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Self-sufficiency as history

- The passing of the tidy fantasies of a nation state

One of the dubious privileges of growing older is that you can look back at spans of time that seem long enough to count as properly historical. My father, who was born in 1909 and died at the end of the last century in 2000, would periodically let drop the fact that he had been a boy in Mylapore during the Great War when the SMS Emden, a German cruiser, bombed the Madras harbour in 1914. "That was," he would add helpfully , "a year before the Russian Revolution." He liked to follow up this story by saying that he saw the Revolution in when he was eight and saw it out when he was eighty .

In comparison, my generation born in the 1950s was short-changed in the matter of world-historical memories. Bengal is full of people who can claim to have seen the Left Front government in and then out 34 years later, but that claim lacks a certain sort of something. Given the scale of the parent revolution, I can see some College Street wit claiming 1917 for tragedy and 1977 for farce.

By the time they were forty my fatherís contemporaries had lived through two world wars, two epochal communist revolutions, the genocidal Partition of the subcontinent and the inauguration of the Indian republic. Luckily for us, we grew up in less eventful times. The conflict that shaped our childhood was the Cold War and given Nehruvian non-alignment, this was a war in which Indians were spectators, not participants.

My experience of war was limited to helping dig diagonal trenches in the garden and blacking out the upper half of the Fiatís headlights and the window panes of the house. I can remember sirens sounding and lights being doused but no bombs fell and the trenches were never actually used. Our wars with Pakistan were short; the two countries managed to fight themselves to a standstill both times in less than two or three weeks. This wasnít the stuff of collective memory; it wasnít the Blitz.

I remember poring over photographs of Gnats and Hunters and MystŤres and Vampires in a small handbook of military aircraft as an eight-year-old trying to compare their specs with the lethally modern-looking Starfighters and Sabres that the Pakistan air force flew. I have a vivid radio memory of a propaganda broadcast on Akashvani. It was a satirical news bulletin mocking the war claims of Radio Pakistan and it began, ďYeh Radio Jhootistan haiÖĒ I was more startled than amused because news bulletins on All-India Radio were generally spoken with such Olympian detachment that this sudden animation seemed grotesque.

For salaried Central government employees and their families in the 1960s and 1970s, life seemed to unfold in an eternal Nehruvian present. Regardless of the fluctuations in its political fortunes, the Congress seemed to have a permanent lien on the Union government and Congress prime ministers seemed destined to die in office. If history was change, civil servants and their families were immune to history because nothing ever changed around them.

And if it did, it was hard to tell from the news on All-India Radio and (later) Doordarshan. News in these government-owned networks was a menu of happenings hierarchically ordered by servants of the State. In a time of competing news channels and limitless online information it is hard to imagine how meagre, tedious and shamelessly State-centric radio and television news was till the last decade of the century. To take just one example: Indira Gandhi was assassinated in the morning of October 31, 1984. All-India Radio didnít announce her death till the evening. Her death, like the razing of the Babri Masjid in 1992, was reported on BBC World Service well before it was announced on Indian radio and television.

So the news was a kind of pablum processed by the State for our consumption. The newspapers were more independent but they were staid, incurious broadsheets that dealt in opinion and wire reports and seldom departed from the prevailing sarkari consensus. The Illustrated Weekly of India, an odd general interest magazine, which carried photographs of recently married couples in its backpages, ruled the English periodical market and news magazines didnít properly exist till Sunday and India Today arrived in the mid-1970s.

Our world didnít change because our world wasnít reported on. It was first neutered by the ministry of information and broadcasting then narrated by news readers who never changed either: Melville De Mellow, Surojit Sen, Latika Ratnam, Pratima Puri, Salma SultanÖ

Foreign news was a series of noises off. We were aware of the Vietnam war and the Arab-Israeli conflict and Nato and the Warsaw Pact, but thanks to the official ideology of non-alignment (which we had completely internalized), the world was a volatile place made unstable by the Cold War, in which India was the still, stable centre.

We had implacable enemies and permanent friends. Our passports made it clear that Israel and South Africa were pariah states. Non-alignment taught us that Josip Tito was a colossus, that Nasser and the Arab states were our friends, that Cento was a neo-imperialist conspiracy (which was true) and that Seato was made up of a bunch of corrupt countries unworthy of our attention (which was not).

Domestically, the main narrative in our lives, our Whig version of history, was Indiaís incremental but relentless progress towards complete self-reliance. Self-sufficiency was the flipside of non-alignment, and both together were essential for real independence. Every act and policy of the State fed into this narrative and we identified with it: the nationalization of banks, the Green Revolution, the investment in heavy industry, the dream o f a desi fighter plane, the HF 24 Marut, the Pokharan nuclear test, the huge customs duties charged on imported goods, the pride in knowing that Tata made heavy trucks, that Hindustan Motors made cars, that the Fiat Millicento had been successfully transformed into the Premier Padmini.

This middle-class sense of massive, unchanging stability was consolidated by the fact that our roads were filled with two sorts of cars that hadnít seen a model change in decades, that our shelves filled with brands that seemed eternal and the fact that no shop seemed to have gone out of business in Connaught Place since that colonnaded colonial market was built. When I went to England as a student in 1980, I was startled by rapidity with which shops appeared and disappeared.

In the India that I had come from, we were committed to progress without change at a Hindu rate of growth. The sameness was punctuated by natural disasters and patriotic wars but the nationís trajectory, its ever-onwards march to perfect self-sufficiency remained the main story.

This freedom from history last ed till the Emergency which by its very nature made it clear to the country's bureaucratic elite that something was amiss. With the end of the Emergency and the end of continuous Congress rule, History came visiting again. It brought in its wake the secessionist insurgency in Punjab, the assassination of an Indian prime minister, the massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, Mandal, Mandir, Masjid, Kashmir, the Bombay pogrom, the Gujarat killings, 'liberalization', 'Maoist' insurgency , BMWs on our streets and mobiles pressed to our ears.

It isnít as easy to make sense of the direction of Indian lives today as it was in that Nehruvian noon, but on balance it is probably better to live in the chaos of the real world than the tidy fantasies of a nation state.