Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Kashmir: The Toll of Young Life

Tufail Ahmad Mattoo died on June 11, just eighteen days short of his eighteenth birthday. The cause of death was identified, after much avoidable early confusion, as a grievous head injury. In Srinagar’s fevered public mood, his death soon came to be understood as a deliberate act of vendetta – of a roguish police officer seeking to stamp his authority on public demonstrators, without making too fine a point over the legality of his action.

Tufail was an only child who had spent several of his years outside Kashmir. He may have known about the politics of the insurgency in the valley, but his years in Dubai and Mumbai, where his father had set up establishments to promote a handicrafts exports business, had seemingly made Tufail a pragmatist, intent on pursuing his academic work and seeking a career free of the tensions enveloping Kashmir. At the time he was killed, he was on his way to a grandmother’s residence in the Nowhatta area of Srinagar after a session with a private tutor. It was a routine that he had long been used to and despite the tense atmosphere in the city that day, he thought there was little to fear as he alighted from a bus and began the short walk to his grandmother’s home.

There was a demonstration underway in the vicinity of the Ghani stadium but Tufail was reportedly some distance away. Eyewitness accounts have mentioned a police contingent at the venue, under the command of Deputy Superintendent Abdul Hamid Saka – then in charge of the two adjacent police stations of Nowhatta and Maharajganj. The record of the events that followed have tended to get a little confused. Tufail’s family believes that he was some distance away from the demonstrators but perilously close to the police contingent then gearing up for crowd control.

Certain media reports have said that Tufail was probably walking through the open field of the Ghani stadium when he got caught in the exchange of projectiles between the demonstrators and the police. As reported in the Delhi edition of the Indian Express of June 13: “Tufail .. was caught in a skirmish between a group of protestors and the police”. An eyewitness account from one of the protestors has it that Tufail “was inside the playground when they (the police) fired (a teargas shell) at him. It hit his head and he fell down”.

Three policemen then reportedly “got down from their vehicle” and one of them “kicked (Tufail’s) body and told the other two that he was dead”. Then the police personnel reportedly “fled”.

Local newspapers did not manage to uncover any further forensic details. The city was in turmoil and there was little room for analytical and dispassionate news gathering. Once the body of the young boy was received in Srinagar’s SMHS, there seems to have been some bargaining between local authorities and the family. The police were anxious to avoid any further aggravation of the public mood and keen to see the boy’s funeral occur under cover of night. The family was adamant that they would make no such sordid deal over the boy’s death. A manner of settlement was arrived at after the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) for Srinagar at the time, Riyaz Bedar, arranged to provide all necessary information for the causes of Tufail’s death to be established. But as Tufail’s body was being taken away from the medical facility for a burial that the family intended as a private affair, it was intercepted in the Rainawari area. Angry demonstrators snatched the body from the Mattoo family, insisting on laying him to rest in the burial ground that has come to be known as the “martyr’s graveyard” in Srinagar.

The Kashmir Times reported the following sequence of events thus: “Thousands of people defied the curfew restrictions and held massive protest demonstrations. Police had to fire in air, burst smoke shells and resorted (sic) to lathi charge to disperse the protestors. Even excessive force (sic) was used on the people in the funeral procession of Tufail at several places. At some places including Zinda Shah Masjid the protestors were forced by cops to keep the coffin, carrying the body of Tufail, on road amid heavy shelling and firing in air”.

The reality soon got lost in competitive posturing between various news media. Times Now, the news channel known for its hyper-ventilation over any issue that is seen faintly to run contrary to its obsessive conception of national security, ran a story on Jun 13, which claimed exclusive access to Tufail’s post-mortem report. The findings of the autopsy in the news-anchor’s words, firmly established that “Tufail was killed by a bullet rather than by tear-gas”. The news-anchor then handed over the narration to a reporter in Srinagar with the ominous words that the Kashmir state government was “again on the backfoot”, since it was police firing rather than a tear-gas shell that led to Tufail’s death. Without the slightest hint of irony, the reporter joined in with a narration of how the document that he proudly held up for public view as he spoke, established quite definitively that Tufail’s death was caused by a high-velocity projectile striking at very short range. Indeed, he said, the autopsy had used ballistics matching with a specimen provided by the local police to arrive at the conclusion that death was caused by a tear-gas shell striking at high velocity and close range.

The police for its part sought to first put out one version and then another. One held that Tufail had been grievously -- and fatally -- hurt in stone throwing by the demonstrators. Another put down the fatal injury to a brawl that the boy got into while playing cricket, during which he was supposedly hit with a wicket.

Despite the autopsy report, the police showed little urgency about registering a case. On June 18, Tufail’s uncle Manzoor Ahmad Mattoo moved an application before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Srinagar, asking the police to register a case and begin investigations. The first information report (FIR) that was subsequently filed, reflected none of the findings of the autopsy and clung to the story that death was a consequence of a cricket field brawl.

Riyaz Bedar, the Senior Superindent of Police for Srinagar at the time of the killing, had shown a degree of cooperation with the effort to establish the circumstances behind Tufail’s death, among other things by providing a specimen teargas shell to the medical staff for ballistics matching. He was transferred out of his post on June 22. The investigation has made little progress since.

Early December, an 11-member delegation, drawn from an independent research foundation based in Delhi – the Centre for Policy Analysis – and diverse regional and left-wing political parties visited Kashmir. Since Tufail’s death had proved a pivotal event in the year’s disturbances, the delegation’s first visit was with his father, Mohammad Ashraf Mattoo. The suspicions of the local police and security agencies were reportedly aroused by this visit. Since then, the elder Mattoo has reported several visits by security personnel in civilian attire, who have urged him to accept the cash compensation of five lakh rupees on offer from the state government and withdraw his petition seeking an investigation into his son’s death.

An early provocation: the killing of Zahid Farooq

Tufail’s killing was the point at which mass fury erupted in Kashmir, but a slow fuse was perhaps lit on February 5, when 16-year old Zahid Farooq was shot dead in a neighbourhood of Srinagar. Zahid’s family lives in the modest Nishat Brane suburb, just a short walk from the majestic Boulevard which encircles Srinagar’s Dal Lake. Zahid had with two friends, walked down to a park abutting the Boulevard that day, with no other intention than spending some time hitting a cricket ball around. It was cold and rainy and by the time they reached the park, they found the conditions not quite right for their friendly cricketing joust. As they hung around, they saw three vehicles of the BSF stopping for no apparent reason on the Boulevard just adjoining the park. Subsequent reconstructions have suggested that there were perhaps three vehicles in the BSF convoy.

There may have been, according to Zahid’s father Farooq Ahmad Shaikh – a driver with the state government’s Public Health Engineering Department -- an exchange of words that followed. But it is not clear what could have set off a surge of uncontrollable rage among two of the BSF personnel – both in civilian clothes but armed -- who alighted from the convoy. The altercation, if at all there was one, led to the three boys being chased through the alleys of the Nishat Brane neighbourhood. His two friends ducked to safety but Zahid was either specifically targeted – or he was just the single kill that the two armed pursuers were looking for, to expend their rage. A post-mortem examination revealed that Zahid was killed by one shot to his chest.

The BSF company involved was identified using closed circuit TV footage available at a nearby camp of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Ballistics matching further narrowed the number of suspects, since only a few of the personnel that day had the lethal weapon in their possession. Interrogation finally identified constable Lakhwinder Singh (alias Kumar) as the person who had fired the fatal shot. He was soon afterwards handed over to the J&K Police. Under further questioning, he revealed he had fired on orders from commandant R.K. Birdi, who was suspended soon afterwards and surrendered to the J&K Police in March.

Criminal prosecution commenced in April, but the BSF almost immediately moved an application before the Chief Judicial Magistrate, pleading that proceedings be transferred to the jurisdiction of the BSF court. The J&K Police argued that it had the authority to prosecute the personnel involved without the prior consent of superior officers, because neither was on active duty at the time. This also, in their estimation, ruled out the jurisdiction of the BSF court, normally the forum for hearing cases involving misconduct and criminal misdemeanour by force personnel.

On November 25, the CJM Srinagar, ruled that under relevant notifications issued by the Central Government, all BSF personnel deployed in J&K between the dates of July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2010, were to be deemed on active duty at all times. The state government has since gone to the J&K High Court in appeal against this ruling.

As the anniversary of Zahid’s killing approaches, accountability remains a remote and perhaps receding prospect.

An intrusive and overbearing khakhi presence

Though Zahid’s killing was initially put down to an unprovoked firing, his family was in late-October, prepared to concede that there may have been an act of deliberate defiance by the three boys when they saw the BSF convoy stopping in the vicinity of the park. If so, the circumstances then prevailing would provide the reason.

On January 31, just five days before, Wamiq Farooq, a 17-year old, was killed while taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Srinagar. The cause of his death was then suspected to be a teargas shell fired from close range, which impacted with fatal effect on his head.

Much of Kashmir was in turmoil after this incident, but few among the local authorities had shown the slightest inclination to accept responsibility. It is certainly a possibility that Zahid had this death at the back of his mind as he set off for a game of cricket on February 5. Kashmir’s youth have grown up in an environment where uniformed personnel are an intrusive and often overbearing presence. To this should be added the growing evidence that the men in uniform see themselves as unaccountable to all but their own internal chain of command.

For a generation of Kashmir’s youth, the constant presence of khakhi in their lives is evidence that they live in a regime of unfreedom. Any act of defiance against the men in khakhi or the symbols of their presence and authority, is an assertion of this deeply ingrained belief. Zahid’s killers perhaps reacted with aggravated fury to such an expression by the three boys that day, that may have, in circumstances that pass for “normal” in Kashmir, been considered a part of the routine of daily life. But that day for some reason, was different.

Samir Ahmad Rah had no intent of making a political statement when he set out from his home in the Battmaloo area in Srinagar on August 2. He was all of eight years old and though the area was under curfew, few in his family saw any danger in him playing in the back alleys. A close relative of his father’s lives in the immediate vicinity and between the two households, it was assumed that a sufficiently close watch could be maintained to keep the boy out of danger.

That day, Samir may have strayed too far away from safety. A ten-minute walk from his home, he encountered a CRPF picket manned by some five personnel. His family insists that he was attacked with no provocation but Rising Kashmir, a local newspaper on August 3 reported, ostensibly on the basis of eyewitness accounts, that he may have shouted an azaadi slogan on seeing the uniformed men. If that indeed is the case, then it was obviously a child’s innocent and relatively uncomprehending emulation of a pattern of behaviour he had seen among elders all around. The CRPF contingent on duty though, seemed disinclined to make these fine distinctions of judgment, between an informed slogan shouter and an innocent imitator.

Eye witnesses speak of Samir being administered a very violent blow across his head with a rifle butt and a lathi being thrust down his throat. The boy was then abandoned where he fell. Personnel of the J&K police happened to reach the site soon afterwards, reportedly after being told of the incident. Samir was taken to the nearest police control room and from there to the SMHS Hospital. The hospital records show him being brought to the casualty ward at 3:45 that afternoon. He was already on emergency life support and ventilation when brought in. There was no detectable cardiac activity. Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation was carried out, but the boy suffered another cardiac arrest at 7:25 p.m. and was pronounced dead about an hour afterwards.

Samir’s neighbourhood meanwhile was in turmoil after word spread of what had happened to him. His father Fayaz Ahmad Rah, was meanwhile asleep, having just returned that morning from a few days out of town. Crowds had gathered to confront security personnel on duty. Tempers were aflame when Fayaz woke up and stepped out to make inquiries. Long hours of agonised uncertainty followed before the family came to know that the boy was dead. The neighbourhood had meanwhile witnessed a major demonstration and the police had charged the protestors, leading to a minor stampede that, as events unfolded, became a crucial component in the official police narrative.

The following day, Fayaz says, the head of the local police station visited him to express his contrition and grief at what had happened to Samir. Privately, he admitted that a great wrong had been committed. Yet the FIR that he filed shortly afterwards recorded the cause of the death as injuries caused in a stampede. Fayaz, who ekes out a modest living selling fruits off a push-cart at a nearby street corner, has refused to accept this finding. Indeed, the post-mortem report that the family still retains, mentions no injury aside from a “bruise on the occipital region, not actively bleeding”. There was no other mark of a visible injury on Samir’s body, nor any evidence of bleeding through any part of the body. On the face of things, the post-mortem findings seem to rule out the possibility that the boy was killed in a stampede. This post-mortem report still remains to be assessed against eye-witness by people in the neighbourhood, that a baton was pushed down Samir's throat. That task will have to await the awakening of a new mood of transparency in the military administration that runs Kashmir.

Youth and the security forces’ aggravated threat perceptions

Through the months of Kashmir’s turmoil a strange manner of negative affinity seemed at work between security personnel and the youth. There was a tendency on the part of security personnel to look at every young person – even children of tender years – as a threat. Where a degree of restraint in dealing with the always innocent and often erratic behaviour of the youth would be among the first lessons in self-restraint taught a security person deployed in politically sensitive zones, the record in Kashmir has been one of responding with maximal force at the first provocation. People that this Fact-Finding Team met and interacted with, were often inclined to identify the large-scale induction of former militants into the police force as a contributory factor. These former militants once functioned as active elements of the counter-insurgency operation, with overt support from the state security agencies. They are now seen on the Kashmir street as agents of the Indian state, occupying key positions in the chain of police command.

Some of these factors were in evidence in the northern Kashmir town of Baramulla on July 17, in the killing of 12-year old Faizan Buhroo. Faizan’s father Rafiq Buhroo, works as a blacksmith in Uri. He used to take the route to Uri every day but has since the recent disturbances, been compelled to reduce his daily trips in search of a livelihood. Like much of Kashmir’s population which depends on infrequent and unpredictable opportunities for work, the economic condition of this family seems fragile.

Faizan’s older sister, Rizwan, recalls that on July 17, curfew was relaxed in Baramulla since the school exams were on. The exams it turned out, were not held and Faizan -- a class seven student -- returned early that day. Along with a group of friends he went out soon afterwards to the Azadganj-pul – a bridge just opened across the Jhelum, built on new architectural principles, that has become a site for the few recreational activities that ordinary people in Baramulla can permit themselves. The bridge is just half a kilometre from Faizan’s home, and his family felt no undue anxiety as he set off.

According to a later account they heard, Faizan and his friends while at the bridge, found a convoy of the security forces coming across in what is called a “civil truck”, i.e., a heavy duty vehicle without military markings. When armed personnel started alighting from the truck, the children turned and started to run away. Faizan saw an older boy jump into the river below, but he was himself no swimmer and lacked the courage to take the plunge.

The family has since heard that Faizan and two companions who remained on the bridge, were overpowered by the forces. As his sister narrates subsequent events: “Faizan had an old injury on his forehead. They must have thought that he was a stone-pelter. He was beaten mercilessly with teargas guns and dandas”.

A boy younger to Faizan, whose identity the family did not remember, suffered a serious ear injury and had to be taken to hospital in Srinagar. Faizan, as his family recalls, was beaten on his head and thrown into the river below. His mother arrived at the scene, at roughly the same time. She was told that a child had been thrown into the river, that he had been flailing his arms and showing obvious signs of distress, and that people had been unable to go to his assistance because of intimidatory tactics – including tear-gas and shots fired in the air – adopted by the security forces.

Faizan’s older brother, Faisal, a class eleven student, was meanwhile told that the child was his own brother. He reportedly kept this information to himself, unable to bring it to the attention of his parents. But the family guessed the awful truth when the father arrived back at a late evening hour, and Faizan still remained missing.

The whole town was by this time alerted and the local administration and army command base stepped in with offers of assistance. The army provided a boat and experienced deep-water divers to help in the search. Faizan’s body was purportedly found on July 20 and handed over to his family at 5 p.m. that day. The family feels that he was actually found some time earlier and the local administration may have delayed handing over the body to dress up some incriminating evidence.

Faizan had a bleeding injury from the nose when his body was handed over to the family. They could also see three injuries on his head, of which one was particularly severe and could have been caused by a gun butt.

For the three days since Faizan went missing, thousands of Baramulla’s residents had been keeping a vigil night and day on both sides of the Jhelum. The day his body was discovered, the assembled crowd, along with numerous others who came, took out a procession through the town, ending at the district headquarters. The size of the demonstration reportedly numbered around 50,000.

Security forces on duty at the district headquarters opened fire on the procession, injuring around 30 and killing one. Faiyaz Ahmad, a labourer who joined the procession as he was returning home at the end of the day, died on the spot of a bullet injury in the chest.

Baramulla’s residents have since come to know that the most active role in Faizan’s beating and subsequent death, belonged to somebody known locally as Kaka Mir. He was once a militant, then a prominent practitioner of counter-terror under official supervision. He now is an officer in the J&K Police, as part of the Special Operations Group (SOG).

An alienated youth

Data that this team has been able to uncover, not entirely accurate since gaining such confirmation in the muddled circumstances of Kashmir is virtually impossible, shows that perhaps 27 of the 112 persons reported killed in civil disturbances in the valley in 2010, may have been under 18 years of age. This team was able only to access a limited number of these case studies for constructing detailed narratives. But among the large number of cases surveyed in Sopore and Anantnag, of families that had lost young members in the recent turmoil, several were willing to proclaim that their children had been willing participants in the demonstrations – that they knew as they went to join in the public protests, that they may not return home alive.

“Kashmir” as conceived in the Indian political imagination is an inheritance of the distant past. As an issue – and not a dispute as the Indian official establishment never tires of underlining -- “Kashmir” is about little else than cross-border mischief by a neighbouring, inimical and envious state.

Kashmir’s current generation was assumed, by implication, not to have a stake in the legacy of a partition in the Indian body politic, effected over sixty years back. “Shining India” as a promise and a reality that few could deny without drawing accusations of a patriotism deficit, was expected to dissolve the “issue” of Kashmir, as the youth of the state shed the inherited baggage of their parents’ generation and opted for advancement and progress.

Images of the last year in Kashmir speak of a generation that refuses with furious insistence, to accept this invitation into a glitzy future.

This is the generation that was born, or grew out of infancy, after Kashmir’s insurgency erupted in 1990.

In Curfewed Nights, an acclaimed account of growing up through the years of strife in Kashmir, Basharat Peer talks about boys moved to join the militancy by impulses that cannot be described, of a generation that learnt the basic alphabet by rolling strange and alien words off their tongues, such as “frisking, crackdown, bunker, search, identity card, arrest and torture”. Needless to say, the “encounter” and the “crossfire killing” have been an integral part of this vocabulary.

Basharat’s book has gained prominence after a U.S. edition was published in 2010 and taken note of by books editors in that country. It has since been featured in a few listings among the more distinguished works of the year.

India has had access to Basharat’s work at least two years before the U.S. edition was published. Yet the truths that it documents – of torture, human shields, and families tied by bonds of loyalty to the Indian state, traumatised by their children’s political impulses to join the insurgency – have remained a message that the “establishment” has simply failed to grasp.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Churchill as Mass Murderer

A book of epochal importance

Madhushree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War, The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, Tranquebar, Chennai, 2010, pp xxxvi + 352, Rs 495

Since completing a doctorate at the University of Chicago in1989 under the supervision of Yoichiro Nambu, the 2009 Nobel laureate in physics, Madhusree Mukerjee has worked principally as a science journalist. Churchill’s Secret War is her second book, after a study of the indigenous communities of the Andamans. She is, as Arthur Herman, a fellow of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute sniffily said, “no historian”. And yet, she has written a work of historical inquiry that takes aim at one of the most revered figures of modern times and performs as successful a job of smashing false icons as any.

The sound of idols shattering could be deeply distressing, especially when there is so much in contemporary politics riding on preserving their sanctity. Unsurprisingly, Mukerjee’s book has not earned a great many reviews in the international press. The historian Max Hastings, one of the few to take on the book in a spirit of bravery and candour, called it a “significant” and -- for British readers -- “distressing” book. Its main thesis, that Churchill as head of the imperial government, had the means and the power to prevent large-scale famine deaths in Bengal in 1943 is “as sound as it is shocking”. And this conspicuous failure, or refusal to act, was born in a deeply malignant attitude towards the people of India. “Even Churchill's greatest admirers”, Hastings sombrely concludes in a review written for the Times of London, “cannot escape the fact that British misgovernment of the Raj represented a blot on his wartime leadership”.

Another London newspaper, The Independent, ran a similar assessment by the historian Chandak Sengoopta, which spoke of the book’s unique contribution in placing the Bengal famine in its “imperial context” and breaking the silence of the “Churchill industry” which had managed to “keep fairly quiet”, if not actively suppress, the “appalling story” of the man’s “war crimes”.

Speaking on behalf of the “Churchill industry”, Herman, author of a recent twin biography of Gandhi and Churchill, observed that Mukerjee had only managed to get “herself entangled in .. separate and contentious issues”. Britain in 1943 was engaged in “battle with Indian nationalists like Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose” and Churchill had distinctly “tempestuous views” on this matter. But these did not have any kind of a “cause-and-effect” relationship with the Bengal famine. All that Mukerjee had achieved in seeking to tie these distinct themes together, was “to mangle the facts regarding all three, doing a disservice to both historical and moral truth”.

Mukerjee’s response, which has been published on her website and is unfortunately, not as widely read as it should be, acknowledges Herman’s established status in the profession of historians, though not his ability to sift facts with necessary objectivity. Indeed, she says, it often falls to a rank outsider to call out the emperor for wearing no clothes.

Herman’s reservations with Mukerjee’s work should occasion some surprise, since several of the basic facts she assembles are foreshadowed in his recent twin biography on Churchill and Gandhi, published in 2009 under the sub-title “The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age”. The severely hyped sub-title may have been the creation of a marketing department eager to sell a book on historical figures who are contemporary cults, remembered only vaguely as flesh and blood individuals who made decisions and committed acts that mortal humans can assess in the broad sweep of historical time.

Indeed, without all the detail that Mukerjee provides, Herman in his book records Churchill’s shocking political interventions through the crucial years. He insisted on holding onto India as a political asset, but excoriated “Indians” as a people with little merit, indeed as the world’s “beastliest” people, next only to the Germans. “Famine or no famine”, Indians “bred like rabbits” and did not deserve any emergency food shipments to relieve their hunger.

Yet, says Herman in his response to Mukerjee, Churchill did have a role – even if inadvertent -- in relieving the Bengal famine. In September 1943, he sanctioned the shipment of desperately needed grain – though only a third of what had been urgently demanded by the Indian government. And a month later, Lord Wavell, Churchill's handpicked choice as Viceroy of India, arrived to take charge of the Raj. Churchill continued to look at every request for emergency food shipment as “appeasement” of his mortal enemies in the Indian National Congress. But against all these odds, Wavell succeeded “within a few months”, in bringing India “back from the brink of demographic disaster”.

Herman upbraids Mukerjee for failing to see that the famine indeed could have been much worse had it not been for Wavell’s exertions. This is an oblique and rather laboured argument, crediting Churchill with the beneficial impact of his appointee’s decisions as India’s viceroy. And it also overlooks the basic point, recorded both by Mukerjee and -- perhaps inadvertently -- by Herman too in his volume, that Wavell had to threaten resignation to get Churchill to act.

Indeed, as Mukerjee informs us, right through the second half of 1943, Churchill’s main priority was to stock up on grain to feed not just the people but also the poultry of Britain. It was a priority for him to ensure that the availability of eggs and meat – as also white bread -- for the civilian population in Britain would not be diminished. In November 1943, he presided over a war cabinet at which a memorandum drafted by his principal scientific advisor – an altogether unpleasant individual called Lord Cherwell with outlandish views on building a perfect society through controlling the procreative behaviour of those of "lesser" social and biological merit – was discussed. Leopold Amery, Secretary of State for India and Churchill’s friend from numerous wild escapades in the worst of the British public school tradition, recorded the meeting in his diary in the following terms: “Winston, after a preliminary flourish on Indians breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing about the war, asked Leathers (his principal advisor on transportation logistics) for his views”.

Frederick Leathers in turn was believed by the British General Staff to be a person of infirm views, all too ready to take his cues from Churchill. And his opinion was obviously fore-ordained: that it would be “extremely difficult” to find ships to transport grain to India.

Churchill’s grudging acknowledgment in September 1943 that India’s import requisition for grain could be cleared – though only to a fraction of the required quantity -- meant that the food actually arrived on Indian shores only in November, just one month prior to the rice harvest. And since the monsoon for 1943 had been fair and had repaired much of the damage to agrarian assets caused by the cyclone the earlier year, Bengal managed a fair rice harvest in 1943. Mortality from then on occurred on account of disease rather than starvation. The food shipment sanctioned by Churchill after Wavell’s despairing efforts may have had no more than marginal impact in combating the worst of the famine.

Fiscal policy played a part. India was tapped by Britain as the source of material and manpower resources to fund the war effort against Germany and Japan, but on promissory notes that could be cashed only at an undefined future date. The London office of the Reserve Bank of India was given treasury bills denominated in pound sterling, for which an equivalent rupee sum could be issued in India. These liquid assets pumped into India found their way into the hands of traders who proceeded to buy up all available material resources and commodities for provisioning the war effort. Unmet domestic demand meant that inflationary pressures were acute, with consequent adverse impact on livelihoods.

Churchill’s resentment that the beastly Indians were being paid a “million a day” for no contribution to the war effort, originated in this reality. He was also, as various other accounts have shown, bitter at the pressure that the U.S., which was then emerging as the decisive power, could exert on Britain in both financial and military terms, deflating most of his ambitions of reconstituting the empire after what he thought would be the temporary inconvenience of World War II.

Mukerjee’s book is a long overdue exercise in truth-telling about an individual who for reasons ideological, continues to top every popular opinion poll, to win the exalted title of the “greatest Briton” ever. Recent historical works have spoken of other aspects of this bumptious, obstreperous personality who was deservedly cast into a political wilderness after monumentally miscued interventions through his tenures as First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I (think of the Gallipoli bloodbath) and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s (think of his quixotic decision to tether the pound sterling to the gold standard, reducing working class families to absolute penury).

If after this record of making a hash of important political assignments, Churchill retained any relevance through the 1930s, it was only in his shrill and unreasoning opposition to the slightest semblance of a concession to the rising tide of Indian nationalism. He spawned an entire species of unthinking, irrational political animals characterised memorably in the persona of the reactionary, racist “Colonel Blimp”, by the newspaper cartoonist David Low.

Churchill was also an outspoken advocate of chemical warfare against the tribes of Mesopotamia and Balochistan – which he freely branded as “barbaric” and much worse -- during the turbulent aftermath of World War I, when Britain was facing a hard time maintaining the peace in the territorial “mandates” it had secured on the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Whether Britain actually employed this lethal form of warfare or not is unclear, but about Churchill’s ardour for the incendiary bombing of cities in Japan and Germany in the closing months of World War II, at the cost of many hundreds of thousands of lives, there is little doubt.

The persistence of the Churchill cult today is comprehensible only in terms of the historical revisionism that began in the 1980s, with the emergence of a new tone of unapologetic chauvinism about the British empire and its legatee, the U.S. imperium, on either side of the Atlantic. Unsurprisingly, this full-blown ideological strain emerged only after the triumph of the Thatcher-Reagan counter-revolution against economic and political common sense. And its impact in the world of history writing is most resonant in the prolific work of the British historian Niall Ferguson, tenured professor in some of the most well-endowed academic chairs in the U.S.

In his most widely read book, rather brazenly titled Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Ferguson unblushingly quotes Churchill on the civilising mission of the British empire: “What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations? To give peace to warring tribes, to administer justice where all was violence, to strike the chains off the slave, to draw the richness from the soil, to plant the earliest seeds of commerce and learning, to increase in whole peoples their capacities for pleasure and diminish their chances of pain – what more beautiful ideal or more valuable reward can inspire human effort?”

Summing up his own perspective on this, Ferguson figures that by fair means and foul, the British empire did in fact create the world as it exists today. There were inevitable abuses and atrocities along the way, but there was perhaps no other pathway to civilising the world. “The question is whether there could have been a less bloody path to modernity. Perhaps in theory there could have been. But in practice?”.

Ferguson adopts the artifice of posing what seems an open question that readers can decide on after reading his narration. But his opening premise is spelt out clearly enough, and his endeavour is to validate a proposition posed as a metaphorical question at the start. The preordained conclusion clearly is that there really was no alternative to having the British rule the world.

This is a historian who has made a career out of not merely singing himself hoarse with panegyrics to the Raj, but also in patenting the use of counter-factual questions as a methodology of inquiry. A question such as – how would the world have been today if Germany rather than Britain had assumed the greatest global empire and been the cultural and moral forebear of the modern U.S. empire? – cannot be answered simply because there are just too many imponderables involved. But one consequence of such a scenario could very easily be inferred: that Churchill, far from being a revered figure in much of modern history writing, would be justly reviled as the war criminal that he was. Mukerjee’s work, just at a time when the Pax Anglo-Americana is unravelling in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, is in this sense, truly a tract for the times.