IT WAS the chance discovery of an old photograph hidden in a family album, that triggered the train of memories of a youth in the seventies spent in the turbulent days of emergency and political struggles all over the country. The 19 boys at the Sir ...
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Memories of an Emergency Past and the Days of Turbulent Youth and more...

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Memories of an Emergency Past and the Days of Turbulent Youth

IT WAS the chance discovery of an old photograph hidden in a family album, that triggered the train of memories of a youth in the seventies spent in the  turbulent days of emergency and political struggles all over the country.

The 19 boys at the Sir Syed College at Taliparamba in Kannur had been arrested following a demonstration in the college in protest against the emergency declared on June 25, 1975. The protest demonstration, called by the opposition students organisations in the state, was held on July 11 all over the state. At the Sir Syed campus, police swooped down and took into custody the 19 boys who led the demonstrations-- six from the pro CPM Students Federation of India, five from the Parivarthanavadi Congress, and eight from the pro Kerala Congress KSC-B. Among them 18 survive today and most of them came together for a get-together the other day at Kannur, at the residence of one of those incarcerated those days.

Ity was a demonstration that became memorable because of the photograph of eight of those boys tonsured by the police while in custody. They were picked up from the campus by the town sub-inspector Aboobacker and his party, all of them taken to the police station, kept there for the whole day with their dress removed except for their underwear, and then summarily tonsured with a trimmer. Two of them-- SFI district committee member K Jayarajan and KSC leader Zachariah-- were sent to jail charged under the draconian law of DIR and the rest let off, with an undertaking to report at the police station every week for the next many months.

Most of them were present at the get-together at Kannur, and among them well known lawyer P K Vijayan, journalist K Sunil Kumar, and others. They reminisced about those emergency days and the experiences of the internal emergency in the country, in the presence of a young brood of journalists who had barged in to cover the old boys’ get-together.

I had known P K Vijayan from the days he had come to Calicut, as a law student at the Calicut Law College, immediately after the emergency. We both worked in SFI those days. Now past 63, Vijayan happens to be a senior lawyer with his offices in Tellichery, with a nice practice and a reputation as an excellent criminal lawyer. Sitting at his home near the old sessions court in Tellichery, one of the earliest courts in Malabar set up during the days of the East India Company administration in the region, Vijayan talked to me about the incidents and the developments that took place in the wake of the students demonstration and police action.  

“We were very few in the SFI those days and also in the opposition students movements,” he said. There were rumblings of protests against the emergency, but only stray incidents. He was a second year degree student, with zoology as main subject, and he served as the area secretary of SFI in Taliparamba those days. They held protest demonstrations, mostly in the night with the students living in the college hostel taking part and put up wall posters painted in red: Down with Indira, Down with Emergency...

The police had taken note and on July 11 when the open demonstration  was taken out in response to a statewide call issued by the united front of various organizations, they lost no time to apprehend the students who were causing troubles for them. They were charged with holding unlawful demonstrations in violation of emergency regulations. They were all young and with a tonsured head and a defiant look, they spent the whole day in the lock-up room with nothing on them except their underwear.

The incident would have been long forgotten, but for the intervention of the legendary communist leader A K Gopalan who hailed from Kannur and represented the Palghat Lok Sabha seat at the time. AKG had reached Taliparamba a day or two later and he sent word to the boys to meet him at the party office.

“At the time comrade K K N Pariyaram was area secretary of the party and he sent me a message to the college that AKG wished to meet us urgently,” remembered Vijayan. He searched for all the 17 who were let off by the police, but could manage to find only eight of them and soon they were in the presence  of AKG who made inquiries about the incident, how the police treated them and such matters. He then asked them to get themselves photographed in the  dress they were in at the police station and they did so at the local photo studio, handing over a copy to AKG.

“The Parliament was in session soon after and AKG made a speech on how the police were making life miserable for ordinary people under the emergency regime,” Vijayan said and recalled AKG had raised their photograph in the  House as an example of how even young students were being harassed for simple acts of protests and peaceful demonstrations.

The rare incident of public protest by the students and police action had been noticed by the senior political leadership in the state, despite the fact that no newspaper reported anything on protests and demonstrations.

“A few months later, EMS Namboodiripad, who was one of the few senior leaders outside jail and active at the time, came to Taliparamba,” Vijayan said. The veteran leader sent word to the young students to meet him and they met him at the CPM office in the town. “EMS asked for details and while explaining things, I complained the party did not give us support,” Vijayan recalled. EMS, in his characteristic way, responded that the party had to support many and so naturally they could expect little! “The next day I received a scolding from comrade Pariyaram for complaining to EMS instead of telling him about it,” said Vijayan.

Advocate Vijayan, a writer who recently published three novels on the lives of legendary characters in Mahabharata and Ramayana, remembered many incidents police harassment as a student activist in the seventies. “We fought against heavy odds and with little support from the leadership,” he said and remembered how he and a few others in the SFI had been caught by the police later on when a government poster with prime minister Indira Gandhi was seen defaced with a smear of cow dung. “I really did not know how the poster came to be smeared with cow dung, but the police caught us anyway and wanted me to lick the dung away with my tongue and clean up the prime minister's face,” he said. But he refused, insisting he had not done it and did not know who did it either. But the police inspector was insistent, but then a policeman intervened with a suggestion, ” Sir, let him clean it up with his clothes,” which was graciously accepted by the inspector.

“That saved me tasting the cow dung at time, and you know why? During the days when we were reporting at the station every week to sign the  the register we had become chummy with the cops and that saved us a lot troubles in those days of police terror,” Vijayan chuckled as he walked down the memory lane on the student days in a period of youth turbulence against emergency rule in the country.


A Globe-trotter’s take on History in the Making

Conversations with Henry Brownrigg--part 3  

HENRY LOVED to travel and also to tell tales about his travels. In Malabar, a long stretch of coastline on the south western India where I was  born and spent most of my life, he could talk about people and places as if he had lived here for decades.

He once wrote to me about the old part of the city of Calicut, where Arab Muslims had set up their businesses and lived in palatial tharavadu homes for many centuries. His great knowledge of the culture and traditions of Malabar Mappila Muslim community and their global links came through in this note:

“Mappila castes interest me. Am I right in thinking that the Kuttichira Mappilas are an endogamous community? I would like to understand more about the traders and shipowners living in the area between the railway line and the sea in Calicut, as well as the rather similar people in the bandar area of Mangalore and no doubt in other Malabar ports. In Malaysia and Singapore the word Tamil normally applies to low-caste plantation workers, but it also includes descendants of the merchant-seafaring community with used to handle the trade between South-East Asia and the Coromandel coast. They too are an endogamous community. In Penang and in Singapore there are mosques which have soil brought from the shrine at Nagore and believed to embody the barakat of the Nagore saint.”

Henry had spent much time and effort to visit and photograph the churches, mosques and temples in the south and south-eastern parts of Asia. Towards the end, he was thinking of how to preserve his work for posterity, as much of this great cultural heritage happens to be on the verge of being erased.

“I have a lot of photos, many of them old fashioned slides, of mosques which may well no longer exist as the Salafists are keen to replace traditional Kerala buildings with concrete domed structures which look as if they have been transported from Jeddah. So my photos are a valuable record of Kerala's unique Muslim architecture. I don't know what to do with them...I plan to leave them either to the British Library or the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University. It would really be better to give them to a museum or library in Kerala, but I am worried that they will not be properly looked after...

“I have also made extensive photographs of traditional wood mosques in Indonesia, Malaysia and South Thailand, as I was trying to see if there was a cultural link to Kerala mosques. The Kerala mosques are very interesting. If you ask someone what is a typical Indian mosque they will think of maybe the Jama Masjid in Delhi. But this is essentially a Mughal propaganda exercise intended to overawe the population with the grandeur of the dynasty and of its religion. Stylistically these big domed mosques have Persian and Central Asian antecedents. But the Kerala mosques were built in or soon after the Prophet's lifetime since the Arabs were trading in Malabar before they were Muslims. They were not built to impress people because the Muslims, like the Christians and Jews, lived at the mercy of local Hindu rulers who imposed strict rules on the size and adornment of buildings. So in elevation the mosque was a typical vernacular building. But their ground plan, unlike North Indian and Deccani mosques, was the same as the ground plan of very early mosques in the Hadramaut which were built in imitation of the Prophet's house in Medina. So there is a paradox in that these Salafi guys are destroying buildings which are witnesses to the first century of the hijira and replacing them with big mosques with domes, minarets and a courtyard which are much later and are essentially Persian rather than Arab.”

Henry felt at home in every part of the world.  Once we were discussing Pablo Neruda’s poem, The Heights of Macchu Picchu, and he had memories of his visits to Peru and the encounter with an absurd poet:

“I have twice visited Peru...One weekend I hired a car from Avis and drove into the Andes, but I only got to Tarma which is less than half way to Cuzco. It was the most terrifying drive of my life. The road twisted like a snake, and not only did the car´s brakes not work but nor did the windscreen wipers (a disaster since the road was muddy and the windscreen frequently quite opaque). I arrived back in Lima in a furious rage and burst into the Avis manager's office screaming abuse about the fact that he had nearly killed me.  "Oh you poor man", he said, "What a dreadful experience. You must allow me to buy you lunch as a very small compensation." We had a rather expensive lunch over which he explained that he was not by training or inclination cut out to manage a car hire company. He was actually Bolivia´s leading poet. But his family had been exiled by President Banzer, and his uncle insisted that he take this job to pay for his livelihood. He was an absurd person, but actually we became quite good friends, and I was invited home to meet his wife. Meanwhile the mortality rate among people hiring Avis cars does not bear thinking about.”

He had observed Latin American politics very closely. So when some of us in Kerala were excited about the rise of left politics in that far-away continent, he cautioned: “Those on the left have a very two-dimensional understanding of South America. They see its history as an unbroken anti-imperialist, anti-US struggle: Bolivar-Zapata-Pancho Villa -Fidel- Che- Allende- Chavez.  Of course this is one factor in the continent's history, but, when one goes there one realizes that it is just as complicated and multi-faceted as any other part of the world. When I was young the villains were pear-shaped colonels in dark glasses. But these days they are just as likely to be ideology-driven leftists who think that winning an election gives them an irreversible right to power however incompetently they exercise it. As somebody said, People's Democracy is to democracy what National Socialism is to socialism.”

Travel offers experiences; some of them funny, some traumatic and some surreal. The troubles he faced enjoying a prawn masala with a bottle of beer in a Kerala hotel: “For the foreigner who drinks in moderation Kerala presents a problem. I adore Malayali food, but because it is spicy I adore it more when accompanied by a bottle of beer. I remember one of my first visits where I was staying in a hotel in Thrissur. I ordered chemmeen masala and a bottle of Kingfisher. But alcohol was only available in the 'foreign liquor' bar, which was a dark, gloomy, noisy place full of men. The bar did not serve food. So what to do? Does one have a mouthful of masala in the restaurant and then run to the bar to take a gulp of beer? Or does one merely book one's next holiday for Sri Lanka?”

Then his encounter with Indologist Asko Parpola in the same city. It was surreal: “I once met him by accident over breakfast at a hotel in Thrissur, where he was accompanied by a Japanese Professor of Epigraphy. At the time it seemed a bit surreal for a Brit, a Finn and a Japanese to be all eating idli while discussing temple inscriptions. I then changed the subject to beekeeping, and Asko explained with great learning why the beekeeping techniques of the Toda are very similar to those used at monasteries in medieval Russia.”

Henry was a caring person, always considerate of others. Henry was  “ever loyal even to people whose behaviour he found distasteful,” according to a close friend. He liked helping others in distress. He told me this story about an English girl imprisoned in Kerala as she was found in possession of a little cannabis: “When Nayanar was First Minister I was involved in getting a pardon for a British girl called Samantha Slater who had been sentenced to ten years for possessing a couple of ounces of cannabis...The British high Commission was applying outside pressure for her release, which was totally counter-productive. I got Rubin's help in spreading Samantha's story in left-wing circles. She got support from the women's movement, and in due course Nayanar recommended her release...She was a nice and innocent girl, though not very clever. Her mother was a 'lollipop lady', i.e. she carried a lollipop-shaped sign outside a primary school telling the traffic to slow down to let the kid's cross the road. One cannot imagine a more proletarian job.”  

As usual Henry had anecdotes to tell about cannabis and his own encounters with the stuff: “When I was a student I was a fairly infrequent dope smoker, and I have bought cannabis from one of the hotels at Periyar...Kerala used to be pretty tolerant about it, since after all bhang is freely available in many temple towns, Then, like many South-East Asians countries, it went to the other extreme and introduced draconian penalties.”  

Talking about Kerala and its newly acquired puritanism with regard to various types of intoxicants, he asked a very pertinent question: “Sri Lanka produces double-distilled arrack, which is an expensive middle-class drink comparable to whisky or rum. But Kerala, despite having exactly the same toddy palms as Sri Lanka, does not produce this and must lose employment and tax revenue as a result. This is one of the mysteries of the Indian liquor trade, such as why is feni unobtainable outside Goa.”

Tony Shaw remembers how Henry found a way to get him out of the country when he got into trouble with some top guns in Pakistan. He successfully played the strings making use of his contacts with old Oxford friends in the Pakistani establishment. At the time Tony had a building contract work at Sehwan Shariff. “I met  [prime minister Benazir] Bhutto a couple of times and clashed with her husband Zardari who threatened to have me arrested. Henry and Samir [Iraq’s ambassador to the US in the post-Saddam days] worked through their contacts to have me leave the country without Zardari knowing...I phoned the minister of housing from the plane to Dubai. He was flabbergasted that I had managed to leave the country.”

There is so much to write, but these memoirs have already run into three parts. So I would leave out all those interesting things he said about his immediate family, his friends, his pet likes and dislikes... But I think I cannot bring this to an end without quoting from the series of notes he wrote to me just a few weeks ahead of his death, which I consider as his testament on history of our times and the future of our civilization. He wrote those  notes, in response to a few chapters  I had sent him of my book A Topsy Turvy World, dealing with the issues in the  21st century global politics and economy. At that very moment, he was also laying down meticulous instructions for his own farewell. He soon died, on December 22, 2016. The invitation of his memorial service, held at St. James Church, Piccadilly, on Thursday 23 March 2017, says: “Henry selected the hymns, readings and music for today’s service and requested a good send off “with the flambeaux flaming and good wine flowing.” All those who have attended his memorial service at the church as well as the reception at the Travellers Club, Pall Mall, testify his wishes had been dutifully carried out.

Now to his fnal letters. In the first of these, dated 28 September, Henry wrote:

“I think that a good approach would be to imagine how a historian would answer this if say it was an exam question set in fifty years time. Will the things which seem obvious today still seem obvious? To look at it from the other end, anyone of our generation has preconceptions formed by our C20th upbringing. Firstly, we assume the existence of a US-centric world, unavoidable whether you love it or hate it. Secondly, anyone from the global south has been formed by the anti-colonial struggle which is still relatively recent. Thirdly, until the late C20th the most influential political theory was Marxism, which is a belief rooted in us-versus-them dualism - cops vs robbers, cowboys vs Indians, poor vs rich, proletarians vs. capitalists, socialists vs. conservatives. Will all this still seem so central in 2050, or will the US just be one player among many in a complex multi-faceted world?

“Let us take the fall of the Berlin Wall as symbolising the end of the C20th and start of the C21st (give or take eleven years). What does one read into it? At one level it was just a rejection of Soviet colonialism not greatly different from the global south's rejection of Western colonialism a few decades earlier. In part it was an ideological reaction, but there was also a strong element of old fashioned nationalism. As with the global south the departure of the colonial masters left a vacuum. In some cases this was filled by genuinely democratic institutions, but in many places democracy failed to take root and instead there was a variety of authoritarian and in some cases repressive regimes.

“Optimistic Americans saw the fall of the wall as ushering in an age of international harmony, rising economic growth, and (normally understated) Western hegemony. Agencies like the IMF and the World Bank had always been intended to establish a framework for global development and to avoid a repeat of the disastrous mistakes which followed the First World War. The agencies were the velvet glove, though right-wing Americans made little secret that there was an iron fist inside it. However, in practice this blend of liberal democracy and market economics lacked emotional appeal for many people, even those living in places where living standards were improving. The need to fill this emotional vacuum probably helps to explain a sudden explosion of fundamentalist religion, particularly in the Islamic world but also in India, Israel, Russia and even in the USA itself.

“During the C20th most Muslim countries were led by people who were essentially secularist, the most notable examples being Ataturk, Jinnah and Nasser. Religion played second fiddle to nationalism or socialism. Islam itself was divided not just between Sunni and Shi'a but also by all sorts of traditional leaderships, of which the strictest was, paradoxically, the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia. Politically many of these leaderships had reasonable working relationships with the West. However, the early C21st saw the emergence of a much more hardline Islam manifested in quranic fundamentalism, salafism and, most critically, jihadism. All this had genuine roots in historic Islam, but it also meshed with anti-Western attitudes left over from colonial times. The extremists had varied success in destabilising existing Muslim governments, and, in addition to the West and Israel, their targets also embraced countries as diverse as Russia, India, China, Thailand and the Philippines. Attempts to establish a viable centralised political structure under al-Qaeda or the I.S.'s kalifat were not very successful, but their ideology had wide influence. The result has been not just actual wars such as those in Syria and Iraq, but a variety of semi-independent terrorist events perpetrated by informal militias such as Boko Haram or by jihadi individuals with a wide range of political and religious motivation. Although Western public opinion is shocked by this it has so far resisted the temptation to react in a violent way which would clearly be counter-productive.

“The USA is nothing if not hypocritical. It wraps itself in the language of democracy and human rights and expressed support for the so-called Arab Spring, but it simultaneously supports thoroughly undemocratic governments such as the Saudis and the Sisi regime in Egypt. However, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq both had special circumstances. The USA was understandably traumatised by the events of 9/11. Osama bin Laden's base was near the Afghan-Pakistan border, and America's nightmare was the thought that he might drive through the streets of Kabul to the rapturous cheers of his supporters. The US foolishly decided to preempt this by sending troops to support Karzai, ignoring the historic experience of Britain and the Soviet Union that foreigners who invade Afghanistan always live to regret it.

“In Iraq the USA had supported Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran, preferring a brutal secularist thug to a charismatic anti-Western leader such as Khomeini. But the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam's known fascination with advanced weapons, and provocations such as Baghdad's main hotel having a mat with President Bush's face on it which everyone had to tread on, caused the Americans to worry that he would place his forces at the service of al-Qaeda. This ignored the fact that his secularism was at the other extreme from their fundamentalism. The final outcome was that the West won the war but lost the peace, partly because the wholesale ousting of Baathists from the army and the civil service weakened the new government and strengthened its opponents.

“Throughout much of the world the first decades of the turn of the century saw a decline of trust in existing governments. In the Islamic world there was the Arab Spring, in the former Soviet bloc countries the 'velvet', 'orange' and other revolutions, in the USA a rejection of government from the old Washington elite, and similarly in Europe a rejection of the traditional polarity between Christian democrats and social democrats. Authoritarian governments such as Russia, China and Turkey, where the media and the political process were tightly controlled, were mainly able to outface their critics and hold on to effective power.

“In Europe the early C21st saw the unravelling of the main institution, the European Union. Originally a core of six like-minded democratic countries, this expanded into a much looser association of twenty-eight members. For reasons which were essentially geopolitical the EU absorbed most of the ex-Soviet countries of eastern Europe as well as Poland and the Baltic republics. Many of these countries were intensely nationalistic, some had little in the way of a democratic tradition, and many had economic problems, so both their interests and their instincts were very different from the original six founding nations. At its best the EU redistributed resources from its wealthier members such as Germany to poorer ones in the east and the south (so-called 'Club Med'). In practice not all these investments were well considered. The 'Club Med' countries tended to overspend, often on projects which had a political rather than an economic rationale. When things went wrong they expected the Germans in particular to pick up the bill, and this caused a predictably negative reaction from German public opinion. Greece was a case in point. Greek governmental overspending can partly be blamed on German and other banks, but other factors included bad planning and a culture of tax avoidance. To oversimplify, the tax-avoiding elite was able to load their assets onto their yachts and sail away, but the poor, and particularly public sector employees, were left in a situation of grinding poverty. The left-wing party Syriza started with a rather simplistic 'blame-the-banks' agenda, but under its charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras it reinvented itself as a more pragmatic party which has mended its fences with the Germans, the EU and the IMF, and is quite successfully making the best of an immensely difficult situation.

“Another major problem for the EU is the defection of Britain. Britain does not compare with say Germany as an industrial power, but the City of London is far and away the biggest European player in global finance. Britain's departure weakens the EU, and in particular Germany which shared its hard line on the EU's lax economic management and on the profligate spending of 'Club Med'. There is also the worry that Britain's departure will be seen as a precedent by other EU members. Enthusiasts for the EU have always taken the view that a bicycle stays upright so long as it keeps moving forwards but will fall over as soon as it begins to wobble.

“All over the world there has been a reaction against existing governments. One factor is the existence of widespread corruption, kleptomania, where politicians and their cronies milk the economy for personal gain. For instance President Xi Jinping of China claims to be cracking down on corruption within the Communist Party. But the leaked 'Panama Papers' revealed that Xi's own brother-in-law controls secret offshore companies said to have assets of hundreds of millions of dollars. Government censorship has effectively prevented any of this being publicly discussed in China. Transparency International publishes an annual table grading 168 countries by their perceived level of corruption. Of the 168 Pakistan ranks 154, Russia 117, China 83, India 76, South Korea 37, France 23, Japan and Hong Kong 18, Britain and Germany 10 and Singapore 8. The least corrupt country is Denmark, followed by Finland and Sweden.

“Latin America is seen as something of a special case. Founded in the anti-colonial struggle of Bolivar and San Martin it has a tradition of rebellion which can be traced through the careers of Zapata, Pancho Villa, Castro, Che and Allende. This is the image of the continent held by many outside observers, and it has been assiduously fostered by local politicians such as Hugo Chavez. In fact Latin America is much more multi-faceted, but the early C21st saw a surge of governments with a socialist and anti-American rhetoric. These governments met with mixed success, and in some cases it proved easier to elect them than to get rid of them once their democratic term had expired.

“Chavez/Maduro in Venezuela and Kerchner in Argentina were almost unbelievably inept and succeeded only in reducing potentially rich countries to a condition of abject poverty. This did not stop them continuing to find apologists among those to whom being anti-American is the only thing which matters. Morales in Bolivia has been successful in giving effective power to indigenous people who had been marginalised by previous white-dominated governments. In Brazil the Lula government seemed for a time to have achieved economic lift-off, but this has foundered among mutual accusations of ill-considered investment and rampant corruption. Perhaps the most successful country has been Colombia which negotiated an end to its long-running conflict with the leftist guerillas FARC, and which has successfully expanded its economy despite the damage inflicted by a low oil price. But Colombia is not anti-American, so its achievements are rather under-acknowledged.

“As a former Mexican president put it, 'Poor Mexico. So far from God; so close to the United States'.”

In a later mail, Henry was critical of my line of thinking which he thought was fixated in the past: “Your analysis of the post-Bretton Woods system does not stoop to understatement:- 'immoral system of modern day colonialism', 'global loan shark', 'serves the West and Wall Street', 'flawed development model', 'institutionalised global inequality'....  Is this what a historian in 2066 will be saying? It is far too early to tell, but I think that you should make some attempt to give the IMF/World Bank's side of the argument.”

 And then a final word of advice to a younger person trying to figure out the world:   

“To sum up, you should ask the questions I suggested at outset. Am I being as forensic and dispassionate as if I was writing a dissertation on physics? And how will this read to a historian in 2066? To be frank, I think that you are still too rooted in the age in which we happen to be living and are too inclined to see capitalism and its supporting institutions as the big bad wolf. But who knows? Perhaps our 2066 historian will be saying that the global economy only really achieved fairly distributed growth when the age of American hegemony gave way to the age of Chinese hegemony.”

These were the last words in a long mail I received from Henry, dated October 19, two months ahead of his death. I know I will not be around at the mid-century point where he envisions his new world. But two years after these conversations, I think it is evident which way the wind blows, with a trade war already on between the two super- powers with China digging its heels to face it. And America taking blind swipes at its more agile adversary.

So rest in peace Henry, it was a pleasure to have known you for all these years. Good Bye.

(Concluded. Photo courtesy the Brownrigg family, UK.)


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.)


When Malcolm X Came Calling to Oxford

Conversations with Henry Brownrigg - part 1

TWO YEARS after his death, now I realise that Henry Brownrigg disappeared from the stage at the wrong moment. His sane voice and sober views are most acutely missed by those who knew him. I am one of them, because when he died just before Christmas in 2016, I had an active  dialogue going with him that came to an abrupt end. Ever since, I had occasions to return to many of those issues we had been discussing, time and again.

For a person so tuned to the world and its affairs as Henry used to be, 2016 was a wrong time  to take a bow. That was the year the world suddenly ceased to be what it used to be, entering a new phase in its history. Cataclysmic changes everywhere, events so vast and deep for a sober historian like Henry to grapple with. In India, that was the year of the demonetisation.  It was the year of Brexit in the UK, and in the US it was the year of the arrival of Donald Trump.

That was the year the liberal, democratic world came to a grinding halt; the year xenophobia became official policy and the politics of liberalism gave way to extreme forces from the left as well as the right. As a journalist, I had to deal with most of these things on a daily basis, and often I found myself flummoxed by the rush of events. It was a time of fake news and lynchings triggered by rumours spread on social media, when truth became a farcical memory as the brave new age of post- truth came to be born.

In such times, Henry was the one you could turn to -- a person of great integrity and fairness; a man with a lifetime of experiences and wisdom. Here, I wish to revisit some of the issues we had discussed in the final years of his life, in his own words as far as possible, with some comments on my part to make the context clear.

Before I move on to Henry’s own words, a few words from his lifelong friend Tony Shaw that was read out at his memorial service early in 2017. Shaw remembers the time when Henry was the secretary of the Oxford Union in 1964, the year when Henry played host to Malcolm X, the American black revolutionary who was shot dead a few weeks later. That was also the year when South Africa’s apartheid rulers imprisoned Nelson Mandela for a life time in jail.

“Henry took the lead in instigating a major protest against the visit of the South African ambassador after the regime had imprisoned Mandela. Four students were severely punished--two men, passengers in Henry’s car, and two fellow officers of the Oxford Union, president Eric Abra’ams and treasurer Tariq Ali. Henry, secretary of the union, was not punished; that  upset him...:” 

Tariq Ali, in his autobiography of the sixties,  The Street-Fighting Years, has described the ambush on the South African ambassador’s convoy in Oxford by the protesting students. He skips what really happened during the evening and instead focuses on his long conversation with the black leader from America. Recently, Rip Bulkeley, a British poet and historian who was Henry’s contemporary at Oxford, added some more details on the incident in a memoir on his Oxford days. “Selecting as the venue the Northgate Hall [for a session with the ambassador by the OU Conservative Association] directly opposite the Oxford Union, was bad enough; but on top of that they had covertly booked the Union’s Morris Room to serve as green room for the ambassador and his bodyguards”. The ambassador was not harassed as he moved to the meeting hall but a couple of windows were broken, he says. “The only real casualty of the fracas was the ambassadorial conveyance, which departed minus its radio aerial and the air from at least one tyre,” he reports. He also names the two hecklers in Henry’s car who shouted “Free Mandela!” as the ambassador's car tyre was being replaced and faced punishment: Simon Petch and Alan Gibson.

This sense of adventure never really left Henry even in his mature years. Years later, he did something really dangerous during the Sri Lankan civil war. Tony writes: “During the civil war in Sri Lanka, he smuggled people across the frontlines in the boot of his car. Both ways: government sympathisers one way, Tamils the other. He was always totally indiscriminate in the people he helped.”

Henry once told me he had few friends from his school days.“I have often thought that my life began the day that I arrived at university,” he said.  He spent his childhood in a public school, and having never had anything to do with these elite British institutions, I could not see why it was so. Then Tony came to my rescue again: “His friend Nico Morrison told me recently what Henry had hinted at over many years [ago]...that his parents and his school, Winchester, had instilled a harsh, almost brutal regime of loyalty, discipline and honour. To be seen to conform was the route to survival. It was not a happy childhood.”

And Henry remained a rebel all his life. He never conformed to anything. Decades later, Henry wrote to me: “I have never really been attracted to Marxism, and still less to Communism. The discipline does not appeal to me at all. If I wanted someone to give me orders I would join the Army or the Catholic church.”

He had very pleasant memories about his Oxford days: ”I joined the Labour Club in my first term at Oxford and was elected to the committee at the end of term. Joining Labour was a bit rebellious for me because I came from a very Conservative family. My mother hung her head in shame, but my father was secretly rather pleased and boasted to everyone that he had this very red son. Against my wishes the Labour Club invited him as a guest speaker. (He was then well known and very controversial - a retired naval officer who had become chief executive of a large independent TV company called Associated-Rediffusion and was also chairman of Independent Television News). His talk to the club was not quite as disastrous as I had feared, though they gave him quite a hard time. I later stood as chairman of the Labour Club, on a Social Democrat centre-left ticket, but was unsurprisingly defeated by my far left opponent. At that time Labour was deeply divided over whether Britain should pull out of NATO. A political opponent of mine was Tariq Ali who became the best known UK student leader during the heady days of 1968.”

Oxford gave him some of the best memories and friendships in his life, like his association with Eric Abrahams, the Union president during his time. He was happy recalling the 1964 event of Malcolm X visit on its 50th anniversary:

“This week I had a somewhat unusual experience. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the visit to the Oxford Union (which is an elite debating society where several future Prime Ministers made their student reputations) of Malcolm X, the black American revolutionary. At that time I was the Union's secretary, and part of my job was to meet speakers at the station, take them to their hotel, and make sure that they had everything they needed. In the evening Malcolm was taken to dinner at the best restaurant in Oxford by Eric Abra’ams, the Union's Jamaican president, Tariq Ali and myself. Since I was the only white guy among the four I was uncharacteristically silent. The next day Malcolm spoke in a debate on the motion that 'Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice'. He gave a very good speech, particularly as he was quite unused to the British parliamentary style of debating. The BBC recorded this, and it has now (as they say) gone viral on the net since Malcolm's reputation has revived in the last few years among the young generation.  

“Now somebody has written a book entitled 'Malcolm X at the Oxford Union', and I was invited back to the Union for the launch event. The debating chamber was packed out. A group of black school kids came down from Manchester. Malcolm's impressive nephew flew in from Boston. Sadly the former president, Eric, with whom I later shared a house in London, died a couple of years ago, but he was represented by his sister. We went on for a buffet dinner, and I was feted as an older statesman who had actually had dinner with the great man. But the truth of the matter is that I felt that my presence at a celebration of black consciousness was really extremely bogus.”

Henry’s description of this 1964 meeting in Oxford got me so excited as I grew up in the seventies as a student activist, a time when the world appeared to be on a revolutionary wave. Malcolm X and Tariq Ali were legendary names to our generation. So I pestered him for details. What did they discuss at the dinner, where did they eat and how the evening went off...?

“[We] took him out to dinner at the best restaurant in Oxford. It was called Elizabeth. As the only white guy among the four I was uncharacteristically quiet. The next day we held the debate, which was filmed by BBC TV. For Malcolm this was of course an entirely new form of public speaking. He was used to talking into half a dozen microphones to a rapturous crowd, whereas the parliamentary style involves short speeches and the cut and thrust of debating with opposing speakers. We were all amazed at how quick he was to adapt to this, and he made a very eloquent and passionate speech which left a deep impression on his audience and on the wider public watching it on TV.”

“This was on December 3rd 1964. On February 21st Malcolm was assassinated in New York.

 “No, I don't remember what we ate. Heck, it was fifty years ago. Nor do I remember the details of our conversation, and now I wish that I had kept a note of it. Malcolm was not especially friendly or especially aloof. I think that he must have found the whole Oxford situation very different from what he was used to and was probably a bit on his guard with all of us. The conversation was about politics and black consciousness in Britain. There had been a general election a few weeks earlier in which a safe Labour seat had been won by a maverick Tory campaigning on the slogan 'If you want a nigger neighbour vote Labour'. To be fair, this guy had been disowned by the Tory leadership, but it was understandably the hot issue of the day. This was really the nadir of race relations in Britain. I must tell you sometime about the time I found myself making a speech to a fascist rally!

“When we left university Eric and I shared a house in London, and he became BBC TV's first black reporter. He went on to become Minister of Tourism in Jamaica, but fell out with the Prime Minister, Seaga, and eventually left active politics and ran a political chat-show. I last saw him in London maybe four years ago. Sadly he died two years ago. Tariq is still a friend of mine, though he is well to the left of me politically. I last saw him in 2012 when he took me to lunch at an Italian restaurant.”

Henry was often left of the centre, generally wary of the pitfalls of exteme positions. He returned to his differences with Tariq Ali on another occasion, when we were discussing an article in LRB in which Tariq dealt with the recent Greek debt crisis.

“Tariq is eloquent, as always. This is his comfort zone - the world of demonstrations and resolutions and anti-capitalist attitudes. But, whether Greece has a left government or a right one it still has to address its deeply inefficient and corrupt economy, and Tariq doesn't really have anything to say about this. No doubt he is right in saying that German arms manufacturers and the likes of Goldman Sachs have been complicit in creating this situation, so the frugal Germans versus profligate Greeks cliche is two dimensional. But where there is corruption there are always going to be people ready to take advantage of it. The challenge now is to create a culture where this is no longer tolerated.”

Henry was not impressed by slogans and pious pledges. For him, the road to hell was paved with good intentions. The old communist regimes were one example. Their hypocrisy was something that he laughed at. He had similar views on the Corbynistas who had taken over the     Labour party in the UK. He mercilessly poured cold water on my enthusiasm for the new labour leader:

“I am afraid that I do not at all share your enthusiasm. Firstly, Corbyn is a second-rater. Secondly, his ambition seems to be to take us back to the disastrous situation we were in during the 1970s and 80s, when the economy was in chaos and everyone seemed to be on strike. Today we have some of the highest growth and lowest unemployment in Europe.  In answer to your last email, there is indeed a turn to the left but it is the activists who are turning, not the public. None of the opinion polls suggest that the public wants a far left government, and indeed they have only just elected a Tory one. When Marxist parties stand in elections they usually get under 5% of the vote and lose their deposit. Corbyn will have a brief honeymoon because he is a new face, but he is not at all a credible prime minister. Speaking personally I feel completely disenfranchised by the absence of a sensible centre-left party which reflects my views.”

I started this note with some comments on Henry’s school and the few friends he had from that phase in his life. I took up the matter with him sometime in April 2016, and he was so forthcoming about his childhood and younger days:  

“From the age of eight I was sent to boarding school, which we misleadingly call public school. I hated the first one. The second, Winchester College, was intellectually challenging, and it got me into Oxford.  If I did not make lasting friends at school it was mostly my own fault. The schools were sports-mad, and my immediate contemporaries were high-flying athletes whereas I was useless at most team games. At home I was made to mix with kids from the same background as myself. In the holidays I would go to two formal dances a week, wearing stiff formal clothes. I had nothing in common with these people. When my father died we moved house, and within a year I had broken contact with all of them.

“Oxford was for me amazing. It was the first time I had met people from a different social background or foreign countries. I had always been a bit precocious about politics because my father loved discussing it with me, and I quickly decided that the crucial conflict in 1961 was
between the Labour left and right wings rather than between Labour and the Tories. This analysis was correct. If the left had won, as it very nearly did, the party would have withdrawn from NATO and adopted an, at best, neutralist position between the USA and the USSR. Anyhow, I joined the Oxford University Labour Club, was rapidly elected to the Executive Committee, and became political organiser of the moderate (Gaitskellite) faction. A satirical magazine nicknamed me Henry Electionrigg, though that was a joke. I was later the Labour Club's treasurer and was Secretary of the prestigious Oxford Union.

“Because of my father's new job we had moved to London. Instead of the old circle of Army Majors and rural worthies my parents now moved in elite circles. So I would come home and find that they were entertaining Harold Wilson, the Labour leader, or the Archbishop of York.  This was heady stuff. I got a job in a bank, which I hated, and then an international mining company, which I loved, and started being sent to third world countries including India. I remained a Labour activist but at a very junior level - ward secretary.”

I am really thankful to that mining company because it was they who made him travel to India in mid-seventies that began a life-long association with this country.

Photo courtesy: the Brownrigg family, UK.

(To be continued in part two.)


Breaking Race Barriers: The life and Times of George V McLaughlin

He was New York police commissioner, banker and civil society leader. He also broke race barriers in police and baseball. A tribute to George V McLaughlin who died 50 years ago on December 7, 1967.

Around Christmas in 1925, when George Vincent McLaughlin was offered the post of New York police commissioner by mayor Jimmy Walker, he was not sure whether to accept. He had no police background, and as the Brooklyn Eagle, his borough’s newspaper, said his contacts with the police until then were limited to an occasional chat with the patrolman or the traffic cop.  

So he replied to the mayor, refusing to accept the post described by the New York Times as the most difficult in the city administration. But a few days later, on January 1, 1926, he was there at the steps of the City Hall as Walker announced the appointment of his new police commissioner.  The mayor said McLaughlin, who was 38 then, had agreed to accept the post, spurning offers he had from the private sector to take up the task of fighting crooks and maintaining order in the sprawling city of five million.

So what changed his mind? Reporters on police beat who raised this question never got a direct answer. “My daughter Kathleen wanted me to take it up,” he told Silas Bent of New  York Times. Most friends had advised him not to accept, no one had been successful in the position. It was a  swamp that could swallow even the toughest and why risk one’s career there? He was successful in his position as Banking Superintendent in New York state.

But little Kathleen was only two and a half years old and she thought her six-foot, 200-pound father could fight all the crooks in the city with his big hands. And that would be fun. But Jeanne, her sister who was six, was not sure and so said nothing. So was their mother Hazel K Sullivan, who worked in the banking department.

It appears the real force behind his decision was New York governor Alfred E Smith. McLaughlin, by this time, was very close to Smith and Walker had requested Smith to persuade him. Smith was a popular figure and had built up a formidable name as a reformer. He was first elected governor in 1918 and was responsible for a number of reforms that put the interests of common people at the center, in that Gilded Age. Smith came up from the working classes and he prided in his subaltern background. He had famously claimed he received his highest degrees from the university of Fulton, meaning the Fulton fish market where he once worked as an assistant. When Smith came to power, McLaughlin was a banking examiner, after working for years at Brooklyn’s North Side  Bank even as he studied during the night to get his degrees in law and accounting. Smith made him superintendent of banks, a position in which McLaughlin excelled. This took him closer to the governor, and soon he was in the governor’s inner circle. Another person in that Albany circle was Robert Moses. During the next 40 years, McLaughlin and Moses would work together in many projects that involved the city’s development.  

Many thought McLaughlin was a Tammany recruit and Smith’s man in the Walker administration. His name was first mentioned to Walker by a journalist, George Van Slyke, who used to know him at Albany. The New Yorker thought his appointment was a ploy to present a Tammany administration in respectable attire. In a profile on the new police chief, tilted Tammany in Modern Clothes, New Yorker’s Oliver Garrett described McLaughlin “honest, direct, forceful, but lacking finesse” and predicted he “will need all his guts” to survive in the new job.

But, it soon turned out, McLaughlin was his own man. The Mayor had assured him a free hand and Tammany, for the time being, kept itself aloof. The New York City in the 1920s was a burgeoning place: its boroughs were teeming with millions and every week thousands of migrants came to its shore, from every part of the world. It was a city of opportunities, for the good,the bad and the ugly. Crooks and bootleggers took over the streets at nightfall. Holdups and murders were aplenty. In those Prohibition days, speakeasies and gambling dens thrived with political backing and the police were corrupt.  

Corruption was all pervasive; it spread from the lowly patrolman to the highest levels of administration. Richard Enright, his predecessor who held office for eight years, faced continuous interference from the City Hall under John F Hylan. Many files were missing from the headquarters and among them the ones relating to collection of funds for police welfare activities from wealthy New Yorkers. It was found much of this amount had disappeared.

Police badges were available for those who could pay and that helped them flout the rules. The system of honorary police officers was used by the rich and powerful to don their cars with plaques announcing their position as honorary deputy commissioners. During the previous regime, there were many such dignitaries who enjoyed the privileges of a high ranking officer, with no responsibilities. McLaughlin cancelled all honorary positions and ordered return of the plaques to the department.  

The special squads set up to fight vices like gambling and enforce Volstead Act that prohibited sale of liquor was another issue. They were a force to themselves and answerable only to the commissioner. Some of them were corrupt and their antics notorious. He ordered the special squads disbanded and asked the men to report for duty at police stations.

And that was what the city needed. The city police had around 14,000 men on its rolls but there was an acute shortage of patrolmen on the streets. Within five months of taking charge, McLaughlin increased the number of patrolmen on duty by 1600 men cutting down on staff “deployed in numerous soft berths and clerical positions,” the NYT reported.   

The staff morale was low. Merit was ignored and racial prejudices rampant. Promotions were at the whim of top officials whose arms were twisted by politicians. McLaughlin made the system more open making himself accessible to his staff. The day New York Times reporter James Young went to  see him at work, his first visitor was an officer called Ryan who was denied his promotion for long. McLaughlin told him, “I am proud of you, Ryan. That was a fine piece of work in Brooklyn. I liked the way you tackled those fellows...And from today, you are a third grade detective, Ryan. And good luck to you.”

Samuel Battle was a young man from Harlem, the first black person to be appointed to the New York police in 1911. His promotion had been held up. McLaughlin promoted him as sergeant in 1926, soon after he took charge. McLaughlin, announcing his promotion, told Battle that he had received anonymous letters against him but “I thought they belonged to the waste bin.”  

There were many such officers who found their work recognised and promotions granted during McLaughlin’s time. Among them was Lewis Joseph Valentine, an officer who served as police commissioner during mayor LaGuardia’s term in office.  

McLaughlin was meticulous and punctual. He reached his office at 240 Centre Street, before nine and received visitors; sorted out grievances and complaints before moving onto his other duties. He tried to be with his men, when tough actions were called for. He was courteous, and matter of fact. He never brooked interference in his work. That was a complete break from past practices, when politicians minted money with a hand in the city administration’s every posting, transfer and promotion.

He refused to entertain politicians who came seeking favors. Such toughness caused tension and unpleasant encounters. One such incident involved mayor Walker and a Lower East Side politician Edward Ahearn. Eddie’s problem was simple and genuine: Shopkeepers in Yiddish neighbourhoods had trouble with the city’s Blue law that insisted shops remain shut on Sundays. But most Jews kept their shops closed on Saturday and remained active on Sunday. If a patrolman came, they could be handled with a bribe or some influence peddling. But when McLaughlin came, this did not work and shoppers complained to Eddie Ahearn, Democratic leader in the locality and a Tammany man. Eddie went to meet the mayor to complain.

But Walker would not listen. He said McLaughlin was not taking orders from the City Hall and there was nothing he could do to help Eddie. Exasperated, Eddie asked why did he remain mayor then. Walker, eager to shift the blame on Al Smith, said, “Look, Al Smith put McLaughlin here. Let Al Smith pull him out.”

The story is that raging with anger, Eddie rose from the chair, spat on the mayor’s face in contempt, and stormed out, inaugurating a period of bitterness and cold war between the two that lasted many years.

McLaughlin had an eye for numbers and at the end  of his first year he came up with statistics about the crime situation in the city, claiming good progress. He gave a report to the mayor in February 1927 which said: During the past year, the assault and robbery cases, “the class of crime most feared by society,” were fewer by 20.9 percent compared to the previous year. The number of burglaries was the lowest in the past ten years, showing a reduction of 18 percent. There was a decrease of 15 per cent in grand larceny and six percent in homicides.  But his achievements towards the last quarter of the year were striking: there was as much as 40 per cent drop in serious crimes showing the growing effectiveness of his methods.  

His achievements were praised all round but his methods resented by men in power who were used to a pliable police force. In enforcing the law, McLaughlin was uncompromising and that put him in conflict with some Tammany bigwigs. Among them was Brooklyn Democratic leader and alderman Peter J McGuinness.

Pete was a colorful politician in Brooklyn, known as as the king of Greenpoint. Like Al Smith, he had working class origins and came up in public life through hard work. He was a prominent alderman and was responsible for many improvements in public amenities. Once he came up with a bill that sought to ban women smoking in public places. In the prohibition era  New York, politicians and policemen were the keepers of public morality, and once news about the new bill became known, cops started rounding up women having a leisurely smoke, though the bill had never been made into a law.

Pete was the man who ran the Democratic club at Greenpoint and it was rumored to be a place for gambling. McLaughlin’s special team barged into the club one evening, arrested Pete and a few others and seized a big amount of money.

It was a sensational raid, and Tammany Hall, which had kept out of police affairs until then, decided to step in. A team of Tammany leaders went to meet mayor Walker. It was never disclosed what transpired, but on March 29, 1927, McLaughlin announced  his resignation, after 15 months at the helm of New York police department. He said he was leaving to take up an offer at Mackay’s cable company. He handed over charge to his successor Joseph A  Warren, a  law partner and friend of Walker, a few days later.  

Warren lasted only eight months, as the mayor asked him to quit following the sharp spike in crime rates in his first three months itself in comparison to the time McLaughlin was in charge. In fact, NYT was being prescient when it wrote: “George V McLaughlin, in the opinion of many close observers, has practically remade the police department during the year and three months he has been in  office and has made a record for efficiency in administration that his successor will find it hard to equal.”  

Four years later, following allegations of corruption against Walker administration, governor F D Roosevelt ordered an inquiry, and former judge Samuel Seabury was made the Hofstadter commission’s counsel. Seabury was a stern and brilliant lawyer from a family of generations of brilliant jurists. When reporters asked Walker about the Seabury enquiries, the mayor  quipped, “Life is full of Seaburies...” At the end of the Hofstadter inquiry, Walker was forced to quit and board a ship to Europe, for a vacation that lasted years, in order to avoid the long arm of law catching up with him.

McLaughlin was one of the witnesses who testified at the inquiry. Asked about his relations with the mayor, the former police chief said, “If non interference was the best way of cooperation,” he had received it in full from Walker. He aso revealed the raid on McGuinness’ Greenpoint club was not an accident--he said he had told the Brooklyn Democratic leader John McCooey about what went on behind the closed doors there. His warning was relayed to the club, but McGuinness ignored it. Then there was no option but to go on with a raid, which he did.

It was in this atmosphere of rampant corruption revealed by the Hofstadter inquiry that the 1933 mayor elections were held. The Depression was at its peak, 25 per cent of the working people unemployed. The reform movement was strong and its political arm, the Fusion party, was led by judge Seabury. In their search for a strong and credible candidate, McLaughlin was a choice, but he refused. Robert Moses was another, but Seabury was opposed to him and that led them to settle on F H LaGuardia, who always wanted the ticket.

The Democratic candidate was Tammany’s nominee John O’Brien, and it was thought it would be a straight fight. But then a third candidate appeared,  Joseph V McKee. McKee was put up by a new entity called Recovery party and one of its leaders was McLaughlin, who served as chairman of the campaign committee. McKee’s last minute entry was interpreted as a strategic move by President Roosevelt. But in the end, LaGuardia won and McKee came second.

Again in 1936, McLaughlin was in the headlines, as a Democratic heavyweight who ‘took a walk’ to the rival camp. FDR was seeking reelection and Al Smith, who had become so bitter with the President, decided to support his Republican rival Alf Landon, governor of Kansas. In Brooklyn McLaughlin was one of the Smith loyalists who followed him to the Republican camp with disastrous results. In this race, FDR returned to power with a landslide victory. Ever since, McLaughlin kept himself away from active party politics.             

In business and social life, he remained a leading figure. He had left Mackays in less than a year, and moved back to banking in 1930. For the next two decades he was president of Brooklyn Trust Company, a prominent Brooklyn bank. The Brooklyn Trust was in charge of the finances of Brooklyn Dodgers, a great team with great players and a great fan following. Among its fans  was Ernest Hemingway. Red Barber, veteran commentator who used to broadcast Dodgers and New York Yankee games, remembered how the writer used to hang around the team. He wrote in NYT in a memoir: “I was around Hemingway casually in 1941 when Larry MacPhail took the Brooklyn Dodgers to Havana for spring training... He was fascinated by all those mighty men of muscles, the ballplayers. He used to leave his finca and hang around the Dodgers in the lobby of the National Hotel. Then he took some of them to shoot pigeons. Several times he had some of them at his finca.”  

The Dodgers were legendary, but their finances were in a mess. The team was deeply in red, its telephone lines at the 215 Montague Street headquarters had been cut and the two families that held its shares the Ebbets and McKeevers were squabbling and the Ebbets Field, where its games were played, was in ruins. There was urgent need to get things under control. McLaughlin was not only the man who controlled the purse strings, he was also trustee for the families that owned the team. He led the negotiations that persuaded Larry MacPhail, who used to run Cincinnati Reds, to take over the Dodgers as general manager. Larry came with plans for the revival of the team’s fortunes, the only hitch being lack of money.  

Larry went to meet McLaughlin at his bank’s headquarters at Brooklyn Heights. McLaughlin conducted his business affairs from its second story office and his social affairs from room 40 at Hotel Bossert. Harold Harris of Brooklyn Eagle wrote about this private gathering as the most exclusive luncheon club in the borough. “Nothing is ever written about this place where banker George V McLaughlin, known to his intimates as George the Fifth, rules over a table of political hierarchy, ” he wrote.

Larry laid out his plans and asked McLaughlin for $ 200,000. The year was 1937, a time when the economy was still reeling under the effects of Depression, and the team owed the bank $700,000. Besides, the Ebbets and McKeever heirs owed money to the bank as they had taken loans against the shares as collateral. Sinking more money into the team was not a sober proposition, but as a leading citizen of Brooklyn, McLaughlin could not let the team go under. He took the plunge.

Larry did wonders with the Dodgers, turning it around in a short while. When he left in 1942 to fight the war, the team’s finances were in better shape, part of its debts cleared, and it had a deposit of $150,000 in the bank. When Dodgers won the pennant there was much excitement in the borough, MacPhail hailed for his brilliant achievements. But one enthusiast wrote to the Brooklyn Eagle that “little mention is made of the one man who, perhaps more than any other, deserves the kudos for bringing the pennant to Brooklyn. I refer to George V McLaughlin, banker extraordinary...” the writer said, pointing out that it was McLaughlin who spotted the one guy [MacPhail] that Brooklyn needed and then let him dip into the till to his heart’s content. “Where will you to find a banker who would have the good sense, as well as the civic consciousness” to do so, he asked.  

Then came Branch Rickey to lead the Dodgers. The war was raging all over the world, but Rickey knew it would end sooner or later. When it ended the boys would be back home and they would look forward to good entertainment. It called for scouting for good players and he wanted to look afield for new talent. He thought the racial barriers must be broken to bring in great players kept out of the national league. Bringing in black players who until then played in the Negro league would also bring in the large number of black youngsters to the stadium and that would mean a great new source of revenue.  

But breaking the color barrier was not easy. Here again it was McLaughlin who gave him sober advice and encouragement. This is how Jimmy Breslin in his biography of Branch Rickey describes the moment when Rickey broached his idea with McLaughlin: “McLaughlin had an old style of reasoning that came from years in police stations and bank negotiations. ‘If you want to do this to get a beat on the other teams and make some money, then let’s do it’, he told Rickey. ‘But if you want to do this for some social change, forget it. We want to win and make money... If this doesn’t work for money, you’re sunk.”

McLaughlin knew how enormously important was this decision. It meant taking on the brick walls of racial prejudices. It would bring in a huge backlash. But then, he was a businessman to the core and he reasoned there was no argument that would succeed like a solid business argument. He was not prejudiced on racial lines and had proved his willingness to honor merit twenty years earlier when he promoted Samuel Battle. Now he did the same thing standing behind Branch Rickey as he made history signing up Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers.

That was in 1947.Ten years later, Brooklyn lost Dodgers when Walter O’Malley took the team to Los Angeles. It was McLaughlin who had made O’Malley part of the triumvirate he had installed to run the club when the heirs of the old owners sold out. The others who held shares were Branch Rickey and John L Smith, president of the Pfizer company. After the death of Smith, differences between Rickey and O’Malley came to a head and finally O’Malley took over the team buying out Rickey’s shares.

O’Malley, son of an old friend of McLaughlin’s in Bronx, was a protege of the banker from the days he was hired to look after the foreclosure business of the bank in the 30s. Later, McLaughlin put him in charge of the Dodgers’ finances. It was from here O’Malley made his way up to the ownership of the franchise.

O'Malley wanted a new ballpark, as he felt the Ebbets Fields was no longer sufficient to hold the rising number of spectators or park their cars. “Ebbets Fields was built in the trolley car era.There are no trolleys to speak of today but there are automobiles and ..parkways,” he wrote to McLaughlin and park commissioner Robert Moses in 1953, asking for a new ballpark to be built at Fort Greene were slums had been cleared for new developments.

Moses refused point blank. He wrote back: “...our slum clearance committee cannot be be used to encourage speculation in baseball enterprises. You are, of course, the best judge as to whether in fact a new Dodger stadium would be anything but a white elephant...” O'Malley made an appeal to McLaughlin, Moses’ long time colleague, but he could do nothing to help.    

When Walter O’Malley announced his plans to take Dodgers to the west coast, McLaughlin made a last ditch effort to keep the franchise in the city. He addressed a press conference at Waldorf-Astoria, with a plan drawn up after consultations with Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey. It accepted the need for a new ballpark, and he thought the ideal spot would be Flushing Meadows in Queens. This could be built at public expense, and he expected to persuade either Dodgers or Giants, who were also negotiating a move to the other coast, to remain in the city. In case it fails, he proposed a a new team in which the players would have a share of the profits and the team would be run by a non profit corporation. Mayor Robert Wagner was in favour of it, parks commissioner Moses was supportive and New York Times wrote that this appears to be the only way for the city keep its franchise. But in a few weeks both the Giants and Dodgers had left the city.  

The departure of Dodgers was an acutely felt personal loss for most Brooklynites. For McLaughlin it was a deeply felt loss. For three decades, he had run the team, his opinion was vital in any decision that counted in its affairs. He had brought in O'Malley to the board as his personal choice and helped him with money to purchase his initial shares in the team. O'Malley was close to him, and often described as his adopted son taking care of his personal affairs and driving him home in those evenings he imbibed prodigious amounts of the spirits at the numerous dinner parties he had to attend. He could never forgive O'Malley for what he did and never spoke to him in later years.

McLaughlin's decades long association with Robert Moses was another matter that received much public attention. Robert Caro, in his biography of Moses, The Power Broker, has said McLaughlin as vice chairman of Triborough Bridge Authority played second fiddle to him, allowing him to run the authority as a personal fiefdom. He hints it was business interests that motivated McLaughlin who had stakes in the Equitable Life Assurance Society which had dealings with the authority.

But this does not seem to be fair criticism. McLaughlin was generally supportive of the decisions Moses made, and many of them controversial, but he had very little choice. Moses always had the power of public opinion on his side. Even President Roosevelt had to beat a retreat when he made an attempt to remove Moses from the authority in 1936. Secondly, McLaughlin was enthusiastic about the kind of public works that changed the face of New York. But still, he firmly opposed the move Moses made to shift $ 6 million of authority money to the loss-making New York World Fair in 1963. He resigned from the fair committee and issued a public statement denouncing Moses.

Two years later his term at the authority came to an end, after 31 years serving under various administrations. He was already 78. He had left his career at banking industry over a decade earlier retiring as chairman of Manufacturers Trust Company, with which his Brooklyn Trust Company had merged in 1950. But he continued on its board, and was associated with a large number of business concerns and social and charitable organisations. Among them were Fordham and St John's universities, Equitable Life Assurance Society and Consolidated Edison Company.

McLaughlin was a public person all his life. He never minced his words nor retracted from his positions. During the Depression, he called for changes in the way banks and businesses operated, in the New Deal days he opposed profligate spending and when the war broke out, he was a leading figure in civilian efforts to face the difficulties. He cared for the youth who went to fight in the war and ensured every Brooklyn boy who came back home did receive a great welcome and a ticket at Ebbets Fields where the Dodgers played. He loved sports and instituted the McLaughlin trophy for basketball. As a banker he was president of the New York Bankers Association for one term and helped formulate its policies in the difficult years of Depression and bank collapses.

He loved good food and good drinks and was a towering presence in any gathering, that earned him the epithet George the Fifth among friends. He loved to play handball and was known to be a skillful player even in his old days. In fact on the day of his death, December 7, 1967, he had enjoyed a round of the game and after lunch with his friends at the Athletic Club, had come home at 610, Park Avenue, when he had an heart attack. He rang up his daughter Kay Jeffords living three blocks away and told her about it, adding “this seems to be the last”, according to a family member. Half an hour later when she arrived, he was already dead. He was 80.

A requiem mass service was held at the St Vincent Ferrer Church, Lexington Avenue, the next day and his body was laid to rest at the Gates of Heaven Cemetery, Westchester, with the NYPD band playing the farewell tune to its old chief.

Image courtesy: Police commissioner McLaughlin with officer Ryan, New York Times, 7 February, 1926.

(This story is dedicated to Elizabeth D. Jeffords who has spent 13 years in India, trying to improve the lives of scores of children, through education and empowerment. She first told me about George V.McLaughlin, her grandfather.)

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