11 August 2017 13:03:33 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

The shifting sands of history

On the eve of India’s 70th Independence Day, we must remember that history is never a settled thing

The country will soon celebrate the 70th anniversary of its Independence. The Lok Sabha marked the 75th anniversary of the Quit India movement with a special session on Wednesday, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorted us to reignite the spirit of 1942. He called for special initiatives to end poverty, illiteracy and corruption — all laudable objectives.

In a curious reworking of the famous ‘Do or Die’ ( Karenge ya Marenge ) call of 1942, Modi called for a ‘We will do and accomplish’ ( Karenge aur Karke Rahenge ). In a veiled dig at the Congress, he said the post-Independence period was marked by a “sense of entitlement”.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in her address, reminded everyone that the resolution of Quit India was passed by the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and, without naming the RSS, said it had opposed the movement and played no role in the country’s freedom movement.

Troubled legacy

In a remarkable absence of irony, she said secular, democratic and liberal values are being endangered and space for debate shrinking. She of course made no reference of how the Congress itself in the past was guilty for eroding public institutions and liberal values. This was after all the party which suspended basic freedoms by declaring Emergency during 1975-77 — undeniably the darkest chapter in Indian democracy.

The Congress Party has for long seen itself as an institution that was obliged to carry forward the legacy of the freedom movement.

Over the last 70 years, the Congress and the BJP (Bharatiya Jan Sangh in its earlier avatar) have been locked in a curious and ultimately futile tussle over which one of the two is more nationalist.

The joy of freedom from British rule was always suffused with the pain of the Partition and the horrific violence and displacement brought along with it.

In fact, some historians have even questioned the political wisdom of the Congress Party in calling for the Quit India movement. Their argument is that the Muslim League stole a march over the Congress by openly supporting the British war effort, and its call for Pakistan gained momentum during this period. The Congress leaders who were jailed then could do little to stem that.

The freedom movement was always a complex mix of resistance, compromise and accommodation with the British. It was as much ideological as it was tactical.

Convenient alignments

In this context it’s illuminating to see how politics played out in the Madras Presidency during this period. Here the Justice Party’s connection with the freedom was tenuous and had no problem aligning with British if it suited their political objectives.

The trajectory of the DK (Dravida Kazhagam) and DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) is most interesting. The Justice Party — a predecessor of the regional Dravidian parties in the Madras Presidency — was opposed to the Congress and quite friendly with the British rulers.

Periyar (EV Ramaswamy Naicker) started his political career as a Congressman but soon got disillusioned with it. He left the party and went on to form the DK. For him, ending caste discrimination and inequalities was more important than freedom from British rule. He felt that ending British rule would merely replace British rulers with Indian elites without bringing about real social reform — a view shared by BR Ambedkar.

Periyar controversially even called for a separate Tamil nation, though that movement never gained momentum. It’s interesting to note that the DMK, conceived in the ideological womb of the DK, formally dropped its demand for a separate Tamil nation from its party constitution only in 1962, after it had already participated in Assembly elections in 1957. Though, it has to be said, the DMK was never ideologically committed to secession and wanted only more autonomy for the States within the Indian union.

Role of DMK

Also the DMK, played a big role by supporting Indira Gandhi’s government in the 1971 confidence motion. Over the years the DMK went on to play a bigger role in national politics being part of governments formed by both non-Congress and Congress alliances.

After 70 years of Independence, Indian identity is a more settled issue, at least in most parts of the nation. So this futile exercise of laying claim to the freedom legacy does little to embellish our political maturity. This especially at a time when both national parties have had no problems in forming alliances with regional parties that had little to do with the freedom movement and have very different notions on nationalism.

History is a contentious and contested terrain. Political parties and common folk are alike in highlighting events from history that fit with their narrative and in air-brushing the more inconvenient facts.

As a nation it would do us a great deal of good to realise that history is never a “settled” discipline and keeps constantly evolving as newer facts emerge and and perspectives of the past change.