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Inspired by Mukul Kesavan : the magical India before 1991

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a columnist and author.  

I recently read Mukul Kesavan’s stirring article in the Hindustan Times about the India before liberalization. It made me truly nostalgic for the simpler times when we made a family trip to the wonderland called Nepal and walked the streets of Kathmandu greedily buying precious exotic Camay soap for everyone back home….

And just as Mukul Kesavan says:

In cities like Delhi and Calcutta where the poor are a kind of landscape, the promise of liberalisation — that we will consume the world in real time like the denizens of the first world — can seem unpersuasive, even grotesque. For this reason, if for nothing else, it might be useful for policy makers to look back at a time when, for admittedly perverse reasons, consumption was constrained and austerity celebrated.”

So true. It is beautiful to see Mukul Kesavan wistfully look back at a time when austere living  and luxurious language with lots of big words was celebrated. I distinctly remember that India’s poor were much better off back then. They could happily die of hunger knowing that their “austerity” would be celebrated. Mr. Kesavan is right. It does not matter how bad my life is as long as I am comfortable in the knowledge that life is horrible for everyone else as well. This is the good, austere, socialist spirit that has brought humanity out of living in caves.

Fascinated as I was by Mukul Kesavan’s article, I decided to dig back into my own memories and those of the elders in my family to find out more about pre-1991 India. What I found left me with nostalgia and a deep sense of loss at the times we have left behind. As Mukul Kesavan puts it so nicely, India before 1991 was so different that it was another country altogether. 

First, about secularism. Back then, communal riots never happened. Hindus and Muslims lived side by side together as brothers and sisters in total harmony. The Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb ruled the day. Christians always felt safe and never ever as if they are on a “hit list”. Thieves would never break into any Christian schools to steal money. No gambler ever threw a stone at any church.

In those days, India had totally secular laws. All Indian citizens were governed by the same set of rules enshrined in the Constitution, irrespective of Hindu or Muslim or Christian or whatever.

Further, in those days, there was an explosion of creativity among India’s intellectual classes. Back then, there were no sedition laws and no curbs on free speech. It was a fantastic atmosphere of open exchange of ideas. No artist was ever sent to jail for writing a poem referring to PM Nehru as “Commonwealth ka daas” (slave of the Commonwealth).

Speaking of which, I forgot to mention that back then there was no Censor Board. Film makers would express themselves freely and without fear in their creations, with no interference or coercion from the ruling government. There were no laws whatsoever that permitted the banning / censorship of books/movies/cartoons, etc.

All this was enforced by means of a non-partisan government where all high ranking officials were picked on merit rather than political loyalties. In major national institutions and academic positions, genuine scholarship was encouraged and partisan hacks were severely frowned upon.

Ah! I almost forgot! Back then, there was no Article 356 and the Central Government had immense respect for federalism. No state government was ever dismissed by the Center in an undemocratic manner. And of course, no Prime Minister ever tried to impose Emergency upon the country nor tried to become a dictator.

In pre-1991 India, the ruling party had deep rooted internal democracy and no personality cult. All the ruling party’s leadership positions, right from party president to district committee head were elected in an open democratic process by party cadres through secret ballot.  Everyone in the party could freely express their views in front of the top leadership without any fear.

In those days, the personal liberties of every citizen were respected. There were no curbs on what citizens could eat and drink. Citizens could freely consume beef in every state of the country.

It goes without saying that women had a high place in society at that time. Injustices against women were promptly set straight. So much so, that even a poor 62 year old mother of five children from Madhya Pradesh demanding alimony from her husband could get instant justice from India’s Parliament.

Back in the day, the benevolent hand of the state dealt fairly even with criminals and terrorists. No one was ever killed in a fake encounter. Every accused was duly captured and produced before a court of law and given full opportunity to prove their innocence.

I saved the most important thing for last. In those days, there was no poverty in India. The most deprived sections were rapidly lifted into the middle class during the 50s and early 60s while Nehru was alive, due to a scintillating Combined Annual Growth Rate of 1.67%! The last vestiges of poverty were quickly washed away within a few days after Indira Gandhi rode to power in 1971 on the promise of “Garibi Hatao”. In fact, raising the slogan of “Garibi Hatao” magically made food and drink appear in front of people, unlike the fruitless slogans of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” that are in circulation today. Farmers were happy, workers were happy, women were happy, students were happy, minorities were happy; it was the idea of India. 

Thinking of those bygone golden days fills me with a sense of loss, a sense of foreboding, a sense of “knowing hedonism”  and lots and lots of big words that only  Mukul Kesavan knows about…

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a columnist and author.  
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