Spies, madness and the politics of Partition

The Great Game or rivalry between Britain and Russia in Central Asia during the 19th C continued with Partition and still lives on in acts of Subcontinental collective insanity 

The Independence of India in 1947 was a long time coming. It had been promised, notionally by the act of 1935, but with so many ifs and buts, that when finally granted in 1947, it was in a rather unseemly manner with horrific ‘collateral damage’ in the form of communal violence. Its final provenance, as it happened in the shadow of the Second World War, was as much an opportunity for the continuing of the Great Game.

An unlikely and barely plausible connection between psychiatry, medicine and politics and espionage makes itself manifest, and makes one wonder whether the Great Game is fact, illusion or delusion.

Philby and Philby: Madmen or dissenters?

In the middle of the World War 2 (WW2), the British Government dispatched a group of eminent physicians and public health experts to serve as consultants to the reform of medical services that were planned for India. At Basra they came into contact with the Indian Medical Service, which then looked after health related matters from Suez to Singapore. As the head of the delegation, Sir Weldon Dalrymple-Champneys noted, that over dinner they met G Prior, the political officer of the Persian Gulf Area, who was “youngish, cheery, and experienced. He told me that Ibn Saud had asked us to remove St John Philby because he was preaching sedition (against England and in favour of Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Germany). We waited till he was on the boat going to India to spread his doctrine and then arrested him. There was talk of detaining him in a mental hospital but this fell through and after detention for some time he was released as too mad to be dangerous.”

St John Philby was born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1885, and after his education at Westminster School and Trinity College had been a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), and served all over northern India, and later in the Middle East. He retired from the ICS in 1925. He became an intrepid explorer, wrote extensively of his travels in the Middle East, and became an Arab scholar; and eventually converted to Islam. He had, by then, developed an anti-British attitude, and with the War in progress a more ‘serious view was taken of his disloyal and defeatist propaganda’, and it was ordered that his passport be impounded. This was to be done discreetly, because it was deemed necessary that his passport be rendered invalid for travel to the USA, and that he be kept under surveillance while in transit through various ports in the Middle East.

Photo: Wikipedia. St John Philby was deemed by the British to be ‘too mad to be dangerous’

The authorities were aware of his close links with Ibn Saud, but urged caution. In as much as that they would ‘hesitate to say his conduct hitherto warrants his being treated as a mental patient immediately on arrival in India”. It is then hinted that it was Ibn Saud ‘s estimate that St John Philby was mentally deranged (and, by implication, not a judgment made by the British officials) , but in any case, his going back into Arabia was to be prevented at any cost. St John Philby ultimately arrived in Karachi by a slow boat, and by then it was apparent that he was a representative of the California Arabian Standard Oil Company, and had long been on their payroll. He was arrested on orders from London on 22 August 1940, and ordered to be sent back to London on the SS City of Venice with orders to ‘prevent him landing at any port en route’. He was interned for a year in the UK and released in 1941.

This discrepancy between what G Prior writes in his official letters to the Secretary of State for India, and what he gossips to the medical experts a year or so later, remains a mystery. St John Philby resurfaced in a few years, as an agent for the very same American oil companies, and was crucial to the negotiations that establish ARAMCO, the behemoth oil company. It is even hinted that much of subsequent scholarship of Arabia has been through the lens of Philby-ARAMCO. St John Philby continued to advise American petroleum and construction interests in Saudi Arabia till his death in 1960.

Writing an editorial in the Statesman, H St John Philby (the H now signifying Haji) made it a point to state that he was returning to India after 32 years (no mention of his arrest in Karachi and the insinuations of insanity), to celebrate the ‘great transformation that I have consistently dreamed of since I became a member of the ICS 40 years ago’; and also assert his Muslim identity. He was enthusiastic in his support of the partition, along the principles used by Hitler to both extend and divide Europe, and strongly commended the excellent job the British Government had done in providing ‘as near an ideal solution as the human intellect is capable of devising’. This was quite an endorsement, from one who was considered ‘too mad to be dangerous’ just a few years earlier! The transformation from a troublesome, deluded meddler to a pontificating adviser to the British Empire illustrates the twists and turns of political process, or rather, intrigue, that conceals as much as it reveals.

Photo: Sanjeev Jain. Editorial by St John Philby on the Independence of India in 1947

St John Philby was, interestingly, the father of Kim Philby, the famous spy who defected to the USSR from the UK, despite having been at the highest echelons of the British Secret Service, and close to the heart of the Empire. Kim Philby has been a subject of many biographies, with a recent one by Philip Knightley. John Le Carre sums up Philby’s double and triple crossing as “Philby’s decision happened to be hostile to Western interest, and it was his to take, and he was entitled to it”. Thus, while the father was once considered mad for opposing Western interests, his son was merely a traitor, but not deluded! In a more sardonic reading, a defection to the ‘right’ was then considered deluded; while that to the ‘left’ was a matter of conviction. The thin edge of the wedge that separates a conviction from a delusion continues to haunt us even now.

The background

Jostling by the European colonial powers, and the fear of Russian competition, lay at the root of both the World Wars. While the WW1 could be seen as a war for the sharing of colonial spoils, WW2 too was, in some aspects, a war between the industrialized nations, to carve out future areas of influence. The WW2 also marked the beginning of the American era in world affairs, and it is interesting to see how these efforts were imagined, and planned. Writing in Oct 1941, a few weeks before Pearl Harbour, Eugene Stanley could only wonder about the fate of Japan, after the Axis powers, to which Japan had aligned itself, were (inevitably) defeated.

As one of the major inducements to placate Japan, it was proposed was that the colonial markets were an ideal market for ‘low-cost’ Japanese goods, like watches, toys, radios etc. and thus foster its industrial development. Attempts would also be made to ensure that raw material supplies from the colonial regions would be made available to Japan for its continued prosperity and progress. As a contrast, Sir Shanmukham Chetty (the lawyer and politician, and later, the first Finance Minister of independent India) writing after Japan entered the War, pointed out that almost a million tons of steel and two million tons of pig-iron were made available to the Allies per year from India. It also provided almost 60% of the medical stores, and more than 250 million dollars’ worth of uniforms, and was a net exporter of food. It was thus hoped, that India would emerge as the natural leader in the industrialized Asia, because as far as natural assets, industrial development and skilled manpower were concerned, it was the major force.

However, though India had the first engineering and medical colleges east of the Suez, many decades before Japan, the colonial enterprise had ensured that industrial and social developments were tardy and inadequate. It was also suggested that the living standards of countries like India and China would need to be improved, post WW2, to absorb the industrial output of the United States, and the other nations that were fighting the WW2. The post-war division of the spoils, was thus to be between the active combatants in the War, with the rest of the world continuing as consumers and markets. Despite all the wars, the Axis and the Allied powers were at the table, and it was the colonies that were on the table.

Photo: Sanjeev Jain. Matchbox bearing Gujarati lettering manufactured in Japan for the Indian market, 1920

While some commentators could see the post-WW2 period as a struggle between the geographical spread of democracy as against a renewed spread of both colonialism and communism, it was hoped that democracy would prevail, and countries like China and India would not have to pay the price, any more, for their own subjugation, as per the treaties of 1842 and 1858 respectively. At the same time, under the German expansion into Europe, ostensibly with the purpose of consolidating the ‘German people’, vast movements of populations, and divisions along ethnic and linguistic lines were undertaken. The Axis and Allied attempts to influence the politics of the Middle East had their own logic. For a while, the Colonial Administration in Delhi had been responsible for the governing the region, all the way to the Suez, and even considered administering Baghdad from Delhi!

By the time the WW2 was on its way, however, Ibn Saud had consolidated his control over the Arab peninsula, and was a sought after ally by the Germans, British and Americans. Ibn-Saud had been a subject of much admiration for his ability to unify the Arabs, and also his symbolic value which was ‘especially important in India, with its huge reservoir of men and materials (and) its Moslems the most active and warlike inhabitants’. Soon after the War, the entire region was divided and quartered, driven by policies made elsewhere.

The consequences

The Subcontinent, which at the middle of the 20th century was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, was in a few years transformed into a member of the Third World, and then a LAMIC (Low and Middle Income country), its populations and resources divided, bickering and squabbling, while the industrialized nations that fought the WW2 quickly regained their glory by collaborating among themselves. Seventy years later, we purchase Japanese and Chinese consumer goods, ride in Japanese and German trains and cars, and fight amongst ourselves using weapons made in Britain, France, Russia or America. We continue to export raw materials and assets, including skilled manpower. America, China and Russia (listed merely in alphabetic order) continue their jostling across the Himalayas, and the processes that Philby and Philby set in place, continue their anarchic advance. The circus continues, more crazy than cruel, and we in the Subcontinent merrily play along, and divide and carve ourselves into convenient bite size pieces, through bouts of collective insanity.

(Sanjeev Jain is a professor of psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru)
Sanjeev Jain photo courtesy Outlook

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