In 2015, on foreign soil, Narendra Modi was pleased to say that Indians were “ashamed” of being Indians before he took over in 2014.
That was not a criticism of a ruling ideology or a government policy at home (unlike Rahul Gandhi’s recent averments in England), but a presumptive insult to three generations of Indians.
The fact is that those of us who grew up to be sentient citizens of India during the last years of the freedom struggle or in the aftermath of freedom from colonial rule were quite proud of being Indians.
Here are some reasons why that was so:
Few oppressed peoples had mounted so peaceful and yet so telling a struggle, occasional episodes of violence notwithstanding, against colonial enslavement as Indians had, involving all regions, communities, and classes.
We had Mahatma Gandhi – someone that no other country did – of whom Albert Einstein was to say “generations to come will not believe that such a one as him walked this earth in flesh and blood”.
Not many other countries then had a spiritual-political lodestar like Bapu guiding a movement at the grassroots of misery, lifting a humiliated people into self-knowledge and self-pride.
The political and intellectual vanguard of our freedom movement deliberated for three long years to give an impoverished new nation a republican constitution, at a time when decolonisation was to yield many sectarian or tin-pot dictatorships in other parts of the world.
Repudiating the two-nation theory floated by Savarkar (1937) and Jinnah (1940) in a reciprocal tandem, our framers withstood the impulse to declare the Indian dominion a sort of ‘Hindu Pakistan.’
The constitution held all Indians, irrespective of caste, creed, gender, class, or any other social identity equal in their fundamental rights and equal before the law.
It was that non-sectarian and egalitarian vision that persuaded the only Muslim-majority region in the Indian dominion to throw its lot with a Hindu-majority India rather than with the theocratic co-religionists in Pakistan.
History, then and now, offers few examples of the sort of choice Kashmiris made; nothing could have been a more ringing endorsement of the secular-democratic humanism that had informed our anti-colonial struggle.
It is another matter that such a legacy has been sought to be dismantled since 2014, a turn of events of which many Indians are truly “ashamed.”
Universal Adult Franchise
In the teeth of elite skepticism and opposition even within the Constituent Assembly, Jawaharlal Nehru, that paragon of democrats, stood his ground, ensuring that the principle of “universal adult franchise” was to be the basis of government formation in the new republic.
Many had argued that the right to vote ought to have been restricted to those who were educationally competent, a stipulation that would have denied franchise to some 80% of Indians. This was bound to have astonished the Churchillians who had regarded Indians as inferior.
Nowadays, sadly, people have indeed come to be rather “ashamed” of parliament, but the history prior to 2014 was an outstanding one in this respect.
In 1937, an anonymous article had appeared in the then reputed journal Modern Review, published from Calcutta.
The author therein berated Nehru for his dictatorial tendencies.
It was discovered that this author was none other than Nehru himself.
It is that sort of commitment to democracy that imbued the workings and genius of the Indian parliament.
Although Nehru almost never missed out on attending parliament, prepared with answers to queries from sharp parliamentarians of great intellect, there were occasions when the Speaker (Ganesh Vasudev Mavlankar) chastised even Nehru for the slightest lapse in some parliamentary etiquette or procedure, or for not being in the House when questions were being asked.
And, the chastisements were memorably accepted by the then numero uno and due apologies made.
Those were the days, wouldn’t you say?
The overwhelming majority of the Congress party notwithstanding, the least member of a sparse opposition felt empowered to berate the government and its leaderships on any issue that seemed to warrant it.
Rarely were calls from the opposition for discussion on an issue denied.
Famously, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of two Jana Sangh members in the House, asked for a discussion on the military debacle of 1962 vis-à-vis China, the demand was accepted without demur, and a two-day scrutiny of the event by parliament followed.
Alas, those were the days, wouldn’t you say?
In our day, however, not China but Rahul Gandhi who seeks a discussion on the situation on our borders with that same country, seems to draw fire from ruling parliamentarians with whom the honourable Speaker (Jagdeep Dhankhar) concurs without hesitation.
And, when the young and brilliant Vajpayee made his maiden speech, the same Nehru, listening in rapt attention, got up to congratulate him and said, “You will become prime minister one day,” – a prophecy that came true.
When he did become prime minister, he sent Farooq Abdullah (perish the thought) to the United Nations to argue India’s case on Jammu and Kashmir; and in later days, very nearly pulled off a mutually-agreed peaceful resolution of the dispute, only to be thwarted at the proverbial last minute by the hard-liners of the right-wing.
It was a parliament where Nehru’s son-in-law could blast his father-in-law’s government on the issue of corruption engaged in by an industrial house, and succeed in forcing the resignation of the then finance minister.
Those were the days, wouldn’t you say?
Indians then were indeed very proud of media houses, owners and editors alike, who spared nobody, however high, when it came to issues of probity, misguided policy,, constitutional transgression, or other forms of mendacity.
Towering editors of newspapers saw to it that the principles of democracy on which the republic was founded were respected at all times, even as they made no bones about espousing economic priorities of their choice, usually contrary to socialist predilections.
Famously, an R.K. Karanjia could blitz away at people and policies which in his view deserved public reprimand from the fourth estate.
All that made possible by a Nehru who often used to call the cartoonist Shankar to his chambers to say to him, “Shankar, never spare me.”
Not to speak of an R.K. Laxman whose representations of common miseries continued to be rendered in the most acerbic cartoons on the front page of the prestigious Times of India.
Never was a reporter or an editor hauled up for sedition and promptly sent to jail under draconian non-bailable laws.
(To all that, needless to say, the 19 ugly months of an internal Emergency proclaimed by the Indira Gandhi government in June, 1975, must always remain an uncharacteristic but unforgivable exception. Speaking of Indira Gandhi, let us also remember that when, after the forceful ejection of separatists from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, she was advised to replace her armed Sikh guards, she refused to compromise the principle of secularism, knowing that she could lose her life. As we know, she did.)
Science and industry
Official propaganda of the last decade or so would have us believe that Indian independence came really only in 2014 (although the meaning of this is fully understood as pertaining to freedom from so-called “slavery” under so-called “Muslim” rule), and all the developmental accomplishments of the last seven decades have been, in fact, the products of the two terms of the Modi government.
So much for common intelligence and historical veracity.
We were proud of strides made in drafting outstanding scientists in the task of establishing institutions of quality in the areas of atomic energy, in space research, in a spectrum of technical know-hows for advancement in civic and industrial capabilities. Nor did the IITs, IIMs, universities of quality, engineering and medical institutions, administrative cadres with great commitment to probity, efficiency, and the ideals of the new republic just materialise presto with the advent of our current government.
We were proud of the spread of liberal education in colleges and universities that helped wash away revanchist cobwebs and expand the reach of a new middle class wedded to rationality and fairness in assessing people, events, and ideas.
Indeed, again, we were proud of spirited industrialists who contributed so richly to developing the new India, caring as much about the common good of the people as about their bottom lines..
It would have been rather obscene to visualise an Adani back then.
This is one area wherein our current regime seems to be following the reviled Nehru, after all.
He it was, along with two other new world leaders, who conceived and practiced the brilliant policy of “non-alignment”, allowing the new nation to stay away from the debilitating contentions between warring super-powers, and engage in relations that best suited national requirements.
More than once have liberal friends in Pakistan said to me how lucky we were to have Nehru for as long as 17 years after Independence and Partition, while they sadly lost their “Qaid” (leader, meaning Jinnah) in the hour of the Partition as it were, leaving them to be gobbled by sectarian small minds and western imperialists.
(To recall: Jinnah had in his landmark speech to the Pakistan Assembly on August 11, 1947 declared that, having achieved a separate nation, all Pakistanis were henceforth to be equal citizens with equal constitutional freedoms.)
Well, they seem to know more about our achievements of the early decades than our own stalwart leaders of today, don’t they?
Great honour was bestowed on India even in those impoverished days to be asked to chair some international commission or the other and lauded internationally for being a force for world peace and egalitarian development throughout the decolonised world.
Nehru’s India thus came to lead any number of peace missions in diverse parts of the world, sponsored by the United Nations.
Who do you think brought post-Independence India up from a GDP of some Rs 4.97 lakh crore in 1950-51 (Source: National Accounts Statistics; figure computed at 2011-12 prices) to, hold your breath, $ 2.1 trillion in 2014?
Answer: governments that preceded 2014.
And who pulled independent India out of the humiliating need for foreign food aid (PL 480) to make the republic not only self-sufficient but poised to help others with supplies of wheat and rice? Bless the ‘Green Revolution’ shepherded by Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi.
Modi ji has been pleased, again, to christen the last 10-year-rule (2004-2014) of the UPA as a “lost decade.”
Well, consider what happened during that impugned “lost decade”: an average GDP growth rate of 8% was achieved despite the international banking crash of 2008; India’s GDP came to be tripled from $ 709 billion to $ 2.1 trillion; and Indians came to be accorded statutorily-mandated and legally enforceable rights to information, to work, to food, to education.
And none of the so-trumpeted allegations of corruption passed the test in courts of law either.
Lost decade? Anything but.
Art and Culture
We of the older India were, and remain, proud of the legacy of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, beginning with the inaugural presidency of the great Munshi Premchand in 1936.
Rarely in the history of emancipatory people’s struggles has such an inspiring efflorescence at such a scale in art and literally culture happened as we were to see during the course of our struggle for freedom.
It will be no exaggeration to say that this literary-ideational renaissance and the cinema it inspired became the the soulful and visionary cultural expression of the social and ethical ideals of the Freedom movement, inspiring ordinary Indians to great feats of patriotism and undifferentiated humanism.
Few things battled obscurantisms of caste, class, gender, and, most of all, religion as this movement did.
Lord Meghnad Desai was to record in a book, titled Nehru’s Hero, Dilip Kumar in the Life of India (2017) how these trends in progressive-secular humanism in the cinema over some four decades owed to the ideals most exemplified by Nehru’s life and career and enshrined in the Constitution.
The lost years between 2014 and 2023
In contrast to all the above, this current decade now set to end in 2024 has seen revanchist assaults on the constitution, depletion of fundamental rights, withering of the parliament into an executive branch, subjugation of the fourth estate into official compliance, the desiccation of liberal education, regimentation of art and culture, the appropriation of the state’s investigative agencies which now on a daily basis brazenly hound only those critical of the ruling establishment, leaving those to breathe free who either belong to the ruling establishment or have cannily switched loyalties to it. There is also the interested gerrymandering of electoral dates and constituencies (as recently in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir), unconscionable concentration of wealth in a handful of private hands friendly to the powers-that-be, and a rise in GDP from $ 2.1 trillion in 2014 to a mere $ 3.1 trillion in 2022.
Is that a record Indians may not be “ashamed” of?