Tuesday, August 14, 2007

India at 60

As India reaches a remarkable milestone of 60 years as a pluralistic democracy Indians and the diaspora are bound to reflect. You will read numerous accounts of India’s successes and failures. Numerous quantitative analyses are available. But I am interested in reflecting on India’s qualitative evolution over the last six decades. Is India still true to its founding principles? Are these founding principles still relevant? What principles will the future be based on? To me these are the burning questions more so than how does Indian maintain a certain GDP growth rate.

This is what the preamble to India’s constitution reads:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political;
LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;

I feel these founding principles are just as relevant today as they were 60 years ago. But has Indian been true to them? Let’s take a quick look.


It is a remarkable achievement that India has maintained its sovereignty despite internal diversity and immense external pressure. Some may question this achievement citing alliances with hitherto hostile nations like the United States but no matter how critical we may be of specific policies it is hard to make the case that India has compromised this most critical achievement of our independence movement. India is taking the right course to build relations with past adversaries. One can only hope that this engagement empowers its people and not merely the bureaucratic and political elites.


It is important to understand the historical context in which this principle was laid down. Having just emerged from the shadows of an imperialistic nation there was great weariness towards the models of economic development in that nation – capitalism. In addition, to this apprehension the vast majority of India was illiterate and poor. In this scenario the founders sincerely believed in the greater role of government to empower people. In hindsight some things could have been done different. Today, however, this concept has to be revisited by keeping the ultimate objective the same – people’s empowerment. In that regard I feel that India must make the next decade the decade of the entrepreneur and signal its growth into a smarter democracy that knows how to evolve with time. A vast majority of its population is still economically marginalized but governmental assistance should not be the goal. Instead, government facilitation to build enterprises at the rural and small-town level should be the focus. This is essential for India to sustain the growth it has shown. It cannot drag its masses in the rough as the few race ahead. It must teach them to join the race.


This is the backbone of India. It is the very soul of India. Going forward I would only suggest that semantically we use pluralistic as an alternative term to define the vibrancy of India’s multiculturalism, which has withstood assaults from all sides. Even today extremists on all sides are vying to tear apart this most beautiful composite fiber India has sewn together over centuries. Well, they can try all they want but I know that India’s soul cannot be changed. For if India ever abandons this most cherished principle it will cease to be the India that I love. India’s pluralism is one of India’s greatest gifts to the world. It does not merely teach assimilation but synthesis. It is always refining what it possesses and adding to the grandeur of its moral stature.


As disappointing India’s political discourse may be it is by and large committed to democracy. Except a brief period in its history India has maintained its commitment to electoral democracy. That does not mean that other elements of democratic evolution have grown. The Right to Information Act has finally ushered in the much-awaited era of transparency so critical to the survival of any democracy. Political leaders have stymied public participation that greatly suffers from apathy to begin with. The media has greatly assisted them in doing this by making sensationalism its main product over news. There are, however, bright spots of thoughtful journalism that have saved the day in times of crisis by reminding us all what truly matters. The new generation armed with information offers me great hope. Time will tell if they can meet the challenge at hand of making India’s democracy work for its people by inspiring its people to work for democracy.


India has failed in its commitment to this principle. Much beyond the sheer slowness of process today the prevailing sentiment is that justice is an ideal but cannot become a reality. The people have surrendered on this front. Social justice is still far from achieved. Marginalized sections of India’s society still languish. Prejudice may have superficially receded in the urban centers but it is still alive in rural India. Economic deprivation and social alienation are still rampant. All of this is exacerbated by the lack of political empowerment. Steps have been taken and great efforts are underway through the Panchayati Raj system. This system must be the focal point of India’s development strategy. The success of this system will significantly impact the condition of justice in India’s society as the Panchayati Raj system holds the greatest promise to empower the marginalized.


This principle is increasingly coming under attack from radicals and political operators. The recent attack on Ms. Taslima Nasreen and prior to that attacks on artists by the BJP-RSS underscore the dire need to restore this principle. Beyond these crude shows of myopia and sheer anti-social behavior there is an effort underway to undermine those who think differently on issues of development. Numerous government projects do not tolerate deviation from the official line. To me this is more dangerous than the barbarism shown by hooligans on the fringes. India must persevere to keep this principle alive and relevant.


This principle needs to be revisited and refined. I feel this should be expanded to equality of opportunity. The justice clause covers equality before the law but above all opportunity should not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, caste or any other belief set. Some have cleverly used this clause to oppose affirmative action without fully understanding the scope of the deprivation of those that affirmative action ideally tries to help. Such debates will persist and are healthy.


This is a truly Indian ideal and despite cynicism from some corners it is alive. The Indian soul is inclusive despite its numerous shortcomings. It welcomes all. It dances with all. It sings with all. It loves all.

We love India as it is today because we believe it still bears the torch to lead the world through the darkness of hate into the light of peace and love. We salute the people of India on this momentous day.


Rohit Tripathi.