This day, 72 years ago, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s evocative words, at the stroke of the midnight hour, as the world slept, India awoke to life and freedom. When the country became independent, few observers, particularly internationally, thought it would survive as a united or democratic entity. After all, which country, with the stunning diversity of India, had been able to stitch together a national compact? But India’s ambition was not just confined to survival. The stalwarts of the freedom struggle aimed to end entrenched discrimination, bring about socio-economic transformation, and ensure each individual had the right to dignity. Looking back, the scale of the Indian project was audacious. A country emerging from colonialism and Partition, at a time when global politics was turbulent with the world getting divided into two ideological camps, had just decided to ensure political, social, economic freedom to all its citizens within a democratic framework. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort today, India has a lot to be proud of. It has remained united and defied all doomsday projections of fragmentation. There have, indeed, been movements of separatism. But the State has, through a mix of political co-option, federalism, and hard power, managed to keep the territorial integrity of the country intact.
India has also succeeded in sustaining electoral democracy, which has only become more vibrant and robust in recent decades. Barring a brief interregnum (1975-77), the right of citizens to express their views, to vote and elect and oust their representatives and government, and to organise themselves has never been curtailed. Democracy has, in fact, just got deeper — with even the most marginalised citizens, or those living on the periphery, politically asserting themselves and seeking a share in the power structure. The very fact that a man like Mr Modi, born after Independence in a poor household can become PM is testament to the depth of electoral democracy.
India has also made extraordinary strides in improving the lives of people. Through sustained welfare measures, and over the last three decades, high economic growth, it has brought millions of people above the poverty line; built a health and education system; enhanced service delivery in the remotest corners of the country; and increased opportunities for citizens across classes, castes and regions.
But even as citizens ought to celebrate their freedom and the transformation it has brought, there is little doubt that enormous challenges remain. For one, marginalisation, inequality and discrimination persist, and may have even widened in some cases. The overlap between economic opportunity, and social identity, is deep. Those belonging to dominant castes are far more likely to do better than those belonging to backward communities and Dalits. Dalits, in particular, continue to face atrocities as well as structural discrimination at every level in accessing opportunities. India’s tribal population, particularly in central and east India, remains among the most deprived and poor communities in the country. The promise of an egalitarian India, where identities do not hold a person back, has been elusive. There is also now an additional challenge. Democracy is meant to both project and reflect the voice of the majority, but also protect minorities. There has been an increase in illiberal tendencies — with hate speech directed at religious minorities, and a reduction in their political representation. Secularism, to be sure, got distorted in practice in India. But as an ideal and a constitutional value, secularism (or pluralism for that may be a better term) remains essential for a country with the religious diversity of India. The nation-building project also remains a work-in-progress. The recent decision to change Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional position, and end its special status, could open the doors for its closer integration with India. But it is important that the Centre reaches out to disaffected and alienated citizens in the Valley, as well as anywhere else in the country. More broadly, federalism has been key to India’s success. And it is important to deepen it, rather than reverse course towards centralisation. Finally, at a time of an economic slowdown, it is important to recall that the promise of political and economic emancipation has to go together, and any gap in the latter will have consequences for social stability and democracy.
As India celebrates its accomplishments, it is time to renew the pledge to deal with the existing and future challenges to fulfil the dreams of the freedom struggle.
Aug 15, 2019 07:53 IST