India at 70: We have a number of reasons to be happy as a nation | columns | Hindustan Times
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India at 70: We have a number of reasons to be happy as a nation

No woman has become an American president till date, but India can proudly say that everybody from a Dalit president to a woman prime minister is a possibility in our democracy

columns Updated: Aug 13, 2017 20:24 IST
By the time of the 2011 Census, our literacy had crossed the 74% mark. Similarly life expectancy has risen from 32 years to 69 years
By the time of the 2011 Census, our literacy had crossed the 74% mark. Similarly life expectancy has risen from 32 years to 69 years (Praful Gangurde/ Hindustan Times)

Let us return to the latter half of August 1947. What an eventful time it was! Jawaharlal Nehru was hoping for a tryst with destiny. Refugees on both sides of the border were crying over the blood shed during Partition. It was a period of great economic distress. Those who were part of the erstwhile royalty were wondering how they would get along with those who were commoners till yesterday. Those who were poor could not comprehend that they had become masters of their own destiny.

On the other side, Delhi’s political class was fighting with a vortex of problems. Nehru was worried over the communal divide and Patel was grappling with the responsibility of unifying the country. Baldev Singh, our first defence minister, had to use his army less to defend the borders and more to keep the erstwhile princes under control. Finance minister RK Shanmukham Chetty had to work with empty government coffers. India’s share in the manufacturing output of the world was hovering around 2%, whereas in 1757 this figure was 24%.

Clearly, the wings of the golden birds had been clipped.

This is why British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used to poke fun at us. Once he even said, “If India is granted freedom, power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters...” Unfortunately a large section of our royalty and intelligentsia also believed him. People who were used to bowing before kings for thousands of years were reluctant to accept the meaning of democracy in its entirety. Is it not a matter of pride that today, despite mutual conflicts, 125 crore confident Indians cannot even dream of being colonised again?

Now let us talk about a contradiction. Despite the slogan of unity in diversity, the bitter truth is that the hot winds of mutual hatred have also kept blowing in the country. Even today a separatist movement is raging in Kashmir, the Maoists sing a different tune and the seeds of an agitation against the national language are being sown in Karnataka. But all this doesn’t become more than a regional matter. There is an overall consensus in the country when it comes to the nation’s sovereignty. Contrastingly Pakistan that attained independence along with us has witnessed intermittent spells of military rule. Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have seen democracy come and go. But it has never been the case with India. In the last seven decades we’ve seen the transfer of national government 16 times through democratic means.

Mr Churchill, if you were alive today, I would have looked you in the eye and said that we beastly people are also capable of running a democracy.

Think about it, where did the United States stand 70 years after its independence? The slave system was prevalent. No woman has become an American president till date, but India can proudly say that everybody from a Dalit and a minority President to a woman prime minister is a possibility in our democracy. This has only been possible because once Indians have taken a step they’ve not retreated. For instance, at the time of Independence, we didn’t have a Constitution. The Constitution, which was written with Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s initiative and a lot of deliberation, is revered even today. By amending the Constitution time and again, we have indicated to the world that Indians know how keep in step with changing times. Statistics show this clearly. In 1951, at the time of the first population Census, just 18% of Indians were literate. By the time of the 2011 Census, our literacy had crossed the 74% mark. Similarly life expectancy has risen from 32 years to 69 years in the same period. The country was declared polio-free in March, 2014.

While it is true that even today we see communal riots take place. Dalits and backwards face difficulties in joining the mainstream. We have great economic inequality and lots of people sustain themselves on the benevolence of nature and lack even the bare essentials. Bust this doesn’t mean that our Independence has become meaningless. At many points of time after Independence, we’ve encountered dark periods and thought that our steps were shaky. But getting up after falling down and resuming to walk is second nature to Indians. There can be a debate over the speed of our progress, but not over the progress itself.

I would like to remind my pessimistic friends that the blows of time can smudge even the strongest of walls. We can notice some stains on the impenetrable wall of our democracy. But we’ve successfully been washing them off over the years and will continue to do so. These stains are required. They give the nation opportunities for improvement and contemplation.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief Hindustan.