April 14, 2016, of the Gregorian calendar was the first day of the first month (Boishakh) of the year 1423 in the Bangla calendar, known as Bangabda. The previous night, around 11pm, when I was returning home, I found police barricades blocking many streets leading up to the seat of Kali in Kalighat, Kolkata. I live in the neighbourhood, and knew what was up. Like every year, many business-people, traders and those who have to maintain accounts, were bringing their brand new accounts books to be blessed by the mother. The whole area, especially the approach to the Kali temple was very busy. The thick crowds would continue till the late hours of the night – after all, daybreak would usher in a new year, and with that, a new financial year.
A new financial year means a time for renewal, of recalculating the starting inventory for traders. Thus, in Choitro, the last month of the previous year, there are steep discounts and selling activity in order to clear inventories as much as possible so that traders can start the new financial year with minimal carry-overs. Thus, in Bengal (West and East), Odisha, Tripura, Assam, Manipur, Mithila, Nepal and other areas of eastern South Asia, which have a mid-April New Year, this is the season of sales and price-cuts, which people refer to as Choitro Sale.
A British legacy
The mid-April New Year is also shared by several other peoples in this part of the world – most notably in Cambodia, Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Kerala, Chittagong Hill Tracts and Myanmar. These are all homelands of rice-growing peoples with cultural and civilisational links going back many centuries. Crop and harvest cycle similarities among people represent real civilisational continuities. They are quite different from the “ancient and continuous civilisation” type of myths that are invented by nation-states and then projected onto the past – the shape and size of these types of civilisational continuity claims are typically dictated by contemporary political needs, imaginations, yearnings and anxieties.
The government financial year in the Indian Union starts on April 1 and ends on March 31. This is also the case in Canada, Hong Kong, Myanmar, New Zealand and South Africa. Clearly, these widely geographically separated entities are united by a common financial year not because of crop patterns, or anything tied to the practises of their citizens. The root of this unity is the British crown – which created and ruled these political entities in the past. Incidentally, Pakistan and the People's Republic of Bangladesh have delinked from the British financial year.
What these entities also have in common is that their administrative systems have continuity with British rule in terms of governance – all of them have seen the transfer of power to natives. That is, natives did not capture power.
Unsurprisingly, the financial year of the United Kingdom government runs from April 1 to March 31. But none of the United Kingdom’s two close neighbours – Ireland (that won independence after a violent struggle against English rule) and France – have a similar financial calendar. In fact, worldwide, several nation-states use the Gregorian calendar year as the financial year for most purposes, but even then there is huge heterogeneity. In short, financial years vary widely across the world, and this has not created any trouble in trade, commerce and international transactions.
In the United States, which has 50 states, some individual states follow a different financial year system than the federal government does. Thus, each state’s needs take precedence over overarching structures of uniformity. That is a sign of democratic deepening – of people’s convenience mattering before any other reason.
Transfer of power vs liberation
Global uniformity or homogeneity are not positive values unto themselves. If anything, they are inimical to the development of the full potential of those who are different from those who are dominant. That colonisation and standardisation or homoegenisation based on the coloniser’s preferred practise is something we live with after decades of decolonisation tells us that the transfer of power is one thing, but liberation is quite another.
The majority of the people among most ethno-linguistic nationalities in the Indian Union are associated with agriculture. Add to that the class of small traders, and you have a huge proportion of people following the agricultural cycle indeed. But India, put together by the British, continues to follow an alien financial year, divorced from the needs and convenience of its people. People never were, and never are, consulted about such fundamental decisions. Of course, there is an acknowledgement of the traditional, which is the respectable way of saying something is outdated.
Take for instance Scotch, which is the traditional local brew of Scotland, whose government puts a lot of money into its filtration and standardisation process to make it the aspirational drink that it is today. But Scotch is Scotch while Mahua, a local brew made from Mahua flowers in large areas of Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, is considered traditional.
When a tiny minority gets to decide on the datedness of the practises and lifestyle of the stupendous majority, it is a symptom of democratic deficit. The hope is that, through years of coercion, the majority will come around to reason. Such systems treat citizens as infants and not as human beings equal to the elite set.
Governments are supposed to support people’s already existing skills and practises so as to help them fulfil their aspirations and potentials. Governments are not supposed to create conflicts between its own ideology and people’s practises. When such conflicts happen, and government fiat takes precedence, it means most people are not considered to be full citizens.
That the Indian Union does not acknowledge the financial year that started on the first of Boishakh is a democratic deficit, and not a shortcoming of any calendar system. This is related to classifying a certain class of citizens – those who use their own month systems, those who are literate in their mother tongues only – as lesser people (funnily, this is the case for most white, English speakers too, but they are considered greater if not the greatest people.)
If English became the language of all people of the world, it would cause an unprecedented shrinkage in the world of past, present and future knowledge. Similarly, suppressing people’s own practises destroys creative forces, sucks energy out of life and business, and inhibits the economic, cultural and political Swaraj that all sovereign political entities claim to have achieved. While sovereign political entities like the Indian Union may celebrate decolonisation by putting 15 vernacular languages on their bank-notes, their order is determined by the English alphabet order – A for Assamese, B for Bangla. That is the deep structure. Hence, in Bengal, Boishakh 1 is not just Boishakh 1. It is increasingly a cultural marker day that falls in the middle of April.