As 2020 nears its end, the urge to look back at the year as an annus horribilis is palpable. In varying degrees across the world, the Covid pandemic left grim memories of the loss of human lives, altered patterns of human interaction, and shared space. To add to that, the pandemic necessitated responses like a lockdown which, in turn, posed a different set of problems for economic activities and human mobility.
Despite the global scale of shared misery, there are too many variants that ensure that the same year might mean different things to different individuals, groups, societies, and even countries. Even if the cliché of this-year-keeps-getting-worse infiltrates public conversations, the exercise of drilling a sense of horror in historical memory isn’t that simple. In the pecking order of annual misery, different places and people might have different periods to dread, celebrate, or simply forget — and for very different reasons.
When removed from the generality of global experience, a country is likely to have a different set of entries in its annual register of misery. Even a short timeframe of the post-Independence years of contemporary Indian history is a case in point. So, while the newsweekly Open, for instance, stated the obvious in running its 2020 year-ender issue with the annus horribilis, the chroniclers of India’s recent past would argue that the year would have to contend with other claimants for this egregious mark in national memory. The last time the sense of a horrible year got acute enough to find its way in India’s current affairs commentary was as recent as 2008.
Take Outlook magazine, which used this headline while : “Thank God it’s over: The worst year in India’s history?” In keeping with the theme, that issue, dated January 12, 2009, had that reflected on years which could be dreaded as annus horribilis in the post-Independence years. The essay also briefly dwelt on factors that shape the idea of a horrible period in the annals of history, particularly the more recent years in the life of a nation.
2008, the year in question, had left a trail of headline-hitting tragedies and crises: terror attacks in major Indian cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Jaipur and Ahmedabad; the sharpening of tensions in Jammu and Kashmir over the demand for land by a temple board; the United Liberation Front of Assam resuming violent activities in the Northeast; the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena violently targeting outsiders; and the violence against new converts to Christianity in Odisha. These were some of the painful reminders of the year’s internal security challenges.
Moreover, nature’s wrath was unusually ferocious in 2008. Even in flood-prone regions like the Kosi plains in Bihar, the inundation was more severe as the river changed its course, claiming many lives and leaving around three million people stranded. The scourge of urban flooding was seen in Chennai too. In the economic sphere, the repercussions of the global slowdown was felt in India as many companies resorted to layoffs and curbs, while the now redundant Planning Commission lowered its growth rate expectations.
Despite the cumulative weight of these factors, though, Guha had argued that 2008 was just one of the several dreadful years in contemporary Indian history.
In retrospect, among the years remembered for being extraordinarily tragic, difficult or challenging for India, the following can be listed for different reasons.
1984, for instance, saw the Khalistan-led insurgent movement on the rise in Punjab, Operation Blue Star at the Golden Temple and the resultant violence, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and anti-Sikh violence in some parts of the country, with Delhi as its epicentre. There was separatist violence and unrest in Assam and the gas leak in Bhopal, which claimed over 2,000 lives and permanently impaired many more.
1975 saw the proclamation of national emergency and the suspension of civil rights.
1966 had the Mizo National Front launching an armed uprising against Indian governance, and a tribal rebellion in Bastar and consequent violence. The monsoons failed, precipitating a major foodgrain crisis and food riots, and India’s prime minister visited the United States asking for food aid. The Centre’s talks with Naga insurgents broke down leading to violence, accompanied by an acute foreign exchange reserves crisis and the devaluation of the rupee.
In 1962, the national confidence of the new republic of India faced a major setback with a humiliating defeat in a border war with China. There was communal violence in Delhi and Punjab in 1948 as a response to violent attacks on minorities in Pakistan. In the same year, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, the Communist Party of India waged an armed insurrection against the Indian state following Soviet diktats, an India-Pakistan war took place in the Kashmir valley, and the state battled the challenge of Hyderabad’s accession to the Indian union.
Even 1947, the year India began its journey as an independent nation, holds painful memories of the displacement and migration of millions and communal violence, especially in the provinces of Bengal and Punjab. In his novel Train to Pakistan (1956), Khushwant Singh wrote about the tumultuous phase of social and political unrest unleashed by Partition.
“The summer of 1947 was not like other Indian summers. Even the weather had a different feel in India that year. It was hotter than usual, and drier and dustier. And the summer was longer. No one could remember when the monsoon had been so late. For weeks, the sparse clouds cast only shadows. There was no rain. People began to say that God was punishing them for their sins. Some of them had good reason to feel that they had sinned.”
However, obsessed as we might be with the dark phases of national tragedy and misery, for a country like India — with sociocultural and political diversities, and a geographical expanse — the sense of tragedy does not often percolate to all parts of the country. A large part of India was, for instance, unaffected by the gory tales of the violence preceding and following Partition in 1947. Similarly, the events and insurgent movements of 1984 left a major part of the country untouched. Moreover, even devastation caused by calamities like floods, cyclones and earthquakes often remain too concentrated in a state or two to register a nationwide sense of dread.
To an extent, the same can be said about the present scourge of Covid. Many parts of India, including highly populated regions of Hindi heartland states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, had low infection rates and even lower death rates, therefore not causing any genuine sense of alarm among people, especially those living in rural areas, even though migrant workers from these states had to come to terms with the difficulties of a mass exodus, and the lockdown impacted economic opportunities.
At the same time, the pandemic inflicted significant alarm and loss of life in places like Maharashtra and Delhi. Among other factors, the limited impact of the pandemic in the populous states of the Hindi heartland has meant that the loss of human lives never reached the alarmist levels that some projection models predicted for the country.
In fact, among the large countries, the steep decline of Covid cases in India could be an alternative way of looking back at this year. The past week, for instance, from December 14 to 20, recorded the of 17 percent in Covid cases in the country.
It isn’t an easy exercise to identify an extraordinarily horrible phase in a country that has forever been rolling over one crisis to fight another. This is made even more difficult by the very nature of contradictions and complex sociopolitical realities that constitute the Indian republic. Even contemporary historians like Guha offered by Ashis Nandy: “In India, the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder.”
Perhaps India’s sense of annus horribilis could be reserved for years when the chaos becomes unmanageable enough to incur heavy human costs or endangers the territorial integrity and the foundational values of the nation-state.
More significantly, removed from the generality of a national or social sense of tragedy, the individual’s memories of a year might be very different from what the news media and commentators would like him or her to believe. A dreadful year for a national collectivity can very well be a memorable year of individual achievement, self-fulfillment, and enriching experiences for a considerable number of people. Much like places, a period of 12 months could mean different things to different people. Your annus horribilis could easily be your neighbour’s annus mirabilis. While measuring gross national unhappiness remains an impossibly tricky exercise, its association with an individual’s annual register of joy and misery is deceptive and sometimes non-existent.
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