Turn your attention now to the most beautiful state in India where, this past June, several years of peace and (a relative) stability were disturbed and destroyed by a competitive communalism. A few hectares of land asked for by a temple board sparked protests by the residents of the Kashmir Valley; in exchange, the residents of Jammu blocked the highways and paralysed the state administration. The conflict escalated: mass meetings were held in the Valley calling for azadi, mass meetings were held in Jammu demanding justice and self-respect.
Lest we forget, 2008 also saw the renewal of sectarian protests based on identities other than religion. The MPs of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti resigned their posts; the cadres of the United Liberation Front of Asom set off a series of bombs. The activities of ULFA and the TRS pale into insignificance in comparison to the activities, also in 2008, of that other parochial body, the Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti. For the Mumbai that the terrorists attacked in November was also the Mumbai which Raj Thackeray and his goons had sought, just a few weeks previously, to purge of ‘outsiders’ to the city.
Move now from the domains of society and religion to the material bases of human existence. The ground here, seemingly sure and solid, was disturbed this past year by the meltdown in the global economy. The collapse of banks on Wall Street had its ripple effect in India too, with the Planning Commission revising its growth estimates downwards, auto companies asking workers to stay at home three days a week, and BPO firms laying off thousands of employees. Indian companies that had ventured into acquisitions abroad saw the prestige of those purchases being undermined by falling prices and profits. Meanwhile, at home, the aam admi was hit by inflation, whose rate had now reached double digits for the first time in more than a decade.
2008 was also the year that Mother Nature played havoc with her Indian children. In the last week of November, many parts of the great city of Chennai found themselves knee-deep in water. Earlier, in August, the same fate had been handed out to many districts of the great state of Bihar. The Kosi river changed course for the first time in more than a century, the overflow covering huge swathes of land with a fast-moving sheet of water, with humans and cattle fleeing in its wake. More than three million people were affected by the floods.
For the citizens of India, the calendar year 2008 was marked and scarred by the malign activities of Islamic fanatics, Hindu bigots and linguistic chauvinists; by the arresting of the onward march of the Indian economy; and by cyclones and floods. This listing probably overlooks some other nasty things that took place this past twelvemonth. But even the incomplete evidence offered above begs the question—was this the worst year experienced by India (and Indians) since the country was founded?
Speaking as an Indian who has just turned fifty, I can immediately offer one other candidate for that (very dubious) honour—1984, a year that was a nightmare for India at any rate, if not (as George Orwell had once predicted) for the whole world. On January 1, 1984, the Congress government led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on the verge of completing four years in office. It was somewhat less than secure, for there was an insurgency on in the Punjab, and a major oppositional movement afoot in Assam. To these angry complaints of peripheral regions were added tensions of caste and class, and a vulnerable economy.
On or shortly after New Year’s Day the Congress began planning its strategy for re-election. Its best chances, it thought, lay in a departure from its previously non-sectarian politics in favour of a more overtly ‘Hindu’ image. The prime minister began visiting temples across the country. Then, as the Khalistan movement gathered momentum, troops were sent into the Golden Temple. Two days of bloody battle—fortunately, not covered by live television—led to many hundreds of deaths and the near-destruction of the Akal Takht.
Never before had an elected government attacked a place of worship, still less a shrine as holy, and as beautiful, as this one. That was bad enough, but worse was to follow. Four months later, the prime minister was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. This act of revenge was immediately followed by another, as mobs led by Congress politicians roamed the streets of Delhi in search of Sikhs to kill. The rioting spread to other cities of northern India. In the end, more than three thousand Sikhs died, all of them innocent of crimes of any kind.
As it limped into its last month, the calendar year 1984 had already witnessed three dramatic, dreadful events—the attack on the Golden Temple, the assassination of a serving prime minister, the killings of innocent Sikhs. I remember all three well, and also the fourth that was to follow. On the morning of the December 2, I got married in Bangalore. As my wife and I proceeded to Goa on our honeymoon, news reached us of the gas leak in Bhopal, revealed in time to be the most serious industrial accident of the twentieth century, worse even than Chernobyl, killing more than two thousand Indians and maiming many thousand others.
Indira Gandhi’s last year in office was tragic for her, and for her country. As it happens, Mrs Gandhi’s first twelvemonth as prime minister must also be a front-runner in the race to be considered the ‘most horrible of all’. The year 1966 began with the death, through a heart attack suffered in Tashkent, of the prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. In his short time in office, the short-statured Shastri had grown in assurance and credibility. He had led India commandingly in a war provoked by Pakistan, he had laid the seeds of the Green Revolution, and he had taken steps to liberalise the economy.
When Shastri died in January, Indira Gandhi was chosen by the Congress bosses to replace him. She did not at first inspire confidence. Although immaculately groomed, she had little previous experience in government. She had a fine command of English as well as Hindi, but was little inclined (at least in public) to exercise it, so much so that the combination of her silence and her (sartorial) elegance led the socialist politician Ram Manohar Lohia to dub her a goongi gudiya (dumb doll). But then no doll, dumb or otherwise, has had to face as stern a test as Mrs Gandhi did in her first months in office. A check-list of select events in 1966 follows:
February: The Mizo National Front launches an armed uprising against Indian rule. Banks are looted, offices burnt, roads blocked. One town is captured and another threatened. The army is called in, followed by the air force; thus, for the first time since Independence, the Indian state uses air power against its own people.
March: A tribal rebellion in Bastar is quelled by the use of force—forty adivasis die in police firing, among them their venerated former maharaja, Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo.
March, again: Successive failures of the monsoon lead to starvation deaths in the countryside. There are food riots in India’s most populous city, Calcutta. In desperation, the prime minister goes to Washington to ask for aid in the form of wheat. The mission is captured in one American newspaper headline: ‘New Indian Leader Comes Begging’. Meanwhile, the sorrow and the succour are captured at home in the only joke ever known to have been made by an Indian economist, which is that the country was now leading ‘a ship-to-mouth existence’.
April: The peace talks between Naga rebels and the Indian government break down. The insurgents return to the jungle, only to re-emerge to blast trains and assassinate officials.
June: The foreign exchange reserves are so seriously depleted that the government is forced to devalue the rupee, an act considered by its critics to be an admission of national failure, since the devaluation came close on the heels of the begging for food, and since it was undertaken on the advice—or the orders—of the International Monetary Fund.
November: Angry sadhus calling for a ban on cow slaughter hold a massive meeting on the Boat Club lawns in New Delhi. One swami, even angrier than the rest, calls for the crowd to storm Parliament. The holy men make for the gates, but are stopped by the police. They then turn their wrath on passers-by and on property. Some 500 vehicles go up in flames, also the house of the Congress president and the guard room of All India Radio. For the first time since 1947, the army is called out to restore order in the capital.
Mrs Gandhi’s first year in office was marked by a series of unfortunate events, and so also the first full calendar year that her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, served as prime minister. The year 1948 began with attacks by Hindu extremists on Muslims in Delhi and the Punjab, in revenge for attacks on minorities in what was now Pakistan. The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, went on fast to help restore communal amity. For this noble and heroic act, he was murdered by a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The nation was stunned and the fanatics shamed, for they now retreated into the margins. Their place was taken by the extremists on the other side. In the first week of March 1948, and acting on the orders of their Soviet masters, the Communist Party of India launched an armed insurrection against the Indian state.
I was not alive in 1948, but reading the newspapers of the time I sense that this must have been a very dark year indeed. This young and vulnerable nation was challenged by radicals of the left and right. There was a war on in Kashmir. Then a fourth obstacle presented itself. This was the princely state of Hyderabad which, unlike five hundred others of its ilk, was refusing to join the Indian Union. Now that would have been the end of the idea of India—for the territory of Hyderabad extended across the heart of the subcontinent, separating north India from the south.
To judge how bad 1948 must have been, consider this excerpt from a letter written in that year by the last British commander-in-chief of the Indian army, General Claude Auchinleck: ‘The Sikhs may try to set up a separate regime. I think they probably will and that will be only a start of a general decentralisation and break-up of the idea that India is a country, whereas it is a subcontinent as varied as Europe. The Punjabi is as different from a Madrassi as a Scot is from an Italian. The British tried to consolidate it but achieved nothing permanent. No one can make a nation out of a continent of many nations.’
To the very many Indians reeling under the impact of the tragic events of 2008, let me offer this consolation—that there have been some other very bad years, too. 1984 and 1966 and 1948 were likewise peppered with violence and murder, and by riots and rebellions. Then we must also consider those years where a single event may have been momentous enough to undermine one’s faith in the ideals of the Republic. I think here of 1962, an otherwise placid year marred by the humiliating defeat in the border war with China; of 1975, a year when India, for the first and hopefully the last time, was brought under the authoritarian rule of a single party run by a single family; of 1992, when the destruction of a medieval mosque and the riots that followed called into question the secular and plural ideals of the Indian Constitution; and of 2002, when a pogrom against Muslims was conducted by the Gujarat administration with the complicity of the central government, the event and its aftermath shaming India in the eyes of the world.
Here, then, is a listing of the bad and the very bad years experienced by India in the sixty years since independence: 1948, 1962, 1966, 1975, 1984, 1992, 2002, 2008. Which of these was the very worst? It is hard to give an unambiguous answer, for three reasons. The first is the imperfect state of our knowledge, the flawed powers of recall of the historian as much as of the citizen. Had Outlook given me 30,000 words instead of 3,000, this essay might have made for more mournful reading still—with many more unfortunate and tragic events described, with yet other calendar years being offered as likely candidates for the title of the ‘worst ever’.
A second reason why I prefer not to pick one year above (or below) the rest is that, in such a choice, bias and prejudice must always play some part. The Indian for whom secularism is the most important binding value of the Republic will tend to think of 1992 and 2002 as being the worst of all years. The Indian motivated by a dislike of the Nehru-Gandhis might instead choose 1962 or 1975. The admirer of Mahatma Gandhi might cast his vote for the year in which the greatest of all Indians was murdered. Indian citizens of the Sikh faith may have the darkest memories of 1984.
The third reason why any singular choice must be contentious lies in the method being followed here. Because the media—and the electronic media even more so—tends to privilege spectacular, dramatic events, the citizen chooses to do so too. However, behind and beyond the killings and the bomb blasts lie very many less visible sufferings and tragedies. To speak only of this past year, 2008, even if the fidayeen had not targeted Mumbai, the MNS not targeted Biharis, and the VHP not targeted Christians, there would still have been millions of Indians without access to safe drinking water, decent schools and hospitals, and a fair living wage. Had these dramas not been played out in front of television screens, in homes and localities across the land there would still have been women abused and violated, Dalits and tribals harassed and victimised, slum-dwellers evicted, and beggars turned away. Had no gunmen entered the Taj on the night of 26th November, farmers plagued by debt and crop failure would still be killing themselves in the villages of Maharashtra.
This, indeed, may be the most significant reason why one must refuse to single out one particular year as more dreadful than the rest. For, in constructing an index of ‘Gross National Unhappiness’, the trials of daily life must necessarily count as much as the dislocations and deaths caused by extraordinary happenings such as terrorist strikes. However, given the variability of these different events and processes, and the impossibility of measuring them in quantitative terms, our index must remain hypothetical. I suspect that even the combined talents of Albert Einstein and Srinivasa Ramanujam would have found it impossible to accurately compute a Gross National Unhappiness index for a single year, let alone so many.
Who is to say which of the sixty years since India became independent has been the worst of all? Not this historian, at any rate. You may call this cowardice; I prefer to think of it as prudence. Suffice it to say that in our short career as a nation we have had quite some bad years and a few disastrous ones too. By my reckoning, we have had at least eight years that live on in public memory for the wrong reasons, for having been witness to crimes against individuals and communities of a scale that deserve that telling epithet, ‘inhuman’.
Reflecting on that very troubled decade, the 1980s, a decade marked by caste wars and communal conflicts and many other nasty things besides, the sociologist Ashis Nandy remarked that ‘In India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder’. I disagree with Nandy about many things, but think he has it exactly right here. For, as I have argued elsewhere, India is both an unnatural nation as well as an unlikely democracy. Never before has a single political unit been constructed from such disparate and diverse parts. Never before was a largely illiterate population given the right to choose its own rulers.
For India to be both united and untroubled would be a miracle. For it to be both democratic and free of conflict would be doubly so. Thus, in the 1940s, we overcame the crisis of Partition by forging a democratic and federal Constitution. No sooner had the nation observed its first Republic Day than it was confronted by oppositional movements based on language. When we contained and tamed these—by creating linguistic states—our unity was freshly imperilled by the Naga insurgency. Then, in the 1960s, anti-Hindi protests in Tamil Nadu and the rise of Naxalism in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh posed fresh questions to the idea of India. In the 1970s we were subjected to the Emergency; and, when we came out of that, to separatist movements in Assam and the Punjab. The 1990s saw the sharpening of caste and religious identities, a process that unleashed conflicts and animosities that, when I last looked, had scarcely abated. And through these six decades there has remained the problem of the Kashmir Valley—was it, could it, must it be properly part of the Republic of India?
The history of independent India is one of fires being lit, doused, and then lit again. Seduced by the surge in some sectors of the economy, sections of the Indian elite (the media elite included) have taken our unity and our democracy for granted, and made a claim to be heard on the high tables of the world.