Distant thunder and Sher Khan

I responded to an event organiser’s request for an unconventional biodata about myself by sending something like, “Born in Bengal Presidency during the reign of Lord Wavell at about the time of the gruesome Calcutta riots... studied in the same school as Rabindranath Tagore and Jagdish Chandra Bose...” The organiser immediately asked for the standard CV.


Bengali literature and cinema were an early influence on me: for example, Pather Panchali, Jalsaghar and, relevant to this article, Ashani Sanket (pronounced in Bengali as Awshani Shongket). Ashani Sanket means signals of thunder, shortened as distant thunder. Satyajit Ray made the story authored by 3Bs, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, into an award-winning film.


The film was set in 1940s Bengal which was being mishandled by the government into an unnecessary famine. A Brahmin and his wife led an idyllic life in a village, where they were respected for their service to the community. The first sign of an impending crisis arose when a visitor devoured a hearty rice meal after reporting that in his neighbouring village, there was a shortage of rice. Very quickly, the shortage spread like wildfire and panic set in. The organised life of the village underwent unexpected turmoil.


Until May this year, the public narrative was oozing with molasses of hyper confidence — economic papers were blushing pink and the television screens cracked due to noisy declamations of pride: India was the world’s fastest growing... roast the Khan Market crowd... reject every report of unfavorable social/economic news... troll writers of ‘open letters’ on governance and economy... and confidently depict India as the don’t-dare-touch-me gorilla. The election results and general mood both rose in defiance of gravity, as share traders drove up the Sensex. Political sages benignly smiled their Mona Lisa smile, silently affirming the impending Ram rajya.


However, “the visitor from the neighbouring village” appeared at least 18 months ago. “What distant thunder?” was the initial injured scowl on the pugnacious faces of the bhakts. However for those who track India’s economic and social developments, the distant thunder was getting louder and closer. Major players in aviation, telecom, infrastructure and automobile were on the ropes. Bank NPAs were bubbling.


More recently, two officers from the prized civil services resigned as a matter of conscience and, promptly, a saffron apparatchik ordered them to go to Pakistan. Last week a former DG of Police wrote an oped, deprecating the investigative agencies as stooges of those in power. Recalling stories about rare, principled officers the DG concluded with a patriotic wake-up call to the civil service: “Let us break out of our slumber and stand erect in the service of our nation”. Five business leaders called out the truth about the economy, and reportedly receiving friendly advice to refrain. A former Prime Minister was scoffed at for suggesting that fractious political differences be set aside to work together on the worrisome economy. The Weekend Ruminations column of this newspaper exhorted the key personages in the government “…to engage directly and actively to prevent the current downturn from morphing into a 1980s-level growth rate”.


Why do those in power generally not engage with critics with appropriate urgency? Because they mistake Ashani Sanket as dissent or political opposition designed to stall progress. But there has to be a dialogue of alternatives, which would help generate ideas for action. India desperately needs three remedies: first, economists and businessmen should speak up constructively without dropping voice or glancing around furtively. Second, policy makers should be more amenable to alternative viewpoints for, after all, all criticism cannot be bad. Third, we need all upright citizens to behave like Vibhishana of Lanka and Sher Khan of Malerkotla.


We all know the story that Vibhishana expressed disagreement with the mighty Ravana regarding the proposed execution of Hanuman. Less known is Sher Khan, who strongly expressed Malerkotla’s disagreement with the Council of Punjab chieftains in 1750 when they decided to incarcerate Guru Gobind Singh’s minor sons. Sher Khan walked out in protest.


During my recent visit to Punjab, I learnt that Malerkotla, near Patiala, is the only place in all of undivided Punjab where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims have coexisted peacefully since 1750s, right through partition and till today. To me, that is nationalism.


The author is a corporate advisor and distinguished professor of IIT Kharagpur. He was a director at Tata Sons and a vice-chairman at Hindustan Unilever.


Email: rgopal@themindworks.me

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