Depending on your personal or even ideological preferences, October 31 was either Indira Gandhi’s 30th death anniversary or the newly declared National Unity Day honouring Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on his birthday.
On this day in earlier years, the morning newspapers used to be chock-a-block with display advertisements from central ministries, state governments and even public sector companies commemorating the former Prime Minister’s ‘martyrdom’; Doordarshan used to telecast the prayer meeting from the lawns of the bungalow where the assassination happened; and all eyes used to be on the political inheritors of the Nehru-Gandhi mantle.
This year, the focus was on the Run for Unity and the celebration of a stalwart who, many feel, was the best prime minister India never had. Indeed, had it not been for the token advertisement taken out by the Congress and the rarefied discussions on TV, the last traces of the ancien regime would have been erased.
Perhaps the stick needed to be bent the other way. For just too long the chronicles of post-Independence India have been officially cast as the history of one family, with some bit players chipping in for relief. The three members of the Nehru-Gandhi family who were prime ministers for a total of nearly 36 years and one member who ruled by remote control for another 10 years certainly left a deep mark on contemporary India. Ignoring their role would be tantamount to replicating the communist habit of airbrushing individuals from the pages of history to suit political fashion. But can their memory exercise monopoly control?
Counterfactual history — the spirited ‘what if ’ debates — can’t substitute for what really did happen. It is likely that had Mahatma Gandhi gone along with most of the Congress party and chosen Sardar Patel to be India’s first Prime Minister, the course of history would have been quite different. Indeed, it may be said that many of the political impulses that are visible since the victory of Narendra Modi in May this year can be traced back to currents that were overwhelmed and driven underground by the Nehruvian steamroller for six decades.
That despite being the objects of derision, condescension and even persecution, alternative ways of looking at India’s past — and, by implication, its present — persisted tells a story.
In his book Hinduism, Nirad Chaudhuri referred to the “religious vandalism” that India experienced from the 11th to the end of the 17th century when “all the great cities of northern India dating from Hindu times were sacked” by invaders and conquerors and “only ruins of the temples were to be seen”.
But, he noted, “the Hindus did not forget the houses of their gods. When at the beginning of the 18th century the Jesuit priest and mathematician Tiffenthaler travelled from the west coast of India to Malwa he saw in the evenings the flickering lights of the earthen lamps placed in these ruins by the villagers at some risk to themselves”.
The Jesuit priest’s account is evocative and suggests that collective memory cannot be moulded and determined by state patronage alone. The Nehruvians and the dynasts were last among a long line of rulers that sought to manufacture a state-sponsored common sense. They were only partially successful and that too only among elites linked to the ruling establishment. Like the forlorn earthen diyas flickering sadly in the ruins, there remained pockets of passive resistance that kept alive the proverbial old gods. Indoctrination can only work when the new mantra of correctness corresponds to the lived experiences of people.
The Soviet Union tried to create a new socialist man but when the Red Empire disintegrated after seven decades, the ideologues were surprised to find that old social institutions and old memories were remarkably intact in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia.
Likewise, despite the orchestrated Maoist vandalism of past symbols, communist China has had to come to terms with an inheritance that stretches a long way before 1949.
What we are witnessing in India are the first small steps of a corrective process, an attempt to rescue the past from the clutches of ideological regimentation.
To those overcome by disquiet and fear, there is a simple but stark message: there is no one ‘idea’ of India. Our civilization begs pseudo-scientific definition.