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Open Letter To Prime Minister

Open Letter To Prime Minister

Dear Shri Narendra Modiji,

Your decision to do away with reservation of two seats in the Lok Sabha for Anglo-Indians has made me sad. I am sure many others, too, would have been saddened. It was a commitment leaders like Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Speaker Ananthasayanam Ayyangar and the architect of the Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar, had given to the community leaders like Frank Anthony while drafting the Constitution. 

True, the reservation was initially for a period of 20 years. The same was true about reservation for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes as well. Both reservations would have, after several extensions, ended in 2020. As a political animal, you knew that it would be too risky to even think of abolishing reservation of seats for the SC and ST communities.

You also knew that there would not even be a whimper of protest from the people about ending nomination of two Anglo-Indians to the Lok Sabha. I remember that when you first came to power at the Centre in 2014, you took quite a while to fill the nominated seats. You finally found two from the community worthy of nomination.

You might have thought of dropping the provision of nomination because you realised that electorally Anglo-Indians were not a force to reckon with except in some municipal wards in places like Mumbai, Kolkata, Ranchi and Kollam.

That is precisely why the Constitution provided the facility of nomination. Till today, only one Anglo-Indian has got elected to Parliament. That was possible only because Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee found in  Derek O’Brien, the famous quiz master, a worthy candidate. 

A correct reading of the Constitution implies that the term “Anglo-Indian“ is a misnomer. The dictionary defines Anglo-Indians “as of mixed British and Indian parentage”. However, the term the Constitution uses is “European”, not British. The first Anglo-Indians are, therefore, descendants of the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to come to India, that is more than five centuries ago.

When the British first came to India for business, they found that bringing their spouses was a costly affair. Many of them found that life in India, particularly during the summer months, was very tough. Most of the hill stations like Shimla, Dalhousie, Nilgiri and Ootty were developed by the British to escape the heat in the plains. 

The East India Company encouraged its men to look for brides in India. They either married Indian women or kept them as concubines. “A man who in England would have lived soberly and respectably, as a lawyer or civil servant should, acquired in Calcutta the vices of the aristocracy; he learnt to keep a mistress, to give large parties“, writes Philip Mason in  The Men Who Ruled India

Their descendants are usually called Anglo-Indians. At one time, they numbered more than the British in India. Unfortunately, they were looked down upon by the caste-conscious Indians. They were called “Anglo-Indians, Eurasians, cheechees, half-castes, eight-annas, blacky-whites” etc. The British also did not encourage them; they merely tolerated them.

Indians suspected their loyalty. The British made good use of their suspicion to keep them on tenterhooks. They were not given high positions in the government. They were recruited for low-level positions and they were barred from clubs. The British knew that Anglo-Indians stood aloof from the natives. 

Making full use of this alienation, they recruited Anglo-Indians in large numbers to run the Railways. In fact, the post of engine driver was almost reserved for them. Others were recruited only if no Anglo-Indians were available. Similarly, when the Telegraph department was set up and its network expanded, the British depended on them to run it.

They were the first to learn the Morse Code, an alphabet or code in which letters are represented by combinations of long and short light or sound signals. Messages, called telegrams, were transmitted using this Code. The British trusted Anglo-Indians so much that they were recruited to the Telegraph department in large numbers. CIDs, as  police detectives were known once, were also from the ranks of the Anglo-Indians. Thanks to one of them, we know what actually transpired between Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Narayana Guru when they met.

Anglo-Indians were spread all over the country, most of them living close to railway stations. The first time I saw them as a group was when I went on an excursion to Thangasery in Kollam in Kerala to see the Light House there. That was the first time I saw elderly women wearing frocks. 

One question that came to my mind was: “Are they Indians or foreigners?” I heard them speaking English to their children. I was too young to know about Anglo-Indians and their culture.

Kollam was a major railway centre at that time, which explained why they were there. Those who have seen Raj Kapoor’s block-buster movie  Bobby, released in 1973, would remember that the story was based on an Anglo-Indian girl, acted by Dimple Kapadia, and her love for a rich boy, acted by Rishi Kapoor. It was a trend-setting movie. I was lucky that I could see the film the day it was released in Bombay, now Mumbai.

A year later, I saw the Malayalam movie  Chattakari (One who wears a frock), based on Pamman’s novel by the same title at the open-air Rabeendra Rangasala in New Delhi. It was the story of an Anglo-Indian girl, acted by Lakshmi, who was seduced by a Hindu boy, acted by Mohan Sharma. An illegitimate child was born to them. The film was a great success but actor Mohan faded out of the movie world soon thereafter.

I had an Anglo-Indian colleague when I shifted to Patna and joined  The Searchlight. She was Patricia Gough, who was secretary to the editor, the late R.K. Mukker. She also did some reporting. When  The Week was started, editor TVR Shenoy appointed her as the weekly’s stringer in Patna. Her mother was the secretary to the principal of a leading Catholic school. She lost her father, who worked in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), at a young age.

The family migrated to Perth in Australia. Unfortunately, her younger sister contracted a debilitating disease, forcing the family to shift her to a special home. Patricia did her best to acquire new qualifications and get a good job there but she had to remain satisfied with clerical jobs. 

When her friend, an Australian professor, came to Delhi to encourage Indian students to take admission to various courses in his university, she sent me a carton of Rothmans cigarettes through him. Poor Patricia did not know that I had given up smoking a few years earlier. My colleagues at the Hindustan Times made good use of the gift.

The last I heard about her was that she also contracted the same disease that debilitated her sister. She wrote some stories for  The Week from Australia but when an editor from India went there, she did not have the financial capacity to entertain him and take him around the country. That, she believed, spoiled her career.

It was from Patricia that I first heard about McCluskieganj in what is now Jharkhand. She had some of her relatives living there. I visited the area once on a visit to Ranchi. A small, wayside railway station links the township, known as “Little England”, with Ranchi. It had lost much of its glory when I visited McCluskieganj in the mid-eighties. It is the result of a single man’s dream like Jamshedpur in the same state.

E.T. McCluskie was the son of an Indian mother and an Irish father. He visualised a large township where Anglo-Indians could live together and lead a sequestered life. After all, they did not have any place to call their own, except the railway colonies where many of them lived. After months of searching, McCluskie leased in perpetuity 4050 hectares from the Raja of Ratu on a branch line of the main railway link between Calcutta and Delhi.

The original settlement was called Erin’s Isle because its shape resembled Ireland. McCluskie died in 1936 without ever seeing his dream fulfilled. His bungalow, situated on a hill overlooking the railway line, is still an attraction for tourists. Soon after his death, Anglo-Indians were enthused by his idea of having a township they could call their own. Within a few years nearly 100 homesteads came up there. At its peak, McCluskieganj had about 300 families living there.

The settlers had no experience in agriculture, as they were mostly government or railway employees. What struck at the root of McCluskieganj was the British decision to leave India to Indians. When they finally left for England in 1947, the Anglo-Indians felt orphaned. There were about 4,00,000 of them at that time. Many of them migrated to the US, Britain, Canada and Australia because they believed that they could not cope with the post-British situation in the country. McCluskieganj became a skeleton of its former self.

When the Constituent Assembly discussed their problems, Frank Anthony argued that there should be a provision in the Constitution to ensure that they are heard in Parliament and state legislatures. I am sure your secretariat will be able to get you copies of his speeches in support of reservation for Anglo-Indians.

Actually, reservation pre-existed the Constitution. Let me quote from John Masters’ famous novel “Bhowani Junction” which deals with the problems of the Anglo-Indians. A movie based on the novel, written in 1946, and with the same title became a great hit.

“Sir Meredith Sullivan was the most important Anglo-Indian there was. He had started as a railwayman, of course, but now he was a member of the Legislative Assembly in New Delhi, and the King Emperor had made him a knight, which everyone said was as a compliment to all of us, not just to him. He was like the leader of the Anglo-Indians—the way the chief of a clan is in Scotland“.

What this implies is that the reservation was a continuation of a process the British had started. John Masters did not tell anyone which railway station Bhowani Junction was modelled after. However, it is believed that Bhowani Junction was actually Jhansi Junction.

Since you claim to have sold tea at a railway station, I am tempted to quote a description of Bhowani Junction. It is also quite instructive of the situation that prevailed in the country at that time:

“A row of doorways opened off the platform into the various rooms, and a sign hung out over each door, saying what the room was for: Station Master; Assistant Station Master; Telegraphs; Way Out; Booking Office; No Admittance; Refreshment Room, European; Refreshment Room, Muslim; Refreshment Room, Hindu, Vegetarian; Refreshment Room, Hindu, Non-Vegetarian; First-Class Waiting Room; Second-Class Waiting Room; Third-Class Waiting Room; Ladies’ Waiting Room—what we always called the Purdah Room”.

Such classifications may no longer be prevalent at railway stations but they are there in our minds. That is why some people get angry when the rapists belong to a particular religion, not otherwise.

Ever since India became a Republic, there was never a government at the Centre without a Christian member. The community produced eminent ministers like John Mathai, who did not need a chit of paper to rattle off government’s budgetary allocations, and a speaker like PA Sangma. 

So far, you have not found any Christian, including your own MP, KJ Alphons alias Alphons Kannanthanam, worthy of a ministerial post. 

Now, you want to close an opportunity to be heard for the Anglo-Indians whose contributions in the fields of defence, sports, education and healthcare need to be written in golden letters. In doing so, you are, alas, proving right MA Jinnah’s notorious prediction that in India, the minorities would eventually be marginalised and would go unrepresented even in Parliament and state legislatures. What a pity!

Yours etc

( ajphilip@gmail.com)

(Published on 09th December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 50)