Two elderly Indians of my acquaintance died last month, one in Mumbai, the other in Bengaluru. Both were in their late nineties. The first grew up in the princely state of Udaipur, the second in the towns of the Madras Presidency. Both came to adulthood in the last years of the raj. Both showed, from early in their youth, a keen interest in science and technology. Both were educated as engineers, first in British India and then in the United Kingdom. Both could have stayed on in the West and made a comfortable living there, yet both came back shortly after 1947 to work in their newly-independent country. On returning home, neither joined one of the multinational companies then operating in India, or even an Indian-owned private engineering firm such as the Tatas or Kirloskars. Both chose to work in the less lucrative (if, in their eyes, more honourable) public sector instead.
These two recently-deceased Indians were entirely unaware of each other’s existence. I had the good fortune to know them both, one well, for he was my father’s younger brother, the other slightly, as the father of a close friend. The strikingly similar lives they led, and the broadly comparable professions they followed, encourage me to write about these unhonoured Indians who helped build this country we call our own.
While neither of these individuals was born in wealthy homes, in cultural terms they were part of a hereditary elite. Both were male, upper caste, and had early access to the language of power and prestige, English. These privileges afforded them advantages that working class or female Indians of their generation might not have had – such as good schooling, quality technical education, and a wider range of job opportunities. That said, it is striking that they did not convey these advantages in ways more conducive to material success. Inspired by the ideals ofthe freedom struggle, and by leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru in particular, they sought to bend their knowledge and expertise to serving the nation.
A life in the railways
My friend’s father, the engineer from Udaipur, spent his professional life in the Indian Railways. Hundreds of millions of Indians depend on trains to get to work, go home on holiday, attend to personal or familial crises. On the efficiency and reliability of the railway system the life of the Republic depends. My friend’s father did a great deal to improve this efficiency and reliability by, among other things, working to convert the Mumbai-Vadodara train line from steam to electricity. This is a vital communication artery, and through his work this railway engineer helped make countless individual journeys faster as well as less polluting.
My father’s younger brother, the engineer from the South, spent the first part of his professional career in the Indian Air Force; and the second and greater part on the staff of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. At HAL, he helped build India’s national capability in defence production. He first worked on indigenously designed aircraft, such as the HF-24, and, later, on domestic production of foreign models, such as the MiG-21. The aircraft he aided in manufacturing made India’s skies safer and India’s people more self-reliant.
I was close to my uncle, and it is partly from him that I derive my own commitment to living and working in this country. After retiring from the HAL, he taught at the Indian Institute of Science and helped nurture the Aeronautical Society of India. While, as a humanist by training myself, I had but a scanty understanding of my uncle’s technical work, I was impressed by his lack of caste pride or religious sectarianism. The first may have come from his own paternal uncle, the social reformer, R Gopalaswamy Iyer, a celebrated crusader for the emancipation of Dalits in princely Mysore; the latter perhaps from his formative years in the Indian Air Force.
This engineer’s understanding of, and respect for, the country’s cultural diversity was immense. This boy who grew up in Mangalore had taken his first degree in Banaras, and his last job was overseeing the operations of a HAL factory located in the tribal uplands of Odisha. As an MA student, I spent a few weeks doing fieldwork in that factory and was struck by the esteem in which the managing director was held by colleagues at all levels of the organisation.
The engineer from Udaipur I knew much less, but even the slight acquaintance I had suggested that he upheld a similarly capacious idea of India. He was shaped by his school, Vidya Bhawan, a pioneering experiment in progressive education that cultivated an interest in the arts and in working with one’s hands. His social understanding was deepened by his joining the Railways, the composition of whose staff may reflect even better the diversity of the Indian people than the armed forces. This engineer’s own service was in areas quite far removed, in cultural and geographical terms, from his native Rajasthan. The people whose journeys were made smoother by his technical inputs were mostly from a different social and economic background than him.
The engineer from the North and the engineer from the South each had a very substantial career in public service. Their personal lives were also worthy of admiration. Both were kind fathers, caring husbands, and loyal and supportive friends. Both had interests outside engineering – in reading serious works of non-fiction, for example. Unlike most Indian males, both were absolutely without ego. When my uncle died, my wife, who had known him for 40 years, remarked – channeling Orwell on Gandhi “how clean a smell he leaves behind.” That surely was true of my friend’s father as well.
It is perhaps time I identified these two individuals by their names. The engineer from Karnataka was called Subramaniam Chenna Keshu; the engineer from Rajasthan, Shree Gopal Trivedy. They were each greatly loved by their friends, family, and professional colleagues, who have cherished memories of what these two individuals meant to them. However, I write of them here because their lives are of meaning even to those Indians who did not know them personally. They were both true nation-builders, even if the current representations of our nation’s past do not encourage us to see them as such.
A history of development
In many of his recent speeches, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken of the progress he thinks the nation has made in the last eight-nine years, “pichle aaht-nau saal mein”, that is, in the period he has himself been in office. It is striking how Modi does not even acknowledge the constructive work (on infrastructure and regulation, for example) done by the previous National Democratic Alliance regime, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Modi’s boastful claims about the nation’s “progress” under his watch are then amplified by cabinet ministers and the ruling party’s social media cell. Reading them or hearing them, one would think that India was entirely sunk in a morass of economic and technological backwardness before May 2014.
To be sure, there is an alternative narrative that dates the nation’s awakening to a slightly earlier date. So free market enthusiasts tell us that India really began to grow, and grow up, after the summer of 1991, when the policies of economic liberalisation were first put in place. This account has more merit to it than Narendra Modi’s self-promoting triumphalism; yet, it likewise disparages those Indians who worked tirelessly for the country’s welfare in the 44 years between Independence and the arrival of Narasimha Rao as prime minister and Manmohan Singh as finance minister.
India in 1947 was desperately poor, deeply divided and largely illiterate. The country was widely expected to collapse under the weight of its infirmities and contradictions, to be rent by civil war, famine, or military dictatorship – or even all at the same time. These dire predictions did not come to pass. India stayed united, constructed a democratic template, achieved food self-sufficiency, and nurtured a reasonably robust technological and industrial base. Had these unifying institutional and infrastructural foundations not been built between 1947 and 1991, there would have been no IT or BT revolution, no start-up culture, no pan-Indian labour and capital market – indeed, without them, there might have been no India at all.
Here lies the wider relevance of the individuals profiled in this column. Subramaniam Chenna Keshu and Shree Gopal Trivedy were two among tens of thousands of exemplary Indians who – whether employed in the civil services, the armed forces, the railways or the defence industries, whether labouring in farm, factory, school, college, hospital, or research laboratory – ensured that there would be an India for later generations to further build upon, or (if they now so choose) to destroy.
This article first appeared on The Telegraph.
The updated edition of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is now in stores. His email address is email@example.com.