By Ramachandra Guha
Jan 27, 2019
If India was a start-up in 1947, not even the most venturesome of venture capitalists would have invested in this audacious experiment. In the first years of our life as an independent nation, predictions that we would fall apart came thick and fast. Representative here are these words of Claude Auchinleck, former commander-in-chief of the British Indian Army, writing in 1948: “The Punjabi is as different from a Madrassi as a Scot is from an Italian. The British tried to consolidate it but achieved nothing permanent. No one can make a nation out of a continent of many nations.”
Contrary to these prophets of doom, we have stayed united, and somewhat democratic. However, as we mark the completion of 69 years as a Republic, a sober reflection is called for. India is not about to break up, yet major faultlines persist. This column foregrounds four such.
The first faultline is deepening religious division. The life’s work of our Republic’s founders was to ensure that people of all religions (or none) would have equal rights in independent India. Shortly after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru deplored the “constant cry for retaliation and vicarious punishment of the Muslims of India, because the Pakistanis punish Hindus. That argument does not appeal to me in the slightest”. “Our secular ideals”, insisted Nehru, “impose a responsibility to our Muslim citizens in India”.
These ideals are now under threat from a rising Hindutva majoritarianism. Muslims are freer to practise their faith in India than, for example, Muslims in China. But they suffer disproportionately in times of communal rioting. Even in times of peace they can be shunned or stigmatised. The lynchings over the past few years and the blatantly communal Citizenship (Amendment) Bill have pushed the Republic several steps closer to being a Hindu Pakistan.
A second major faultline of the Republic is that of persisting social inequality. In any developing society experiencing high rates of economic growth, there will be growing wealth inequalities. These are worrying, but more worrying, from the point of view of democracy, are inequalities of status, whereby citizens are discriminated against on the basis of caste and gender.
The Constitution abolished untouchability, and made women equal to men. However, in everyday life in India, in the home and in the workplace, Dalits and women are often treated as less-than-equal citizens. It was believed that caste discrimination was particularly bad in the villages; yet, as the tragedy of Rohith Vemula showed, it can be pervasive even in the science faculties of our best universities. Meanwhile, in recent decades there has been a declining participation of women in the workforce, along with increasing violence against them in public spaces.
Along with Dalits and women, adivasis are also often subject to discrimination. Their forests, waters, lands and minerals have been seized by more powerful interests, and they have got absolutely nothing in return. One statistic says it all; while adivasis are 8% of our population, they constitute 40% of those displaced by so-called development projects.
In his last speech to the Constituent Assembly, BR Ambedkar remarked: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one [person] one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one [person] one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”
Seventy years later, these contradictions persist. To be sure, our claims to being the world’s largest democracy are vitiated by the venality and corruption of our political leaders. But they are vitiated far more by the everyday behaviour towards Dalits by upper caste Hindus, and towards women by men of all castes and religions.
A third faultline is that posed by growing environmental degradation. The death of our rivers, the decimation of our forests, the contamination of our soil and atmosphere, all raise disturbing questions as regards the future prospects of economic growth in India. Yet, perhaps because the burden of environmental abuse falls disproportionately on the poor, no political party has paid the subject much attention. We have the scientific expertise to help mould a more sustainable development path; but this expertise (as witness the case of the Gadgil Report and the Kerala floods) goes entirely unheeded.
A fourth major faultline is the degradation of our public institutions. It was Indira Gandhi who, as prime minister, first sought to manipulate and control institutions which were meant to operate independently and autonomously. What she began, other parties and leaders have taken further. The bureaucracy and police are now more or less captive to the interests of the ruling party. So are investigative agencies, such as the CBI and the ED, and, even to some extent, the RBI. Meanwhile, Parliament is mostly non-functional; the funding of parties is absolutely opaque.
With every passing year our institutions become less independent, more compromised, with deeply negative consequences for everyday life in India.
We became free of colonial rule in August 1947; and adopted a republican Constitution in January 1950. Seven decades later, we may be more democratic than when the British left these shores. But we are certainly less democratic than what the framers of our Constitution hoped us to be. Indeed, the faultlines I have identified here have persisted regardless of who is in power, at the Centre or in the states. They need to be addressed, and remedied, if we are to be more worthy of the ideals bequeathed us by the founders of our Republic.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World