Kavalam Madhavan Pannikar was one of the more interesting characters of twentieth-century India. He was a well regarded novelist in his native Malayalam, and an influential historian in English. Perhaps the best known of his books is Asia and Western Dominance, which dealt with what he termed ‘the Vasco Da Gama epoch of Asian history’.
As it happens, for Pannikar writing was but a secondary career. For he was a public official of distinction, working as an adviser to the princes before Independence. The Maharaja of Patiala, on whose staff he served, liked him so much that he gave him the honorary title of ‘Sardar’. His intelligence also attracted the attention of Jawaharlal Nehru, who, after 1947, sent him
as our first Ambassador to China.
I first came across the name of Pannikar about twenty-five years ago, in the pages of the autobiography of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin. (He features there as the teller of one of the best stories in what is a most lively and amusing book.) More recently, while working on a history of independent India, I have encountered Pannikar playing roles good and bad. An example of the former is his advice, as Dewan, to the Maharaja of Bikaner to join the Constituent Assembly in the first months of 1947. As a historian, Pannikar could see that the forces of nationalism were irresistible; if the princes did not compromise with the Congress, they would be swept away. Rather than fantasize about ‘independence’, said Pannikar to his boss, it would be wise to join India, and advise his fellow Maharajas to do likewise. As the civil servant and scholar Penderel Moon pointed out at the time, Pannikar and Bikaner had ‘led the Rajput princes in a fresh act of traditional obeisance to Delhi, where in place of Mogul or British, a Pandit now rules. They have made a compact with Congress—probably, from their point of view, rightly.’ After Bikaner and company, dozens of other princes also joined India, thus adding to the value of that original change of heart.
However, Pannikar’s work as Indian Ambassador to China was less wholesome. When, in 1949, the Kuomintang were overthrown by the Communists, India retained him to indicate continuity. In May 1950, Pannikar was granted an interview with Mao Zedong, and came away greatly impressed. Mao’s face, he wrote, was ‘pleasant and benevolent and the look in his eyes is kindly’. There ‘is no cruelty or hardness either in his eyes or in the expression of his mouth. In fact he gave me the impression of a philosophical mind, a little dreamy but absolutely sure of itself’. The Chinese leader had ‘experienced many hardships and endured tremendous sufferings’, yet ‘his face showed no signs of bitterness, cruelty or sorrow’. Mao reminded Pannikar of his own boss, Nehru, for ‘both are men of action with dreamy, idealistic temperaments’, and both ‘may be considered humanists in the broadest sense of the term’.
This would be laughable if it were not so serious. The intellectual has always had a curious fascination for the man of power; George Bernard Shaw wrote about Lenin in much the same terms. Yet Shaw was an unaffliated writer, responsible only to himself. Pannikar was the official representative of his Government. What he said and believed would carry considerable weight. And here he was representing one of history’s most ruthless dictators as a dreamy, soft, poetic, kind of chap. Indeed, Pannikar’s advice in those early years led Nehru and the Government of India to seriously underestimate the Chinese.
One for Pannikar, one against. Let me now turn to what must be one of his least remembered initiatives, as a member of the States Reorganization Commission of 1955. That Commission put the official seal on the reorganization of India on linguistic lines. But, tucked away in an appendix to the main report, is a minute of dissent offering a recommendation that was never implemented.
The minute was written by K. M. Pannikar, and it suggested that the state of Uttar Pradesh be broken up into two more-or less equal parts. This, he argued, was necessary for efficient administration and, more crucially, in the interests of a stable national polity. Pannikar pointed out that it was ‘essential for the successful working of a federation that the units should be fairly evenly balanced. 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 country’. For ‘it would be easy to see that this preponderant influence which would accrue to a very large unit could be abused, and would in any case be resented by all the other constituent units. Modern governments are controlled, to a lesser or greater extent, by party machines, within which the voting power of a numerically strong group goes a very long way’. Thus, as things stood, the state of Uttar Pradesh was ‘in a position to exercise an unduly large measure of political influence’.
As it has indeed done. Six of free India’s first seven Prime Ministers have come from Uttar Pradesh. It was the ‘UP bloc’ within the Congress that effectively ran the party for the first twenty years after Independence. Not long after Pannikar’s warnings, this bloc made its impact felt in his native Kerala. When Jawaharlal Nehru hesitated in dismissing the first Communist government in that state, he was persuaded to do so by U. P. Congressmen, thus setting a precedent for the too-hasty use of Article 356.
Uttar Pradesh continues to exercise a disproportionate influence on Indian politics. It is, by common consent, one of the most backward states in the country: backward economically, but also socially and culturally. Yet by sending as many as eighty M. P.’s to the Lok Sabha it can virtually shape the future of India. This is tragic, not least because the agenda of U. P. is not necessarily the agenda of the rest of India.
Consider here the politics of the parties that matter in the U. P.. On the one hand, there are the B. S. P. and the S. P., who stoke the animosities of caste in their bids to capture a majority of the seats in the State. On the other hand, there is the B. J. P., which over the past twenty years has expanded its base by playing on religious fanaticism. (It is no accident that the president of its U. P. unit is Vinay Katiyar, a man who can make Narendra Modi sound reasonable.) Now, when that strategy has exhausted its potential, the B. J. P. compete with the S. P. in trying to please the ulema and thereby capture the Muslim vote. For its part, the Congress has attempted to arrest its decline in the U. P. by sending out the latest representative of the party’s ruling family. Caste prejudice, religious chauvnism, the charisma of ‘royalty’—these, and not development or governance, are what dominate the rhetoric of elections in the State. These forms of reactionary politics are impelled by the simple fact that the domination of U. P. is the safest route to the domination of India.
As K. M. Pannikar argued long ago, when a single unit contains some 20 % of a federation’s population, it does not bode well for its functioning. There is little question that the division of U. P. into two (or more) equal units would be beneficial for India. And, I submit, it shall be beneficial to the people of the U. P. as well. For the smaller the State, the more accessible the politicians and officials, and the greater the attention paid to education, health, and employment generation—that is, to the things that should mean far more to people’s lives than the building of Ram temples or Ambedkar statues.