History is sticky: the case of calendars


One of the more futile projects politicians—and politically-minded historians—indulge in is to try to tinker with things so as to diminish their historical content. And sometimes, when they are particularly “enthu cutlet”, they will not only de-historicize things, but also then re-historicize them in ways that suit whatever is the prevalent dominant political mood.

These impulses, which usually have negligible basis in historical scholarship, can be seen in a wide variety of political projects, from the tinkering in school textbooks to the great obsession with renaming cities, roads, airports and such like.

There are many reasons for this. As with so many of the “reform-less reforms” that Indian politics revels in, such tinkering is often nothing more than a form of national-level virtue signalling. We reject the colonial past harder than the previous government did. So we have renamed a road.

But renaming Aurangzeb Road or Quilon or the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute in order to contest or recapture your own history is a bit like changing the size labels on your clothing in order to lose weight. It may momentarily help your self-esteem. But it doesn’t fundamentally change who you are. History is a bit sticky. You are stuck with your history whether you like it or not.

Indeed history is so sticky that attempts to tinker with things for “historical reasons” often lead to interesting outcomes.

Consider this tremendous July headline from the Financial Express: “Financial year from April to March to stop from 2019 as Narendra Modi government trashes another colonial relic”.

It is the kind of headline that should immediately make historically-minded people sit up and take notice.

The story goes on to say that, in line with similar previous decolonization projects in public finance institutions, “From January 2019, even the 150-year-old British April-March fiscal will get a burial. One Budget from now, India will move to a system where the calendar year and financial year will be the same. This means the next Budget, to be presented on February 1, 2018, will be for nine months, after which a full Budget will be presented for the year beginning January 2019.”

One word of caution before we proceed. Decolonization was by no means being cited as the Central government’s main reason to push for this reform. The article lists many other far more sensible reasons. But even if the historical aspect of this reform is a figment of the writer’s imagination, there is some merit in addressing it.

The headline and the story immediately raise at least two questions (or at least they should in readers who are of a historical bent of mind). Firstly, why did the British fiscal go from March to April? And second, what makes the January-December fiscal the logical, non-colonial choice?

The history involved is fascinating. And the place to find it in is G.J. Whitrow’s excellent book Time In History.

Whitrow writes that right through the Middle Ages, the calendar year in Britain started and ended on 25 December. It was in the 12th century that reform influenced by the Church moved the start of the year to 25 March or the Day of Annunciation (this is the day when the Virgin Mary was informed of her divine pregnancy. Thus nine months later: Christmas).

For the next five centuries or so, ambiguity prevailed as the year began in January in official calendars, but all government documents dated the year from March.

Meanwhile, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII, following a series of events and scholarly discussions too lengthy to summarize here, officially proclaimed what is now known as the Gregorian calendar. Adjustments followed. Thus , 4 October 1582 was followed by 15 October 1582, a system of leap years was brought in, and the calendar year would start from 1 January.

There was just one problem: England was Protestant. And any papal meddling in affairs was viewed with great suspicion, especially by bishops. Thus Britain continued with the twin calendars until an Act of Parliament was passed in 1750. Over the next two years, England transitioned into the same calendar as the continent. Except in one matter: the fiscal year. Indeed, special effort was made to meddle as little as possible with taxes (quelle surprise!).

So much so that the tax calendar was retained except for a small adjustment of 11 days to make sure that the start of the fiscal year in the new Gregorian calendar corresponded to 25 March in the old: 5 April.

Over the next three centuries, countries all over the world tweaked this in various ways. Thus, in Britain, fiscal years for government purposes start on 1 April, but for individuals on 6 April (the reason for this is another story). Companies in the UK can pretty much do what they want. In Iran, the fiscal starts on 21 March, in Pakistan on 1 July, and in Thailand… you see what I mean?

Alas, in August this year, fresh reports suggested that the Indian reform had been shelved. The transition, it appears, was too complex. Except, I believe, in Madhya Pradesh, which has moved to a January-December fiscal.

Thus, the historical debate over when the Indian fiscal year should start is not just a question of trashing colonial relics, but also one of choosing between the Catholic or Protestant calendars. Which, when you think about it, is quite bizarre. And fascinating.

Like I said, history is sticky. It clings to you in surprising ways.


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