Open Essay

What Does Mamata Banerjee Owe Winston Churchill?

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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The great commoner of Calcutta

INEVITABLY, CALCUTTA RECALLS Winston Churchill. The Great Commoner who refused to be ‘Duke of London’ wrote to his mother when staying in the city in 1899 as guest of the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, that Calcutta was a great city. But it wasn’t for him. ‘I shall always be glad to have seen it—for the same reason Papa gave for being glad to have seen Lisbon— namely, that it will be unnecessary for me ever to see it again.’ But he would have approved of our own Great Commoner who asserts a fact when she proclaims with no question mark at the end, “Why can’t Kolkata be another London.” Her implicit message is: ‘It can and it will.’ Mamata Banerjee bears aloft the flag Churchill unfurled when he refused “to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Only, now, it’s an empire of the mind.

Sadly, an opportunity to judge if her aspiration is also contemporary Calcutta’s, was lost when the social historian Partha Chatterjee spoke on ‘Is Kolkata a colonial city?’ Chatterjee’s lucid exposition of the historical background didn’t fully address the question, which was not in the past tense. It referred to the present. “Is it still colonial in spirit?” he asked, hitting on the seminal point, but no one picked up the gauntlet. Churchill would have retorted that the very act of asking answered the question. The setting further confirmed it. A gathering in the Victoria Memorial at the feet of a toga-draped Lord Cornwallis, who was accused of suppressing Anglo-Indians to compensate for his defeat in America, could not be anything else.

Churchill is anathema to most Indians who can’t accept that strongly held views can also genuinely change. This is a national shortcoming. In an interview with Henry Kissinger some 40 years after the Bangladesh war, his Indian interlocutor talked only of his support for Pakistan in 1971 until the former US secretary of state threatened to walk out saying, “You Indians go on and on about one thing!” Churchill’s ultimate assessment of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is revealed not in that much-quoted ‘half- naked faqir’ phrase, but by his much later comment to his lunch guest at Chequers, Ghanshyam Das Birla, “Mr Gandhi has gone very high in my esteem since he stood up for the Untouchables”.

This caring for the lowly made Churchill impatient with poseurs. He quizzed Vijayalakshmi Pandit on the prefix ‘Madame’, which he thought “sheer affectation”. Jawaharlal Nehru’s worldly sister would probably have squirmed at being foisted with a desi ‘Shrimati’, but Churchill thought plain ‘Mrs’ good enough. By that token, he would have approved of a chief minister who is not ashamed of the English icon she yearns for despite—more likely, because of—her untidily bundled cottons and rubber flip-flops. The true native makes the most loyal imperialist. Churchill himself called a spade a spade. Invited to Buckingham Palace, he bowed extra low to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and boomed tongue-in-cheek, “I believe this is the first time I have had the honour of being invited to luncheon by Their Majesties, the King and Queen of Pakistan.” Even if Pakistanis didn’t admit that political opportunism alone persuaded them to cling to the British monarchy and Dominion Status right up to 1956, there was no reason for Churchill to be hypocritical.

Calcutta’s Black and White towns, which Chatterjee mentioned were colonial segments of what Curzon called “in reality a European city set down upon Asiatic soil”. Of course, patriotic politicians—men with “sweet tongues and silly hearts”, Churchill called them—would vehemently disagree. No one among them has claimed as yet that Calcutta was a flourishing centre of cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics in Vedic times or that a predecessor of Syama Prasad Mookerjee founded India’s first nationalistic political party to do battle in the Mahabharata. But Calcutta High Court’s magisterial announcement ‘Calcutta does not have a birthday’ was intended to rebut P Thankappan Nair’s claim that the city was born on August 24th, 1690, when Job Charnock dropped anchor in the Hooghly.

Churchill was censorious of Whites, too. He locked himself up in the southeast wing of Calcutta’s Government House in 1899 writing The River War, and made scathing remarks about the sahibs Curzon entertained

The city did not cease to be colonial because of its overwhelming Indian majority. Indians managed Calcutta after the 1923 municipal reforms and became proprietors in 1947. But with more colonial artefacts than in all America, the past dwarfs the present. Some relics of the past are forgeries, but who cares? A niggling critic like Nirad C Chaudhuri was only showing off his own vast erudition when he carped that while Government House and the High Court copied specific buildings, Writers Buildings and the Revenue Office were ‘passable imitations’ of certain styles. St Paul’s Cathedral was ‘very pinchbeck Gothic’ and Venus resembled Mars in the Military Secretariat’s decorative medallions.

We are proud of Eco Park’s imitations of the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China. Arjun Ray, the renowned architect, didn’t understand this when he complained that All India Radio’s studio copied Lutyens, who had copied the Mughals. Lake Town’s Big Ben is admired as a triumph of local workmanship by people who have never heard of Westminster or that Churchill advised against a round chamber when the original was being rebuilt after World War II because it encourages defection. He knew, having twice turned his coat. It’s as if the Lok Sabha’s shape proves his point that “power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters”.

Chaudhuri lamented that many locals thought the Victoria Memorial was an unsuccessful imitation of the Taj Mahal. One told WH Auden that the same man had designed both. For Chaudhuri, however, the memorial was ‘the only thing to redeem the City of Palaces architecturally’. Less discerning but more practical, Lee Kuan Yew, who visited Calcutta in 1959, thought its colonial architecture deserved better care. Singapore has transformed redundant Christian churches and schools into elegant museums and malls and retained both statues and street names from colonial times. Calcutta’s insecurity is evident in the rush to internalise the past even while denouncing it. I remember a prominent Bengali lecturing his European guest in the Bengal Club that only Indians who couldn’t get in there, joined the Calcutta Club. He did not know that the best Indians started the Calcutta Club long before any Indian (save servants) could cross the threshold of the Bengal. Such make-believe, reminiscent of Kipling’s ‘Bandar-log’ in the abandoned city of Cold Lairs, must invite Western contempt.

Churchill was equally censorious of Whites. He locked himself up in the south-east wing of Government House in 1899 writing his account of the Omdurman Campaign, The River War, and made scathing remarks about the sahibs Curzon entertained. ‘Calcutta is full of supremely uninteresting people endeavouring to assume an air of heartiness suitable to the season,’ he wrote in another letter to his mother. Indians were different. He told his daughter Mary Soames that Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian was one of the best books he had ever read. According to Judith M Brown, author of Nehru: A Political Life, he apologised to Nehru for opposing Indian independence. He was even contrite to Mrs Pandit about her husband’s death in a British Indian prison.

Assessing Churchill out of context is like branding him a thief because as a young lieutenant he left an unpaid bill for Rs 13 at the Bangalore Club which has cashed in on his eminence by making a spectacle of it. His humanity emerges in unsuspected flashes

Assessing Churchill out of context is like branding him a thief because as a young lieutenant he left an unpaid bill for Rs 13 at the Bangalore Club which has cashed in on his eminence by making a spectacle of it. His humanity emerges in unsuspected flashes. Indians believe the British lionised General Reginald Dyer after Jallianwala Bagh, but as secretary of state for war, Churchill told the Commons that the aim of that “monstrous event” was “terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or country”. He didn’t like the 1935 reforms, but since they had been adopted, urged Birla to make them a success. Asked to define success, Churchill replied: “…improvement in the lot of the masses…I do not care whether you are more or less loyal to Great Britain. I do not mind about education, but give the masses more butter…Make every tiller of the soil his own landlord…Provide a good bull for every village…”

His 1944 Thanksgiving Day speech warned that Nehru’s success “would be followed first by a struggle in the North and thereafter by a reconquest of the South by the North, and of the Hindus by the Moslems.” But four years later, he praised Nehru, by then a fellow Commonwealth prime minister, as someone who had “conquered two great human infirmities: fear and hate”. Nehru was the ‘Light of Asia’ shaping the destiny of hundreds of millions of Indians and playing an “outstanding part in world affairs”.

When he criticised “Brahmins who mouth and patter the principles of Western Liberalism, and pose as philosophic and democratic politicians”, he didn’t mean only the priestly caste but the wide spectrum of India’s uncaring, self-seeking, freebooting upper classes. They were “the same Brahmins who deny the primary rights of existence to nearly sixty million of their own fellow countrymen whom they call ‘untouchable’, and whom they have by thousands of years of oppression actually taught to accept this sad position.” The nomenclature has changed but not the contradiction of those who exploit society and then “turn round and begin chopping logic with John Stuart Mill, or pleading the rights of man with Jean Jacques Rousseau”. India is not an equal society, nor a democratic one. It’s ironic to reflect that in 1944 Churchill feared India would fall “to the level of China” if Britain deserted her.

Calcutta’s Government House held a poignant memory for Churchill. Apart from communications with his mother, it was from here that he wrote a painfully final letter to Pamela Plowden, daughter of the British Resident in Hyderabad, Sir Trevor Chichele John Plowden, whom he loved and wanted to marry. She probably didn’t love him in return, or not enough to overlook his lack of money. Pamela set her sights high. As countess of Lytton, she was chatelaine of Government House from 1922 to 1927 when her husband, Lord Lytton, was governor of Bengal. He briefly acted as Viceroy in 1926. Little did she know that even greater glory would have been hers had she heeded Churchill’s “Marry me—and I will conquer the world and lay it at your feet”.

With his sense of history, Churchill may have guessed that hope never dies in the city that was for 52 years India’s capital. The Hooghly on which it stands, graveyard of French, Dutch, Danish and Portuguese imperial ambitions, is silting. But Mamata Banerjee is battling history in seeking to develop the river “on the lines of the Thames”. Justice is grimly reclaiming her rights, as Churchill crowed after El-Alamain. He might have raised an eyebrow at her “Darjeeling can be our Switzerland”, but the Raj’s umbilical cord endures as strong as ever. One of her courtiers—a minister named Firhad Hakim—assures us that Kolkata Eye will be “exactly (the) same as the London Eye”. The metropole influences outlying regions in all colonial situations. But seldom is its reign so unending. Churchill anticipated the connection with an astonishing comparison— writing from Calcutta one freakish January that ‘at night, with a grey fog and cold wind, it almost allows one to imagine that it is London’. He won Mamata Banerjee’s battle for her even before she began it.

The Churchill Debate: Read the previous essays

Nothing But Gas’ by Shashi Tharoor
A True Hero’ by Zareer Masani