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Will They Swing the Thick Stick?

Martin Pugh

I spent 1969 to 1971 on Voluntary Service Overseas as a Lecturer in European History at the Aligarh Muslim University in India. It was an exciting time politically as Indira Gandhi, the prime minister, had entered her radical phase provoking much controversy within the Congress Party. She nationalized the banks and de-recognized the Indian princes. So, for example, India’s Muslim cricket captain, who enjoyed a princely title as the Nawab of Pataudi, now officially became known as Mansur Ali Khan.

The resulting general election proved very lively at Aligarh, where the Congress, which consistently embraced all India’s religious communities, nominated a Muslim candidate. But Indian parliamentary constituencies are very large, and although the town of Aligarh contained many Muslims, it included the surrounding rural districts where many Hindus lived. Polling was spread over several days as it used to be in Britain up to 1918—and for the same reason; if only some areas voted at a time, it was easier for the police to transfer resources to constituencies where disturbances broke out. On the first day of polling when Aligarh town voted, it was generally concluded that the Congress candidate was winning comfortably. The anti-Congress forces saw only one way to stop him. In the bazaars it was always easy to incite communal conflict by causing damage or setting a fire to some Hindu shops for which Muslims could be blamed. In this way some serious rioting broke out in the town itself, which had the effect of provoking Hindus in the rural districts and enabling the anti-Congress forces to mobilize them to reject the Muslim candidate, who duly lost the election.

Unfortunately the rioting became so serious that the authorities adopted a technique employed in the British period in order to restore order: a curfew. Initially the curfew was a total twenty-four-hour affair. Then it was lifted for one hour a day to enable people to come out and conduct their business. If there was no violence, it was extended to two hours and so on, but everyone was to be off the streets when the curfew started or risk being beaten by the police. After some time people who lived outside the area subject to curfew took to visiting the town center to view the damage. One afternoon I accompanied some Muslim students at their invitation. Unfortunately we misjudged the time it would take to tour the town and narrowly failed to leave the designated area before the curfew came to an end. As the deadline approached, we could see clearly the line drawn by the police several hundred yards away; we were clearly going to miss it.

Now the Indian police carry a formidable thick stick called a “lathi,” which they use freely to encourage people to move on. The Muslim students expected to be beaten on the backside as they passed through the police line. But it was not this that interested them: it was whether the police would beat me too. In the event we crossed the line slightly late, but no one wielded the lathi on us. Did this restraint reflect a concern to avoid any further provocation by the police? Or was it a faint echo of pre-1947 respect for Europeans? Speculation continued inconclusively all the way back to the university. However, the curfew proved to be a success in restoring order in Aligarh. Meanwhile Indira Gandhi triumphed over her critics in the Congress, won the election overall, and continued her program of radical reform.

Martin Pugh is a historian of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Britain, and was formerly professor of modern British history at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His publications include State and Society and The Pankhursts.

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