As people, we have tended to ascribe guilt to people through association even when it is clearly not merited.

Lessons from history Why we should leave Afzal Gurus son alone to live his lifeGhalib Guru with his mother. Image: PTI
Voices Opinion Friday, January 15, 2016 - 13:04

The name Leo Amery is unlikely to strike a chord of familiarity with the younger generation today. Many of my own generation would also struggle to recall his seminal contributions. He had passed away in 1955 which would suggest that those born in the year he left this world would be card carrying senior citizens.

His historical legacy has been left to the domain of scholars and history buffs. But if were to take the trouble to uncover, it reveals some startling facts.

Here was a man who went to Harrow and was Winston Churchill's classmate -with much better academic credentials. He progressed to Oxford, had a superlatively brilliant record and then distinguished himself as a journalist of repute alongside his fellow Harrowian in the Boer War. Later on he moved over to active politics. Interestingly he did not join The Conservative Party as might have been expected from a public school/Oxford product but obscure party which does not exist for more than 10 years and expectedly merged with the Conservatives.

One of his many notable contributions is his contribution in the drafting of the Balfour Report which ultimately paved way for creation of the State of Israel. He then became a fierce opponent of his own Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when the latter was attempting to work out a treaty with Adolf Hitler. It was he who had uttered the famous words to Chamberlain in the House of Commons: "In the name of God, please go!!"

(Readers would recall the Opposition Leader Jaswant Singh uttering the same phrase in the No-Confidence Motion more than 70 years later!)

Churchill made him the Secretary of State for India which ,as it involved managing one sixth of humanity, was popularly perceived to be the second most powerful position in the world ( after the Viceroy). It was here that he displayed he true métier and took on his boss (and former school mate) by telling him that he understood India no more than George III understood the trans- Atlantic colonies!

This columnist must confess that the two main reasons he remembers Amery have nothing to do with scholarship. Amery was born in Gorakhpur, India-the columnist's mofussil town. Additionally Amery went to Balliol College where your columnist also spent some time.

However Amery also had to contend with a tragedy of collossal magnitude. His older son John who had followed him to Harrow started behaving in the most erratic manner which strained the family dynamic considerably. He eventually moved over to Nazi Germany from where he started making broadcasts against the Allies when the War was still in progress. Once the hostilities were over, he was subjected to a quick trial for treason (which lasted only a few minutes) and sentenced to death.

Many, including his family, believed that this was a miscarriage of justice as John was harbouring under psychosis. This columnist has examined public papers that are available and as a psychiatrist maintains that this probably was indeed a miscarriage of justice as mens rea was not properly established. However John was hanged within a matter of days.

Aggrieved as the family was, this did not deter in any way their faith in the British system. Leo Amery lost the elections in 1945 but remained active politically >His younger son Julian carved out a parliamentary career for himself and became a minister under MacMillan and later Alec Douglas Hume. The notable feature was that he espoused positions diametrically opposed to his father's! He was a very active member of the ultra right Monday Club which used to advocate white Britain policy and support for apartheid. Even a diehard Neanderthal like Maggie Thatcher found it difficult to confer on him ministerial responsibilities!

More important to stress here is that the British voters not once held his brother's execution against him nor was it an impediment of any sort. 

I was tempted to recall all these facts when I read a news item today. Afzal Guru was hanged for his role in the attack on the Indian parliament.  His son has distinguished himself in the Board examinations by being at the top of the merit list. In an interview, he has indicated that he would like to study at one of the premier medical institutions and become a doctor. 

While there were snide remarks from the unenlightened more or less on expected lines, I think this is a very heartening development and I sincerely hope that the Hippocratic ethos (not visible very much these days) would help not just him but all concerned to eliminate the vestiges of bitterness. 

The best service we can provide to this talented young boy is to leave him alone to get on with his life and steer his own course without any attempt to make a political capital or regard him as tainted for the guilt that he was never responsible for in the first place. 

As people, we have tended to ascribe guilt to people through association even when it is clearly not merited. Equally we also project unmerited positivity on individuals just because their kins supposedly made contributions without imposing on them the need to establish their own credentials, 

We can learn lessons from Westminister in this regard. Finally I should like to quote Ernest Gellner, perhaps the most erudite European political philosopher of this century:

It is just as anti-democratic to penalize individuals for guilt of their forbears or the community either in the contemporary or historical context as it is to reward them for the supposed contributions of their ancestors!

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.