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We are small men

The great causes of today’s India, where mighty forces are at work, beg great responses. But we are not providing those, thanks to our obsession with short-term gains. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

columns Updated: Jun 12, 2012, 23:42 IST

June 3, tomorrow, is a dull date.

It is meant to come and go without stamps being released, statues being garlanded, the garlanders being photographed. But that is because we are getting out of touch with our history, even recent history.

It was on this date, 65 years ago, that Governor General Mountbatten brought forward the earlier plan of transferring power from the proposed date of June 1948 and persuaded Pandit Nehru to broadcast to the nation on the evening of that June 3.

“We are little men,” he said, “serving a great cause but because the cause is great something of that greatness falls upon us also.”

Listening to the broadcast was the tough soldier Ismay, Chief of Staff to Lord Mountbatten in India. Ismay listened rapt as Nehru went on: “Mighty forces are at work in the world today and in India, and I have no doubt we are ushering in a period of greatness for India.”

The future prime minister then went on to ask his compatriots to ready themselves for a new beginning.

Next day, Ismay drew pen and paper and wrote to Nehru: “I must beg leave to send you my warmest congratulations on your splendid broadcast last night. It was, if I may say so, brave, generous and deeply moving… I particularly liked… ‘small men’ and ‘big causes’. It is so exactly describes the feeling that I have entertained about my own unworthy self ever since I undertook my task. Believe me in gratitude, Yours very sincerely, Ismay.”

June 3, 1947.

The triumph of independence lay just ahead, as also the tragedies of partition.

What lies ahead today? What triumphs, what tragedies?

And we, are we still, the same ‘small men’? Smaller, perhaps, than then.

And the causes?

They remain big. In a world and in an India where mighty forces are at work, the causes, our causes, beg bigness and deserve great and proportionate responses.

Are we providing those?

The honest answer is: we do not.

Can we get a consensus on the ‘great causes’ of today’s India?

Extremely unlikely.

There could be agreement, let us grant, that the great cause of eradicating poverty and disease in India remains a major goal. But we have to only consider the following to realise how we can get lost between the Indias within India. See the following from the Planning Commission’s Tendulkar Committee Report on Poverty Estimates for 2009-10:

“The all-India HCR [Head Count Ratio] has declined by 7.3 percentage points from 37.2% in 2004-05 to 29.8% in 2009-10, with rural poverty declining by 8.0 percentage points from 41.8% to 33.8% and urban poverty declining by 4.8 percentage points from 25.7% to 20.9%.

In rural areas, Scheduled Tribes exhibit the highest level of poverty (47.4%), followed by Scheduled Castes (SCs), (42.3%), and Other Backward Castes (OBC), (31.9%), against 33.8% for all classes.

Sikhs have lowest HCR in rural areas (11.9%) whereas in urban areas, Christians have the lowest proportion (12.9%) of poor. In urban areas poverty ratio at all India level is highest for Muslims (33.9%). Similarly, for urban areas the poverty ratio is high for Muslims.”

Each of the statements above shows a fragment of the truth of India’s poverty and her stubborn immiserations. And it begs the questions about calorie consumption calculations.

And each statistical finding of the Tendulkar Committee calls for a response from the nation as a whole.

But what it is getting, and is likely to get in increasing measure, is a segmented and sliced-up response from within those affected, for their own just and rightful redemption.

When will the collectivity of these small causes become a great cause for India as a whole to consider in its particularisms and in its totality? Our first two Five Year Plans set broad goals for India. The goals were for India, not for the governments of India and the states.

Prabhat Patnaik used to speak, even when he and I were students together in college, of the ‘mega idea’. I saw his point about the importance for a country or a people of a big vision, a shared vision, a goal to which major and minor efforts got harnessed.

Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda, in their recently published work Beautiful Country: Stories from Another India (which has a telling foreword by deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia), tells us about the great causes of our time and of how great statistics can fall upon and smother us.

This is not just because we do not have a Nehru to broadcast lyrically and transformingly to the nation, nor an Ismay to write to him in grateful appreciation. This is because somewhere along our democratic journey towards a just society we have ceased to be small men in a great cause and have become small men in small causes, small fixations, and, yes, in small strategems of our own, invariably for small, short-term gains.

And what of the ‘mighty forces in the world’?

The lurch of three globalisms — global terror, global financial meltdown and global warming are ‘mighty forces’, unleashed by a self-absorbed human population upon Planet Earth. Are they eliciting from us a collectively endorsed response?

Is somebody warning us, preparing us and strengthening us about the perils ahead — of non-State bacteriological, chemical and nuclear terror, of currency wars funnelling into fuel crises, of impending rain famines leading to water shortages and — who knows? — even water riots?

And are we, as a people, so pre-occupied with the pursuit of short-term livelihood goals, to the gratifications of consumerist desires and to the lullabies of sectarian self-delusion as to be impervious to the fact that we have become a callous and indeed self-destroying society?

Great causes bring with them great sacrifices. The very poor of India can hardly be expected to make any further sacrifices. But there is a growing class of Indian manufacturers, retailers and consumers to which hard messages need to be given about changing their manufacturing, consumption and lifestyle styles. And, as Aruna Roy and Neha Saigal have recently said, hard questions need to be put to the techno-commercial proponents of genetically modified crops about the effect of GM crops on consumers’ health and on farmers’ livelihood.

And so, June 3 to June 3, let us admit that we remain, as we were in Nehru’s time, small men. Alas, unlike then, we see no great opportunities fall upon us, only great opportunisms.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal

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