Amity & Enmity

I was traveling to Calicut and Palakkad for holidays last year, the trip was via Singapore airlines and there was (at that time) no Singapore – Calicut connection. So we went to Cochin, reaching there after a long trans-pacific flight just around midnight. My brother in law was there to receive us and we had decided to take the road route from Cochin to Calicut. It was an eventful trip. The road taken was via Kodungallur and I was lost in historic thoughts as we crossed the terrain, for I had been reading heavily on Muziris and the Moplah riots some days back. I pointed out one of the first mosques of Kerala from the 9th century (gifted by the Perumal to Malik ibn Dinar) to my sleepy BIL, he was not too keen to see all this in the middle of his slumber and I could see my wife & second son smiling. They know that I can be a bit crazy with history. As we traveled on, the otherwise empty road seemed full of people. There were a number of Moplahs on the road, and most were dressed very traditionally, white dhoti, white full sleeved shirts and some even wearing a white turban. It looked like some Moulavi congregation was going on past midnight at every mosque.

We asked the driver what was going on. He was not very happy as well. He, a Muslim himself, explained that the Islamic activism in Malabar was increasing much to his disgust and that it was becoming a very irritating even to him. He explained that on that particular evening, a man who had been imprisoned in Coimbatore was being released and that the Moplah populace was probably planning his reception. It was a bit disconcerting. We were stopped three or four times by cops on the roads and asked for identity and starting & destination details and they seemed pretty suspicious about all vehicles traversing the road. I was starting to wonder what was happening to my mater land. This was indeed strange, but then, I consoled myself, well, ‘It is 2AM, so this security is probably for the good’. On the way we stopped at a thattukada, had porotta and omelets enduring heavy mosquito bites, during the process, the Chikenguinya fever risk notwithstanding. Without any further problems, we reached Calicut in the wee hours of the morning.

That vacation was short but eventful. I spent a good amount of time hunting for books and wandering around. I went often to the Mathrubhumi book stall, TBS, DC books and all the other shops and my collection was slowly getting updated. Remote places like the Vallothol Vidyapeetam were checked out for new releases, but nothing new was forthcoming. 2nd hand book shops around the stadium were visited after a swig of Benadryl and while that did not help much, for I ended up feeling drowsy though avoiding allergic attacks (Old book dust does create a problem for me, you see – not a good thing for history enthusiasts). I was wandering along, dhoti clad, with an umbrella at hand, wading through the congested traffic, listening to abuses heaped on the Japanese (they had aided a water supply scheme and the ensuing work had ripped open whole roads across town creating such confusion & chaos, net result people started to abuse the Japanese who had in the first place provided money to help them – but that is how we are…what to do!!).

I am a dhoti person in Kerala and Calicut used to have a number of dhoti clad guys, but nowadays, it has given way to very westernized clothing and I was starting to look like the ‘odd one out’ wearing a dhoti. Walking between the two wheelers and cars and buses, I walked down the Mavoor road towards the Palayam bus stand. It was a definition for a messy commotion out there with the over-bridge project in full swing, or so it appeared. I saw a long queue next to the Balu’s saloon and for a moment wondered if haircuts or my old barber Balu were indeed so popular. Then I saw a couple of women in the queue. It turned out to be the line at the nearby Distilleries Corp shop – people were waiting in line, patiently (everywhere else they fight or argue) for their turn to buy a bottle or two of booze. Ah! Well, that’s Kerala for you…

And you see the subtle differences, people wearing double dhoti’s (Hindus) with the ‘kara’ (border) to the right, the Muslims wearing single dhotis without a kara and to the left ( I still wonder why) and some Tamil merchants wearing silk & tere-cotton varieties (usually dipped in aquamarine blue and looking more blue than white due to the enthusiasm of the Tamil dhobi) with bright red & green borders.

There was one more place to go. And so I decided to visit another book shop, towards the end of the stadium, the very same stadium where AR Rahman and his troupe performed recently. It was an Islamic book stall. I entered the store and as I knew what I was generally looking for, strode upto the proprietor and asked him if they had any books on Moplah history. He looked up at me with surprise, taking his eyes off the computer screen he was intently studying. With one glance, he decided that I was not ‘one of them’ and started to figure out what my possible purpose was. I repeated that I wanted to see any books he had on the history of Moplah’s of Malabar. He replied stating that he had one or two popular titles, but that such books were rare.

I asked him if he had any books written by PA Syed Mohammed. He was taken aback by my question. He asked me, you know him? I said, I know of him (his daughter is a good friend actually). Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw two other people in the dark interior of the shop studying me intently. The man at the counter was confused, wondering what a ‘Menon like’ chap was asking these questions for. I explained that I was trying to find some matter to work on for my Malabar studies. He was eventually satisfied and escorted me upstairs to see other books that were not too popular. In those dark nooks, I found a couple of fascinating books, one written by PA Syed Mohammed and another written by Prof Bahaudiin, who was also my principal at the Engineering college. Until that moment I had never heard of Prof Bahauddin’s history interests.

As I clutched these valuable books and stood at the counter to pay the bill, the two guys who had been studying my activities came up to me. I was a little perturbed, they were traditionally clad, turban and all though looking pretty humble. One of them came to me and said, ‘Mone, valare sandoshamundu, thanks. (We are very happy, young man – thanks)’. That was all he said and I guess that was all he needed to say, also his eyes were brimming with tears. I understood, for all this man needed was ‘some understanding and acceptance of their community’, in these troubled times, so to speak. They probably saw it in me and simply thanked me. After he had finished, the other person came and did the same, formally shaking my hands. I was touched, and I left with a troubled heart.

As I trudged back through the back lanes, homeward bound, I remembered of the many thousand years when the two communities had led their lives in joint pursuit of happiness, development and as partners in trade. When had it started to break up and why? On one hand I could see the car driver shameful about his community and their radical activities and on the other hand the learned men happy to see somebody bothering to study their cultures & history. I decided to study a bit of what had transpired, how this friendship broke up and how the two communities drifted apart, though maintaining a reasonably amicable relationship. That will follow in the next part.

I swung by the Juice mash near the post office and had a nice ‘nannari’ sherbet, which took me back to my college days and continued on in the sweltering heat & humidity. The clouds were darkening. It would be better to finish up and head for home, for my MIL was making ghee rice & chicken curry for dinner.

Later the next day I found yet another book, this one on Kerala Jews, written by another ex-professor of mine, Prof Jussay. It was all in all a couple of fine days and I was happy.

As I was summing all this, I remembered my wife telling me about old times in Calicut – If a person is sick for a long time (even a Hindu) a Moplah Thangal was summoned to ‘uthify’ (blow) & ward off the bad luck or ill omens. They had great healing powers, spiritual & ancestral, so I heard. Would a Hindu family think of doing something like this today? I doubt it.


Overbridge work at Mavoor road – Pic courtesy The Hindu
Calicut Street – Unknown poster Thanks

This is Part 1 of a two part series

Sardar KM Panikkar, a luminary

I had come across this illustrious person some years ago while researching VK Krishna Menon and subsequently while studying Portuguese & Dutch presence in Malabar. I was very impressed with the language and narrative used by Panikkar in his books ‘Malabar & the Portuguese’ and ‘Malabar & the Dutch’. When I found later that he was the person behind India’s oft quoted naval strategy and that he had collected considerable notoriety over the Chinese debacle, I decided to find out a bit more of the person.

Krishan Menon’s comment about Panikkar, sums up quite a bit of the person Panikkar was. “He can write”, said Krishna Menon, “a history book in half an hour which I could not write in six years”. The soundness of this thesis has been borne out by his numerous historical works, several of which have profoundly influenced contemporary thought and perceptions. Now you must remember that it was extremely rare for Krishna Menon himself to hold another in high esteem.

“It was the tameness of academic life that bored me” said K. M. Panikkar and with that he entered the intriguing world of politics. Unfortunately that short but taut period and a stroke scarred him so much that he went back to academics and retreated into his study of history and archeology. But like Menon, Pakikkar left his mark in the international arena. (It was during this period that his detractors used dubious claims to implicate him on the Tibetan issue). But let us take a look at the person & his contributions

Panikkar and Indian independence
Panikkar was deeply influenced by the nationalist movement and became the editor of the first nationalist newspaper Swarajya. When ‘Hindustan Times’ was started in 1924, with Panikkar as its first editor, Devdas Gandhi joined the editorial panel and Mahatma Gandhi did the inauguration. He was instrumental in having our Independence day one day after Pakistan go theirs. How did that happen?

HVR Iyengar writes about the event in the Hindu - The British Government had decided that the transfer of power to India, as represented by the Constituent Assembly should take place on the 15th of August. The British do not consult astrologers when they take political decisions, but there were quite a few eminent personages in Delhi who believed (many of them still do) in the effect of stellar combinations on human affairs and some of them began consulting astrologers as to whether the 15th was an auspicious day for the occasion. The advice was that it was not; a far more auspicious day was the 14th. But this was the day fixed for the renunciation of British authority over Pakistan and in fact, Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy, was in Karachi that morning formally to announce the transfer of power to that country and he flew back to Delhi the same afternoon. A solution for the problem was discovered, to the best of my recollection, by the agile brain of Sardar K. M. Panikkar, a brilliant writer of history in the English language, a scholar in Malayalam, also a deep student of the more recondite features of Hindu religion, and withal a great wit. He said he had discovered a formula which would appease the stars as well as make it unnecessary for the British government to change the date which had been announced in Parliament. The members of the Constituent Assembly would meet on the 14th, about half-an-hour or so before midnight; this would propitiate the stars. They would, however, take the oath of allegiance to Free India after the stroke of midnight which, according to British recognition, would be the 15th. Everybody seemed satisfied and arrangements were made accordingly.

Panikkar and Nehru
Nehru was wary of Panikkar and despised him, though he preferred to take KMP’s words over others such as Bajpai over matters concerning India’s borders. Many believed that Panikkar was a member of Nehru’s coterie, like Menon was, but I do not quite believe it as Panikkar was always far away from New Delhi. David Halberstam in his book ‘The coldest winter’ mentions that Panikkar was a close friends with Nehru, but I doubt it after seeing comments about Panikkar in Nehru’s letters. However, it is a fact that Nehru thought a lot about Panikkar as a historian. He used to recommend that young people read Panikkar’s ‘Asia and Western Dominance’, a much quoted work.

Panikkar and the navyAs we all know K.M Panikkar, the architect of India's naval doctrine, argued in his works more than fifty years ago that New Delhi should recognize the significance of the Indian Ocean for the development of its commercial activities, trade and security ('The Strategic Problems of the Indian Ocean' and 'India and Indian Ocean'- published in 1944-1945) Regretting the 'unfortunate tendency to overlook the Sea in the discussion of India's defense problems', Panikkar remarked: 'India never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea in the first decade of the 16th Century'. His comments stemmed from the study of atrocities heaped on Malabar shores by the Portuguese.Historian Sardar KM Panikkar had written as early as 1945: "A navy is not meant for the defense of the coast. The coast has to be defended from the land. The objective of the navy is to secure the control of an area of the sea, thus preventing enemy ships from approaching the coast or interfering with trade and commerce and conversely after securing the control to blockade the enemy’s coast and destroy his shipping. So a navy merely based on the coast degenerates into a subordinate unit of the army. The Indian navy, whether it be large or small, must learn this lesson. Its purpose is to protect the seas and not the land and if it cannot protect the seas vital to India’s defense, then it is better not to have navy at all"

Despite the exhortations of scholar diplomats like KM Panikkar, neither the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean nor, what is more relevant in the present context, the importance of Andaman and Nicobar Islands were recognized by the policy makers in New Delhi. See detailed article from the Retd chief of Navy staff Arun Prakash.

Panikkar on Portuguese
‘There is a very little to recommend the Portuguese from any point of view’, writes K.M. Panikkar in his “Survey of Indian History.” “Devoid of scruples or sense of honor, overweening in their pride, indolent and with no sense of morality, they produced no statesman or administrator of outstanding ability during the 150 years when they held the mastery of the Indian Ocean.” A must Read - Malabar & the Portuguese.

Panikkar and the Tibetan blunder
It is stated by another Malayali - Mathai, the secretary of Pt Nehru and many others that a parliamentary cable sent to Panikkar was fudged by him before presentation to the Chinese. The claim is that he changed India’s recognition of Chinese ‘suzerainty’ over Tibet to ‘sovereignty’ thus legitimizing China’s claim over Tibet. It is clearly stated in many other documents that the cable came wrongly worded to Panikkar from Nehru and the astonished Panikkar reluctantly acted upon the command of his boss. Panikkar himself goes on record to say that if indeed he had done wrong, why did the foreign affairs ministry and Nehru not correct the mistake immediately? From this one clarification you can imagine who the fall guy was. Sardar Patel was another person who attacked Panikkar’s actions whenever a chance arose. Patel hated both Menon and Panikkar with fervor. (In fact the Patel-Menon-Sudhir Ghosh story is a classic Delhi polemic where Nehru had to get involved to signal peace.)

Reality – It was Panikkar who wrote a detailed memorandum in 1948 ‘When China goes Communist’ where he foresaw exactly what was happening and warned the government that India was best advised to recognize Tibetan independence well in advance as this would also serve to keep China away from India’s borders. He said ‘A China [organised as a Communist regime annexing Mongol, Muslim and Tibetan areas] will be in an extremely powerful position to claim its historic role of authority over Tibet, Burma, Indo-China and Siam. The historic claims in regard to these are vague and hazy. But the political bigwigs in Delhi did not consider it right and Panikkar ended up as the extended arm of the government to make the due postal deliveries from the head offices.

If you read books such as Sankar Gose’s autobiography of Nehru, you will find that people like Patel always blamed Nehru’s subordinates like Menon & Panikkar instead of Nehru himself. J Bandhopadhaya is emphatic in his book ‘The making of India’s foreign policy’ (p234) There is no reason to believe that India’s Tibet policy between 1950 – 1954 was not the result of deliberate decision making by Nehru himself.

Panikkar as a statesman
In fact, the idea of breaking up Uttar Pradesh into more manageable units was suggested by Sardar KM Panikkar over half-a-century ago. Panikkar was a member of the Fazl Ali Commission. He was the first to propose the partition of Uttar Pradesh. In his famous note of dissent (specific to Uttar Pradesh) which is appended to the report of the Commission, Panikkar declared that for the successful working of a federation, the units would have to be ‘fairly evenly balanced’. Disagreeing with the Commission’s decision in favour of a large, undivided Uttar Pradesh, he said it would be imprudent to put one-sixth of the country’s population into a single State. ‘Too great a disparity is likely to create not only suspicion and resentment but generate forces likely to undermine the federal structure itself and thereby be a danger to the unity of the country,’ he said. Looking back, one can only marvel at Panikkar’s foresight because the presence of such a huge state indeed created terrible political imbalances which led to strong regional movements. However, leaders from Uttar Pradesh were not as perceptive as him. They told the Commission that the existence of a large, powerful State in the Gangetic Valley would guarantee India’s unity; that such a State would be able to correct the ‘disruptive tendencies’ in other States; that Uttar Pradesh is the ‘back bone of India’, the centre from which ‘all other States derive their ideas and their culture’ (hah!). Finally, it was argued that undivided Uttar Pradesh was a homogeneous and integrated State and its partition would ruin its economy and create discontent’. History has shown us how specious these arguments were and how right Panikkar was!

Panikkar doctrine & Ceylon
As stated by Godage, “The Panikkar doctrine (named after K M Panikkar) emphasized the importance of the Indian Ocean for the defense of India. According to Panikkar, this vulnerability made it necessary for Lanka or Ceylon to become an integral part of India’s defense structure. The British had kept out other imperialist powers from the Indian Ocean to protect their interests. The perception was that India considered itself the successor to the British Raj and therefore sought to use the same principle to incorporate other states and keep external forces from the Sub Continent.” Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramaya and K M Panikkar in the mid 1940s said that Ceylon would inevitably be drawn into a closer union with India, presumably as an autonomous unit within the Indian federation.

Panikkar & IsraelThe partition of the subcontinent compelled both India and Pakistan to look to the Middle East as an important area of cooperation and support. Besides geographical proximity, such a desire was also due to the region being the Islamic heartland. The struggle for regional pre-eminence and the Kashmir problem compelled both countries to adopt an overtly pro-Arab policy. In this bilateral race for regional support, Israel became a tool as well as a victim. For both countries, support for the Palestinian cause or more specifically, opposition to Israel and its policies, became the central aspect of their Middle East policy. The pre-eminence of Islam in India’s policy towards the region led some Indian leaders to perceive the positive aspects of the partition of the subcontinent. One such person was K.M. Panikkar (1895-1963) who held senior diplomatic positions in the Middle East and elsewhere. In a confidential memorandum to the Zionists, written on the eve of India’s independence, he argued that the creation of a separate Muslim state in the subcontinent would enable India to develop a sympathetic policy towards Jewish aspirations in Palestine. Later, in a letter to an Israeli friend, lamenting the delay in establishing ties with Israel, 19 September, 1950, he said - "While it is not all that surprising to know that Indo-Israeli co-operation in various fields is taking concrete shape, what appears to be somewhat incomprehensible is why so much time has lapsed in forging closer ties?"

Panikkar and Kashmir
Since Panikkar was a Diwan for many north Indian states, he wrote a few hagiographies of his employers and also quite a bit on the legal status of these princely states under British rule. He has written a book on Gulab Singh, the ruler of Kashmir and the various antecedents to the accession of Kashmir. Further details from Bamzai’s book here.

Panikkar and left’ism
Panikkar, like Krishna Menon was branded a leftist by all and sundry after the Chinese and Tibetan debacle. ‘Time magazine’ stated that this was proven when his daughter married the CPI leader. Panikkar clarified later, in his memoirs that he was never a sympathizer with communism, he simply did not appreciate the lack of respect an individual got in a communist regime. Washington, though they were using him as a messenger to the Chinese HC during the Korean War, distrusted him as a leftist. When Panikkar delivered America’s message to the Chinese, they retorted much like Iran and N Korea are doing today. Read the interesting exchange here. Panikkar reported back that China was serious, American diplomats disbelieved him and jestingly nicknamed him Panic’er…

Panikkar and archeology
Amalananda Ghosh in 1950 started organized & systematic exploration of the Bikaner sites from the Indus valley civilization along the dried up bed of the ancient Saraswati River. Within two months, he found 70 sites, 15 of these yielded the same types of antiquities found at Harappa and Mohenjodaro. That Panikkar is being remembered on the editorial page of the Hindustan Times is only fitting because he was its founder editor. This was in 1924. The first issue of HT was released by Mahatma Gandhi, and contained articles by Motilal Nehru, Maulana Muhammad Ali and Jawaharlal Nehru. It was in 1924 again when the discovery of the Indus civilization was announced to the world. Panikkar’s autobiography does not tell us whether this made any impression on him. What we do know is that many decades later he would be instrumental in pushing for the discovery of Indus sites in the desert states of Rajasthan. In his autobiography, Panikkar describes his life and work in Bikaner in vivid detail. For instance, he expresses as much pride in his role in expanding the number of schools and colleges there, as in the fact that, like him, the Dewans of all the major Rajput States were South Indians. But, curiously enough, he did not consider his proactive interest in pushing Indus research as worth mentioning. What we know about it comes from a few forgotten letters and notes in government files. It was in March 1948, less than a month before he took over as ambassador to China that Panikkar wrote to Prime Minister Nehru about the necessity of a survey in the desert area of Bikaner and Jaisalmer and pushed the project through…

Panikkar an unlikely diplomat
As a diplomat, Panikkar, unlike Menon, was too polite, courteous and accommodating, more of an academic, never talking a strong line. SKD Ray says - He was too patrician to fit in with the radical’s image of the Indian nationalist. His sardar title was from a durbar where he served and he presided over the Chamber of Princes as its chancellor before Jawaharlal Nehru sent him as ambassador to China and France. Visually, no one could have looked more the part of Macaulay’s Indian. I remember him as a portly personage in a three-piece suit, fob chain looping across his waistcoat and a little imperial lending authority to his scholarly discourse. Time described him as the bearded Panikkar, who is proud of resembling Nikolai Lenin and who has an unshakable belief that India can get along with Lenin's disciples.

KR Narayanan the late president of India had this to say - KRN's first posting was in Burma where he was memorably exposed to a visit by a fellow-Keralite, the brilliant historian Sardar K.M. Panikkar, who was at that time India's Ambassador in Beijing. "I was put on duty to look after Panikkar by Ambassador Rauf but I do not think Panikkar took to me," KRN once reminisced, adding, "I must have seemed cocky."

A very interesting dialog for those interested – In May 1952, Vijayalakshmi Pandit went to China to meet Mao. Together with her was the ambassador Panikkar. Mao offered a cigarette to Pandit which she refused. Mao asked “Don’t women of India smoke’? Panikkar replied “They do and Madame does, but it is courtesy to refrain before ones elders and those whom one respects” Mao replied “Feudalism dies hard – Please smoke to keep me company Madame, we are in China!!
Added on 06/18/09
Panikkar the person
Kavalam Madhava Panikkar was born in the village of Kavalam, near Ambalapuzha. He was the third child in the Chalayil Tharavadu. Though Panikkar’s forefathers hailed from Kasargode, they had settled in Kavalam as the mangers of the Pallarakavu temple.

Panikkar completed his basic studies at Kottayam and Madras and then read history at Christ Church College, Oxford. After Oxford, Panikkar read for the bar at the Middle Temple, London, before returning to India, where he then taught at Aligarh and Calcutta universities. He turned to journalism in 1925 as editor of the Hindustan Times.
Early on Panikkar had cultivated an interest in Malayalam literature, and was a lifelong friend of the poet Vallathol. Despite his forays into diverse fields, he remained essentially a scholar, publishing extensively and displaying as much interest in ancient Indian history as in more recent historical developments. Cambridge historian Arthur Hassall wrote that in his “long career as tutor of history at Christ Church ” he had “never had a more brilliant student”. Devaki Panikkar, his daughter was the wife of M.N. Govindan Nair, the leader of the Communist Party of India. Panikkar’s interests stretched into the art field as well, notably novels, poetry & Kathakali and he wrote equally well in both Malayalam and English and published over 50 books and numerous articles.

An astute scholar, he was the first president of the Kerala Sahitya academy and held many other positions in his illustrious career. After his studies, Panikkar travelled to Portugal and Holland to research the involvement of these countries with Malabar, the results of which were published in the books Malabar and the Portuguese (1929) and Malabar and the Dutch (1931). In doing so, he brought in the ‘Individualist history style (MM Rahman). For the next 20 years, Panikkar served the princely states of Patiala and Bikaner, becoming the dewan (chief minister) of Bikaner in 1944. He served in China until 1952, playing a key role in building a good relationship with Chiang Kai-shek, and remaining there through the Communist takeover in 1949 and the testing period following this. He wrote of his experiences in the book In Two Chinas (1955). This period also saw the completion of his major work, Asia and Western Dominance (1953). He subsequently served as ambassador to Egypt (1952-1953), Egypt 1952-53 and France (1956-1959) before a severe stroke forced him to return to India. On recovering, he took up his academic career again, becoming Vice-Chancellor of Jammu and Kashmir University and later of Mysore University. Amidst his active political life, Panikkar continued to publish articles and poems, and also translated several Greek plays into Malayalam verse. He passed away in Dec 1963.

Panikkar to the Indian Youth
In 1954, in a convocation note, he appealed to the youth of India - Think of consolidating, broadening and giving a new content to the new born freedom of the nation and to develop a new approach to life. He reminded them that the first call on youth today, indeed their first duty, was to promote knowledge. He warned youth against the dangers of "too powerful a regionalism". While it was true that they should not forget the importance of India's regional languages and the great wealth of thought and beauty which they enshrined, they should also remember that "our national culture will surely disintegrate and, with it, our political freedom, if the basic unity of our life becomes blurred by the growth of too powerful a regionalism. It is only when there is a dominant national culture that regional variations can contribute to it. Otherwise, the local forces will themselves become small stagnant pools deprived of the currents and tides of the greater whole." And he stated later, to sum up India: "That India has a life view of her own, a special outlook on essential problems which has persisted throughout her history would hardly be denied by anyone..."
Pics - Courtesy KWP, China Daily..

You can read a New article - Panikkar and the torpedo

Grain for books

This tidbit from history comes thanks to a reader friend Vijay who passed by to say hello. As we discussed history through the evening hours, he mentioned in passing about a big gift of books provided by India to USA during the PL 480 program when the USA supplied India, much needed wheat. I did not have the slightest clue that we had supplied something in return for the wheat. After Vijay left, I checked out the details. Here it is, and I must add here that while the PL 480 is well reported, the details on the Indian supply of books are shrouded, at best.

But first a recap on the PL 480 deal. I had written briefly about the wheat deal some time ago, for not only did we get wheat, but as reported, also the famed Congress grass weed (a debated fact, see US rebuttal) which is growing wild in many places and causing untold allergic suffering.

After partition, Western Punjab, India's wheat bowl had gone to Pakistan. A spell of successive bad monsoons added, there was a severe food crisis by 1955, reminiscent of the Bengal famine. India had no options. The Chinese were already starving. Russia, India’s quasi-ally didn't have enough for its own people. Europe was just recovering from World War II and could not help. India didn't have any foreign currency to buy food even if it were available. Millions of people would have to be left to starve, if the US had not came to India’s rescue. That was how the famous PL 480 wheat import deal with US was signed by India in 1956.

This was also, as I read elsewhere, the period when South Indians (and many other places) first started consuming wheat with much disgust & shame. Rationing and ration shops had just reached the South in the early 60’s if I recall right due to the famine and rice shortage. An Indian accounts the PL480 times - It is here that PL-480 came in handy. I grew up listening to stories told by my parents and grandparents about the "PL-480 ships" carrying rice from the United States. The passage of these ships was headline news on the airwaves ~ because their arrival would coincide with millions of people being able to eat. Magically, when the Pl-480 ships docked, the market prices for rice and wheat would ease, and the "ration shops" would open. PL-480 made the difference between food riots and dinner for everyone.
But what was the connection to the books?

The Columbia university website explained thus - Lacking the foreign currency to cover its wheat purchase debts, India agreed to repay the United States with multiple copies of all books published in the country for designated university libraries in the United States, beginning in 1961. This became known as the Public Law 480 Program, and was to continue for more than twenty years. New York Times repeated the same – Others (Tibetan books) were preserved by Congress via Public Law 480, passed in the 1960's, which let India partly repay a financial debt to the United States, in books.

Now, was this right? What was the real story? Let us take a look at the whole PL 480 business & the geopolitics of that period

Public Law 480 also known as Food for Peace (and commonly abbreviated PL 480) is a funding avenue by which US food can be used for overseas aid. By the mid-1950s, as food shortages began to develop and foreign exchange reserves fell sharply, the Indian government entered into an agreement with the U.S. government for assistance for the import of food grains under P.L. 480. Later, India would become the recipient of the most aid under that program; India received 50 million tons, or nearly 40 percent of all food grains and 25 percent of all commodities given by the U.S. government under P.L. 480 from 1955 through 1971.

In 1951-56 periods, the US-India relations were troubled due to the bad equations between Krishna Menon, Dulles, Eisenhower and Nehru. Dulles for example appeared to support the Portuguese over Goa, to which Menon & Nehru were against (as you may recall Menon eventually liberated Goa). Eisenhower & the others viewed Menon as a Commie and a Soviet supporter. However the PL 480 aid progressed smoothly until 1965 when Lyndon Johnson suddenly stopped it. He thought that India was not doing anything about stabilizing domestic grain farming. He also sensed aid weariness in the US congress and a lack of political motivation to continue with aid. In later years he arm twisted the Indian government to change its priorities on agricultural policy, which in retrospect was a good move (I think the FCI was formed then). However his involvement in the forced devaluation of the Rupee in 1966 was a further setback to India. The failure of monsoons and drought climates in India continued and the PL480 aid was provided only on a ‘ship to mouth’ basis. It took until 1971 for all of the above to change and change it did.

The troubles in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) started and India was wondering whether to step in. Indira Gandhi, the prime minister was in USA in Nov 71 meeting the US president Nixon. Nixon had already made up his mind that India was planning to attack (India and the United States - Dennis Kux Pg 299) Pakistan. Early in Dec 71, India was discussing if and when Bangladesh should be liberated. Yahya Khan of Pakistan preempted Indian action by bombing the Western border and soon enough a twin border war ensued. Kissinger & Nixon (and his envoy at the UN, George Bush Sr) blamed India for the conflict, and all aid to India was summarily frozen. As the war and diplomatic efforts continued, Kissinger expected that China will enter the fight supporting Pakistan, with all this possibly precipitating in a Russian attack on Chinese borders supporting India. The war on the eastern front was won and the US (Nixon & Kissinger) then started feeling that India would move into West Pakistan. Kissinger sent out the US navy aircraft carrier Enterprise as a warning, to the Bay of Bengal under the guise of relocating US personnel stuck in India. However, Indira Gandhi announced a quick cease fire on Dec 19th. Nixon and Kissinger retracted their earlier stand by stating that the USA had no significant interest in the Indo-Pak conflict. Indira & India did not forget and it took many decades for the relationship between the two countries to thaw. But that is another story, for another day.

That was the end of India’s PL 480 involvement. The PL 480 buildings used by the Americans (next to the Qutab Minar) to run USAID were returned to the Indians and it later became the luxury hotel Qutab.

Ok, so how about the debt? Since 1954, India was indeed repaying the wheat supply in Indian Rupees into a special RBI account. According to the agreement the USA was to use this money only for US investments in India and for paying off their local expenses. By 1971 it had built up to over 3billion US Dollars. India feared that the US access to such large amounts of money in India, at short notice could be used to destabilize the country. It also vexed the Americans as it added to the political mess that the war had created between the two countries. By then Nixon was mired in the Watergate scandal. A proposal was floated to write off 2.2 Billion $ and retain only 1.1 Billion $ for US expenses. Moynihan the US ambassador in India who was negotiating this in India worked hard to get this through with clever bureaucratic wrangling in the US Senate. Finally on 18th Jan 1974, the US gave India a cheque for 2.2 Billion dollars and wrote off the account. That was the single largest check written until that date and was handed over with characteristic flourish by Ambassador Moynihan. Everything started to look rosy once again though arguments cropped up over CIA, Vietnam & Diego Garcia.

On 18th May 1974, three months after Nixon was ousted, India tested an underground nuclear device making India the 6th Nuclear power. The equations changed again, but it never became icy like it was during Nixon’s and Johnson’s days.

So with that background we come back to the question, what was to be done with the Rupee balance in the PL480 account? A number of years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt aptly said, "Books are bullets in the battle for men's minds." For decades the British have enunciated and supported the principle that "trade follows the book." The US followed suit. It was decided to use this money to support English language publishing In India. Some companies that were subsequently formed were (Contemporary India - Sadanand Bhatkal Pg 228) Prentice Hall, Wiley Eastern, Affiliated Eastern & Western and Tata McGraw Hill. Under the Joint-Indo-American Standard Works Program, the books are reprinted in India by Indian publishers with a subsidy from the PL 480 funds and sold at about 1/5th of the U.S. retail price. Popular American books such as College Chemistry by Nobel laureate Linus Pauling were republished in India — at one- fifth of their original price. (Note also that British titles came to India under the English Language Book Society program during this period. The ELBS books, which cost a third of the original, had “Low-Priced Edition” emblazoned across the cover). And that was how we got those nice Prentice Hall & McGraw hill books (some 8.5 million books were printed under this program) in India.
But how did all kinds of regular ‘Indian’ books find their way to the USA? Where did they go?
The Library of Congress site explains

American Congress and various US libraries were able to use rupees from Indian purchases of U.S. agricultural products (PL 480) to buy Indian books. The USAID New Delhi Field Office implementing the program started the thorough and systematic acquisition of publications in the modern languages of South Asia. Today, the South Asian collection in the USA holds material in over fifty modern languages used in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. The majority of the 350,000 publications are in Hindi (20 percent), Bengali (15 percent), Urdu (13 percent), and Tamil (11 percent). Other languages represented in large numbers include Marathi, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati, and Kannada. The majority of these publications are in the fields of literature, religion, philosophy, history, and politics, but all subjects are included. Under the program, copies were made of everything from daily newspapers to fine art to prized antiquities such as old Hindi and Sanskrit texts dating to the 15th century.
One great thing that came out of this was the reprinting of Tibetan literature from the 8th century to the 20th in India and its dispatch to USA.

To summarize, according to the bilateral agreement (primarily based on the LOC Farmington plan) a certain number of copies of every book published in India were sent to the Library of congress which would then distribute them to designated libraries. The work actually started at the Sheila Theater building in N Delhi in 1962. To read how the University of Chicago handled this deluge of books from India, read this voluminous account.

It is interesting to note how people react to the same thing. While US librarians were ecstatic about the books, the people who handled it complained of smelly books, allergy and what not. The OHS conducted a study and found that imagination was largely at play in these accusations. See the full report if interested. However on a personal note I must admit that some of our books do smell and can cause allergic reactions at times, especially old moldy books.

Isn’t it all ironic, the connections between Congress, PL 480, America, books, Tibetan culture and the congress grass weed! Today India is the third largest English books producing country in the world and fully self sufficient, and an exporter of food. In the end, this turned out to be a planned expenditure of Indian Rupees from the US embassy account on behalf of the Library of Congress, not a repayment in anyway.

1. The effects of PL 480 – A nice paper
2. Annayya’s story – About the Indian who discovered the East’s literary treasures in the West (thanks to PL480) and the University Library – Chicago.
3. To see some communications between Kissinger & President Nixon, click here
4. India and the United States - Dennis Kux
5. UC North Carolina account on the book acquisition
6. Building a World-Class Asian Collection – Library of Congress