Clio is an anarchist
Letters to the editor


Thin gravy train

Indian railways is on a slow train to obsolescence and financial collapse. It has been bled dry with a populist knife for decades. The railways are being cannibalized by two policies: the use of freight revenue to subsidize passengers and steady cuts in capital investment. How much a minister rolls back these two trends is what distinguishes the good, bad and ugly of railway budgets. In her maiden effort the Union minister for railways, Ms Mamata Banerjee, has succumbed to the siren call of “pro-people” policies. In other words, sacrifice the long term future of Indian railways for the instant gratification of lower middle class voters.

Ms Banerjee has avoided the path of Mr Ram Vilas Paswan, who looted railway coffers to pamper Hajipur in Bihar. West Bengal has been endowed, but not extravagantly. However, she has shown none of Mr Nitish Kumar’s bravery who, in his first railway budget, tried to reverse the trend of cross subsidization. By freezing passenger rates and increasing freight rates by roughly five per cent, Ms Banerjee can claim to have moderated her populist inclination. But the slow train to obsolescence and financial collapse continues on its path.

The railways jack up their freight rates to keep ticket prices for passengers down. This has ensured freight rates so high that trucks now carry most of the country’s freight. Ms Banerjee has bravely said Indian railways plan to recapture market share and is aiming for half the freight business. Higher freight tariffs make this unlikely. With freight revenues shrinking, ministers have slashed capital expenditure to pay the passenger subsidy — a bill of Rs 2.8 billion last year. The results: overcrowded bogies, outdated technology and more accidents. With no money, Indian railways has run ever more trains on the same amount of track to handle more passengers. Between 1951 and 1997, freight traffic increased 6.35 times and passenger traffic 5.36 times. Running track increased by only 36 per cent and passenger carrying coaches by 194 per cent during the same time. Railways are stretched to the limit — safety and service can only suffer.

Ms Banerjee claimed her budget stresses safety. She cited the H.R. Khanna commission on railway safety which said Rs 150 billion was needed to introduce the needed technology and systems. With a rail system already running on empty, and a Central government with even less in its pocket, the question is where the money will come from. Notably Ms Banerjee could only say that investment in safety would be carried out “to the extent possible”. The extent is unlikely to be great. The recent pattern of ministers announcing new trains and services which receive only cosmetic funding bodes ill for the supposed stress on safety.

The Indian government is riddled with similar financial follies, other sectors so hobbled by subsidies that the entire government stumbles around for funds. These include fertilizers, petroleum products and higher education. Like previous governments, that of Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee knows full well that the “subsidy raj’’ is unaffordable. That it ensures the government’s inability to finance primary education, irrigation, infrastructure and healthcare — fields desperately in need of government funding. The Centre’s fiscal deficit, running well above the 5.5 per cent of gross domestic product that New Delhi claims, is in large part a result of this ocean of subsidies.

The Vajpayee regime has been talking of a hard budget, of trimming the subsidy fat that is helping make the fisc so sclerotic. Ms Banerjee’s status quo< railway budget sends the signal that New Delhi — under pressure from its allies and populist elements within the Bharatiya Janata Party — is likely to do little more than click its fiscal blades in the air for effect.    


Two contending versions of Indian history and two sets of patrons are at war in the Indian Council for Historical Research. This is a polite way of saying that these two ways — in which the powers that control the Indian state want Indian history to be tailored — are fighting a battle by proxy.

Those who control the ICHR today, and they are, needless to add, loyalists and clients of the most important patron in India today — the Bharatiya Janata Party — are arguing that historians who are in charge of the Towards Freedom project are hellbent on belittling the role of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha in the Indian national movement. Therefore, they want these volumes to come under closer scrutiny and not be published till they have been “properly’’ reviewed.

The step is not without precedent. An earlier volume prepared by P.N. Chopra was withdrawn by the then president of the ICHR, Irfan Habib, because it had failed to meet the guidelines. This reason was an euphemism for the fact that Chopra did not have the approval of “secular’’ historians.

It is being assumed in this controversy that there can be only one acceptable version of the Indian national movement. The version becomes acceptable because it has the stamp of approval of the ICHR or in other words the government of the day. Consider a scenario in which the Towards Freedom project, instead of lingering on for over 20 years, had been finished within a reasonable period of time. Then the volumes would have gone to the publisher well before the BJP came to power. And the volumes would have acquired the status of the standard and accepted version in much the same way as The Transfer of Power volumes published by Her Majesty’s government are considered the standard basis by most Anglo-Saxon historians who work on the endgame of empire. The names of the two projects reveal the approach that is implicit. The delay has meant that the BJP has got a chance to get in its own version.

The very idea that there can be a version of the Indian national movement (or for that matter any other period) which is conceived and sponsored by the state is inevitably fraught with difficulties. The general editor of the Towards Freedom volumes, S. Gopal, noted in his preface to the only volume to be published that documents drawn from regional languages would not be prominent in most of the volumes. He added, “A fully comprehensive selection from these sources merits a separate project”.

There is the glint of a recognition here that the movements towards freedom in the various regions that make up India could have had different trajectories and rhythms than the ones traced in the volumes under preparation. Indeed, a project like the one Gopal mentions could throw up a completely different perspective from one emanating out of London (as incorporated in the Transfer of Power volumes) and New Delhi (the ICHR volumes).

An example can perhaps be given here of the way a different perspective can radically alter the understanding of the national movement. Sumit Sarkar, who is an editor of a volume in the Towards Freedom series, showed in a celebrated essay that in the mid-Forties the Congress leadership was under pressure from a series of mass movements outside its control. Many of these movements were violent and the mobilization was not along Gandhian lines.

Their aims and aspirations were not similar to those of the Congress. Sarkar showed how the decisions taken by the Congress leadership in that period were influenced by these protest movements. Over the negotiations between the Congress and the British fell the shadow of these protest movements. It appeared from this analysis that the Congress, the putative champion of the Indian national movement, greedy for power, had been more than enthusiastic about a negotiated and a truncated transfer of power.

Documents in regional languages might make it necessary to rethink the significance of events and the whole idea of one unified national movement striving towards one unified goal might itself be open to doubt and negotiation. The idea of India might itself become a chimera. It is significant that a government-sponsored body, based in New Delhi and existing on Central government funds does not think of a collection of documents which might in fact upset a unified and national perspective.

This is not surprising since an attempt to impose its own version of history is part of the will to power that lies at the heart of nation-states. The national always gets precedence over the confederal. The narrative of the freedom movement becomes one of “nation in the making”. All the features of a diverse and rich resistance against alien domination are scripted to fit into the emergence of a modern nation-state. There might be debates about the heroes of the script between those who call themselves “secular” historians and their rivals in the saffron brigade but there are no differences in the basic teleology. Control over an independent nation- state and its instruments of domination and intellectual apparatus is seen as the goal of the freedom struggle.

The great communal-secular divide therefore does not appear to be a divide at all, but the opposite sides of the same coin. Both sides are concerned with using state power and its perquisites. Hence, the battle over a seat of patronage and over the use of history. The question about the need for a body like the ICHR to monitor research in history is hardly ever raised.

The principal problem with this kind of history which carries on it an official stamp of approval is that it applies a closure by blocking off — in fact by erasing — alternative ways of imagining the nation. Whatever is unconnected with the making of a nation-state gets relegated to the margins; they become local, fragmentary, insufficient and inadequate. It is assumed that there were two ways of imagining India. One came forth full-bloomed, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, out of the vision of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and the other in a similar manner from V.V. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar. (The Gandhi-Nehru version always deliberately underplays that there were crucial differences between Gandhi and his protégé about state power and its nature.)

There is an even more profound question lurking behind all these issues. It relates to the possibility of an Indian historiography of India. Both the terms Indian and India are open to contest and continuous negotiations. There is no easy definition of either in a society as rich and as plural as the geographical land mass called India. One thing is obvious that such a historiography allows for no official version of the kind that governments try to project and sponsor. Imagining a nation is free and ought to be so.

Such an anarchic idea — and I use the word anarchic advisedly — runs against Clio’s grain. Clio, since the time of chronicles to the development of more sophisticated analytical narratives, has always ridden piggy-back on power. The king of the chronicles has been replaced by the modern state. At the root of an Indian historiography of India is a critique of the academic discipline of history. History can only emerge stronger and richer from such a review. Are Indian historians open to this challenge instead of signing self-serving petitions against this or that clique ruling the roost in the ICHR?    


Rules against humanity

Sir — Rules are made to be broken — hasn’t the Central Board of Secondary Education heard of this cliché? All Arti Sharma wanted was a mere half hour extra to finish her Class X board examination paper, and this not as a special favour, but because she is severely handicapped, she writes with her left hand holding on to her right hand to control its involuntary movement. Why will not the CBSE grant this 17-year-old girl this much? Why should she have to waste precious time and energy to go to the courts to claim something that should be her right? The Indian bureaucracy is famed for its obstructiveness, but in Sharma’s case the CBSE has proved to be downright brutal, all in the name of scrupulosity, of course.

Yours faithfully,
K. Sen,

Heights of conflict

Sir — Bhaskar Ghose knows both the government and the private sectors from close quarters (“So nice and private”, Feb 17). However, certain points need to be mentioned with regard to his article. It is the public hospital — he calls them “charnel houses” — that provides basic healthcare in rural India. However badly managed because of shortage of funds, they cater to the people below the poverty line. No private hospital would venture to enter into the rural areas, simply because there is no money in this sector. The “commitment” to shared ideals and objectives of private enterprises comes only where there is profit. Regarding Ghose’s observation that mainly public enterprise employees go on strike, it would suffice to mention that private sector employees simply cannot afford to go on strike even if they want to. Who would like to be thrown out for expressing one’s dissatisfaction? And does a strike necessarily mean that the employees are not committed to the organization’s cause?

In the end, there are only two kinds of enterprises: good ones and bad ones. It hardly matters whether they are public or private. Being a developing nation still, India has not yet reached a stage where public enterprises can be got rid of.

Yours faithfully,
Amit Behera,

Sir — Ashok Mitra’s example of the wretched condition of the Russian economy after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union reminds one of George Bernard Shaw’s words on V.I. Lenin (“Survival of the freest”, Feb 16) :“If the future is as Lenin foresaw it, then we may all smile and look forward to it. But if the experiment fails, if the world persists on its capitalistic lines, then I shall have to take a very melancholy farewell of you.”

China has also adopted a pragmatic approach and partly taken recourse to an open market economy. Deng Xiao Ping declared that the reforms would not make the country subservient to capitalist ideology. China refuses to act as a subordinate economy, peripheral to the developed countries. India should learn from the Chinese success as well as the Russian failure. Random privatization may be counter-productive for India.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjit Kumar Guha Roy,

Nothing fruitful has yet come out of the national labour commission, formed by the previous A.B. Vajpayee government to bring flexibility in the existing labour laws and the labour market in both the organized and unorganized sectors. The existing labour laws do not permit retrenchment even when a unit is limping with an overprotected labour force, though it is risky to give the management absolute right to “hire and fire”. The commission must immediately rationalize the existing laws and recommend appropriate legislation.

Yours faithfully,
Samir Bose,
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