In the mad rush to celebrate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence with a slew of programmes, mandated by the government such as the “Har Ghar Tiranga” campaign and personal commemorations by citizens, it is worth taking out a few quiet moments to reflect – and do so with honesty and humility – on what the nation has become and what it should be as it marches towards the centenary of the momentous occasion in 2047. Citizens can and must, but it is important that India’s government, her political parties and economic leaders, social influencers and opinion makers, all spend some time in this contemplation.
India of 2022 may not be fully what its founders had envisioned on the day the Union Jack was lowered and the Tricolour was officially hoisted. Political freedom was important in itself, of course, but for independent India’s founders it meant the best opportunity to create a society in which Indians would give themselves the chance to address the most pressing issues such as poverty, inequality, and discrimination. Therefore, almost as important as securing independence was the long and arduous exercise of giving ourselves the Constitution. Despite many challenges, constitutional values have held on uniting Indians across differences. The Constitution was not a mere document, it contained the vision that the founders had laid out, a road map for the nascent nation, a promise that the nation was making to itself.
The vision was to be a nation governed by the rule of the law where all Indians would be equal and have claim to liberty and justice, where governments would be elected democratically, where pluralism and secularism would prevail. The word “secularism” may have been added later to the Constitution but its basic structure undoubtedly affirmed the value from the very beginning. This was especially significant because India had been divided on religious lines; the blood-soaked Partition had made Independence bitter-sweet. To steady a nation so riven and shattered, the founders had to rise above the immediate distress and trauma to consciously build a nation where partitions would not be possible again.
Therefore, pluralism or multiculturalism and secularism were more than mere values; they laid the foundation – along with the early investments in industry, education, and a rights-based system – for what India would later become. The strength and far-sightedness of the foundation carried India’s story well into the 21st century. Till recently, when India and Pakistan, cleaved out during the Partition, were compared, India stood head and shoulders above its neighbour in many respects and it was acknowledged that India’s success story – though marked by discrimination of her weakest – was thanks to her embrace of democracy, pluralism, and secularism.
At 75, is India as plural and secular as it was imagined? Or have these founding values fallen by the wayside as we get caught in the minutiae of putting up flags distributed by those in power? What does it say of a nation in which elected representatives of the ruling party are unable to sing the national anthem or flags are used during a boisterous skin show or the poorest are made to suffer because of the flag? A garbage clearance worker was pulled up because he was handling flags in the trash, people were denied their basic ration if they did not spend Rs 20 to first buy a flag, and so on. The Modi government’s intention may not have been to heap indignities on India’s poorest during the “Azadi ka Amritmahotsav” but government fiats often mean loss of dignity for some.
This is why honest and humble reflection is called: are policies helping or hurting the poorest, are grand infrastructure projects being erected at the expense of public spaces, are strategies adding to divisions in society, are the government’s majoritarian impulses eroding India’s foundational and useful values? The Modi government and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party must contemplate – do chintan – as must the opposition, which remains in disarray. If Indians of diverse faiths and cultures can all progress together, then India will thrive as the calendar moves towards 2047; if Indians are divided on the basis of faith and caste for political benefits, the nation is bound to suffer.
In a twist of destiny, the word used by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru the midnight of August 14-15 in 1947, the majoritarian ideology which did not fully participate in India’s freedom movement – often chose to side with the British – has its proponents in power on the 75th anniversary of independence. Expectedly, they have rubbished Nehru and other founders by erasing their legacy, and seek to reshape India in the majoritarian ideas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It is a testament to India’s pluralism, in politics, that the organisation has thrived despite its divisive ideology. Indeed, we are asking its progeny to reflect on the limits and perilousness of the ideology, and embrace pluralism and secularism as the guiding lights on the road ahead. India cannot afford divisions in the decades to come. Make the slogan "Unity in Diversity" cool again.