Professor Craig Jeffrey seems altogether cheerful that his new book Modern India – A Very Short Introduction is being launched soon. Of course, this is not the only book that he has authored on India. Prof Jeffrey’s association with India is spread well over 20 years and he has worked on many research projects particularly in northern India. His latest book is part of the Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press.
As a child, Prof Jeffrey grew up listening to stories about India. He vividly remembers watching an amateur family film of his grandfather, a sergeant working in South India in the 1940s-50s, meeting Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister). But if these memories left an impression, it was enrolling for an “inspiring undergraduate subject on India” at Cambridge in the early 1990s that actually sowed the seeds of interest for India in him. Looking back, the 1990s was an interesting period in India’s history with a new set of dynamics around religion, caste and economic reforms shaping India, a point he reiterates in Modern India – A Very Short Introduction. As a post-graduate student, Jeffrey was determined not to sit in a library but be in the new place, learn the language and meet different people. Interestingly, the moment he set foot on India, “man lag gaya” (I felt connected), he reveals in chaste Hindi. He would go on to stay for five years working on various research projects while mastering Hindi and acquiring love for Indian food.
Today as director and CEO of the Australia India Institute (AII) and Professor of Geography at the University of Melbourne, Prof Jeffrey is focusing the institute on key themes such as education, health, infrastructure, governance and security with a high degree of energy and enthusiasm. In conversation with Prof Jeffrey on his new book, and more.
How did the idea of Modern India – A Very Short Introduction come about?
First of all, writing a history of India since 1750 in 32,000 words is a very difficult task. But it is an enormously interesting one and that’s meant for all the short introductions that the Oxford University Press produced. There are 500 of them now on all sorts of topics. I was aware that there wasn’t one on India and I thought of India and its history since 1750 in 32,000 words would be a very interesting task. I did not want to simply create an expanded Wikipedia entry on India which would be relatively descriptive, but use the opportunity to advance an argument about the nature of India today.
And the argument of the book in short form is that, India — while having achieved very remarkable economic growth recently, in spite of being a miraculously successful democracy and a place where social transformation has occurred — continues to suffer from a series of challenges. These challenges are particularly around the provisions of health, education and challenges that disproportionately affect India’s relatively marginalised populations including women, low caste Muslims and those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy.
So India is a place of contradictions as the cliché goes, but like all clichés this contains a great deal of truth. Part of the purpose of the book is to explain those contradictions with respect to what has happened in India since roughly 1750. I explain that with respect to India’s experience of colonialism and the disastrous effect that the British had on India particularly in the 19th century. And I explain it in terms of the partial success but also partial failure of post-colonial governments of India since 1947 at providing the kind of social guarantees that people in Australia take for granted around, say, access to effective education, healthcare. But the other part of the book is also trying to look at an answer to a very interesting question that arose in my mind when I started to frame the book: Why is it that, in the context of equality, people have not risen up en masse to protest along the lines of what happened, for example, in several north African countries in the early 2010s? Of course there has been a lot of Maoists Communists activity in parts of India which is supposed to be violent and revolutionary in tone. Still given the social problems in India around inequality, unemployment, lack of access to effective education and health for most citizens in the country, it’s surprising there haven’t been more organised political protests. And that question of why is also what is discussed throughout the book. I don’t want to give much away too much; you need to read the book to get the answer to the question.
Do you think that is because Indians are lackadaisical in nature?
Not at all. I don’t think it is anything to do with the character of the people in India and the book makes no attempt to generalise the character of people from India or Britain or Australia. It is more historical, if that exists, but different processes come together in different moments in time to shape what happens. I will give you a hint. I think part of it has to do with the democratic system of India – people feel they have an opportunity to express themselves through the ballot box and through democratic processes. If India had been an authoritarian regime, I think a lot of the frustration of people would have become more pent up and then exploded. What you have instead are democratic processes of complaints, grievances and the ability to vote out state or national governments in frustration at the lack of progress. But also what interests me about small town rural India is the extent to which there are lots of people, and lot of them are young people, who are actually involved in the production of hope. They are trying to tell other young people and children that they should be hopeful about the future. They are getting involved in NGOs, in activities around right to information act and rights movement, they are educated, they increasingly have access to communication technologies such as phone, internet; they increasingly believe in norms of liberal government and citizenship and they are representative of, what I argue in the book, a kind of social revolution. Not a violent, political revolution but a social one at the grassroots level, one which is very important to survival of India as an idea, as a successful nation.
Would you attribute this to growth in literacy level?
Exactly. The social revolution I describe in the book has three aspects. First of all, it has an educational aspect. Educational revolution in India has taken place since the 1990s with girls too being brought into not only primary schools but secondary schools. They are acquiring literacy and the kind of mindset associated with “the educated person”. Second aspect is access to mobile phone technology. In 2000, two million people in India had access to a phone; by 2014 it was 900 million phones in India. And the third aspect to social revolution, which has been less commented upon, but really important, is the sense in which people believe in citizenship, the belief that the government can and should work for them in a fair and transparent way.
When I started doing field work in the mid-1990s, I did encounter people who said the idea of corruption is inappropriate to India because they operate according to different norms and ideals around family, caste and so on. That idea you wouldn’t encounter in India anymore in the late 2010s. People believe that the state should be transparent, that the teacher should come to school on time, that doctor should come and work in surgeries, that government bureaucrat should provide the services without taking or requesting a bribe. That’s a big change I think. And it’s one that is really important not just in terms of how other countries understand India but in terms of how India understands itself and how it works as a social and political unit.
But poverty still remains a major problem?
Controvertible, but poverty remains a major problem in India. Economic growth has reduced the proportion of people who suffer from income poverty but economic growth has also widened the inequalities between the very rich and the very poor. So you have a situation where poverty is declining but more and more people feel poor because the gap between them and the rich has increased. It is a rather paradoxical situation and one that is not peculiar to India alone because the general story of globalisation is the gains haven’t been widely shared. The economic growth that has occurred hasn’t created the kind of good jobs that people expected and, therefore, across the world there is a widening gap between winners and losers of global change. And that is very true to India as it means that you are seeing a lot of people who can get access to images of prosperity via their phones or internet or television but cannot achieve that mobility. Despite being educated, despite trying as hard as they can, they can’t find the work they expected and they don’t live in an environment that is conducive to establishing business successfully.
And I would say the biggest issue that India would face in the 2020 would be jobs. The creation of jobs is just not the responsibility of governments but of everyone. It is something that is going to become a prominent public policy issue over the next 10 years. One of the books I wrote before this is called Timepass and it was about unemployed youth in western Uttar Pradesh who felt so frustrated about their situation that they described their lives as being one of time pass (passing time in street corners). I see that time pass becoming an increasing problem in small towns and rural India in the current moment.
What are some of the conclusions that you have drawn in your book?
One of main conclusions is that the Indian government needs to continue to think very hard about how to build primary health care and effective elementary education, reform and improve secondary and higher education and vocational skills in order to give people outside of the elite in India a chance to obtain the services that most people in a country like Australia have the right to. And none of that is news to the Indian government to Modi or to organisations like Niti Aayog, but it is important to keep emphasing this point.
What values can the Indian diaspora derive from the book?
What I have tried to do is write a book that reflects my experience of working in so-called provincial India. It’s not a view so much from the metros, it is probably skewed if I were to give my own critique of the book and skewed more towards examples from north India, which reflects my own research areas of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Nevertheless its value, perhaps, is in being written up from the point of view of provincial India rather than being a book that is written by just someone sitting in the lovely Nehru Memorial library (laughs).
The book starts with four stories of people living in provincial north India and their situations and what they are thinking about drives the narrative of the whole book. So those examples are drawn from work that I have been doing now for about 23 years in those states.
Lastly, what are the objectives of AII this year?
There is a lot happening. We have two-three events every week and we are going to be involved in producing a series of seminars on different aspects of India. One of the things I have tried to do is: focus the institute on key themes such as education, health, infrastructure governance and security. We are hosting a lot of scholars, public intellectuals and artists who are coming from India. We are hoping to have a partnership with the Multicultural Museum around Gandhi and the Gandhi exhibition that is coming later in the year. We ran for the first time last year ‘India week’ in November. We are keen to do that again and probably time it with Diwali.
One of the things as director of AII which I have done is to develop a network of early career scholars who are working on different aspects of India for different disciplinary perspectives and that is called the new generation network of scholars. There about 13, soon to be 15, of them scattered all over Australia doing interesting work and they come together for regular retreats. This new generation network is being given the intellectual base for engaging better with community and government or with businesses.
(Professor Craig Jeffrey will launch his book, Modern India – A Very Short Introduction on March 14 at the Woodward Centre, South and West Rooms, Level 10, 185 Pelham Street)
By Indira Laisram