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What each passing year teaches us

By Aakar Patel
December 31, 2018 09:17 IST

We are spectators who have no voice and no power to influence the giant changes being imposed on all of us, says Aakar Patel.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

As we take the final corner on 2018, one wonders what we will remember this year for.

Some years are special and held in memory long after and around the world.

In the last century the landmark years include 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, marking the two great wars.

Nineteen forty-seven saw the liberation of the subcontinent from a Britain made hollow and weakened by the war.


Nineteen sixty-nine is a most memorable year for mankind because of the moon landing and, if you are romantically minded, Woodstock and the summer of love.

Nineteen eighty-nine witnessed the breach of the Berlin Wall.

Nineteen ninety-one saw the final collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the end of the first Gulf War.

It also heralded -- for those of us who are old enough to remember -- the global arrival of the 24/7 news network CNN. Its sexed-up live coverage of the war was in equal parts fascinating and disgusting.

In India, 1991 was the year Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and we saw the beginning of the end of militancy in Punjab.

It was also the year when India's economic reforms began.

I was at the local club in Surat, and remember the moment well when the live coverage of the Budget speech began.

I didn't understand the details much and certainly had no idea about the ramifications but I do remember setting aside whatever I was doing to pay attention to Manmohan Singh.

What he was saying clearly seemed to be important stuff.

The following year, 1992, was also seminal for us. It produced an act in Ayodhya that violated the sprit and culture of India and its Constitution, and left this nation with not just a scar but an open and septic wound that has rotted over the years.

We have paid and we will continue to pay the price for the brilliant and ruthless opportunism shown by a political force that is today dominant in India.

Because of it, we are today aligned fully with the general ideology of the subcontinent. We spent our first few decades pretending that we were different from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the rest, in that our religious and ethnic minorities were seen as equals.

Ayodhya and its aftermath have changed that irreversibly.

To return to landmark years, history seems to have slowed down a bit in this century. The year 2001 was when America discovered that its oceans could neither protect it from vengeance nor insulate it from its actions abroad.

That terrible giant again awoke and clumsily clubbed Afghanistan and Iraq, producing nothing creative but spreading death and destruction across the Arab and Muslim world where the damage continues into the present.

In the year after that, 2002, Indians discovered that we were still a primitive people. We had little understanding of the individual and were comfortable with collective punishment.

Not only did we find little wrong with what happened in that awful year in Gujarat, we were convinced that the individual at the centre of the carnage best represented Indianness and elevated him.

But, other than these two things, one significant for much of the world and the other only or mostly for Indians, there don't seem to have been many memorable years in this 21st century.

What I mean is that momentous years are not as many and certainly not as distinct unless we look for great events from Silicon Valley.

Today, we seem to separate years by new iPhone models. How different is 2018 from 2016 or 2012?

One could argue that the rise of China is the story of the opening years of the 21st century and this is hard to refute. However, this happened over a couple of decades and cannot be pinned to a single year.

The other thing that makes the years less momentous for us in India is the lack of participation. The world has seen an enormous shift in its outlook on several things.

The environment, the new economy of this century and its implications for citizens and above all the concentration of power in four or five gigantic US corporations.

Today, these corporations touch and engage with the individual as much as the State otherwise would. Certainly they know more about the individual than even the most heavy-handed Big Brother state in Eastern Europe knew about the people inside its borders.

Are these things important to us in India?

Do we have much debate about them and are these global issues central to our politics?

The honest answer is: Not really. We have no voice and no say in any of this. Our government pretends it can control and 'Indianise' the way these companies operate.

Mastercard being told to delete the information of Indian clients on foreign servers being the latest example. Before that, the government made Internet payments for Indians cumbersome by adding two-factor authentication. But these are cosmetic things.

The reality is that we are spectators who have no voice and no power to influence the giant changes being imposed on all of us.

One reason is that we are too small an economy to matter, despite the bombast. The other reason is that we genuinely don't care about these things. We are a nation that believes that modernity is the Bullet Train.

Modernity is actually the outlook and culture that produces the Bullet Train and that is why you could run such a machine through Saudi Arabia or Mongolia and that would not make them modern.

Our belief seems to be that we are today one of the great powers of the global ('fastest growing major economy').

The truth is that because of our lack of contribution, we are moving more and more to the periphery and becoming irrelevant over the years. And it is this lack of contribution, with no great events for us to mark, that the last few years have seemed all the same.

Year 2018 is just another one of these.

Aakar Patel
Source: source