Jenkins’ ear, desi-style

2018-01-05T01:53:20+05:00 M A Niazi

The storm raised by a section of opinion in India over the removal of Mrs Kulbhushan Jadhav’s shoes when she met her husband is not the result of frustration at the effectiveness of Pakistan’s gesture, so much as the search for a casus belli, resembling nothing more than the cutting off of Jenkins’ ear in 1731, which led to the War of Jenkins’ Ear between England and Spain in 1738.

That Jenkins’ ear was used as an excuse, becomes clear when one sees that the ear of Captain Robert Jenkins, whose vessel was boarded by a Spanish patrol boat off the coast of Florida (then a Spanish possession) on suspicion of smuggling, was cut off by the boarders’ captain in 1731, but there was no conflict until Jenkins was summoned to testify before Parliament (probably a committee) in 1738. No record of the hearing is available, but Jenkins was widely thought to have shown off the cut ear, which he apparently kept in a bottle of preservative.

The ear-cutting came in an interval of peace in a series of wars. When the War of Spanish Succession had ended in 1713, Spain had with great reluctance allowed England a 30-year asiento, or right to trade with the Spanish colonies in the Americas, which at that time included not just Florida, but Texas and California too. This included an extensive trade in slaves as well as finished goods. The asiento right was not just very valuable, giving access to closed markets, but it was also difficult to police. England and Spain fought three wars after it was granted, and in the peace treaty to the last, the Spanish got the right of checking to board British ships to ensure that no smuggling was taking place. That’s how Jenkins got his ears cut. As a result of Jenkins’ testimony to Parliament (and no doubt the exhibition of the ear in question), anti- Spanish sentiment rose in England, and the government had to send troops to the West Indies and a squadron of ships to Gibraltar. A demand was also made for the abolition of the ‘visitation right.’ Spain, enraged, abolished the asiento. Britain declared war. The War of Jenkins’ Ear ultimately segued into the War of the Austrian Succession, in which other European countries became involved.

The episode showed that England went to war, not so much because of the insult afforded to an Englishman, as because of trading difficulties centred around the asiento. It also showed how cynical a power might be about the search for a casus belli. Pakistan is being painted in the blackest of colours by the Indian media, and the fuss in it about Mrs Jhadav’s shoes seems to be part of this.

There does not seem to be as pressing a reason for India to go to war, as in its previous attacks on Pakistan. In 1965, there had earlier been the Rann of Kutch dispute, while in 1971, there was a clear attempt to break Pakistan in two. In 1948, there had been the Kashmir dispute, and the two later wars had included Kashmir as an important component. At present there seems to be no territorial dispute requiring a casus belli, even though there seems a pressing Indian need to have one.

This need cannot be explained away only by Indian chauvinism. One indication is the sentiment expressed by the previous BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that without a settlement in the North, there could be no real economic progress. Like Mian Nawaz Sharif across the border, he was a hardliner elected to power on a platform of increased growth, and who had realized that it was impossible to fulfill the promises of growth without major cuts in defence expenditure, cuts in turn made impossible without settling the countries’ major issues. For Pakistan, that meant the Kashmir issue. For India, it was not just the Kashmir issue, but also the north-eastern border with China, over which it had fought a war with it.

It was perhaps noticeable that the BJP, under Modi, appears to be following Vajpayee’s policy. More than Vajpayee, Modi has been elected on a platform promising economic development, which implies cutting defence expenditure. But it has also been elected on a chauvinistically nationalistic platform that seems to promise higher military spending. There has been a more aggressive posture in New Delhi since Modi took office, with renewed tensions in the North-East, as well as renewed violence across the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Though Arunachal Pradesh (as the North East Frontier Agency now is) is peaceful, Kashmir is not. One reaction to the BJP capture of New Delhi has been a revival of the Kashmir freedom struggle to the point where the New Delhi government has to form committees to seek a way out. In the north-east, therefore, the problem India faces is an old border dispute inherited from the Raj, but in the north-west, it faces part of the unfinished business of the Partition.

It also must be remembered that, in the era of Jenkin’s Ear War, the preliminaries to war had included England sending troops and warships, without engaging in combat; in other words, to ‘make a demonstration’. Nowadays, India has engaged in proxy war, the fifth-generation warfare which is the mode of preference for powers that do not wish to incur the expense that warfare means. When it had engaged in such warfare in 1971, the war started when East Pakistan was not merely ripe for, but in an actual state of, rebellion. While India has engaged in a similar proxy war in Balochistan, that province does not show any signs that there is any move for separation. It is worth noting that Jadhav was engaged in activity in Balochistan, showing that province as integral to the Pak-India struggle. Balochistan is still the scene of much unrest, but it is by no means ready to sustain the sort of struggle that went on in East Pakistan in 1971. The Balochistan Liberation Army is a far cry from the Mukti Bahini, to make a pertinent comparison.

India is perhaps over-conscious of the advantages conferred on it by its switch from the USSR to the USA, and apart from throwing its weight about, it is under the impression it has achieved the isolation of Pakistan as it did in 1971. The latest Trump tweet, and the frenzy it has caused among Pakistani policymakers, is the latest example. One problem that is perhaps keeping the peace is that even this presumed Western approval assumes that the USA will prevent, or tolerate, the nuclearisation of the conflict. However, if the USA does take out Pakistani nuclear capability, as there are subterranean rumblings from the Trump Administration that it will, the stage will be set for India to use its own nuclear weapons to browbeat Pakistan. Until then, it will collect incidents like that of Mrs Jhadav’s shoe in the hope of justifying Der Tag.

At the same time, with an India increasingly bent on fighting Pakistan, the present model of keeping the nuclear peace, of having the world powers exert pressure on both countries to do so, cannot work forever. The world should be aware that it is not a matter of making sure that “it isn’t on my watch.” Indian belligerence is such that “it” might happen on the watch, only a little later. The only true solution is a just solution of all outstanding issues. Like Kashmir.

The episode showed that England went to war, not so much because of the insult afforded to an Englishman, as because of trading difficulties centred around the asiento.

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