Thursday, April 27, 2006

Indian History Trivia (3): A "Nation-in-Making"

As everyone knows now, in August 1947, we became citizens of the Independent India.

At the time of independence, however, such a statement had an "operational"/ etymological problem in terms of interpretation, viz.,

what is "Independent India"?

The appreciate the import of this point, one must look at the findings of a 1957 survey that Jamia Milia University had conducted in 150 villages in the four northern states. The findings:

  • 10% people did not know that British did not rule the country anymore!

  • about 17-18% did not know the name of their country (Oh, yes, they knew about "Bharat", since they had heard the slogans, "Bharat Mata Ki Jai" (Victory to Mother India), but they were not aware who or what "Bharat" was).

    And this was 10 years after the independence!!...

    So how does a nation become independent, when some of its own populace are not even aware of this fact? And how does a nation become a nation, when some of its inhabitant do not even know its name?

    60 years later, now, it is difficult to imagine the challenge it must have been to create a national identity, out of what, at that time, must have been a patchwork collage.

    For instance:

  • Here, we had a "country" which was the birthplace of four major world religions (Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism), had the 2nd or 3rd largest Muslim population in the world, inhabited also by ethnic strains of virtually all origins. From the point of view of the common cultural moorings, even these broad categories had their own shades of differences: the "hindu" of the north had very little in common in culture with the "hindu" of south, or the muslims of kerala (who came as traders via the sea route and got assimilated in the local community) had few commonalities with muslims of the north (who came as "invaders").... Thankfully, this diversity of India has still not changed... which is the charm of India ;0).

  • in the beginning, there was also not just one common currency in circulation. There was the Indian Rupee, which was introduced by the British government in its ruled territory around 1915-1917. However, independence also brought the princely states into the fold of "India" - and along with them other currencies, such as the Hyderabad Rupee, Travencore Rupee, the Kutch Kori, the French India Rupee, etc... Since it takes money to print money (or make coins), many of these currencies remained in use for many years after independence, before they could be phased out.

  • Perhaps, the major challenge was, how to communicate to - and integrate into a single identity - a country which had no common "national language" that everyone understands. Even at that time, the Indian Constitution recognised 14 scheduled "official" languages (grown to 22 now) and a few hundred dialect... India resembled (and still does;) the Tower of Babel - the 1961 census actually reported 1549 "mother toungues"!!!

    Hindi was proposed to be the national language, but more than half of India did not understand Hindi (and still does not). The recommendation got postponed till 1965 due to protest from the southern India - an issue that has not been resolved... Even now, only 30-40% of Indian population understand Hindi (and barely 30mn out of a population of more than 1bn speak/understand English)... So we continue with a pragmatic "twin language" system.

    To make things more complicated, there were hardly any "communication channels" which could connect one across different segments and people, for instance, even by mid-50s:

  • Radio: There were just 1.5mn radios in the country with a population of nearly 400mn. Govt of India had started a scheme of providing "community radios" to villages, but there were just 40,000 such community radios for a country of more than 500,000 viallages. In any case, radios required electricity, and there were just 37,000 towns and villages which had electricity. So the radios worked on batteries, and when the batteries would run down, one had to get them from the district headquarters. Needless the say, there was no repair facility in the villages...

  • Newspapers: The overall circualation of all newspapers (English and vernacular) was just around 3mn. Most of them were available in big cities and towns... In any case, given the overall 18% literacy rate, that was hardly a medium to communicate to people...

  • Meetings and Personal Contacts: 80% of India lived in places that were at least 20miles away from any motorable road... (some of the unsung heros in the making of India were a lot called the Village Level Workers. As a part of the Govt of India's Community Development programme, these thousands and thousands of young people spread across the remote villages of the country, lived there, and coached/coaxed the villagers on issues ranging from basic hygeine, adult literacy, to enfranchise, better ways of farming, etc.)...
    etc. etc...

    In an article written in 1959 in the Atlantic Monthly, journalist Arthur Bonner described an incident, that perhaps examplifies the "connectivity" (or the lack of it) in India at that time...

      "I stopped at a post office and saw, in a corner, a short spear with two little bells attached to the shaft near the head. I recognized it, from descriptions in books, as a spear carried by dak (mail) runners. I thought it was a relic of the days when the mail was delivered by runners who needed the spear to protect themselves from robbers and wild animals and who carried the bells just to keep up their courage as they jogged along jungle trails. But the postmaster assured me that he still delivered some of his mail by runners who took three days going out along one route and three days coming back by another."

    So isn't is a miracle of sorts, that now we have something called "India"?... which we can describe and dentify tangibly, recognise as a defined entity, feel happy/peeved about, pass judgements upon, or eulogise, its previous stakeholders, etc...

    ...and to conclude, an episode that happened just about 10 years back:

      "In 1996, on 15th August, the Independence Day, the 9th Indian Prime Minister, HP Deve Gowda stood up and delivered the traditional Independence Day Address to the Nation from the Red Fort. Like his previous eight predecessors in previous 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 either Hindi or English – and so, his Hindi speech had to be written in his native Kannada script... and was telecasted across the nation.

      I mean, where else in the world - but in India - can the Chief Executive of a nation make a speech in a language that he does not understand, addressing an audience of whom more than 60% also do not know that language!!!

    ...More than a century back, during the freedom struggle, justice Ranade had described India as a "Nation-in-Making"... In many ways, we remain a nation-in-making.. even now!!!...


    :-) said...

    wow, all the three articles are superb. i am glad i found your blog.

    Anand Surana said...

    beautiful & heart-warming post..very well written..yours was the first blog i visited & read in my life and I am glad I stumbled upon such a good one..keep it up..

    Vivek said...

    You wrote - " may be just 30-40% of Indians understand Hindi"! Where did you get those figures?

    Per 2001 Indian census - 40% of Indian population SPEAKS Hindi. To 'Speak' here means as the Mother tongue/first language. That precludes Bengalis, Gujaratis, Punjabis etc. who can speak Hindi as 'second language'

    So the number of people who understand Hindi is definitely much higher. Please check facts before posting History. Otherwise it will be mere fiction

    Madhukar said...

    from your comments on this series, one can guess that they have questioned some of your firm beliefs..

    All I can suggest is that please go somewhere in 50km diameter outside your psychologically secure urban limits, from wherever you are staying - and try to talk to people in the kind of hindi language in which the PM gives his/her speech. See if people understand you at all.

    if this factual verification does not make sense to you, then obviously one of us are living in a fictional world;0)