India an unprecedented story of success, but challenges remain
Foreign observers were sceptical about India’s ability to remain free and united, especially given its diversity and internal lack of political and administrative coherence.Updated: Aug 14, 2020 23:37 IST
When India became Independent, there was joy. A long freedom struggle and the sacrifice of millions, over decades, finally led to self-rule — and what a remarkable journey it was , under the leadership of the Mahatma, for in striving for its own freedom, India showed the world the path of non-violent resistance. Indians would, finally, have the sovereign right to decide their own destiny — its Independence also inspired freedom struggles, especially in Africa, inaugurating an era of decolonisation across the world.
But along with the joy, there was a clear recognition that Independence came with tremendous challenges and responsibilities.
For one, the task of maintaining national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity — in the wake of Partition — became even more critical. Foreign observers were sceptical about India’s ability to remain free and united, especially given its diversity and internal lack of political and administrative coherence.
But it was not just the challenge of remaining sovereign. The vision of the freedom movement did not confine itself to merely displacing a set of foreign rulers and replacing them with a set of domestic elites. The movement was not nativist, but democratic in character. Sovereignty was to reside with the people. Those who governed would do so with the consent of the people. And that is why nurturing representative democracy, creating a set of democratic institutions in a society with deep inequalities, and ensuring that freedom for the nation translated into freedom for citizens was the cornerstone of the Indian project. This, then, was the second challenge.
But what was the objective of unity, sovereignty and democracy? Given India’s deprivation, the overwhelming poverty, the inequalities that permeated every sphere, Independence had to mean socioeconomic justice. Political rights had to be accompanied with social and economic rights. And the State had to shape society and battle social ills. The quest for prosperity and justice constituted the third challenge.
But all of this hinged on a fourth challenge. Given India‘s breathtaking diversity, its entrenched caste hierarchies, and also its deep intercommunity divisions, especially Hindu-Muslim tensions, social harmony, peace and the accommodation of all groups was central to moving India forward.
Would India be united and sovereign, democratic and free, just and equitable, harmonious and diverse? This was the fundamental challenge presented by India’s Independence. And 73 years later, the Indian project must be judged on this metric.
The national unity project
For India, territorial integrity was sacrosanct. This is true for all nation-states, but in India’s case, the wounds of the past and Partition led to even greater determination. The territory that was India’s, through bonds of civilisation, history, geography, law and culture, would not be allowed to fragment.
India faced repeated challenges to its integrity — be it through Pakistan’s incursion into Kashmir in 1948 itself, the Chinese offensive in 1962, Pakistan’s attempts to marry external aggression with a sponsored internal rebellion in 1965, its patronage to terror for the last three decades and its silent conspiracy in Kargil in 1999, secessionist movements in various parts of the country, or China’s current aggression in Ladakh.
These territorial challenges — including the current one — have constituted a threat. But each time, India fought back. It may not, today, have all the areas it considers its own (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin being the most prominent ones), but the fact that India has remained united, that no secessionist movement has succeeded, that Indian citizens in every corner feel integrated with the national project, is an extraordinary achievement.
But along with unity, there was sovereignty. India was wounded by foreign invasions. And its leadership was clear that it would not entertain any external intervention in its internal decision making process. This post-colonial psychological imprint has been so strong that not only did it refuse to join any Cold War bloc by remaining non-aligned, but even today, speaks of strategic autonomy, self-reliance, and not entering any alliance system. To be sure, in an interconnected, globalised world, there is give and take; absolute sovereignty is a myth. But for most part, India has preserved its right to take its own decisions.
73 years later, it is clear that India has the intent and capacity and track record to resist any attempts to redraw the map of the subcontinent. But as geopolitics shifts, it must be ready for challenges to its unity and sovereignty, directly and indirectly.
The democratic project
To institutionalise the principle that the people were sovereign, India instituted — and has successfully implemented — the principles of democracy. Periodic elections have allowed citizens to choose their representatives. Independent institutions — the Election Commission, an independent judiciary, a free press — have ensured that there is a check on executive power. There is a federal structure with clearly defined division of powers between the Centre and states. A vibrant, noisy public sphere has allowed reasoned discussions to take place to chart the path forward, with democratic participation. Protests and social movements have given a voice to the weak and marginalised. Ideological battles have taken place within a peaceful framework. And India is stable because it is a democracy. This democracy, with the assertion of marginalised communities and the spread of technology, has become deeper.
Yet, there are, today, legitimate questions about the quality of Indian democracy. Elections remain a true people’s festival where citizens exercise their franchise and choose among competing ideologies, parties and leaders. But some other elements of democracy have suffered. There is the rise of illiberalism. Political parties have become personal fiefdoms. Nepotism is rife. There is an intersection between crime, money and politics. There is an overcentralisation of power in select leaders. The federal compact is under strain. Institutions have become weaker, thus curtailing their ability to keep a critical watch on executive excesses. Free speech is often threatened under the garb of community sentiment. Individual liberties are often undermined. And parties resort to the most crude, violent, polarising techniques to mobilise voters in their quest for power.
Make no mistake. The Indian democratic project is a success. No other post-colonial democracy, with India’s level of economic backwardness and social diversity, has sustained an almost uninterrupted democratic run (barring the Emergency interregnum). But just like unity and sovereignty, democracy is not a one-time achievement. It requires constant vigilance, perhaps more so today than earlier.
The justice project
Long before India became Independent, India’s leaders were clear that this independence had to translate into substantial outcomes for citizens at large. The hope was that when India became free, it could finally address issues of structural inequality and backwardness, and citizens would enjoy the right to live with dignity, study, work, and access public services. Through a range of instruments — a mixed economy and somewhat insular approach in the early decades and a more liberalised and globalised economic policy orientation from 1991 — India adapted itself to meet these goals. More Indians today have access to basic nutritional intake, education, and work, than ever before. And this is an achievement to be proud of.
But the Indian justice story hinges on growth and inclusion. In recent years, both have suffered. India was seeing a slowdown before the pandemic, and Covid-19 is now set to lead to a severe contraction in the economy. This will have a direct impact on jobs, incomes, and the quality of life.
Inclusion remains a partial story, too, though the failure on this front must be shared by all governments. State institutions — be it public health system or government schools — have not lived up to the mark, thus depriving the most marginalised of critical services. Welfare programmes have helped, from the right to employment to income transfer to farmers. But they have not been a substitute for the fact that India remains deeply unequal; that a large segment of the population works in the unorganised sector with no benefits; that work is irregular; and meeting basic needs remains a struggle for many. The fact that India is a young country, with a productive population, but limited opportunities, can become a serious destabilising factor.
This quest for socioeconomic justice, achievable only through both high growth and more effective inclusion frameworks, remains a challenge.
The harmony project
But, in a way, the most crucial challenge for India was to ensure internal social unity. To achieve this, the drafters of the Constitution and successive political regimes adopted a range of techniques. The State did not turn into a theocracy, like Pakistan. India’s Muslims would be equal citizens, with equal rights. To address the structural inequities of the caste system, untouchability was abolished, discrimination on the basis of caste was declared illegal, and the State took affirmative action measures to create a level playing field.
The fact that this diverse land has remained united is a testament to the vision of the founders. India’s Hindus and Muslims have together coexisted, from villages and towns scattered across the country to political parties. To be sure, there have been riots — some devastating — but they have not upset the larger social equilibrium. In terms of caste, too, more members of backward communities and Dalits have broken free of their chains than ever before in Indian history — through education, representation, reservation, welfare, and their own remarkable endeavour.
Yet, the story remains incomplete — and to some extent disturbing. There has been a turn towards majoritarianism in Indian politics. Minorities — particularly Muslims — have a sense of being excluded from power structures, with their lifestyle, food habits, cultural symbols becoming objects of suspicion. Arguably, Hindu-Muslim division is at its deepest today than at any point in the last seven decades, with the State itself seen as taking one side. Caste, too, remains a fundamental reality, with the political assertion of the marginalised not translating into their economic empowerment. Intercaste marriages may have increased but are still not the norm; atrocities against Dalits are only reported to be rising according to official data; and social divisions persist.
Citizens may coexist, but if they belong to different religions and castes, especially in smaller towns and villages, they coexist by living separately, not the ideal recipe for harmony.
And so, 73 years later, India is a story of success, yet a story of unfulfilled potential. It is a story of democracy which has beaten all odds, yet it is also a story of an incomplete democracy which has miles to go. It is a story of unity, yet a story of unity that is increasingly under threat due to external and internal factors. It is a story of a dream of a just society, yet a story where this quest for justice has hit some barriers. It is a story of remarkable achievement, yet a story of setbacks. It is a story of freedom, but also a story of how all citizens are not yet equally free.