Of Commonwealth & Majrooh

November 22, 2007

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EXCEPT for its deeply entrenched anti-communism, British Commonwealth has been an effete organisation from its inception. Having an anachronistic monarch for a leader does not seem to have helped much.

It is the kind of outfit that should of course suit Third World leaders who admired the colonial administration and perhaps seek inspiration from it to manage their mostly impoverished nations.

By this token alone Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should be a celebrity at the Commonwealth’s summit opening in Kampala today. As for Pakistan, it has performed yeoman’s service for an even more powerful master in the cause of anti-communism. Moreover, as a key non-Nato ally of the United States, whatever the real net worth of this spanking new epaulette, the threat of expulsion from the Commonwealth over recent errors of omission and commission should still leave it with the really important Anglo-Saxon admirer standing by its side.

Harnessing of disparate countries under the canopy of a disintegrating empire was not easy. In fact it reveals a history of sly diplomacy that mostly advocated the bludgeoning of communist protests.

Take Majrooh Sultanpuri’s case who became known for his extremely popular film lyrics, but who also happened to be a member of South Asia’s mainly communist Progressive Writers’ Association.

Majrooh was married to Firdaus on May 5, 1948. So his family expanded, and expenses were going to increase. Yet, instead of getting to work, the poet went to jail.

The reason? A workers’ agitation was on in Bombay in those days. In one such labour rally, Majrooh recited a poem and called Jawaharlal Nehru ‘a slave of the Commonwealth’ and ‘a Hitler’.

Aman kaa jhandaa is dharti pe
kisney kahaa lahraane na paae
ye bhii koii Hitler kaa hai chelaa,
maar le saathii, jaane na paae!
Commonwealth ka daas hai Nehru
maar le saathii jaane na paae!
(Such unease with our flag of peace! Is it some protégé of Hitler, or a mere slave of the Commonwealth? It’s Nehru, my friends. Take him by the collar lest he gets away.)

An arrest warrant was issued for Majrooh by the government of Bombay State. Majrooh went underground and eluded the police. But when a meeting of progressive writers was organised in 1951 to protest the incarceration of fellow communist writers Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Pakistan’s Rawalpindi conspiracy case, the fiery poet came out of hiding. His was a strong voice in the meeting, and he was arrested as soon as he descended from the stage. Majrooh was lodged in Bombay’s Arthur Road Jail for a year.

There was a clear mismatch between the people’s perceptions about the Commonwealth and that of their leaders who reached out readily for a fawning alliance with their former rulers. Declassified records of a meeting between some of its leaders in London in 1949 go a long way in explaining Britain’s paranoia of the very communists who had only recently won a victory as they fought shoulder to shoulder with a rightist Churchill against Nazi Germany.

According to some documents released by the Australian government, in the 1949 meeting British Prime Minister Clement Attlee pitched for a strong anti-communist bloc within the Commonwealth. Both Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan had concurred with most of what they were told. New Zealand’s Peter Fraser pitched for “practical co-operation between Commonwealth countries” which he said “was more than ever necessary today, when the free democracies of the world were threatened by communism”.

The Australian note said that Mr Liaquat Ali Khan “while not asking for any formal commitments, would like to be assured that (Pakistan) could rely on the help of other Commonwealth countries in time of trouble”.

The ‘trouble’ could of course mean Mr Khan’s difficulties with India over Kashmir or the gathering Leftist-led turmoil in his country.

Nehru — though at this stage he was mildly sympathetic to the Chinese revolution — nevertheless voiced concern over its implication for India. “The present upheaval in China was due to deep-seated causes going back at least as far as the revolution of 1911; and although it was being influenced and exploited by communists, it was due fundamentally to a widespread sense of dissatisfaction with the existing regime.” But then Nehru made a potentially sinister point about the way ahead.

While stating that communism was not in essence a military problem, he added: “If war were imminent, Commonwealth countries would have to prepare to defend themselves… It was true that the Commonwealth could exercise a powerful influence in the world, in peace and in war; but the Commonwealth could no longer dominate the world by military strength alone.

It must therefore develop, and pursue, a positive policy for preventing war. And, in Asia, that must take the form of removing the conditions which encouraged the growth of communism.”

Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley who had opposed a ban on the communist party in his country lent a helping hand to Nehru. He too felt that the “primary object of Commonwealth policy should be to create, in countries exposed to communist influence, social conditions in which it would be impossible for communism to flourish. It was by these methods that the advance of communism must be checked. In Asia certainly, and possibly in other countries also, military strength was not an effective weapon against communist encroachment.”

But Commonwealth forces were used in quelling communist threats like the uprising in Malayan peninsula, where military strength was deployed. Chin Peng was their scourge. The onetime leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) has wanted to return to Malaysia. The ethnic-Chinese former rebel, who now lives in exile in Thailand, was on the last count denied entry by his country because his photographs did not tally with old Malaysian records! During the Second World War, Chin Peng and his guerrillas provided the bulk of resistance to the Japanese occupation after Allied troops were defeated in the Malayan peninsula and Singapore. For his courage, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

But after the war, the communists began a nationalist fight against colonial rule. Leading a 10,000-strong force, Chin Peng faced some 70,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Fijian, Gurkha and other British Commonwealth troops. In 1959, the new state of Malaya, which later became Malaysia, was cast in the context of the war with Chin Peng’s communist movement.

The British called it the “emergency” for political and economic reasons — calling it a war would have meant increased insurance claims. Pakistanis please note.

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