As noted last time, through its strategy – deliberate or not – of eloquent silence, ‘Demons of the Punjab’ almost says that Partition represents the British in India killing millions. It establishes that the British are the ones drawing lines and then running away. Later, the Thijarians say “Millions will die.” The episode aligns the parts of a statement… but never quite joins them up.
In a way this is fair enough, since the statement it never quite makes is both true and an oversimplification. Like many simple truths, it is one important part of a complex reality. It is true that the British authorities didn’t mean to cause the horrors of Partition, didn’t themselves take part in the atrocities, and didn’t foresee them. It is true that most of the violence was committed by Indians attacking other Indians. It is true that there has been – both before and after Partition – plenty of violence between Hindus, Muslims, and the other ethnicities in India. It is true that intractable political arguments and gameplay between the Indian parties – mainly Congress and the Muslim League – helped stymie British attempts to avoid Partition. It is true that the Muslims had real and understandable concerns about their future in a Hindu-dominated independent India, not least because of fascistic Hindu movements, with which some upper-caste Hindus in the nationalist movement had ties. Such fascistic elements were involved in organising the violence of Partition as we saw last time.
(Sadly, India today is still cursed with such things. India’s current Prime Minister, Modi, is the authoritarian leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, and a member of the BJP’s ‘core cadre’, the right-wing paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). There are terrifying concerns about the rise of state-sponsored, racist, right-wing authoritarianism in India today that most of us here in the West have, with Eurocentric purblindness, failed to pay enough attention to as we gaze with horror at our domestic monsters as if they’re the only ones that matter. For more about the RSS, their foundational role in Modi’s politics, their involvement in the violence of Partition, and their connections to Congress, please see here. I’m indebted for this link, and for other suggestions, to TobermorianSass via the ever-wonderful Sam Keeper.)
All that being said, it is also the case that the explosion of violence and displacement in Partition was foreseeable, and that the inevitability was there for the British to see and understand, had they only cared to do so, or ever bothered to install a proper government in India, as opposed to a vast system of bureaucracy designed to give lucrative careers to English public school boys. Mountbatten – a well-meaning but vain and ostentatious man who made a fetish of decisiveness – recklessly brought forward the date of Partition by about ten months so that it would happen on the anniversary of him accepting the surrender of Japanese forces in Asia. Even so, the timetable he was given was already rushed. Economically exhausted by war, the British wanted out. The lines drawn across the maps were drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British civil servant who knew nothing about India before he went there, for the first time in his life, to improvise the creation of two new countries by carving it into pieces. The exact lines of demarcation were not published until after the formation of Pakistan and independence of India had been announced, leaving millions of people unsure where their homes would end up, and whether they should flee, and where to flee to if they did. Little provision was made to enable, or even safeguard, the mass migration that was, up until the last moment, unforeseen. A humanitarian catastrophe ensued. Partition killed somewhere between a million and two million people. We’re unsure of the numbers largely because most of them were poor.
More deeply, you cannot understand Partition without reference to the British Empire’s near-200 year domination of India. Even Partition itself was given a dry-run in 1905 when the British Viceroy at the time – Lord Curzon – attempted to partition Bengal largely across lines of religion. The people of Bengal at the time were mostly horrified.
During their rule of India the British had impoverished, deindustrialised, and looted the country. (‘Loot’ is actually a Hindi word, itself part of our loot.)
By the way, in response to a question someone raised about my first post on ‘Demons’… when I say that the British ‘deindustrialised’ India, I don’t mean imply that pre-colonial India had industry in the modern sense. The pre-colonial Indian textile industry that the British destroyed was based on the hand looms that Gandhi made the symbol of Indian independence. Even so, it was a thriving trade, and Indian textiles had long been the envy of the world. As Shashi Tharoor points out, India could have transitioned into the global Industrial Revolution by buying into it, as other places did. The chance was denied them. As he pithily puts it: “We missed the bus because you threw us under it.”
British policy, based on capitalist dogma and racism, caused and/or exacerbated a sequence of unnecessary famines that killed – by some estimates – 35 million Indians. Tharoor has called it, with justice, the “British Colonial Holocaust”.
By the way… it seems appropriate, given that Winston Churchill is canonically one of the Doctor’s best friends, to point out that he was personally responsible for letting as many as 4.4 million people (by some estimates) starve to death in the Bengal Famine of 1943-44. To quote Shashi Tharoor again:
Nothing can excuse the odious behaviour of Winston Churchill, who deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers and even to top up European stockpiles in Greece and elsewhere. ‘The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious’ than that of ‘sturdy Greeks’, he argued. Grain for the Tommies, bread for home consumption in Britain (27 million tonnes of imported grains, a wildly excessive amount), and generous buffer stocks in Europe (for yet-to-be-liberated Greeks and Yugoslavs) were Churchill’s priorities, not the life or death of his Indian subjects. When reminded of the suffering of his victims his response was typically Churchillian: The famine was their own fault, he said, for ‘breeding like rabbits’. When officers of conscience pointed out in a telegram to the prime minister the scale of the tragedy caused by his decisions, Churchill’s only reaction was to ask peevishly: ‘why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’
“I hate Indians,” Churchill once said, “They’re a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Just the one? But Winston was persistently ignorant about the people he hated with such a passion that colleagues – themselves hardly free of prejudice – thought him “not quite normal” on the subject. When Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander in South East Asia at the time (if Prem and Kunal had been real they’d have been ultimately serving under him), made 10% of his supplies available to be sent to Bengal to help relieve the famine, Churchill reduced his supplies by 10%.
It’s odd that Chomsky should say that Kissinger’s “everything that flies on anything that moves” remark is as close as we get to an explicit call for genocide in an official document, when we have the papery proof of Churchill’s connivance in allowing the Bengal Famine. These days, British citizens descended from people who suffered and died in the Bengal Famine have to see Winston’s face every time they handle a five pound note.
Genocidal, racist mass-murderer though he was, Churchill was just one morbid symptom of a much bigger and longer-lasting sickness.
Throughout the colonial period, the British subjected Indians to systematised, institutionalised racist abuse, oppression, discrimination, exclusion, exploitation, humiliation, and insult. The British are often credited with having given India ‘law and order’. It’s true that the British instituted an Indian Penal Code which, for good or ill, is still the basis of law in India today. It’s also true that this law was imposed without Indian consent, overwritten on top of older legal traditions, and practiced with racist favouritism built into it. Things haven’t changed much in this world: back then the official line was one of fairness and equality, with some people grumbling (in their terms) about “political correctness gone mad” whenever Queen Victoria spoke about justice for all her subjects, whatever their colour or creed, while the facts on the ground belied such pieties.
The British Empire used the people of India as troops, and fought wars – including the two World Wars – that they would never have been able to fight had it not been for vast quantities of Indian soldiers, Indian casualties, Indian money, Indian resources. The Viceroy at the time of the outbreak of World War Two, Lord Linlithgow, simply declared that India was at war with Germany without consulting its people. The British kindasorta promised the Indians self-rule (Dominion status, as ‘white’ colonies had been granted) if they fought for the empire during World War One, and then reneged on it afterwards. This despite the enormous contribution Indian troops made. Indeed, far from extending Indian freedom after the Great War, the British did the opposite, instituting the extremely repressive Rowlatt Act, which prolongated wartime restructions on freedom of speech and assembly, etc. The British outlawed and crushed protest against these post-war betrayals. This led to the infamous Amritsar massacre, just one of the more famous examples of many, in which General Reginald Dyer slaughtered perhaps as many as a thousand civilians, including women and children, who were celebrating a festival despite a restriction on public gatherings. Kipling described Dyer as “the man who saved India”. The British public took up a collection for him.
The British brutally repressed resistance all the way through the history of the Raj. They suppressed attempts at unified struggle between different groups with special savagery – particularly after the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857, a huge revolt which unified insurgents across ethnic and religious lines. For instance, Hindus and Muslims fought together, served under each others commanders, and cooperated to put a Muslim Mughal ruler back on the throne in the old Mughal capital Delhi. This filled the British with terror. The atrocities of the insurgents were greatly exaggerated in the British press but some were undoubtedly horrific. The reports led two eminent Victorians to instructively divergent responses. The beloved bourgeois humanitarian Charles Dickens fantasised in a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts about exterminating the entire Indian race. Karl Marx however, while he undoubtedly got many things wrong about India, and failed to transcend the racism of his milieu, saw the ‘Mutiny’ – atrocities and all – as a result of, and an understandable reaction to, the barbarity of British rule.
Arguably, you cannot understand Partition, in which peoples who had lived intermingled for generations turned upon each other, without understanding that the British had systematically exacerbated, extended, solidified, and institutionalised divisions – economic, ethnic, and ideological – between Indians. They did this over centuries, as part of a conscious policy they called ‘divide et impera’ (divide and rule), and which they modelled on ancient Rome.
This is not to say that India was politically unified and perfectly peaceful before the British, but modern scholarship seems – at least according to Tharoor – to indicate a distinctness about pre-colonial India, despite much division. It was, at least, a basis for something potentially better than what actually happened. India was semi-united by the British empire in one sense, at least for a while – but in a particular way, a way that served them. And, of course, in the long term the ‘unity’ bestowed on India by the British Empire resulted in it splitting into disputatious states engaged in a seemingly perpetual hot and cold war. Indians were not allowed to naturally discover their own form of modern political unity, despite brave attempts in the face of domination and repression by their coloniser. Similarly, it is often claimed that the British gave India liberal democracy, and again this is true in a sense… but this was in spite of the empire’s intense resistance to allowing Indians any real freedom. It is truer to say that many Indians tried to adopt and claim for themselves the lofty liberal and democratic ideals that the British spouted but rarely practiced when it came to Indians.
The British invented racial differences using 19th century imperial racial ‘science’, categorizing the Indians into subgroups of an innate distinctness previously unimagined. They fantasised ‘martial races’ among the Indians who would be more loyal, and populated the Indian army with them. They extended privileges to compliant rulers, classes, groups, etc, which separated them socially from their compatriots. They used the techniques of the census and the map to classify and categorise people; reifying, exaggerating, or just plain inventing cultural, geographic, and racial divisions which they then treated as inborn and impermeable. They rigidified caste distinctions which, in pre-colonial times, could be fuzzy and malleable. They did the same with religion, stoking divisions between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc, often sponsoring and supporting one group against another when it suited their purposes. They supported and sponsored the Muslim League as a way to diminish the ability of Congress to unify Indians against British rule. Congress has originally been a pluralist party with members and even leaders who weren’t Hindus. The British authorities played the religious groups and parties off against each other, until divisions and mistrust were rampant.
The British do not, of course, bear exclusive responsibility. Nothing is ever that simple, and moral and political clarity about the culpability of the British doesn’t require us to absolve Indians to the point where they become pure, perfect, and passive victims. (It is, by the way, perfectly understandable that modern Indians, and people of Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi descent, might want to emphasize their own peoples’ historic mistakes, and thus retake ownership of their own history, rather than engage in endless bitterness and blame towards the British, to the exclusion of all else. Similarly, I am also choosing to emphasize certain things over others for my own reasons. Arguably one should always clean one’s own house first.) Both Congress and the Muslim League could be intractable, and played politics. Congress failed to grant sufficient concessions to ensure Muslim safety and a degree of self-determination as a (large) minority in an inevitably Hindu-dominated united and independent India. Both sides sometimes betrayed and suppressed resistance from below in which working class activity – strikes and mutinies – saw workers and sailors etc joining forces across lines of religion. This was because neither were ultimately really parties of the working people, and both had eyes on their own power. For instance, despite Gandhi’s image as a man of the poor, and Nehru’s left-orientation, both they and Congress were backed by Indian landlords and capitalists.
But then both Congress and the League were working within a system essentially designed by the British. When, at long last, the British were forced to begin to grant some measure of democracy in India, they did so in such a way as to both ensure their own continued power and their policy of ‘divide et impera’. The franchise they extended was relatively small, and regional so that the Viceroy’s power at the centre was untouched. And – crucially – they kept the Muslims and Hindus divided into separate electorates, with Muslims only able to vote for Muslim candidates, and Hindus likewise only able to vote for Hindu candidates. In my admittedly amateur opinion, the separate electorates are among the biggest contributing factors to ultimately creating Partition.
[Re: my sources… again, I recommend Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire. Tharoor can be found giving a speech, in which he condenses his argument down succinctly here. As I said last time, I have my differences with Tharoor. His liberal establishment politics do not accord perfectly with mine, to put it mildly. Even so, the case he builds against British imperialism in India is devastating. Also on YouTube, and far more to my taste, here is Tariq Ali speaking on Partition, and here is Talat Ahmed on the same subject. For information about the resistance to British imperialism, and the British Empire’s repressive response, I recommend John Newsinger’s The Blood Never Dried and Richard Gott’s Britain’s Empire. Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts is also essential reading. As mentioned, I’m indebted to feedback from various people who responded to last week’s post. Errors are mine alone.]
There are Doctor Who stories which take a much harder line on empire, even specifically the British Empire. And yet what do I mean by ‘specific’? ‘The Mutants’ (1972), for instance, obviously directly refers to the British Empire, to British colonialism and its devastating effects, to the exploitation inherent in it, to the racism of the British, to their dogma that the natives need them, and to Britain’s scramble to cut and run when empire became unsustainable, leaving ruin behind them. It is far more specific in that sense, far more all-encompassing, far more overtly angry than ‘Demons of the Punjab’.
I want to be clear: that isn’t a denunciation. As I said in my Presscast, ‘Demons’ must be judged on its own terms, by its decision to focus on a small group of people at the fringes of huge events. This is the episode’s prerogative (so to speak), and it deserves to have that respected. It is an admirable decision in many ways. It gives us the first televised Doctor Who story ever to be set entirely in Asia and to have no European guest characters. That is not to be sniffed at. It focuses on, and represents, people who are criminally unrepresented in our narrative culture industries: poor people of colour, and Asians specifically. Similarly, I can understand why a story about survival, about progress, about reaching ultimate happiness, and not dwelling on the past or wallowing in resentment, might be attractive. Why should the stories of people of colour always have to be about nothing but tragedy? Wouldn’t that be the empire still dominating them? I recently watched Get Out, and I totally get why they went with the unsatisfying ending they did. It was probably the least unsatisfying ending possible, simply by virtue of leaving things open. The other ending – the one I was expecting – might’ve been more savage in its condemnation of white society, but it would’ve offered nothing but defeat yet again, and in the form of an all too familiar sight. So yes, ‘Demons’ has an ending about Umbreen being happy – after the story of her, and people like her, trapped in the middle of a situation they can’t control, but coping. That story has, of necessity, a narrow focus. There are certain things it is choosing not to do.
By contrast, a story outright about the perfidy of the British in India would be yet another story of defeat, and yet another story about rich white people. ‘The Mutants’ is mostly about white people, despite being ‘about’ how the British Empire (and European empires generally) colonised Africa, exploited Africans, and created racist apartheid systems. In ‘The Mutants’, even the black people are, so to speak, played by white people. (Moreover, as we touched upon elsewhere, they are cast as the ‘aliens’ that the ‘humans’ – i.e. the Europeans – encounter on their explorations.) ‘The Mutants’ is, in that sense, completely unspecific. It doesn’t mention Rhodesia or South Africa. It has only one black man in it (still more than most old Who stories have), and he – in what looks like some kind of politically complex semiotic recurve effect – is put among the imperial overlords. While specific in the number of issues and historical realities it refers to, while specific in an overarching sense, while specific in that its subject is European imperialism and the things it actually did, it is also unspecific in that it does so in code, even silently. Like ‘Demons’, it is loudly silent, in the sense that there are certain words and people and places, certain real world things, that it never mentions – but it pointedly raises its own silence about them; it refers to them repeatedly without saying their names aloud.
‘Demons’ and ‘Mutants’ – by which I mean the two distinct narrative strategies they represent – begin to look like mirror images of each other. Both can achieve different kinds of specificity. For convenience we’ll be crude and create a dichotomy between macro and micro specificity. ‘The Mutants’ can be macrospecific, in that it refers to the broad political sweep of the history of imperialism, and its meaning. ‘Demons’ can be microspecific in that it can get us into the homes and lives of specific types of people.
I bet there were people at the time who latched onto ‘The Mutants’ and stuff like it, despite there being hardly anyone who looked or sounded like them in it, despite it saying nothing directly about their lives or pasts, despite it clearly not being aimed at them. They will have done this because they had to, because they didn’t have other options, because it was that or nothing, and because they recognised that, for all the barriers between it and them, it was fundamentally, at least on some level, about them, and about their history. This is what marginalised people do.
There is actually a classic Doctor Who story which touches directly – but again, codedly – on the British exploitation of India. It’s ‘The Sun Makers’ from 1977. Seriously. Often interpreted as a right-wing whinge about the big state and taxation – and that may well be how it started out in the mind of its politically complex writer – the story is also about the East India Company. “The Company,” in the story, is actually an alien conglomerate who have effectively bought out the human race of the future in a hostile takeover. The government of the human colony on Pluto has been privatised. There is no market with competing companies, just a central authority which mercilessly taxes the people, which leads some critics to see the system depicted as ‘socialist’, by which they mean monolithically statist and parasitic via taxation. But, in ‘The Sun Makers’, where the state should be, there is only The Company, except for a layer of police and local governors who report directly to it. And the ‘taxes’ are actually charges for services and goods on which The Company now has a monopoly. The ‘taxes’ are not reinvested in the society in ways which benefit the people beyond making it possible for them to keep working. Rather, they are a way for the Company to get the people they exploit to pay for their own exploitation, plus profit margins. ‘The Sun Makers’ thus manages to not only be a prophecy of neoliberalism (state authoritarianism and increased exploitation of workers in service of increasingly privatised power extending into every corner of life) but also a satire of ‘communism’. That system, still dominating Russia and other such states in 1977, was actually a form of authoritarian and bureaucratic state capitalism in which the state took on the form of a single state capital, and thus also the exploitative role of the capitalist class, extracting surplus from the workers – which is the actual basis of capitalism, not ‘free markets’ or anything like that. The fact that the story can look like both systems at once should tell us a great deal. But we stray from the point. The point I want to make here is that the system in ‘The Sun Makers’ also looks remarkably like the way the East India Company ruled India through the 18th and 19th centuries up to the Mutiny, whereupon the British government took more open and direct control. (By the way, the fact that the system in the story can also look like this, as well as looking like neoliberalism and Stalinism, should tell us even more.)
The East India Company – which was routinely referred to as simply “the Company” – ran India as a business concern, albeit while using military force (written into their charter by Elizabeth I) and backed by British government subsidy. They routinely used torture to extract ‘taxes’. As Shashi Tharoor says, after ending the original system favoured by Robert Clive, of ruling via local ‘nawabs’, the Company set up
a professional cadre of Company servants who were to govern the country for the Company, reserving all high-level posts for the British, and placing Englishmen in charge of each district with the blunt title of ‘Collector’, since collecting revenue was their raison d’etre. The Collector usually exercised the dual function of magistrate in his district. The British thus ran government, tax collection, and administered what passed for justice.
The alien representative of the Company in ‘The Sun Makers’ is called the Collector. His rule is open, only faintly fig leaf-clad by the local Gatherers. Formally, the gathering and collecting is of taxes. Really, we’re talking about company profits. The regime has institutionalised torture to keep itself going.
One of the arguments put forward by those who want to defend British imperialism in India is the idea that India benefited from it materially, in terms of unity, democracy, wealth, facilities, etc. This isn’t the place to go into that in detail (spoiler: it’s bunk) but it needs to be emphasized, as Tharoor does in his book, that the British never gave India anything that wasn’t primarily of benefit to them and their ability to extract profit. For instance, India got a railway system out of the empire. But that railway system was put in place to allow the transportation of troops into the country, to repress resistance, and loot out of the country, across land to ports and away. Like the artificial suns in the Doctor Who story, for which the people must “Praise the Company!”, but which actually just make the working day as long as possible, the railways were a tool of the oppressor rather than a gift to the oppressed. Furthermore, as Tharoor also shows, India was forced to pay for its own colonial domination. Railway building in India was set up as a sort of precursor to our ‘private finance initiatives’, i.e. as a massive scam whereby private investors – British ones, of course – got rich off a scheme bloated with state subsidies.
Stepping over the huge issue of how the hegemonic whiteness of the cast in ‘The Sun Makers’ destabilises the metaphor about colonialism, the interesting issue from our point of view here is how persistently the story has been misunderstood, how little the metaphorical resonances with British imperialism have been noticed.
The problem of allegory has been much discussed. Here I just want to stress that it simultaneously allows greater condemnation and also a kind of vague shiftiness, a possible evasiveness, about what it connects to, and to whom it’s addressed. As we’ve seen, ‘The Mutants’ isn’t aimed at the people who are or were the actual subjects of the colonial history it satirizes. Furthermore, the fact that it is written ‘in code’, so to speak, puts in another layer of separation – not because people won’t ‘get it’ necessarily, but because the great strength of metaphor is its instability, its openness. Allegory, while a kind of metaphor, has become (it wasn’t always that way) a kind of shutting down of possibilities for the purposes of didacticism. The more the metaphor is pinned down to become one-to-one allegory (i.e. Napoleon the pig = Stalin), the more the text looks like a crossword puzzle rather than a living and breathing work of art, and the more it forecloses on possible meanings and interpretations. This can be very satisfying for someone who goes to the text looking for a salutary message that is to their taste. And such things can be valuable political interventions. But they are also foreclosures on possibility. They are statements rather than questions.
There is also the question of register. One of the ways in which Doctor Who has managed to get away with making some fairly incendiary political statements over the years is because it is pitched at children, or at least at families. You’d think that there would be extra-sensitivity about material aimed at children… and, of course, there has been. But it has mainly focused on what will disturb children, or possibly inculcate bad and dangerous habits. This is an entire can of worms all by itself and we won’t get into it here. (It’s been looked at on this site.) But one of the worst ‘bad habits’ that Doctor Who supposedly sometimes taught children was overt mistrust or disrespect for the proper authorities in Britain. Some of the biggest kerfuffles in response to Doctor Who’s alleged surfeit of scariness were about depictions of policemen – or at least people or creatures disguised as policemen – as sinister. It’s telling not only that this triggered an intense response, but that ‘evil cops’ is what it took. The copper’s face coming off to reveal an Auton beneath is what upset people, not the metaphors about the monstrosity of capital itself that the show was doing at the same time. It gets away with the deeper and more radical critique not just because of the ‘codedness’ of metaphor but also because the entire show is pitched at a certain register. It is aimed at – or is at least culturally understood to be aimed at – children. These days people are more aware of political metaphors even in children’s fiction. In the eras spanned by classic Who there was much less popular awareness of, or conversation about, such things. This being the case it is only to be expected that the even-further-out-of-touch establishment – in the BBC hierarchy, the mainstream media, conservative watchdogs, educational authorities, MPs, etc – would miss it totally.
But this itself raises questions that are not easily answered. If a political metaphor happens in the forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Do the kids understand that they’re watching a metaphor and/or a satire? I’d hesitate to say they don’t. Kids are often far more astute in their appreciation of art than adults, because they haven’t yet had loads of filters installed in their heads. Even so, there’s going to be an extent to which the specificity of the metaphor is lost, because they lack knowledge with which to connect the metaphor. Some of them will acquire such knowledge, but it will often be ideologically slanted and thus distorted, and many of them will be deprived of it by unjust lack of access to education. Metaphors which are not open to some children (or some adults for that matter) are inherently politically distorted in favour of the status quo, whatever their actual content. One of the aims of classic Doctor Who, at the start, was… well, not so much to address this imbalance in a direct way, but to do so indirectly by universalising access to knowledge via popular entertainment for children. This is the utopian strain in Reithian paternalism, a form of elitism repurposed by social democracy.
And then there is the question of whether such educative purposes in art are themselves a form of foreclosure upon the openness of reading. Isn’t there a value, especially in a utilitarian capitalist world that thinks things only have worth if they are profitable and thus subject to market strictures and disciplines, in the very purposeless? In art with a multiplicity of possible purposes and meanings? Art for the sake of that kind of delight alone? And yet isn’t all narrative art, all fiction, fundamentally about questions of justice? Isn’t that the central social act of reading? To imagine oneself in the place of the characters and to question their actions, via your own history and intuitions, in social and thus inherently political situations? To ask if this or that action is just, and if so – or if not – what that means? Isn’t it mistaken to imagine you can take that out of narrative art? Isn’t the project of trying to do so inherently political? Inherently conservative, even?
What you lose in the literalism, the specificity, you gain in the focus on the normally forgotten. What you gain in the openness of metaphor, you lose in the directness and the opportunity to remember actual people. But, socially embedded and contingent as they are, both strategies are ‘lossy’. And it isn’t even as schematic as I’ve suggested. There is a sense in which ‘Demons’ is attempting to merge the two approaches. We get clearly metaphorical aliens in the middle of a non-metaphorical story… or at least, a story that is being literal about Partition itself, its actual subject matter, even if it is asking to be taken metaphorically about things like tolerance between communities in the world today, perhaps especially with regards Muslims. (It is, of course, refreshing to see a story about Muslims who are, by and large, portrayed without reference to prevailing Islamophobic stereotypes.) The emblem of this attempt at a merging of the literal and the metaphorical may be the central metaphor and mcguffin of the story, the watch.
Little of the complex historical context behind the human scrabble for survival during Partition is touched on in ‘Demons of the Punjab’. But really… how would one go about touching on this complex history in an episode of Doctor Who? There is room to question the entire project. And yet not doing it would not even be pregnant silence; it would simply be silence. The only way to try to cover the wider politics and history of Partition would be to emulate the strategy used by the old 60s historicals which drop the Doctor into the middle of, say, Culloden or the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. But, aside from all the other reasons why they just wouldn’t happen today, we have to acknowledge a few things. Firstly, those stories ‘work’ in the technical way they do because they are not attempts to detail history but are actually literary pastiches. Visits to historical genres, not historical periods. This is true even before the 60s historicals become blatant about it. It is as true of ‘The Aztecs’ as it is of ‘The Highlanders’, though the inflection is different. Secondly, we have to admit that, as depictions of actual history, and investigations of why historical horrors like Culloden or the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre happened… they suck. They do not even begin to get to grips with the actual history of English imperialism in Scotland, or the wars of the European Reformation. Not even in a way that would satisfy a mainstream historian, let alone a radical historian. They recycle schoolbook stories about national rivalries and machiavellian Catholics. In some ways, the approach taken by ‘Demons’ is better. For all its supposed non-metaphoricalism, it at least hints at many things unsaid, whereas ‘The Hinghlanders’ seems to claim to have said all the important stuff, if only be default. Thirdly, we have to admit that those old historicals are profoundly Eurocentric. Even the ones that step out of Europe – ‘The Aztecs’ for instance – impose an intensely Eurocentric framework on the history of non-Europeans. It’s worth noting that ‘The Aztecs’ is as close as Doctor Who ever got to an overt treatment of the genocidal horrors of European imperialism in the ‘New World’, and it blames the Aztecs themselves for their own genocide at the hands of the Conquistadors. Meanwhile, ‘The Highlanders’ is as close as Doctor Who has ever come to depicting the 18th century New World slave trade… and it’s a near-recitation of the ‘white slavery’ myth now resurrected by, and beloved of, today’s racists.
It would be lovely to be able to jump on the “Doctor Who has always been on the side of the oppressed!” bandwagon with the people responding to balls like “It’s too Politically Correct now!”… but it would be a half-truth at best. (Something demonstrated only too clearly by last week’s episode, as El said.)
But then, as ‘Demons of the Punjab’ shows, there is still truth in half-truths. ‘Demons of the Punjab’ fails to be a full thesis about what caused Partition, but it isn’t trying to be. It’s trying to be a human story about people not usually represented. Not usually seen. We, the viewers, outside the storyline, become the ambivalent demons, asked only to bear witness. There is a purity in bearing witness alone.
And yet don’t they implicitly make a political judgment by simply bearing witness to the unseen, unmourned, forgotten deaths? These are by definition going to be the unjust deaths of the poor… simply because of the kind of world we live in.
Perhaps I might be forgiven a paraphrase. Doctor Who writers’ job is to represent the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. In the struggle to do that, stories can be weapons. Being socially produced, they must also be socially understood. And historically understood. Being produced in a certain kind of world, they are not likely to inherently be inimical to that world. But tools can be repurposed. The struggle to understand stories in certain ways, and thus weaponize them, is ultimately ours.