India still in shackles
On Independence Day, is there anything to celebrate?
Among national festivals around the world, Independence Day usually takes first place. The birth of the nation, its shaking off of colonial oppression and its melding of many ethnic groups into one modern state is cause for unity and celebration. As India celebrates its 66th birthday on August 15, it’s also an occasion to ask those most pressing of questions: Has independence made a difference? How has freedom changed Indians? Have they realized the hopes they had?
These are not easy questions to answer. Looking at the broad picture, one can see two contradictory movements in almost every area of life. On the one hand, India as a nation can celebrate the rise of the ordinary person, the aam aadmi; on the other, we see the almost total failure of the sarkar, the ruling class.
The words of Indian author and intellectual Gurcharan Das are memorable: “India grows by night, while the government sleeps.”
Examples of this abound: after centuries of control, education has at last been democratized, and learning opportunities have opened up to tribal people, outcasts and women, and with it, a greater share in the local leadership and administration. At the same time standards of education are in decline almost everywhere, universities are in disarray, and in many places there’s violent hostility towards girls going to school.
For once, the country can feed itself, and the “green” and “white” revolutions have changed the countryside. Consumer marketing has changed ways of eating, dressing and living.
Yet government food controls have made malnutrition a chronic problem for the poor. Farmers’ suicides are pandemic. Deforestation has brought drought to most regions. Hunger and landlessness have driven large scale migration to the towns and cities. The slum is a symbol of our times.
Most of all, the changes are economic. Most Asian societies were feudal and static, wedded to some form of subsistence economy. No longer. Today money has become the chief arbiter of social relationships, and it is the traders and financiers who dictate the development of the nation, not the landed aristocracy. Black money – the parallel, underground economy -- generates more wealth, employment and investment than the official one. No wonder that that’s where today’s youth long to be.
And what of the ordinary Indian -- the man in the street, the woman by the kitchen sink?
For one thing, he and she are more aware. He is more literate, much more street smart. She watches TV and drinks in the world, even if she doesn’t understand all of it. He looks upon politicians and netas, the political leaders, with veiled contempt, but realizes they are as indestructible as sewer rats. She moves about with others at the communal tap, even mixing with “those people, not like us.” Most of all, she has hopes and dreams her mother never had.
One fact, which strikes you everywhere, is the rampant corruption. Like a fungus, it grows everywhere. Independence has produced a kind of Indian who is grasping, manipulative and exploitative. Traditionally Indians preened themselves on their spirituality and high moral purpose. Every day, each new scam shatters this hollow claim.
Even more, we Indians realize that there is a dark and violent anger which exists in the national character, and which periodically explodes – in communal riots, in the slaughter of Dalits, the torture of prisoners, the dowry murders, the female infanticides. The anger comes from not getting what we desire soon enough, and even more, from having to share the little we have with those we despise as our inferiors.
In fact the crucial task of making life better for millions of Indians has faltered in the hands of successive governments, who now merely use their electoral privilege to loot the public treasury. Propaganda may promote the image of an “India Shining”, but a sober assessment of the future holds but “an uncertain glory”.
So have we realized our hopes of 1947, when we made our famous “tryst with destiny"?
Not all of them certainly, else we wouldn’t be looking more and more like “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa”, to use the picturesque phrase of Indian economist and Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen. The challenges before us are not political liberty any more. Rather, they are equality and fraternity – community.
Where other states in south Asia that became independent almost at the same time as India have fractured in civil war, we’ve held together, diverse but united, our political liberty intact. But many dreams of equality and community are far from realization. How do we build a nation where each man, woman and child is respected, and assured of that minimum dignity and security?
The trouble is, 66 years later, we’re not sure our rulers are even trying to achieve this.
Myron J Pereira is a Jesuit priest and media consultant based in Mumbai.
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