Inspired by Mukul Kesavan : the magical India before 1991

I recently read Mukul Kesavan’s stirring article in the Hindustan Times about the India before liberalization. It made me truly nostalgic for the simpler times when we made a family trip to the wonderland called Nepal and walked the streets of Kathmandu greedily buying precious exotic Camay soap for everyone back home….

And just as Mukul Kesavan says:

In cities like Delhi and Calcutta where the poor are a kind of landscape, the promise of liberalisation — that we will consume the world in real time like the denizens of the first world — can seem unpersuasive, even grotesque. For this reason, if for nothing else, it might be useful for policy makers to look back at a time when, for admittedly perverse reasons, consumption was constrained and austerity celebrated.”

So true. It is beautiful to see Mukul Kesavan wistfully look back at a time when austere living  and luxurious language with lots of big words was celebrated. I distinctly remember that India’s poor were much better off back then. They could happily die of hunger knowing that their “austerity” would be celebrated. Mr. Kesavan is right. It does not matter how much my life sucks as long as I am comfortable in the knowledge that life sucks for everyone else as well. This is the good, austere, socialist spirit that has brought humanity out of living in caves.

Fascinated as I was by Mukul Kesavan’s article, I decided to dig back into my own memories and those of the elders in my family to find out more about pre-1991 India. What I found left me with nostalgia and a deep sense of loss at the times we have left behind. As Mukul Kesavan puts it so nicely, India before 1991 was so different that it was another country altogether. 

First, about secularism. Back then, communal riots never happened. Hindus and Muslims lived side by side together as brothers and sisters in total harmony. The Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb ruled the day. Christians always felt safe and never ever as if they are on a “hit list”. Thieves would never break into any Christian schools to steal money. No gambler ever threw a stone at any church.

In those days, India had totally secular laws. All Indian citizens were governed by the same set of rules enshrined in the Constitution, irrespective of Hindu or Muslim or Christian or whatever.

Further, in those days, there was an explosion of creativity among India’s intellectual classes. Back then, there were no sedition laws and no curbs on free speech. It was a fantastic atmosphere of open exchange of ideas. No artist was ever sent to jail for writing a poem referring to PM Nehru as “Commonwealth ka daas” (slave of the Commonwealth).

Speaking of which, I forgot to mention that back then there was no Censor Board. Film makers would express themselves freely and without fear in their creations, with no interference or coercion from the ruling government. There were no laws whatsoever that permitted the banning / censorship of books/movies/cartoons, etc.

All this was enforced by means of a non-partisan government where all high ranking officials were picked on merit rather than political loyalties. In major national institutions and academic positions, genuine scholarship was encouraged and partisan hacks were severely frowned upon.

Ah! I almost forgot! Back then, there was no Article 356 and the Central Government had immense respect for federalism. No state government was ever dismissed by the Center in an undemocratic manner. And of course, no Prime Minister ever tried to impose Emergency upon the country nor tried to become a dictator.

In pre-1991 India, the ruling party had deep rooted internal democracy and no personality cult. All the ruling party’s leadership positions, right from party president to district committee head were elected in an open democratic process by party cadres through secret ballot.  Everyone in the party could freely express their views in front of the top leadership without any fear.

In those days, the personal liberties of every citizen were respected. There were no curbs on what citizens could eat and drink. Citizens could freely consume beef in every state of the country.

It goes without saying that women had a high place in society at that time. Injustices against women were promptly set straight. So much so, that even a poor 62 year old mother of five children from Madhya Pradesh demanding alimony from her husband could get instant justice from India’s Parliament.

Back in the day, the benevolent hand of the state dealt fairly even with criminals and terrorists. No one was ever killed in a fake encounter. Every accused was duly captured and produced before a court of law and given full opportunity to prove their innocence.

I saved the most important thing for last. In those days, there was no poverty in India. The most deprived sections were rapidly lifted into the middle class during the 50s and early 60s while Nehru was alive, due to a scintillating Combined Annual Growth Rate of 1.67%! The last vestiges of poverty were quickly washed away within a few days after Indira Gandhi rode to power in 1971 on the promise of “Garibi Hatao”. In fact, raising the slogan of “Garibi Hatao” magically made food and drink appear in front of people, unlike the fruitless slogans of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” that are in circulation today. Farmers were happy, workers were happy, women were happy, students were happy, minorities were happy; it was the idea of India. 

Thinking of those bygone golden days fills me with a sense of loss, a sense of foreboding, a sense of “knowing hedonism”  and lots and lots of big words that only  Mukul Kesavan knows about…

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19 thoughts on “Inspired by Mukul Kesavan : the magical India before 1991

  1. LOL,LOL & LOL!!..Sarcasm at its best!

    Also to be added during ‘bygone golden days’ in the 1960’s how we enjoyed ration wheat…mouldy wheat which was UNFIT for even cattle given by America , all with strings attached…..a period when we had a grave famine.


  2. Nice sarcasm.The fact that some people are leftists,especially when it comes to economic matters still amazes me.Socialism/Communism/left economics seem to have failed in most places(some say socialism has succeeded in Scandinavia though but that’s it).


  3. The Commies have always romanticized poverty so long as only others were poor, and they had their own privileged access to goods and services in short supply. It was true in Russia and China, and it was also true in pre-reforms India.

    I returned to India in 1989. Between 1989 and 1991, it took at least one full day to get “precious foreign exchange” to go on a government-approved trip. Post the 1991 reforms, it took five minutes. In fact the travel agent would come to my office carrying the FE. Many people of my generation promptly stopped hoarding dollars, knowing that if they needed them they would always get them. The change in mindset (a much abused word) was palpable.

    I remember feeling then that we had wasted 44 years. Now we must make it 54 years of wastage, adding the 10 years of UPA-1&2.

    I can believe that only left lib-retards like Kesavan and the JNU crowd (past and present) yearn for the good old days. These people simply can’t stand the fact that, due to increased opportunities in sectors like IT, even “non-elite” can have a comfortable living now.

    But I need to add a note of caution. My driver, who is as staunch a BJP supporter as I am, for the first time yesterday expressed some misgivings about the fact that NaMo isn’t addressing any core Hindu-related issues. Modi needs to watch out — the honeymoon has already ended, and if he doesn’t rid him of his albatross, he will not win in 2019.


    1. I was born in the 80s, so the horrors of Soviet India mostly exist in small memories for me. But every time today I get angry at this or that, my dad laughs at me and tells me about how long it would take in those days to get a gas connection or a car, even a watch.


  4. My childhood was completely, utterly, wasted thanks to the dynasty’s socialism. Everything was either in short supply or of poor quality. There were waiting lists for cars (Fiats/Ambys/Standards only), scooters, phone connections, watches… And for sugar you stood in long lines in the sun or rain, not even daring to run off for a pee lest you forsook your place in the queue. For cement you applied, begged, and finally bribed the Food & Civil Supplies Officerto get bags allotted to you. For entertainment Doordarshan came on air in the evenings, the news always, but always beginning with “The Prime Minister has said..yada yada yada” with IG’s mugshot beaming at you from the screen. The most famous market in India was some mysterious Black Market, which nobody ever saw but was as pervasive as diesel fumes.

    IG always told us to watch out for the “Foreign Hand” and CIA who were out to deny India her place in the sun. But the real bogeyman was the friendly neighbourhood Income Tax Officer. His swagger and pomp was worth seeing. In one wedding i saw the local businessmen laughing loudly at the rotten jokes being cracked by a pompous ass. “Who’s that idiot?” i asked. “Shh. Marwayega kya. He’s the ITO” said a grownup.

    Today when i read about what’s going on in Venezuela i always get the thought:” Been there, done that”.


    1. These Commies destroyed forty crucial years of the Indian republic. Right after independence, when we were full of creative energy. I often watch youtube videos of Venezuela just to gloat. Search the offices of The Hindu and you will still find some dinosaurs supporting Chavez model…


  5. I was really annoyed with the second and third pictures in the HT article: that of a band playing at St. Stephen’s college and women wearing bell bottoms. How is it even relevant to what the author is saying (assuming the author is saying something coherent)? Is this person upset that liberalization has made western music and dressing styles accessible to all and therefore people like him (with dads on UN salaries and friends in Paris yada yada ) no longer have a “snob value”?

    It is also disturbing to note that he is a faculty member at a university. What kind of writing skills is he imparting to his students?


    1. Hello Kee-teeh and welcome to commenting on this blog 😉

      Basically, Mukul Kesavan is reflecting fondly on a time when only he could go abroad and have a good life once in a while and then come back to tell wide-eyed admiring Indians about it.


  6. Let us not forget that their queen almost succeeded in taking us back to the good old days with stupendous effort through, National Advisory Council crammed with Naxalites, Maoists and Communists under the garb of social activists, for 10 years prior to 2014 May.


  7. Mukul Kesavan well knows that poverty and austerity before 1991 were not out of choice but because of wrong choices and decisions made by his party. His party was (and still is) bent on creating, distributing and perpetuating poverty in order to retain power.

    Take any metric (education, health, transportation) and India is at the bottom of the league thanks to the illustrious leaders from Mukul Kesavan’s party. They first created the poverty and then the slogan of Garibi Hatao.

    The current generation must thank Narasimha Rao and the Vajpayee government for getting us out of the grinding rut of poverty and towards true middle class hood.


  8. Seems like, when you can’t win, change the rules of the game. Kesavan’s party is unpopular among Indian voters now so change the definition of ‘Good Times’. If he asks Indian people to go back to pre-1991 era, how many Indians would agree to go with him? Kesavan is exact opposite to Nashruddin Shah who believes that pre-1991 Bollywood was populated with mediocre movie heroes like Rajesh Khanna.


      1. Ha ha… I actually think these people are just as nostalgic for pre-1947. This Mukul Kesavan says his father used to go on UN funded trips. The same class that went on UN sponsored trips, became judges etc after independence were all receiving british patronage before 1947.


  9. CW, People used to exclusive entitlement will obviously want to return to “old” days; some even to British rule. Superbly written.


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