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When protests were not about fuss

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : May 4, 2019, 12:43 am IST
Updated : May 4, 2019, 12:43 am IST

Students in the US and UK have protested against what they contend is the lack of women or black writers in the syllabus.

Cambridge University (Photo: AFP)
 Cambridge University (Photo: AFP)

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown
So take the damn thing off before lying down?

Cambridge University, prompted by the activity of students in universities to expunge ghosts of the guilty past, has bravely announced that it has appointed a professorial team to ascertain whether the university profited in any way from slavery.

Last year Oxford students, some of them Rhodes scholars, made a fuss about pulling down the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Students in the US and UK have protested against what they contend is the lack of women or black writers in the syllabus. The insistence of down-with-the-likes-of-Shakespeare-and-Dickens-and-other-dead-white-males, to be replaced by the works of Benjamin Zephaniah and Maya Angelou, is a common contemporary campus sentiment.

Are there movements in music faculties to replace Bach, Mozart and Beethoven with the dulcet compositions of Louis Armstrong or even the Spice Girls? If so, they should note that Spices were the commodity that gave rise to Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism in Indonesia and India and hence adopting/colonising the name is an act of cultural appropriation. May I suggest that to avoid opprobrium from Indonesians and Indians the re-formed band should adopt a romantic British name and call themselves the Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme Girls. One herbal name for each, in place of being nicknamed Nasty or Pasty Spice as they were dubbed in their heydays.

In my short and happy undergraduate years in Pembroke College, Cambridge, there wasn’t a whisper of any of these objections or objectives. We foreign students were in awe of the institution to which we had been admitted and wouldn’t dream of venturing to ask whether the Earls of Pembroke who had founded the college had profited in any century from the slave trade. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, the only Indian student in my college year, to think of whether patrons of Pembroke had made money in Bengal. I missed that trick and the notoriety that might have ensued.

During my first encounter with Mr Meredith Dewey, my “moral tutor”, he casually asked if I was happy with my room on V staircase. I said I was very content. He said it was one of those with central heating, adding that the college took care to assign all the “wogs” to warm rooms. I had never heard the word before but assumed it meant the non-Britishers. I asked my stair-mate what the word meant and Beresford Summers told me, mysteriously grinning the while, that it was short for “Worthy Oriental Gentlemen”.

I thought nothing of it. Another trick I missed. Today, I would have had Mr Dewey for racist abuse and blackmailed him with the threat of reporting it. Not that Mr Dewey had an ounce of patronisation or racist intent, but now that the revolution is about verbal pronouncements, however non-malicious, that assessment wouldn’t count.

I do remember protesting as a student and actively after. In my time at Cambridge the protests, demonstrations and heated debates were not about whether some book contained this or that word. Neither was it about Indians demanding that the name of Churchill College be changed because Churchill had opposed giving Independence to the Indian subcontinent while having sent millions of Indians to their death in defence of Britain in the two World Wars. Also, he wasn’t very nice about the Mahatma.

It never occurred to the Indians in Cambridge at the time, though I am sure if this article reaches those at that university today, it may give them ideas.

Our protests were against America invading Vietnam, about the Greek colonels who had instituted a neo-fascist regime being allowed into Britain, against the coup by America against the Chilean socialist government.

We may have objected to being called “wogs” when we realised that the word was derogatory and we might have punched someone in the teeth for insulting us with it, but we didn’t call demonstrations against petty linguistic transgression. I am certain I shall be told that we lacked sensitivity and that having anything thicker than a translucent skin and a victim complex that equates being called “coloured” to a criminal deprivation of one’s social and political rights means that we were collaborators.

At my second British university in Leicester, being compelled by racist landlords to rent a room in the Asian district of the city where I was more than happy, I took up with members of the Indian Workers’ Association. They were by and large Punjabis working shifts in Midland factories. The activism I joined in was manifestly non-historical, in that we didn’t spend our time enquiring whether any endowments of the past had come to Leicester through the East India Company or through the slave trade. We were busy administering strikes in factories where there was clear discrimination against and maltreatment of the immigrant workforce. We desegregated pubs in which Asians weren’t served before we sat in, 300-strong and persuaded the landlord that profit was better than racist prejudice.

Later in my early London years I was part of organisations that picketed courts, fought the police when they formed the front line to defend manifest injustice and protested to free the innocent from jails.

Later I was part of the formation of vigilante groups to put an end to the vile practice of random assaults on Asians known as “Paki-bashing”. It worked. The bashing stopped. The same organisation squatted hundreds of Bangladeshi families in the East End of London and through this tactic forced the government to legally house that community.  

Protest was not linguistic. We weren’t looking for safe spaces as the world which we found ourselves in had none. No attitude-striking on campus would change that. I think I know when but I am still wondering why the fight through activity, even as feeble as pamphleteering and demonstrating, turned into the mission to complain — a self-satisfying indulgence in a world full of injustice.

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