By Sugata Srinivasaraju, as published in the Outlook issue 1 February 2010.
What wish did we as a people make six decades ago when we presented ourselves a string of ideals through the Constitution and what have we become now? If putting together a constitution was about defining ourselves, how honest have we stayed to that formulation and how much have we strayed?What is the identity we assigned ourselves then and what is it that characterises us now? Have we already failed ourselves, or are we still a fledgling nation in need of course corrections? How much strain have the ‘four pillars’ that hold the grand edifice of our democracy taken in these past 60 years? These are enormous and daunting questions, but asking them is about assessing the state of the nation.
We were surrounded by a fresh energy then. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate who visited India in 1950, went to a scientific laboratory in Mumbai and metaphorically captured the raw spirit of a new nation. “I have a dim memory,” he said, “of seeing what looked like a bowl with some mercury in it. Nothing more surprising than this metal, which displays its energy like some form of animal life. Its mobility, its capacity for liquid, spherical, magical transformation has always caught my imagination.” So, how much have we been able to harness that excitement is the real question. Cynical views abound, but let us focus on the transformations.
The biggest of them has perhaps been in the manner in which we perceive ourselves. There is a steady movement away from our heterogeneous cultural identities towards a homogeneous economic identity. The popular slogan till the ’70s—‘unity in diversity’—has very little resonance today. Diversity is not only seen as a cost, we are also all trying to become the same. There is a slow but sure drift from emotion to economics. From considering ourselves as a vibrant people with rich subnationalisms and cultures, to slotting ourselves into different income categories on government data and to finally acquiring a unique number for identification is a considerable departure. This was beyond our imagination 60 years ago.
Only a few decades back we had reorganised the nation into linguistic states. By doing so, we had automatically foregrounded our cultural identities. The Constitution took enormous care to nurture these identities as well and offered humane formulations in its text. It said: “Any section of the citizens of India having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the fundamental right to conserve the same.” It also directed every state to provide adequate facilities for “instruction in the mother tongue” at the primary stage of education. But all these provisions now appear redundant and subsumed under the economic might of the English language.
Interestingly, a parliamentary panel in 1957 that went into the report of the Official Language Commission under the chairmanship of B.G. Kher was not in the least prognostic. It had said: “Different regional languages are rapidly replacing English as a medium of instruction and of official work in the states. The use of an Indian language for the purposes of the Union has thus become a matter of practical necessity, but there need be no rigid dateline for the changeover. It should be a natural transition over a period of time effected smoothly and with the minimum of inconvenience.” The replacement never seems to have happened. The backward classes and the rural masses were always seen as people preserving our cultures but now, they too have raised the ‘din’ of English education, with a clear eye on economic progression.
The recent Telangana agitation also threw up a new insight into cultural futures. A common language was no longer sufficient to keep a state together. Journalist and writer M.J. Akbar wrote: “Language is clearly no longer the most important glue for states, and if people get convinced that there is imbalance in development, they will demand a better option—and seek it in their own lifetimes. There is no point offering them gold in 2020 and coal today. It won’t work.” And ironically, it was for the piecing together of the Telugu-speaking people into a single entity that Potti Sriramulu had given up his life in 1952.
With so much of our recent public discourse revolving around the nuclear deal, satellites, missiles, moon missions, infrastructure issues, FDI, GDP size, SEZs and economic growth rate, the economist appears to have clearly taken over with an apparent ‘mandate’ to extricate our nation from the ‘emotional mess’ created by professional politicians. Our identity is now of a superpower-in-waiting. The emotion with which this nation was forged 60 years ago has somewhat dissipated. There is a view that the surge of cultural nationalism we saw in the ’90s was a reaction to laissez-faire economics. Similarly, the aggressive assertion of economic identities has also found a reaction in the spread of Naxalism across 200 districts. Besides, the anxieties of local cultures are being exploited by people like Raj Thackeray to create fringe expressions of cultural chauvinism. The large-scale migrations taking place for livelihood purposes have also altered our neat cultural borders of the ’50s and ’60s.
Do we need to be apologetic about the transformation we have undergone in our identities? Bestselling author and former corporate honcho Gurcharan Das says “No”. “We are certainly becoming a bourgeois civilisation with the baniaisation of Indian society since 1991,” he says. “The children of Brahmins and Kshatriyas are becoming MBAs. This is probably a necessary phase in our evolution to becoming a middle-class nation. All prosperous nations, both in the West and the East, have gone through such a phase.” He further argues: “While intellectuals have always criticised it, a commercial civilisation is not necessarily a bad thing, as the thinkers of 18th-century enlightenment pointed out. When Condorcet, for example, wrote that commerce is sweet, he meant that commerce is a peaceful pursuit unlike the war-making concerns of the hierarchical, feudal aristocracy in Europe. Commerce thrives on interdependency of buyers and sellers. Even Ratan Tata has a customer and he has to be nice to him.”
Reflecting on this very economic transformation, the former governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, uses the analogy of a garbage can. “Few things,” he explains, “reflect a person’s lifestyle as honestly as the pile of garbage that collects in the kitchen at the end of the day. When I was 10, there was little that stayed. The atta and the sugar, the rice and the salt were bought only at the start of the month and put away in jars, their paper wrappings disposed in the wastepaper bin or, if they came in tins, cloth or jute bags, recycled. Milk was brought by doodhwalas in canisters shaped like small silos. Milk left no footprints. Pickles came in bottles that stayed on, long after the contents had been dispatched. Water, of course, came out of taps. The kitchen had but one bin, a recycled open atta tin, into which went the vegetable chhilkas, little else, for there was little else to throw. Today, a kitchen in a middle-class home has not one but two overflowing bins or pedal-bins into which go satchets of different sizes and micron calibre, from which have emptied out a host of essential objects like milk and sugar and salt, not so essential but frequently used processed foods, pasta, frozen vegetables, ketchup, even ‘authentic grandmother pickles’ floating in see-through plastic. And drinking water comes in PET bottles. This, of course, is only one fallout of our ‘growth’, only a visible side-effect of our ‘development’. It does not deny the fact of our progress under economic reforms; it only disfigures the success.”
On these four pillars, the former chief justice of India and chairman of the commission to review the working of the Constitution, M.N. Venkatachaliah, says: “Instead of the four pillars trying to support a grand edifice they’ve become very fragile. They have taken a lot of strain and beating. They are stultifying each other. This is the real situation. The growth of Naxalism is a small indicator of the failure of these institutions,” he says. In the first place, our legislatures need to achieve democratic representational legitimacy: “Nearly 68 per cent of the Parliament members are elected on a minority vote, only 32 per cent have 50 per cent-plus votes. It is similarly so in the states. What legitimacy does a person with less than 50 per cent votes have to claim to represent his or her constituency? It all starts with that,” he argues.
Again about the judiciary, the justice says that the perception is that we’re over-litigated: “There is no docket explosion. There is a docket exclusion. In the US, for every 1,000 population, 338 new cases are filed every year. In Singapore, it is 89. In Kerala it is 29. In Jharkhand it is four. Why is it? First is literacy, second is financial ability to assert one’s rights, third is a system that disposes of cases quickly, fourth is an open society. Singapore and US are similar in terms of literacy and per capita income,” he says.
On our democratic institutions becoming dysfunctional, he warns: “If 30 per cent of the population loses faith in the justice of their society and the government, then there is a negative social critical mass which unleashes a cynicism that understands only the power of destruction, not construction.” A grim reminder for our Republic indeed.