New Delhi: Ranbir Rai Handa was just 14 years old when he was pitched into the madness of partition, forced to flee his hometown of Lahore on a train bound from newly independent Pakistan to India.
What he saw when he arrived in Amritsar on 14 August 1947 still keeps him awake at night.
Thousands of Muslims, men, women and children, all waiting to take a train in the opposite direction, savagely slaughtered before his eyes, killed, stabbed and beheaded.
Three or four trains full of Muslims were due to leave for Pakistan that day. None did.
“I saw Muslims being burnt alive, thrown onto bonfires, I saw bodies, I saw blood, I saw many things,” he said. “The madness that very first day could have finished everybody.”
About 12 million people, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, fled for their lives during partition. Almost a million died. Entire trainloads of dead bodies crossed the border in both directions.
In 1931, Winston Churchill had warned that if the British left India, majority Hindus would gain “the armed ascendancy”, public services would collapse and the country would fall back rapidly “into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages”.
And yet, 60 years later, despite the violent orgy of its birth, India has survived and even begun to prosper, as the world’s largest democracy and a broadly secular state.
“Despite the country being partitioned, and so much bloodshed, India became a secular, democratic country,” said renowned historian Bipan Chandra. “I think that is one of the greatest achievements of modern times.”
Battered but not broken
There are many forces which divide India, from caste to class and economic inequality, from language to religion. All have caused conflict, sometimes brutal slaughter, and yet none have changed the map of India drawn in 1947.
Today, India’s economic “emergence” is grabbing attention around the world, but the real success story of modern India is political rather than economic, writes Ramachandra Guha in his best-selling history “India After Gandhi”.
It is too early to say if a “software boom” will lead to general prosperity, he says.
“But that India is still a single nation after testing 60 years of independence, and that it is still largely democratic -- these are the facts that should compel our deeper attention.”
At every stage of post-independence history India’s credentials as a secular democracy have been challenged.
In 1975 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended democracy, jailed opposition leaders and imposed emergency rule. Two years on she climbed down, and was thrashed at the polls.
Her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 provoked vicious anti-Sikh riots that killed 2,700 people.
But India’s secular fabric was even more badly stretched by the rise of the Hindu right in the 1990s and communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 that killed 2,500 people, most of them Muslims.
Yet two years later the Hindu right was turfed out of power and into retreat after national elections in which 400 million people took part in the world’s largest ever democratic exercise.
Introducing democracy to India was described as “the greatest gamble in history”. Critics have argued such a poor, diverse and divided country could never sustain free and fair elections.
Today Indian democracy is far from perfect, but has taken root. Guha says it mostly succeeds in providing freedom of movement and expression, but mostly fails when it comes to the functioning of politicians and political institutions.
In Muslim-majority Kashmir its manipulation helped provoke an insurgency that has cost more than 40,000 lives since 1989.
Yet for all that, it provides a crucial pressure valve that has preserved a broader peace.
“The calibre of Indian politicians has declined over time, there is a lot of corruption, a lot of criminalisation of politics, but this does not take away from the fact we are a democratic country with civil liberties,” said Chandra.
Bound by Bollywood
In a country of a thousand castes and subcastes, of 22 official languages and many more dialects, in a Hindu-majority country that contains the world’s third largest Muslim population, its very diversity has been a source of strength.
In a sense, Indians realised there was no other way to live in peace. Compromise is a way of life in a nation where no one sect or group could reign supreme.
Early leaders, especially first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, gave the newly born India some breathing space by promoting and defending a secular, democratic national identity.
Today, a pan-Indian feeling has grown even as regions reassert their own identity, while the exuberant cinema of Bollywood has become a strong cultural glue by giving the nation a common passion.
Handa still remembers the Muslim and Sikh families who helped his parents during the Lahore riots of 1947, of his family’s former Muslim driver who returned unbidden to risk his life by driving their car and belongings across the border to India.
Today his daughter is married to a Muslim. Handa calls that “lovely” and says he is deeply proud of secular India.
Yet the challenges have not gone away and will not just yet. The growing gap between rich and poor, and a Maoist insurgency that inequality has spawned, loom large on the horizon.
India will continue to “muddle along in the middle”, Guha predicts, rather than become the great power it would like to be.
“Those earlier anticipations of doom greatly underestimated the resilience of the Indian state and the capability of the Indian political leadership,” he told Reuters.
“And these new anticipations of our greatness overestimate the capability of the Indian political leadership and the resilience of the democratic ethos of the Indian state, because this has been corroded over the last 60 years.”