Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Wonder That 'Is' India

"At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance". With those immortal words one of India's greatest sons, Jawaharlal Nehru, heralded the birth of India. A glorious struggle for independence that remains unparalleled in all human history reached a culmination on August 15th amidst great joy and a tragedy of biblical proportions. The story of India remains history's greatest miracle of the modern ages. There is no precedence in history before or since for a nation of such wide variety and divisions to have survived as a mature liberal democracy. In that, Indians and as for that matter any human being in any corner of the world who holds human liberty dearly in his/her heart can feel justifiable pride.

On this hallowed day Indians should give thanks to thousands of fearless souls and chiefly amongst all two people who have done more than anybody else for what India is today. As long as India exists as a country and if, god forbid, a day comes when it does not even then it will remembered as the nation of Gandhi. Very few nations, collectively and pejoratively referred to as 'third world', became a functioning democracy like India and for that Indians need to look up with gratitude to Jawaharlal Nehru.

Gandhi's civil disobedience movement launched in 1922 swept the nation and posed a serious threat to the colonial regime. Just when the regime was tottering Gandhi called off the movement in response to a tragic incident of arson in Chauri Chaura where a police station set afire by a mob which killed several police men inside. Gandhi was pained and ashamed. No leader of a freedom struggle had stopped a movement for such a reason before. Where leaders would have turned a blind eye to the death of a few policemen in a remote corner of a large country Gandhi would have none of it. Theologian C.E.M. Joad, writing in a book prepared for Gandhi's 75th birthday, marveled that Gandhi's greatest contribution was instilling in very ordinary people a courage to be allowed to be beaten to pulp without raising a single finger in protest. Joad was echoing the sense of wonderment and moral outrage felt by American reporter Webb Miller at seeing unarmed satyagrahis walking up calmly to the gates of Dharasana Salt Works where policemen were waiting with clubs only to have their skulls broken. It is not for nothing that Albert Einstein mourned Gandhi saying "generations to come will scarce believe that a being such as this walked in flesh and blood upon this earth".

As columnist and biographer Ramachandra Guha noted recently it is Nehru's stock that fares really bad in today's India where he is seen more through the prism of dynasty politics and his progeny than through what he did for India. By a stroke of fate by 1950, barely three years after independence, Gandhi, Patel and Ambedkar were dead. The deaths, particularly of Gandhi and Patel, left Nehru the leader of the masses. No other leader had a pan Indian appeal on par with Nehru. Nehru is to India what Jefferson, Washington and Hamilton were to America.

Sarvepalli Gopal in his biography of Nehru points out that what India owes to Nehru was chiefly his contributions toward nurturing the nascent and very fragile institutions of democracy. Nehru is maligned today for his economic policies and world view but little do many realize how much Nehru did in sowing the seeds of democracy and in establishing precedents. As prime minister Nehru would make every effort to attend the question hour in the parliament and try to answer as many queries as possible. Nehru's writings fill nearly 50 volumes. He could easily be called 'communicator in chief'. He wrote copiously and incessantly to all and sundry, especially the constitutional heads of states with due respect and duty to inform them of his thoughts and positions as prime minister. His mistakes not withstanding Nehru's contributions to modern India remain the foundation on which a nation of a billion people still function.

No historian worth his salt would have dreamed in 1947 that India would remain a united nation for half a century let alone a few years. By every paradigm of nationalism and history India should have had a European style Balkanization.

Even today a prickly issue for Indians is whether the country was born in 1947 or did exist as a nation, by the western idea of what a nation is, since time immemorial. The current crop of Hindutva ideologues claim that India existed since antiquity whereas many others, especially Marxist historians, would refute that. As always the truth is in the middle. A sense of pan-Indian cultural unity did exist, papering over the many differences of languages and customs, for several thousand years. However, nothing close to a 'state' existed ever let alone an 'Indian state'.

Such discussions, while valuable, remain academic and of little value in everyday life. When a nation was born is far less relevant today than what a nation has done since its birth. Indians would do well to remember that Greece, the land of Socrates, Plato and Archimedes, is a beleaguered nation at the mercy of other countries. Singapore, a tiny land of recent birth, is far more prosperous today.

The recently concluded elections saw 800 million people eligible to vote. That is more than twice the population of USA. The rumble tumble of daily politics and the depth of corruption makes it difficult for many to appreciate what a staggering achievement India's democracy is. Indira Gandhi took the nation into a dark era of totalitarianism during the Emergency era and India, in a stupendous achievement, bounced back into vibrant democracy as very few nations could have done. The elections of 1977, 1980, 1989, 2004, 2009, 2014 were all watershed elections that the Indian voter can look back with pride. In 1977 the Indian voter showed Indira the wrath of the silent majority, 1980 showed the Janata party that people wanted governance, 1989 showed that the voter will not condone corruption and incompetent governance, 2004 showed that India cannot be won with a slogan, 2014 showed that people yearn for decisive leadership. If all this cannot make an Indian or any lover of liberal democracy proud of the voters and democratic institutions what else can?

India has managed with arguable finesse the heterogeneity of its composition. Flush with excitement of being free and suffused with a sense of unity forged from battling a common and alien enemy little attention was paid to the accommodation of differences within the country. Falsifying the prophets of doom India, after some very serious threats, the country's then sagacious leadership re-organized the country masterly using the principle of language. With all its flaws it is still a great achievement that has vindicated the compromise. Such re-organizations, that continue even today, is possible thanks to the far sighted democratic institutions of India.

In 1947 blacks in America could not vote but Dalits in India not only voted but had one of their members architect the constitution and another as ranking member of the first cabinet. India's first cabinet remains a model of egalitarianism on every conceivable parameter. The cabinet consisted of women, Dalit, a Singh, a Muslim, South Indians and arch ideological opponents. The cabinet, in as much as possible, reflected India.

India, unlike many of its neighbors, is relatively liberal and protects free speech. Sure, India's protection of free speech is not yet as robust as its western compatriots but it is certainly far better than anything in the region. In religious south India a rebellious reformer took out a rally with a picture of a god garlanded with slippers. Today his ideological progeny have ruled the state for nearly 50 years and many even take their oath of office swearing on their conscience instead of god as is traditionally done.

The courts, particularly the Supreme Court, have remained India's mainstay against titular leaders and a corrupt political machinery. Article 356, the power to dismiss elected governments by diktat, was the most abused provision of the constitution until the Supreme Court brought it to a halt with the case of S.R. Bommai. Strictures from the Supreme Court can still reverberate in the famously insular and arrogant portals of legislature.

A nation that was born amidst volcanic religious hatred has managed to stitch together a reasonably calm haven for many religions. Though, sadly, the nation convulses, every now and then, with hatred and riots it is completely uncharitable to deny in totality the space for peaceful co-existence. Nehru's role in that regard remains the most under appreciated and even the biggest reason to malign him. When time came to select India's national anthem the natural choice would have been 'Vande Mataram' that had served as the battle cry for decades through the freedom struggle. Its overt Hindu nationalism would have ill suited for the turbulent circumstances surrounding the liberation. Nehru, as always, took care to choose a more inclusive and more lyrical poem by India's Nobel laureate Tagore. It is difficult to appreciate how much that gesture meant then from the relative calmness of today. Though many like me have watched with great trepidation at the rise of Hindu nationalism and Islamic terrorism I'd not say that India's secularism is dead.

The halting and hesitant steps towards unshackling the economy from oppressive state control has done much in the recent decades to lift millions out of poverty and hold out hope for the future. Narendra Modi was swept into office with a thumping absolute majority, a first in a generation since 1984, thanks to millions who look unto him for providing a much needed fillip in the economy.

As one who chose to emigrate I am painfully aware of India's shortcomings too. India's biggest problem is the pervasive corruption that has spread like cancer into every nook of the body politic. If there is one thing that disgusts me most about India it is corruption and more importantly a corrupt society.

While I've come to appreciate India's virtues better thanks to my stint in US I've also become acutely aware of India's failings. I've been unsparing in my criticisms of India and will continue to be so. I cannot fake love and admiration while hypocritically resolute in never wanting to go back to India. I know many who express admiration for India's culture and speak of some distant day when they hope to back in India only to continue building their roots, almost exclusively, in USA or other foreign lands.

India is certainly not the 'area of darkness' that Naipaul portrayed in his first book but it is still certainly 'a wounded civilization' and a land of a 'million mutinies'. The typical Indian smugness about the superiority of Indian culture, history and what not is exceedingly irritating. Unlike China India refuses to be pragmatic and takes in pride in not learning from other countries. Start a conversation with an Indian about what India can learn from America and you'd see a contemptuous smile followed by an indignant lecture on how India was a great country once and how everything modern was indeed once in India starting with rockets and nuclear fission. Just to assuage my Indian readers let me say that America has eagerly learned many things from India. Yoga, Kama Sutra and music, in that order, are the most loved imports from India in USA.

America, the supposed citadel of capitalism and the home of robber barons, defeated a multi-millionaire CEO running for the Presidency and rejected his vision as not inclusive enough of all sections of the society. Diversity is the new mantra in any discourse in America today. Yet, we do not see such discourses happening in India. The middle class yearns to become the nouveau rich without a moment's thought of anybody in the lower economic strata. Many spoke breathlessly of the factories opened by Modi in Gujarat but few cared that there were not enough schools or hospitals or institutes of research. An American senate candidate had to withdraw because he plagiarized his college work but in India a woman who knows no difference between a certificate course and a degree is the education minister.

It is an irony of history that Indians emigrate to USA by the thousands and American companies, all other things being equal, would prefer India to China. Yet, the two nations, once thought of as natural allies, are at barely talking terms. Nations that have allied with US have progressed and I'd look forward to the day that these two great democracies embrace other.

India is still a nation faced with great challenges. Being better than nations like Sri Lanka, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan is no great merit. Large swathes of India seethe with discontentment and Indian attitudes to federalism need to improve a lot. It does not behoove a nation like India to ban books and pulp them. It is silly and insulting. Human rights for women and Dalits still remains a much challenged one. Injustices garner attention and uproar depending on the economic strata of who is affected. A middle class girl who is brutally raped brings thousands to the streets but Dalit girls being raped brings out only customary condemnation in editorials and little beyond. India's attitudes toward education and healthcare is the most deplorable. Eradicating polio and other pestilences are a matter of pride but millions still die or lose livelihood due to the pathetic health care system of the country. A country which has a goddess for learning has perfected the art of selling degrees and does not have any institution of learning in the top 100 in world rankings. A country of a billion still does not boast Olympics medal winners, barring less than a handful, or Nobel prize winners.

When I visited Berlin and Munich in 2012 I was moved to see how Germany has erected stupendous museums of unimpeachable scholarship to lay bare the grotesque nature of the Nazi era. The objective was to teach Germans how not to repeat the mistake. What Tolstoy said of unhappy marriages can be said of nations too. Every nation is unhappy in its own way and his its own guilts to cleanse. I'd like to see a few museums in India. India badly needs a grand museum that will be a center of learning for its glorious independence struggle. Indians need to learn why Dandi march shook the pillars of an empire that defeated Napoleon and the Spanish Armada. Every American child learns of how the founding fathers were pamphleteers. How many Indians know that Tilak, Gandhi and Nehru were journalists and pamphleteers too. A museum to unflinchingly speak of the two thousand year abysmal history of caste based oppression is an urgent necessity. A new found Hindutva jingoism is trying to sweep under the carpet what an oppressive system casteism was in India. Only a nation that faces its demons resolutely would progress into the sunlit uplands of egalitarianism. To be sure, there is no such destination as 'egalitarianism'. Its a journey. America is painfully learning this week that the demons of racism are still alive and kicking.

India is a country that has fascinated many across the ages. I live in a country that was discovered accidentally by a man who went in search in India. I don't see myself as the prodigal son in as much as I do not foresee any day that I'd return to the bosom of India but India remains a fascinating topic for me. These past few months I am immersed in studying the history of Soviet Union and particularly the Stalin era. In 1947 India had every reason to become a totalitarian regime. The poverty, the chaos, the near civil war conditions, the abrupt evacuation of a 300 year old colonial power and more were enough justifications for the country to either splinter or suffer a Stalin. Gandhi was no Lenin and Nehru was no Stalin and thankfully India did not become a Soviet Union. For that I can thank India. For that Indians should celebrate their country.