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The Indian Exodus from Burma

Myanmar has been recently in the news: Rohingyas are fleeing genocide in the Rakhine region. The flight of a minority from Burma, as Myanmar was once known, is not without precedent. In the 1930-1962 period many thousands of Indian-origin Burmese had to flee to India. The annexation of Burma in 1885 by Anglo-Indian forces was yet another case of colonial greed. The demographics of Burma and her martial strain of Buddhism sustained strong resentment against the British rule, and the massive Indian immigration which followed the invasion. Indians had trickled into the Burmese lands for centuries, but this time it was a flood.

 

Insular compared to other south-east Asians, the Burmese were also largely unfamiliar with finance and international trade. They also distrusted British educational and cultural institutions. A large number of Indians therefore flooded into Burma seeking opportunity in that resource-rich but underdeveloped land. Gujaratis, Sindhis, Marwaris, and Chettiars from Tamil Nadu, ventured in with trade, banking and moneylending. Burma’s population density was low and this led to settlement of more Indians in large tracts of cleared forest lands. Industries, bureaucracy and garrisons were dominated by Indians. By 1930 ethnic Indians formed over 10% of Burma’s population, and about a third of this populace was born in Burma. Indian financiers borrowed from British banks at high interest and in-turn lent money to Burmese farmers, essentially linking Burma to a world globalized by imperialism. Despite the risks in lending to hostile and backward agriculturalists against land collateral, Indian financing grew spectacularly. This was due to the global demand for rice and the lower interest rates offered by Indians. Soon Burma became a leading producer and exporter of rice. Indian financing of other trades also helped ushering in modernity. However, debt foreclosures were common and Indian financiers ended up with much agricultural land – despite not wanting to do so in a hostile land.

 

Burmese anger grew due to such creeping foreign dominance, and loss of farms and forests to foreigners. Emerging nationalistic feelings tied to land and kin were strengthened by these developments – and also due to the combative and superstitious version of Burmese religion. Public anger was detonated by the global economic collapse of the late 20s. The price of rice collapsed: incomes shrank and foreclosures increased sharply. Two parallel streams of Burmese ultranationalism now erupted – both hostile to Indians. The first stream was a religious-chauvinistic rebellion led by a mystic named Saya San. He declared himself king in 1930 and the destructive war was subdued by the British only two years later. Thousands of Indians fled Burma in this period. The second stream was a students’ movement named “Thakin”, based on a mix of ultranationalist, socialist and communist principles. Memories of annexation and the perceived inhuman capitalism put Indians in the cross-hairs. The British used Indians as lightning rods of public anger, as they were not directly involved in financing. Communal riots flared up regularly and a new generation of leaders such as Ba Maw, U Nu and Aung San rose to prominence on a wave of anti-British and anti-Indian feeling. Though aware of Indians’ freedom struggle, they perceived Indian financiers and traders as “fiery dragons burning Burma into ash”.

 

The net emigration continued slowly till the Japanese invasion of 1942. The British were routed and Burmese leaders welcomed the Japanese juggernaut, which offered freedom in exchange for “cooperation”. Now the Indian exodus intensified. Aung San soon turned against Japan when it’s racist imperialistic nature was revealed. The remaining Indians got some reprieve due to the Indian National Army, allies of Imperial Japan. However, in 1944-1945 the Japanese and the INA fled from the British and Aung San’s forces. Burma soon became independent but the constitution denied citizenship to ethnic Indians; this discouraged the return of the exiles. The professed modern and liberal credentials of the new leadership did not extend to returning exiles or to Indians left in Burma. These events brought further ruin on the ethnic Indians. These remnant, primarily Chettiars, were rendered penniless and expelled by the military dictatorship following the 1962 coup. Those who attempted to return later met with failure: many descendants of these unfortunate people still reside in regions bordering Burma.

 

PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on September 17, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.

 

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1017 C.E. – The Chola conquest of Sri Lanka

The history and myths of Sri Lanka are replete with stories of Indian princes and adventurers capturing power and establishing dynasties. The proximity of the island and its resources undoubtedly attracted attention from many foreign powers. The Sinhalese kingdoms had also imported thousands of mercenaries from southern India to fight their internal wars and these mercenary communities soon gained significant power. Such contacts, trade, invasions and migrations caused intermingling of blood across the various strata of Sinhalese society down the ages. In this eventful history, the Chola conquest of 1017 C.E. (in the same year Ghaznavi invaded India for the catastrophic ninth time) stands out due to the scale of the campaign and its impact on Sinhalese history.

 

The Chola-Pandya feud raged through many centuries. The incessant wars dragged in other powers such as the Cheras, Chalukyas, and the Sinhala kingdom. Perhaps the disruption of trade caused the Sinhalese intervention, perhaps it was the strategic need to prevent total Cholas supremacy. The Sinhalese allied with the Pandyas but the alliance was decisively defeated by Parantaka Chola I in 920 C.E. The Pandyan and Sinhala kings fled to Lanka. History and legend blur at this point – Cholas reduced the remaining Pandyas to vassals; however, the Cholas were unable to capture the Pandyan crown jewels which included a necklace which a mythical Pandya king apparently won from Indra himself. The fugitive Pandya king placed these treasures under the care of his Sinhala ally, thus cheating Parantaka Chola of a “real victory”. The Cholas gave chase but had to retreat to the mainland as their enemy fled deeper south. In the reign of Parantaka “Chola II in about 959 C.E. the Sinhalese returned to aid a Pandya uprising. The alliance was defeated and once again the survivors fled to Lanka. The Cholas understood the long-term threat but they bided their time.

Emperor Rajaraja Chola I got his chance when a mercenary rebellion made the Sinhala king flee the capital in 991 C.E. The Chola pacified his other foes and quickly seized the opportunity. The subsequent invasion peaked with the razing of Anuradhapura, capital of Lanka for fourteen centuries, and planting a Chola viceroy in a new capital. The Cholas however failed to extinguish the ruling dynasty and could annex some northern territories. This was perhaps due to the resistance, terrain and the rise of the Western Chalukya Empire in the Deccan. The invasion was halted without meeting the twin objectives of total conquest and possessing the Pandyan crown jewels. The mantle soon fell on Rajaraja Chola’s illustrious son Rajendra Chola. Partly at his encouragement the Parmara kingdom kept the Chalukyas embroiled in the Deccan. This freed the Chola armies for redeployment to Lanka in 1017. As per Lankan sources, the renewed Chola invasion was massive and unrelenting. Whole armies were swept away, and cities and religious centers plundered and razed. The entire island was quickly conquered. The Cholas also captured the coveted Pandyan crown jewels and most of Sinhalese royalty; the Sinhala king would later die in captivity. The Cholas now attempted to recast Sinhalese polity and society by establishing new cities, trading posts, and issuing new coinage. They also planted temples and garrisons across the island and executed major public works. Sources also mention that Sinhala Buddhist culture suffered a great setback due to the loss of followers, monks, and shrines and monasteries.

 

The spirited assimilation attempt failed in a few decades. The Sinhala royal bloodline had survived in the form of some determined scions. The Lankan resistance regrouped under them and challenged Chola control at every opportunity. In 1077, the Sinhalese under Vijayabahu I defeated the Cholas, who retreated to the subcontinent in good order – perhaps realizing that the continuing Chalukyan ascent was a greater threat. Flush with victory and now wed to princesses of Kanauj and Kalinga, Vijayabahu planned to invade the Chola lands. However, his sizeable corps of Indian-origin mercenaries refused to fight their kinsmen this time and Vijayabahu had to flee. The rebellion was later suppressed with much effort and the Sinhalese did not foray overseas again. Instead, they focused on rebuilding their country and maintaining internal cohesion. It took many years, and help from co-religionist Burma, for the Sinhalese to reclaim their polity and heritage.

 

PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on September 3, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.

 

 

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The Slave Trade and British India

Since antiquity Africa was the preferred source of slaves due to the physical attributes of her people. Petty conflicts between African tribes usually ended with captives being sold as chattel slaves to foreigners. However, the scale of this trade greatly increased following the British conquest of India, and European colonial pursuits in adherence to Mercantilism. Mercantilism was the reigning economic philosophy till it was supplanted by Capitalism. The goal was essentially to be self-reliant in industrial production; and make sure that precious commodities such as gold and silver were amassed within national boundaries. Industries were run by monopolies supported by the government through subsidies, military assistance, and explicit approval to use any means necessary to amass wealth. Methods had to be devised to pay for imports without letting stocks of precious commodities fall beyond certain levels.

 

In the 17th and 18th centuries the chattel slavery based industries in the Americas boomed and produced highly profitable goods. The inhuman working conditions caused high mortality rates and constant supply of African slaves was essential. Hundreds of thousands of African slaves were shipped by Britain, and other nations. To avoid payment using precious commodities a “Triangular Trade” began, with the export of colonial spoils and manufactured goods to Africa. In Africa, these items were exchanged for captives who were shipped to the Americas. Plantation products and precious metals from the Americas were then exported to Britain, where the accounts were settled and the cycle restarted, with the Empire making profits at every step. Indian cloths were a major constituent of Britain’s sales in Africa: Indian fabrics had always been popular abroad, even in Britain. After the Company’s victories in Plassey and Buxar, the Empire could claim Indian fabrics for cheap. Soon, the volume of Indian fabrics and the rising demand for slaves caused the slave trade to boom.  The Seven Years’ War made Britain master of French lands in the Americas. Indian textiles were sold in greater volumes to buy slaves for the new colonies and these possessions made the Empire even more powerful.

 

Saltpetre, from which gunpowder is made, was another major Indian link to slave trade. India was the leading gunpowder producer and Europeans bought thousands of tons of saltpetre from India. Bengal and Bihar had the best deposits, controlled directly by the rulers. Indian saltpetre was used in gunpowder mills in India and abroad and the resultant gunpowder outperformed all competitors. A vast number of personalities, from Hemu to Du Pont, the nascent British Empire itself, etc. owed their initial successes to access to Indian saltpetre. Once the British truly controlled Indian saltpetre, their global ascendancy was assured. British-made Firearms and gunpowder made from Indian Saltpetre were highly valued in Africa, and the slave trade became even brisker.

 

Britain became the world’s biggest slave runner before abolishing slave trade in 1807. It was perhaps not just the horrific Haiti Slave Rebellion (1791-1804), nor the efforts of enlightened individuals and evangelical Christians which drove the abolition. British dominance in India was established in 1805 following the 2nd Anglo-Maratha War. This ensured a better cash cow, minus the stigma. Indian peasants and laborers suffered terribly, but the Empire could claim that it was not institutionalized chattel slavery. After the abolition, British India had very limited impact on the slave trade, but the enterprise had gained enough momentum. Other European powers quickly took over the space vacated by the British and slavery continued.

The legacy of slave trade endures: the British Empire and nations of the Americas were forged on the back of slavery. The unceasing African conflicts are also perhaps a result of that vile industry. Africans purchased firearms to capture enemies, who were sold to buy even more firearms. The very introduction of guns made slave raids more frequent and more African lands were drawn into this business. The development of Africa suffered as relationships between communities further weakened and probable trajectories of nation-building were disrupted. The short-term profits of slave trade and petty rivalries blinded Africans to the possibility of unification by conquest or on peaceful terms. Foreign weapons, technology and products could have made larger (but mosaic) African states, but the slave trade prevented that.

 

PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on August 20, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.

 

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Crime and Empire: Manchukuo

The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 was a globally condemned crime, ultimately leading to horrific Japanese domination of China. The naked aggression went unchallenged due to the ineffective League of Nations, Imperial Japan’s power and the seemingly unstoppable march of fascist ultra-nationalism worldwide. This invasion was made possible by a marriage of ultranationalism and crime in Japan. In their ascent to power the Japanese far-right co-opted the lower-class criminal and fringe groups of Japan. The latter were utilized by the ultranationalists for illegal financing, destroying their enemies and herding the society to the far-right. Decades of spirited propaganda and social transformation (on the lines of social conservatism or expansionism, or a mixture of both) stifled moderate voices in Japan. Even Prime Ministers, generals and ministers who opposed this were assassinated. Soon Japan became a far-right, expansionist nation. On their part the fringe and criminal groups used their new alliance to rise in stature from their humble origins. These groups would soon evolve into the Yakuza. Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 further emboldened the far-right and reinforced notions of racial superiority. Japan now possessed Chinese lands formerly annexed by Russia and planned to conquer even more lands in Asia. The Chinese were not blameless in their misfortunes either. Frontline leaders, political factions, secret societies and criminal groups were once allied with the Japanese: The Qing Dynasty which ruled China till 1911 was a mutual foe. In the wake of the liberation struggle, many Chinese ended up colluding with the Japanese in terrorism, gambling, narcotics, and human trafficking. Once the Qing monarchy was deposed and Republican China formed the secret societies and criminal groups needed a reason to exist – and knew no trade except crime. With long-term plans for conquest in mind, the Japanese adopted these groups.

 

The pretext for the 1931 invasion was engineered by General Kenji Doihara. Doihara was a rising star in the Japanese army, rumored to be linked to ultranationalists and criminal groups. As the garrison commander in occupied Chinese territories he engineered events and military actions, against the orders of the Japanese Prime Minister (who would soon be assassinated by naval cadets), and formed the Manchurian puppet state christened Manchukuo. Chinese factions such as the Kuomintang and the Communists were defeated or were powerless to intervene. The deposed “Last Emperor” was reinstated in Manchukuo as a cover of legitimacy. Doihara soon launched a massive criminal enterprise that aimed at sapping Chinese strength and funding the imperial domination. In this, Doihara was aided by the ultranationalists, their criminal allies and Naoki Hoshino, a senior bureaucrat from the finance ministry. Large areas were used for opium cultivation and the Manchukuo economy became based on narcotics. Intrigue, terrorism, smuggling and human-trafficking also became staple features. In a short period, Hoshnio’s and Doihara’s expertise made Japan’s Manchukuo the leading producer of opium, heroin, and morphine. Narcotics were pumped into China through artificially depressed prices, tainted medicines and placebos, thousands of brothels and front organizations – and notable by drug-laced cigarettes manufactured by the Mitsui Group. The damage was heavy: Japanese invaders became self-sufficient, rising narcotics consumption enfeebled millions, and major Chinese cities became havens of vice. Desperate Chinese were forced to choose criminal life due to the money and escape it provided. Even Chinese resistance leadership was not immune and numerous officers from various factions were seduced. All this was not possible without the active support of the Chinese organized crime syndicates which allied with the Japanese for an easy buck.

 

Doihara and Hoshino would rise up the ranks, fueled by their successes. Doihara was instrumental in the Japanese entry into the World War-II and led major war endeavors. The war began well and Japan conquered large territories, but by late 1944 Japan was in full retreat. Manchukuo was however largely spared of American and British wrath: Allied attacks were focused on the Japanese islands and forces in South East Asia and the Pacific. In August 1945 Manchukuo fell before the Soviets who suddenly declared war on Japan after four years of professed friendship. The Soviets promptly gave Manchuria to their Chinese communist allies who quickly established control despite the efforts of the Kuomintang. Following the Japanese surrender General Doihara was hanged and Hoshino imprisoned by the war crimes tribunal, but key figures of the Manchukuo enterprise switched loyalties or escaped to safe havens along with their wealth. It would take great effort for the Chinese regime to dismantle the remnant and eradicate the bane of narcotics from Chinese society.

 

PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on July 30, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.

 

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Armed Ascetics, Yoga and the British

In twelfth and thirteenth centuries a number of armed ascetic orders such as the Dasnamis, Satnamis and Naths emerged from erstwhile reclusive religious spaces. The loss of respectable lifestyle tied to temples and state patronage, following the foreign invasions of the previous century, had perhaps led to this evolution. Some orders were newly founded to resist invaders bent on iconoclasm and forcible conversion. These orders soon controlled major trade routes and access to major pilgrimage sites. Caste was not much a concern for these orders and core principles were based on the Saiva and Tantric streams. Many orders utilized Haṭha-Yoga and other physical training routines to prepare themselves for both ascetic life and combat. The training regimes nurtured in the orders’ Akharas (training congregations) were reportedly similar to military drills. The militarized orders did not hesitate to contest state power, or fight between themselves, to preserve their interests. Some orders were mobile, roving across different regions and a few of these gained notoriety as mercenaries, albeit with a mystical veneer.

 

While the relationship between these orders and Muslim and Hindu kingdoms oscillated the British turned out to be another matter: revenue collection was always their overriding objective. Till the mid-nineteenth century, the armed orders stoutly resisted rising socio-economic control by the British. Bankim Chandra’s Anandmath, featuring the Sanyasi Rebellion, drew from this history. The Haṭha-Yoga practicing orders were perceived as prime threats due to their physical prowess and organization. It took the British over a century to eliminate or disband the orders. A handful managed to survive by relocating to remote locations where they could retain their core practices. Most renounced their militarized nature and settled as seminaries, still calling themselves Akharas. A popular disdain for such orders developed following these events. To survive, many Yogis were forced to become road-side performers: the training they once utilized for asceticism and combat was now used to shock and amuse. These displays became a source of both fascination and repulsion for foreigners; the Yogi lying on a bed of nails became the defining image of India. Modern Hindus chafed at this portrayal and assigned blame on the Yogis. Orthodox Hindus following purity and pollution norms largely avoided the caste-less Yogi. Additionally, the British were also wary of Yoga due to its association with their old enemies. Visibility and acceptance of yoga suffered and proponents of yoga positioned it as mere meditation rituals.

 

However, as a result of unintended consequences Yoga soon re-emerged. Victorian era had ushered in the idea of “Muscular Christianity”, coinciding with the rise of fitness culture in the West. The belief of “sound mind in a sound body” gelled with nationalistic ideas of “defense through strength” and emerging eugenics. Also, colonial interests necessitated portraying strong conquerors against conquered weaklings. Consequently, Indians were depicted in demeaning manner: many of these portrayals persist to this day. These factors, and the colonial yoke itself, provoked many Indians to promote India’s own Yoga by developing a culture of nationalistic physical prowess. The efforts of Aurbindo Ghosh, Swami Raghavendra, etc. soon created an evolved, modern Yoga. Here, modern practices and training regimens were developed and blended with ancient principles. Some schools of Yoga, and certain popular Asanas of today were rebooted, if not invented, in modern times. The global physical culture wave also helped increase the acceptance of Yoga in this period. The martial nationalism of these modern Akharas attracted many and soon influenced organizations such as the RSS and Arya Samaj. Yoga also became a cover for training religiously inclined revolutionaries. Early revolutionary groups, such as Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar displayed institutionalized militancy and rigor similar to the ethos of the old orders. Yoga was in the government’s crosshairs again and revolutionaries had to disguise themselves as travelling gurus, dispensing training in new Akharas disguised as gymnasiums. Both modern Yoga and military training was combined under the heading of “Yoga” to evade detection. Brazilian Capoeira was similarly secretly developed and disguised as dance to prevent colonial crackdown.

 

The militant nationalistic streams never became as popular as the mainstream national movement. Therefore, the efforts to create an army of trained Indians to forcefully wrest power never materialized – and by the mid-40s independence was in grasp. However, these efforts of the covert and overt proponents of Yoga had successfully created a system which produced many Yoga luminaries, thereby leading to global popularity of Yoga. Naga Sadhus and other Akharas, more visible today due to Kumbh Mela and the new socio-political scenario, are the remnants of the armed orders of old.

 

PS: This is the original version of my first article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on July 16, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.

 

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The British Raj and Salt

Perhaps the signature event of Mahatma Gandhi’s agitations is the 1930 Salt Satyagraha; notifying the Viceroy that he will break the law by walking to the salt farms, picking up salt and inspiring millions to similarly defy the Empire’s salt regime. Besides the Empire coldly planting its flag on a very essential good, salt in colonial India had a dark history, indicative of the way India was squeezed dry. The genius of Gandhiji was in making statements that resonated with the core of Indian suffering – and even the most wretched of Indians would understand the cause of salt

Historically India’s major salt producing regions were Orissa, Gujarat, and Punjab. High quality sea salt made in Orissa by the Malangi castes was preferred by most and there was a major inland trade. Salt taxes in India were always low but the volume of trade still made profits possible. Before their rise, even the East India Company traded heavily in Orissa salt for munitions manufacturing. Coinciding with her rise after Plassey, Britain had increased commercial salt production and needed foreign markets. However, they could not compete with Orissa salt in price and quality. When the Company offered to buy all the salt made in Orissa the Marathas declined as they understood that the British would slowly eliminate it from the markets. In retaliation, the Company banned Orissa salt in their territories. The Bengal-Orissa border was porous and a salt-smuggling operation grew overnight: British salt continued to lag behind. In 1803 the Company annexed Orissa in the Maratha War and private production, stocking and trade of salt was banned.

Malangis originally worked under Zamindars who made good profit in the salt trade. Post-conquest, the British assumed leadership and advanced money to the Malangis against future salt production. However, very low wages and the production targets made repayment difficult, driving Malangis into bonded labor. Zamindars and Malangis soon indulged in contraband salt and the British responded mercilessly. In the 1817 Paik rebellion the Malangis also rebelled. The uprising failed but the underground trade continued. To end smuggling, the Company established customs checkpoints throughout their borders. Soon, a “Customs Line” grew around Bengal and Bihar. Corruption and smuggling persisted and the Company constructed a tall thorn hedge on the border to deter smuggling. The hedge was soon upgraded into a thick artificial forest, virtually impenetrable except for guarded gateways. This physical Inland Customs Line soon grew to 4000 kilometers, extending from the Himalayas to Orissa. This wall dedicated to the enforcement of the salt regime and preventing free movement of native traders soon employed over 12,000 personnel. It was abandoned in the 1880s only after the British established total control of trade in the subcontinent.

In 1804 English salt merchants still feared competition and lobbied Parliament to undermine Indian salt. The British slashed local production, ruling that Orissa salt was of “inferior quality”. They also periodically lowered wages. The price competitiveness and quality of British salt kept growing and in 1864, duties on domestic and imported salt were equalized. The local salt industry could not compete anymore. The government instructed their officials to end salt manufacture in Orissa and thousands became destitute. After the famine of 1866 the Malangis left their homelands seeking menial jobs in the cities. However, salt industry in Gujarat grew due to access to capital and the alignment of native and British interests. Voices rose periodically in support of Orissa and salt workers, and against the heavy salt tax instituted in 1878. In 1927 this tax was doubled amidst great uproar. The British refused to lower salt tax as this was the only revenue they effectively collected from the poor: after all everyone needed salt! By 1929 the public mood had worsened; it was at this juncture that Gandhiji adopted the cause into the National Movement.

Though the Satyagraha took place in Gujarat, Orissa enthusiastically joined the Satyagraha. This issue resonated all over India and the British executed severe reprisals – including massacring seventy protesters in Peshawar. The Gandhi-Irwin pact that followed was a mutual compromise: the salt tax continued but coastal communities could make salt for their own consumption. The British compromise also showed the power of mass agitations and invigorated the freedom movement. However, despite strenuous efforts the weight of colonial history prevented Orissa from ever being the leading salt producer of India again.

 

PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on June 25, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.

 

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The matriarch and the maverick: A tale from Travancore

The area comprising of present day southern Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu, Travancore, was repeatedly invaded by Vijayanagar, and later by the Madurai Nayaks. The colonial struggle for mastery over oceanic trade with India muddled the situation further as foreign powers pitted kingdom against kingdom, feudatory against the sovereign, and brother against brother. The age of Venad monarchs when Kerala and areas of Tamil Nadu were under one king was long over but the state of the warring remnants worsened due to these invasions and intrigue. In the rump state of Travancore, the feudal lords and high-caste groupings gained extraordinary power and could even decide the fate of kings. The ensuing conflicts resulted in endless wars, assassinations and anarchy. The Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple was a casualty of these events and was intermittently closed for decades. The original temple was gutted by fire apparently in one of these altercations. Moreover, Travancore was forced to pay tribute to Madurai, whose army would arrive twice a year to collect tribute. Delays or failure in payment led to plundering raids on multiple occasions. By the late 17th century, the situation was coming to a head.

In 1677 the heirless King of Travancore died, allegedly by poisoning. The Matriarchs of Attingal, who decided on matters of succession, was led by the highly capable Umayamma Rani. She became the queen regent for her nephew till he ascended to the throne in 1682, but continued to wield power even afterwards. Kottayam Kerala Varma, a young scion of a royal family from the north, entered the picture at this juncture. A famed warrior, poet and scholar, Kerala Varma was forced to leave his homeland after attempting a rebellion. He entered Travancore as a pilgrim and was quickly adopted by the matriarch and conferred the title of Prince. The synchronicity and speed of these events led some to believe that Umayamma Rani brought him over as her point man.

Kottayam Kerala Varma proved to be an intrepid commander and brilliant leader; he soon became the de-facto ruler of Travancore albeit under the matriarch’s aegis. He suppressed deeply divisive practices aimed at enforcing the power of feudal lords and reined in the powerful committees that ruled major temples. His prowess also ensured success in Umayamma Rani’s wars against challengers and in her attempts to consolidate power. The kingdom was suddenly thrown into disarray by the appearance of a rampaging force led by “Mughilan”, a moniker implying a Mughal lineage rather than his real name. It is believed that he was a roving warlord hailing from the Mughal provinces. It is also argued that this was an invasion funded or directly launched by the Madurai Nayaks. The invaders swept everything aside, including the feudal lords and the Matriarch, and soon Mughilan lorded over a large territory. Kerala Varma quickly mustered a new army and destroyed the invaders. However, some sources state that this invasion was secretly organized by Kerala Varma to eliminate the feudal powers. Mughilan instead double-crossed Kerala Varma by establishing his own base and entering into a pact with the feudals. In response the vengeful prince swiftly massacred the invaders in a surprise night attack.

Despite all his skills and victories, Kerala Varma was no match for the combined influence of his numerous enemies. Besides the feudal powers, the ministers also found him to be a high-handed, destabilizing force. Even the matriarch would have woken up to the rapid rise of her mentee, and the fact that the reforms and rulings started to encroach upon her own domains. Kottayam Kerala Verma was assassinated one night in 1696 in his palace just after a meeting with Umayamma Rani. Legend goes that the palace was haunted by his spirit which had to be placated by various ceremonies and rituals. Madurai soon became preoccupied with existential threats but the power of the feudal lords and the matriarchs would continue unabated until Marthanda Varma, an even more remarkable man, entered the scene a few years later. But that is another story.

 

PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on June 4, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.

 

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The Hajj lands and the Western Empires

In the second half of the 19th century, the Hajj pilgrimage was characterized as a “source of twin infections” by the British, French and Dutch empires: the cholera pandemics which killed millions, and fundamentalist Islamism stoked in the Hajj lands. By the early 1800s, imperial expansion had brought millions of Muslims under foreign rule and the responsibility of the pilgrimage now fell upon the new non-Muslim masters. Steam power made the hajj accessible to the lower strata of Muslim society and the number of pilgrims increased. The acceptance of the Kufr rulers was heavily based on how Islamic worship and sensitivities were treated. To ward off rebellion and mass deaths through pandemics, imperial machinations regarding the Hajj continued till the accession of Sultan ibn Saud as the Emir of the Hajj lands.

It was clear to imperial authorities that trade, mass gatherings and migrations were responsible for the sudden cholera outbreaks. It was therefore imperative to police the Hajj, where people from many nations congregated. Most pandemics were found to have originated in British India and consequently there was much pressure on the Raj. The second threat, the “infection” of anti-colonial radicalism against western powers, was perceived to be even more dangerous. The Hejaz, the strip of land linking Mecca and Medina and bordering the Red Sea, was an area where Islamic exiles and malcontents always gravitated to. Also, several Islamic sects were based here and their adherents from around the world exchanged ideas and experiences here. Fundamentalist Wahhabism gained had been gaining power steadily in the Arabian Peninsula and was perceived to be a threat by all empires. Some of the highlights of the Wahhabi rise were a failed rebellion against the Ottomans which led to the beheading of the first Saud Emir, and the sack of Karbala, a major spiritual centre for Shia Islam. The Hejaz was under Ottoman control and relationship between Ottoman Turkey and the west had deteriorated since the Crimean War bonhomie. The vastly superior western navies however plied the Red Sea and the Turks could not stop this. Nevertheless, the growing pan-Islamist movements under the aegis of the new Ottoman Emperor Abd Al-Hamid II was a major threat.

The French wildly oscillated in their Hajj policy – ranging from outright ban to subsidy extravaganzas. The British and Dutch were more even-tempered and relied on diplomacy, track-II diplomacy, and secret agents. Elements of the Muslim communities which feared the rise of radicalism actively aided the western empires here. The western quarantine measures were universally despised though. Crude methods of disease containment and disposal of bodies caused much suffering and death at the home ports and the Red Sea ports. The black legends of “western medical conspiracies” grew, if not originated, in this period. The Ottoman administrators in the Hejaz also successfully deflected the blame towards the westerners. The colonial narratives and mindset also created racist bureaucracies which offended and hurt the pilgrims. The high-handedness in the name of pandemic prevention even led to occasional bursts of violence. To an extent this phenomenon was reduced when the British recruited Muslims into the Hajj bureaucracy and actively gathered the opinions of various communities and sects.

The cholera threat was subdued by science by the end of the 19th century, but the anti-colonial threat remained. The Ottomans had long dreamed of re-conquest by posturing their Emperor as the Khalifa of all Muslims, because he was custodian of the shrines of the Hejaz. In response, the British threw their lot with Abdulaziz Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi allies during World War-1. This Arab Revolt succeeded and control of the Hejaz passed to Ibn Saud, who quickly united various tribes and eliminated rival power centres – including his former ultra-radical Wahhabi allies called the Ikhwan. Soon, the discovery of oil and the new American alliance propelled Ibn Saud to great power and influence. The Saudi control over the Hajj played a major role in the independence of Algeria from the French: the Saudis recognized the rebels as the rightful representatives of all Algerians pilgrims and actively aided the rebellion. In a way, the nightmare of Hajj inspired anti-colonial radicalism leading to loss of empire had finally come true.

 

PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on April 30, 2017. Here is the link to the original article.

 

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India and the secret war in Tibet

The late 40s saw the rise of the Communist rule in China, a frightening development for the U.S. bloc. Prados’s “Presidents’ Secret Wars” and Knaus’s “Orphans of the Cold War” and other works, including those of Indian authors such as former IB chief B N Mullick, detail subsequent U.S. operations to destabilize the Chinese occupation of Tibet, which was violently annexed in 1950. Thousands of bitter Tibetans were recruited by the CIA in Sikkim, Nepal and India. A major figure in the Tibetan resistance was the current Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup. Training was imparted in various global locations, and trained Tibetans were infiltrated into Tibet throughout the 1956-1962 period. These were mostly intelligence gathering missions but the Tibetans also routinely skirmished Chinese forces. Operations were mainly directed from a US site in East Pakistan. Indian authorities were aware of these clandestine activities and the Americans made considerable efforts to prevent Indian interference. This was the “Indo-Chini bhai-bhai” period, and India was trying its best to court the Chinese.

Everything changed when the war broke out in 1962. Faced with military collapse India planned to use Tibetans to attack the strained Chinese supply lines. They were aware of existing US-trained Tibetans forces in US bases in Asia. Gylao Thondup was contacted for assistance: India’s newfound interest was welcomed by the Tibetans and thus India entered the secret war. Army Chief Kaul and Mullick chose the enterprising Brigadier Uban to lead this mission. Most of the trained Tibetans were relocated to Chakrata and “Establishment-22”, which would later metamorphize into the Special Frontier Force (SFF), was thus formed. Before the Indo-US-Tibetan project could participate in the war, the Chinese unilaterally declared a cease-fire. India was now wiser to the long-term Chinese threat: the shooting war was over but there was work to be done. Biju Patnaik, no stranger to intrigue and adventure, also played a part in this covert program. Armed with Nehru’s support, Patnaik initiated the formation of an operations base in the Charbatia airstrip in Odisha. With the assistance of American veterans and under the cover of Patnaik’s Kalinga Airlines, this base named “Oak Tree-1” turned into a major node of the program. Patnaik apparently helped route funds discreetly, arranged the services of his own air-crew, and provided office space and equipment from his own businesses. The Special Service Bureau (SSB), which would evolve into the Sashastra Seema Bal, was also founded by Mullick and Patnaik to support to these operations. A fictitious Gurkha regiment was created to hide the presence of the Tibetans in various Indian military facilities. Great care was taken to hide American personnel from the public eye.

The joint operations lasted did not last long despite major successes, including uncovering the Chinese nuclear weapons program. US-Pakistan ties deepened in the 60s due to the Cold War; on the other hand, the Russians actively courted India after the 1962 war. India’s outspoken non-aligned stance also enraged the US Government and by 1965-66 American involvement in the Indian leg of operations wound up. Officials and political personalities who once actively worked with the Americans had by now faded away or were tuned to the breakdown in relationship. The growing clout of China, the Pakistan effect and the Nixon visit to China ultimately ended US assistance to the Tibetans in the early 70s. The improvement in Sino-Indian ties in the late 60s also led to significant roll-back of covert operations in Tibet. The sizeable Tibetan force was disbanded, with a few being absorbed into the SFF and SSB. However, episodes like the 1967 clashes, the 1987 episode and the Indo-Pak conflicts saw Tibetans in major combat roles. Remaining Tibetan forces in Nepal were less fortunate after the King turned on the Tibetans in late 1974, to gain Chinese support. Major leaders were killed or incarcerated and only a personal appeal from the Dalai Lama to the Tibetan forces avoided heavy causalities. India could not intervene but absorb a handful of escaped fighters and refugees.

Tibetans serve in the Indian Armed forces to this day, undoubtedly dreaming of their homeland’s liberation. Other Tibetans like the Dalai Lama continue the struggle through peaceful means.

 

PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on April 2, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.

 

 

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The early revolutionary stream in the Indian freedom struggle

The passing mention of the Ghadar Movement and Rash Behari Bose in our school history textbooks refers to a major endeavor that could have possibly overthrown the British Raj. This maze of international plots during the initial years of World War I is briefly outlined here.

The revolutionary movement for Indian independence was kindled in India and the flame was carried overseas to the India House in London. Common cause was sought with other nationalistic movements, primarily the Pan-Islamic and Irish movements, and these relationships strengthened rapidly. India House activities were finally suppressed by the British after an assassination and most members fled to operate in other havens. The Irish links greatly benefited the revolutionaries who relocated to the U.S. which had a large Irish-American community. The Turkish links led to the support of the Ottoman Empire, powerful groups in Persia and Afghanistan, and worldwide Islamic organizations. The greatest impetus was provided by Germany, determined to build an empire on the corpse of the British Empire. The outbreak of the war led Germany to lend overt support for the Indian revolutionaries. By this time the revolutionary stream had swelled considerably. They widely disseminated anti-Empire literature, operated radio stations, smuggled arms to India and shared military training. They also infiltrated military units, and governmental bodies. British intelligence soon caught on and commenced counter-moves. However, they bided their time and did not execute a concerted mop-up.

On one side Germany aided the Indian-Irish alliance in arranging large-scale arms shipments to India. This was to coincide with uprisings across multiple military formations in India. In parallel, the German Kaiser launched an ambitious Jihad against the British, through his Ottoman proxies. The Germans followed up with joint Indo-German initiative aided by Turks, and Persian and Afghan tribesmen. Several Indian revolutionaries were escorted to Kabul in an epic journey across Iran and Afghanistan. The objective was to convince the Afghan Emir that British defeat was inevitable, and to entice him to invade India. The Emir would be aided by uprisings in India and was even promised German and Turk forces.

The grand scheme failed on all fronts – the German operations in the United States were penetrated by Czech revolutionaries fighting for independence from Germany’s ally. The Czechs promptly informed their British allies when they stumbled on the Indo-Irish plot. The Irish republican outfits were heavily penetrated by British intelligence. This was also the age of anarchism the American authorities were vigilant against all forms of extremism. The Ghadar Party was also successfully penetrated by the British and Americans by this time. In India, fears of CID penetration forced a premature initiation of the uprising. However, the British fell upon the revolutionaries and their allies virtually overnight – this time very few escaped. The planned Jihad also failed due to lack of support of key Indian Muslim leaders. The arms shipment from U.S., via Mexico and Dutch Indonesia, got caught in between two factions of the Mexican Civil War. The shipment was finally disrupted by the Americans and a three-nation action finally rounded up the Indian-Irish alliance. The ensuing trial was widely followed due to the sheer breadth of the plot. It climaxed with the murder of one Ghadar accused by another, in court, due to suspicion of betrayal, only to be shot dead by the police. The revolutionaries received long prison terms and they later faded away from the movement. The Afghan initiative was discovered and despite an Anglo-Russian cordon, the mission reached Kabul. The British made counter moves and the Emir chose not to fight his British and Russian neighbors. Members of the Afghan mission were however able to escape to Germany or neutral nations.

The revolutionary stream petered out, with many revolutionaries eventually meeting tragic ends. The embers lived on though with organizations such as the famed HSRA. The surviving leftist revolutionaries later regrouped in Russia and expanded their activities into India. Revolutionaries such as Rash Behari Bose who escaped to East Asia continued their indomitable efforts, which culminated with the INA. These movements failed in their stated objectives but the sacrifices made and the very nature of the dissolution of these movements undoubtedly inspired and strengthened the mainstream Indian National Movement.

 

PS: PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on March 19, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.

 

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Empires’ Endgame: India in Indonesia

Ever wonder why typically older folk from South East Asia or China do not always see India or Indians in a particularly rosy tint? Besides the racism or frictions and competition in immigrant spaces, there is the dark legacy of the Raj. Maybe you have noticed that quite a few Chinese movies, including iconic specimens such as Fist of Fury, Fearless, One-Armed Boxer, etc. show Indians as either an enemy or as a lackey of the “White Devil”. Hey, even Tintin and the Blue Lotus had such portrayals! To a degree this feeling is justified because Indians were used to pacify, police or outright conquer other people. Tomes have been written on Indians in the service of the Raj – usually “in the cause of freedom”– but not so much about less palatable instances such as deployment in Indonesia following the end of the 2nd World War. This was the last time Indians were used as the Raj’s muscle against another nation – essentially to secure Cold War interests and the interests of the Dutch Empire. Remember this was when Indian National Movement was culminating and the bravery of the INA and the British Indian Army both captured public imagination. Indians did not know much about this deployment when this happened – and the ignorance largely continues to this day – but believe me, many Indonesians do.

The atomic bomb ended Japan’s game in South East Asia, but it surely did not close the book on the Allies’ or the Dutch Empire’s interests in that region. Large armies and militias remained; some armed by the Allies to fight the Japanese, some armed by the Japanese to fight the Allies, and some arming themselves to fight both camps. Thousands of Japanese troops also remained in control over large areas. The Japanese occupation after defeating the Dutch and the British in 1941, had co-opted Indonesian republican leaders like Sukarno by dangling the Freedom carrot. The price Indonesians paid was terrible but the vast majority endured it because of a nationalist awakening since the ‘30s – perhaps the Japanese would deliver on their promises! The radical and young republicans were a hedge by the republicans who soon understood that the Japanese were not exactly the friends they claimed to be. The religious right went underground and fought everyone to establish their hegemony. The Dutch and their ethnic/religious minorities allies and the Communist resistance ran their own wars. The atom bombs’ shockwaves only fanned the flames which burned across the Archipelago.

The declaration of Independence by Sukarno in August followed the Japanese surrender, the Allies goaded by the Dutch did not accept this and charged the British to aid the return of the Dutch. Dutch support was imperative given Cold War calculations and the looming communist challenge in other parts of South East Asia. The British were less than enthusiastic to step into the crossfire but they did so and in a short while deployed a huge force. This force included three Indian divisions with Gurkha, Rajput, Sikh, Maratha and Punjabi Muslim battalions. To cut a long story short, the “engagement widened in scope and depth” and much Indonesian blood was spilt at Indian hands. This included large urban conflicts like the Battle of Surabaya to small-scale rural skirmishes. On the other hand, a few hundred Indian soldiers defected to the republican or militant Islamist ranks heeding to anti-colonialist Zeitgeist, or the religious calls of the local Ulema. Many soldiers and officers chose not to defect, but secretly aided the Republicans. The fact that Indians witnessed first-hand the barbarities committed by the returning Dutch forces and their local allies also helped in the change of heart. Japanese garrisons aiding republicans while other Japanese troops fought republicans also added to the surreal atmosphere. Indian troops were tired after years of war and were surprised when what they initially believed to be a caretaker mission turned into a full-fledged war. The leaking morale, the widening engagement and the return of the Dutch and their Allies in strength led the British Empire to pull out in November 1946, albeit under the cover of a sham treaty.

 

The number of Indonesian casualties inflicted by Indians are in the high thousands, most of them occurring in the Battle of Surabaya. India supported the Indonesian cause once we inched closer to freedom (the daring Biju Patnaik rescue in July 1947) and supported the development of free Indonesia. Indonesia is now a friendly nation and a major trading partner. However, one must not forget the other aspects of our past.

 

PS: This is the original version of my first article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on January 15, 2017. Here is the link to the published article

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Hello World!

Yep. That obligatory first post which announces your arrival into….. whichever digital realm you’ve coded this in!

I guess this is also a good place to say that I just want this piece of digital real estate to host my articles in other media, my attempts in fiction, with some random trivia, thoughts, shares and of my rants.Due to space requirements (considering the paper layout) my submitted articles tend to get edited a bit. This blog will host the originals.

I used to have a blog a long time ago – it ran for a couple of years, had decent readership and I think I wrote some decent posts. I dumped blogging unceremoniously and returned nearly a decade later with my articles in Daily News & Analysis. Here’s hoping that my second innings turns out well.

Thanks for visiting and see you around.

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