Those were the days – or were they?
K. SHANKAR BAJPAI
THIS birthday issue also marks 30 years since Seminar lost its founders. Valiantly as it has carried on in their spirit and tradition, the kind of life Raj and Romesh Thapar gave it through their own lives was unique to them. They could infuse it with the vitality, values and effectiveness made possible by the extraordinary range of interests, contacts and activity which animated them, enabling their brainchild to range far and wide for subjects and contributors. Of course, the times themselves made a real difference: it was then not just possible, it was the norm to enjoy the kind of reasoned, open, often hard-hitting, heated or even ferocious, but mostly civil, discussion that is the mark of a mature society. Autres temps, autres moeurs; the whole world has changed, and its ways, in our case seeing a once inspiring lodestar disappear: the primacy of reason.
Those were certainly not days of wine and roses: we were all shadowed by the horrors of Partition, fully conscious of our challenges, dangers and weaknesses, of the endless, steep road ahead, all the more perilous in that atmosphere of global conflict. But still we had hope – more, the indisputable conviction of great things coming, not just dreams and longings but Milton’s ‘sober certainty of waking bliss.’ All of us who had been formed in the years leading to Independence, we who were that famous midnight’s witnesses, while full of concern for problems we saw more clearly than our people as a whole, also took it as axiomatic that a great new India was about to burst forth, stable and prospering at home, admired and influential abroad, one of the major formative forces of an equitable, peaceful world order. On this 70th anniversary of that rebirth, we are in a very different India. Were we wrong in our beliefs and aspirations, or has something else gone wrong?
Perhaps ‘wrong’ is itself the wrong word; we should think of ‘real’ and ‘realistic’. One statistical fact has much to tell us: in our first elections, in 1951-2, the electorate totalled 173 m, of whom 110 m voted; in our latest, 815 m could vote, and some 540 m did. Clearly, what weighed with those far fewer Indians, and in those vision-fed times, was vastly different from what now weighs with a half-billion, disillusioned, frustrated, though still doubtless, if differently, hopeful and young. The latter’s concerns, desires, attitudes obviously need very different handling from those of a far less politically conscious people seventy years ago. Yet, leadership counts in much the same way, and determines the tone that is set. Raj and Romesh Thapar and their Seminar could contribute to doing that to an extent one can hardly imagine now.
Other names would mean little now even to those who read this, but they illustrate the life of those days. Delhi was still a very small place – indeed it was not merely a joke to say there were just 2,000 people in all of India – and yet it was far from being some closed, snobby circle as is sometimes supposed. People lived modestly – and behaved so, at least mostly. But it was the level of discourse, both public and between individuals, that was so different.
Parliament held serious debates, the Rajya Sabha maintaining a particularly impressive standard. Ditto media commentaries, with columnists as well as editors who counted – Sham Lal, G.K. Reddy, Inder Malhotra, Kishan Bhatia as notable as their predecessors-turned-chiefs, Frank Moraes, Prem Bhatia, Pran Chopra, S. Mulgaokar, Girilal Jain – not forgetting Kuldip Nayar and S. Nihal Singh, still happily with us. These, along with cabinet ministers, senior civil servants and some just plain folk intermingled, even inter-dined, and listened to each other.
Perhaps the most striking new element was the academics – some scientists, led by the incomparable Homi Bhabha (although a Bombayite, often in Delhi), but most of all the economists – the most gifted of all now least remembered, V.K. Ramaswami and, of course, I.G. Patel, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, K.N. Raj, to name just a few. Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, P.N. Dhar were to play even bigger roles but kept more to their own. There was almost a feeling that the thinking of these experts would transform India overnight!
And then there was the sense of excitement over the cultural renaissance. Not only in that official village that was burgeoning into our capital, but in all the major cities there started to be a life outside work – and gossip. Our musical revival was the most striking, but artists started demonstrating some vitality. Nor should we underestimate the encouragement given to bringing our craftsmen the respect they deserved, special thanks being due to the great ladies who worked so devotedly to that end – Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Kitty Shiva Rao, Lady Hydari in Hyderabad, the entire MARG group in Bombay and, the most remarkable of them all, Pupul Jayakar, who would have you spend one evening with Buckminster Fuller, another with Isamu Noguchi, now Charles Eames, now Krishnamurti, Andre Malraux or the editors of Vogue.
Cover: Dilip Chowdhury Associates
That was another part of the flavour – the openness we showed and the interest we evoked beyond our borders. Other countries sent us quality exhibitions and we lent our great sculptures and miniatures; some of the greatest orchestras came despite our not having anything like a concert hall, and not only because a great son of India devotedly returned with his Philharmonics. An Octavio Paz found stimulus in being an Ambassador here, a J.B.S. Haldane even settled here. Today’s cultural scene in India is wider, and enormously vibrant, but what happened to our intellectual curiousity? After a Picasso exhibition drew as few of our citizens as one of the greatest modern dance groups, Merce Cunningham’s, nobody bothers to send us anything of note, to say nothing of the frustrations of our own creative elements.
We do not adequately realize the importance of the metaphorical climate, the surrounding atmosphere in which we conduct our lives. Today’s equivalents of the kind of people referred to here, are by no means less intelligent, decent or just plain nice but the ethos has totally changed. Much more goes on but there has been a narrowing of the mind and its interests. Fine exceptions notwithstanding, not just individuals but whole sections of our society, like some of the young(ish) professionals – those apart, what we as a people think about, above all how we think about anything, has sea-changed. To summarize an enormously complex set of issues: for a while, the influence of the Enlightenment was at work amongst us; now, few would know what that means, or care.
One snapshot may convey the larger scene. Raj and Romesh would be having a dinner with Pupul or Mulk Raj Anand or Raja Rao on one of his increasingly rare excursions from his village, L.K. Jha (Finance Secretary), L.P. Singh (Home) or Yezdi Gundevia (Foreign), Lovraj and Dharma Kumar (then Burma Shell and Delhi School of Economics respectively) or S. Gopal ( the historian), never more than 10 at table, the conversation covering politics, the economy, the arts, gardening or cooking, the master plan for Delhi or the next five year plan. Andrew Shonfield, Editor of The Observer might be passing through, or Abe Rosenthal (of The New York Times), Krishna Menon would interrupt with some long phone call, or it could have been Satyajit Ray from Calcutta or Bobby Kooka from Bombay about the latest Air India crisis, or even the great JRD himself.
So what was so special about that? No less scintillating ensembles are doubtless now manifold in our teeming metropolis (though the idea of a few friends from different walks of life sitting together in lively conviviality seems to have been overtaken by melas of as many people you can get together to imbibe for hours, gobble the latest caterer’s fare and go straight home – or to another jamboree). What distinguished that early period was the freedom with which we could open up to each other, with frankness in civility, but above all with eyes on widening horizons and an endless desire to learn. In a word, we were looking for the modern world in its own terms.
This short essay cannot even attempt to do justice to what constitutes modernity, much less to what constitutes India’s distinctiveness, but the specific meaning of the term as used here is simply the readiness of a state, a society, a nation, to use knowledge, especially the corrections and additions to existing knowledge, for its own betterment. This is the opposite of clinging to outdated – often outlandish – beliefs and practices, which not only cannot cope with evolving challenges or pre-sent needs, but actually endanger what exists. Imagine what would have happened if the established churches had kept torturing people for doubting that the earth is flat.
In our case, India succumbed to colonialism basically because we refused to shed outdated ways. Even now, we continue to blame colonialism for our disadvantages without asking ourselves why we succumbed: no great armadas were sent to invade us, no thundering hordes poured through the Khyber, a mere handful of adventurers from oceans away got the better of us – even in intrigue. True, we had betrayals, but those too were from a failure to understand what was going on. The colonizers won because we could not match them in their organization, training, discipline, improved weaponry, not least their thinking ahead – in a word, their modernity.
The only answer was ‘Never Again’: we too must modernize. Indeed, that was what our early reformers believed, Ram Mohun Roy being the leading example. To begin with, it was their heirs who set the tone in our independence. It is now obvious that some two centuries of exposure to modernity barely scratched our surface; in the struggle for freedom and briefly thereafter, a thin crust – no, a mere sliver – of our people tried to haul us into modern times and ways. That we have it in us is emblazoned by our brain power, the space programme and info-technology as well as artistic creativity at home, the extraordinary achievements of our emigres abroad. Put an Indian anywhere in the world, (s)he excels, only here we stifle. Raj and Romesh Thapar, Seminar, those who read it and the hugely greater circles who were of the same outlook, believed in that modernizing; they believed in the primacy of reason.
The countries in which efforts to make life more equitably decent appear to be more genuine and serious, are surely those in which the 18th century Enlightenment has left this supreme legacy: the role of reason in man’s affairs. Ugly forces are always at work everywhere; the countries which gave us the Enlightenment also inflicted the worst horrors on peoples they considered primitive, from the slave trade to ruthless colonization. Yet, every country that emerged from that subjugation, started off as converts to the ideals that had made their conquerors succeed, that use of Reason and its modernizing effects, not least in democracy. And India shone far and away ahead of all.
Perhaps the power of the past was bound to overtake us as it did so many others: we all revert to nature. But it does seem that those who could have made a difference, those Seminarists, so to speak, who thought and believed as referred to above, missed out on the greatest need: how to make themselves relevant to the general mass of our peoples who marched to different drummers. The French thinker Julien Benda saw the decay of France before its fall as due to la trahison des clercs, meaning broadly the failure of the intellective classes to adapt to their wider environment, political or human or engender support for their own views. We in India have been going through the same phenomenon. Probably it wouldn’t have made any difference, the Seminarist classes never could absorb the larger elements, but they need not have disdained the rough and tumble of our politics, kept aloof and become ever more irrelevant.
It has become increasingly fashionable to blame everything that is wrong in India, or goes wrong for it, on our first prime minister, specifically on what is modishly sneered at as ‘Nehruvian socialism’. We ignore the fact that we have all believed in socialism; no one then or even today could get away from its hold on our entire country. Actually, nobody who grew up in the decades leading to the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, Word War II and specially in an environment formed under colonial rule, could have been anything but socialist. It is not surprising that the only (feeble) effort in India to promote an economically rightist party, what was really little more than one of Rajaji’s little mischief ploys, the Swatantra Party, flickered out almost before it showed itself.
It is true that the socialism dominated era had its own pressures for the True Orthodoxy: it was not easy to get a hearing for other views – but as much because there was no audience for them than for any imposition. The business leaders of the day hardly offered a credible alternative, quite content to make their profits under the license system. They certainly manifested no capacity to build the steel mills, dams, power plants that were so badly needed. It is true that they were criticized too loosely, and others too – all too easily condemned as American stooges for questioning prevailing trends. The delightful Piloo Mody mocked them by attending Parliament with a placard; ‘I am a CIA agent’, but only Seminarists were amused for the true Seminarists were free of these prejudices. The Thapars readily carried say a Rajni Kothari, one of our great pioneers in socio-political studies, when he was so disgustingly attacked for ‘rightist’ inclinations. Yes, Seminar suited the Nehru era, but in its own right and on its own terms.
Politicians now bow to what they see as public opinion, leading from behind. Yet, the direction and pace of wherever we are going is still determined by relatively small circles. The Seminar constituency of yore cannot be said to have had much influence even then, but they sustained a level of public discourse that was both high in itself and of some consequence in that it did leave a few scratches on decision maker’s minds. We, meaning those who were part of that Seminar’s world, are now laughable, in size or relevance, in an India that would probably add derision for the way we think. Was that inevitable, as part of India’s changes, or were we always a sort of implant, a graft that was bound to be rejected?
Many today would say yes, flatly and straightaway: of course, you were just a bit of flotsam of an elite with neither any relationship to nor any understanding of the great mass of our people, and your inflated (self) importance lasted only as long as some like you were in government – like the Nehru family. It is probably true that something of that sort occurred in all states that emerged from colonial rule – a more or less small (western) educated minority led independence movements to form western-type governments that were soon thrown aside as native practices returned. India long looked like the exception, going forward towards industrialization, social equity and democratic consolidation with exemplary success. And doubtless this thin-crust elite had something to do with that, just as subsequent departures from that initial trajectory may be said to show up their essential alien-ness.
But elites are necessary: no state or society has ever evolved, anywhere, without the leadership of an elite, which is simply that element in a nation that sets a national agenda and norms of behaviour. The devotion to egalitarianism has confused elitism, which is self-serving and obviously bad, with elites proper which are vital. Communist states theoretically represent the greatest egalitarianism, but nowhere are there more structured hierarchies – revolutions in fact are changes of elites. ‘Take but degree away, untune that string/And hark what discord follows.’
There is at present a tense stand-off between India and China, so the frequent comparisons between the two are not exactly welcome, but one aspect needs attention. Till the 1980s, we both suffered from much the same backwardness and were inching forward at a similar pace. It was not just the economic side of the Deng transformation that made the difference. China has gone ahead by leaps and bounds across the board for one basic reason: it saw the need to be modern. For all its traditional attitudes to the world, and a striking attachment to its own culture, it drew from the humiliations it keeps referring to the true lesson for ‘Never Again’: go to the forefront of our times. A famous statesman, some years ago at a private discussion group, complimented the experts who had been analysing comparatively India and China, but the summing up he was asked to give really said it all: ‘You are all doubtless quite right, but the real difference is this: China is a closed society but in it are minds open and eager to learn about the world; India is an open society but with closed minds and a know-it-all attitude.’
Raj and Romesh and this periodical had and lived for open minds that could keep learning, so we too could be at the forefront of our times. How very, very much do we need them still.