Rajmohan Gandhi’s session at Hyderabad Literary Festival 2014, titled ‘Our republic: Flashes from the rear-view mirror’, chaired by Shanta Sinha, proved to be a session to share anecdotes from history, as Gandhi took his audience back in time, whetting their appetite to read up tomes that help us understand the past. He narrated incidents he had researched while writing his recent book Punjab (Aleph book company), where he traces the 240-year history of the region from the death of Aurangzeb till Independence. Gandhi stated, “The British Empire did terrible things in the region, but they also did some good work.”
The instability and power vacuum after the death of Aurangzeb prevailed for 100 years when Punjab was caught in a turf war between Afghans and Sikhs. “British took over from Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1846 and controlled the region for 100 years till Independence. Punjab, in that time, turned out to be the most pro-empire province in the sub continent as majority of the soldiers recruited by the British army were from the region — Sikhs, Dogras and Muslims who helped the Empire suppress the 1857 revolt and recapture Delhi,” said Gandhi.
Recalling an anecdote documented by an admirer of the British Raj, Gandhi narrated an incident that showed the British haughtiness and racial superiority that made the Sikh general Mehtab Singh meekly submit. At a party thrown by commissioner Edward Lake in honour of John Nicholson, Mehtab Singh walked in wearing his shoes.
Towards the end of the party, when Singh and his entourage were exiting, John Nicholson’s voice boomed over the gathering, in Hindustani, ordering Singh to take his footwear in his hands and walk out such that his humiliation is visible to his followers. ‘If I am the last Englishman left in Jalandhar, you are not to come into my room with your shoes on,’ said Nicholson. Singh meekly followed the order. “Of course, the book cites this incident, praising Nicholson for his authoritative nature,” said Gandhi.
Rajmohan Gandhi also elaborated on the ‘Radcliffe Line’ that demarcated Punjab’s boundary between Indian and Pakistan and sealed its fate during Partition. “There were four other Indian judges too in the committee, who neutralised each other with their conflicting verdicts,” he explained.
Towards the end of the session, Rajmohan Gandhi also brought to focus incidents that highlighted how Mahatma Gandhi had to give in when some of his proposals were shot down. “Gandhi wanted the charka to be part of the National Flag, which was opposed since the Ashoka Chakra wheel was considered a better alternative for a nation stepping into a modern, industrial phase. Gandhi wanted Hindustani to be the National Language, which also was not accepted. On April 1, 1947, Gandhi proposed Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s name as prime minister of united India to Lord Mountbatten, which was also declined. In all these instances, Gandhi agreed to other democratic opinions. This goes to show he did not have he final say despite being called Father of the Nation,” said Rajmohan Gandhi.