Listening to a lecture on Gandhi a week back, I thought we were much better off than the youngsters today. Philosophies were fighting it out in the open, it was doctrine versus doctrine. In India, even Gandhi’s ideas, on the economic front, were hotly debated and often opposed. People accused him of being naïve, and his-rural centric ideas as unfit for a country wanting to industrialise. Nehru balanced Gandhi’s doctrines, the youngsters in coffee houses, declaimed. The others said that the state was a force and the imperial state, a greater and more vicious force. Gandhi pitched soul-force against the imperial state as a counter force, and the state had quit. One was reminded of the symbols Gandhi held aloft, the salt of Dandi and the home-spun khadi. Apart from his sainthood, could there have been a more savvy politician?
In Europe the ideological war was not so non-violent. The KGB were inveigling intelligence officers from the other side — remember Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Maclean? The West had never witnessed such a battle since Protestants and Catholics went for each others’ blood, and Martin Luther nailed his 98 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, and since Bloody Mary had burnt on the stake Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Nicholas Ridley on St Giles Road in Oxford, where I lived for a year. Of course, there were no holds barred. Capitalism, with its bloated money power, and the CIA (both as backbone and instigator) were fighting against communism. Fidel and Che were heroes to the young while the Cuban crisis had the world wetting its pants. How did Fidel Castro fiddle with the imagination of the leftists for decades?
As youngsters in the early Fifties, we looked at propaganda suspiciously. Were the Soviets so bad? Did Stalin really get Borodin and Bukharin and the whole lot shot, after fake confessions? Did he get Trotsky, hiding in Mexico, clobbered to death with an ice axe? Then Stalin himself died, to be followed by Beria, the head of the dreaded KGB. There were wild rumours about what exactly happened. Things will improve, we thought. Nothing doing. Stalin’s murders were replaced by the murders of countries, there is no name for this kind of “national homicide”. We had seen nationalities done away with — Armenians by the Turks and Zoroastrians by the Arabs. But then we saw Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1958) crushed by Russian tanks.
The scaffoldings of ideologies, all spawned by and in the west, had not fallen as yet. The propaganda skirmishes were fought on pavements in Connaught Place and Chandni Chowk. where you could get a book by Turgenev or Tolstoy for about 10 bucks, though the Russians would still not touch Dostoevsky, a bit of a mystery.
Stalin was a part of the disease, not just a vicious isolated virus. (Did he inherit the DNA from Lenin? After all Lenin could also be ruthless – he was privy to the massacre of the Czar Nicholas and his innocent family.) The Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the eventual assassination/execution of the brave prime minister, Imre Nagy, jolted us in 1956. Then followed the terrible happenings in Prague two years later. Yet we, suspicious as ever, were convinced that the CIA was a part of the propaganda — poor communists, lovers of egalitarianism being painted black with a tar brush. In the end, the wretched capitalists, spawn of Wall Street and Langley, were proved right. They always said that communism would crumble and the east Europe regimes did, and how. Romania was a worst-case scenario, with Ceausescu and his wife being shot by a firing squad.
What is going on these days seems tawdry in comparison. Will the Brexit debate be remembered 10 years hence when people discuss democracy? Or the impeachment of President Trump? And what about our own numerous enumerations, our inclusions and exclusions, national registers and citizenship bills, desi and immigrant? Father’s name, mother’s name, grandmother’s maiden name. What about campaigns chalked out in the evening against Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, only to find at dawn next day that more Hindus had come in? Can all this make one cry? Where will all these documents be stored? Why not build another tower in Delhi and ask Mr Patel, who did the work in Varanasi, to build it? He is getting all the goodies, isn’t it? CAA, NPR, NCR — we should call our current phase “The Republic of Records”. But if you focus on the numerous election-time speeches by the PM, and the Mann ki Baat thrown in, we could call our age the “Republic of Sound”. But what about the quiet that followed the killings of Pehlu Khan and Mohammad Akhlaq, and his silence on so many things — police excesses in Jammia and the hiding they administered in the library? Then do we call it the Republic of Silence?
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 2, 2020 under the title “We were better off”. Daruwalla, a poet and short story writer, was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1984.
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