As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?
The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition?
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India is completing the 75th year of its independence. It is a moment of celebration and, at the same time, an occasion to remember all those known and unknown who laid down their lives during a long struggle to make India free from the yoke of colonial rule.
It is somewhat strange that the occasion has come about at a time when dark clouds are hovering over the very idea of India that the freedom fighters stood for and the constitution embodies. Here, I look at the road India has travelled since it gained independence on August 15, 1947. I assess major achievements, failures and challenges. It is a personal assessment coloured by my social location and my woven journey that, in many ways, chronicles India’s passage over time.
I was born in a working-class family in the tea estates of North Bengal and grew up in conditions similar to millions of other children from this background. The estates were overwhelmingly owned and managed by the British and workers encountered them in their everyday life. Coolie was the epithet to describe this class, who were all part of the larger colonial agenda of profit and capital accumulation. Their recruitment and uprooting from ancestral land and territory, thousands of miles away, were part of an organised system. Tea estates, located in remote areas, were not within the gaze of the outside world. Workers’ movements were under constant surveillance. They lived in bondage and had no protective rights whatsoever.
Yet winds of change entered the plantation through India’s independence. This came in legislations relating to wages, working conditions, welfare measures and, above all, regulation of the relation between labour and employer/management. The introduction of the New Economic Policy of 1991, driven by liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation, has no doubt impacted them in the ugliest forms. Yet opportunities opened by the state in the last 75 years have given them the confidence to articulate their problems and evolve strategies and find solutions. The real problem is the quality of education imparted at public and private institutions, from schools to higher educational institutions.
One of the most remarkable and profound achievements of independent India is its constitution and the limitless possibilities it holds for India as a democracy. Not only does it aim to shape the relationship between individuals, groups, and collectivities based on justice – social, economic, political; liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship; equality of status and opportunity – and promote among them all fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual and unity and integrity of the nation.
There is in the constitution an imagination of building a new society replacing the old that has been the epitome of hierarchy, unfreedom, inequality, discrimination, exploitation and oppression. Two segments of the population, who though not at the bottom of the society, but all the same suffered oppression and exploitation, have been peasants and workers, the most numerous sections in colonial India. They were the rallying force behind struggles and mobilisation against the British. The attempt to address their problems has been a notable feature of the achievement of post-independent India. The issue of workers has already been referred to earlier. Alongside India brought about radical land reform legislations in the form of abolition of landlordism, securing tenurial rights, the ceiling on landholding, and distribution of ceded land among the agricultural labourers and landless.
The reforms and sequent Green Revolution laid the foundation for self-independence in food grain production rather than relying on USAID’s PL 480. India has witnessed recurrent big famines, the last being in the 1960s. The sporadic starvation death reported from time to time is not so much due to food shortage in the country but poor distribution and malpractices.
For people at the bottom of society, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, representation in state institutions via reservation has been an important achievement. Reservation is just one of the forms and probably the most extreme form of an affirmative action programme. Elsewhere in the world, reservation as a form of affirmative action has been avoided and has gone by the principle of all things being equal; preference will be given to the person from the deprived section of the society. In India, this principle would not have worked because of deeply ingrained caste identities and caste prejudices. The founders of the constitution probably realised this and hence built in reservation as an integral feature of the constitution. The fact that it has not worked out well is another story. The reservation is not automatic; it is based on qualification and, more importantly, competence and performance, contingent on another form of affirmative action programme, viz. economic, educational development, and health well-being. Today, when they are well equipped, the opportunities have gone from the scene.
India is marked by a diversity of language, region, religion, caste and tribe. The Indian constitution has tried to accommodate them in the best possible way. Accordingly, the state pursued the agenda of addressing the issues emanating from them. One such issue has been the subnational aspiration. These aspirations became evident during the colonial period, resulting in the creation of states such as Assam, Bihar and Odisha out of the Bengal Presidency. They have only been on the rise since then. Post-independence India did the right thing by accommodating surging subnational aspirations by reorganising and creating new states to fulfil these demands. Such accommodation has been the pillar of integrity and cohesiveness of India as a country and national identity.
Yet the subnational aspirations of the most marginalised such as tribes in mainland India were ignored. Similarly, safeguards to protect the identity and interest of the religious minorities have also been accommodated. All these had a place in strengthening the integrity and cohesiveness of the country. The endeavour to undermine such features and ethos, as has been the case today, is likely to be disastrous for the country in the long run. The Right to Information Act is another milestone of the Democratic Republic of India. Under the Act, all constitutional bodies and public institutions are accountable to the citizen of India. Unfortunately, the political parties under the jurisdiction of the RTI have been exempted from it under the amendment to the Act in 2013.
I find that the enactment of draconian laws such as sedition, AFSPA, UAPA and NSA, at the national level, besides Acts of similar nature enacted at the state level, and their indiscriminate misuse against ordinary citizens remains one of the most notable blots in independent India. There has been a steep rise in the number of people brought under the ambit of such Acts, and they have been languishing in jails for years without any trial. The state seems to be at war with its people.
Violence against women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have been pervasively on the rise, and the state has utterly failed in its responsibility of discharging its duties toward them. Civil society organisations have been playing a critical role in addressing societal issues ranging from development to protecting and securing citizens’ rights (civil, democratic and human). However, the space for civil society organisations is steadily shrinking, especially for those engaged in assertions and articulation of civil liberties, democratic rights and the people’s economic, cultural and religious rights.
The genuine lack of values and visions in contemporary political leadership and politics represents a major failure. The national ethos and imagination based on values enshrined in the constitution have taken a back seat, resulting in the ghettoisation of politics. Money and muscle power have sway over electoral politics, which is now beyond the reach of honest and ordinary citizens. Added to these is the systematic communalisation of politics that has vitiated people’s everyday life.
The challenge India faces today is, first and foremost, to protect the basic fabric and structure of our constitution. The autonomy of institutions, especially constitutional bodies, has been severally compromised, and so has been the professionalism of the top strata of the bureaucracy – civil and police – and their loyalty to constitutions. Restoring people’s faith and confidence in institutions and the fairness and impartiality of the bureaucracy is an immediate urgency.
Further, the gains made are petering out, and failures accumulating and compounding. Issues of the toiling masses including those at the margins of society have taken a back seat. These issues have greatly impinged the quality of life – economic, educational and health-related. The need of the hour is to reorient policies built on equity, not only economic, political and social, but also ecological and environmental.
Virginius Xaxa is currently visiting professor at the Institute for Human Development (IHD), New Delhi. Prior to joining IHD, he was Professor of Eminence and Bharat Ratna Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi Chair at Tezpur University (2016–2018). He was also Professor and Deputy Director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati Campus (2011–2016). He taught Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi (1990–2011), and North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong (1978–1990).
Featured image: August 15, 1947, Independence Day of India. Photo: Dinodia Photos
This article was first published on The Wire.