Friday, November 30, 2018

Scenes from the Sixties: Violent Days of the Peace Movement

Conversations with Henry Brownrigg- part 2

DURING THE nearly half century from early sixties till his final days, Henry has been a keen observer as well as participant in the public affairs of his country as well as elsewhere. Throughout, he maintained a healthy skepticism and a sense of humour that turned out to be devastating at times. He refused to conform to the received wisdom of the times, charted his own adventurous course and kept his ears close to the ground.

The last of these qualities saved good money for the company he worked for in the seventies. It was called Charter, a mining company connected to the Anglo American Group. He was posted to Persia those days. Tony Shaw describes the incident: About 1977, he was sent to Tehran. He was expected to mix with the business and diplomatic corps. However, he spent most of his time at the lower, scruffier end of the main bazaar amongst the antique dealers, the porters, the cheap coffee and hubble-bubble...He had an ear for its gossip. He reported back to Charter that the Shah was about to be deposed. “Nonsense,” said Charter, “the foreign office advises that the country is stable, our consultants say everything is okay.” However, Henry could persuade Charter to pull out in time, saving millions of pounds for the company as the Islamic Revolution broke out soon after.

As an observer of social and political movements, he never allowed himself to be swayed by personal affiliations or emotions. In the sixties, Europe exploded as the youth came out into the streets  in Paris and revolutionary movements  spread all over the world. Some of his close friends were deeply involved, but that did not stop him from a clear-eyed analysis of the situation:

“1968 was never really as big in Britain as in say France, and there was no real likelihood that the government would fall. But it was an exciting time. The activists were a very loose coalition of various shades of Marxists and Trotskyists, along with anarchists, pacifists, soft left and a lot of people who just enjoyed rebelling. As my best friend Tony Shaw put it, 'I really joined the peace movement because I liked the violence.' No doubt Hobsbawm was right that many of the participants later reverted to the professional middle class careers they would have had anyway, though some of my friends have kept the faith. I am not part of this phenomenon. Firstly, by 1968 I had left university and was working for a mining company. But, as I have explained, I was always a social democrat, never a revolutionary.”

He was, however, worried about the rising trend of xenophobia and rightwing extremism in the early 21st century. It was a global phenomenon and it shook the foundations of the post-war liberal order. But he was aware why the people were agitated, why they were going to the extremes. This is how he put the emerging global situation in mid-2014 when Narendra Modi took over as India’s prime minister:

“This has been a pretty dismal week politically, with successes for the right in India, Thailand, Europe and no doubt Egypt.  Colombia and Ukraine are the only countries which voted for relatively middle-of-the-road candidates. As I have said before, the European vote is mainly a protest one, and the successful anti-EU parties are deeply divided both internally and among themselves about what they actually want. In the most troubled economies (Greece, Italy and Spain) the poor justifiably feel that all the burden of the economic crisis has fallen on them while the ruling class which created the problem has largely escaped. In all these countries there is a lot of corruption and tax avoidance. The Front National in France is hyper-nationalist and has not really come to terms with a world where the French economy is shrinking in relative terms and France no longer calls the shots politically for the EU.”

He could see xenophobia rising all over the place, even in his own country. It was not an easy subject and would call for a deeper introspection on the part of all parties concerned:

“Of course fear of immigration is a common feature in the protest vote, again with some justification. Britain is in a rather different situation. The economy is recovering and there is quite high employment, so the idea that Britons are being driven out of jobs by cheap immigrant labour is a bit of a myth. Of course existing Brits have a right to bring over their families. There is an image of a British girl originating from say Pakistan Kashmir who does well at school, enjoys pop music, and has white school friends,as well as Muslim ones who might be seen as potential husbands. But at 16 she is sent home to her village 'to visit her aunty' and comes back six months later with a 40-year-old husband who doesn't speak a word of English and expects her to walk five paces behind him with a pot on her head! This is obviously a rather racist stereotype, but the person who told it to me is the son of a London imam so it is controversial even within the community.”

Popular frenzies and mythologies and imagined histories played a great role in the political convulsions of our time. He had a global historical view of how xenophobia and the hatred for the other came into the mainstream public sphere:

“I don't suppose that the Sangh Parivar will wax eloquent about the virtues of, say, Mahmud of Ghazni. India is far from being the only country where absurd origin myths are believed. My friend Prof. Farish Ahmed-Noor, a Malaysian academic, writer and human rights activist, is scathing about this: "If one were to listen to the nonsense talked by the ulama one would believe that Malay/Indonesian civilisation began the day that the first Arab stepped ashore. Archaeology proves that it existed thousands of years earlier. Anyhow, haven't these guys ever been told that our sultans are descended from Iskander?"

It was not a virus that was exclusive to Asia or the Arab world. Europe was no better:

“The Germans were another country where nonsense was uncritically received. Tacitus had depicted the German tribes as wild but fearless warriors who typified virtues which he saw the decadent Romans as losing. The Germans accepted this self-image uncritically. It got all mixed up with Norse mythology and with early sagas like Beowulf. The 'civilised' south was depicted as the 'other'. Wagner and his contemporaries put great art into popularising it, and of course Hitler swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Germans were seen as pure in blood, which was quite the opposite of the truth since armies from all over Eurasia had been criss-crossing the region for millennia. So racism was taken to unbelievable extremes, and systematic genocide was seen as quite acceptable.”

And this could prove to be the biggest challenge for the country he loved, India. It was a wonder how it held together, despite its violence and its diversities:

“I am always amazed at how cohesive India is when one considers that it is almost the size of Europe and with as many ethnic groups. There are strong centrifugal forces but there are also strong centripetal ones. But do large parts of India really see separatism as the way forward? Regional barons such as Jayalalitha and Mayawati may suffer a short-term reduction in their influence, but sooner or later the BJP's grip will weaken and the regional parties will bounce back. I would have thought that a more likely scenario is that the RSS will inflame communal tension. For instance, the Babri Masjid is not the only mosque that may be built on a former temple. I have heard the same said about the Mambram shrine. Even the Cheraman Masjid in Kodungallur has a granite foundation similar to a temple and has an incorrect qibla orientation. If the RSS stirs up controversy about this sort of issue it will play right into the hands of Muslim extremists, so that one will have two groups of religious fanatics feeding off each other.”

In the UK, demands for Scottish independence were rising and a referendum was in the offing. He was worried about its outcome. “Today is polling day, and if the vote goes against us I will be too upset to want to talk about it.”

But his comments were scathing:

“Of course separatism is a very topical subject in Britain because of Scotland's impending vote on independence. Scots are brought up on a tradition of how they have been persecuted by the English. Historically there is some truth in this, but there are few grievances these days which one could regard as genuine. Scotland is heavily subsidised by the English taxpayer, and Scots have provided a disproportionate number of our political and other leaders. But myth is often more powerful than sober calculation. It must be said that devolution has not succeeded in defusing the issue. Every concession has become the basis for further demands.”

And this bickering has been part of the history of the two people, the English and the Scots:

“It is certainly part of their history, and there is a certain type of Scot who talks as if 1320 was yesterday. For years English people visiting pubs in rough areas would find that, round about the third whisky, Scots would bring up all sorts of old battles such as Flodden and Culloden, which are about as relevant as Indians talking about Mahmud of Ghazni or the Battle of Panipat. This is not to say that the Scots do not have a case. In medieval times the English kings made unjustifiable claims to a vague overlordship over Scotland, and this was not resolved until 1603 when King James VI of Scotland was invited to succeed the childless Elizabeth I as King James I of England. So it was eventually the Scottish king rather than the English one who united the two countries. Real Scottish purists argue that the present Queen should be known in Scotland as Elizabeth I rather than Elizabeth II.”

For Henry, these are political issues as well as personal affairs. A case where personal turns political:

“Personally I do not have any Scottish blood but I wish that I did, as one has all the advantages of being English and something more as well. My late brother-in-law was a Scot, and last week my nephew Chris attended the Royal Caledonian Ball, which is a big Scottish social event. He even won the prize for the best dressed man, mainly because he was wearing his grandfather's kilt, plaid, sporran and dirk (full highland dress).”

 He was truly English, coming from a family of army people:

“I come from an army family, and some of my relatives passed through Malabar. One (who is my near namesake since I am Henry Christopher Quin Brownrigg, and he was Lieut. Henry Quin Brownrigg) was bringing out a draft of recruits for the war with Tipu, when his ship, the 'Winterton,' was wrecked in shallow waters off Madagascar. He managed to get ashore and in due course stole a boat with some other Brits, sailed it to Tellicherry, and was in time to be present at the Siege of Seringapatnam... Later in the century another Brownrigg was captain of an anti-slavery ship called the 'London' which was based in Zanzibar. He was killed when trying to board a slaver dhow armed only with a swagger stick.”

History ran through the arteries of the family. He was proud of it:

“Today Europe is in the throes of celebrations of the D-Day landings. Obama, Hollande, the Queen and even Putin are all in Normandy watching parades and meeting some of the survivors. My father took part in that battle as captain of one of the cruisers bombarding the German fortifications. When I was a boy he took me to see this fortification. The concrete, which was twelve feet thick, was never pierced, but everyone inside had been killed by concussion.”
He loved history and to tell tales of it that often told you how the past clung tenaciously to your heels in the day-to-day life:

“In Britain this is a year of anniversaries. The first was Magna Carta. To be frank, the Americans get much more excited about it than we do. Historically Magna Carta was about entrenching the rights of the feudal aristocracy against capricious behaviour by the  king. The Church was of course also protected, as to a point were the upper bourgeoisie in the towns. But it was no declaration of rights for the bulk of the population, who continued to be oppressed by the nobility as they always had been. So Magna Carta deserves half a cheer from posterity but not a great outpouring of emotion.

“The next anniversary was the Battle of Waterloo, which was a rather shameless display of patriotic fervour. There was a big reenactment in Belgium by thousands of volunteers from all over Europe. It was attended by the Kings of Belgium and Holland, Prince Charles, and sundry descendents of Napoleon, Wellington and the Prussian General Blucher. The next day there was a service in St Paul's Cathedral, to which I was invited, and this too was attended by Prince Charles, the current Duke of Wellington and lots of military types in uniforms smothered in gold braid and jangling medals. I wore a suit and felt positively naked. Opinion is still divided about Napoleon, who, apart from being undeniably one of the greatest generals in history, was also one of the greatest self-publicists.  He undoubtedly swept away a lot of absurd feudal relics which were a barrier to the modern age, and his rule was meritocratic rather than aristocratic. But he was no democrat. Arguably he set the pattern for later charismatic warlords, of whom Hitler was only the worst. And the trouble with being a warlord is that you cannot easily stop and settle down as a peaceful head of state living quietly with your neighbours. You have to sustain your myth by yet greater victories, and you have a powerful army which is always demanding new challenges. So hundreds of thousands of  Frenchmen, Russians, Germans, Britons, Dutch, Spaniards, Portuguese and Egyptians died in wars that had no real purpose except to put Napoleon's talentless relatives on half the thrones of Europe. And France, which in 1789 had seemed like a light of liberty, by 1815 was seen as an oppressor from whose rule most of Europe was determined to free itself.

“Our next anniversary will be another Anglo-French clash, the Battle of Agincourt.  A few years ago the London terminal of the Eurostar rail express was moved from Waterloo station to St Pancras. A worthy person wrote to The Times saying what a relief it was that one's French friends did not have to arrive in London at such a tactlessly named station as Waterloo. Two days later another letter appeared suggesting that St Pancras should be re-named London-Agincourt. "Fly like an arrow straight to the heart of France".   This continued Anglo-French rivalry keeps both sides happy.”

What is history and how its lessons are to be taken?

“...Yes, but history does not lead us in a single direction. In my lifetime so many things have changed out of all recognition, and many of the changes are entirely beneficial. Most of all there has been the end of the Cold War, and the threat of mutual nuclear destruction. There has been a huge decline in appalling but once common attitudes such as racism, imperialism, social snobbery, economic injustice, male chauvinism and sexual intolerance. So in many ways Britain is a vastly better place than when I was a child. Is this true of the world generally? Well, we are still only scratching the surface of Third World poverty and disease. There are still huge variance in living standards both between rich and poor countries and between the rich and poor within countries. Nationalism and other forms of intolerance are rife. Islam, a religion which I have always admired, has revealed an extremely unattractive side and great capacity for senseless violence. And countries are still choosing dreadful leaders such as Trump (well, one hopes not). So the balance sheet shows a mixed picture.”

He was writing soon after the Brexit vote in the UK, and at a time Donald Trump was emerging as a major contender for presidency in the United States. He hoped his country would choose to remain in the European Union, but when he found the people’s verdict was otherwise, he remained optimistic and looked for silver linings in an otherwise cloudy sky.

“Brexit is quite a small issue in this context. The EU is a rich man's club, so its prosperity really only benefits its own citizens. I am generally in favour of big national units rather than small ones. India's greatest achievement is to unite most of a whole sub-continent. Well okay, not Pakistan but even so a larger and more diverse area than in Mughal times. Which is why Modi and Hindutva are such a disaster. If Scotland or Catalonia or Flanders can claim independent status, then why not Tamil Nadu or West Bengal or Kerala? But there is a trade-off between the gains and losses of being part of a larger union, and a small majority of Brits have decided that this price is not worth paying. I do not agree with this decision, but it is by no means an irrational one.”

I wonder whether he would be holding the same views at this point of time, if he were alive, as his country is struggling with the Brexit fallout.

Before I conclude this part, let me revert to an early incident in Dubai when Henry donned the mantle of economic cloak and dagger guy tracing the route gold smugglers took in their adventurous career to make big bucks in India. He described the story at the time when we were talking about my daughter’s impending marriage:

“This question of gold and stridhana is the reason I made my first visit to India. At that time I was working in the economic research department of a mining company called Anglo-American which was the world's largest producer of gold. We were commissioned to do a report into the non-monetary market which nobody knew anything about. I was given the job of finding out what happened to the gold which simply disappeared in places like Dubai. The answer was that it was smuggled to India by dhow, was transferred outside territorial waters onto local fishing boats operating from places like Kasaragod, and was then either taken around India in the form of ten-tola bars ('biscuits') or was melted down into bangles to be more anonymous.

“Morarji Desai reacted to this with a crazy Gold Control legislation which involved all goldsmiths having to fill in quarterly forms explaining the source of their gold supply. There were said to be lakhs of goldsmiths, mostly illiterate, so there were lakhs of scribes to help them complete their forms, and no doubt lakhs of policemen trying to catch them. The whole legislation was a complete waste of time because it was easily avoided, and indeed, like recent controls on ivory and rhino-horn, it was totally counter-productive because it sent out the message that gold was rare and important and likely to keep rising in price.

“My first stop was in Dubai, where the merchants/smugglers were happy to talk freely as they were breaking no law in Dubai. Then I went to India, met people from the Ministry of Finance in Delhi, the Customs, the Enforcement Directorate etc., as well as people with big ornaments shops in Bombay and Calcutta.  This was my first experience outside Europe so it was an eye-opener for me and it gave me a reputation in my firm of being sensitive on Asian subjects. This led to my being appointed a year later to an important job in Iran. However, it nearly brought me into your profession. While I was in Dubai I asked one of the smugglers whether he would let me go on a 'run' in one of his dhows. He thought that this was a great joke, but he said that I could go so long as I did not take a camera and allowed myself to be blindfolded during the handover. I thought that both these restrictions were probably negotiable. I returned to London full of enthusiasm and offered to write this 'run' up as an article for what was then the Friday colour supplement of the Daily Telegraph.Then I did something unbelievably stupid. I gave them copies of my notes. So nobody was more surprised than me to open the colour supplement a couple of months later and find my article over the byline of one of their staff reporters...I sent the paper a furious letter, but of course I had no redress as I was not a member of the National Union of Journalists. It was then that I decided that a career in journalism was not for me.”

Interestingly, decades later, when he told me this story, Henry was still angry with the newspaper for its treachery. When I asked his permission to use the incident in my writing, he said, “Mention the Daily Telegraph's name: it will serve them right, and I do not suppose that they will sue me for defamation after forty years... After I wrote to them they did offer me a small sum in compensation, but I was in no mood to accept it and spat in their face.”

Photographs: Henry as a young man; Henry’s article on India’s fascination with gold featured in the trade journal, Ultima, 1982.

(To be continued in part three.)

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