Remember Prasenjit K Basu? He is the man who put Rahul Gandhi in an embarrassing situation in Singapore a few months ago when he asked the INC president why India couldn’t prosper under the prime ministers of his family. An incredulous Gandhi asked the questioner to substantiate his claim, to which Basu said it was all explained in his book, Asia Reborn — A Continent Rises from the Ravages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism.
This is a book written with an Asian perspective. In a personal email, Basu writes to this reviewer, “Our Indian historians are completely wedded to their British archives and the European/Western perspective, and so cannot look at our (and Asia’s) history from an Asian prism. (For instance, Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War is written completely from the British point of view). In the ultimate analysis, I hope that my book will begin to overturn Niall Ferguson’s ludicrous idea that British imperialism is what made the modern world, and that the US needs to follow Britain’s example.”
It’s about the rise of the continent from the morass of the colonial era when its nations were nothing but exploited so that their resources served the imperial rulers, most of whom lived in Europe.
The author is enamoured with personalities from politics with varied economic ideologies. If he dedicates the book to Subhas Chandra Bose and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, he devotes it also to Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping. The uninitiated would wonder what perspective to expect from this amalgamation even as a commentary on the ‘rise’ of a region has to be an exposition on economics. How does one reconcile between the socialism of Bose, the thrust on an indigenous way of living by Gandhi and the state-dictated capitalism of Lee and Deng. But then, from the question that Basu had hurled at the scion of India’s dynasty showed his distaste for government control over enterprises that Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi stood for. You get the answer on reading the book. It’s not one that looks for a vindication of economic theories. It’s largely a book of history and not one of economics. The theory of money merely lurks, does not stare at your face.
Where the book deals with economics, it has a political undertone rather than mathematical mumbo-jumbo. The author says, for example, that “communist” was more a convenient term employed recklessly by the imperial forces for branding revolutionaries. “… like Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh, many of these ant-colonial activists were open to a wide variety of nationalist ideas and were not necessarily dyed-in-the-wool members of the communist party.” [Under “The Convoluted and Gory Paths to a Post-colonial Southeast Asia”, p 530]
Basu explains in his email a difference in European and Asian imperialism: “… Japan’s colonies were far more advanced — in terms of literacy/education, industrial knowhow and physical infrastructure — than any of the British/European colonies in Asia. So, it was natural for Netaji Subhas, Wang Jingwei (Sun Yat-sen’s preferred successor as leader of the KMT), Sukarno-Hatta, Aung San and Ba Maw, Jose Laurel, Ho Chi Minh, Sihanouk and Phibunsonggram to align with Japan as the ideal way of overcoming Western imperialism.”
Notwithstanding the dedication to Gandhi in the book, Basu credits Bose with the freedom of India. “Just because Britain (and especially Churchill) wrote their own history, Asians (and especially Indians) have mindlessly accepted that narrative. Which is why Indians are loath to admit that Britain would never have left India (and hence the rest of their empire — as their positions at Yalta in February 1945 clearly showed) had the INA not undermined the loyalty of the British Indian armed forces, leading Auchinleck to overturn even the life sentences for Sahgal-Dhillon-Shahnawaz (and effectively acquit them) in the hope of forestalling a mutiny in the armed forces. But even that gambit by Auchinleck failed, and the RIN, RIAF, and the Madras and Jabbalpur regiments of the army mutinied — obliging Attlee to throw in the towel…”
Ergo, the path Asia Reborn… traverses is one of appreciation for governments that encouraged private/individual enterprise, tinged with Basu’s reading of contemporary history. That does not, however, mean that the author takes recourse to revisionist history through pamphleteering. The sources for his research are publications of repute. The recounting of the revolt of 1857, for example, is standard. There is no jingoism or inherent bias of nationalism in the description of the palace intrigues where Zinat Mahal, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s youngest wife, plays a part. The British had named the uprising a “mutiny”; present-day Indian Muslims, as well as successive Congress governments through the NCERT-made textbooks, have called it “India’s first war of independence”; Basu’s book projects the episode as a mêlée of rebellions.
Moving to China, where Basu recalls, “The emperor’s failure to vanquish the British barbarians in 1842… had inevitably shaken the Qings’ claim on the Mandate of Heaven, irretrievably weakening imperial prestige,” the account is as dispassionate as it was in the fall of Delhi. The chapters on Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Vietnam, Burma (Myanmar), etc are as detailed as the familiar story of Subhas Bose’s pragmatic approach to Tojo for support to the INA. Basu’s research in Indian history, as much as that in histories of lands beyond the subcontinent, is remarkable. So much so, the publisher seems to have given up after trying for a while to find some flaws in the narrative. In a credit page, the publisher’s disclaimer reads, “… the facts are as reported by him, which have been verified to the extent possible…”
Asia Reborn… is a book that must find its way to the libraries of departments of history in universities across India, Asia and the rest of the world — to provoke a debate so vigorous that society at large is forced to revisit its conditioned predilections. Unlike the physical sciences, things cannot be black or white in history. There will be people who would vehemently disagree with some contentions of Basu. We owe this debate, nevertheless, to the future generations who must be subjected to all the shades of their past.