Those Rare Few ...

... after whom History wasn’t the Same Again

Part I

History, all said, is made by people, with much of it consisting of the working out of already latent and often inevitable human trends, which, however, were sparked off by the acts of certain individuals. There are also occasions when history takes a sharp turn away from its ordained path in response to a single individual’s indomitable will. Sometimes you can go back to a particular moment in history and say that if it hadn’t been for that one person, things might have been very different.

Let me illustrate this oft-discussed theme by the life of a few such individuals who changed the course of history in our times.

Vasili Arkhipov

Are you aware that the decision not to start World War III was not taken in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the sweltering control room of a submarine? And if you were born (like me) before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov - many of my readers might not even have heard of him - is responsible that you’re still around.

Did you know that 27 October 1962 was the most dangerous day in our times. Let me explain how. An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace. As these dramas sharply ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon.

The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. The Beale was joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more explosives. The exhausted B-59 captain Savitsky assumed that his submarine was doomed and that World War III had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.

If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporized the USS Randolf as indeed it would have, if fired the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations – more than half the UK population would have perished. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China.

Unfortunately for the senior staff of the B-59, and fortunately for literally every other living thing on Earth, a nuclear launch required the assent of a third officer — Vasili Arkhipov.

Using a combination of logical persuasion and shouting, Arkhipov — who held the same rank as the B-59’s captain — brought around his fellow officers to surface and return home. Reading about the incident in declassified files many years later, Robert McNamara, then Defense Secretary in the Kennedy cabinet said “we came very close. Closer than we knew at the time.” The Soviet files were only released in 2002. Four years ago the unknown savior of mankind in our times had passed away.

So when you go to bed after reading this, do say a prayer for the unsung hero of our times.

Norman Borlaug

Not all history makers are killers and empire builders like Chengiz Khan, who carved out the largest contiguous empire in history. There are saviors too. And that brings us to the second great savior of our times, Norman Borlaug who is personally responsible for saving more lives than any of the world conquerors could possibly have ended.

Norman Borlaug was a geneticist from the University of Minnesota who spent the 1940s developing high-yield, disease-resistant strains of wheat. During his career, Borlaug took the lead in developing and promoting genetically modified crops throughout Asia and Africa. His work eventually resulted in the development of strains of wheat and rice that are today being grown on approximately 10 percent of the world’s total arable land.

Borlaug began his work at a time when famine was a very real threat around the world. Within five years of his arrival in Pakistan, that country experienced a doubling of its agricultural output and became self-sufficient in grain. The same thing happened when he worked in India. Precisely the same for his work in Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia. Today, it’s estimated that over a billion people have been saved from starving to death by Borlaug’s cereal grains.

One billion people. That’s more than all those who died in all the wars and upheavals of the 20th century put together. It’s more than the total estimated world population when Thomas Jefferson inked the Declaration of Independence. It’s a legacy that singlehandedly reverses the death toll from Stalin’s gulags, the Black Death, and every war humanity has ever fought all put together.

History is made by people. The one billion humans Norman Borlaug has saved will live to make history of their own, as will their children and their descendants.

The forgotten world is made up primarily of the developing nations, where most of the people, comprising more than fifty percent of the total world population, live in poverty, with hunger as a constant companion and fear of famine a continual menace.

It is indeed true that the tide of the battle against hunger has changed for the better since the implementation of Borlaug crossbreeding techniques. But as Borlaug pertinently pointed out,

…tides have a way of flowing and then ebbing again. We may be at high tide now, but ebb tide could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts. For we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction. Man has made amazing progress recently in his potential mastery of these two contending powers. Science, invention, and technology have given him materials and methods for increasing his food supplies substantially and sometimes spectacularly.... Man also has acquired the means to reduce the rate of human reproduction effectively and humanely. He is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas. (Italics added.)

There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort. Fighting alone, they may win temporary skirmishes, but united they can win a decisive and lasting victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind.

When politicians of the world wax eloquent about world peace they invariable fail to mention the need of feeding our burgeoning population. As a matter of fact no one in recent times has more pungently expressed the interrelationship of food and peace than Nobel Laureate Lord John Boyd Orr, the great crusader against hunger and, very appropriately, the first director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization. Remember his famous words: “You can’t build peace on empty stomachs.

These simple words of wisdom are as valid today as they were when uttered and will remain valid for ever. Perhaps they will assume more significance in the future. As the world population skyrockets, creating socio-economic and political pressures and stresses, these words will acquire added relevance. In fact, to ignore Lord Orr’s observation would spell social chaos for it is a fundamental biological law that when the life of living organisms is threatened by shortage of food they tend to swarm and use violence unhesitatingly to obtain their means of sustenance.

Borlaug also pointed world’s attention to the sad fact that on this earth at this late date there are still two worlds, “the privileged world” and “the forgotten world”. The privileged world consists of the affluent, developed nations, comprising twenty-five to thirty percent of the world population, in which most of the people live in a luxury never before experienced by man outside the legendary Garden of Eden. The forgotten world is made up primarily of the developing nations, where most of the people, comprising more than fifty percent of the total world population, live in poverty, with hunger as a constant companion and fear of famine a continual menace.

Borlaug’s experiments saved the world but, let’s remember, it is just a reprieve, and by no means a lasting solution to man’s perennial problem of feeding himself. His greatest contribution to humanity has been to give it time to seek a solution of the problem he so candidly spelled out.

Unarmed David

The third person who changed forever the course of history in our times was Gandhi by conferring on whom the awesome title of Mahatma we Indians seem to have absolved ourselves of the responsibility of understanding the man and his real message.

Before discussing Gandhi as one who changed the course of history may I touch on an intriguing fact of factory, namely, how in the lives of most leaders of men there is a transforming event what changes their lives from the ordinary to the extraordinary; from one level of existence, that is, to a much higher one. And such defining moments always come unexpected and unannounced. However, they determine their personalities and their mode of response to the situations they confront. Perhaps the true mettle of leadership is tested in such defining moments.

Gandhi had only been in South Africa for about a week when he was asked to undertake the long trip from Natal to the capital of the Dutch-governed Transvaal province of South Africa in connection with his work. The trip involved arduous travel by train and by stagecoach. During this trip when Gandhi boarded the first train of his journey at the much-in-news-of-late Pietermartizburg station, railroad officials told him that he needed to transfer to the third-class passenger car. When Gandhi, who was holding first-class passenger ticket, refused to move, a policeman came and threw him off the train.

That was not the first of the injustices Gandhi suffered in South Africa. He found himself treated, like all his compatriots there, as a member of an inferior race, the children of some lesser god. He was appalled at the widespread denial of elementary civil liberties and political rights to Indian immigrants to South Africa. As Gandhi talked to other Indians in South Africa – all of them derogatorily called “coolies” – he found that his experiences were most definitely not isolated incidents but rather, the general norm of behavior that Indians must endure to continue staying in that country.

Imagine that bitter cold night of June 07, 1893. Helplessly, huddled on a wooden bench in the waiting room of Pietermaritzburg railway station in South Africa sat a twenty-four year old barrister from India, shivering and wrestling with his self to tap his spiritual reservoirs to formulate his response to the humiliation heaped on him earlier in the day. The insult was his being thrown out of the first class carriage because he was brown even when he carried a valid first class ticket. What should he do? Go back to India? Acquiesce into accepting such treatment that Indians were meted out day after day? Or, stand up and revolt? If so, how? Is there in this world a mode of retaliation other than violent hit-back?

After much thought, Gandhi decided that one thing was certain: he could not let these injustices continue and that he was going to fight to change these discriminatory practices. But how? He arrived at an answer. And that was the birth of an unarmed David resolving to take on the formidable Goliath of racial discrimination. In the years to come the tiny seed of a new type of social protest conceived of in that cold night, sprouted into a mighty banyan tree under whose soothing shade many a protest movement ranging from India’s gigantic independence struggle to the long-due civil rights movement in the United States, took shelter, prospered and blossomed into an alternative to resolving human conflicts through means other than violent blood spilling.

Incidentally, the Pietermartizburg railway station, first commissioned in 1880, is still in use. It has several plaques and markers regarding its unique connection with Gandhi’s evolution as a political leader as a result of his journey on June 7, 1893. On South Africa’s second anniversary as a free country the Petermaritzburg-Msunduzi Transitional Local Council met on the platform to posthumously confer the Freedom of City award on Gandhi. It was received by the then High Commissioner of India Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who, incidentally, is also the Mahatma’s grandson. Speaking on that occasion, President Nelson Mandela said, “Today, we are righting a century-old wrong”.

Great Transformation

In 1944, Karl Polanyi, a Hungarian-American political economist, published a monumental study entitled, The Great Transformation. It deals with the social and political upheavals that convulsed England which he called “Market Society”. A distinguishing characteristic of the “Market Society”, Polanyi argued, is that humanity’s economic mentalities were changed. Unnoticed, a similar great transformation occurred in Indian society in the last decade of the twentieth century. And that was a sharp departure from the Soviet style Nehruvian socialist pattern of society and the emergence of the wealth-producing market economy which is the lodestar of Indian economy for the last twenty-five years.

And the author of that transformation was not an academic economist but a hard-core scholarly politician whom an unexpected combination of circumstances brought to the forefront of history. His name was P V Narasimha Rao, the ninth Prime Minister of India.

Coincidentally, this year marks its 25th anniversary of joining the list of nations who follow a similar economic path of globalization which represents a compendium of economic liberalization, privatization and, above all, opening up to the world. Popularly, the several-pronged thrust is called New Economic Policy, which because it is a successful engine of economic growth has several parents.

I plan to examine in detail how the model was adopted and why, and more particularly, its socio-political implications and, simultaneously, about the man who had the courage and sagacity to adopt it. One thing is certain after Narasimha Rao the shape and direction of Indian polity irretrievably changed.

Continued to “Leonine Deeds of the Half Lion”


More by :  H.N. Bali

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