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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 36, New Delhi, August 27, 2016

The End of an Era

Sunday 28 August 2016


by N.V.K. Murthy

Same days ago when I heard about the passing away of Mahasweta Devi, the well-known writer, at the age of 90, I felt that it was the end of an era. Born in 1926,Mahasweta Devi was a noted activist who fought all her life for the rights of tribals in India, and had written extensively about their life and travails. She was one of those who could be called the products of the Gandhi-Nehru era, who were inspired by those two great figures of the time.

Gandhi, who had earlier gone to South Africa seeking to build up a legal practice, went on to become the leader of a unique peaceful transformation of society. He started a non-violent, non-cooperation movement of the non-White populations of South Africa against a White apartheid colonial rule. When he returned to India in 1920 his desire was not to build a legal practice but to try and experiment with a similar non-violent, non-cooperation move-ment to win freedom for his native country, India, from the colonial British rulers. Following the advice of his mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gandhi toured the country to get to know his own people better. When the young aristocratic “Eton-Cambridge-inner-temple-trained” Jawa-harlal Nehru returned to India from England, Gandhi found in him a worthy disciple who would follow him after his death, even if he did not agree with all his ideas during his lifetime. By the 1940s the Indian struggle for freedom had reached the last lap of its marathon race.

In the past two centuries cataclysmic changes were seen in the history of the world. Two events came close on the heels of one another, the French Revolution and the American War of Liberty. This period had also seen the rise of enlightenment, reason and science. The steam engine had ushered in the industrial revolution in England. Soon after that came the ideas of Adam Smith in his seminal book, The Wealth of Nations, laying down the fundamental tenets of capitalism. These events profoundly influenced the happenings in Europe and the USA during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the USA the political and economic systems respectively were fashioned in the parliamentary Republican/Democratic model and the capitalistic model.

By the time the Indian freedom struggle succeeded in gaining freedom for the country in 1947, several more world-shaking events had occurred. The end of the First World War had seen the defeat of Nazi Germany and the birth of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) This new state, USSR, based on socialism, of political and economic justice, was brought about by the struggles of the proletariat. In the USA, after a century of industrial prosperity, came the great economic crash of 1929. The ideas of capitalism underwent modifications enunciated by a Cambridge (UK) professor, John Maynard Keynes. Keynes, who profited by playing on the capitalist stock market, came up with a theory of full labour employment to keep production lines going by putting money into consumers’ pockets. This could be ensured by full employment even during war-time and other economic crises by providing, if necessary, what might look like unproductive employment. These ideas were picked up in the USA by a leading student of Keynes’ theory, the redoubtable Cambridge (MA) economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Galbraith’s ideas gave birth to the new deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt which was responsible for the USA’s economic recovery, post-1929. The Second World War, which ended in 1945 with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had seen the economies of Europe, especially England, shatter. Then again, on the lines of the new deal came the Marshall Plan which rejuvenated the European economy and helped the development of the US economy tremendously.

By now there were two great forces, the USSR with its socialist economic system and the Western world with its capitalistic system. The Cold War was at its hottest during the rest of the century.

This was the backdrop when India became free from British rule. It was no wonder then that the economic and the political systems unfolding in India were affected by these events. The constitutional set-up was an amalgam of the parliamentary democracy of England in the political arena, and the socialist ideas of the USSR in the economic sphere. Even the foreign policy advocated by India, Egypt and Cuba were an attempt to build a Third World approach of non-alignment, either with socialist Russia or with the capitalist West. This came to be known as the Nehruvian era in India, of which Mahasweta Devi was a product. I had the privilege of knowing her uncle, Ritwik Ghatak, a great film-maker and a contemporary of India’s most illustrious film-maker Satyajit Ray. Like her uncle, Mahasweta Devi was influenced by the Leftist movement of the day and she went on to become a great chronicler of the life of tribals in India and of their problems. She lived amongst these tribals and relentlessly fought for their traditional land rights. Like many other Nehruvians, she thought that the life of the tribals would be transformed after India attained its freedom. Alas, that dream has yet to be fulfilled. As the Nehruvian era has ended and a resurgent nationalist Hindu era has begun, one wonders whether this dream can ever be realised.

Yet, there is hope. Judging from the remarks that PM Narendra Modi made after her death, he seems to acknowledge the rightness of the cause that she upheld. As countless liberals have pointed out, if only the age-old land rights of the tribals are recognised, a solution can be found to the Naxal movement. The crux of the Naxal movement is a lack of land rights of the “landless” forest and tribal people. If the Prime Minister can get all the political parties around a table and find a reasonable solution to this problem, our great country can still have a bright future. That would be a fitting tribute to Mahasweta Devi’s memory.

The author, now retired, was the First Registrar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Subsequently he functioned for sometime as the Director of the Film and TV Institute of India, Pune. Later he was appointed the Director of the Nehru Centre, Mumbai.