As the scorpian, encircled by a ring of fire, will sting itself to death, so does the British raj hasten its own destruction when threatened by the flames of Indian independence. Brutal repression and imprisonment of India's leaders cannot still the cry for home rule. And in the midst of chaos, the English Laytons withdraw from a world they no longer know to seek solace in denial, drink, and madness.
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The Day of the Scorpion
The Raj Quartet: 2
By Paul Scott
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1976 Paul Scott
All rights reserved.
Part One An Arrest
Ex-Chief Minister Mohammed Ali Kasim was arrested at his home in Ranpur at 5 a.m. on August 9th 1942 by a senior English police officer who arrived in a car, with a motor-cycle escort, two armed guards and a warrant for his detention under the Defence of India Rules. The officer waited for ten minutes on the wrong side of the locked iron gates while the chaukidar went off to rouse one of the servants who in turn roused another who roused Mr Kasim. By the time the officer gained the entrance hall Mr Kasim was standing there in his pyjamas.
'Good morning,' the ex-Chief Minister said. 'I'm sorry they've dragged you out of bed. Is that for me?'
'I'm afraid it is,' the officer replied. Mr Kasim glanced briefly at the warrant, asked the Englishman to step inside and promised not to be long. Mrs Kasim came out and offered him an early morning cup of tea which he felt he had to decline in the circumstances. She nodded, as if she quite understood, and then returned to help her husband get ready.
Ten minutes later Mr and Mrs Kasim came into the vestibule together.
'Where are you actually taking me?' Mr Kasim asked.
The officer hesitated. 'My orders are to drive to Government House. Beyond that I can't say.'
'Oh well, that's just an initial formality. They'll hardly put me up there for the duration. I hope it's not going to be the Kandipat jail, though. It's so damp and depressing.' He turned to his wife, to embrace her, and the officer moved away and looked at one of the many portraits on the wall, a head and shoulders study of an elderly Indian wearing a number of rather splendid-looking decorations: the ex-Chief Minister's father, probably. He noted a likeness. The Kasims had always been rich and influential. The house was large and richly furnished, but had the spicy smell of Indian cooking and Indian perfumes which the Englishman always found disturbing, not quite civilized, or civilized in a way that suggested there was no distinction to be made between ancient and modern societies.
'I'm ready,' Mr Kasim said.
'Haven't you a bag?'
'Oh, that's here.' He pointed to a suitcase and a bedroll standing against the wall. 'I packed last night when I had news of the Congress Committee vote in Bombay. I thought it would save us time.'
The officer looked at the luggage and disguised his reaction – one of surprise and slight annoyance – by pursing his lips. Lists and arrangements for the detentions had been made secretly for some time, but the arrests, if they had to be made at all, were supposed to come as a surprise.
Saying nothing the officer stooped, picked up the suitcase and bedroll and carried them out to the waiting car where they were taken from him by one of the servants who had now all been alerted and stood around in the forecourt to see their master off to jail.
It was still dark. Mrs Kasim did not come out of the house. The Englishman waited until Mr Kasim was settled in the back seat of the car, gave a nod to the motor-cyclists and as they kicked their machines into life entered the car himself and closed the door. Now that the most embarrassing part of his job was done he would have liked a cigarette. He put his hand in his pocket. He would offer one to Mr Kasim to show him that he appreciated his co-operation. The last time he had arrested a member of Congress there had been a most objectionable scene: sarcasm, abuse and a lecture all the way to the jail about the iniquities of the raj. Mr Kasim was a model of restraint and good behaviour. But then he was a Muslim, and the Muslims were men of action, not words. You knew better where you stood with them and they knew when to bow with dignity to the inevitable. Remembering Mr Kasim was a Muslim, though, the officer realized he probably didn't smoke, and realizing that, he thought it would be better manners to deny himself as well.
* * *
'I'm sorry, Mr Kasim,' Sir George Malcolm said.
They were in the large lofty-ceilinged room where in 1937 Mr Kasim had presented himself to the preceding Governor and listened to formal and rather grudging words of invitation to form a ministry, and in the October of 1939 presented himself again to hand in his written resignation and the resignations of his colleagues. He had been in the room on many other occasions, but these were the two that came most significantly to mind.
'Please don't apologize,' he said. 'Are they arresting Gandhiji too?'
'Yes, so I understand.'
'And the Committee in Bombay?'
The Governor nodded, then said, 'Rather a broad sweep this time, as a matter of fact. Even chaps in your district sub-committees are going into the bag.'
Through one of the tall windows light was now showing. Kasim could just make out the distant bulk of the Secretariat. During his own ministry the lights had often burned there all night. A tale was told that on the occasion of his resignation the preceding Governor had waited until he was alone with his ADC and then said, 'Thank God, now for a bit of peace.' An English wit in the Secretariat had commented, 'Well, why not? The war is nearly two months old,' and like the rest reverted to the habit of leaving the office at 4 p.m. to get in a game of tennis and a drink at the club before going home to dress for dinner.
The Governor said, 'I gather you packed last night. Did your colleagues do the same, d'you think?'
'Perhaps. I don't know. Should they have?'
'Most of them.'
'Are they in the building?'
'No. They're elsewhere.'
The Governor did not answer. Kasim did not expect him to. In a case of mass arrests like this the British would be absurdly secretive about the places where leading Congressmen were to be kept under lock and key.
'If they are in Kandipat or elsewhere, why have I been brought here?'
The Governor took off his spectacles, dangled them, then placed them on the blotter. His desk was untidy. In his predecessor's day it had always been unpleasantly immaculate.
'I wanted to have a talk,' he said.
'Before sending me to Kandipat?'
'I think not Kandipat. Don't you agree?'
Kasim smiled. 'Do I have a choice, then?'
'Possibly.' The Governor leaned back in his chair and put one arm over it. With his other hand he played with the spectacles. 'What a damn' silly thing, isn't it? What did your people expect us to do? Sit back and let you bring the country to a standstill? Did anyone in his right mind really expect us to be blackmailed into granting independence just like that in the middle of a world war, with the Japanese preening themselves on the Chindwin?'
'Does anyone in his right mind think that arresting us all from Gandhi down will help?'
'If it stops you from inciting the factory workers to strike, the railways to stop, the ports to close, the soldiers to lay down their arms. That's what you voted for in Bombay yesterday.'
'I did not vote, Governor-ji.'
'No, you did not vote because you resigned from the Congress Committee last year. On the other hand you haven't resigned from the Congress Party. There have been rumours that you were considering it.'
'They are unfounded.'
'Are they? Are they, truly?'
Kasim folded his hands.
'They are mostly the result of one-time wishful thinking on the part – for instance – of Mr Jinnah.'
The Governor laughed. 'Yes, I heard about that. Is that true? That Jinnah promised you a portfolio in Bengal or Sind if you'd go over to the League?'
'Let us just say that his interest was aroused by my resignation from the All India Congress Committee. A certain gentleman was commissioned to ask what my further intentions might be. It is true that there were hints about a rosy ministerial future in one of the Muslim majority provinces, but nothing specific was promised.'
'And your reply?'
'Merely the truth. That I resigned from the committee in order to devote more time to my legal work and that in any case I was not an opportunist. Perhaps I should emphasize that I am not before we go further. You are thinking of offering me a loophole through which I could escape going to prison, I believe.'
'Not a loophole. But it would be an awful waste of your time and talent if you went to jail just when you were seriously considering resigning from Congress, wouldn't it?'
'I am not seriously considering it, Governor-ji. I am not considering it at all and have never considered it.'
'Will you consider it now?'
'Will you give me reasons why I should?'
The Governor sat forward, replaced his spectacles and picked up a pencil. 'Yes, Mr Kasim. I'll give you reasons, although as I see it they all point to one reason only – that you are no longer in sympathy with Congress policy. You haven't been in sympathy for a long time and grow intellectually and emotionally further and further away from Congress with every week that goes by. You were impatient with Congress when they won the provincial elections in 1937 but dithered about taking office. You were impatient with the face-saving formula which allowed them to pretend to take office just to show that the scheme for a federal central government wouldn't work. You were alarmed when you found yourself unable to form a provincial ministry which would have more accurately reflected the wishes of the electorate. The Congress majority in the province was slim enough to warrant a coalition. You wanted Nawaz Shah in your cabinet but none of your Congress colleagues would agree because he was a Muslim Leaguist. You were enough of a realist to bow to the inevitable, and a good enough party disciplinarian to make sure that on any major point of legislation in the Assembly your compromises were with the Muslim League and not the Hindu Mahasabah. You were criticized for that. People said scratch Kasim and you'll find one of Jinnah's men underneath. But you preferred to run the risk of that sort of criticism and to invite defeat in the Assembly than adjust your programme to ensure a comfortable majority of Congressites and Hindu right-wingers.' The Governor smiled. 'You see, I've done my homework. So let me continue. You knew what was going on in the districts, and knew that most of what the Muslims said was going on was gross exaggeration, but you recognized the dangers and were appalled at the evidence you had of what actual communal intimidation did exist. You saw that whatever the Congress professed to be, a national party, a secular party, a party dedicated to the ideal of independence and national unity, there were people in it who could never see it as anything but a Hindu dominated organization whose real motive was power for the Hindus and who were coming into the open now that they'd got power. That alarmed you too. Every instance that came to your notice of a Muslim being discriminated against, of an injustice against a Muslim, of violence done to a Muslim, of Muslim children being forced to salute the Congress flag or sing a Congress hymn in school, you saw not only as reprehensible in itself, whatever the provocation might have been, but as another nail in the coffin, another wedge driven between the two major communities. And something else alarmed you, the realization that you were a man not with one master but two, the electorate to whom you were responsible, and the Congress High Command. It alarmed you because the High Command itself wasn't administratively committed. It wasn't answerable to an electorate, but it controlled and directed you who were. So when Britain declared war on Germany and the Viceroy declared war on Germany and the Congress High Command objected to having war declared over its head and called on all Congress ministries to resign, you resigned. You resigned at the dictate of a political organization that had no electoral responsibility to the country, except in the provinces through men like yourself. You saw the constitutional absurdity of this, but you handed your resignation in, handed it in here in this room to my predecessor, and he was a man who welcomed it because he was a man of the old school who thought India ungovernable except by decree, a man who'd sat back and laughed up his sleeve for two and a half years as he watched the farce of a ministry trying to serve both its electorate and its political bosses, and who sat back now, breathed a sigh of relief and assumed Governor's control which I've inherited. And it wasn't just the constitutional absurdity that struck you, it was the political folly of resigning, of having to resign. Without power, politics are so much hot air, and power is what your party got rid of. You knew what would happen and have seen it happen. How many seats in the Legislative Assembly reserved for Muslims were won in 1937 by non-League Muslims? A tidy few including your own. How many would be won now if we had an election tomorrow? Any? Where would your slim Congress Party majority be with most of your non-aligned Muslims and even some of your Congress Muslims gone over to the League? Repeat that picture all over India and where is your party's proof of speaking for all India? Where is it, Mr Kasim? Where has it gone? You know the answer as well as I do. Up the spout. Down the creek. Sunk. Why? Because your party overlooked the fact that on the first assumption of political power the old battle was won and the new one begun. The old battle was for Indian independence and although you may not think so now, Indian independence became a foregone conclusion in 1937 when men like you became provincial ministers. Getting rid of us was still part of your programme but getting rid of us was no longer the battle. The real battle was to maintain and extend the area of your party's power. I've no patience with people, and they're chiefly my fellow-countrymen, who profess horror at what they call the sorry spectacle of the Indians squabbling among themselves because they're unable to agree about how the power they're going to inherit should be divided. Of course you must disagree. Of course you must squabble. It's a sign that you know you're no longer fighting for a principle because you know the principle has been conceded. You're fighting for political power over what has been conceded. It's logical. It's essential. It's an inescapable human condition. When you all resigned the power you'd got, in the belief that you were striking another blow for India's independence, you weren't striking a blow for that at all. You were striking a blow at your own existing and potential political power. You were narrowing the area you could hope to exercise it in. It isn't so much what you all did between 1937 and 1939 to make a lot of Muslims believe the League had been right and that a Congress ruled India would mean a Hindu India that has made eventual partition of this country almost certainly inevitable, it's the fact that you relinquished power, and you relinquished it because you didn't understand the importance of keeping it. I say you, but I don't mean you, Mr Kasim. You well knew its importance and the folly of giving it up, just as you well know the latest folly your party has committed, the folly of not admitting the consequences of the first idiocy, of thinking you can put the clock back to 1939, ignore Jinnah and pretend the real quarrel is still with Britain and that the British are just playing that old game of dividing and ruling and hanging on like grim death. You well know that when Cripps came out in April your party had its last chance to retrieve its position. You well know that for the first time in all the long melancholy history of conferences, working parties and round table negotiations the Cripps Mission wasn't just us going through the old motions of palming you off with as little as possible. It was us again, but us under pressure from outside, from our allies, from America in particular, and I think you understood the peculiar advantages of negotiating with people under that sort of pressure. I think you understood too that the Cripps proposals were the best you are going to get while the war is on and that this was the last chance you had to contain Jinnah. But what happens? Your party shies like a frightened horse from the mere idea that any province or group of provinces should have the power to secede from a postwar Indian constitution and set up a constitution of its own. What does it mean, they ask? What but Pakistan? But who even a few years ago had ever heard of Pakistan let alone thought of it as practicable? Well, it's more than practicable now. It's damn' well certain. It needn't have been if you'd agreed to the Cripps proposals, come back into office, got on with the war and at the end of the war gone to a country you'd helped lead to victory and independence and trusted in the good sense of those people not to let their country be split down the middle. Instead of which you walk out on Cripps, spend the whole summer in cloud cuckoo land working up some absurd theory that if you make India untenable for the British they'll leave and the Japanese won't walk in. And while you're producing this ludicrous scheme you allow Jinnah to continue to extend the area of his power because in the Muslim majority provinces Jinnah's men have remained in office. And now comes the crowning folly, a resolution that's as good as a call to nation-wide insurrection. And you don't agree with that either, do you, Mr Kasim? You know the British simply aren't going to forgive all this Quit India nonsense going on while they're trying to concentrate on turning the tables on the Japanese, not – mark you – just to save themselves and their country but you and your country. You know all this, Mr Kasim, but you're still a pillar of the Congress Party, one of its most famous favoured Muslims, good propaganda and apparently living proof of the truth of their claim that they're an all India party, the sort of man who's influential enough in this province for me not to think twice about locking you up as a potential inciter of riots and strikes, because your party, your party, Mr Kasim, yesterday committed high treason by conspiring to take steps calculated to aid and comfort the King-Emperor's enemies. And the one big question in my mind is why is it still your party, Mr Kasim? What official policy or policies has it adopted and pursued in the last three years that you have honestly felt to be either wise or expedient?'
Excerpted from The Day of the Scorpion by Paul Scott. Copyright © 1976 Paul Scott. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPrologue
Book One: The Prisoners in the Fort
Part One - An Arrest
Part Two - A History
Part Three - A Wedding
Book Two: Orders of Release
Part One - The Situation
Part Two - A Christening