I like to call myself and those of us who were young adults in India in the 1950s “the Before Midnight’s Children”. Unlike Salman Rushdie’s protagonists who were born at the very midnight hour of August 15, 1947, we as young adults threw ourselves into the work of a new and free India in the 1950s.

We experienced an India which we still fantasise about and which also shaped our politics profoundly. I would go further and suggest that we got deeply attached to some ideas, ideologies, aspirations of that experience that we are not able to shed, even today, at the age of 85-plus and more.

I was 14 years old when India declared Independence, on August 15, 1947. I was living in the city of Gwalior, where my father [MA Sreenivasan] was what was called “Dewan” at that time – a kind of chief minister to use today’s parlance. We, his family, were somewhat screened from the turmoil, the agonies as well as celebrations that were going on especially in New Delhi. But like a new arrow, the assassination of Gandhi entered our household.

As my father has written in his memoir titled Of the Raj, Maharajas and Me, a few days prior to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the assassins had been in our house in Gwalior, angry with my father for restricting the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and also not including RSS party members in his Cabinet. They had abused Gandhi and amongst others, my father, for supporting the Muslims and made death threats against Gandhi, my father and Nehru.

As it happens, heartbreakingly, Gandhi had sent for my father and given him an appointment for January 29, 1948, the day before he was assassinated. Gandhi had been told of my father’s skilful handling of the Chamber of Princes, and enabling the integration of the Princely states into the federation of India. His conversation with Gandhi on that evening is full of portent and left him and all of us, his family, not only deeply shocked but politicised.

My father recalls how Gandhi asked him to stay on after the meeting, and pointing to a few people who were agitating outside Gandhiji’s chamber, said:

“You see those poor people standing outside my room? They are from Bannu. They have come all the way to see me. One of them was quite angry with me today. He told me, ‘Gandhiji, you should die’. I said I will not die until my inner voice says I should. And do you know, Sreenivasan, what he said?”

Gandhiji raised his hand in a characteristic gesture and said,

“He said, ‘my inner voice says you should die’.”

Thus, when my father heard that Gandhi was shot dead the next day by a man from the RSS, he was devastated. He also felt that Gandhi had a prescience or premonition that death was near. The Partition and the fury of its aftermath flew in the face of all that he had worked for.

Mahatma Gandhi. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).

The feminist movement

Much has been written about the Partition: the bloodshed, violence, and displacement of people that it generated. As always, women were specially victimised, as they suffered rape, abductions, separation and loss of children.

This event and its aftermath was one of the most important social and political issues in the country during the period 1947–1956 and I am glad that the Mittal Institute will be engaging with this history.

The best figures available suggest that about 1,00,000 women were abducted, killed, or casually cast aside mainly in Punjab. On the fate of women Urvashi Butalia has this to say, “Many of them were raped and some were killed. Some were sold into prostitution. Some were sold hand-to-hand. Some were taken as wives and married after conversion. And some just disappeared.”

I didn’t know all this then, but on reflection, I think my journey into the feminist movement or the feminist space began in these tumultuous years. It has been a long journey. I sometimes say it started in 1973, 45 years ago, when I discovered the energy of the feminist movement in the United States. But I see it now as a continuation of our passions as young women with the spirit of and aura of the post liberation years.

Its beat continues as we can see in the current uprisings, such as the “Women March for Change” recently organised by women’s groups all over India on April 4, 2019, to raise their collective voices against the current environment of hate and violence, and to reclaim their constitutional rights as citizens of a democratic republic.

It is also heard in the voices of many of my friends, members of my generation, such as Nayantara Sehgal and Romila Thapar who agonise about the politics that is running wild through the world – and currently singeing India.

Devaki Jain having lunch with women of colour who were teaching at Harvard University in 1983. Credit: http://www.devakijain.com/gallery.php

Building India

While the Partition had wounded the subcontinent severely and it was impossible to celebrate the liberation without that shadow, other energies also emerged. We were the centre of curiosity and applause from the rest of the world, for many reasons, but especially for having removed the coloniser, the Imperial power, without an armed struggle – though as the story of the freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh reveals there was terrible violence too.

But India was free and everyone was working towards rebuilding India, and reclaiming her own culture, her own civilisation, her own intellect. Many of that era’s women leaders such as Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu and others, had been partners in the freedom struggle, and had led protests, processions, had been imprisoned. They were prominent leaders in the landscape. Each of them set up All India organisations.

Notable amongst these stalwarts was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. She set up cultural organisations such as the National School of Drama, Sangeet Natak Akademi and many more. She also set up the Indian Cooperative Union, which engaged itself with the most important outcome of Partition – rehabilitation of the refugees. The cooperative – not the registered society nor the corporate – was the mode being fostered for rebuilding the lives of the refugees.

The city of Faridabad [adjoining Delhi, in Haryana] was built by the refugees through labour cooperative societies. Faridabad soon grew into a fledgling industrial township. It developed a unique system of social health: a non-colonial system of basic education and workers held the ownership of industrial enterprises.

LC Jain, whom I later married, was the general secretary of this endeavour and he has written a book on this cooperative work, which shows the spirit of that era.

The Indian Cooperative Union also set up the now famous Central Cottage Industries Emporium in New Delhi as a marketing hub for cooperatives of artisans.

I joined the Indian Cooperative Union’s research division in 1957 at the age of 24 and I was asked to undertake a comparative exercise of the various rural development programs operating in India at the time.

This area of development was largely steered by the Gandhian ashrams dotted all over the country under the broad banner of the Sarva Seva Sangh. Almost every social activist was a follower of Gandhi. What did that mean? It meant living in rural areas, wearing khadi and managing with simple livelihood styles. This became the mode for many young people, including myself.

A moral appeal for equity

This exploration drew me to walk with Vinoba Bhave who was attempting redistributive justice, by appealing to the moral sentiments of local residents in a village to share some of their land with the landless. It was called Bhoodan – the voluntary gifting of land by the land-owning classes to the landless; and Gramdan – the gifting of a whole village to itself. It seemed to be working as cadres were mobilised to follow through with the land records. I was to witness this endeavour and write a report.

I mention this particular exploration, as at that time, this idea of moral appeal being successful as an equality creating tool was intriguing the scholars from the Left and others in India. Hence, when I returned from Orissa, where I had gone to live in a Gramdan village as a part of my research, and stopped in Calcutta on my way back, to meet up with a friend, Amartya Sen, he and his friends, Jacques Sassoon, Andre Beteille, all at the University, were intensely curious about this experiment: Was it real? Was altruism working? What a thought!

If I may reminisce and share another later experience with you, when I mentioned this phenomenon, of Gramdan, to my tutor in Oxford, the philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch, she was fascinated and saw it as an illustration of Rousseau’s concept of the general will.

Vinoba Bhave with charkha.

Developing India

In the 1950s and 1960s, rural development and employment were the prominent themes – side by side with the building of dams and machines. Economic policy was led by academics with ideological leanings towards the Left: Professor PC Mahalanobis and Professor KN Raj. Most of the voluntary agencies were tethered in Gandhian philosophy, which meant wearing khadi, adopting lifestyles where simplicity was the code.

Domestic production of goods was also another strum and since India had a base of handmade goods – textiles as well as consumer goods – it was possible to maintain the ethic of self-reliance and livelihood enhancement. Amul, the cooperative venture to collect and market the milk from individual household on a massive scale, attracted global attention for its system and scale and total Indianess.

There was a parallel walk of the Soviet model of economic progress through machines with the Gandhian model of rural village and community development. One could suggest that Marx and Gandhi walked side by side and complimented each other in India’s endeavours to reconstruct herself.

This venture – designing India’s economic policy, and the ideas and people behind it, including Nehru himself – attracted brilliant Indian scholars and economists who were teaching and studying in foreign universities like Cambridge in the UK and Harvard in the USA.

Thus, in 1963, the Delhi School of Economics had a galaxy of young economists like Amartya Sen, Sukhumoy Chakravarty, Dharma Kumar, Jagdish Bhagwati – a shining orb that attracted attention and more scholars.

Returning from Oxford, in 1962, I too began to teach Economics in Delhi University at Miranda House, and joined this club and the exciting discussions and debates that were going on about Amartya Sen’s work on choice of techniques, other issues like the rate of growth and its links to rate of savings, and so on. The overall concern was for employment, jobs as it is called these days.

The public space was open in more ways than one – intellectually, socially, culturally. An enterprise such as the Cottage Industries Emporium, also opened an art gallery, where MF Hussain would exhibit his work, and Ravi Shankar would hold his concerts.

The Economic and Political Weekly encouraged all of us young scholars and writers and became a hub. We talk of Simone de Beauvoir and the Bloomsbury club in Europe for the intellectual elites. In my view, we had such clubs and debates, even across ideologies in India, at that time.

Indira Gandhi strikes a blow

A sharp crack or knock to the further evolution of this Indian political space was given by Indira Gandhi, then the prime minister of the country, by declaring an Emergency in 1975. Since the core reason for her panic, which led to the declaration of an Emergency, was a people’s movement led by Jai Prakash Narayan, expressing the dissatisfaction of the masses, and since he belonged to the Gandhian tribe, Gandhian institutions and leading Gandhian personalities were imprisoned in very large numbers. Grants to the ashrams were withdrawn.

When the Emergency was removed, the cases against the ashrams were so pernicious that the renewal of financial flows could not take place for many years, and gradually the luminosity and collective strength of these institutions or governing bodies, namely the Sarva Seva Sangh dwindled. The Janata Party that came out of the Emergency had Gandhian backing but fractured itself and also dwindled away.

Today’s hope

Global forces further triggered by the internet have now captured India and we are running the same races as most of the globe’s economies with the same experiences of inequalities, exclusions, expropriations and vulnerabilities. Surpluses and shortages live side by side and politics is triggered by greed.

And what of us – the Before Midnight’s Children? We are currently reduced to dissenters, issuing joint statements expressing our anxieties. [Editor’s note: Jain was among the five prominent citizens who filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2018, challenging the raids and arrests by the Maharashtra police in the Bhima Koregaon case.]

These are not only limited to anxieties on the fanning of communal flames but also tampering with the ethic of the Indian Constitution.

But into this dim scenario two energetic forces have entered: the Dalit movement and the feminist movement. Neither is tethered in the sentimentality of my generation. The Dalit movement wants space, wherever that is, and voice. So, does the feminist movement. Neither Marx nor Gandhi oversees them. It is these two forces, in my view, that might lead India back to issues related to justice, human rights, some form of egalitarianism.

Excerpts from the 10th Annual Mahindra Lecture delivered by economist Devaki Jain at the Mittal Institute, Harvard University, on April 2019.