Looking Back (India in the Twentieth Century)

Looking Back (India in the Twentieth Century)

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Item Code: NAF611
Author: N. N. Vohra and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya
Publisher: National Book Trust, India
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788123737508
Pages: 412
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 Inch x 5.5 Inch
Weight 420 gm
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Back of the Book

From the vantage point of the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the authors invited to contribute to this volume look back upon India in the last century and provide a basis for the evaluation of that historical experience. The trajectory we have traversed in the last hundred years or so also reflects on the future towards which we are heading. An important role, either in shaping as active participants the course of development they write about, or in analyzing those developments from an academic perspective. If this volume generates questions not only about the past but also about the contemporary and the future, then it will have served its purpose.



From the vantage point of the 20th and 21st centuries, the essays contained in this volume look back at India in the last century. The authors evaluate the historical experience and reflect on the prospects the 21st century holds for us.

Many of the eminent authors of these essays narrate the active part they played in the course of developments in the post-independence decades; some of them are leading social scientists who analyse these developments from the perspective of their disciplines. Our objective was to elicit, from the invited authors, reflections on the wide sweep of history and to relate their own life and work to the developments in the country in the outgoing century, drawing upon not only the sources usually deployed to reconstruct the past but also their own hindsight and memories. Thus, we turned to Mr. B. K. Nehru, who joined the ICS in 1934, to look at the evolution of the civil services; to Dr. L. M. Singhvi and Mr. Pran Chopra who witnessed the deliberations in the Constituent Assembly; to Professor Yash Pal and Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan to share their immense experience of policy making in science and culture; and to Me. M. K. Damodaran for his reflections on India’s foreign relations. Likewise, Dr. Arjun K. Sengupta shared with us his observations on politics and decision making in economic policy. Mr. Hiranmay Karlekar and Mr. Gurcharan Das have drawn on their experience in the arenas of information media and dusiness enterprises.

Was there a difference between these perspectives from the domain of praxis (and consequent ideational positions) on the one hand, and the perspective of those at a distance, in the academic domain on the other? We invited the doyen of political science, Professor Rajni Kothari, to reflect on the political system in the Nehru era and in the period thereafter. The historians, Professor P. S. Gupta, Dr. Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Professor Sabyasachi Bhattachrya, addressed various aspects of that grand theme of the 20th century, the tasks of nation building. A distinguished sociologist, Professor T. K. Oommen, surveyed the broad trends in social change through the century. Dr. Uma Chakravati and Dr. Anil Agarwal offered their insights, both as academicians and social activists, into the gender issue and approaches to environmental management in recent times.

It is not fortuitous that such an encounter and exchange of ideas between eminent experts, belonging to different domains and spheres of activity, took place at the Indian international Center, which was founded to provide a forum for such exchanges. These serialized lectures, entitled ‘Looking Back’, were delivered over a period of several months. This series would perhaps never have materialized but for the deep involvement and persuasion of Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, eminent historian, who took meticulous interest in identifying the themes and the experts to be invited to deliver the lectures.

As the authors of most the essays are among the best known personalities of the country it would have been far easier to hand over the publication of this volume to one of the established publishers. We felt, however, that unless the book was moderately priced its circulation would be limited. In this context we approached the National Book Trust and are most grateful to Dr. Sitakant Mahapatra, chairman, National Book Trust, and to Dr. Varsha Das, chief editor and Joint director, National Book Trust, for agreeing to Bring out this volume at an attractive price.



This collection of essays crosses many boundaries the boundary between the historical and contemporary, between the domain of praxis of personalities, activists and policy makers in the public sphere and the world of academic researchers and writers who are at a distance from that domain, the boundary that neatly classifies writings in categories according to the discipline they belong to. The consequence of putting together such diversities was an interesting encounter between different perspectives. At the same time, trespass across such boundaries needs to be defended. It is not enough to say that it was done just for a lark though the lecture sessions at the India International center which brought the authors and a very articulate audience together were indeed very enjoyable. My defence will be that the cross-border traffic was designed with a certain rational. This editorial Introduction will try and explain that rationale. And it might also incidentally answer another question; is this book any different from similar collections spawned by that recent excess of enthusiasm occasioned by ‘the new millennium’ and all that? What is this book about?

Even a casual reader of this collection of essays might notice one characteristic of this volume, perhaps its most important characteristic. This collection arranges, so to speak, an encounter between authors who belong to two sets (there is also a subset of those located at the intersection in between). On the one hand, we have here those who have been or are civil servants, policy-makers, practicing lawyers, media person, business executives, and the like. They provide a perspective rich with pragmatic experience and these essays are also enlivened by their personal memories. Apart from their domain of praxis, on the other hand, there are authors in this volume who are academics and social scientists, situated in their respective disciplines and institutions which provoke and promote thinking, more often than not, from a different perspective. In the discussion sessions, during the oral presentation of these essays before they were revised and refined by the authors into the present text, this encounter between different experiences and perceptions and academic theoretical predispositions, proved to be rewarding. It tended to ‘decentre’ perspectives authors were accustomed to. That is to say, the mind-set framed by the culture of the profession, as well as the thought trends of the workaday world, met in moments of contestation arising out of newly perceived differences in outlook.

The second major feature of this volume is the interplay between memory and history. An attempt was made to include among the contributors to this volume a number of authors who are looking back upon a segment of modern history in which they were not only observers and witnesses, but also, at times, active participants in shaping the course of events they look at in retrospect. Their memories enter into their historicisation of the developments since 1947, as they perceived it. Jacques Le Goff has made an interesting point in his book, the exteriorization of memory in the form of documentation is at the root of the conceptual separation of ‘history’ from ‘memory’ this separation occurs in some societies, e.g. western Europe earlier and elsewhere later , but the process is the same. I believe it can be argued that in cultures within the ambit of the civilization, which possessed a strong oral tradition, this is a significant point. More on that later in this essay. For the present, we might just note that the epistemological status of memory was a much debated issue in traditional India nyaya; the philosopher Jitendra Nath Mohanty endorses the generally accepted view, that in nyaya literature memory is not accepted as equivalent to pramana; but he argues in favour of the ‘candidacy of memory of the status of pramana’ and underlines the fact that there are instances of schools which regarded memory as a source of knowledge in the form of aitibya. Be that as it may, what strikes one as a reader is that essays in this volume are laced with personal memories which bring to life the history they recount.

Most of the contributions to this volume cen be squarely located in the area of contemporary history. And this brings to the foreground the question which many professional historians would raise about the status, validity and objectivity of contemporary history. It will be my contention in the following pages that this skepticism among the conventional historians is unfounded. For the present I would like to emphasize a different aspect of the question. I think works like this volume addressing themes in contemporary history are sorely needed.

The destruction of the past, or rather the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and woman at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in. this makes historians, whose business it is to remember what others forget, more essential at the end of the second millennium than ever before.

Eric J. Hobsbawm wrote thus seven years ago in his history of the 20th century, the concluding volume of his series on modern would history. I am tempted to offer a humorous observation of anther historian, Gordon Wright: In an opinion survey at an American campus a teenage student was asked, when did modern tines begin, from her point of view; the answer was that they began with the Beatles. And when asked further, when did modern times begin for this student’s parents, the answer was, ‘They haven’t started for them yet. ‘The notions of periodization and interest in the past will, of course, vary from generation to generation and from country to country, but Hobsbawm’s remark underlining the social function of recent and contemporary history seems uncontestable. This idea and the fact that task, formed a part of the rationale in designing this collection of essays.

Finally, an unintended consequence for which the editors can claim no credit. As the collection took shape in the form of texts of lectures delivered from time to time over a period of fourteen mouths and as the different pieces began to be cobbled together, there emerged a certain commonality in the concerns of the authors of the essays, despite the diversities in their background, areas of interest, and, of course, on account of the design of the book, the diverse topics they addressed. The thoughts of many of the authors seem to converge on certain themes. These themes have acquired a centrality in the volume as a whole. I shall try and outline some of these convergent patterns of thinking in this editorial Introduction.

The group of authors invited to contribute to this volume, give the design of the project I have outlined, was diverse. Mr. B. K. Nehru who joined the ICS in 1934 was requested to look at the course of developments in the civil services. We asked the leading constitutional lawyer Dr. L. M. Singhvi to reflect on the making of the Constitution of the Indian Republic and he offers interesting into the mind-set of the makers of the constitution (e. g. Dr. k. M. Munshi, ‘my own mentor and senior’ and other members of the Drafting Committee). Mr. Pran Chopra looks at the same events and what followed thereafter: he was in those far-off days a young reporter sitting in the Press gallery of the Constituent Assembly. The eminent scientist, Dr. Yash Pal, in his insightful overview of science policy since Independence, devotes a good deal of space to his formative year the founding days of the Tata Institute of Fundamental research which he joined just about the time Homi Bhabha set it up (in 1945 in Bombay in a small part of Bhabha’s mother’s house). Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, eminent not only as a scholar but also a dancer, weaves into her analysis of cultural identities in India her own memories of encountering and resuscitating bearers of traditional arts and crafts and knowledge over many decades. Mr. A. K. Damodaran, who joined the Indian Foreign service in 1953, offers an essay on India and the 20th century world, an essay rich with an insider’s perceptions. Dr. Arjun K. Sengupta draws upon his experience on the interactions between economic experts and planners like him on the one hand and the holders of political power on the other. Likewise Mr. Hiranmay Karlekar, for decades in the leading positions in the media world, and Mr. Gurcharan Das, a management expert with a global range of experience, deploy their knowledge acquired from personal experience.

At the same time, we have in this volume the doyen of political science, Professor Rajni Kothari, who reviews his and his peers’ earlier evaluation of the political system in India in the Nehruvian ear and raises disquieting and penetrating questions. Professor P. S. Gupta, in an essay written shortly before he passed away in august 1999, offers a critical analysis of the limitations and ambiguities inherent in the nation-building process through the 20th century, while the author of the present essay uses his experience as a historian to look at one outcome of that process in the form of trifurcation of the subcontinent and that process in the new nation-state, Bangladesh, in 1971. Dr. Rudrangshu Mukherjee examines in his essay how nationalist sentiment symbolically infused the sphere of sports. Unlike most of his professional peers in sociology, Professor T. K. Oommen takes up the challenging task of viewing historically the long-term trends in Indian society in the 20th century. The gender issue, by and large an issue on which most of our authors are surprisingly silent, is addressed in Dr. Uma Chakravarti’s comprehensive survey of women’s movements in South Asia. Some vitally important questions in our times, the threat to environment and the possibilities of a community-centred approach to resource management constitute the subject of the essay by Dr. Anil Agarwal, a pioneer in this field of study.




  Foreword VII
  Acknowledgements XI
  Introduction XII
1 The March of Nationalsm 1
2 The Making of the constitution 15
3 Fifty Years of the Constitution 37
4 The Nehruvian Political System and its Aftermath 49
5 The Civil Service in Transition 65
6 Indian and the twentieth century world 83
7 The Birthof Bangladesh: historical roots 99
8 The planning regime since1951 121
9 A new emerging business would after liberalisation 135
10 Twentieth century Indian society in retrospect 163
11 The women's movements in south asia: everyday challenges 191
12 The media: evolution, role and responsiblities 217
13 Sports and nationalism 273
14 Indian's environmental present and future 285
15 The spirit of freedom and science 303
16 Our cultural heritage and identity 321
  Notes on contributors 363

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