What if...? Independence Day issue of Outlook

This week's issue of Outlook India is dedicated to "what if x didn't happen?" columns by various well-known writers. If taken literally, exercises in counterfactual history are always dead-ends -- the only history we can reason with is the one that happened. But in this case, the various speculative essays offer a good opportunity to look again at various key historical events in post-Independence Indian history.

The first one I go to, naturally, is Amitava Kumar, who is asking "What if the Partition didn't happen?"

We would not then have had our literature of the riots. Saadat Hasan Manto would’ve remained an obscure, alcoholic scriptwriter who wouldn’t create Toba Tek Singh, who doesn’t know whether he belongs in India or Pakistan. Ritwik Ghatak might still have made masterpieces like Meghe Dhaka Tara but there would not ever be in such films the bitterness of uprooting and loss. No matter. Nothing that Manto or Ghatak did—and not a single sentence penned by Amrita Pritam, Bhisham Sahni, Jibanananda Das, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Intizar Husain, and others—can console us for the terrible brutality that became the benchmark for all the violence that we have unleashed on each other since then as a free people.

I agree with Amitava here, and I add some links for readers who may be unfamiliar with the names he rattles off so suggestively.

I also went, again perhaps unsurprisingly, to the piece by Mark Tully ("What if there was no Operation Bluestar?"). The key paragraph in the essay is this one:

So even if there had been no Operation Bluestar, it’s difficult to see how Indira Gandhi could have avoided putting her life at risk. But putting her life at risk didn’t necessarily mean she would have been killed. If she had not ignored the advice to remove all Sikhs from her bodyguards or if her assassins’ plot had been foiled, Indira Gandhi would not have died on October 31, 1984. India’s immediate history would then have been very different. The massacre of Sikhs that followed her assassination would not have occurred. But what about the longer term? What about India now, would it be very different? I am not so sure. At the time many prophesied that Bluestar and those massacres would achieve Bhindranwale’s ambition of driving a permanent wedge between Sikhs and Hindus. They have not. There were plenty of Cassandras who prophesied that after Indira no one else would be able to hold India together. They too have proved false prophets.

He is probably right here. Even if Indira Gandhi had taken alternative measures to respond to Bhindranwale (and assuming she took some measures), it's unlikely that things would have come out much differently than they have.

Finally, I liked Arvind Rajagopal's "What if Doordarshan [India's state TV channel] hadn't telecast the Ramayana?" This telecast, which occurred in 1987, was an earth-shaking event in Indian mass-culture. It strengthened the convictions of the leaders of the Hindu right that India was ripe for a new religious movement, and definitely softened the earth a little more for the Ramjanambhoomi [Ram's birthplace/Ayodhya] movement. But Rajagopal, as a film and TV critic, is right to object that TV popularity does not in itself constitute a mass movement:

There’s existed for some time an illusion that ‘Hinduism’ could unite people, that it could bring an ancient civilisation together again, make it great once more. The Ramayan’s extraordinary appeal helped move this illusion out of RSS shakhas and ivory tower discussions, and translate it into a set of campaign tactics. The temporary success of those tactics was read, by the advocates of political Hinduism, as confirming the truth of their philosophy.

A technological phenomenon was mistaken for a political one. An audience congregating around TV sets at home is not a movement. A broadcast is conceived as one-way communication; politics by contrast, is two-way communication, a dialogue leading to collective change. The Ramayan broadcast could have been treated like a dialogue, but was simply treated as proof of India’s Hindu identity. Were audiences saying something the BJP did not want to hear? Few people saw Hindu pride as the chief message. For audiences, Ram rajya was a message of democracy and equality, contrasted with the inhumanity and injustice they saw around them. Gandhi used the term Ram rajya in a similar way during the independence movement. But under the BJP, Ram rajya was reduced to a war against rakshasas.

I agree with this. Many media-oriented critics of Indian society often cite the TV Ramayana's popularity that India is a hopelessly religious society. But popularity doesn't say anything about how people were interpreting what they saw. Moreover, it doesn't prove very much about political sentiments.

Rajagopal also makes an interesting point when he suggests that things might have been different if Doordarshan had chosen to broadcast the Mahabharata first, rather than the Ramayana. For the two are very different kinds of epics, with rather contradictory implications for Indian society:

The Mahabharat was screened after the Ramayan, to even bigger audiences. Its message, however, is very different. There are few rakshasas in the Mahabharat. Instead there is a Hindu joint family engaged in a ruinous civil war. Its characters are of a royal lineage, or have unparalleled qualities of strength or beauty. But each is ultimately alone. No identity, no religion or dynasty can save them. Each has to find the path of virtue, however difficult it may be. That is the lesson of this epic.