Monday, May 28, 2007

Why Is India the most Interesting Country in the World ?

A couple of weeks back, I attended a lecture by the famous Indian historian Ramachadra Guha at Landmark bookstore in Bangalore. This also happened to be the occasion of releasing his latest book 'India After Gandhi'. Without much formal literary tucket, the author took on stage and started his discourse in his soft and mellow voice, the topic being 'Why Is India the most Interesting Country in the World ?'.

Suddenly he took a 500 denomination banknote of Indian currency. The banknote has its amount written in 17 languages. English and Hindi on the front serve as the link languages, and 15 vernacular languages on the back, along with an image from the Dandi March. Each of these languages signifying vigorous culture, literary tradition, symbolic imagination, metaphors, legends, myths, etc. That is the diversity of India.

The present generation has taken this diveristy for granted but how was this multifariousness accomplished. Close to fifty nine years ago, this nation was battered by civil war and partition, movement of millions of refugees across the borders and finally so many disparate princely states had to be united and integrated. All this was done, through 'a democratic form of government' even though many people had the apprehension that a poor, divided and diverese country could not sustain the practise of free and fair elections.

India is a true pluralistic society and infact the idea of India anticipates the idea of the European nation by 50 years. Almost all the members of the European Union earlier were glued together by three common parameters, a shared language, a shared religious faith and a shared territory. To be Brit was to concentrate around a cold island, who were mostly Protestants and who despised the French. Similarly to be Polish, meant united by a common language, a mostly common faith and to be Polish is to hate the Russian and German oppressors. But to be an Indian one need not subscribe to any particular language or dialect. S/he can follow any religion that the individual wishes and of course we don’t have a common enemy, though media keeps tom-tomming that we share bitter strands of animosity with our neighbor, Pakistan. It does not erect a wall of separation between state and religion. There are boundaries, of course, but they are porous. In short, it interprets separation to mean not strict exclusion but neutrality.

The reality of the 'multicultural', describing the presence of many cultures within a society, has been present in India for several millennia. But multiculturalism as celebrated in India is different. It is a special kind of relationship adopted by the state towards different cultural communities that fall within its sovereignty. To deepen our understanding of multiculturalism, to understand it’s internal tensions and foresee its problems and accordingly to refine and focus policies, the entire world needs to look to and learn from India.

To cite a simple example, in the 14th Lok Sabha election, 2004 the real surprise witnessed in the IT city of Bangalore (North) constituency, was from the debutant and former police commissioner of Bangalore, H.T. Sangliana of the BJP. He defeated six time MP and Congress giant Jaffer Sharief. Just get a little bit deeper, Sangliana, a Christian from Mizoram contesting for a seat in a prominent city in Southern India, under the bastion of BJP for the first time, defeats a Congress veteran. That's fantastic, something without parallel and comparison anywhere in the world. This clearly shows how multi-lingual and multi-cultural our society is.

India, is in the limelight these days for being one of the fastest growing economies, registering a growth rate of around or above 8% for the last couple of years. Put in a crisp and a compendious way, the change and transformation can be broadly classified under the following points.

1.Realm of economy – from an agricultural economy to a service oriented economy with appreciable contribution in the field of manufacturing, technology and science.

2.Realm of settlement – from an agrarian community to a one that is slowly migrating to cities and towns. It is estimated that by 2020, there would be more people living in urban and semi-urban India than in the villages and rural areas. This by itself is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The urbanization of Indians is accelerating.

3.Realm of polity – from a colonized civilization to an independent one.

4.Realm of society – from a hierarchical feudal society in which discrimination was the norm to a democratic society where participatory action is the norm. If not in practice but in theory we have a talismanic guide in the form of 'Indian Constitution'. The Constitution, a towering public document, capturing the finest in the human spirit. It's all-inclusive, tolerant, liberal, noble, wise and extensive. It is more than sufficient to illuminate the darkest road. Enough to steer a nation, or a man.

Guha, an acclaimed historian considers, India the most interesting country in the world. Being a person who has spent his life in the shade of library racks, archives and one who makes a living studying India, he introduced the audience to some precious jewels, to illustrate, track and trace some of the changes that powerfully support his point that India is the most interesting country in the world. In his journey of 30 years, he has encountered and rubbed shoulders with some interesting mortals, whose immortal achievements have made his study all the more engrossing.

Sunderlal Bahuguna and the Chipko movement are interlinked to the present generation. Chipko movement started in the 1970s, as an organized resistance to the destruction of forests spread throughout India. The name of the movement comes from the word 'embrace', as the villagers hugged the trees, and prevented the contractors from felling them and one of the founders of this movement was Chandi Prasad Bhatt. Bhattji was raised in Gopeshwar, a small mountainous village and later in his life became a ticket clerk in Rishikesh for the bus company. He felt deeply concerned over the plight of the mountain people as a whole, and he often walked through the mountains to talk to the villagers about their problems. Among the most important, of course, were the shortages in farmland and jobs. But added to these were oppressive government policies concerning the forests and raising voice for the protection of the forestland. In 1956, Chandi Prasad found hope when he heard a speech by the Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan, that he dedicated his entire life for the welfare, goodwill and the betterment of his fellow men in the mountains.

Guha cited an incident that happened way back in 1980, when as a student of sociology from IIM Calcutta pursuing his Ph.d; he had visited the Gharwal region. During his visit, he met Bhattji and another doctoral student from the University of Roorkee from the Dept of Economics. This chap from Roorkee wished to select 20 villages, 10 of which would be more or less on a motor road, and another 10 located more than five kilometers away from the road. His idea was to deliver a questionnaire to the villagers on the availability of various goods and services, to examine the economic hypothesis that access to roads was crucial to rural upliftment.

This student of economics sought help of Bhattji to choose those 20 villages. Bhattji without having any access to maps or survey sheets exposed to the enthusiastic student the entire demography, particulars and specifics of 20 villages. Here is man, who had lived, suffered, endured and tasted the problems of the people and learnt each bit of their mountainous spirit. A great pioneering environmentalist, thinker of remarkable range and achievement who, by virtue of his own innate modesty and lack of command over English, remains much less known and honored than is his due. His achievements are probably lost in the pages of history but the Indian Government was kind enough to honor this towering personality with the Padma Bhusan in the year 2005.

To Indians, cricket is a religion but this devotion and exaggerated zeal for the game has lost its charm in the last couple of months after India's early exit in the recent World Cup. To Indians, the arena of spin bowling brings to mind stalwarts like Bishen Singh Bedi, Prasanna, Anil Kumble, etc. But it would come as a surprise to many that the India's greatest and the first slow bowler before Indian attained the test cricket playing nation status was Babaji Palwankar Baloo, a very prominent Dalit leader in the later part of his career. Baloo is the most important character in one of Guha's book 'A Corner of a Foreign Field'. Baloo was a fantastic cricketer and the book talks about how cricket can influence both social and political history. Baloo's career mirrored the struggle against caste oppression, how he rose to a respectable person both in the cricket circles and in politics despite his caste, this is the story of Baloo who was one of the two gentlemen who helped the negotiations between Gandhi and B.R.Ambedkar while forging the well-known Poona Pact.

Indian elections are something that draws in lot of drama, crowd, promises, rallies, booth capturing, etc. Now think about such a scenario for a nation that had just attained independence, with most parts of the nation still in turmoil along with a flurry of other issues and problems. It decided to go for election and move straight into universal adult franchise, something not meant for weak hearted and it needs lots of grit and gumption to go for it, something without parallel at that stage in world history.

We remember T.N. Seshan, M.S. Gill, J.M. Lyngdoh who have donned the role of Chief Election Commissioner but the baap of them all is none other than the first Chief Election Commissioner of India, Sukumar Sen. We all have forgotten his inestimable and incomputable contribution as he left no essays or was he advertised much in the press. He was educated at Presidency College and at London University, where he was awarded a gold medal in Mathematics, later to join the coveted Indian Civil Service in 1921. He served in various capacities before assuming the role of Chief Election Commissioner. The job was arduous, complex, and intricate as 176 million Indians aged 21 or more were ready to vote, of whom about 85 per cent could not read or write. The identification of the voters, naming of the candidates and registering them and the entire logistics involved both in terms of human labor and material, would drive any one crazy. Mind you all this was happening when the there was no penetration of telecommunications even in the cities and towns of India, forget about the rural India for that matter. The alphabet 'e' as is predominant in any aspect of our life today was another regular rudiment of the 26 set English alphabets.
Some numbers will help us understand the scale of Sen's enterprise. At stake were 4,500 seats — about 500 for Parliament, the rest for the provincial assemblies. Two lakh twenty four thousand polling booths had to be constructed, and equipped with about two million steel ballot boxes. For the making of these boxes 8,200 tones of steel was required. Sixteen thousand five hundred clerks were appointed on six-month contracts for typing and collating the electoral rolls, constituency-wise. About 380,000 reams of paper were used for printing the rolls. Fifty six thousand presiding officers were chosen to supervise the voting, these aided by another 280,000, so to say, "lesser" staff. Two lakh twenty four thousand policemen were put on duty to stop violence and intimidation.

The elections and the electorate were spread out over an area of more than a million square miles. The terrain was huge, diverse and — for the exercise at hand — sometimes horrendously difficult. In the case of remote hill villages, bridges had to be specially constructed across rivers; in the case of small islands in the India Ocean, naval vessels used to take the rolls to the booths. A second problem was social rather than geographical: the diffidence of many women in northern India to give their own names, instead of which they wished to register themselves as A's mother or B's wife. Sukumar Sen was outraged by this practice, a "curious senseless relic of the past", and directed his officials to correct the rolls by inserting the names of the women "in the place of mere descriptions of such voters".

[Excerpt taken from the book 'India After Gandhi']

Other than managing this herculean task with great elan and sophistication, there are two examples that I learnt highlights the brilliance, the technical and managerial prowess of this great mathematician.

1.He knew that most of the electorate was illiterate and so he introduced the use of large pictorial symbols by which the uneducated and ignorant voters could identify their party of choice. Drawn from daily life, these symbols were easily recognizable: a pair of bullocks, a hut, an elephant, an earthen lamp and so on and so forth. To avoid impersonation, he had given the idea of using a variety of indelible ink. Simplicity defined and applied in the most natural form is how I can describe this.

2.Close to 2 million ballot boxes were used in the first general election and fortunately Sukumar Sen was involved for the second general election in 1957. In the course of 5 years, the Indian electorate had increased considerably, but Sukumar Sen had sent orders beforehand to preserve the ballot boxes whose number was close to 2 million from the first general elections. So for the elections in 1957, only 300,000 new ballot boxes were manufactured to take care of the newly grown population. Such was the foresight and strategic bent of mind of this genius.

Guha went on showcase many other masterminds such as J.B. Kripalani, who was elected to the Lok Sabha four times, and from three different States: from Bhagalpur and Sitamarhi in Bihar, Amroha in Uttar Pradesh, and Guna in Madhya Pradesh, Tarlok Singh, who studied economics at the London School of Economics before joining the Indian Civil Service in the 1930 and was responsible for the successful settlement of the refugees in the Punjab Province after 'the greatest mass migration' in history that occurred post independence in India, etc.

Although, Guha calls himself a 'Nehruvian', someone born and brought up in the India that was developed and influenced by the ideas of Nehru, it was Mahatma Gandhi, whom he considers the greatest and the most interesting individual of this century. He didn’t extend beyond this stating that it was a different topic and probably he would deliver another lecture to fortify his stance i.e. supporting Mahatma Gandhi.

Guha was charged up to mention to the crowd that the most interesting person whom he has ever met in flesh and blood was the Kannada polymath Shivaram Karanth. He was a multi-talented individual and was well trained in not less that 60 disciplines/professions and was world class in atleast 16 of these. He was a writer, social activist, environmentalist, Yakshagana artist, movie maker, scientist, teacher and thinker. I was aware of this virtuoso, since my college days as a member of SPIC MACAY. Shivaram Karanth is closely associated with revival of the folk art form Yakshagana and he hailed from a village, Saligrama in Udupi district of Karnataka, very near to my engineering school in the coastal hamlet of Surathkal. It won't be unfair to call him 'the Einstein of India' [his looks were similar to Einstein and also his unusual innate abilities equalled those that of the German scientist.]

It was more than one and half hours of non stop talking by Guha by then. So he stopped the lecture and left the stage open for questions. One of the questions that was posed to the historian was:

Question : Why is your book named 'India After Gandhi' and not 'India After Independence' ?

Answer : [As told by Guha, though not in the exact words, but the gist is here]. Before India attained independence, the history of India for close to a century centered on two powerful forces. On one hand there was the mighty British empire and on the other hand was this one man army and his principles that invoked an entire nation for freedom. A man named Mahatma Gandhi lacking physical strength or vitality but was steel willed in his path of attaining independence using the weapon of non-violence and peace. Volumes, reams and tons of tomes have been written discussed, debated and taught on this topic by both the Western and the Eastern world. But we have never looked at Indian history with the same astuteness and profundity after independence. The after independence history of India is one that is a potpourri of pity and contempt, of fear and admiration and the historian [i.e. Guha] has presented that in a balanced, non-partisan, unbiased and non- ideological way moving between history and biography. The story of modern India is story of people with extraordinary characters like long serving Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the Kashmiri rebel-turned-ruler Sheikh Abdullah, the Tamil film actor-turned-politician M.G.Ramachandran, the socialist activist Jayaprakash Narayan.

Guha concluded his talk saying that India is the most interesting, exciting and absorbing nation in the world to study history and philosophy. The western world may offer an individual the comforts and pleasures of material life but the depth of intellectual richness and knowledge that any person can derive from this land called India is immeasurable. Something that cannot be parameterised. The smell, the scent, the conservation, the change, the order, the freedom, the organized, the disorganized, the complexity and the simplicity all coexist in India. This is a real challenging field for any philosopher, thinker and historian and Guha even said that, he won't mind being born in this land for 10 times to study this miracle called 'India'. There is a continuous fight for survival yet there is harmony and interdependence among one and all [forgetting the little black spots that tarnish Indianess,on and off.]

The evening ended with a refreshing note and I was happy that my trivia cells had not gone dormant and were still active as I was able to answer most of questions that were tossed by Guha intermittently in the course of his lecture. I was delighted over the fact that I got an autographed copy of the 900-paged book from Guha and my effort of wading through the Bangalore traffic at 7P.M. and making to the lecture in time was worth it.

Keep reading and remain connected.

[Note: If any of the readers is interested to start a series titled something like 'Discover India', if you have any thoughts and ideas and interested to post blogs and writeups, please feel free to email be at beheraDOTtanay@gmailDOTcom . The idea is to unravel more of this fascinating nation that you and me are unaware of thinking more in terms of IT, M&A's, Technology, Nanotechnology, Travel, Business, Malls, Profit/Loss Sheets, Digital World, Busy traffic, concrete jungles and hope you get what I am hinting at. The world that you and me live in has shed a bedsheet over the thick and rich bed of knowledge, lets dig into the bed.]

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At 1:59 PM, Blogger ...blessing... said...

I shared the link with an Eqyptian friend...:)

At 4:24 PM, Blogger Diganta said...

Excellent write-up. I alreday have the book and soon I'll start reading ...

At 9:37 AM, Blogger Ni said...

Sexy post :)

At 2:18 PM, Blogger Priyanka said...

yup..India is really diverse and has amazing history, people, culture, tradition...really hope it remains that way..and doesnt collapse because of mismanagement by the politicians and bureaucrats or by blindly following the West in terms of culture :)

At 5:56 PM, Blogger Raghu said...

I am reading the book presently and I am very impressed with it so far. I like your "Discovery of India" concept - was thinking along similar lines too. I am trying to pick up more gyaan from what little literature is available on modern India.


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