India will be 59 today, a healthy age among the nations that emerged after World War II. The post-Independence generation may not realise that the India they see today is itself a matter of celebration. Even as late as May of 1947, the British toyed with the idea of dividing India into several parts, and allowing the successors to decide whether they wanted to reunite in a confederation or a federation. Even after taking the decision to divide the country into two on June 3, the British left no clear guidelines as to the future of some 600 princely states that made up one- third of India. The stupendous achievement of the first generation of our leaders, Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel, B.R. Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and others, was that from these unpropitious beginnings they were able to, within the short space of a decade, give India the political shape it has today. Where multi-lingual and multi-religious Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have been consigned to the dustbin of history, India has defied famine and war and dozens of separatist movements to give life to the cliché — unity in diversity.
Enormous though this achievement is, its glory is diminished by what India has not been able to do. Sixty years of a planned economy has not been able to provide universal healthcare or literacy, or timely justice, nor has it quelled the clamour of secessionists. India still has widespread discriminatory practices against women and vast areas of the country are black holes of underdevelopment. Despite vast expenditures, the country’s physical infrastructure is shoddy — run-down roads, schools, health centres and publicly-owned industries that speak of our fatal fascination for faux socialism. Democracy may be our great asset, but it has also perverted our ideals — best illustrated by how the once bracing commitment to bring social equality has become a querulous exercise in one-upmanship, where politicians compete to discover who is more backward.
There have been great achievements — self-sufficiency in food, increase in life expectancy, and more recently, in the field of information technology and communications and in the service industry. Anniversaries like Independence Day are a time for celebration, but they are also a time for introspection. By all means rejoice, but also pause and reflect on the persistence of some of our shortcomings.