Millennium Post

Living in freedom's shade

The Independence Day special cover story of a prominent Indian news magazine does what it terms a ‘counter-factual’ exercise – going back in time and analysing whether shifting the balance of power ever so finely amongst Jawaharlal Nehru, M K Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah as well as between Governor-General Mountbatten and the then British Prime Minister Clement Atlee would have yielded markedly different results and altered the India story beyond recognition.

The pity of Partition, as it were, British-Indian historian Zareer Masani points out in that essay, is that it was not at all inevitable, but that it was mostly the result of the whims and fancies as well as unbelievable arrogance and personal ambitions of the leaders at the helm of the pre-Independence India.

Yet, would an undivided India have met with the same fate as the truncated country, the chunk of the subcontinent, the throbbing democracy comprising one-sixth of the world’s population? When the British finally left in 1947, after 190 years of colonial rule, the Indian National Congress, led by Nehru, quickly adopted a strongly democratic political system, a parliamentary democracy to be precise, although it took until 1950 to have the Constitution (B R Ambedkar’s mammoth legacy) ready and consolidate a ‘republic’, or rule of the people. Democracy and electoral politics were duly enshrined in the system, and ours became a model mode with multi-party participation, freedom of speech, political and voting rights, fundamental rights and many other novelties of a quasi-socialist government that prided itself in its conception and inception. Early on, the story was one of agricultural growth, rapid industrialisation, steady economic expansion and making possible the eradication of the infamous British-era famines (particularly the one to ravage Bengal in 1942) through eliminating state misrule and exploitation.

More than six-and-a-half decades later, where do we stand and how do we measure up to the bold imaginative midnight-hour declarations, prophetic by intent and continuing resonance, proclaiming Independence? What has been our freedom all about, from what and at what cost? That the first casualty of Independence was Partition is without a straw of doubt, but what about the costs thereafter? What about the price we pay on a daily basis for being denizens of this sovereign, no-longer-socialist, democratic republic? Are these words, enshrined in the brilliant preamble of our Constitution, even left with any vestiges of meaning at the current juncture?

While it is true that there is a considerable stir in the country’s politics and culture, with debates and discussions – on subjects as varied as the economic conditions, reemergence of communal bigotry after a bout of intense growth-orientedness, women’s rights and gendered violence, corruption and administrative failures, national security and the armed forces, global relations and foreign policies, the yawning and ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor, chasing the elusive double-digit growth rate, teeming population, sagging health care, malnutrition and the food security argument, and other countless issues ­– hogging the national headlines of a boisterous news and television media, can we say with conviction that we are a healthy democracy?

If the measure of a viable parliamentary democracy is the extent and range of its political and socioeconomic discourse, then probably we aren’t doing all that badly. Yet, after reading the fine print of democracy and probing what gets shuttled around in the volatile media debates and trials on television, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we are far from achieving the midnight-hour vision that was served up as the sweetener to the bitter pill that was Partition. Clearly, in the seventh decade since being in ‘freedom’s shade’, as it were, our democratic institutions appear a trifle weakened, although strides have been made in making the system more inclusive and representative. Where are the shortfalls, nevertheless? Is there, as noted academics have been trying to drive home, an unspeakable bias in the public sphere tilted towards the haves? Is it only the privileged who set the agenda, and all the expansive and participative scopes of democracy reduced to mere electoral thumb-printing after a generous pre-poll theatre of promises and doles?

While it is true that we have come a long way in achieving heights of affluence for some, we are also grievously behind ensuring the bare minimum for almost two-thirds of our population. In fact, our country looks like oases of super-prosperous California in an ocean of sub-Saharan Africa, according to Amartya Sen. Although, in the wake of the 16 December Delhi gang rape, a civil society of sort arose from the ashes of a dying middle class, where has all the dissident energy disappeared into? Why does the ‘history of world development offer few examples, if any, of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited result in terms of reducing human deprivations?’ Has the obsession with GDP growth blinded us to glaring realities and disparities of everyday?

On the 66th Independence Day, perhaps it’s worthwhile to look back, instead of looking ahead, to revisit the years of gloried frenzy that were those of our freedom struggle and also the many years in between, of maniacal self-development and self-projection. What has been the role of self-correction in the scheme of things? The epochal liberalisation of the economy in 1991 has certainly changed the game, seeing India metamorphose from a socialistic Nehruvian experiment going awry to a full-throttle participant in the gigantic wheel of free marketeering global capitalism, but what about those left behind from the pages of the epic development saga? Are they any less Indian than those who have realised their dreams?

Going back to Zareer Masani’s essayistic musings, it seems that somewhere the ‘romance’ of a Hindu-Muslim unity is punctuated in bold face by his dislike for Nehruvian socialism. On the other hand, the points raised by him could not be answered by simply stating because Nehru’s idea of India was socialist, while Jinnah, Jaswant Singh, Patel, the Swatantra Party leaders were/are rooted in a feudal past of the subcontinent, we chose better. Was an alternative possible? Yes. Nehru’s idea of socialism shouldn’t have counted impatience as a virtue.
That being said, we’re still rooted in subcontinent’s feudal past, and the biggest practitioner of dynastic feudalism is the Gandhi family-led Congress party, among others, of course.
So, what really have been the fruits of the long-fought, long-cherished Independence, other than resounding ironies and ever-deepening contradictions?
The author is assistant editor at Millennium Post
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