Reimagining India: What we did right and where we went wrong

Amit Khanna
Amit KhannaApr 09, 2018 | 18:03

Reimagining India: What we did right and where we went wrong

India of today is an amalgam of many social influences — indigenous and foreign. The most notable outside influences, which are prevalent till today, are Mughal and British (European). Of course, in the great ancient Indian tradition of "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" (the world is one family), these influences have been assimilated in our own culture of different regions and times. However, British colonial habits linger in language, food, education, bureaucracy and institutions (Army, schools, colleges, railways, postal system, revenue and our administrative structure et al).


Much of our ancient culture, customs, food preferences, festivals, clothes, social behaviour and prejudices is still a part of our lives even as we have adopted many modern practices. No wonder then it is often said India lives simultaneously in several centuries.

To understand India’s state at the time of Independence, we need to contextualise the world in those times. By the mid-1940s, life around the world changed dramatically. In fact, World War II is a watershed event in human history.

The present global map and socioeconomic trends began in the post-war times.

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru became the undisputed master of modern India. Photo: Reuters

Europe and America, and countries like Japan were relieved once the war was over and colonialism came to an end and a new global order emerged. US and Western Europe were the champions of free markets. Soviet Union and East Europe saw the rise of Lenin’s communism while Mao-led China to a great March towards revolution. India, Indonesia, Egypt and Yugoslavia formed the Non-Alignment movement.

United Nations became a universal arbiter of international affairs. By the ’50s, the Cold War between two super powers had begun and the arms and space travel race gained momentum.


All these socio-political tremors were felt in India at the time.

India, meanwhile, awakened to light and freedom amid the tragedy of Partition. Mahatma Gandhi, the great messiah of our times, died in 1948, leaving a nation in tumult. India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru became the undisputed master of modern India (his only competitor Sardar Patel died in 1950).

His vision of a secular progressive India was underlined by his obsession for state domination in industry, education, health, culture and almost every aspect of an Indian’s life, taking the faltering economy to commanding heights of state control.

The young nation battled several problems soon after Independence — Partition, famines, insurgency, communalism, illiteracy, and caste and language issues. With large swathes lost in time and poverty, citizens lived a life of misery with practically little hope.

Idealism, socialism and secularism were the leit motif of the first two decades of independent India. Higher education was pursued by larger numbers, including women (at IITs, IIMs and medical colleges).

Government jobs in general and civil services in particular were the preferred employment choice, though a few ventured into private companies like Lever Brothers, ICI, Metal Box, Parry, Ciba and Tatas.


The Army and the police presented options for rural Indians wishing to move up the social ladder.

People of my generation will recall how frugality ruled our lives. India was dependent on external aid even for food, and whatever food articles were available had to be rationed among the millions of the poor or the needy.

We were a nation of scarcity and the dreaded License Permit Raj took its roots in the early years of Independence. Want always superseded need and wealth was a privilege of a very tiny sliver of Indians. Idealism, socialism and shortages seemed to be entwined with our day-to-day lives, which were otherwise drab in every which way.

Urban housing, transport, healthcare, education and employment had a huge-demand supply gap. Refugees in particular had to face many crises and it is to the credit of their own spirit and effort (and some government support) that they not only rehabilated themselves but also went on to excel in several fields.

Was Nehru right is choosing the economic options he chose in those formative years? In retrospect, I think no. For poverty to go and real growth and development to begin, the Soviet model was culturally and politically unsuitable for India. No wonder we grew at the famous Hindu rate of growth rate of two to three percent annually and were dependent on external aid to survive well into the late ’60s. Till today, our primary education and health sectors carry scars of the early fault lines.

Nehru’s great contribution was the attention he gave to the arts. Several institutions, each specific to a domain, such as Sahitya Akademi, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, National Book Trust and National School of Drama and Film Institute were set up, and culture brought to the mainstream of Indian social life.

Leftist movements by progressive writers, painters and the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) were proactive in ushering a cultural renaissance. Listening to All India Radio was the favoured pastime of teeming millions across India often on community radio sets till cheap transistor radios appeared in the late ’50s. Vividh Bharti and Listeners Choice programmes had legions of followers. All India Radio was not only the main platform for performing artists and musicians, AIR news soon became the only option of accessing news and information for many in a country where half the population was illiterate.

Binaca Geet Mala, a hit parade of Hindi film songs presented by Ameen Sayani on Radio Ceylon, was the most followed radio programme in India of the 1950s and ’60s. Live cricket commentary was another favourite. Most large cities had one dominant paper in English and another in the local language.

Dailies like Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Statesman, Indian Express and The Tribune were the main papers and regional favourites included Anand Bazar Patrika, Dinamalar, Gujarat Samachar, Loksatta, Malayala Manorama, Daily Pratap and Hindustan. There were also a few magazines like Illustrated Weekly, Readers’ Digest, Sport & Pastime, Filmfare, Screen, Femina, Parag, Chanda Mama, Manohar Kahaniyan, Shama and Sarita that were popular.

Classical musicians like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Khan, DV Paluskar, Omkar Nath Thakur, Dagar Brothers, Bhimsen Joshi, Bal Gandharva, Lagudi Jayram, TR Mahalingam, MS Subhalkhmi, Sidheshwari Devi, Begum Aktar were concert favourites.

Culture thrived in independent India as never before. Even newer media like films and radio got adequate attention. The only blemish was the continuation of censorship and the indirect control of free press (through newsprint licences).

If India had a common passion, it was films (followed by cricket). The most popular form of mass entertainment was equally popular across regions, class and age. Nothing has influenced modern India in its formative years than popular cinema. Millions of fans not only watched their films but also aped their hairstyles, clothes and mannerisms. Film music especially Hindi film music was the most hears sound in India.

Cinema was the arbiter of style and a part of conversation among the youth of the country. A small urban crowd followed Hollywood films, which were released in a few cinemas in large cities. This was the age of family picnics, clubs, carnivals, circus, flower shows, book fairs, mushiaras, Kavi sammelans and concerts especially in large cities, university towns, Army cantonments and railway headquarters had their own little subcultures (in the old colonial tradition).

Youth festivals were another familiar sights in campuses. The corner panwala shop or chai stall were the hangout joints all over India. While dining out was still a rarity, some of the upper middle class and elite did go out to the few restaurants. Ice cream carts, chat hawkers and later dosa stalls sprung up in many towns. Refugees from Pakistan set up the first dhabas around the country, which found patrons for their inexpensive but wholesome food.

Industrial cities like Bombay, Calcutta and Kanpur had their own eating joints for labour. These would include messes or other simple eateries serving simple low cost meals. Illicit liquor shops and speakeasies could be seen around most towns.

Caste and language still played an important role in modern lives and untouchability prevailed in spite of being banned in law.

Marriages were arranged and a family affair. College or neighbourhood romances were hush and rarely led to a wedding. Holidays meant going to your native place or visiting relatives. While the rich went to hill stations, most Indians travelled for weddings or funerals or the occasional pilgrimage.

A train journey was an experience in itself where you travelled with packed food and bedding hold-alls, the lucky in reserved compartments. Public transport in metros meant travel by buses and trams in Calcutta, Delhi and Mumbai (which also had the local trains) besides rickshaws, tongas and cycles.

The large towns would have a few black and yellow taxis. Less than half of India’s population enjoyed electricity supply and only a few could boast of telephones.

Postcards, inland letters and a telegram during emergencies were the only ways of keeping in touch. Going abroad was an achievement in itself, one that required much preparation and was a moment to rejoice. Bangalore, Pune and Ranchi attracted other industries.

Life was tough but no one complained. You kept trying and if you succeeded, it would not only become a source of support for many others but often their passport to a whole new world.

It was not unusual for a cousin or family friend to land up at your place and stay put, and still feel welcomed. Politics was about debate in Parliament or public meetings and there was no bitterness among rivals.

These were good times. There were bad times too, but hope always triumphed and good men did win. This was the time when India’s syncretic spirit overcame divisiveness. A reimagined India grew with its myriad colours amid smiles and tears. Perhaps also amid misplaced economic priorities of an outdated socialist economy.

India’s first woman prime minister Indira Gandhi’s biggest contribution was towards developing many scientific institutions like ISRO, DRDO and various others. It was during her time that the green and white revolutions were ushered in. TV, the new mass medium, developed into a nationwide obsession.

Yet, her stilted economic policies once again stifled growth. Her interest in environment and the arts also gave us a big fillip. The social and political fabric continued to be ripped apart. Indira Gandhi set the tone of what Indian polity still retains – a desire to hang on to power at any cost.

India’s foreign relations were stuck in a time warp throughout her reign. Rajiv Gandhi was the first modernist, but lacked the stature and acumen of his mother and grandfather and perpetuated the family right to rule India.

It was Congress leader PV Narsimha Rao (and to some extent Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh) who took India out of the economic morass it had endured for 50 years.

India’s current PM Narendra Modi is a radical reformer and my belief is he will rise above the chicanery and bigotry surrounding him. However, communalism and parochialism have begun to reassert themselves today. Religion cannot be a determinant in the 21st century.

In any case, the fear of many Hindus is misplaced as they still constitute 80 per cent of the population. That said, minorities too have to stop playing the victim’s card. There’s enough room for all who believe in nationhood.

As we entered the digital age, many social and cultural practices were challenged. Conventional entertainment is slowly losing out to newer platforms, formats and media. For the first time in our history, the mobile phone has networked almost the entire nation, in fact the world. Newer vocations, jobs are substituting older even traditional occupations.

Services like hospitality, retail and digital businesses are the new wealth creators. Only two industrial groups existing at the time of the Independence count. Sport, live entertainment, video-on demand and gaming are now favourite pastimes.

Travel is much easier and local transport still a crisis in spite of new swanking metros and millions of automobiles. In spite of noise and constant complaints Indian media is free and thriving. There is a revival in culture and the arts. As an ideologically different government is in power, the existing matrix of institutions is being changed. The Left, which has so far dominated the intellectual and cultural space, is justifiably upset at this overhaul. Yet, I think they are overstating their case and being more alarmed than necessary.

India, as a nation, has weathered many such upheavals and all rightists are not venom spewing zealots.

As we move closer to the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, there is definitely a need to redraw the blueprint of a resurgent India. An India which is now one of the world’s largest economies will be the among the top nations of the world where poverty levels have come down but hunger and disease still claim thousands of victims. India today is a major interlocutor in world affairs. A time has come to rejuvenate our cities and provide employment, shelter, health care, education and adequate opportunity for all. The fractures in our social structure and polity have to be healed. Inclusiveness must be the mantra of new India.

This will happen from the ground upward and not in public rallies, noisy TV debates, petty politicking and trolling. Opposition to the BJP cannot be the only agenda of parties who otherwise look towards status quo’s benefits. No one is cleaner than the other in this game. Yes, anyone preaching hatred has to be punished. The economy has to remain on the path of rapid reform. Corruption has to go. The fact the world’s largest democracy has thrived for over seven decades is no mean achievement, but it has to thrive.

Modi, too, has greater responsibility. He has to control rowdy elements in his party. The nation needs a statesman. He has the chance to be one but for that he has to be more accommodating and transparent.

India has resilience and Indians have a destiny of their own. The citizens’ will is paramount and if respected, there is no stopping them. As poet Shailendra aptly put it in a song 70 years ago, “Nikal pade hain khuli sadak par apana seena taane, manzil kahaan kahaan rukana hai upar waala jaane (We are on our way, on the open road; where is our destination and where is the end, God alone knows)!”

We are on the move. Whether or not we will reach our station is the question.

Last updated: April 10, 2018 | 13:05
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