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A lesson from the past

These days even sportsmen, who de rigueur shake hands after a match, only rarely praise their fallen combatant. If they do, it’s largely because it’s expected of them, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Apr 15, 2007 01:54 IST

Ours is a very different age. I wouldn’t for a moment deny that. Yet I can’t help feel that in our self-obsessed, matter of fact, take-it-as-it-happens approach we’ve lost the ability to admire, leave aside praise, an opponent. We’re so full of our own success we ignore the valour or gallantry of the other.

Even sportsmen, who de rigueur shake hands after a match, only rarely praise their fallen combatant. If they do, it’s largely because it’s expected of them. But they hardly ever mean it. Just look at the strain on their faces as they speak and the desperate search for words that minimise what they’re saying.

However, it wasn’t always like this. Here are a few examples to illustrate my point. During the German East Africa Campaign of 1914-18, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, to quote The Economist, “outsmarted the combined forces of the British, Portuguese and Belgian empires from the beginning of the war to beyond its end”. Almost single-handed, he had them on the run. The war, of course, was won by the British but how did they treat Lettow-Vorbeck once it was over? In 1929, the very same British officers he had bested invited him to dinner. After the second World War they got together to pay him a pension!

Here’s a similar story from nearer home as well as closer in time. In 1971, as the Indian Army seemingly unstoppably stormed towards Dhaka, a young Pakistani captain became the most serious obstacle in its inexorable march. His name was Captain Ahsan Malik. This is how Field Marshal Manekshaw remembered the young opponent in 1999, when I interviewed him for the BBC:

“We tried to capture a place called Hilli which he was defending and we tried very hard and we didn’t succeed until about the third attempt. He fought gallantly and I did send him a personal letter. And when I went to Pakistan after the conflict — I went twice — I mentioned it to their Chief that I think that boy should be given a gallantry award. He fought magnificently. I said he fought gallantly.”

Alas, Manekshaw didn’t know if the Pakistanis heeded his advice. Somehow I doubt it. I fear they might have recoiled against Manekshaw’s compliment, believing it to be tongue-in-cheek or even mischievous.

Manekshaw was equally willing to praise the Pakistani army itself. When I asked him why they had crumbled, rather than gloat he sprang to their defence. He claimed that the advantage of numbers, location and advance preparation had told in his favour. Again, let me give you his exact words: “The Pakistani army in East Pakistan fought very gallantly but they had no chance. They were a thousand miles from their base. I had eight or nine months to make my preparations. I had got a superiority of almost fifteen to one. They just had no chance. But they fought very gallantly.”

However, don’t let me mislead you into thinking only army officers are capable of such generosity of spirit. Even politicians can be! That may be hard for Indians to believe but read on.

This time my story goes back to 1963. Harold Wilson had just taken over as Leader of the Opposition in Britain. It was his first encounter with the Prime Minister of the day, the legendary Harold Macmillan, who the press called Super Mac. Macmillan was a political colossus and his contemporaries were in awe of him. Wilson knew he had to make his mark immediately otherwise the elder Harold would demolish him.
It happened at Prime Minister’s Question Time. Wilson tore into Super Mac. By all accounts he was devastating. Macmillan was left reeling. He’d never been treated so roughly and the great fear was that a hideous bitterness had been introduced into the placid waters of British politics.

But how did Macmillan respond? After Wilson sat down, with Labour applause for its new leader resounding in the Commons, he ostentatiously crossed the floor to shake Wilson’s hand and said: “You were in fine form. Now you owe me a drink!” And together, the Prime Minister and his principal opponent repaired to the bar.

If today we lack the same spirit could it be because we are smaller men? Or have we forgotten that the more valiant our opponent the more magnificent our achievement in beating him? Instead, by our strangulated silence we come close to converting victory into moral defeat.