August 14, 2010

India's Independence: A long forgotten story

At the stroke of midnight, on the 15th of August 2010, India would have completed 63 years of independence. And this 63 year long run, though not a complete success, is a success of sorts nevertheless considering the turmoil it has gone through.
Members of India's first Cabinet
The world recognizes India as a democratic country, being 7th largest in terms of geographical area and the second most populous in the world with a population of around 1.15 billion. While these are solid facts that can be picked up from any website, the true picture of India, however is far from it.

Quoting the words of Sir John Strachey, a member of the Governor Generals Council in India during the British Raj, “Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab”. You could perhaps travel to two different European nations, and would not find as many differences and contrasting features as you will between two states in India! Thanks to its diversity, not only in terms of geography, but also languages, castes, dialects, religions, race and economic divisions. To tag this nation as being simply “diverse” is an understatement. And to stereotype or generalize the citizens of this country is nothing but a gross error in judgement.

To us, this nation India is not a country, but a world unto itself. I am not speaking figuratively here. And neither is the above statement a result of Indian propaganda. Travelling down history’s dusty and bumpy road would perhaps give a better picture why.

A century ago, there was no Indian nation or country. People never thought one would exist in the near future either. Even prior to independence, the India that we know today was not fully conceived, for when the British left the subcontinent, they left behind two newly created countries: India and Pakistan and around 500 other small ‘countries’ (or princely states precisely speaking). Some of these small ‘countries’ like Kashmir and Hyderabad were as big as a large European nation, while others were a tiny collection of a dozen or so small villages. Each of these princely states was ruled by a Maharaja. And as the formal date for the withdrawal of British troops from India loomed ahead, the rulers of these states were forced to make a tough decision: accede with either of their two neighboring nations, India or Pakistan. Tough because some of these states had a majority Hindu population, but was ruled by a Muslim king. For instance, the state of Bhopal, which lay in central India. Or a Hindu king with a majority Muslim population. Like Jammu and Kashmir. A bizarre case was that of the state of Jodhpur, which, ruled by a Hindu king with a majority Hindu population decided at the last moment to accede with Pakistan! The situation was further complicated by some of the rulers negligence towards their subjects. All they cared for was grandeur, power, the wealth and riches that came with their title. The administration and other stately affairs were taken care of by their more efficient Dewans or chief ministers. So caught up in their greed for power and wealth, some of them actually decided to claim independence and cede with neither India nor Pakistan, like the state of Travancore for instance. Religion and corruption of the rulers not being the only reason, a third factor that acted sometime singly or in tandem, was that of geographical location. The state of Junagadh is one such example. It was cut off on three sides by Hindu states or more precisely speaking, by India (All these Hindu states decided to accede with India before the declaration of independence). However, on the 14th of August 1947, the Nawab of Junagadh decided to accede to Pakistan. Geographically, this demand made no sense even though legally, it was allowed to do so.

The then leaders of this country Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel successfully managed to navigate these issues (except for Jammu and Kashmir) and establish an independent India. But not without paying a terrible price. The price paid was the millions of lives lost during the bloody civil war that ensued as an aftermath of the partition. Like a storm destroying everything in its wake, the civil war took the lives of tens of thousands of people, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs alike. Some sources put the toll of the partition violence at an estimated 1 million; some scholars have suggested the figure could be to 2 million. With so much blood spilt, people hardly believed that India could continue to exist as a nation, let alone being democratic and secular. Hence the rise of India over the past decades was met mixed views and emotions. Leaders and patriots glad with each passing day, yet scared, while others like the secessionists or insurgents (Maoists and Naxals for instance) anticipating with baited breath that this country might one day fall like a pack of cards.

Yet this country, has managed to beat all odds and survive together as a nation, while its neighbor Pakistan to this day still remains in turmoil and continues to spiral into a deep abyss of religious fundamentalism and violence, one which India has more than successfully managed to navigate given its vast diversity in religion. 
India is like a vivid kaleidoscope of colors displayed in the plumage of a peacock. A painting with over a billion colors and terrains, with each color so contrasting and each terrain so beautiful that it would snatch the breath of many a Vincis and Picassos. A beautiful painting but with a tear filled melancholy heard throughout the background.

How has this painting changed over the past six decades? A few smudges here and there, indicating the large population’s willingness to put aside religious and caste based differences. The sad melancholy, however, can still be heard. While communal violence has decreased drastically to a few sporadic incidents, they have given way to wide spread insurgency in some places. The economy of this country has boomed. India is today the 5th largest economy in the world. While the rest of the world took a beating during the recession, India managed to grow at a rate of 6% per annum. Yet poverty is still widespread in many parts. An estimated 300 million still remain below the poverty line. Corruption is still rampant. But for a country with epics the likes of Ramayana and Mahabharata that stretches on for decades, developments and reforms will take place slowly and there is no point in pushing them.

Apart from these changes, for the major part, the painting still remains the same, validating the claim that India is still a world unto itself.

The reason why I chose this title is because, we Indians seem to have a very short memory. Especially when it comes to matters concerning state. We quickly seem to have forgotten what this nation has undergone, the price it has paid to reach where we are now. In fact we are so forgetful that on the day of independence, people had completely forgotten that they were actually hailing from different countries the previous day, yet started celebrating like as though India existed all along these past centuries! The riots and communal violence that flooded the streets the past few months did nothing to dampen their spirits. The father of this nation, Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the only realizing this, chose to mark 15th August 1947 as a day of mourning rather than independence.

Nevertheless, being an Indian, I thought it was worth reminding a part of the history of this great nation, which perhaps the larger population must have so easily forgotten.

"India after Gandhi" by Ramachandra Guha

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