If we had a clearer picture of how India changed after independence, we might have a better sense of where it is going today. But how to encompass half a century’s history of hundreds of millions of people? Like a geologist analysing cross-sections of strata to understand how rock was formed and what may lie beneath, “Slicing India” examines the people, institutions, movements and diversions that were prominent in five specific years — the years of the Kumbh Mela when most of north India turns its attention for six weeks to Allahabad: 1954, 1966, 1977, 1989 and 2001. The last Kumbh Mela under British rule was in 1942, held at the same time that Singapore fell and as the Japanese were advancing through Burma. By 1954, India had been free for nearly seven years …
The Kumbh Mela of 1954, intended to be a celebration of the new India, became the greatest single day of death since the partition of 1947. On the main bathing day of 3 February, a crowd vastly greater than expected, estimated at between two and four million people, moved towards the confluence of the Ganga and Jamuna (the sangam) to bathe. When processions of holy men, demanding privileged right of way, became entangled with the crowds, frightened pilgrims ran, tripped, fell and tumbled down embankments made muddy with winter rain. Officially, 14 children, 49 men and 253 women were killed and thousands injured. Though the Prime Minister and other “vms” watched from the ramparts of Allahabad’s famous Fort, the size of the crowd was so great that the stampede was not evident and they did not learn of it until late in the afternoon. This was a stark metaphor for the new India: the rulers standing on the walls of an ancient fortress able to see the people, yet unaware that the people were surging to their deaths.
In the aftermath, one of the accusations was that politicians and officials had sought a record-breaking Kumbh Mela crowd to demonstrate the vitality of the new India. The chairman of the inquiry denied the allegation. “Hundreds of thousands of people have been coming to Prayaga to bathe in the Sangam for thousands of years from all over India”, he wrote. Their “irresistible inner urge and undying faith” meant that “no propaganda is needed to induce such people to come”. And in this year, “the news … spread and reached every corner of the country” that “this year’s Kumbh was of extraordinary significance”, a particularly auspicious occasion, happening only once every 144 years”.
The Mela in 1954 united two different impulses: the “irresistible inner urge” of ordinary Hindus and the visions and ambitions of the men and women trying to remake the Indian state. Even the author of the inquiry report conceded that the way in which the Kumbh Mela elicited a common do-or-die spirit in so many people in so many parts of India represented “a valuable asset in the national character of a people,” because it did not need government incitement.
There was little doubt that government and leaders sought to make the Kumbh Mela a great event. The railways promoted their special trains to the festival, and officials in charge of arrangements were said to have been “animated by the feeling that the 1954 Mela, being the first big Kumbha at Prayaga after independence … should be made a grand success”. The Planning Commission took the opportunity to bring “home to millions of people” the virtues of the First Five-Year Plan “through Charts, Models, Maps, Radio Talks and Film Shows” at the Mela. And leading politicians and their associates made well-publicised plans to attend.
Clash of great words
Great words clashed in the Kumbh Mela and its aftermath. “Democracy”, “modernity” and “tradition”, and the way characteristics of each might blend into the new India, were examined and questioned. The Mela seemed a potent force for “mobilising the masses” since it drew millions of people to a single place with very little government effort. Surely this was an expression of the popular will and should be welcomed and used. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) told parliament that he went tome Kumbh Mela “to meet the people of India who had gathered there in mighty numbers.” He always “made it a point,” however, “to abstain from bathing.” The “modern man” aimed to use the “age-old sentiment” to communicate with “the people.”
This tension ran through the year and the time. Newly-elected politicians and legislatures sought to uplift the masses, revive Indian culture, expunge the stains of colonialism, make a mark on world affairs, reward themselves for years of suffering in the freedom movement — in short, to create a new India. There were various road maps and plans of how this might be done, but all were charts of unknown country. No one had ever tried to make democracy work in a country as large and diverse as India, whose population in 1954 approached 400 million people.
Democracy itself seemed to sit uneasily with the requirements of crowd control and the intense emotional experience that even the Home Minister of the Government of India felt “connected him with his ancestors of a thousand years ago who had attended past Kumbhs”. The huge crowds were “the people”, as many of “the people” as anyone could ever envisage seeing in one place at one time. They were entitled to respect; but they also had to be managed. “On account of independence”, wrote the responsible police officer to his subordinates before the Mela, “every citizens [sic] of our country expects his due from the Police”. He emphasised that all policemen must be honest, polite and dedicated because that was what free India now expected. But the desire “to please too many people” could lead to “the sacrifice of the cardinal principles of traffic control”.
For the British, management of the Kumbh Mela had required attention to law, order and public health. Bands of holy men, or sadhus, posed a threat to order, but they could be contained. “During the British regime”, the police officer told the inquiry after the disaster, “the Sadhus obeyed orders more readily than they were prepared to do now”. The British “could be, and were, very firm with the Sadhus”. But now, wrote the chairman of the inquiry, himself a very British sort of official, administrators had “the feeling that they must be careful lest the Sadhus should enlist the sympathy of some political or politicoreligious organisation … which might get them into trouble”.
Probably the largest religious gathering in the world, the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad is held at the junction of the Ganga, Jamuna and mythical Saraswati Rivers when the planets, according to astrologers, are in a particular constellation. This occurs every 11 or 12 years. Pilgrims come from throughout India to bathe at the sangam o‘ r a number of weeks but especially on the single most auspicious day. The origins of the Kumbh Mela are often described as “ancient,” but some historians argue that its unchallenged supremacy as a centre for mass pilgrimage dates from the late nineteenth century. In 2001, official estimates claimed that as many as 30 million pilgrims bathed on the most auspicious day.
New elites at an old mela
The Kumbh Mela no doubt had always had political potential. But in a practising democracy its potential and fascination grew. The country’s leading politicians were keen to attend: the president and prime minister of India, the governor and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the governor of Punjab, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh “and a number of Union and States Ministers, and scholars and religious leaders from abroad”. The president brought with him his wife and elder sister, the latter in a wheel chair but intent on bathing on the auspicious day.
Already, then, there was a conflict. Some elected leaders may have attended to meet the people; but others were believers who attended to seek merit and who used their positions to get privileged access. In a democracy, was this right and fair?
The ex-judge who chaired the inquiry was a product of the colonial civil service and a sceptical democrat, if a democrat at all. Floating loftily above the rustics caught in the crush at the sangam on 3 February, he nevertheless disliked a new kind of privilege that he detected. A new term, “an unfortunate expression”, he wrote, “gained currency”. The term was “VIP”.
These letters of the alphabet, I am told, stand for the words “Very Important Persons”. I do not know when and how this expression came into vogue. Perhaps it is one of those phrases which became current during the last war. Be that as it may, we have had to hear a good deal about it during this enquiry.
He disapproved of the way in which “vIP” had been embraced and used to describe various politicians. Yet he rejected the allegation that the police and civil authorities were so preoccupied with the needs of “VIPs” that they neglected their duties. The old Englandreturned elite recognised a need for elites like itself; but it did not welcome upstarts of the kind who embraced the term “vIP” or were ready to live in something called the “VIP Camp”. The truly distinguished, he pointed out, stayed at Anand Bhavan (Nehru’s family home) or the governor’s residence.
Here was one of the problems of the new democracy. It had an old bureaucratic elite, typified by the author of the inquiry report, that resented upstart politicians. It was creating a political class of tens of thousands of legislators and aspirant legislators. Yet everything was to be done in the name of “the people”. After the stampede at the Kumbh Mela, one writer mused about whether it is wise to allow such vast congregations, but if it is the people’s wish, how can you say “no” in a democracy? “… is there anything wrong in helping the simple masses to satisfy a traditional religious urge? This is surely for the people themselves to decide.”
Open electoral politics were a fact. In the winter of 1951-52, India had held the largest elections in history with more than 120 million people casting ballots (46 percent of eligible voters). A correspondent on Republic Day, 26 January 1954, rejoiced that “the foundations for a democratic welfare State, where the people will live in contentment and happiness have been well laid”. Some of the old freedom fighters disputed how the magnetism of the Kumbh Mela should contribute to the new India. JB Kripalani (1888-1982), whose life provides a long thread in the warp of Indian experience, attacked the “political capital” that Nehru’s Congress Party made out of the Mela. Instead of propelling India into the future, such celebrations “tried to take the country back to the middle ages by ma kingithe Mela ‘fashionable’.”
Lean and ascetic, Kripalani was born in Sindh, educated in Bombay and teaching in a college in Bihar when he encountered MK Gandhi in 1917. Thereafter, he was never far from the frontlines of the nationalist movement, becoming president of the Congress from 1946-48 before resigning and eventually forming his own party. By 1954 it had become part of the Praja Socialist Party which Kripalani led in parliament, where he delivered his scornful attack on the uses to which the Kumbh Mela had been put. Democracy, he argued, was tempting people to do foolish things. The 1954 Mela, he asserted, was widely advertised and all and sundry were assured of travel and other facilities. This was never done by the former Governments, which had rather warned people against the conditions that were likely to be created. It was also advertised this year that high dignitaries of the Congress and of the Government would be present at the Mela.
In the past, even princes when they attended the Mela had gone on foot to the sangam, but today’s politicians came in cars.
We are asking our country to go back to the middle ages and its forms and rituals in the name of Indian culture. We do all this to make ourselves popular with the masses so that they may keep us in power. And because we do these things without faith, our efforts fail as miserably as they failed at the Kumbh Mela and the country is plunged into gloom. Let us beware in time for the sake of our country and for the love of our religion.
The speech angered some members of the Lok Sabha, but when the deputy speaker sought to restrain Kripalani, Nehru supported Kripalani’s right to continue. Nehru seemed to share the uneasiness about the attraction and the potential of the Mela. The magnetism of the Mela offered temptations: a way of capturing “the people’s” attention and energising them for the task of building a new India. So many statements recognised that “a new social and economic order cannot be built without popular enthusiasm.” To remodel the countryside, it seemed necessary “to approach every individual villager” and make “him [sic] an active participant in the development effort”. The energy infusing the Kumbh Mela and captivating “the people” could be harnessed for such ends.
The men and women who evicted the British took over a deeply embedded administration. They faced a conflict adapting a system they knew, understood and had been trained to operate — perhaps in spite of themselves — to accord with their proclaimed ideals about empowering the people and reforming the state. How much of the old regime should be retained? How much of “organic, Indian India” that was practised and understood in 600,000 villages had to be rejected and itself reformed to accord with new visions of what a state should be and what modernity meant?
If the people were to be empowered, new kinds of leaders would have to come from among the people. The leaders who watched but could not see the stampede at the Kumbh Mela were high-caste, English-educated lawyers from an elite that had formed in the nineteenth century around the institutions that the British laid down — law courts, administration, schools and hospitals. Three, Nehru, GB Pant (1887-1961), the chief minister of UP, and KN Katju (1887-1968), the home minister, were Brahmins. The fourth, Rajendra Prasad (1884-1963), the president, was a Kayasth. But higher-caste Hindus were no more than a quarter of all the people who lived in India, though they formed a disproportionately large number of political leaders.
On 30 March 1954, as the inquiry into the Kumbh disaster was hearing evidence in north India, a new chief minister was installed in Madras State (today’s Tamil Nadu). K Kamaraj (1903-75), a Nadar, a caste considered “low” and often associated with cultivation of the palmyra palm and with liquor-making, supplanted C Rajagopalachari (1879-1972), the intellectual Brahmin nationalist and last governor general of India, as the chief minister. Kamaraj was as corpulent and rustic as Rajagopalachari was ascetic and urbane. Kamaraj knew little English and had left school as a boy. Rajagopalachari translated religious works and theorised about nuclear war.
This transition from one leader to another suggested that India’s encounter with democracy might be more than a flirtation. In contrast, as it was happening, a democratic endeavour came apart within weeks in neighbouring Pakistan. In East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh), the aged AK Fazlul Huq led a united front to a big victory in provincial elections in March. He formed a government that lasted only two months before its secessionist-sounding rhetoric provoked its dismissal by the central government in West Pakistan.
The situation in India was different, but the social and linguistic diversity out of which Kamaraj rose had some similarities. The Congress Party had not done well in Madras in the general elections of 1951-2. Rajagopalachari was able to form a government only with the support of independents and smaller parties. In addition, a resilient anti-north, anti-caste, anti-Hindi movement campaigned for local autonomy, ill defined but possibly extending even to independence. If Pakistan, why not Dravidistan (land of the southern peoples), some asked. In the face of this, the rise of Kamaraj as a from-the-soil leader renewed the roots of the Congress in the Tamil areas. Kamaraj won two elections, held the chief ministership for nine years and became president of the Congress Party and the maker of two prime ministers after Nehru’s death. But when he left Tamil politics to become president of the Congress Party in 1963, the Congress lost its base in society. After Kamaraj, the Congress did not win a state election again in Tamil Nadu.
The struggle in Tamil Nadu, both within the Congress Party and in social movements outside it, underlined the potential cleavages in a socially complex place. People with visions and ambitions tapped away with sharp-pointed chisels, searching out such cleavages to split off social constituencies for political purposes. “A ‘battle for religion’ is on in Tamil Nad [sic]”, the Times of India reported, iconoclasts relentlessly preaching godlessness and godfearing people urging … the need for piety and faith. The din of this verbal “jehad” is heard even in the remote corners of the city [of Madras] as scores of lectures … are held daily at every available maidan or public auditorium either to denounce God or sing His praise.
The provocateur was EV Ramaswami Naicker, who had founded the anti-north Indian organisation, Dravida Kazhagam, that went on, in muted form after his ejection, to displace the Congress as the government of Tamil Nadu in 1967. Though himself drawn into public life through the nationalist movement in the 1920s, he became a thorn planted annoyingly in the side of Rajagopalachari. In 1954, Ramaswami Naicker appeared on Madras streets to denounce the Ramayana and “threaten to break icons of Lord Ram and make a bonfire of books on the Ramayana”. Rajagopalachari was “generally regarded as the head of the other camp” and was saidlo have given impetus to the anti-Ramayana forces when he “began writing a series of articles and giving radio broadcasts on the Ramayana”. Ramaswami Naicker’s assaults extended to other south Indians. He denounced the presence of far too many Kerala people – Malayalis – in the public service inMadras and promised to “fight against them as I fought against the Aryans”.
One can see a political stone mason, tapping away at a piece of rock, listening and feeling for ways that it will slice or split. The political boundaries of the old Madras state provided the rock, and the various language, religious and caste groups – or indeed, “racial” groups if people were prepared to respond to the threat from “the Aryans” that Ramaswami Naicker held out – were the layers and fragments in the rock. It did not fissure quite as Ramaswami Naicker might have envisaged, though the beneficiaries were his former associates (and filmmakers) in the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Nevertheless, he was testing a method of political exploration that countless other politicians in India experimented with in the second half of the twentieth century in circumstances of “democracy” and elections.
In north India, too, similar, though less bold, probing went on. Ram Manohar Lohia, an ill-disciplined yet magnetic socialist, sought ways of “mobilising the masses” by using close-to-the-bone sentiments like those of caste. Lohia preached a nationalistic socialism that ridiculed the communists as high-caste, out-of-touch and unpatriotic. In 1954, such headway as he made lay in disrupting the Praja Socialist Party and supporting attempts to “liberate” the Portuguese colony of Goa by sending in bands of satyagrahis to offer civil disobedience.
Confrontations like Goa, and practices like sat yagraha, placed India before the world. In a time of nuclear confrontation between communism and the “Free World”, Vinobha Bhave and the bhoodan or land-grant movement offered practical examples of Gandhi’s non-violent recipe. Foreigners came to observe the processions through the countryside that solicited land for the landless, and newspapers celebrated Bhave as the “Man behind a Bloodless Revolution”. The satyagrahis sent into Goa did not undermine Portuguese rule, but they brought the Portuguese presence to the attention of the world. The French in 1954 had had enough. In Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu surrendered in May, and on 1 November, all the French territories in India merged into the Indian Union after a vote of 170-8 by a conference of representatives elected in the French territories.
International affairs provided the examples where the new government could claim its greatest successes. Partly, of course, such claims were harder to dispute since they did not affect “the people” in the same way as the availability of health care or the prices of rice and wheat. The success of India’s foreign policy in 1954, one writer enthused, “surpassed the wildest expectations of its most fervent supporters”. According to this view, India had reshaped the Commonwealth and made it a body of equals. It chaired both the UN Repatriation Committee created to help end the war in Korea and the International Commission for Indochina. It embraced the People’s Republic of China with visits by Chou Enlai to India in June and Nehru to Beijing in October. Even the great setback, the decision of Pakistan to accept US arms and alliances, could be interpreted as a stand on principle. When the US offered India arms and an alliance, India and Nehru proudly rejected them. Even a little noticed political party called the Jana Sangh concluded, “India’s foreign policy had already achieved considerable success”.
Economic planning was another aspect of the vision of a strong, effective state working for the prosperity and cultural fulfilment of the Indian people. In 1954, the First Five-Year Plan was barely three years old. Its achievements were awaited, but its problems were beginning to be felt. Often, the apparatus to execute proposals was missing. Funds could not be spent because there were not the officials or the public pressure to devise programmes, extricate money and then see projects carried out. This was particularly true in rural India, where the plan architects placed their hopes for rapid transformation. “District plans are a vital stage in planning from the village upwards in all those fields of development which bear closely on the life of the people.” But it proved almost impossible to produce district plans that were more than the product of harried local officials manufacturing a document to satisfy their superiors.
Nevertheless, it was possible to point to economic achievements. Bicycle production nearly doubled in two years to 191,000 bicycles a year, a rate at which it would only take 15 years to produce a bicycle for every adult. The greatest symbol of economic dynamism, however, was the inauguration on 7 July of the Bhakra canal system to generate electricity from the great Bhakra Dam in Punjab. Nehru told a crowd estimated at 100,000 that
today, the real gurudwaras and churches were those places where great construction works were in progress. It was at these places that toiling millions were sweating for the benefit of other human beings. What place of worship could be more pure and more sacred? (Times of India paraphrase)
Another component of the vision of industrialisation lay in the factories that would use the power. Decreeing that factories would be built was easier than establishing programmes of rural development. A factory was a project that engineers could plan and contractors could execute. The state took responsibility for establishing a National Industrial Development Corporation, setting up a railway coach factory in Madras, a cable factory in Calcutta, a steel factory at Rourkela in Bihar. These enterprises celebrated not only purposeful economic development to eliminate poverty but the competence of Indian know-how. When disagreements with American engineers troubled the Bhakra project, a writer noted in the Times of India that “surely there is enough [Indian] talent available in the Punjab and other States to execute the Bhakra dam”.
Terminated, not banned
State-generated institutions were similarly welcomed in cultural and administrative affairs. The central government started an Indian Institute of Public Administration to improve administration and three national academies of literature, music and the arts to “preserve the glorious traditions of the past and enrich them by the work of modern artists”. In radio, the medium with the greatest potential to reach large numbers of people, All India Radio (AIR) provided the only service, through which it strove to improve the people by a diet of high and serious culture. Film songs, the minister of information and broadcasting told parliament, were not banned; it was simply that most film producers “had terminated their agreement with the AIR”. This, he implied, was not a bad thing since film songs “generally appealed to children and adolescents, that is, those who do not understand things and who can be attracted in the most primitive way”.
The men and women who steered the post-colonial state in 1954 exhibited a puritanical belief in the state’s duty to improve. In this respect, they displayed qualities of the more conscientious British colonial official. Radio, as a state monopoly, could be painstakingly controlled and used to better the tastes of the masses, but films, produced by capitalists, needed to be censored. The Central Board of Film Censors, founded in 1952 and appointed by the government from people like vicechancellors and members of parliament, sought to purify the imaginations of the crafty directors and producers of Bombay and Madras. The latter, however, held their own. “His passion plunged her into shame”, shouted the advertisement for Amar, directed and produced by Mehboob Khan (1906-64), with Dilip Kumar, actor of the year in 1954, in the role of the “honest, god-fearing young lawyer Amar” who shelters a “young and beautiful milkmaid” who has run away “from a village wolf [two-legged]”. But Amar “Mills) prey to a violent fit of lust that seized him and plunged her into sordid shame”.
Political elites made much of chastity and austerity and were troubled by their inability to rally the rural masses. The film industry frothed, fantasised and calculated its success by the profits of its films, measured in the millions of tickets it sold. In March 1954, Filmfare, the English-language magazine of the Times of India group, staged the first Filmfare Trophy Awards, presided over by the US ambassador. It was a remarkable choice, given that the Eisenhower government was in deep disfavour with the Government of India after embracing Pakistan as an ally in the containment of communism”. The decision to give this [military] aid to Pakistan”, Nehru wrote to Mohammed Ali, the Pakistan prime minister, on 5 March 1954, “has changed the whole context of the Kashmir issue, and the long talks we have had over this matter have little relation to the new facts which flow from this aid”. The film industry, marching to a different, capitalist drumbeat, was ready to do what was necessary to slip round state disapproval, if the results promised big audiences and good returns.
In Tamil, film was an art form, a political message-bearer and a source of funds for political parties and social movements. The hit of the year, Manohar, could be viewed as an historical epic, set in Chola times a thousand years ago, or as a subtle tale underlining the dignity of the Tamil people who uproot unrighteous interlopers and restore rightful heirs. Written by M Karunanidhi, a scriptwriter later to be three times chief minister of Tamil Nadu, it was part of a range of films bringing wealth and notoriety to men and women associated with the DMK. It marked the way in which the film industry, more successfully than the political system, connected an elite minority and masses of ordinary people. The Tamil film industry became a base for political movements asserting local identities. In Telugu, NT Rama Rao, later to be chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, produced his first film in 1954. Toda Dongalu “flopped”, but was said to begin a new genre of realistic films about “little” people who eventually give oppressive bosses their comeuppance.
Making India modern
In 1954, India was still coming to terms with the raw meaning of nation-statehood. This openness showed itself in the ambiguity over Kashmir, where discussion of a plebiscite was not officially ruled out, even while puppet politicians talked of the irrevocability of Kashmir’s accession to India. In 1954 a Pakistani prime minister might still touch down at Calcutta or Delhi airport to have breakfast and a chat with the Indian prime minister, as Mohammed Ali did in January and February. It was reasonable too for a Pakistani team to reach the final of a Bombay soccer competition – before going down to a largely Muslim team from the former princely state of Hyderabad. Keamari Union of Karachi beat Mohun Bagan of Calcutta, 1-0, in the semifinal of the 56th Rovers Cup Football Tournament in Bombay on 2 November, but lost the next day in the final to Hyderabad Police, who won the cup for the fifth successive year. Underlining the diversity and complexity of India, three-quarters of the players on the field that day bore Muslim names.
The goal of being modern imbued the founders of the new state, and India’s diversity had to be moulded to meet that goal. Matters of religion had therefore to be addressed, and throughout the year, parliament struggled with legislation to codify the personal law of Hindus. The aim was to bring the vast complexity of “Hindu-ism” in India within a single framework, derived both from the writings and practices of people called Hindus and the inherited priggery of Victorian colonialism. The glacial pace at which various bills proceeded through parliament led Nehru to clash with his own law minister. When the latter asked for a further delay in then submission of a report on the Hindu Marriage and Divorce Bill, “Mr Nehru jumped to his feet” and “excitedly opposed” the motion. If matters “go on like this”, Nehru complained, “then the Joint Committee will take 20 years to submit its report”. Many members of parliament had an interest in leaving things as they were. The very modest Special Marriage Bill was finally approved by parliament in September after two years of discussion. It did no more than permit people of any religion to register marriages and thereby contract into various provisions for divorce and inheritance. The reasons for the codification of personal law, according to Nehru, were to overcome “the rigidity” that British law had unnaturally introduced into social practices in India. Yet he and his colleagues aimed for a new uniformity that they saw as essential for nation building. “In our building up a nation in this country”, he told the Lok Sabha, “it is essential that we should aim at certain uniformities. If you do not break down the barriers, first of all in the Hindu community itself … [and then] the others who live in this great country, you will never build up basically that national concept we talk about so much.” He himself favoured a common civil code for all Indians, “but I confess I do not think that at the present moment the time is ripe in India to try to push it through”. A supporter explained: “We should first put our own house in order before we invite Muslims to join us.” Four other acts, which together made up legislation referred to as the “Hindu Code,” took another two years.
Attempts to order the law relating to social practices went ahead at the same time that individual states were wrestling with land reform, when many aspects of the federal system were under review by the States Reorganisation Commission. Entangled in all questions of federalism and the rights of states was Kashmir and the developing relationship with Pakistan. In 1947 that relationship had been hostile, but at least it was ambiguous and unformed and it therefore was possible that it might become more friendly and co-operative. Over time, however, hostility became institutionalised. It was perhaps a sign of the way in which nation-states seek to reach citizens — and citizens seek to win the favour of states — that at the Kumbh Mela in January 1954, “ten thousand saffron-robed sanyasis broke their meditation … to pledge to unite the people of India against the proposed USPakistan military alliance”. They vowed to “bring about unity through country-wide preaching.” Such gestures indicated that a perception of Pakistan as something concrete and adversarial would permeate widely and deeply through the population and could be made a way to mobilise voters. When the next Kumbh Mela assembled in 1966, there would be no Karachi football teams playing in Bombay tournaments.
Faith in the fat horse
India’s national elite in 1954 was reaching a crest on a roller coaster of confidence and vision. There was widespread belief in the ability of the state to transform society, economy and political participation. “The people” needed to be mobilised, educated and improved. India needed to develop “national”, all- India practices, based on the finest aspects of ancient Indian custom and stripped of the worst accretions of colonial rule. The English language was to be steadily supplanted by a national language, Hindi, which All India Radio and the Indian Army were already adapting and propagating.
Amid the bustle and confidence were signs that expectations were too high. “Little … has been done in the last four and a half years” to spread Hindi, the Times of India declared and doubted whether the target of replacing English by 1965 could be achieved. Editorial writers lamented “democratic immaturity of both Authority and the people”, exhibited in violent demonstrations and the inability of government to respond to clearly defined needs. Even the opening of state institutions on which hopes were pinned could provoke agonising about the direction of the new India. The inauguration of the Indian Institute of Public Administration led to expressions of hope that it might “help stop the rot” that had turned the “steel frame” of bureaucracy into “a bamboo frame … being progressively eaten up by insects”.
The drivers of the state sought to involve “the people” yet frequently failed to do so effectively, as the stampede at the Kumbh Mela frighteningly illustrated. The triumphs of foreign policy, the foundation-laying and the institution-building needed to make inroads into the 83 percent of 400 million people who could not read or write and among whom the infant morality rate was more than 120 per thousand live births. The cartoonist RK Laxman captured the complexity of innovation, hope and doubt in a reflection on the fiveyear plan (see above). Laxman’s Common Man pulls both the politician and the fat horse called “The Plan”. The politician promises that things will get much easier once the horse has had enough to eat.
By the time the faithful gathered for the next Kumbh Mela in January 1966, faith in the fat horse called “The Plan” had diminished further. India had fought two wars and was enduring a near-famine, Nehru was dead, and there were 100 million more common women and common men, living little better than they had in 1954.
Note: Most quotations in the article are either from the Times of India or The Hindu.
(This article is the first in a series hi/ the writer on the history of modem India as seen through the lens of successive Kumbh Melas.)