December 27, 2015

Russian president, Vladimir Putin's Gift to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, A double-edged sword (Editorial, The Telegraph)

The Telegraph, December 27, 2015

A double-edged sword

Presents are a part of protocol. It is considered the done thing to offer presents on birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. The exchange of gifts is an integral feature of diplomacy, especially when heads of government/State meet. On such occasions, the ancient injunction, timeo danaos et dona ferentes (usually rendered as 'beware of the Greeks when they come bearing gifts') is always forgotten. Gifts are gestures of goodwill, and therefore, the act of giving is seen as being more significant than the present itself. Nonetheless, presents, like texts, are always open to interpretation. This openness to interpretation is influenced by the fact that the giver of the present exercised a choice when he selected the gift. Why this particular gift and not another? This question can legitimately be asked by the recipient, as well as by others. In the case of a ceremonial exchange of gifts - as in the example of a present from one head of government to another - the act of giving is public enough to be open to question and interpretation.

When Narendra Modi met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the latter gave him a rather unique present. It was an 18th-century sword that originally belonged to the Najafi dynasty of nawabs in Bengal. The short-lived rule of this dynasty began when the English East India Company made Mir Jafar the puppet nawab after the battle of Plassey in June 1757. The nawabi came to Mir Jafar as a present for remaining inactive during the battle of Plassey. That inactivity was crucial in deciding the outcome of the encounter, since Mir Jafar was the commander-in-chief of the then nawab, Siraj-ud-Daulah. Many, especially those of strong nationalist persuasions, would like to believe that the sword that has been presented to Mr Modi represents dishonour. Mr Putin may have unwittingly committed a gaffe. Did Mr Modi know what kind of present he was accepting? History, like life, is never monochromatic or unidimensional. It could be argued that Mir Jafar, by remaining inactive, had rendered a service: he had helped to bring about the end of Muslim rule in Bengal, thus ushering in British rule which enabled the Britons to carry out their work in India. A galaxy of thinkers in the 19th century - stretching from Rammohun Roy to Jadunath Sarkar - actually believed that the ending of a "Muslim tyranny" and the coming of British rule were gifts of "Divine Providence." (The quoted words are Rammohun's.) From this perspective, Mir Jafar was no traitor, as the nationalists painted him, but a harbinger of the future, an unconscious prophet.

It will never be known what made Mr Putin choose this gift. By accepting the present, Mr Modi may have caught a Tartar. What is Mr Modi - is he a nationalist, as he often claims to be, or is he the champion of his ideology that sees the end of Muslim rule as a liberation? Does Mr Modi know? Or is he easy with a pluralist interpretation of India's past?