Notes from a colonial school

Published September 21, 2021
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

THE ‘backstabbing’ of France by the English-speaking trio of US, UK and Australia, whereby the old gang colluded to sabotage a lucrative submarine deal between Canberra and Paris, took one back to La Martiniere College, my school in Lucknow. Its French mercenary founder, Claude Martin, had abandoned Dupleix’s payroll and joined Robert Clive’s forces following the 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Dupleix’s successful use of Indian soldiers to defeat and woo other native rivals was later adapted by the British as a dominant strategy to rule India, and formed the genesis of the Indian army.

The 1748 treaty resulted from battle fatigue. The aim was to suspend active rivalries that Britain and France were pursuing on the European chessboard. Both were now exhausted and faced rack and ruin. The treaty’s clauses also rearranged their colonial holdings around the globe. Madras, which Dupleix had sunk his teeth into in southern India, was handed back to Clive, in lieu of Nova Scotia across the North Atlantic seaboard, which was awarded to the French.

(Were it not for the treaty one would have perhaps been writing in a newspaper called L’Aurore, instead of Dawn.)

Times were when England was a nondescript speck on the southwestern shore off Europe, and France was in the thick of history with its expanding and shrinking borders. Then two events changed the course of history. The genial Anglo-Indian geography guru at La Martiniere made us note this down for homework: In fourteen hundred and nine-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And in fourteen hundred and ninety-eight, DaGama knocked at India’s gate. The new naval order couched in the school ditties was to become unwittingly linked to the perfidy that took place between the suspicious friends last week. They were friends when they were brutally hunting down Muammar Qaddafi in Libya not long ago. They were friends in the project to drive out the Soviet army from Afghanistan. And they were friends in initiating the conquest of Afghanistan by Nato.

Where does this turn of events leave the rest of the world? China was supposed to be the quarry they were all concerned with.

But, their mutual suspicion of each other lurked unabated. France had after all helped George Washington trounce Lord Cornwallis in the Battle of Yorktown and freed America from British rule. England retaliated by dispatching Cornwallis to India and wreaking havoc on French interests. Cornwallis deployed Dupleix’s winning tactics and mobilised Indian forces to tackle an Indian adversary, in this case Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the powerful French ally who had been in touch with Napoleon Bonaparte. Cornwallis joined the Muslim nizam and the Hindu Marathas to corner Tipu. Claude Martin the mercenary had fabricated a cannon for the occasion with which Cornwallis laid siege to Tipu Sultan’s fortress at Srirangapatna. The gun still occupies the pride of place at the school in Lucknow.

France and Britain’s Anglo-Saxon outposts in Australia, New Zealand and Canada were together in the war against Nazi Germany. However, the English-speakers’ club quickly formed their own secret society of snooping and intelligence sharing to track virtually every country, including, inevitably, France.

The Five Eyes club had been at it since 1948, but reworked a new nomenclature — AUKUS — to exclude Canada, which has a sensitive domestic relationship with France, and New Zealand, which doesn’t wish to have anything that carries the word ‘nuclear’ around its territorial waters. Even without the benefit of the evidence offered by Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations to support the claims of US espionage on European allies, it would not be hard to see a pattern of defence scandals involving France, Norway or Sweden, for example, grabbing the headlines, say in India (Bofors and Rafale) and Pakistan (French submarines) while there has been virtually little that shows up from the Anglo-Saxon corner of graft.

Where does this turn of events leave the rest of the world? China was supposed to be the quarry they were all concerned with. The scrum for tracking and taming the world’s most rapidly expanding economic power with the help of the submarines for Australia appears to have been now hit by friendly fire. The Chinese commentary on the diplomatic snafu borders on the smug. They are counting on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s speech during a debate on ‘The State of the European Union’ at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Sept 15.

Von der Leyen applauded the EU’s achievements in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, announced a new European Chips Act, a new Social Climate Fund, a new Afghan Support Package, stressed the EU need of a European Defence Union, and unveiled EU’s new connectivity strategy called Global Gateway. “We are entering a new era of hyper-competitiveness,” she said, suggesting Europe become “a more active global player”, The Global Times flaunted her as saying.

The badly planned Afghan exit and the bad blood with France, on the other hand, may have jolted President Biden’s standing as the leader of the armada encircling China, but he now has to explain his rationale to those who were hoping for a greater role in the enterprise for themselves. The Japanese prime minister who has been summoned kicking and screaming to the Quad meeting with Australia, US, and India would of course be stepping down soon after the Sept 24 summit.

What hopes is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi carrying to the meeting? He was on President Macron’s list of best friends since the disputed Rafale warplanes deal was pushed through. India’s submarine projects are heavily dependent on Russia. And now he will go to a meeting in which he knows two countries he was counting on to back his China policy are celebrating the oldest terms of endearment. It’s called the cash nexus. The nexus is not too different from the parallel Africa-specific Quad, which President Xi Jinping has proposed with France and Germany and Russia as partners. That’s what the school notes say.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2021

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