Sudden demise

Last Thousand Days of the British Empire by Peter Clarke; Penguin Books; Price: Rs.750; 559 pp

This enlightening narrative of the sudden collapse of the British empire, which at its zenith rivaled the Roman imperium of 286-476 AD, answers several questions about the British and their sprawling empire which have troubled this reviewer for decades. Among them: was it by accident or design that this tiny island nation with a population of less than 50 million accumulated a global empire, and subjugated 600 million people across a vast geographical area upon which, the boast was, the sun never set? How did the insular people of this peripheral cold, wet country addicted to petty snobbery and ridiculous pretensions, build one of history’s greatest empires?

And why did this mighty imperium haste so rapidly to its setting from the meridian of its glory after stitching together a grand alliance of nations, and winning the greatest and most destructive global war in human history? In this detailed narrative of the sequence of events which led to the dramatic decline and fall of the British empire within 1,000 days after World War II, Peter Clarke, hitherto professor of modern British history at Cambridge University, answers these and other conundrums.

Curiously, the answers to most of these questions are to be found in the history of British India which could be said to have begun with the famous victory of English merchant adventurer Robert Clive in the battle of Plassey in 1757, and ended almost two centuries later when the Union Jack was hauled down from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort on August 15, 1947. At the peak of its imperial glory in the 1920s — “within the lifetime of old people today” — Great Britain “controlled a quarter of the world’s territory and quarter of its population” writes Clarke. The two great World Wars of the 20th century were fought tooth and nail by the British ruling elite (and its obedient working class) to preserve this empire, envied by European dictators including Kaiser Wilhem II, Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. And indisputably, the prize possession of Great Britain’s mighty empire was India. “As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straight away to a third rate power,” declared Lord Curzon (1859-1925), one of British India’s most learned and insightful viceroys prophetically.

Indeed with the benefit of hindsight, it’s quite obvious that it was the mighty numbers and perceived might of the British Empire which prompted its great wartime leader Winston Churchill — to the end an unrepentant imperialist — to lead British defiance against the blitzkrieg of the all-conquering German war machine which overran imperial France within 15 days, and much of continental Europe shortly thereafter. Although heavily outnumbered in terms of demographics, GDP and size by Nazi Germany, Churchill drew psychological, moral and material inspiration from the British empire which with its aggregate population of over 500 million of which India contributed 400 million — made Great Britain a heavyweight global power. And as the author take pains to stress, it was the British Empire rather than Britain which declared war on Nazi Germany when it violated the borders of  distant Poland on September 1, 1939.

Although the countdown to the last 1,000 days of the British empire began at the Yalta Conference (February 1945) when the big three of the Allies — Churchill, US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — met for the last time to discuss the post-war map of the world, this book also offers a valuable history of the Second World War declaration of which marked the beginning of the end of the British empire. According to Clarke, Great Britain’s greatest feat of WWII was its brave, lone stand against Nazi Germany in the early years (1940-41) of the war when Hitler’s armies overran Europe and mounted  unprecedented aerial bombardment of Britain, and London in particular. But even Great Britain’s finest hour, when it stood alone in defiance of the Nazi dictator, was made possible by American military and supplies under the Lend-Lease programme described by Churchill as the “most unsordid act in history”. According to Clarke, the value of American aid to Britain under the Lend-Lease programme during the war years aggregated to a massive $27 billion (Rs.135,000 crore) — an enormous sum in those days — which was finally written off at $650 million to be added to further loans made to Britain under the Marshall Plan for the post-war reconstruction of Europe.

Moreover, much as Churchill tried to project the Allied effort as a war of English-speaking democracies against German and Italian dictatorships, his love of empire — in which there was a conspicuous democracy deficit — didn’t quite jell with President Roosevelt, who was sympathetic to India’s freedom movement being led by Mahatma Gandhi. And given the abject British dependence on the mighty production capacity of American industry which flooded Britain (and Russia) with armaments and supplies under Lend-Lease, the all-party government in London had to handle India and its freedom movement leaders with kid gloves. All these complex plays and counter-plays are brilliantly detailed in Prof. Clarke’s vast canvas, and Last Thousand Days deserves a place of honour in the library of WWII histories and literature.

In the end it was the sheer effort to maintain the empire which obliged tiny Great Britain to fight a war on two fronts — in Europe against Hitler and in South-east Asia against the Japanese — which bled it dry. “We simply need to recognize that their finest hour in 1940-41 when the British Empire was inspired to resist the Nazi menace at all cost, left bills to be paid later. Defeat would have spelled the end of the Empire, but so did victory,” writes Clarke, in his compelling analysis of the stress and strains that hastened the decline and fall of Britain’s Empire.

Dilip Thakore

No new perspective

Islam and Education — Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs by Saleem H. Ali; Oxford University Press; Price: Rs.495; 214 pp

Almost unknown a few years ago, madrasas — Islamist K-12 schools which focus on the study (mainly rote memorisation) of the Holy Quran (aka Koran) as the unalterable word of God — are well-known today as nurseries of Islamic terrorism, casting a dreadful shadow over the contemporary world.

In particular, the madrasas of Pakistan (pop. 172 million) have acquired an especially notorious reputation. The middle class and civil society in contemporary Pakistan are confronted with the alarming prospect of multiplying armed vigilante groups, often led and manned by madrasa-trained maulvis, who under the cloak of true and pure Islamic dogma, have become a law unto themselves. The link that numerous commentators have made between madrasas and rise of violent jihadist ideology in Pakistan is what this book — actually a research study authored by Dr. Saleem H. Ali, professor of environmental planning at University of Vermont and adjunct faculty at Brown University (USA) — is about. Based on investigations and deep research conducted in Ahmedpur East, in the southern Punjab province and Islamabad, the author examines to what extent, if any, Pakistan’s madrasas are involved in promoting terrorism, which today threatens to plunge the country into a bloody civil war.

Ahmedpur East is a largely rural area, in which much of the land is owned by ‘high caste’ Shia landlords, while the peasantry is mainly of the rival Sunni sect. As in much of rural Pakistan, state services are conspicuous by their absence. Inevitably the public education system is in a shambles. This context has facilitated a rapid increase in madrasas in the region, particularly since most of them provide free board, lodging and education to attract students from poor and lower-middle class families. In other words, the pathetic failure of the Pakistani state to provide quality education to the country’s poor is the major reason for the mushrooming of madrasas countrywide, as evidenced by the Ahmedpur East study.

According to Ali, proliferation of Islamabad’s madrasas has actually been facilitated by government, rather than fuelled by local demand. Almost all the city’s madrasas are built on state-owned land, many of them illegally, and the vast majority of their students are not from the city, but from impoverished parts of the Northwest Frontier Province, writes Ali. Successive Pakistani rulers, starting with the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq, encouraged madrasas to curry favour with the ulema or clergy.

It is not Ali’s case that madrasas are necessarily terror nurseries. Indeed, he argues, few madrasas in Pakistan are actually involved in violent activity or in providing armed training to their students. Yet this is no excuse for overlooking the fact that animosity towards rival Muslim sects and other religions and their followers is actively encouraged in these institutions. This is reinforced by jihadist literature, websites and mosque sermons to which madrasa students are continuously exposed.

The Pakistan establishment’s efforts to reform and deradicalise madrasa education is also evaluated in this study. Thus far, such efforts have been half-hearted and have failed miserably. Very few madrasas have chosen to register themselves with government authorities, a sign of the considerable resistance on the part of those who control them, to accept what they regard as unwarranted American and Pakistani government interference in the realm of Islamic education. Likewise, the few ‘model’ madrasas that the Pakistani government has recently promoted, combining secular and religious education, have had few takers.

While undoubtedly committed to the cause of reform of Pakistan’s several thousand madrasas, Ali displays a pathetic optimism in American efforts to solve the problem. He cites, with uncritical approval, the instance of American state funding of Islamic educational institutions in countries such as Indonesia and Uganda, offering these efforts as examples of positive collaboration for displaying the face of ‘moderate’ Islam. But given the fact that Ali’s study itself was funded by the United States Institute of Peace, known for its close links with the American establishment, it’s hardly surprising that he should laud such cosmetic efforts while ignoring both the politics of this funding and the inconvenient truth that the US had supported and funded Islamist radicalism in Pakistan to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-85).

As a basic reference text to madrasa education in contemporary Pakistan, this book makes interesting reading. The author claims to have done intensive fieldwork, but any new or illumin-ating perspective from the field is almost wholly absent — all we have are long tables with cold statistics. The book lacks a central focus and many of its various sections seem hopelessly disjointed. These lacunae could however be forgiven, in light of the pathetic state of social science research in modern Pakistan.

Yoginder Sikand