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Haunted by the ghost of St Thome

Whether in Bhopal or Maoist lands, unyielding minds are stalling emerging India. Old failings hold back the nation, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Jun 10, 2010 21:43 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Why is there so much shock over the judgement in Bhopal? We knew the lowest court had not finished its work over a quarter of a century. We knew the sentence would be light because the Supreme Court ruled that the death of thousands by toxic gas was to be legally treated as one might a hit-and-run case.

We witness similar, momentary outrages when the Maoists kill more people, when thousands of security forces fail to stop their growing power. As national problems grow more critical and complex, we can choose to blunder along, vent our fury until the next breaking-news alert and risk long-term failure; or we can address our ancient flaws.

It was not a Briton or a Frenchman but a Swiss engineer called Paradis (the records don’t seem to have his first name) who delivered the first shattering blow that culminated in the European subjugation of India — and revealed national weaknesses that have held firm over 264 years.

At daybreak on November 4, 1746, Paradis plunged into the Adyar river, leading 230 French and 700 native recruits in a clever, determined charge against a 10,000-strong army of cavalry, infantry and artillery commanded by Mahfuz Khan, nephew of the Nawab of Karnataka.

Paradis was not a career soldier. But he possessed a calm energy that prompted the French governor of Pondicherry, Joseph Francois Dupleix, to give him command of the detachment of St Thome, a bastion outside Madras. The French had seized Madras from the British on the pretext of ousting them on behalf of the Nawab and were now refusing to relinquish control. Only 48 hours earlier Mahfuz Khan’s army had been put to flight because its shoddily-maintained big guns, firing once every 15 minutes, were no match for French guns firing five to six times a minute. But Paradis was in a spot. French reinforcements were on their way from Madras: if he waited, Khan’s cavalry, eager to avenge the retreat of two days ago, would charge.

So, Paradis splashed into the Adyar, leading a precise thrust at the badly-aimed, badly-maintained and poorly-commanded Karnataka artillery. Spurred to action, Paradis’ troops fired a volley from their muskets and charged. The effect was electrifying. Unaccustomed to quick, decisive action, the Nawab’s troops fled in wild confusion, not stopping the retreat until they reached their capital, Arcot, noted Col. George Bruce Malleson, a British military historian in The Decisive Battles of India: 1746 to 1849, published in 1914.

The battle of St Thome was a turning point on the road to dominion over India. Until then, European powers largely ran trading posts and attributed to Indian kings a superiority no settler ever disputed. In less than a year, the position of vassal and conqueror was inverted once Indian weaknesses were revealed. Every subsequent British war since — against the Mughals, the Maratha confederacy, the Sikhs, and others — showed how a few with discipline, skill, unity and inventive power could triumph against the bad leadership, indiscipline, hubris and disunity of the many.

These are familiar issues in 21st century India. The spectre of St Thome unknowingly haunts public life. Whether infrastructure, poverty alleviation or court cases, we tend not to finish things, wait for events to overwhelm us, attempt band-aid fixes, and, if those fail, systems wither away.

With some honourable exceptions, those in politics and public administration reveal a paralysis in ideas and action, impeding widespread progress. George Bernard Shaw once said: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

India’s macro numbers appear strong, as they largely have since the economic boom of the 1990s, as Mahfuz Khan’s army once did. But the failures in addressing issues of poverty, hunger, corruption and environmental degradation reveal deep mental vulnerabilities.

Instead of training, tactics and technology, we mindlessly throw ill-prepared battalions at insurgencies, whether in the Maoist lands, Kashmir or the North-east. The under-trained, under-equipped Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the world’s largest paramilitary force, has doubled its size in less than five years to 215 battalions (each battalion has more than 700 soldiers) today. There may be 250 battalions, at least, by 2018.

In Kashmir, the unthinking, brutal use of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, an archaic law unbecoming of a modern democracy, fuels further alienation and allows official atrocities by some soldiers, who in the latest instance shot three young men and tried to pass them off as terrorists. The prime minister may talk of ‘zero tolerance’ to such abuses, but his ham-handed security forces appear unable to change.

The same paralysis is evident in Manipur, where a blockade by Naga students has crossed its 60th day. Would we allow such a state of affairs if the state of Delhi, India’s richest, had to pay Rs 150 for a litre of petrol?

It is not my case that modern India is incapable of new ideas and rapid action. Vast swathes of this nation have progressed to fit the global label of ‘Emerging India’. Our corporate leaders and professionals are among the best globally. The Sreedharans, the Devi Shettys and the Ela Bhatts — to use three random examples — have shown us systemic transformation in urban transport, health-care and female emancipation. Unless change of this calibre invades the public sphere, India will be doomed to producing First World islands in a Third World country, lurching to its next crisis — and being forever a haunted nation.