The August of 1947 was an eventful time in India’s history. India won independence, ending British rule. Jawaharlal Nehru was hoping for a tryst with destiny. Refugees on both sides of the border were crying over the blood shed during partition. It was a period of great economic distress. The erstwhile royalty were wondering how to get along with commoners. The poor could not comprehend how they had become masters of their own destiny.
On the other side, Delhi’s political class found themselves in a vortex of problems. Nehru was worried over the communal divide and home minister Vallabhbhai Patel was grappling with the responsibility of unifying the country.
Baldev Singh, our first defence minister, had to use his army less to defend the borders and more to set boundaries and keep the erstwhile princes under control. Finance minister R.K. Shanmukham Chetty had to work with empty government coffers. India’s share of the manufacturing output of the world had plummeted to around 2% from 24% in 1757.
Clearly, the wings of the golden bird had been clipped. This is why British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used to poke fun at us.
Once he said, “If India is granted freedom, power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters...". Unfortunately, a large section of our royalty and intelligentsia also believed him.
People were used to bowing before kings for thousands of years and were reluctant to accept democracy in its true spirit. Is it not a matter of pride that today, despite mutual conflicts, 1.25 billion confident Indians have seen off colonialism once for all. Now let us talk about a contradiction. Despite the slogan of unity in diversity, the bitter truth is that the hot winds of estrangement and hatred have also kept blowing in the country. A separatist movement is raging in Kashmir, the Maoists sing a different tune and the seeds of a movement against the official language Hindi are being sown in Karnataka.
But all this amounts to no more than a regional matter—there is an overall consensus in the country when it comes to the nation’s sovereignty and unity. In contrast, Pakistan, which attained independence along with us, has witnessed intermittent spells of military rule.
Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives have seen democracy come and go. But this has never been the case in India. In the last seven decades, we’ve seen a change in the national government 16 times through democratic means.
Mr Churchill, if you were alive today, I would have looked you in the eye and said that we are also capable of running a democracy.
Think about it, where did the US stand 70 years after its independence? Slavery was still prevalent in free America. No woman has become an American president till date, but India can proudly say that it has had a Dalit and minority President and also a woman prime minister. This has only been possible because once Indians have taken a step forward; they’ve not retreated.
For instance, at the time of Independence, we didn’t have a Constitution. The Constitution, drafted by B.R. Ambedkar, is revered even today. By amending the Constitution time and again, we have indicated to the world that Indians know how to keep in step with changing times. Statistics show this clearly.
In 1951, at the time of the first population Census, just 18% of Indians were literate. By the time of the 2011 Census, our literacy rate had crossed the 74% mark. Similarly life expectancy has risen from 32 years to 69 years in the same period. The county was declared polio-free in March 2014.
However, it is true that even today we see communal riots take place. Dalits and backwards face difficulties in joining the mainstream. We have great economic inequality and lots of people sustain themselves on the benevolence of nature and lack even the bare essentials.
But this doesn’t mean that our independence has become meaningless. At many points of time after independence, we’ve encountered dark periods and taken shaky steps. But getting up after falling down has become second nature to Indians. There can be a debate over the speed of our progress, but not on the progress itself.
I would like to remind my pessimistic friends that the blows of time can smudge even the strongest of walls. We can notice some stains on the impenetrable wall of our democracy. But we’ve successfully been washing them off over the years and will continue to do so. These stains are required. They give the nation opportunities to contemplate and improve.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.
His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.