Does 1954 mean anything special in India? Well, not really. It was a straight-forward kind of year. Nothing sensational happened, nothing that elated or depressed one.
For the vast majority of us, it was another year for wrenching survival out of misery, subsistence out of deprivation, satisfaction with little things out of a miasma of adversities. But for those who had time and conducive conditions to reflect on our nationhood, that year, like that decade itself, was a time of quiet pride and of confidence in our country’s direction.
Films reflect prevalent moods. They are a pictorial barometer of the age’s dominant rasa.
As a nine-year-old, I saw two films that year that quite bewitched me. The first was Subah Ka Tara. Its title-song, sung in duet by Talat Mahmood and Lata Mangeshkar — Gaya andhera, hua ujala, chamka chamka subah ka tara — kept resounding in my head for months. Something linked the song’s mood to what seemed to me like stardust settling on everyone and everything. The second was Jagriti, with a song meant to spur nationalistic pride in the young — Aao bachcho tumhen dikhaen jhaanki Hindustan ki. Kavi Pradeep’s words in Hemant Kumar’s voice sung on screen by the earnest, bespectacled Abhi Bhattacharya did more than anything to instil a sense of pride in India.
That was also a season of dizzy firsts. Our first President, Rajendra Prasad, was fresh into his inaugural term in office, sedate and smiling. Our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had completed six years at the helm, loved at home, admired abroad. Our first Parliament, our First Five Year Plan, our first Supreme Court with its eight outstanding members, all had a fragrance to them, the fragrance of spring.
The year saw the scheme of presidential decorations inaugurated, with the first three Bharat Ratnas going to C Rajagopalachari, S Radhakrishnan and CV Raman, pleasing a country proud of its human capital.
And as a new entrant on the world stage, we seemed to be wearing, like our national bird, an iridescent crest and a fan of dazzling plumes. Our relations with China were at a peak, those with the Soviet Union at a high, with the Western world confident, cordial and correct. Both blocs were taking note of non-alignment, seen as India’s contribution to international affairs.
We were also levitating in an aerea pura we were almost unaware of. We were scam-free. Our first ‘scam’ — the Mundhra deal — brought to public notice by the intrepid Feroze Gandhi was some five years away.
That era was a season of innocence as well.
It is not as if our leadership was unaware of the possibility of something going wrong. But that ‘something’ was seen as an aberration that the system could self-correct. Part of the ceremonies of innocence were connected to a prosaic institution, the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India. The first CAG Vyakaran Narahari Rao and his successor AK Chanda were redoubtable figures. The highest in the land regarded them and their offices with a respect reserved for first principles.
One such ‘ceremony’ was held in Madras on June 2, 1954. The former parliamentarian Era Sezhiyan has recently reminded us of an address made by vice-president S Radhakrishnan. He said: “The CAG is responsible not to the government. He must serve as the check on the government. The government may make mistakes. It is wrong to assume that the government can do no wrong. The auditor general is independent of the executive… If I have to give one advice and if I am presumptuous enough to give any advice to the officers of the audit and accounts department, it is this: ‘Do not shrink from the truth for fear of offending men in high places.’”
A month later, at the foundation-stone-laying of the CAG office in New Delhi on July 21, 1954, it was the turn of President Rajendra Prasad to speak on the subject. He said: “In a democratic set-up involving allocation of hundreds of crores of rupees, the importance of this kind of scrutiny and check can never be over-emphasised… The important task — I am afraid, a task not always very pleasant — devolves upon the CAG and his office. In accordance with the powers vested in him, he has to carry on these functions without fear or favour in the larger interests of the nation.”
Prasad, chairman of the Constituent Assembly, and Radhakrishnan as a member of that body would have remembered BR Ambedkar’s description of the CAG as “the most important officer in the Constitution of India.”
Re-reading those texts, I paused over two phrases used by Radhakrishnan. The government may make mistakes. It is wrong to assume that the government can do no wrong. He could say that again. But like a Charaka or a Susruta, the philosopher-statesman is also giving us a medicament. He is saying that unlike in some gross dictatorship or in a kingdom under an inept monarch, we have correctives, the CAG being a paramount one. And for that corrective to work in the only manner it is meant to work, it must not shrink from the truth for fear of offending men in high places.
In the larger interests of the nation, the autonomous stature of the CAG must remain undiminished.
A government that can do wrong is part of a larger edifice where that wrong gets righted by a system of auto-immune counter moves. No good, only deep and dangerous harm can come from that self-redeeming mechanism being devalued.
The system of internal warning systems in the 1950s which the then president and vice-president spoke of, was also ‘voiced’ in another film that came three years after Subah Ka Tara and Jagriti. This was Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. I do not know if Pandit Nehru saw it but if he did, that passionate adherent of justice would have hearkened to its unforgettable song in Sahir Ludhianvi’s magical words and Mohammed Rafi’s immortal voice:
Yeh mehlon, yeh takhton, yeh taajon ki duniya,
Yeh insaan ke dushman samaajon ki duniya,
Yeh daulat ke bhookhey ravajon ki duniya,
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai.
Har ek jism ghayal, har ek rooh pyaasi,
Nigahon mein uljhan, dilon mein udaasi,
Yeh duniya hai ya aalam-e-badhavasi,
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai.
Even in those pre-Mundhra days of wise innocence, there was an awareness of the craving for daulat in some, going against the interests of a ghayal insaan. But there was the assumption that insaniyat ki duniya will get the better of dushman samaajon ki duniya.
The year 2011 cannot and need not be 1954. But must today’s uljhan and udaasi deepen into an Aalam-e-badhavasi? Not if we remain aware of the fact, an incontrovertible ‘given’, that a Subah Ka Tara rises each morn, a hope and a challenge, unseen perhaps, but right there, behind the miasma of a deeply polluted sky.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor)
*The views expressed by the author are personal