75 Years and Still on the Road to Freedom

On August 15, 2022, India will mark its 75th year of freedom after overthrowing a foreign colonial power. On November 26, 2021, India marked the 72nd year since the adoption of its Constitution, which serves as the framework for those freedoms to be shared by all Indians. But the journey continues, says Kumar M. Tiku….

Dissent, patriotism, reverence for the giants of yesteryear… all elements in the magic formula that makes a vibrant democracy work. As evidenced by frequent, peaceful protests in India. Photo by Sujan Dutta.

It’s complicated. This business of stocktaking. Where have we come from? Where are we headed? As a nation or as people, you and me?

One has to be careful lest a Happy Birthday occasion turns into a Remembrance Day advert. One signifying gratitude, life and vitality. The other feeling is like a regurgitation of milestones in the life of a dead elder. It seems appropriate to contemplate this question in this time, half-way between India’s Constitution Day and its Republic Day. The first is a day that marks a rite of passage, celebrates fellow Indians as members of a Republic, with a government they can choose to govern them. A new Republic that was simultaneously proclaimed as a Union of States. This was adopted by the people’s representatives on Constitution Day and took full legal effect two months later, on Republic Day.

We the People of India have embraced this moment. And with it the notion that, whatever our other differences, we are part of a single nation. We have come a long way from when John Strachey, prominent British journalist and a Labour politician of his times, wrote in 1888, “That men of the Punjab, Bengal…and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one Indian nation, is impossible. You might with as much reason and probability look forward to a time when a single nation will have taken the place of the various nations of Europe.”

Nor was Strachey alone in his gratuitous prognosis of India as a failed state. Just eight years after Strachey, in 1896, Mark Twain, the great writer and arguably the greatest humorist that America ever produced, concluded that Indian unity was impossible: “India had…the first civilization; she had the first accumulation of material wealth; she was populous with deep thinkers and subtle intellects; she had mines and woods and a fruitful soil. It would seem as if she should have kept the lead and should be today not the meek dependent of an alien master, but mistress of the world, and delivering law and command to every tribe and nation in it. But, in truth, there was never any possibility of such supremacy for her. If there had been but one India and one language…but there were eighty of them! Where there are eighty nations and several hundred governments…unity of purpose and policy are impossible….patriotism can have no healthy growth”.

Had the respectable worthies been alive today, they would have been in for a rude shock. The nation today is cackling with the cacophony of at least 15 major languages each spoken by over 10 million people, all part of the one Indian nation. Separatism and disaffection, par for the course in any family, has plagued my land too, and sometimes with good reason. However, for perspective let us remember, at the height of insurgencies in parts of the North and North-east, when Assam, Punjab, Kashmir were on the boil, no more than 6 percent of India’s total population was in thrall of a dream separate from its parent.

Let this much be said: A dream lingers. On August 15, 1947, India became independent of its foreign colonizer, after a long struggle, but the journey did not end there, as we hammered out what kind of state and polity we would become. The path that freedom illumined for us all on 26 November 1949, when the Constituent Assembly of India adopted the Constitution of India — it came into effect on 26 January 1950 — has transformed each one of us into an eternal journey. Forever walking the high road to human freedoms, all the while watching over our shoulder for the dangers that lurk in the night.

We have run like a hare at times and trundled along like a tortoise at others. But through it all, the idea of Us as One Nation has endured, got more cemented with each new dawn. The nation is 20 years older than me. In that sense, the nation is my quintessential senior bro. Respect for our seniors is axiomatic to the cultural ethos that birthed me. It is also hugely deserved. For one, for all the million mutinies, revolts and rebellions within, India, that Great Indian Family to which I belong, albeit with gripes too many to list, has survived. My Kashmiriyat and your Punjabiyat has never been more in synch with our collective sense of Indian-ness or Bhartiyata.

What explains this? That story begins much earlier than the adoption of the Constitution. For one, the character of India’s freedom movement played a pivotal role. Mahatma Gandhi launched a new experiment, away from the European construct of ‘one language, one nation’ that loomed large over the minds of Strachey, Twain and Co. Bapu made it possible for us to imagine that our kaleidoscopic linguistic and cultural diversity was never at odds with our collective strivings for political freedom as well as socio-economic progress. That states of India did not have to be separate nations. The Grand Old Party, which led the freedom movement, did not follow the provincial boundaries of British India. An Indian nation thus became a political reality.

Dissent comes naturally to vibrant democracies. Sometimes those trying to bring you down don’t realize you are part of the reason they are standing. India has arrived! In the decades following Independence, almost all major linguistic and tribal communities of India have been given a state of their own in the Indian Union that functions more like a thriving confederacy today. India has engaged in and succeeded in metamorphosing into a uniquely two-sided nation. It has allowed diversities to flourish, while nurturing a fealty to the larger Indian political community via politics, administration and education. The all-India civil services, to take one example, were conceptualized to serve as a bulwark for the project of nation-building. Civil servants were selected at the federal level but allocated to a State cadre, going back and forth between Centre and States during their careers.

Whatever the naysayers might say, the plain fact is a huge majority of the inhabitants of this landmass feel pride for being part of the greatest experiment on Earth in finding unity in a dizzying diversity. One cannot think of another experiment in democratic human history at this scale that yielded truth and unity in the same way that the project of reorganization of over 500 parts of a Princestan into India’s princely states into consolidated parts of India.

Seventy five odd years after Mahatma Gandhi strung us all like beads of a necklace, as one man, for the solemn goal of freedom from the imperial yoke, it feels strangely satisfying that at least in cementing our unity as a nation, we did not fail the Father of the Nation. We are conjoined at the hip with this land like we have never been before.

But have we wobbled in this journey too? Hell, yes, we have. Big time. In the last seven decades, the state seems to have, at best, treacherously overlooked its role and got it completely wrong as a guarantor of those freedoms and of basic services for all, and at worst, actively colluded in keeping vast sections of those on the margins in unfreedoms, unable to find their true potential. Successive governments have failed us. Once too often.

On the essential markers of freedoms which are the building blocks of human development, we need to have much work to do. We are far from where we want to be. Every decade throws up its buzzword. In the do-good industry, ‘sustainability’ is what this coming decade is setting out to be all about. As if on cue, India has seized the Sustainable Development Goals or the SDGs, the most ambitious global compact yet leaving no one behind. The SDGs are the codified enunciation of Agenda 2030, the blueprint for achieving minimally optimal human potential while restoring, preserving and nurturing the health of the planet for future generations. After decades of sleeping on the wheel, a frontal assault on human development seems a distinct possibility. But we will see.

In 2025 India will likely overtake China as the most populous nation on the planet. In the last decade, despite bumps imposed upon us, most recently by the COVID 19 pandemic, the Indian economy has galloped ahead of Japan as the world’s third largest economy, showing itself as capable if not more of growth and dynamism as the giant Red country to its north-east.

A key measure of a country’s economic health is the strength of its private sector. By that measure, India is definitely distinguishing itself. Indian business leaders are busy playing the global markets and taking over prime businesses in Europe and the Middle East. The recent acquisition of Air India by the Tata group capped its earlier headline-making purchase of Jaguar, Land Rover and Corus Group, the giant London-headquartered steelmaker. These acquisitions, more than others that Indian CEOs have snagged in these years, were particularly seeped in symbolism, heralding as it were an altogether new chapter in the Indian growth story. Indian software giants like TCS, Wipro and Infosys have emerged as global tech giants thanks to the skills of thousands of world-class engineers who graduate from its marquee schools. Riding on those early successes, the success of Indian fintech, edutech and other tech unicorns has further unleashed India’s entrepreneurial spirit and fuelled a million new ambitions for progress and prosperity. India is reclaiming its historical prominence in the world economy.

Along with business leaders and CEOs of some of the world’s largest multinationals, India today prides itself for some of the world’s leading economists, scholars, artists, journalists, chefs, even athletes. But before we indulge in any “ra-ra” self-congratulation for our new-found voice on the global stage, we would do well to remind ourselves that we have been among the earliest civilizations to have shown the way to the world. Those that feel indignation and never-waning frustration with India’s chronic failure to invest enough civic infrastructure, for example, might become even more frustrated when recalling that inhabitants of Rakhigarhi built the world’s first known sanitation systems five thousand years ago. Why can’t we don these great useful projects now?

We have been blessed to have centuries of enlightened governance in the form of rulers who patronized the arts and took keen interest in religion, philosophy and sciences. For Megasthenes, the Greek historian and ethnographer of ancient India, this was a land so verdant and fertile that “famine has never visited India and there has never been a general scarcity in the supply of nourishing food.” Venetian traveler, Marco Polo, who claimed to have visited several ports in India during his 1292 voyage from China to Persia, declared Malabar (present-day Kerala) on India’s southwest coast to be the “richest and most splendid province in the world.”

By the first decade of the seventeenth century, in 1603, During the reign of Akbar the Great, India was the world’s richest nation, accounting for a quarter of the global economy. Yet in the next 250 years, by 1857, the British had prised open our divisions and weaknesses, and taken full administrative control of the subcontinent. In ways difficult to catalogue in a relatively short newspaper piece, the Raj accounted for the hollowing out of the India, politically, economically and in our prevailing ethos as a caste-riven society.

Fast forward then to Independence, and after. In its first three decades as a free nation, India was plagued by wars on multiple borders  and tribal insurgencies and separatist movements that threatened to pull the country asunder. These decades also coincided with consolidation of Soviet-style central planning and the preponderance of the now infamous license-permit raj. The about-turn came in 1991 when a massive balance of payments crisis — many still recall the abject humiliation of the Reserve Bank of India airlifting 67 tons of gold to London to secure an emergency IMF loan — forced the then government to loosen its stranglehold on the Indian economy. What followed in the wake of Indian liberalization was a burst of entrepreneurialism that has chugged along uninterrupted in the decades since.

The reforms of 1991 have created another moment for visionary and bold change. Growth, globalization and the spread of technology are bringing India together  and setting the pace for a bold new future, in which it has become possible to imagine India, yet again, at the centre of global conversation.

A recurrent concern among the chattering classes is the importance of ensuring that the benefits of growth are widely shared. Technology and digitization has helped close the gaps between rich and the income-poor. Education is one area where technology has vast potential to reduce inequality. The vice-like grip on education of the country’s caste and income elites is well on the way to be challenged as edutech is making available to millions of aspiring learners online knowledge and ideas once restricted to the portals of the big-league academia. Similar initiatives are helping unlock the possibility of universal basic healthcare. A cataclysmic diffusion of digital and biometric technologies are helping low-income Indians gain access to government services and benefits to which they are entitled.

In its very essence as India enters the last quarter of its first century of freedom from the colonial yoke, The Indian dream, as a Mckinsey study of India in 2013 had noted, is the “dream of self-invention: of having the freedom and the means of authoring yourself into being. Your caste, your class, your native place, your religion, your parents’ occupation, your family dietary habits — all these things be damned. It is the dream of becoming yourself. Free of history, judgment and guilt.”

(The writer is an aid worker, UN communications expert and author of “Humans on the Run – of exiles and asylum”. He is a contributor to Cuckoo News. Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of www.cuckoo-news.com).

Categories: Opinion

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