Posted by: John Elliott | August 20, 2017

India at 40 – my 1987 anniversary article

Nehru’s cry for “work and work and work”

“ ‘I want work and work and work. I want achievement. I want men who work as crusaders’, says a poster quoting an independence dream of Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, above the dirty sluggish luggage conveyors at the unwelcoming Bombay airport”.

That was the introduction to an an article I wrote for the Financial Times on August 15, 1987, which I have just found in my computer. When I wrote last weekend about India’s 70th anniversary of independence, I said it was the third time that I had written an article marking a decade’s progress, the earlier ones being in 1997 and 2007. It was actually the fourth because this was my first.

In 1987, having been the FT‘s South Asia correspondent for four years, I vented the frustrations of a somewhat younger journalist about the failures and setbacks of a country that had so much potential yet was so self-destructive in what it achieved.

My views haven’t changed significantly down the years. There have of course been enormous changes and improvements, but much of the article sounds alarmingly familiar today.

I had just flown back to India from the UK, arriving at the old Bombay airport. I still remember standing waiting for my luggage and, looking up, seeing Nehru’s quotation (from a 1954 speech) and realising it would provide a graphic introductory paragraph for an anniversary article I was about to write.

I quoted Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a radical Pakistani poet, who answered the euphoria of Nehru’s “midnight hour” with a poem that declared “This is not the dawn we yearned for”. I wrote that “forty years on it is tempting to believe that Faiz’s gloom rather than Nehru’s hope is still valid”.

As I often did before writing a major article, I interviewed Manmohan Singh, later to be prime minister. He was then running the Planning Commission, having earlier been Reserve Bank of India governor. He talked about the “inherent good sense” of the Indian people holding the country together, but warned of an ‘identity crisis” brought about by economic development and education.

The full article is below:

Forty Years On – August 15, 1987

‘I want work and work and work.  I want achievement.  I want men who work as crusaders,” so says a poster quoting an independence dream of Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, above the dirty sluggish luggage conveyors at the unwelcoming Bombay airport.

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Nearby, a tourist corporation official in his chair chats on the telephone, blocking the efforts of a ground stewardess to help hot and weary passengers.  It takes five customs officials to clear one person’s baggage and a sequence of 12 officials, police and hangers-on to hire a taxi.

Where is Nehru’s work ethic?  Where are his dreams of a new egalitarian, economic and social order in the world’s largest democracy?  Lost, maybe, in a tortuous, destructive mixture of bureaucratic corruption and inefficiency, caste pride and an over-riding fear of unemployment in a grossly over-populated country where status matters more than compassion.

Forty years ago today India became independent after 180 years of British rule, preceded by a couple of hundred years of rule by the Mughals.  “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,” proclaimed Nehru, hailing his people’s “tryst with destiny.”

Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the freedom struggle, refused to join the celebrations.  He was praying because he had lost a crucial argument for a united India and the country had been arbitrarily – and perhaps unnecessarily – partitioned.  Pakistan (then including Bangladesh) had become a separate independent country the day before, setting the tone for lingering border, ethnic and linguistic divisions and battles.

Britain’s handover of power is widely seen as a model, not always followed in other countries’ colonies, but as many as 500,000 people are estimated to have been killed [Aug 20, 2017 edit: – estimates now go up to 1m] in appalling massacres when some 13m [ditto 15m-17m] people struggled across the many borders to live in Hindu-dominated India or Moslem Pakistan.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a radical Pakistani poet, answered the euphoria of Nehru’s “midnight hour” with a poem which declared “This is not the dawn we yearned for.”

Forty years on it is tempting to believe that Faiz’s gloom rather than Nehru’s hope is still valid.  It often seems as if the Indian sub-continent (including Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – which became independent six months later) is in constant self-destructive turmoil and political instability, rejecting work ethics and egalitarian policies and spurning the Mahatma’s creed of peace and non-violence.

In Sri Lanka last month a Sinhalese sailor in a guard of honour tried to wound and maybe kill Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India , whose mother, Indira, was assassinated by Sikh security guards nearly three years ago.  Gandhi was trying to help end the island’s Tamil ethnic conflict which has claimed more than 6,000 lives in the past four years.

In Pakistan, which has yet to settle down to a stable form of government after years of military intervention and rule, car bomb blasts last month killed more than 60 people in Karachi.  In Bangladesh the military ruler, President Ershad, has been facing riots and the risk of a coup.

In India , the Sikhs’ Punjab crisis that led to Mrs Gandhi’s death remains unsolved, turning New Delhi into a suspicious city full of scruffy gun-toting security guards.  In other parts of India , Hindu Moslem riots have worsened dramatically and even the Gurkhas, loyal soldiers of the army of India as well as the British empire, have their own Sikh or Tamil style insurgency among the Darjeeling tea gardens of West Bengal.  And Gandhi’s stumbling political performance is putting at risk the future of the Nehru dynasty, started by his grandfather and continued by his mother.

Turbulent events

But these turbulent events, which some people believe mean India is on the brink of breaking up, overshadow a basic underlying stability which is not yet so apparent in Pakistan or Bangladesh, and which has been shaken in Sri Lanka during the past decade. India has had steady, if slow economic and social progress on a strong and durable democratic base.

MMS at PlC?“The tensions should not be underestimated, but predictions of India ceasing to be a nation have been wrongly made before and will be proved wrong again – the inherent good sense of the people ensures that,” says Dr Manmohan Singh, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and head of the Planning Commission, who this weekend moves from Delhi to Geneva to run the Non-Aligned Movement’s new South Commission.

“Economically and socially, small homogenous developing countries with less political democracy elsewhere in Asia move faster.  But some price has to be paid for political democracy, and the Indian experiment of developing economic and social policies with the consent of the people is unique.  I think it is the best,” he adds.

Those policies started with the job of combining into a single nation 360 kingdoms and provinces, many of them tiny, with a diverse population of 350 m.  Many observers overplay the numbers game, but the enormity of the statistics in the world’s second most populous nation cannot be overstated.  That 350m figure had more than doubled to 765m by 1985 and could now be as high as 800m.

The World Bank predicts a population of just under 1bn for the year 2,000, after which India might overtake China, already just over 1bn if its birth control campaigns do not improve.  Population control is one of India’s most important failures.  Another is the lack of universal education.  Literacy has risen from only 16 to 36 per cent, affecting economic growth and holding back development for lower castes and minority groups.

The early introduction of nationalisation and bureaucratic controls, partly inspired by British socialist policies and Russian attitudes to the development of heavy industry, contributed to decades of industrial inefficiency and losses of export markets.  This is still hitting the economy, although the policies of Mr Gandhi, plus a growing affluence which partly stems from a green revolution starting in the 1970s, have led to changes in recent years.  But deep-seated problems remain.

Social changes

Social changes such as land reforms and the ending of the Maharaja system led to new local and regional political interests emerging by the time of Nehru’s death in 1964 which upset the national consensus.  By the early 1970s Mrs Gandhi was asserting national authority and was not being tolerant of social and electoral diversity just as diversity was demanding attention.  “A lot of our difficulties have come from this problem” says Mr Pran Chopra, an Indian journalist who applies a similar argument to over-rigidity on economic policies which bred widespread corruption.

But above all this, the country’s greatest asset is its cohesion.  The Indian people were, and are, bound together by five centuries of imperial rule, by their ancient 2,000 year old civilisation with its dominant Hindu religion, and by their restrictive caste system which pervades all aspects of life, combining some of the taboos of apartheid with the snobbery of the British class system.

Cohesion has been helped by a variety of legacies from the British, including an established civil service which works, even though it has failed effectively to develop from a regulatory and tax collecting bureaucracy into positive policy development.  There is also a strong, well-regulated and non-political army; an established judiciary; and a free (though sometimes subdued) press.

Against this, the country is divided by distinct differences between the Aryans of the north and the Dravidians of the south, and by a patchwork of ethnic and cultural differences of 15 main languages, 1,650 dialects, and four main minority religious groups – Moslems, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists.  There are tens of thousands of tribal people, many of them Christian, in the far north east of India , while others live pagan lives in remote primeval forests.  In central India tribal women wearing ornate saris and jewellery work on modern power stations and other construction sites.

There are 100m Untouchables (or Children of God, as Mahatma Gandhi called the bottom of the caste pile) who daily rub shoulders with blatant wealth and high technology.

At the top is the elite, old and new, but a smaller group than the 100m untouchables.  They include educated, cultured public servants and academics concerned for their country and its people, and a new generation, including technologically aware industrialists, anxious to build a better India .

Chasing prestige

There are self-seeking politicians, chasing power for the prestige and wealth it will bring in a corrupt and status-conscious society, and they have scant interest in public policies.  Older businessmen and their families thrive on the bureaucratic controls, corruption and protected economy, which have bedevilled the country’s development.

Finally there is perhaps the most dangerous group of all, the new rich middle classes, who either flaunt their wealth with garish lifestyles in the big cities, sparking new resentment among the poor, or who form the base of ethnic and religious extremist groups because they cannot find other ways of expressing themselves in an inflexible social and political system.

The social tensions and ethnic and linguistic ambitions are exacerbated by uneven economic development and the strains of an exodus from villages to urban areas.

This boils over in various ways.  It can lead to riots like the recent Hindu-Moslem clashes in the north Indian city of Meerut, where over 120 people have died; or ethnic and linguistic movements such as the Gurkhas; or it can turn into the violent extremism and seemingly unstoppable religious and political terrorism of the Sikhs.

No one is sure why there has been a sudden bunching of troubles in the past four or five years.  The most plausible explanation is that it has taken much of the 40 year span since independence for a number of factors to come together.  These include the fading of the unifying force of the independence struggle; the failure of the Nehru-Gandhi Congress Party, which has ruled for all but three of the four decades, to remain a unifying force, when regional demands are increasing; and the emergence of significant economic development, which sharpens disparities.

Mr Pai Pananadikar, director of Delhi’s Centre for Policy Studies, argues that “what seems to prove the instability of India is really a process of political evolution and social change.” He sees demands for linguistically-based states not as a disaster but as an integrating process.

Partition’s conflict

India’s Moslem-Hindu conflict has become steadily worse since the Partition massacres.  The poorer and less well educated Moslems were left behind in India.  So for decades they were dominated by Hindus.  Uneven economic development has made some of them feel more vulnerable, while others have become less willing to be downtrodden.

Hindus, hitherto dominant, resist changes in the social and economic structure.  Clashes and riots break out, fanned by local extremists and politicians.  These Hindu-Moslem tensions usually occur in urban areas, but in the villages and rural areas there are similar problems between different castes, especially the landless and the smallholders.

“A lot of our uneducated electorate are easily aroused on religious, ethnic, caste and similar issues,” said Dr Manmohan Singh.  “This is an age in which the identity crisis has acquired new meaning because of economic development and education.”

But despite these problems, India has emerged as a significant world power and a leader of the non-aligned movement, carefully balancing its relationships with the superpowers.  It tilts towards the Soviet Union and is deeply suspicious of the US which has taken over Britain’s role as suspect colonial power.

As its current peace-keeping activities in Sri Lanka show, it has ambitions to dominate its subcontinent where it constantly fears there are moves (mainly US-inspired) to destabilise its own internal unity.  It has fought four wars with its neighbours, winning three against Pakistan and losing against China.

Its foreign relationships with most countries, apart from the Soviet Union, are heavily influenced by pervasive national characteristics.  “There is a distrust of the external world, a Fortress India feeling that everyone is out to get you.”

This seems to stem partly from India’s pride at having eventually won independence, and partly from over-sensitivity about the country’s shortcomings – including more than a third of the people living below the poverty line.  Potential helpers are suspected of being over critical or would-be colonisers.

The history of the past 40 years shows India has reason to be less sensitive and more self-confident.  With skilful political leadership, which at present is sometimes lacking, it has enough cohesion and resilience to ride its internal crises and to develop at its own pace.  Given that, it should successfully continue to confound and infuriate its critics and charm and impress its friends.

Copyright 1987 The Financial Times Limited;   Financial Times (London, England); August 15, 1987, Saturday;


  1. thanks Mark – yes I think the middle class had not emerged, especially the young, in that positive sense. There were only glimmerings of the IT revolution and all the opportunities that would bring. Interesting also that it was the US, not China, that was seen as a destabilising risk for internal unity!

  2. Thanks for posting this John. I too am struck by how many similarities remain in particular your reference to Hindu/Muslim issues. But perhaps the most extraordinary feature of the article is your identification of the rising middle class as “perhaps the most dangerous group of all”, while they are now considered the motor of Indian growth and stability. Could it be that they found “other ways of expressing themselves in an inflexible social and political system” by driving the growth and now dominance of the BJP?

  3. Nice walk down the memory lane, John. Thanks for posting.
    Have you seen this classic: “I am 20”?
    It was made in 1967 by a brilliant man who worked in Films Division. It’s at
    And once you’ve watched the short film – it’s all of 20 mins – then read

  4. Fascinating, John. It is indeed weird how the same problems persist through the decades. And the population is now 1.3 billion and heading for 1.7 billion…

  5. A fine piece, very good indeed. And you haven’t lost your Elan.

    Warmest regards,
    Tony Paul

  6. Always interesting to see such old articles. They really put things in a perspective which is often lost in the present day.

    It is interesting to note that 30 years later, the main comparisons comes not from the smaller South East Asian countries but a much larger countries that forcefully became India’s neighbour when it usurped Tibet in 1950s. It has had a stupendous success in the last 30 years, so much that many Indians wonder if its benevolent dictatorship cum technocracy is the best model of governance. Then again, being able to go fast is curse if you happen to take a wrong way even by mistake.

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