Mark Tully’s views on changing values and modern India

Sir Mark Tully is surrounded by fans at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival 2014

Sir Mark Tully surrounded by fans at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival 2014

Mark Tully’s views on changing values and modern India

22 May 2014

By Naomi Canton

Former BBC Indian correspondent and renowned author Sir Mark Tully KBE speaks about the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, his hopes for India and what needs to change.

Our Literature Festival this year was about Changing Values in Asia. Do you have any comments as to how values are changing in India?

Westernisation is taking place in urban areas, and urban areas are not as separate to rural areas as they once were. But I think what you see now in the shopping malls of India is consumerism which is not a traditional Indian value.

So I would say consumerism is coming in and the tradition of living in big joint families is on the decline, as is the tradition of having large families. More women are working and there is a strong feminist movement in India now. These changes are not just among the rich. They can be seen among poor women too. They are much more resistant and prepared to fight for their rights.

You opened our Festival in 2007 and you have spoken at Asia House many times. It is such a shame you could not be with us this year. How do you view our Festival?

It is a very important Festival. But I think it would be wonderful to promote the translation of Indian languages as there is a lot of good writing going on of Indian languages. We don’t see much of that. An example would be Raag Darbari by the late noted Hindi writer Sri Lal Sukla which my partner Gillian Wright translated.

I have never read a more entertaining and more informed book.

One of the speakers at our pre-Festival events was Dr Mukulika Banerjee who has written a book called Why India Votes. In it she talks about how Indians have a particular passion for voting. Would you agree?

India is one country where people take voting seriously. Most of the poor vote and the better off don’t (so the reverse of the norm). This is partly because people think that by voting for someone they have someone that represents their interests in the Government which is so important to them. They think he or she might help them to get a job in Government or bring development into their villages. So you find in rural areas that people will say ‘I will vote for this man because I think he will do my work.’ It’s very much not a matter of principle. It’s much more voting for someone who will represent you as in India you need a broker.

The Closing Night of our Literature Festival was about Indian soldiers’ contribution to the Great War. How is this contribution viewed in India?

Indians contributed to both WWI and WWII. Indians were in the army that fought against the Japanese in Burma in WWII, often known as the Forgotten War or the Burma Campaign. Indian army regiments are very proud of what they did in both World Wars. It did of course to some extent influence the Indian Independence Movement too and the formation of the Indian National Army during WWII, which fought on the side of the Japanese.

You were born and raised during the British Raj. Can you talk a little about that.

When I look back on it now, I realise my childhood was un-politically correct, but I did not realise that at the time and my parents’ main aim was to make sure I was not influenced by India so I had a European nanny to make sure I did not talk to my servants or learn Indian languages. So I had a very British childhood.

Can you say a little bit about caste in India?

Caste has changed dramatically, especially related to untoucheability. I get into trouble if I talk about it. Where does caste stand now? It’s still very important, especially in rural areas and that’s why there is so much politics with it. The Congress Party that is the most opposed to it always does its caste calculations. Very often migration to cities takes place on a caste basis. For example, a group of Yadavs (farmers) will come to a part of Delhi and settle there and others will see that caste there and look to come and join them. No longer can someone in India not have anything to do with someone else from another caste. When I had untoucheables working in my kitchen not once in many years did anyone raise any question. So it’s changing but it’s still a force.

What are your views on Partition?

It was totally flawed in that an enormous number of Muslims could not go to Pakistan. India still has an enormous number of Muslims.

I still believe that that the Ganga-Jamuna culture (communal harmony – a phrase referring to the coexistence of Hindus and Muslims in India, likening it to the Ganges and the Yamuna, two rivers which are like the backbone of India) still does exist in the hearts and minds of many people. It is deplorable that so many politicians try and create divisions. I hope and pray that that wonderful Ganga-Jamuna culture will see India through.

What is the biggest threat to India?

I think the biggest threat to India is the fact that it’s like a great ocean liner that has been through many crises, starting with the bloodshed of Partition. It’s incredible how it has emerged as a secular nation after all that bloodshed: two prime ministers assassinated; the Father of the Nation assassinated; the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya which triggered riots; and the storming of the Golden Temple in 1984 which triggered riots. There is a sense of ‘chalega’ – that somehow we will come through it and therefore we don’t have to talk about the problems facing India. A friend of mine has written a book about the implosion. I think if India does not do something about its institutions and how they function and the problem of corruption, then it will become harder and harder to hold the country together; but I do sense a growing sense in India that there is a problem. There is still a pattern of governance left by the British. It was a colonial system and not a democratic system of governance and the institutions need rethinking and strengthening. I was once speaking in Chandigarh about corruption and someone said it could be ended by making everything electronic but a policeman said they were taking their ‘hafta’ (bribes) by emails now.

The closing night film of the Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival 2014 was A Prayer for Rain, a film about the Bhopal disaster. You reported on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy as it happened in 1984. Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide, has been summoned to appear before a court in Bhopal on 4 July 2014. Will this bring justice? Why has it taken so long?

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy was resolved to some extent but then people thought it was not satisfactory. There were inefficiencies and corruption in dealing with claims for compensation, which is governance again. We never really got clarity on what exactly happened. As far as I know Dow Chemical has never said, ‘This is exactly what happened and we are sorry about it’. The state government has also still not cleared up the site.

What do you feel about the prospect of Western supermarkets entering India?

If India loses its kiranas (corner shops), it would be an absolute tragedy. I have had the same family cooking for me since I first went to India in 1965. My cook bursts into laughter if I ever go into the kitchen. Kiranas pride themselves on all sorts of services that I think people in India will still want. They are open all sorts of hours and will deliver to you. The sabji-wallah (street vegetable sellers) and fruit wallahs (street fruit vendors) come down the road shouting on the street. I think the supermarkets will have to compete with these people. I don’t know how successful they will be and personally I hope they are not successful.

How do you feel about India’s future?

Someone once said India was the luckiest country in the world because of the demographic dividend and its number of young people. But unless India gets its act together and promotes jobs and training for these young people, then there’s a danger it will turn into a demographic disaster. There is a frustration because of a chronic shortage of jobs and they go to university and come out of it and realise they have had a wholly inadequate education. Our journalists have not done India a great service. When they first went there, the image was poverty, squalor and hopelessness, dependent on aid; next it was the BRIC economy and India was a huge superpower, ‘India is so rich it does not need aid’.

There have been so many misconceptions. It was not as poor or as hopeless as once portrayed and it’s not going to become a great power as things stand as present. I would say one of the saddest things about modern India is not just the shortage of toilets. There is a book by Amartya Sen that has a whole series of figures that shows that in toilets, illiteracy and infant mortality, India falls behind. It’s a reflection of a huge growth in population in recent years. Literacy levels have gone up but it is not good enough. Dr Sen wants to see far more money spent on education and healthcare. Rajiv Gandhi once said that if he wanted to give Rs 100 to every village, he would be lucky if Rs 15 was spent.

To read Mark Tully’s views on the Indian general election 2014, the main political parties and what needs to be done to bring her economy back on track, click here. 

Sir Mark spoke at this year’s FT Weekend Oxford Literature Festival and gave an exclusive interview to Asia House Web Editor Naomi Canton.

Sir Mark was born in Kolkata in British India in 1935, where he was raised. He studied for the priesthood before taking up a job with the BBC for 30 years before resigning in 1994. He was the Bureau Chief in Delhi for 22 years during which time he covered landmark news events including the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and her son Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists which led to communal rioting. He has written numerous books on India and continues to reside in Delhi.

The annual FT Weekend Oxford Literature Festival has announced a new annual partnership with the Kolkata Literary Meet. It will now stage an ‘India Day’ in Oxford to celebrate Indian literature, culture, art, history and current affairs and the contribution made by the City of Kolkata and the State of West Bengal. From January 2015 The Kolkata Literary Meet will similarily stage an ‘Oxford Day’ each year to celebrate British literature, culture, art, history and current affairs and the special contribution made by the University of Oxford and the Oxford University Press.