A twist in destiny?
In the first year of Independence, what was striking was a fervour and willingness to build India: a strange mixture of exuberance, over-confidence and over-expectation that was bound to change and which did into disillusionment ... Making out a case for preserving the fundamental values of democracy, KULDIP NAYAR looks at how subsequent years of misrule have destroyed once-cherished attitudes and institutions.
IT was heavenly to be young when India won freedom. Although cut into two, there was so much frenzy over Independence that people would have torn even the moon from the sky if the leaders had asked for it. There was sadness because millions of men, women and children had been uprooted, and more than one million killed during Partition. But the opportunity to build the newly won country was so overpowering that nothing really mattered.
By the time the Republic was formed on January 26, 1950, and the country adopted the Constitution, the shape of future India was pretty clear. In fact, the long freedom struggle had chalked out the path. The ethos of the struggle became the ethos of tomorrow's India.
Hailing from different regions, religions and castes, rich and poor, landlords and tenants, industrialists and traders, all of them had contributed to push out the British. They provided the ethos. Therefore, the policy and programmes adopted had to reflect the plurality of the struggle and the distributive justice for the teeming millions who had made sacrifices. Mahatma Gandhi, who led the struggle himself, said that political freedom would have no meaning if there was no economic freedom.
And to douse the fires of communalism in the wake of Pakistan's birth, he said that Hindus and Muslims were his two eyes.
Egalitarianism and secular democracy came to be the two pillars on which the structure of the Indian Republic was to rest. It was clear that the policy in view was participatory, having a meaning for all, even among the lowliest in the economic, religious or caste fields. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who piloted the Constitution, saw to it that the country accepted the concept which fitted into the ideals of freedom fighters as well as the needs of multi-religious and multi-cultural India. He reiterated the basic principle: "One man, one vote". But, at the same time, he emphasised that such a right should become "one man, one value" so that the country would become a real, democratic, secular entity.
In the first years of Independence there was an over-emphasis on the past glory but also a fervour and willingness to build India. At the same time there was a naïve belief that the problem of underdevelopment and poverty would find an easy, if not an automatic, solution with the dawn of Independence. It was a strange mixture of exuberance, over-confidence and over-expectation. Left untapped, enthusiasm was bound to change into disillusionment and this is what happened.
Mahatma Gandhi was quite right in suggesting soon after Independence the disbanding of the Congress. He did not want it to go to people saying that it had won them independence. All, according to him, had participated in the national struggle and no party should try to appropriate credit to garner gains. The Congress did not accept his advice.
Had the same pre-independence spirit of sacrifice and selflessness that had distinguished the Congress Party persisted, India would have probably found missionaries to lead the country to prosperity. But the spirit of dedication rapidly evaporated after the last British solider left. The Congress Party members were now a new set of masters who wanted to be rewarded for the sufferings they had undergone in the struggle for freedom. Almost overnight the party became a squabbling crowd of Gandhi-capped self-seekers, jostling one another for power and riches.
For many, the newly acquired power was a licence to make money. As days went by, corruption in the Congress ranks became common. The central and state ministers began to live beyond their means and, increasingly, there were allegations of how a minister or his close relations had amassed wealth by playing havoc with the administration.
Still, we did not start badly. Mahatma Gandhi's assassination gave us respite from communal riots. Jawaharlal Nehru established the institutions and gave strength to the concept of an independent Judiciary, free press and fair voting. Democracy took roots. Religion ceased to have a role in state affairs and the military remained ideally apolitical. Planning and self-sufficiency came to be our two goal posts.
In spite of all this, we felt handicapped in fostering democratic values.
How could we do so when money began to play a dominant role in elections? Practically every candidate, including Nehru, had to spend more than what was legally allowed. Religious and caste considerations too came to be weighed in the elections of candidates by political parties and the pattern of polling.
Dr. Zakir Husain, Vice-President in the 1950s, criticised the practice publicly. He said let Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a top freedom fighter, contest from a purely Hindu constituency to test the people's faith in secularism. Neither the Congress nor other political parties heeded his advice.
The Congress was the only viable party and it bragged that it could get even a lamp post elected. So, the quality of candidates started going down. Anyone who could catch the eye of political parties by hook or by crook was given the ticket and in most cases, he or she became the law maker in the State Assembly or Parliament. Those who were near the throne came to enjoy power. They sprouted at all levels and made a lot of money through wrong deals or contracts. The other political parties, which came to power in the states, came on the anti-Congress wave. But they turned out to be no better. People began to blame the system. When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency (1975-77), she tried to close the system.
This was the time when it became clear that the bureaucracy was so malleable that even a threat of transfer of demotion made it act in an illegal manner. We found that ethical considerations inherent in public behaviour had become generally dim and, in many cases, beyond the mental grasp of many of the government servants. Desire for self-preservation was the sole motivation for their official action and behaviour. Anxiety to survive at any cost formed the keynote of approach to the problems that came before many of them. And money had come to play a big part. Ninety per cent of civil servants in the States and at the centre were of doubtful integrity. They have joined since political masters and mafia men to mulct the state. How could the system work?
Meanwhile, both political and economic processes had brought sections of the peripheral and deprived social strata into the active political community. The population had grown beyond the elites and upper classes which inherited the Raj. There was a wider circle of politically conscious and economically powerful castes and classes which acquired a stake in the system. Certain middle peasant castes had dramatically improved their position, asserting equality of status and privilege with the upper castes and mounting considerable pressure for redefining rural-urban relations. At the same time, they were unwilling to extend the same rights to the lower castes in both rural and urban areas.
The broad lower tier of the social pyramid consisting of the poor and under-privileged and exploited sections of the population, was no longer willing to accept a submissive role. They were, in turn, asserting their rights in relation to the dominant structures of hegemony and control; they too wanted to participate in the decisions that affected their lives.
Accommodation was no longer possible within the old structure which was narrowly cocooned in privilege. Millions continued to remain outside the system which became ever more distant and alien and ceased to be meaningful for them. No surprise then that the processes of change and transformation should cause turbulence and turmoil, and that once-cherished attitudes and concepts and institutions should be questioned.
That this challenge to established forms should occur at a time when the elites themselves, in their scramble for power and resources and unmindful of larger considerations, feel incapacitated and bewildered at the pressures building from below is not surprising. For, it is a challenge that is a direct result of a non-performing and non-responding apparatus, a direct consequence of the failure of the system to respond to the new demands that were inherent in the democratic process.
Sensing that the discontent against the system because of deteriorating economic conditions is increasing globalisation has only aggravated the situation some political parties have inducted religion and caste into the country's body politics. Whether the Mandal Commission, giving reservations to the backward, has done anything good is not yet clear. But the introduction of religion has played havoc. By razing the Babri masjid to the ground first and then doing "ethnic cleansing" in Gujarat, fanatic Hindus have brought the genie of Hindutva out of the bottle. It would be tough to make it go back into the bottle. But that eventuality would arise if those who allowed the genie to move about wanted to control it.
At present, the country is in the grip of communalism which may encourage divisions on the basis of caste and religion.
If the country is to preserve the fundamental values of a democratic society, every person whether a public functionary or private citizen must display a degree of vigilance and willingness to sacrifice. Without the awareness of what is right and a desire to act according to what is right, there may be no realisation of what is wrong.
Kuldip Nayar is a veteran journalist, writer and human rights activist. He is also former Indian High Commissioner to the U.K. and now a Rajya Sabha MP.
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