August 07, 2012

A Sprint Through The History of India

India is simple to understand if you are willing to shed all the fuzzy romantic spiritual notions about it. Forget the sadhus, the yoga, etc. It's just a capitalist democracy luckily with the freedoms of expression and criticism associated with that democracy. The enduring nature of that fragile and chaotic democracy has been the most significant achievement over the past six decades.

As people rise above desperate poverty, the easy availability of images and information over TV makes people aware of their middle class existence. The youth is aspiring to more and more of the fruits of a consumerist culture. As people gain access to those products -- such as cellphones, LCD TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, ACs, cars -- they realize that oh! Owning them does not provide nirvana which is what they had hoped for. They aspire for more of the fruits of a consumer economy. The cycle of desire, satiating that desire, and then new desires cropping up, endures.

No different than any other consumerist society. Let's remember India is at around $1,500 per capita compared to $40,000 per capita for Europe and America. If America and Europe with all the resources and brain power at their disposal have not been able to convert their countries into Shangri La, my fear is that India will not be able to do so either. The export and outsourcing-driven economic growth will stall at around $6,000. It always does. It's now happening for China already. It has happened previously for South Korea and Japan. At any rate, I do not see India being home to the kind of crazily passionate hardware innovators and hard workers that the East Asian countries are.

The future will see tragedies whose toll will be counted in human lives and not merely in terms of the hundreds of millions who were inconvenienced or plunged into AC-less darkness because of a power failure in recent days. There's sadly very little recognition of the cataclysms lying ahead -- either because no one sees the approaching volcanic lava of catastrophes or because those who are smart enough to foresee it realize that the masses of India are too dumb and too resigned to their fates to do anything about it. The smart Indians mostly tend to leave India and settle abroad. Not many countries are in the ignominious state where the children of the executive head of that country are living abroad. I do not know of any of the children of Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, or Obama/Romney living in India. The daughter(s) of the PM of India live(s) in America
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There’s glib – almost cynical – tributes paid to the ‘great sacrifices’ made by the freedom fighting generation. I can decipher no such thing. I am no historian but surely anyone can inform themselves about the facts of the Second World War which was contemporaneous with the freedom movement of India. About 40 million died in that conflict worldwide using conservative estimates. Six million Jews alone died in Hitler’s death chambers. No one lost more than Russia, or the then Soviet Union. Germany ultimately lost the war and also paid a heavy price in the loss of German lives.
What about India? India saw the death of millions in the tragic Bengal famine of 1942-43. But surely those deaths can’t be counted as sacrifices made in the freedom struggle. India lost 90,000 soldiers fighting for the British in Iraq, formerly known as Mesopotamia. The British built the India Gate in New Delhi in their honor.
Japan captured 90,000 Indian soldiers fighting on behalf of the British in the Second World War. The Indian soldiers who chose to fight with the British surely can’t be counted as India’s freedom fighters.
The only deaths in the freedom struggle that I am familiar with occurred in the Jalianwalabagh massacre. That massacre as we know was a brutal butchering of innocent people. People were in a confined space and attending a meeting and Dyer decided to surreptitiously enter the arena and kill as many as he could. People tried to save their lives by jumping into the well if they could.
The complex events leading to India’s independence in 1947 need not be oversimplified. The British did not flee India because they suddenly got intimidated. The history of British occupation happened in large measure with the help of Indians. India has, unfortunately been a very divided nation for centuries.
In fact there was hardly ever a geographic territory known as India whose boundaries ever approached the scale of present day India. Various kings and emperors ruled over different parts of India. The British East India Company were private traders who came in to do trade and saw the divisions and saw an opportunity and started fighting and winning wars with Indian kings back in the 18th century. Slowly they expanded their rule over India with other wins.
The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 brought out into the open the troubling aspects of that private company running India as their privately-owned country. The British government decided to take direct control of India through an act in the British Parliament.
Thereafter, two-thirds of India was run from London. The British considered India the jewel in their imperial crown simply because Empire was profitable. In the 20th century Britain got embroiled in local European wars. The First World War bled Britain considerably.
Indians were awakening to the idea of freedom in the 1920s. Slowly the British rulers started electoral democracy in the Indian provinces. They sought to divide the people of India on the basis of religion – Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.
Then the Second World War approached. The British just scraped through – both because of Hitler’s foolishness in launching a war with Russia and Japan’s foolishness in attacking the United States in Pearl Harbor thus forcing America to enter the war.
Although Japan and Germany turned into complete ruins and ghost towns as they suffered heavily from Allied bombardment, England suffered heavily financially as well. England owed money to India at the end of the Second World War.
The Quit India movement of 1942 by Gandhi had been contained and had been a failure. One can compare it to the present day Anna Hazare movement. But in 1945, after the end of the Second World War and as Churchill was voted out by the people and Atlee voted in, there was never really any doubt that India was going to get independence.
It is our good luck that the leaders then leading the freedom movement went for full independence and did not settle for any stupid concepts like dominion status whereby the British monarch would still have been the head of state of India.
Only the dates remained to be decided. Initially, India was supposed to be freed by 1948. That was the mandate with which Mountbatten came to India as the new Viceroy. However riots were spreading all over India. The British decided to flee as soon as they could. So the date of independence was advanced to August 15, 1947.
The communal bloodbath however nevertheless happened and many hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives.
And so the journey of independent India started – on a somewhat bloody note. Nehru led the nation for more than a decade and a half of its initial history. So much needed to be done. When you consider the state of the nation in 2012, I shudder to think how backward India must have been back in 1947!
Imagine how much illiteracy there must have been and how little of industry. So the task fell upon the leaders in government to develop basic industries such as steel plants and institutions of higher education such as the IITs.
In the initial three decades after India’s independence, India was unfortunately led mostly by only two people: Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Dynasties have no place in democracy. But then people of India clearly elected those leaders voluntarily. India did not lose faith in democracy despite massive challenges.
The occasional wars occurred with Pakistan and China. The terrible famines mercifully did not recur. The Green Revolution especially ensured that India produced enough foodgrains to feed the growing population.
A nation that had a population of 320 million in 1947 now has a population of 1,222 million in 2012. This is very unfortunate. People talk of the demographic dividend but I am not convinced. But that’s a different debate.
India under Indira once went in the direction of dictatorship during the Emergency. However, India returned to democracy soon enough.
By the 40th anniversary of its independence, India had two major assassinations – both having ‘Gandhi’ for a last name – and the man on top was another Gandhi. For power to have passed from a Nehru at the time of independence to his daughter who was assassinated thus creating sympathy for her son, this does not look good AT ALL in a pluralistic democracy.
Meanwhile, on the economic front, the poverty of India continued to persist. As people continued to produce more babies than they could afford to educate, India had and continues to suffer the curse of too many individuals who are impoverished in the most acute way possible – a lack of education.
The economic policies of the government of India over the decades tended to have socialist leanings. The entrepreneurial energy of the people of India was foolishly kept in check as the government subscribed to some crazy notions of divisions of wealth and keeping predatory companies out of India.
India hit a wall on the economic front in 1991. Having no other alternatives, India decided to open up its economy. Since then it has grown at a rate which is essential to enlarge the size of the economic pie and make it big enough so that there will be something for the billion plus Indians.
I remember from the 1980s about dreaming about the fabled 21st century. Here we are. INSIDE the 21st. WELL into it. But the bullock carts persist. Women still plant the rice saplings by hand in the rice growing states of India which still depend egregiously on the monsoon rains.
So here we are. That’s where the story stands today. 66 years since independence. For a human being, 66 is past the retirement age and time to let go of Earthly attachments and sort of remain ready to say hello to unexpected visitors such as Death. That does not apply to nations.
Some say India is a young nation. Some say the Indian civilization is as old as human beings themselves. What is undisputed is what is there for all to see.
·                     A per capita income level of around $1,500. Compare that to the level in the developed nations who are in the $40,000 range.
·                     Among the highest rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality in the world.
·                     The most number of illiterate people in the world.
·                     A total population of 1.22 billion and still growing.
·                     A booming call center industry. A booming IT services sector.  Among the largest number of English speakers in the world.
·                     Millions of graduates coming out of colleges every year. Half a million engineers graduating per year.
·                     A looming water crisis. Ever growing cities creaking under over-population.
·                     More people in India have cellphones than toilets. A story of a successful telecom revolution, a connectivity revolution but a story of failure in providing basic facilities such as sanitation and clean drinking water.
·                     And most recently, India acquired the dubious distinction of having had the largest power failure in the history of the world affecting 600 or 700 million people. Not to forget of course that probably 300 million people in India are still to have access to electricity.
Only the very brave will be ecstatically hopeful about India’s future, about India’s imminent emergence as a superpower. I am not that brave. We live in a world of frenetic innovation. Intellectual ability is what defines our civilization now. We no longer employ thousands of people to manufacture cars in assembly lines. Robots do the work.
Humans design ever more miniaturized microprocessors and we understand more and more about the human genome.
In the last 100 years, the totality of the knowledge base of our species has changed unrecognizably. Flying was just beginning a century ago. Look at where civil aviation is today.
We did not go to space a century ago. Now it is more than 40 years since we visited the Moon. We now land advanced robotic explorers on the surface of Mars half a billion kilometers away.
There’s no place in our civilization for a person whose only life skills are to be able to work as a rickshaw driver. Women in this age should not be spending their lives looking after other people’s kids or washing dishes in other people’s homes or cooking for other people or keeping other people’s houses clean and dust free.
But it’s the amazing thing about our civilization that it can be simultaneously so advanced as well as so backward. Civil wars, religious riots, ethnic clashes, female feticide and more are quite commonplace and they will probably continue to exist for another century.
I wonder when we in India will see the end of the bullock cart – that venerable mode of transport of old India. I have myself travelled in a bullock cart three decades ago. Will it survive into the 22nd century?


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