested in 1918.

At the same time, it is true that we have not been able to develop a viable or convincing China policy through the maze of misleading signals. For that we need reliable interlocutors, away from diplomatic bureaucracy. Max Frankel, celebrated editor of New York Times (1986-94) wrote in his memoirs that the New York Times was "still a useful channel for Kissinger" during his secret diplomacy with China despite Nixon's aversion for that paper because the "Times had established its own connections and reputation in Beijing".

Reviewing Kissinger's book, On China (13 May 2011), he writes, "To the degree that Washington and Beijing now understand each other, it is in good measure because Kissinger has been assiduously translating for both sides, discerning meaning in everything from elliptical jokes to temper tantrums." To this one should add businessmen Richard Blum, who had developed a personal relationship with Ziang Zemin, and Armand Hammer, who played that role between the US and Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

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