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Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Ways of a democracy

Now, when I see problems in universities across the country, and how all who happen to be involved conduct themselves, my thoughts go back to what I saw long ago in Cambridge.

Written by Manohar Singh Gill |
Updated: March 4, 2016 12:19:21 am
C R Sasikumar The very air of Cambridge had the flavour of freedom. I had been deputy commissioner of Ambala and Jalandhar districts of the Punjab. C R Sasikumar

In October 1967, I went to Cambridge University. I saw another world of freedom and equality, and courteous exchange of views, no matter how outrageous. The students were always referred to as men and women, not boys and girls. The use of the word “sir” was not known. Teachers and students stood on a footing of mutual respect. The very air of Cambridge had the flavour of freedom. I had been deputy commissioner of Ambala and Jalandhar districts of the Punjab. My experiences were of one responsible for law and order.

The Vietnam War was on in full force. President Lyndon B. Johnson was facing opposition from students in America and western Europe. The spring of 1968 brought another kind of heat. In France, students’ anger was boiling over. Danny Cohn-Bendit became a student hero. Oxford and Cambridge became the centres of anger against America. The movement was led by Tariq Ali, the handsome Lahore scion of a landed family. He was not a British citizen, but Britain never dreamt of deporting him. In Cambridge, Ajit Singh, later professor, created all the headaches. A student of Dr Manmohan Singh, he walked up and down King’s Parade, building up support for the Saturday tamasha in front of the American embassy in London.

On Saturday, he left for London with a bunch of politically aware students. Tariq and friends came from Oxford. Others came from all over London. In the morning sun, as the Marines stood at the door, the students shouted themselves hoarse against an unfair war. Tariq’s slogan was: “Hell no, we won’t go.” The police maintained a British sangfroid, and were never ruffled. Harold Wilson was prime minister and, like Tony Blair in recent times, seen by the people as an American pooch. By evening, students and teachers caught the trains for Oxford and Cambridge. Both universities watched in calm and amused steadiness. The American ambassador could not understand the British ways of democracy.

Once, Tariq came to Cambridge. He had just come back from North Vietnam. At that time, it was like having been to the moon and back. When he landed at Heathrow, the British would not even dream of keeping him out. I heard him speak to a bunch of students, on North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. This happened in a college room. No one in Cambridge bothered that this might be sedition. After the lecture, Tariq, Ajit and I went to a Lahori restaurant and ate a Punjabi dinner. We came back to Ajit’s room in Queens’ College to have coffee. Some students followed their hero.

While Ajit made coffee, the students sat at the feet of the revolutionary master. I sat silently and watched in amusement. When they had finished talking, I gently asked Tariq something in Punjabi — I did not want the students to understand us. I said that I, too, had read Marx. I thought if the British wanted a revolution, it had to be made by their own people. Tariq could not do so. I suggested that they were feeling revolutionary now, but were likely to end up as bankers in the City. I said to him, if you have any
revolutionary thoughts, you are needed in Pakistan.

Tariq answered with brute frankness, “Jee othey tey mainu band kar dengey”. I suggested that one Mao may emerge, only after a thousand have been shot. Much later, in General Yahya Khan’s time, this is what happened. Tariq flew into Karachi in his Castro bush shirt and spoke passionately. He thought his moment had come. His mother was called in by the general, and told, “Bibi, tell the boy he will get hurt if he goes on.” Tariq left by the next flight for Delhi.

Another day, Prime Minister Harold Wilson came from London to speak at the Town Hall. Such were their ethics that he came in a small Mini Morris driven by his wife. There was no security. When she drove into the market square, I was there, learning the ways of British democracy. A group of shouting students surrounded the little car. A few shouted, “Go home you rightwing b******.” Mary, his wife, did not bat an eyelid. Wilson calmly kept puffing at his famous pipe. At some point, a few boys put their hands on the little Mini and rocked it. The Wilsons stayed calm like the Buddha. The police were only in watchful attendance.

Denis Healey was the famous defence minister of Britain. Due to Vietnam, he was most disliked. He, too, came to talk at the university, in a taxi from the station. Ajit and the students had been planning a suitable welcome. The roads on both sides of the seminar room were student-guarded. The police were there, but silent, steady and watchful. They did not clear the roads of the students. Healey made a successful entry into the hall by a back way. As he stood up to lecture, Ajit and the students stood up, lit candles and heckled him in typical British fashion. Healey bore all this with stoic calm; he had a lifetime’s experience in British democratic ways. Outside, other students were preparing for his return to the railway station.

As he came out of the side lane, a dozen or more ambushed him. The taxi was stopped, the driver dared not do anything rash. I remember a girl jumped on to the bonnet, banging it and shouting. Healey sat quietly at the back. Finally, the police carefully took the protesters out of the way, the taxi raced to the station, and Healey to London. The next day, all papers accused Healey of being the heartless one. The girl, of course, became a star. All through Healey’s visit, I dashed about, learning the British ways of handling excitements. England remained cool.

On another summer morning, I was walking down King’s Parade. As usual, I looked up at the great King’s College Chapel with its twin towers. I suddenly saw a banner tied between the two towers. In Cambridge, it was the fashion for young men who loved mountaineering to try night climbing of
the towers of colleges and even churches.

At night, some boys had climbed the twin towers. It was totally illegal. Any one of them could have been killed. The banner said, “Stop the Vietnam War”. The point was made and the picture circulated worldwide, to the dismay of the Americans. The proctors tried to guess who the culprits were, but failed. There was no university search for them. England moved on.

Today, most of those boys are distinguished old men in England’s life. What became of Tariq Ali, the Pakistani Che Guevara? As the 1968 excitement faded, Tariq had to move on. He was, after all, an immigrant. He wrote lots of books on Pakistan’s life and politics, and novels on Islam in Spain. Immensely enjoyable, many I have read twice over. And as the hot blood cools, he married an English girl, had children, and I suppose goes on Saturdays to the supermarket. Pakistan faded from his vision.

I joined the IAS in 1958 in the Punjab. We still had some Indian ICS officers, and our ministers had learnt much during their days of struggle. Now, when I see problems in universities across the country, and how all who happen to be involved conduct themselves, my thoughts go back to what I saw long ago in Cambridge. Is there something we miss of the true ways of democracy?

The writer is a Congress Rajya Sabha MP

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