Fri, 19 Mar 1999

Is the end of the 20th century a tad hasty?

The Jakarta Post's Asia correspondent Harvey Stockwin points out that the world's media is forcing everyone to accept that the 20th Century ends this year. He argues that this is a false concept, while, in India, orthodox Hindus take a very different view of what century should be on the calendar.

HONG KONG (JP): Amazing as it may seem, the way things are going, especially in the global media, it looks very much as if the 20th century will not include the year after which it is named.

Millennium wrapups, on TV and in print, are already all the rage, and the hard fact that we have just started the penultimate year of the century is being almost completely ignored.

Even newspapers which pride themselves on their reporting skills and analytical abilities -- such as the New York Times and the Washington Post -- are thrusting the world towards the end of the century at the end of this year.

Much of the world is unthinkingly heading in that same direction. Those who demur are being dismissed for being eccentric or pedantic.

Since, at the end of 1999, the number at the beginning of the year changes from "one" to "two", computer buffs from Bill Gates and Microsoft downwards are naturally inclined to see the Big Change as happening at midnight on Dec. 31, 1999.

So it is not unimportant to insist that there was never any Year Zero, except, tragically, in Cambodia, and that the 18th century concluded with the year 1800, the 19th century concluded with the year 1900, and the 20th century should similarly include the year 2000.

Asian residents who publicly see things this way are few and far between. Former Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa once again seemed a rather lonely figure early in January, as he affirmed in The Japan Times that the old century ended, and the new one would begin, at midnight on Dec. 31 in the year 2000.

It looks as if this is also the official view of the People's Republic of China. Some leading social scientists in Beijing were recently quoted in the controlled Chinese press as making a similar assertion.

Also in January, Sri Lanka resident and famed science fiction writer Arthur Clarke, almost distraught that the world could get this one wrong, also threw his weight behind the same conclusion.

Yet the great media conglomerates, perhaps because they have already invested so much financial and intellectual capital in the wrong conclusion, continue to push the world towards the Great Millennium bash on Dec. 31 this year. The world, like the Gadarene swine, rushes towards this false millennial dawn.

So far, at least, neither Time Warner, nor Dow Jones, nor Disney (Disney also controls ABC News in the U.S., as well as Mickey Mouse) nor CNN nor the BBC have editorially or officially proposed that the name of this century must be changed to the 19th Century Mark Two, or some other such title.

Yet such a change will certainly become necessary if the 20th year is excluded from the 20th Century. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, the year 2000 can only belong to the 20th Century.

Perhaps the century in which we live should be renamed "the unthinking century" which would be an appropriate title in view of the way in which there is a headlong rush to make the 20th century consist of only 99 years.

At least in India, home of so much human diversity, there are those for whom the new 21st century does not begin either on Jan. 1, 2000 or on Jan. 1, 2001. The new century arrives on Thursday March 18, 1999.

Additionally, March 18, otherwise known as Ugadi Day, does not focus the beginning of the 21st Century. It marks the commencement of the 52nd century.

This is all according to the way in which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), view the Hindu calendar and its calculation of time. The RSS has ordered its cadres -- a militant minority associated with but not part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India, --- to put an end to all the euphoria being generated in India, as elsewhere, over the arrival of the 21st century.

Instead RSS urges that the Hindu calendar must be venerated and the arrival of the 52nd century must be respected.

It all reminds of the different dates placed on the masthead of various publications to be found in diverse parts of India. Just as English remains a nationally acceptable common denominator amidst Indian linguistic diversity, so the Gregorian calendar is the common denominator amidst diverse views of time.

The RSS evidently realizes that it has a lot of persuading to do before the 52nd century concept becomes widely accepted, even in India. Cadres are being required to send New Year greetings to all their friends abroad, to their elected representatives and to business establishments. 52nd century announcements will be made through loudspeakers throughout March 18, to welcome the new century. Additionally all RSS members have been asked to place thousands of telephone calls to remind all of new Hindu dawn.

Despite all these RSS efforts to focus Indian attention on a different perspective, and to secure greater faith in the 52nd century, the Indian majority will probably pay insufficient attention to these entreaties. India, like the rest of the world, is racing towards Dec. 31, 1999 as if it marks the end of the 20th Century, blissfully unaware, for the most part, just how wrong that concept is.