Saturday, August 14, 2004

Yeh Mera India!

Eight years back in 1996, on this very day – 15th August – the then Prime Minister, HP Deve Gowda delivered the traditional Independence Day Address to the Nation from the Red Fort. Like his previous eight predecessors in last 49 years, he delivered this traditional speech in the ‘national’ language – Hindi.

There was a change, though - Deve Gowda hailed from Karnataka, and did not know or understood Hindi – and so, his Hindi speech had to be written in his native Kannada script… and was telecasted across the nation to an audience, more than 60% of whom also did not understand Hindi!!!

Yeh Mera India! ….

…where else in the world – but in India -can this happen?!!… the Chief Executive of a nation makes an address in a language which he does not understand, and to a people who also do not know that language!!!… (the 1961 census reported 1549 “mother tongues”!!!)

In my mind, that fascinating, but much neglected, event in the 49th year of the history of India is also the metaphor of what India is:

…its diversity weaved into a unity, a myth which became (is becoming?) a reality… the belief in a ‘concept’ of India which perhaps exists (and is taking roots) only in the minds of its people, a contradiction which is internally consistent… a belief, which is simultaneously ridiculous and sincere.

… Or the only oxymoron encapsulated in a single word – India!!

It seems so easy to say now that “India” became independent on August 15th, 1947… almost a trite statement in any history book.

But it always seemed a miracle, actually…. that we have something called “India”…

India is perhaps the only country in the world, where we have 18 scheduled “official” languages (and some 2,200 dialects) – and yet not one single language which everyone shares and can use to converse with others….

So how does this nation exist as an entity, when its members can’t even understand each other’s language?…

(And just to mention the obvious: though English is often touted as the cosmopolitan uniting language, but even then… as one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world, barely 30mn – or 3% - of Indian population can really speak, write and read English… in rest of the India, English is Hinglish: roadside dhabas who put up sign-boards announcing “Snakes served here”, or liquor shops where “Child Bear” is available, etc…. that’s how you can find “snacks” to have with your “chilled beer”!! )

Almost – or perhaps more than – a hundred years back, when Gopal Krishna Gokhle and Justice Ranade described India as a “Nation-in-Making”, I guess this is what must have been in their mind… that India is a process, a state of mind, and not an entity…

It is so easy to talk about “India” now – and know what one is referring to – but back in 1947, it must have been a faith-based shot in the mystical dark….

In 1957 – 10 years after “India” became “independent” - a research team from Jamia Milia did a survey across 4 north-central states of India, covering 150 villages. The findings:

  • around 10% people did not know – after 10 years of “independence” – that the British no longer ruled the country; and,

  • about 17-18% did not know the name of their own country!!! – of course they knew “Bharat” aka India (since they had heard people shouting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”), but they did not know what this “Bharat” was.

    If a common message, understanding, language, communication network, etc., is what is needed to unite and create a common identity as a nation, this is what we had around that time in mid-50s:

  • 1.5mn radios for a population of 400mn

  • a circulation of 3mn newspapers for 400mn people (of which only 18% could read and write)

  • 40k “community village radios” for 500k villages

  • 80% of Indians lived at least 20 miles far from motorable roads

  • 0.4mn telephones for 400mn people… etc.

    And yet, now, we do have a “Bharat”, which people know about and understand (even if it is not the same as the “India” which “shines”)…. At least we know what we are talking about….

    …which is a miracle of sorts!

    There were other miracles as well in the journey of this “Nation-in-Making”:

  • Just till a few months before August, 1947, 40% of the land mass belonged to 562 princely states – each with its own rules, customs – and even currency.

  • In a country with 83% rural population, dependent on agriculture, 70% of the cultivated land was owned by handful of landlords and moneylenders.

  • We adapted “jana gana mana…” as the national anthem – a song written as a salutation to the “Bharat Bhagya Vidhata” - King George the V of England on the occasion of his visit in 1911.

  • We even adapted a name – India… a name given by non-native imperial forces to refer to the land on this side of river Indus (which does not flow through modern India!)

    etc. etc….

    … and yet, now we have an “India” to talk about…

    … and to be proud of:

  • In 1947, we had a population of 30crore and 15% literacy. Today we have more than a billion population and around 50% literacy. In real numbers, India, in a span of two generations, created a literate mass almost one-and-a-half times the size of current US population.

  • Back then, we depended on PL-480 wheat aid, (and the Prime Minister of India appealed to the nation to keep fast for one evening a week – so that the hungry could be fed)… today we are a food-surplus country.

  • From a country with just 7 engineering colleges (2200 students), 9 agriculture colleges (3000 students) and less than 10 medical colleges in 1947 – now we can be proud of having the 2nd or 3rd largest technically qualified manpower in the world.

  • India is among the 3 countries in the world, which built its own super-computer– and among the 6 which developed its own indigenous space technology.

  • In spite of its diversity, dissensions and communal conflicts, the democracy, and the culture of assimilation, survives – a “Hindu” nation elects an “Italian” to become the Prime Minister, who refuses, but in turn proposes a minority representative (a Sikh) for the post, and gets an OK from another Minority (Muslim) representative of the society, who is the President of this country.
    etc. etc….

    It has been a long journey, and we have come a long way…

    …and yet India still remains a “Nation-In-Making”… a contradiction in its own way..

  • In a food-surplus country, approx. 5—7 farmers commit suicide every day due to poverty…

  • The top 10% of the society own 48% of the nation’s assets – while the bottom 10% own just 1%…

  • The 90% of “unorganized” labor force do not feature in the statistics – and therefore, have no rights…

  • The financial capital of the country also boasts of housing the largest slum of Asia…

  • The market goes down – and loses thousands of crores in value – when the country democratically elects a new governments

  • The Super-Malls come up along with the slums….

    … as India enters its 58th year as an “independent” sovereign nation (hopefully, we will mentally retire from being a colonial country in a year), one realizes that we all live in our own “India”… that there are many Indias - each different, and yet connected – and open to assimilate these differences and contradictions…

    …perhaps that is what makes it such a fascinating place…
    well, …Yeh Mera India!! – this is my India:
    or try:

    A Very Happy Independence Day to You!

  • 1 comment:

    Rama The Drama said...

    Beautifully said Madhukar!

    Home is where the heart is.We don't need uniformity to feel as part of a nation.India is not an oxymoron, but a metamorphosis of consciousness living,breathing and above all surviving inspite of all the odds which is a mystery only when you look at it from outside. For the rest billion living there(and outside),its a connected feeling that is as natural as Sun rising in the East!