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Home > India@60 > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

Happy Diamond Jubilee, fellow Indians!

August 14, 2007

I was born in an India so far removed from the reality of today that modern Indians would think it as strange as the days of Ashoka or Akbar. And, truth be told, those young men and women would have a point.

My home was in a princely state, not even a province of the Raj, but the realm of a Maharaja with a lineage so ancient that it made the British King-Emperor look like a bit of a Johnny-come-lately. How many readers would understand if I said that mine was a generation to whom sitting in a car was an adventure?

There was neither electricity, nor piped water, nor even the suggestion of a proper tarred road in my village. Forget the Internet, there were days when even the daily paper arrived a good 24 hours late.

And the sights and sounds and smells of my formative years are now little more than legends for urban India -- the roughness of a rope's hairs as you drew water from the well and the squelch of mud between the toes as you walked in a rice field, the flickering light of a hurricane lamp and the whir and click of the charkha. (Mine was a resolutely Congress family, I can remember making a speech at a political function half a century ago!)

Coming from that background, it never ceases to strike me as utter nonsense when younger generations speak of how things are deteriorating. In the purely material sense matters have improved almost beyond recognition. I mean that literally -- my village of Cherai is now being touted as a 'Beach Resort' by Kerala [Images] Tourism, with all the comforts that such visitors demand as a matter of routine.

It isn't just a matter of proper houses and fancy cars, many of the devils of my youth are simply not there any more. When was the last time that you heard of people dying in their hundreds because of smallpox, or saw young children crippled by the dozen thanks to polio? Can you imagine the reality of a starving India where food inspectors would stop you on the road to ask where you had bought the rice you were carrying? (I was twelve when Rajaji created a stir throughout southern India by removing the rationing regulations in Madras.)

It all seems unimaginably distant today. But even later events are now misted over by time. India now has not only of the largest but also one of the youngest populations in the world. I was frankly befuddled upon hearing that barely a quarter of the electorate in my constituency came out to vote in the last assembly polls; didn't these people remember how we all flocked out once the Emergency was lifted in 1977? (Only to find that at least the journalists among us had been mysteriously struck off the rolls!) And then it struck me that of course they didn't have a clue, many of them were simply not born at the time.

India was bankrupt in 1991, with the Chandra Shekhar ministry needing to pawn gold to bring in essential imports. The country was forced to liberalise the economy due to pressure from the IMF and the World Bank. (No, Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] and Narasimha Rao did not move away from Nehruvian socialism under any conviction, they had no choice in the matter.) Yet those days are now so distant that the first-time voters in the next General Election would not have been born at the time.

It is taken for granted that a booming India is a major factor in every calculation of the global economy. And it is, or should be, a matter of pride that we have achieved so much with merely a fraction of China's resources. How many people realise that India has received barely a tenth of the foreign direct investment that went to our giant northern neighbour?

So yes, in the purely material sense India has achieved progress in many fields, beyond the wildest dream of my generation. But, as we stand on the cusp of independent India's Diamond Jubilee, it behoves us to also take stock of the places where we have gone wrong.

It is not just nostalgia when I say that the communal divide has widened to alarming proportions. My formative years -- the late 1940s and the 1950s -- were an age when the wounds of Partition were still raw and bleeding; there was a conscious effort in those years to prevent anything of the sort from ever happening again.

I fear that the consequences of Partition have been forgotten even as 1947 itself is now consigned to a chapter in the history books. It took Adolf Hitler [Images] six years to murder six million Jews; India and Pakistan between them slaughtered a million people in just three months. Do we remember any of that?

Sanjay Dutt's [Images] imprisonment is continuing to make headlines. Will the sight teach respect for the law? Or will Indians rather look at their politicians? How many of our elected representatives stand accused of violent crimes? How many politicians and would-be politicians flaunt their guns, possibly even AK-56s of the type that won Dutt a jail sentence? But we never hear of them being taken to task under the Arms Act; instead, we all hear of instances where former dacoits dream of being elected to Parliament, possibly even winning ministerial office.

Truly, if the Indian economy gives us the greatest reason to rejoice then our political classes probably offer the greatest cause for despair. It is at such time that we remember all those predictions of despair hurled at India, both before and after 1947. Yet the genius of the Indian people has demonstrated the capacity to trip up such doomsayers, even those trained in the study of history.

Who remembers Winston Churchill thundering to the House of Commons that India would be torn asunder if the British Raj ever gave way to 'men of straw?' Who remembers a despairing Aldous Huxley prophesy that the death of Jawaharlal Nehru (whom he admired immensely) would mark the beginning of a military dictatorship?

Neither the statesman nor the writer-philosopher were completely in the wrong, of course. Pakistan, which sprang from the same stock as India, would indeed suffer both military rule and further partition after its founding fathers passed away.

It is the challenge of every generation of Indians to continue to prove to the world that Churchill and Huxley got it wrong. But, perhaps for just one moment, we can all be excused if we relax a little, and take stock in our not inconsiderable achievements?

Happy Diamond Jubilee, fellow Indians!