India: A View From the Inside (Summer, 1965)

India: A View From the Inside (Summer, 1965)


LETTERS FROM INDIA, as a rule, are written by “outsiders” trying to appear as “insiders” A Westerner visits India for six weeks, is touched and appalled by the sights, sounds, and smells, and goes home to write a very feeling letter, the main purpose of which is to get India out of his system. But who am I, to write about India? Well, I am an Indian, a depressingly typical middle-middle class Indian at that, with nothing picturesque about me; however much I try to be, I cannot be really very objective or indifferent or condescending about India. And I have no compulsive urge to get the country out of my system. Still, here it goes: a survey of the contemporary situation by an “insider,” a Tamil-born, Kannada-speaking, Hindi-knowing, Urdu-loving teacher of English, who is domiciled in Assam.

Right now we seem to have only one subject that matters: language. Not that we do not have any other problems. Food shortages, Socialist Principles and Big Business, Foreign Exchange crises, the Bomb, China, Pakistan, Kashmir and the Nagas, “Aftet Shastri, Who?” Illiteracy, increasing population, Untouchability, vast corruption, and above everything else, poverty. In fact, most of our problems can be related to this appalling poverty of our country. Who doesn’t know of the “starving millions of Asia?” I myself do not have any experience of acute poverty. I have never been forced to go hungry. But poverty, starvation, is a reality for most of my countrymen. We know, for instance, that riots occur frequently in Indian towns, seemingly for some trivial reason. But behind the killings of Calcutta in early ‘64, there is the presence of the bustees and slums of that city, of a life of degradation that cannot he comprehended in pure intellectual terms.

I once witnessed a riot in Calcutta —a minor riot as riots go in that city—and the sheer passion that gripped the rioters as they determinedly wrecked things was frightening- What can one do about the mass of my countrymen (increasing every year by about ten million)? Here again, theoretically, I am committed to my country. I pay my taxes, seek personal advancement, try to earn more, save more, behave in every sense like a proper citizen.

But all the while, one is only conscious of the frightful irrelevance of everything, in the presence of the monstrosity here and now, aggressively thrusting itself upon me when I go to a film, (the filth near the theaters in Gauhati, the place I live, has to he smelled to be believed), in the rickshaw I am compelled to use, in the spindly bowlegged walk of the Bihari laborer as he shifts heavy loads onto the boats that have berthed a furlong away, on the edge of the water. It is these that are my country. The mass of white-collar workers, the civil servants, the small and big politicians, the thirty thousand Indian intellectuals and the two score big industrialists—all these put together are still a minor section of the Indian communist v. When one thinks of this real India, of China and Pakistan seem remote and irrelevant. Not that this mass is not exploited to support or oppose different viewpoints on these various subjects; but ultimately the belly comes first.

And yet, right now, what everybody is worried about is the question of the official language of India. Admittedly, it is ridiculous. There are such a lot of more pressing issues. But the language controversy is important, in that it has dramatically brought to light the various linguistic nationalisms, which according to many observers, will ultimately break up the country into various linguistic units.

HOW REAL IS this danger of total fragmentation? Is the history of Indo-China going to be enacted on a much vaster scale in India? Just imagine, sixteen (or more) sovereign states, with absolutely chaotic boundaries, the Northern and Eastern border states being allies or satellites of China or Pakistan, and the Southern and Central states propped by American money as citadels of Democracy and Freedom, bulwarks meant to halt the on-flow of the Reds! Will such a thing happen?

I think not. I am rather optimistic about the outcome of the present language controversy. I know there have been self-immolations; I know that some years ago, hundreds of people died in a neighboring country to secure for their language its rightful place; language is an issue which you cannot quietly discuss and come to a sensible decision. But unlike the struggle between Urdu and Bengali which was between two clearly recognizable linguistic, and more important, geographic units, the present controversy in India is so messily intertwined that there is little chance of rigid polarization of forces.

Of course, right now, it looks like a struggle between the Hindi and the non-Hindi regions; but among the anti-Hindi forces there is a lot of bitter division which is only temporarily set aside to fight the common enemy. Just to give example: a fellow from the South is instinctively suspicious of Tamil intentions. After all, a few years ago, the Presidency of Madras (area of the Tamils) included wide areas of the present Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Mysore, and in each of these states, you will find a greater wariness towards the Tamilian than towards the Man from the North. A similar pattern of suspicion, with the Bengali playing the role of the villain, exists in Eastern India. Even now, it is seriously advocated in souse circles that for maintaining the unity of India, or to be euphemistic, to satisfy the linguistic aspirations of all sections of the Indian community, there should be three official languages, Tamil, Bengali, and Hindi, When such views are held, I Suppose I am justified in being optimistic about the future.

But does this not make the danger of total disintegration even more real? I think not. Paradoxically enough, the divisions among the various groups will ultimately keep us together. I am not invoking the sentimental chestnut about Unity in Diversity. I am basing my hope on hard economic facts. East Pakistan could, for instance, exist (with goodwill from India, which in this respect, will always be there) as an independent unit. But fortunately, none of the Indian states, by itself, is economically self-sufficient or even viable. A few states grow more food; a few generate excess of power; Assam, for instance, earns a lot of foreign exchange. But even the most aggressive of the linguistic nationalists (Tamils) have reconciled themselves to the economic realities, and have officially abandoned the call for secession.

After all, it is nice to feel like a Big Country, to be taken note of in the Councils of the World,” to be a factor in geo-politics. And apart from these clichés, there is an elaborately complex administrative machinery, with ramifications over all the states. There arc tire not inconsiderable armed forces which again overlap linguistic divisions, at least in their deployment. I know it is a depressing consolation; that the unity of India depends on its administrative services, its armed forces, and to a lesser extent, its various All-India political parties. Where is the real Indian identity? one might ask. And indeed, one does not ask in vain, for there is, above everything else, Hinduism; even the most violent opponent of Hindi unless he is an extreme Tamil nationalist believing that the Tamil Civilization is the oldest on earth and that the Aryans are still aliens, is still a Hindu.

I have not the slightest doubt that in the long run, English has to and will be abandoned. For one thing. Hindi is gaining ground, in spite of its more vocal advocates. While most of us could be hilarious about Hindi films, they have had their helpful aspects. (Here, in Gauhati, the students abstained from classes as a protest against the ‘imposition of Hindi’ and promptly went to the pictures that afternoon—all the theaters showing only Hindi films.) What is even more obvious is the deterioration in sensitivity to the English language. Let me make it perfectly clear that I am not regretting it; in fact, I consider it an entirely good thing. We have had enough of the snobbery of the English-knowing class, Associations of the English-speaking Peoples of India. You catch such fellows off their guard, and you find them being nostalgic about the good old pre-independence days, when everybody knew his place and the Englishman was so understanding Of course, it would he tragic if the arrogance of the English-knowing aristocracy is replaced by a Hindi-snobbery. But for anybody who knows the ordinary Hindi-speaking people (not your proselytizing pundits) such a thing is inconceivable.

WHO IS THE ENEMY?—the Enemy within? The controversy about language has been a salutary experience; has shown how powerful the disintegrative forces are, and at the same time has provided an opportunity to assert triumphantly the unity of all of us. But if Varanasi (an ancient center of Hindu learning and theology) is a unifying symbol, I feel that this very symbol may ultimately cause a more tragic disintegration of the country, though, politically speaking, we might emerge even more united.

The real achievement of Nehru was his concept of India as a modern, democratic, secular state, committed to socialism and progress. I know that these ideals may seem moth-eaten clichés. We are informed by various clever people that most of Nehru’s ideas were merely the remains of ‘Edwardian Fabianism”; that they are irrelevant to the realities of mid-twentieth century power politics. I do not know. But what seems tragic to me is that there is a very real possibility that this ideal of a democratic, modern secular state committed to socialism will be abandoned. Not that there is any change in the over-all publicly professed policies of the government. My misgivings are horn out of a fear that the ideals of Nehru did not take firm root in our minds; that over the coming years, we are going to see a series of compromises between secularism and socialism on the one hand and the ‘realities of contemporary India” on the other. In a way, it is all tied up with the history of the freedom struggle, with the kind of support the Congress party enjoyed, with the way we acquired freedom, with the creation of Pakistan and the quarrel over Kashmir. It is the result of a very strong romanticizing of the past, particularly a belief in the existence of a period of imagined glory when India was supreme. Now, everybody knows that we never had any political unity until the British came. Even Ashoka and Akbar (two great Indian emperors) did not have the whole of modern India under their control.

But if there is no historical basis for any belief in the existence of a period of Hindu unity, there is a mythical basis all right; Ram Rajya (literally translated as “rule of God” but refers to a utopian concept of the “Great Society” of the past) is not merely a peasant’s way of describing the “good old days,” even the most sophisticated politicians are victims of this myth. Gandhi himself is a supreme instance. But while Gandhi invoked the myth of Rama to stress certain good qualities (personal integrity, truth, tolerance, etc.) the more recent manifestations of revivalism seem definitely bent on subverting the secular arid socialist ideal set by Nehru. It is c1uite possible that Nehru’s ideals are all woolly; but in the context of Indian politics, secularism and socialism are not mere theoretical concepts; our whole future depends on our being committed to both. That is, if we want to forget the bitter memories of partition, if we want to accept the present and consign memories of Ram Rajya to where it belongs.

But do we? What has one to make of the growing strength of the R.S.S., its political wing the Jan Sangh (an extreme and orthodox Hindu political party) and their associates? And revivalism is not merely confined to these political parties. The Congress Party itself harbors a pretty powerful section indistinguishable from the Jan Sangh. Revivalism is spread over all areas of our life and manners and thought. The existence of political parties committed to restoring the glorious Hindu traditions is bad enough; but I suppose it is least vicious as a clearly recognizable political entity, for you can at least fight it openly. It is the other form of revivalism—the emergence of certain broad social and intellectual assumptions which I believe is going, in the long run, to subvert the ideal of secularism and socialism.

SOCIALISM. DEMOCRACY. Secularism. When I read newspaper editorials or articles by various leaders of opinion, I wonder whether these have all not become dirty words. A well-known intellectual recently wrote in a widely circulated newspaper attacking the swindle called socialism, the Gold control order of the Government of India, and nostalgically looked back on the “good old days” when a husband could beat his wife with impunity, when the father married off his daughter at the age of twelve, her ark loaded with chains of gold. (Instead, the modern father sends his daughter to work!) Indeed, there is now in existence a class of intellectuals who frown upon ‘‘slavish imitation of the West.” We are advised to cultivate a proper national pride, and not accept everything Western as in itself desirable, A conference of judges recently frowned upon suggestions to make the government take a look a lie question of capital punishment. It also was firmly against any revision of the law, which would be merely a blind imitation of what is being done in England. At a less serious level, there is this letter:

Sir, Alexi Lenov’s feat in strolling in outer space reminds us of the Puranic episode of Trisanku floating in space by the will of Viswamitra.
Yours etc.,
The Statesman,
March 25, 1965

I suspect the above letter is a leg-pull, but it nonetheless is a pointer. One remembers the claims made in the most respected academic circles that the 19th Century German Indologists stole a lot of secrets contained in ancient Sanskrit texts and passed them on to their people, so that Germany could astound the world with their achievements in rocketry. One could go a step further and remind oneself of the very real Hitler-fascination that is present in the Indian mind. It all boils (Town to the same thing. There was a golden period when we were the masters of the world, and can perhaps again be if only we free ourselves from the corrupt influence of the West. Put this way, such an attitude looks too crude to he seriously entertained. But it is very real, and curiously enough, encouraged by well-intentioned Westerners as well, particularly those who wax eloquent about the Immemorial Past of India and its spiritual purity. There is always this acceptance—that the West is material and the East is spiritual. Perhaps it is; perhaps it is not.

But few people have boldly come forward rejecting the spirituality of the East (be it bogus or genuine) as itself undesirable. No, either one is a victim of the common (or more rarely) one adduces the greater spirituality of the West as somehow redeeming it in comparison with the East. What can one make of it? Here, Vinoba Bhave (a political figure often thought as Gandhi’s successor) goes on a fast to protest against the self-immolations and police actions in South India in connection with the language struggle. And instead of finding this posture of self-righteousness intolerable, our whole country goes into a hushed silence as Vinoba indulges in a peculiarly unpleasant form of self-torture. But fasting for political ends is a part of Indian tradition. And the Government finds itself in the ambiguous position of jailing a fasting trade union official on charges of attempting to commit suicide—an entirely sane approach—and sending its senior ministers to hover around the fasting saint, with all the newspapers making the appropriate sympathetic noises.

I AM NOT trying to criticize the whole Hindu society for just being what it is—traditionally conservative, riddled with religiosity, corrupt to the bones. I suppose you could say it of most groups of people. I am also not setting out like a ‘myopic Marxist’’ who sees a rightist conspiracy all around him. I am not trying to establish a totally irrelevant parallel between Western Europe in the ‘30’s and contemporary India. It is an entirely Indian view of the Enemy that I am trying to present. The one remarkable aspect of Hindu society till modern times was its absence of any rigid institutionalization. Hinduism, by its nature, was amorphous, and practically anybody, even an atheist, could be a Hindu. This made Hinduism comparatively tolerant, hut it also made possible the conquest of India, and “the emasculation of Hindu society.”

The good-intentioned reformers of Hindu society in the early 19th century tried to make Hindu society activist iii the right sense of the term—and the whole of modern India is in fact a result of that process of activization that began in the 19th century, through Western education, acceptance of industrial science, even a sort of an economic laissez-faire. The very ideas which jolted the Hindu society into the 20th century have now made it activist in a quite wrong sort of way. Not that the Hindu society was totally passive before.

But while in the good old days, a husband could not merely heat his wife with impunity but take her along with him when he died and continue to enjoy the pleasures of wife—heating in the After-Life, the modern version of it takes the shape of the Sanatanist defending the right to shave off a woman’s head when her husband dies on the highest principles of Sanatan Dharma (the moral code of Hinduism). Nirad C. Choudhary fulminates against the working class girl in Hindu society as a disgrace to Hinduism. Swami Shivananda advises the youth of the country on the evils of masturbation (one drop of semen is equal to sixty-four drops of blood) and tells how, by praying to God so many times a day, you can hope to get an increment or promotion, or success in the examination or on the stock market, or in your “amorous adventures.” The Illustrated Weekly of India runs a series of articles on the various Jagadgurus (worldly or universal spiritual teachers)—one of them characteristically described as an Indian Pope—with the editor (properly bare-breasted) sitting at the Master’s feet and receiving the benefit of his wisdom. lf these were entirely private activities, one would not mind; but the increasing identification of the ‘Establishment” with a peculiarly perverse form of religiosity, makes one apprehensive whether secularism and socialism have any relevance in the Indian context.

Nehru’s funeral—a systematic violation of a dead man’s last requests—is another glaring example. The slightest suggestion of skepticism or irreverence with regard to anything Indian (and more particularly, Hindu) is sure to bring forth abuse on the unfortunate fellow who dares. Here again, we pride ourselves on the one hand, with having an ancient tradition of self-criticism; skepticism about the nature and realities of one’s country, we are told, are not characteristically Anglo-Saxon. At the same time, there is the continuous advice to abandon a “blind aping of the West.” I myself do not think there is a frightful lot of Western influence on contemporary Indian society. The young fellow who wears tight trousers and does the Twist is not merely ridiculously out of fashion; in five years’ time, he will have abandoned his “immoral Western ways,” probably change over to dhoti (so convenient in every way, much better than trousers), and marry respectability and a dowry and, if he can afford it, buy the collected works of President Radhakrishnan. He might also talk of fusion between the East and tile West, the materialism of the West being purified by the spirituality of the East. Who said the East and the West could not meet? Behold the synthesis!

I HAVE MADE one assumption in attempting to present the Enemy—an assumption that is open to serious dispute. I have assumed that Hindu society is a more or less monolithic unit. But who does not know of India’s caste system? And the forty million untouchables? Elections, internal politics of all political parties—these are entirely matters of caste. But there are signs of change. For one thing. the most dominant caste before independence—the Brahmin—has to a great extent lost its supremacy. I am not for a moment suggesting that the Brahmin has ceased to count. He is, like the English Aristocrat, a wily old bird. But his wings and claws are clipped, and an entirely good thing for him, at that a welcome, salutary experience. The divisions that separates the other communities do not seem to matter materially. After all, caste distinctions are everywhere. You split according to ethnic groups, or accents, or something else. In India, anyway, the forces of Hindu revivalism are strong enough (and shrewd enough) to recognize the need to reform Hindu society. As it is, in urban societies caste does not seem to matter much, though intermarriage and ‘inter-dining’’ continue to he well-nigh impossible in village communities. It is not something to be very happy about, but I think it is hardly a cause to lose one’s sleep over. Untouchability is an issue over which one cannot be complacent, and my Enemy would possibly defend the strength of well-established tradition and practice.

I realize that the Enemy I have tried to evoke might conceivably appear to many good people a thoroughly desirable synthesis. I can even see that if the Enemy triumphs, it might even make for greater “stability” in the area. India will no longer be a problem, subject of Letters from India, but a clearly recognizable entity. Pigeonhole it as Traditional, Conservative, Hindu, one of the “developing’’ countries, a stabilizing factor in South Asia, and if unpleasant things happen inside the country, it is none of our business; the enigma of India, if any, to be exploited only to attract foreign tourists.

Every one of us is entitled to a nightmare or two. This synthesis of the East and the West scares me more than anything else. It is he that gives me the jitters, he that writes letters to the editors of various newspapers demanding that we should forthwith start manufacturing the Bomb, that there should be no peace talks with the Nagas, that we should declare war on Pakistan and China, that there should be an immediate exchange of the minority populations of India and Pakistan (though he means only Hindus and Muslims), that we should scrap the Five-Year plans. He assures me in a public speech that man does not live by bread alone and wistfully remarks in private that things would not have been so complicated if Ganhiji ad not been assassinated by a Muslim. Is he going to be the “great leader” of the future? Are we going to have Ram Rajya once again? This, apart from our poverty, is the question of our time. –MAY, 1965


M.S. Prabhakar, a distinguished Indian journalist, taught English literature at Gauhati University.