Technology, History, and Place

Tag: socialism

Blood in the canal

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Mother India is a monumental and deeply disturbing film. (Spoilers ahead!) Released in 1957, ten years after the Partition of India and independence, the film features Bombay leading lady Nargis as Radha, the mother of a family and an archetype of Indian motherhood. When the film opens, it is the present day (the mid-fifties), and a canal has just been completed. Radha, the oldest resident of the village nearby, is given the honor of pulling a rope to release water into the canal at the dedication ceremony.

As Radha is grasping the rope and just about to pull it, the narrative shifts back to when Radha was a young woman and a newly-married bride. Most of the rest of the movie takes place in this flashback. Radha’s adult life is a series of calamities: her husband loses his arms in a farming accident and abandons the family to die alone, the village is washed away in a flood, and Radha’s baby is killed. Then when Radha’s two surviving sons grow up, Birju, the ever-rebellious younger son, terrorizes the villagers and turns to a life of banditry. Birju murders the village landlord, and in the end Radha herself wields a rifle to shoot her wicked son and end his reign of terror once and for all.

After Birju dies in his mother’s arms, the flashback ends, and Radha is back at the dedication of the canal. She pulls the rope, and water rolls through canal’s gate—red at first, then clear. And thus the film ends.

Why is the water in the canal red? Because the scene takes place immediately after the son’s death, it is clear that the red water is a symbol of Birju’s blood, shed for the good of the village. To me, the red water in the canal has a broader significance as well, and it is this—more the kin-murder—that makes the film so disturbing.

I read Mother India as a metaphor of socialist nation-building. Birju’s murdering the landlord represents land reform. In turn, Radha’s killing Birju refers to the rooting out of dissident anti-national elements to create a homogeneous socialist society. This happened on a large scale in China and the Soviet Union, and on a smaller scale in India. As in the large communist countries, the Indian government suppressed certain indigenous and other non-mainstream communities in the interest of national unity.1 India’s socialist development also dispossessed untold millions of villagers as land was cleared for infrastructural projects such as the canal that Radha dedicates. These people’s blood is also in Mother India’s canal.

  1. To be fair, capitalism could be just as destructive of non-mainstream communities. Consider the systematic destruction of Native American communities during westward expansion in the United States. []

Gandhi, Nehru, and the Machine

At the National Gandhi Museum in New Delhi, a reconstruction of Mahatma Gandhi’s house at Sabarmati Ashram, Gujarat, shows visitors to the free museum how the Father of the Indian Nation chose to live. The room is empty but for a mattress, a writing table, and a spinning wheel. The emptiness of the room emphasizes the asceticism of Gandhi’s life. Although he had come from a middle class family and had a legal education from England, he chose to live like a peasant so the rural masses could associate with him.

The reconstruction of Gandhi's room at the National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi.

The reconstruction of Gandhi’s room at the National Gandhi Museum, New Delhi.

Five miles away from the Gandhi museum is Teen Murti Bhawan, the house where Jawaharlal Nehru lived when he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India. It is also a museum, having been preserved in the condition that it was when Nehru lived there fifty years go. Although the house is not opulent by Indian or European standards (it was originally built in the colonial era as the commander-in-chief of the colonial military’s official residence), the contrast with Gandhi’s house is striking. Nehru was not an ascetic. His family started out better-off than Gandhi’s, and he did not give up as many of the trappings of the privileged life as Gandhi did. While Gandhi lived in poverty, Nehru lived in comfort, surrounded by his fine furniture and extensive collection of books.

View of Nehrus office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

View of Nehru’s office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

Just as the ways they lived their lives were different, so were their approaches to industry and economics. Gandhi’s hope for independent India was that the country would develop its villages and emphasize small-scale, local economies. Nehru, on the other hand, believed in large-scale, modern industry, mechanization, big dams, steel mills, and the like. Gandhi wanted hand-spinning; Nehru wanted cotton mills. The two men’s visions for independent India were nearly compete opposites of each other.

Underlying their radically different visions, though, were markedly similar ideals. Gandhi disbelieved in modern industrial capitalism not because he thought that machines were inherently evil, but because he believed that machines’ potential to concentrate wealth and power in the owners’ hands outweighed any potential benefits that machinery might offer. Industrial capitalism enriched the bourgeois minority but left the proletariat poor. Gandhi felt that the inequality produced by modern industry was immoral and socially unacceptable.

Nehru was also alarmed by the inequalities inherent in modern industrial capitalism. Rather than rejecting modern machinery, as Gandhi did, Nehru took a different approach. He believed that industry could be tamed and turned to the benefit of all if it existed in the context of a socialistic command economy. Rather than permitting free-market capitalism, Nehru believed in nationalizing the most important industries and instituting economic planning to define the course of the entire economy. According to Nehru, state industries, economic planning, and the command economy would allow India to enjoy the material benefits of industrialization without suffering its social consequences. As chairman of the National Planning Commission, Nehru inaugurated India’s first three Five-Year Plans before his death in 1964.

The legacy of Nehru’s industrial-economic philosophy was mixed. Although the command economy prevented some of the worst abuses of power that other countries experienced under industrial capitalism, India’s predominantly rural population remained poor and subject to the interests of the urban elites. India’s command economy grew slowly during the four decades it existed. In 1991, the Indian government liberalized the economy. Since then, the Indian economy has grown more quickly, but this growth has been followed by an intensification of the inequality that both Gandhi and Nehru had feared.

Although the Indian command economy no longer exists, state industry is still common in India in the twenty-first century. Across India, factories, stores, power stations, agricultural research centers, and other institutions bearing the motto “A Government of India Enterprise” are glimmers of Nehru’s socialistic economic philosophy that persist in contemporary, free-market India.

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