Tucked in towards the end of Part A of his fourth Budget speech, just before “Prudent Fiscal Management,” Union finance minister Arun Jaitley had a couple of throwaway sentences in which he declared the government’s commitment to celebrating 200 years of the Paika revolution in Odisha as well as a host of other Mahatma Gandhi-related events —100 years of his Champaran satyagraha in Bihar, a century of the founding of the Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad — all of it leading up to the celebration of 150 years of Gandhi’s birth in 2019.
Make no mistake, though, there’s nothing dilettante-ish about the government’s celebrations of these anniversaries, especially those around Mohandas Karamchand. None other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided he will head the high-level committee that will soon be set up to celebrate these historical dates in a “befitting” manner. Considering Modi replaced the Mahatma in the Khadi Village Industries Commission new year calendar this year, spinning khadi in the exact same pose as Gandhi’s pictures once showed us he did — with one arm close to the wheel and another outstretched holding the yarn on the other end — there is no question that India’s most powerful Gujarati sees himself as having inherited the mantle of his provincial ancestor.
Of course, Jaitley — no doubt prodded by his prime minister — didn’t bother to remember that the Mahatma’s protégé, Jawaharlal Nehru, would be sharing 2019 with his beloved Bapu, as it would be the 130th anniversary of his own birth.
But there was not one word about Nehru in Jaitley’s speech, nothing at all about the man who played a huge role in making India the democracy it is today. Perhaps it’s better this way. The shabby marking of the 125th anniversary of India’s first prime minister in 2014-15 had deteriorated into such a farce by the time the Modi government was done with it, that all those involved were grateful when the year finally ended.
Today’s politics revels in the vindictive celebration of history, a selective remembrance of things past. As if the BJP is saying to the Opposition Congress party, ‘Enough of your forefather!’ Just as equally cynical observers will insist that the Sabarmati ashram is being celebrated because the Gujarat polls are round the corner, while the Paikas are being remembered because the BJP hopes that Odisha, after 19 years of BJD’s Naveen Patnaik in the saddle, will be ripe for the plucking in 2019.
Indeed, the celebration of the Paikas is a great event. To think that in 1817, a whole 50 years before the first war of independence in 1857, the Oriyas were rising up against the East India Company and demanding the right to rule themselves. Odisha was the missing link between the Calcutta and Madras presidencies and needed to be subjugated; it had been conquered in 1803. But the Paikas, a landed militia under Bakshi Jagabandhu, projected Lord Jagannath of Puri as the great symbol of unity and fought the Company raj. The rebellion grew into a popular revolt, enlisting the king of Khurda, feudal lords as well as commoners.
Certainly, India is littered with stories of both valour and grace, several of which have fallen through the cracks these intervening decades and centuries, and must be rescued. The Paikas are a fine example.
But in this cherry-picking of our historical heroes, Jaitley and Modi have abbreviated the vast and generous experiment of Indian democracy into something smaller than it is.
It needn’t be this way. Let us revel in our common but diverse inheritance. Let us bequeath a hundred blooming flowers to our future.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior journalist.
The views expressed are personal