There are, to brutally paraphrase the great John Berger, many ways of looking at the Republic of India. It is, for many political intents and social purposes, very much a nation that is a work in progress. It is, by many international benchmarks, a laggard on a whole host of areas from law and order to women’s rights to child health to malnutrition to employment. Its public sector banks are loaded with rancid loans, its soldiers are equipped with outdated weaponry and its bureaucracy is somehow simultaneously both too big and too small to be effective.
All this is undeniably true. Only a patriot of the most psychotic flavour will deny any of these things.
But look at it from another perspective, and the Republic is a bonafide miracle.
In 1947, India was born equipped in every imaginable way to fall apart into a million dysfunctional pieces. Some years ago, this writer, suddenly gripped by a certain mania to know more about the princely states, asked a historian how many of these little, huge and minuscule kingdoms had been subsumed into the Republic. “Don’t tell this to anyone,” he said, “but I don’t think anybody really knows for sure.”
In 1947, India had a life expectancy at birth of 32.3 years, and the average Indian woman had, according to one source, a fertility rate of 5.9 babies. Indians died young, often when they were children and, consequently, Indian women gave birth to lots and lots of children. My maternal grandmother gave birth to nine children, seven of whom made it to adulthood.
My paternal grandmother gave birth to just three. This was not, she seemed to suggest, considered normal or optimal. My father, who was born in 1950 and grew up in a joint family of very modest means, vividly recalls sitting down for lunch with so many children that pieces of fried fish were carefully counted out as they were served to make sure everyone got a share. (This was a habit my grandmother persisted with to her dying days. No one got more than one piece of fried fish. Even if this mean 17 pieces of fried fish sat in the fridge for a week.)
According to some estimates, at Independence, at least half of all Indians—some say as high as 80%—had never left the district they were born in. No more than 12-13% of all Indians had any form of literacy. Smaller still was the percentage of Indians who had ever participated in any form of representational government.
Thus, at the midnight hour on the 15th of August 1947, India’s tryst was not just with destiny but with misery and ignorance and suffering and parochialism and mutual distrust, and rape and murder in the Punjab and famine and hunger in Bengal, and shaky loyalties across the land from Hyderabad to Travancore. In Travancore, it was only a failed Communist assassination bid, weeks before independence day, that convinced the hawkish Diwan to abandon hopes of an independent Republic of Travancore and unite with the Indian Republic.
Thus, at its moment of birth, India the nation was much like any newborn Indian in 1947: frail, sickly, malnourished, of uncertain future prospects. Should it be of any wonder to anybody that few people anywhere in the world gave this nation of hundreds of millions any chance at all of survival? Enemies within, enemies without, loyalties with… who knew?
Why the Republic exists—perhaps persists is the better word—to this day in the form it does is mystifying. Think about it. Between my wife and her parents and my parents, we can speak four languages—and that is before you include my father’s dodgy Arabic.
The Belgians, who live in a country surely no larger than Gurgaon, can’t handle two. Of course, Indians, too, fought and died over languages not long after independence. But things have got better. The Kerala government, it was recently reported, is preparing a textbook for migrant labourers to learn conversational Malayalam.
Why have things got better? Could it be because when it was faced with that tryst, the nation said let us write a Constitution and then stick with it? Could it be because they did something almost nobody in history had done before, and definitely not at this scale, and gave every adult in the country—please, think about this—the vote?
And not only did they give the vote, but they went to extraordinary lengths to make sure you could take it. Who among us can read Ramachandra Guha’s description of that first Lok Sabha elections in India After Gandhi and not be moved by the audacity of that epic spectacle? By its abundant good will and inherent optimism? By the stories of polling booths in the jungles and on the mountains and in the cities and by the sea?
It was a tryst with destiny, yes, but also a tryst with decency. A tryst with faith in democracy. Perhaps one that seems naive and ill-placed today.
Today, India has a fertility rate of around 2.3 babies per woman, and a life expectancy at birth of almost 70. It has a large, growing economy and a literacy rate of 70%. It is a big, complicated, country which gets some things right and many things wrong. My other colleagues in these pages tell you very many things about the challenges and opportunities that the Republic faces today. Even as you read them, perhaps, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that from one way of looking, the Republic is a bonafide miracle. Few people gave us a chance. And yet here we are.
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