March 30, 2020
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Rhythm Of History

Change is inevitable, but 100 years later, the circumstances in India are not very different

Rhythm Of History

The Congress is tottering to its fall and one of my greatest ambitions while in India is to assist it to a peaceful demise," observed Lord Curzon after he took over as Governor-General in 1899. Prophetic pronouncement? Only, it’s taken 100 years for Goliath to crumble. The warhorse which galloped to victory in spite of the Curzon Curse now stands with no firm hand on the reins. This year, the wheel has come full circle.

India steps again into a new century, this time too with stirrings of nationalistic feelings. An estranged sibling the enemy now. A colonial overseer then, with an infant Congress growing to maturity on the platform of nationalism. National consciousness in turn spawning communal consciousness. Cut to the 13th Lok Sabha elections: anti-Congressism proves to be a great binder, carrying a Hindu revivalist party to power. Any different now than it was then?

Looking back at a fledgling Congress in 1899, it’s not difficult to see that the antecedents of the Indian National Congress are rooted in Hindu revivalism. What social scientist M.N. Srinivas terms the sanskritising tendencies at the turn of the century. No better example can be cited than the reform movements which were gathering momentum, Tilak’s initiation of the Ganapati Utsav or Vivekananda’s passionate evocation of the glories of the Aryan tradition and Hinduism, a call for a rediscovery of India’s past. A revivalist mantle shrugged off with the emergence of Gandhi, only to be donned by a party which romped to power in a garb thought to be long discarded. Exactly 100 years later. The story of the Congress’ penchant for factionalism, evident even at the turn of the last century even though it was barely 14 years old, is one that needn’t be repeated, fresh as it is in the public psyche. But can one draw a comparison between Englishman Hume, the founder in 1885, and Italian Sonia in 1999? Factionalism over Sonia’s origins has fractured the party. But where’s another commander to lead the tired brigade? Though Hume left for England in 1892, he was still elected general secretary in 1899 for want of an agreed substitute!

All this then, and now, against a backdrop of poverty of the masses, a permanent setting to all social, political and cultural trends in the life of modern India. The poverty remains, yet 50 years of independence has ensured that the annual per capita income, assuming an average 5 per cent inflation in 100 years, has risen five-fold. Per capita income in 1899 is pegged at an average of Rs 25 at current prices. Today, the figure seems a comfortable Rs 14,000. In the last 50 years, more than 200 million people have moved above the poverty line though we have added to those below it at a faster rate. The population in 1899: 285 million, less than a third of what it is in the last year of the century.

A burgeoning population has also made for a burgeoning middle class, a section of society no more the exclusive preserve of anglophiles. In the opening years of the 20th century, Gokhale asserted that the educated were the "natural leaders of the people" and that political rights were being demanded "not for the whole population, but for such portion of it as has been qualified by education..." For ‘education’, read English education. At the end of the century, the masses are speaking through the ballot box. Leave alone education, literacy is not a criterion for leadership to emerge. A reversal of history-from a top-down elite leadership to a growing swell from the grassroots.

Feelings of nationalism were being fuelled in the closing years of the 19th century by the bitter resentment against the drain of wealth. Indigenous industry had been crippled and the swadeshi spirit was struggling to break free. This last year of the millennium stands out as the one which has seen this entrepreneurial spirit, smothered again by the licence raj, come of age. Coinciding with the waning of the labour movement which had its genesis again at the turn of the last century. An aside: the century-old Carr and Tagore Company-the most successful export venture of that era, started by Prince Dwarakanath Tagore-is being revived by a young descendant and entrepreneur, Sreejit Tagore.

India is poised at the threshold of the new millennium for a huge economic upsurge based on human talent. The infotech revolution is testimony to that. Arguments about ‘brain drain’ have also been assigned to the backburner. Hopes are high that knowledge-based industry and talent will rule the next century as will this competitive, entrepreneurial spirit. Swadeshi revisited. Then we exported raw materials. Today we export raw, homegrown talent. We are already reaping the benefits even as India grapples with contradictions to find an advantageous place in a 21st century world.

By the time India turned 20 with the rest of the world, it had already started absorbing from the imperialists the institutions on which our democracy rests today. Protesting, yet blatantly taking. On the brink of 21, nothing seems to have changed-the judiciary, executive, legislature or the media. Education too has followed the same pattern, tired yet carrying on as if by rote. Above all, the ‘great unifier’, English, remains very much a part of the Indian fabric, retaining its position as the ‘great divider’ as well. A hundred years ago, English-even while breaking through the Indian language barrier-widened the gap between the educated and the uneducated. A hundred years later, the gap remains-unifying and separating, the language ruling our every move.

Will the accent change in the new millennium? With the coming of the new invaders, their standard the star-spangled banner? If the British gave us the pillars of modernisation, the Americans are flooding us with the glitter that embellishes. Their trademark brand of consumerism and market economy seems destined to follow the Indian into the next century. Threatening to shape the next 100 years. White Supremacy in a different garb. How discerning the New Indian is remains to be seen. Armed with a new confidence against this New Age colonisation, the Yankee legacy in the next century could make for a heady cocktail. We’ve had the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Central Asians, Dutch, French, Spaniards, Portuguese, British....

The changes have crept up on us, sometimes insidiously, and then accelerated in top gear. However, parallels remain and in another sense could seem like ‘this time, that year’. Like the Orissa cyclone which swept away a population of almost 50,000. The terrible famine and plague of 1899 in Bombay, the Central Provinces, Punjab, Rajputana, Baroda and the Central Indian Principalities affected almost a fourth of the country’s population.

The same year, the Calcutta Tramways Company drew up a mega plan to introduce electric traction, heralding the country’s first Mass Rapid Transit System (mrts). While Calcutta was also the first to introduce this century’s mrts in the form of its underground railway, this year saw the capital commence work on the ambitious Rs 8,000-crore Metro Rail project. And as Arundhati Roy jumped into a decade-long controversy over troubled waters, 1899 saw the completion of the 2,700-mile Lower Chenab Canal. By 1901, the region-originally lying barren and uninhabited-supported a population of 80,000. In that same year, the Indian Railways came to be the fifth largest arterial network in the world. It’s moved up since independence to become the second largest, having added 29,751 km of tracks to the existing 77,609. In 1899 again, both sovereigns and rupees were made unlimited legal tender at the rate of 1 shilling and 4 pence to the rupee and the following year a Gold Standard Reserve was formed. In 1999, the Indian rupee touched a record low against the new international standard, the American dollar.

Much more must have happened. For instance, the emergence of women from purdah at the call of the freedom struggle. Women today are discarding another kind of purdah-the hymen-and celebrating freedom from years of sexual bondage. There were no women of stature in the Congress of 1899-1900, there are few women of stature in the BJP of 1999. The youth then were fired with the zeal to build a new India; a similar movement is slowly gaining ground. Politics as an instrument of change has ceased to matter greatly to the New Indian. The free spirit is sprouting wings, poised to fly. The Congress, which acted as the thread stringing 20th century India together, has snapped. But, as they say, wheels come full circle.

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