Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Independence Day special: A to Z of Independent India

From America to Zulm, a guide to independent India on the nation's 72nd Independence Day

Heaven forbid this list be considered exhaustive, or even objective. It is a very personal exercise in distillation, an attempt to gather together the ideas and themes—some uplifting, some most definitely not—that define independent India. To keep the contentiousness down to a minimum, and also to hush those who would quarrel over why their favourite personalities aren’t on this list, I’ve chosen to exclude people altogether.

A IS FOR AMERICA, the country India once so loved to hate and now, in many ways, so hates to love. In the last quarter-century, as India has abandoned its autarky—a disastrous foray into self-sufficiency that blighted the economy for a generation—it has grown closer to the global hegemon it once disparaged, and whose capitalism it postured to despise. We’re not yet Washington’s allies—a word whose flavour of commitment seems to give India the jeepers—but ever-closer “strategic partners."

B IS FOR BOLLYWOOD, India’s fantastical alter ego, a place where dreams dictate outcomes and the imagination rules supreme. So many drab and sterile Indian lives would be unbearable without the escape that cinema offers. Meanwhile in Real India, the BJP peddles its own stern dream, a majoritarian credo that makes some in India quicken with religious pride and others quake with a fear of the future. The party has remade India in lightning-quick time, its zeal apparent for all to see in its adamant, nationalist blueprint.

C IS FOR THE COW, A gentle creature in whose name messianic activists think nothing of lynching men in broadest daylight. Has there been another animal anywhere in history that so completely embodies the politics of an entire race than the modern Indian cow? Cricket, too, offers a portrait of India. For decades, it was the one sphere in which the country competed successfully against the wider world. Today, it gives us a tableau of everything Indian: money, aspiration, competition, corruption—the game has it all. Sometimes, it even has class.

D IS FOR DIASPORA, those Indians who ventured abroad to make better lives for themselves in the years when the country was handicapped by its own regulatory policies. They live in the United Kingdom, the US, Canada and West Africa, and especially in the sheikhdoms of the Gulf, where the sturdiest of India’s sons and daughters go to make a living amid oil-addled people who treat them with contempt. The diaspora is India’s trump card abroad, frequently wealthy advocates for their land of origin. Back in India, the Dalits have surged across the Manu-mandated boundaries of Indian society to remake Indian political discourse. Their leaders can be just as venal as the “better-born" politicians, but there is no doubt that the hundreds of millions of Indians from the lowest castes have more clout today than they’ve ever had in India’s infinite history.

E IS THE ECONOMY, India’s bane in the socialist years after independence. In 1991, destitution forced the government to ferry gold on planes to Western banks merely to keep India afloat. The reforms that followed transformed the country into a global powerhouse. The challenge remains scary: can India really add the million new jobs a month it needs just to keep pace with demographic growth? Key to India’s international success has been English, the language of her colonisers, to be sure, but today an economic asset for which we should be grateful. Hindi is all very well for those showboating U.N. speeches by our prime and foreign ministers, but as a language it keeps India unworldly and provincial. Indians know this all too well, as they clamour to send their children to English-medium schools. (No one understands the market better than an aspirational parent.)

F IS FOR FOREIGN POLICY, India’s most pretentious suit in its first free decades, in which the overweening pieties of the independence movement transformed themselves into non-alignment, a policy of global moral neutrality that ended up pushing India into the embrace of the Soviet Union. India is now rid of its “Sar pe lal topi Rusi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani" mode of global relations, having acquired a hard-headedness that better suits the word’s current turbulence. Other Indian principles haven’t changed, however: the family is still the bedrock of Indian life, whether in politics, business or matrimonial choice (in the last of which the product Fair and Lovely continues to play a distinctly unlovely role).

G IS FOR THE GIRL CHILD, India’s national shame, a being into whose body and soul the country pours its neuroses. In a male-mad land, girls are frequently aborted; often killed at birth; and invariably under-resourced by their own families in comparison with boy-children. Girls get less food to eat, less parental attention and love, and often little access to decent schooling if it’s a choice between buying an education for a son or a daughter. An Indian boy imbibes misogyny with his mother’s milk—and from his father’s example. There are impressive exceptions, of course: If only Rajasthan would learn from Kerala, or Haryana from Manipur.

H IS FOR HINDUTVA, AN ideology by which a mostly gentle religion has been transformed into an evangelical political program which borrows many tactical moves from the extreme versions of the Islam it so despises. A casualty in all of this isn’t just the essence of Hinduism—tolerant, and non-monolithic—but also India’s history, which has come under sweeping revisionist pressure from ideologues who would question the benevolence of 17th-century Muslim rulers even as they rename roads and railway stations. (No account of modern India would be complete without a mention of homeopathy: What would Indian life be without those sweet little white balls wrapped in paper “pudiyas"?)

I IS FOR THE INDIAN National Congress, India’s steward—with only brief interruptions—until 2014, when it collapsed ignominiously in the face of a BJP electoral onslaught. It is fashionable, now, to pillory the Congress for its many mistakes—and yes, the party committed some howlers—but in the rush to denigrate the party of Nehru, critics are guilty of blindness to its very many merits.

J IS FOR JAPAN, with which India has forged a notable friendship in the last decade. The Japanese had tended to preach to India in the past—particularly on nuclear matters—but the emergence of the Chinese threat has led to a new appreciation in Tokyo of India’s worth. J is also for the Janata Party, a ragbag assemblage of opposition forces that gave many Indians their first taste of non-Congress rule. Its government collapsed in just under two years, being a marriage of misfits brought together by jugaad, the Great Indian Coping Skill (rather overrated, in this writer’s humble opinion).

K IS FOR KAL, THE HINDI word for both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow,’ an emblem of India’s timelessness as well as its hopeless management of time. Hopeless management, alas, is also the only way to describe India’s handling of Kashmir, whose history as a part of independent India has been scarred by broken political promises, occasionally rigged elections, and, from the 1990s onward, a state of military siege that is unseemly to behold and a stain on Indian democracy. Blame must lie squarely with the Congress party, which “broke" the state so profoundly by its mishandling that it is now almost impossible to “fix."

L IS FOR LATHI-CHARGE, India’s malevolently poetic contribution to the vocabulary of public order. Lathis, or long bamboo staves, are wielded with abandon by energized policemen on the backs, heads, buttocks and ankles of unruly crowds. The results are uneven, and like so much else done by the Indian police, scarcely conform to any broadly recognized corpus of human rights. A more palatable form of assault conducted in modern India has been the one in the cause of literacy, as the country has transformed itself from a place where only 12% could read and write in 1947 to 80% today. The results here, too, are uneven, with some states still mired in rates of illiteracy that should shame India, and with women being markedly less literate (on average) than men.

M IS FOR MUSLIMS, India’s largest religious minority and currently the largest group of political “step-children" in the country. The ruling party has made its distaste for Muslims abundantly clear, and has often had the support of a pliant and jingoistic media in its politics of Muslim-bashing. (Not every newspaper or TV channel is complicit, of course, and journalism in India continues to be practiced with immense bravery and integrity by those who don’t toe the government’s line.) M is also for Maoism, the first shoddy product exported by China to India, and whose practitioners wage war against the state in tracts of ungovernable rural hinterland.

N STANDS FOR INDIA’S NEIGHBOURS, who, collectively, are a source of a constant national migraine. They can be divided into good and bad, the former being Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the latter China and Pakistan. India has tended to mess up its relations with the good ones, behaving much too often in ways that are big brotherly. The bad neighbours are the ones with which India has fought wars in the past, and with which it could conceivably (some say almost certainly) fight again in the future. It doesn’t help India that China and Pakistan are locked in a strategic embrace; but there is a silver lining here for India: What will become of their relations as Pakistan falls deeper into China’s usurious debt?

O IS FOR OFFICIOUS officials, a category in which India has attained world class. One might argue that Indian officials picked up the habit of riding rough-shod over the public from the British administrators before them, but the ease with which Indian government treat civilians with contempt suggests an inherent skill that needed no colonial prompting to come to the fore. Alongside this hectoring is the expectation, of course, that all those dealing with officialdom must be obsequious.

P IS FOR POKHRAN, the mofussil speck-on-the-map in Rajasthan where India conducted its first nuclear test—pardon me, peaceful nuclear implosion—in 1974. That decision earned India global ire, but edged it into the ranks of nuclear-weapon states. And why not? After all, China, no friend of India, was nuclear-armed, too. The problem of course is that Pakistan—by begging, borrowing, and mostly stealing technology—responded with nuclear tests of its own, making India vulnerable in perpetuity to Pakistani nuclear blackmail and brinkmanship. A nuclear option of another kind was foisted on India by its judiciary, when, in 1979, it introduced the concept of public interest litigation into Indian jurisprudence. This well-meaning idea, intended to increase access to justice by doing away with more onerous rules of standing, has largely misfired, turning India’s court’s into chaupaals and unleashing a cadre of litigious mischief-mongers.

Q IS FOR QUEUING, a practice which no amount of British rule was able to institute successfully in India. A gathering of Indians at a vending booth, or an office counter or bus stop, is a clamorous sight to behold, as people jostle, barge, wheedle and bully their way to the front. Any attempt to remonstrate (by a more docile queuer) is met with befuddlement or mirth, or sometimes even pity, as the recalcitrant non-queuers conclude that the decorous plaintiff will never be served if he holds fast to his belief in an orderly line.

R IS FOR THE BRITISH RAJ, which took from India as much as it gave, but which left India better equipped to cope with the vicissitudes of Independence than many other post-colonial nations. The railways (treated as a cliché now, but no less important for that), the rule of law, and an elite education system offered an infrastructural and intellectual spine to a newly independent nation, and (in spite of what the author Shashi Tharoor might say in his book damning Britain) many of India’s modern achievements have sprung from those British foundations. Mr. Tharoor, for his part, comes close to asserting that Britain did to India what Indians now do with staggering abandon to other Indians—which is rape. Sexual violence against women is a national epidemic and disgrace, with some recent incidents of exceptional violence vaulting India to international infamy.

S IS FOR SECULARISM, so often prefaced with the jeering word “pseudo-“ by its Hindutvavaadi detractors. A key ingredient in independent India’s modus vivendi, the s-word has come under attack as a concept that led to a “coddling" of India’s religious minorities (the Muslims, in particular). In truth, Indian secularism properly understood is a refreshingly permissive idea that makes room for all religions in the public sphere; unlike French laicity, it does not seek to banish religion from public view, or deprive it of civic dignity. S is also for servants, another great Indian institution, at least for those who have them—and one is hard put to think of any society where the privileged (whose definition is often entirely relative in India) rely so completely on those who must toil to serve them. Entire centuries have passed without Indians of particular classes ever having made their own tea, or their own beds, or cleaned their own bathrooms.

T IS FOR TWITTER, where the intolerant of India gather to harass, harangue and troll their political opponents; and also for television talk-shows, where bully-boy anchors—selected, it seems, from among the most incontinent blowhards in India—conduct shouted debates with energised partisans, the whole performance often resembling the barking of mongrels. The quality of debate is often not much better in India’s parliament, and the startling decline in the country of the persuasive arts reflects not just the plummeting standards of Indian education, but also the closing of the Indian mind.

U IS FOR THE UNITED Nations, the permanent membership of whose Security Council India craves. This elevation will not happen any time soon, what with Germany and Japan competing for the same status. India’s problem: China wields a veto and will never hand India a free gift of this kind—and India’s voting record is often not in consonance with the United States. That said, and even though size isn’t everything, it should become considerably harder to deny India permanent membership once it overtakes China as the most populous country on earth. That, and the small matter of its being the world’s biggest democracy, should make any continued exclusion aesthetically unacceptable.

V IS FOR VARANASI, the most sacred city of the Hindus, which today is a metaphor for a myriad battles—most obviously the one against environmental degradation. History-wars are also being fought here (is there a right for Aurangzeb’s mosque to coexist with an older temple?), as are conflicts over a rapidly eroding syncretic culture (or “tehzeeb"). Lost in all of this, in Varanasi and elsewhere, is a focus on India’s greatest need: vikas, or development. The word has come to form a part of the prime minister’s most ambitious slogan, but the idea behind the slogan seems to have fallen victim to an age-old Indian failing: no meaningful implementation.

W IS FOR WHATSAPP, which Indians use to chat with family and friends, send banal messages to gaggles of well-wishers and, increasingly, to stir mobs up into homicidal frenzy with rumours of cattle-theft or child-lifting. If there is no shortage of canards in India—spread to venomous effect on social media—there is an increasingly deadly scarcity of water. Environmentalists predict that entire Indian cities will run dry in a handful of years if drastic measures aren’t taken to conserve, store and channel water. Drought and the drying up of rivers threaten bitter conflict between the haves and the have-nots—whether it be adjacent states or neighbourhoods within cities—accompanied by mass-migrations of people in search of paani.

X IS FOR XENOMANIA, or an obsession with the foreign, which continues to afflict Indians to a notable extent. This isn’t always a bad thing, and at its most positive level can take the form of an eagerness to learn from those who live in other countries. India has lost some of its envy of foreign lands, the result of a freer economy and greater disposable income. Indians travel abroad as tourists and entrepreneurs, and virtually every senior bureaucrat in Delhi has a son or daughter resident in the United States. All of this makes it harder for politicians to rail against the Foreign Hand the way they used to, and for that we should give thanks.

Y IS FOR THE YESTERYEARS, which nostalgic Indians recall as a time of innocence when couples courted decorously, rap musicians didn’t exist, and item-numbers were absent from Hindi cinema. They forget that there was just one TV channel, that India had no fast bowlers, and that cheese was regarded as a “luxury item." Today, India exports goods and ideas to the rest of the world, most colourfully yoga, the international propagation of which has become something of a political obsession with the national government. There isn’t an Indian Embassy abroad that hasn’t had a yoga-fest in pursuit of “soft power", and the sight of paunchy bureaucrats being make to stretch in Indian offices is enough to make one offer a surya namaskar unprompted.

Z IS FOR Z-CATEGORY security, the protection from harm afforded to only the most exalted public figures in India. As for India’s hoi-polloi, they have little choice but to put with their daily dose of zulm, or oppression, which can range from minor (but soul-destroying) indignities at the hands of petty officialdom to outright torture in a police lock-up. India, alas, is no country for the unconnected.

Tunku Varadarajan is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Close