Egregious Historical Blunder

- Fault Lines of the Polity

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
                               –  Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

The Bard was right. (He almost invariably is!) There is, indeed, a tide in the affairs of men, and sometimes is in the affairs of nations too. The question is taking it “at the flood” or just letting it go, and repent.

May I take three events of our history to elucidate the implications of missing the tide in the “affairs of men”.

The year was 1191 A D. Yes, some eight centuries ago. The First Battle of Tarain was over. The Rajputs under Prithviraj Chauhan had defeated the invader: Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghori. He stood before the victor at his mercy. Prithviraj swayed by a stupidly false sense of Rajput chivalry, forgave him. The very next year, Ghori returned to defeat the Rajputs and take Prithviraj as prisoner. That’s how began the story of Muslim rule in north India.

Now fast-forward to the Bangladesh War and what followed it. Three months before the 1972 Shimla Conference, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto told Oriana Fallaci, the renowned Italian journalist expert in drawing out the shakers and movers of world events:

“Well, in politics you sometimes have to have light and flexible fingers ... have you ever seen a bird sitting on its eggs in the nest? Well, a politician must have fairly light, fairly flexible fingers, to insinuate them under the bird and take away the eggs. One by one. Without the bird realizing it.”

The same man sat facing Indira Gandhi after the India-Pakistan parleys at Shimla failed to come to any conclusion. He assured her that once he gets back to Pakistan and manages the Lahore lobby, he will announce what India had stipulated. When Mrs. Gandhi, after recounting their points of agreement, finally asked Bhutto:

“Is this the understanding on which we will proceed?” He replied, “Absolutely, aap mujh par bharosa keejiye (you can rely on me).”

Having been deceived and hoodwinked several times by Pakistani establishment had Indira Gandhi been adamant in demanding converting the agreed LoC into an international boundary, the ever-continuing drift of events would have ended. Her generals had been firm in December 1971 in demanding and getting complete surrender from Pakistani Army. The political leadership faltered and failed, and paid the price.

Five Fault Lines

Every observer of the contemporary Indian society is conscious that it is sitting on series of fault lines that may at any time bring about violent convulsions to tear apart the social fabric that we are taking for granted. At least five such fault lines can be identified:

  • First and foremost, the hopelessly antiquated administrative structure that upholds the system;
  • Our creaky law-making apparatus represented by Parliament at the Centre and legislative bodies in the states;
  • Our moth-eaten judicial system;
  • Our disgustingly corrupt law enforcement apparatus; and
  • Tthe overstrained invisible bond called Social Contract that holds the interlocking network

In 1947, we had a similar historical moment. And if ever there was a man who had the opportunity to build a nation and give it, after hundreds of missed opportunities, a new sense of direction, it was Jawaharlal Nehru. He frittered away the once-in-centuries chance and contented himself with just mouthing high-sounding clichés. A beginning could have been made to redesign the above lapses to prevent their assuming the stature of full-fledged Fault Lines that threaten to bring the polity apart.

History Conscious Nehru

It is worth recalling in this context the events preceding Independence. As August 15, 1947, approached, Nehru sounded, ironically enough, increasingly history conscious. When the first contingent of British troops left India he was overwhelmed. His message on the occasion was touching: “It is rare in history that such a parting takes place not only peacefully but also with goodwill”. (What experts are the wily British in creating illusions! They made both Indians and Pakistanis feel the warmth of their goodwill as they pushed them on either side of historical divide that would rankle for centuries.)

Eloquent turn of phrase was characteristic of Nehru’s command of the English language spoken in what’s today called the Indianized received accent. (Motilal had indeed made a sound investment to have his son educated at Harrow and Cambridge). He spoke feelingly in a husky voice. His carefully worked out speeches contained rhetorical flourishes aplenty.

As the fateful hour – 12 o’clock mid-night – approached, Nehru rose to address the House: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially”, he said. (How substantially you can judge by the fact that at least half of the population lives, sixty-five years after independence, below the poverty line – living a life not much superior to the level of animal existence).

“At the stroke of the midnight hour”, continued the famous “tryst with destiny” address “when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”.

Members of the House thumped their desks in spontaneous applause. Both the Hon’ble Prime Minister and Members of Parliament conveniently forgot that when it was midnight in Delhi, those who had ruled India for two centuries from afar were having their last laugh over drinks in their clubs in London. In Japan and China the sun was rising over a new day. In Washington D C it was noon. It seems when Master Joe (as Nehru was called at Harrow) was in school, the geography taught presupposed a flat earth. (This, however, is an excusable lapse on the part of a freedom-intoxicated but otherwise well-informed leader that Nehru was. His audience was under a spell whose effect hasn’t yet worn off. They continue to applaud lustily whenever their leaders address them).

Perhaps, the most significant part of that address was:

“A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

Indeed, the moment came – literally – when we slipped out from the old into the new. Yes, an age ended. Again, literally. But did the soul of a nation find utterance? Did it succeed in finding an articulate voice? When a nation steps out from the old, there is a lot that it leaves behind to start afresh. Many an oppressive institution is discarded. Plenty of old luggage is disposed of. We had a unique opportunity to take a new road. Instead, we continued traversing along the old path, content merely with the change of name.

As Nehru spoke, his party men continued cheering passionately in robust approval. (For them, anything the leader said was sacrosanct). On his own part, having once delivered the much-applauded “tryst with destiny” address, Nehru forgot all about it. He thought it was important for the Congress Party to ensure the continuity of all existing institutions to serve the ends of the new setup.

Historical Blunder

In another context Comrade Jyoti Basu coined the phrase “historical blunder”. Till the last day of his life he couldn’t forgive his colleagues in the Politburo for the “historical blunder” of not allowing him to lead the United Front in 1996 and, thereby, don the mantle of the first elected Communist Prime Minister of India. Communist can for ever argue about it as one of the dialectics of history.

In my reckoning, the real historical blunder of our polity – and an egregious historical blunder – was not to ask ourselves the hard question: now that we have the opportunity to bring into being a new order, which of our existing institutions must be scrapped lock stock and barrel; which ones must be substantially modified and which ones must be retained and carried forward?

We must, for example, prize for ever one legacy of the British rule, namely, the concept of the rule of law. Under no circumstances, must we let that welt or wither. Another prized institution is the creation of centrally controlled armed forces to ensure the territorial integrity of the country. These two must ever be kept robustly functional.

The acceptance, however, in their entirety of the law-enforcing agencies and their style of functioning that the British created  – the police system and the way it works, for instance – has been (and continues to be) an egregious mistake. The British had created these agencies to rule and not to serve the people. After six decades of independence, these agencies still deem themselves as rulers. (Have you ever been treated by a policeman with the dignity due to a citizen?) As a matter of fact most of the institutions that came into being during the British rule was specifically designed to rule and instill a sense of fear and awe amongst the ruled. Our failure to examine the working of institutions that citizens interact with and give a new orientation to their functioning to serve, rather than to rule over, people is our greatest failing after Independence.

Into Refurbished Old

Self-deluded indeed was the man who glibly talked about stepping out of the old into the new without knowing which way to go and how to reach there. The British rulers lived in sprawling bungalows in the Lutyens city. The moment these were vacated, our leaders moved in with remarkable alacrity. Nehru chose for himself the largest mansion in town. (Much to his chagrin he couldn’t  –  howsoever much he personally wanted  – convert the Viceregal Lodge into Prime Minister’s residence.) So, he settled for the residence of the last British Commander-in-Chief. Others in the Government quickly followed suit. All they did was to step out from the old to the refurbished old called new, and in great style. The polity has paid, and continues to pay, a formidable price for this failing of the rulers-to-be.

Never in India’s chequered history did a rule begin with such a seemingly inexhaustible stock of goodwill as did Nehru’s Prime Ministership. He could do almost anything. Indeed he could have acted like Achmed Sukarno in Indonesia and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana i.e., assuming near dictatorial powers and gravely subverting India’s democratic polity (which his ‘able’ daughter later tried her hand at and nearly succeeded). That he didn’t do is a matter not of small but great mercies. Other than that, what sort of polity did he leave behind in 1964 when he passed away? How would history assess Nehru? Of course, there are numerous powerful stakeholders in the preservation of Nehruvian legacy for whom it’s a blasphemy to question whatever happened during the seventeen long years of Nehru’s Prime Ministership.

It eminently suited Nehru’s successors, especially his daughter and his grandson, and today Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Baba to carry forward the contradictions of the Nehru era. Those who followed him didn’t have the courage or the caliber to question some of his fatuous assumptions. A business-as-usual policy suited them. Hence, the indefinite lease of life to the distortions called Nehruvian legacy. It is almost as if Nehru willed, to paraphrase the Bard,

“Fault lines – thou art afoot;
take what course thou wilt.”

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Next:  Perpetuation of Colonial Administrative System 


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Views: 3491      Comments: 2

Comment General Jacob said in his books Conclusion that all that India had gained in war was given back by Indira Gandhi at Simla conference. Ravi Rikhye concludes that 1971 war was Indias strategic failure as West Pakistan was not overrun, which would have settled the issue for good.
[Comment in "History Discussions" on Linkedin]

Agha A
05-Feb-2013 07:38 AM

Comment "Our failure to examine the working of institutions that citizens interact with and give a new orientation to their functioning to serve, rather than to rule over people is our greatest failing after Independence."

How true!

Mr. M C Dewedy, IPS, former DGP of Uttar Pradesh once told me about his experience while being trained early on in the Mussoorie IAS/IPS combined training school during early 1960s. He said the first lesson he was taught was that "you are here to rule the country". The trainers had verbatim copied the manuals from the British system and did not bother to re-word it. It could also be that they reviewed it and found it to be appropriate.

It is also mentioned in one of his books published later on.

03-Feb-2013 10:19 AM

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