Independence Day: Reflections from the Margins

By John Dayal,

It is not a jubilee year for independent India, but it is nonetheless a landmark anniversary. Not since Mrs. Indira Gandhi, second only to her father Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru as the country’s longest serving prime minister, lost office and Mr. Morarji Desai assumed power at the head of the Janata Party, a motley group supported by the RSS on the one hand and the socialists and Leftists on the other, has there been such a drastic change, even a reversal, of ideologies, policies and a vision for the future.

The factors that led to the defeat of Mrs. Gandhi in 1977 are now well known. She halted democracy in its tracks, and gifted the country’s governance to her son Mr. Sanjay Gandhi who emerged as the undisputed extra-constitutional centre of power and authority. For all practical purposes, the Constitution was suspended, and an unofficial dictatorship came into being. The trains ran on time, and government employees came to office been before the gates were opened, not because the work culture had changed overnight but there was a looming threat of their services being suspended, or even terminated. The Supreme Court and High courts became mild, if not subservient. There were mass sterilizations, and quotas for government and public sector staff to bring men and women, sometimes teenagers, to undergo sterilisation operations and tubectomies. Slums were wiped out from the face of the national capital, their poor and marginalised families shifted to refugee camps far away, so they would not be seen. There was of course no dissent; every critic was in jail. The media was censored, and others observed a self-censorship even more severe than the official one. Doordarshan, India’s lone television channel, preoccupied itself with patriotic messages of nationalism, and the faces of Mrs. Gandhi and Mr. Sanjay Gandhi.

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I mention the Emergency [1975-77] for two reasons, other than the reminder that next year, 2015, we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the darkest period in democratic Indian history. The first reason for the total recall is that the Emergency shattered the belief that the foundations of Indian democracy are so strong and rooted in the Freedom Struggle, that they cannot be shaken even momentarily. The second is that a “popular” and “strong” leader with a mass following and little opposition, and perhaps assisted by extra-constitutional power centres, can if she or he wants to, do just about anything with the governance machinery.

Mr. Morarji Desai who became prime minister after her defeat had to make a clean break from the past. He was unequal to the task, shackled as he was by ideological contradictions in his party. But the Jana Sangh, the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the was a part of the government, made full use of the opportunity, penetrating the Media and various wings of the government including the Police and the education sector. This was of great help to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the new version of the Jan Sangh, when it came to power in 1998 in the National Democratic Alliance.

The current Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, does not face the issues that confronted Mr. Desai. Dr., Manmohan Singh, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Prime Minister did not alter the democratic fabric. He followed a neo liberal economic and development policy that quite mirrored the ideological thesis of the BJP. He pandered to the same industrial and corporate interest groups that ten years later were to sponsor Mr. Modi. UPA chairperson Mrs. Sonia Gandhi did press for some reforms for the poor, including such momentous measures as the Right to Education, Information and Food, and the safety net of a minimum employment period for the rural destitute. But this was just a populist adjunct, severely hampered by a non cooperative system, massive corruption, and pilloried in the media by the rich.

For Mr. Modi, in fact, it has been a seamless transition as far as economic policy, foreign affairs and development strategies go. The first budget of his government shows how little has changed. The same tokens for the poor, the same major concessions for the corporate sector are the Budget’s highlights.

Mr. Modi’s speeches in Parliament and the symbolism of his spectacular swearing in ceremony in the majestic Forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan, with the heads of South Asian nations in attendance, and his intervention in the administrative structures give ample evidence that he sees himself as the sole repository of political and governance power, so endowed by the massive mandate he earned for himself, and by extension for his party, in the 2014 general elections.

Should one expect ruthlessness in his regime not seen since the mid 1970s is a question that troubles political observers and analysts and members of the civil society. When he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat for well over ten years, he did run it as a personal fiefdom. The political apparatus was redundant, public opinion irrelevant, the media unseen and unheard and even the subordinate judiciary more often pliant than otherwise. Is that model of governance transferable to the Union headquarters. Perhaps not. Time alone can tell.

But some recent decisions have been most disturbing. An Intelligence Bureau report was deliberately leaked to allege that Non Governmental Organisations, specially those working in the environmental and development sectors, and those working with the people at the grassroots in empowering them in their Constitutional and God-given rights, have been working against national development and economic interests, and are the cause of the decline in the rate of growth and the blocking of big projects with foreign investment. This is patently a ruse to silence dissent and smother the voice of the people. It also totally disempowers civil society, of which the Christian church is so much a part in its commitment to the poor, limiting its work to being a service provider in the educational and health sectors, and perhaps in building houses during natural disasters.

Many analysts have said that Mr. Modi rides two horses. One is the Development and Good Governance agenda which he has repeatedly articulated as his Mantra in Gujarat and in New Delhi since he became Prime Minister. The other remains Hindutva, the right wing hyper nationalist argument of supremacy and sole inheritor of the Indian civilization and culture for which religious minorities are aliens in the land, and even Tribals need to be Hinduised to fit them in the cultural matrix that will brook no variety, do diversity, no separate ethnicities and identities. There is nothing hidden in this agenda. This was articulated openly, and often just within the boundaries prescribed by the Election Commission, during the political campaign over 2013 and 2014.

If the development agenda fails, he will ride full gallop on the Hindutva horse, if he wants to win the next elections in 2019.

Can the development agenda succeed in the circumstances that the Indian economy finds itself in this globalised world is then the big question. A hugely deficit monsoon that the weather officer darkly predicts is the least of the worries. There is no fear of famine. There are enough food stocks in government and private stockpiles to take care of the hungry for the next three years, leaving sizable quantities as seeds for future years. The fear is of increasing misery in the rural countryside. India has a scandalous record of farmers committing suicide when their crops fail, not because of the crop-failure as such but because of the criminal pressure of lending agencies and private exploiters who want their money back with usurious interest added on. There is no real public sector insurance to take care of this even as banks overlook and often write off huge loans given to the corporate sector.

Building highways does not generate mass employment, as the country saw during the regime of Mr. Vajpayee and his Golden Quadrangle. In this age of high technology, only a few technicians are required to run the powerful machines. And there is no long term employment generation in the countryside because central and state governments fail to, or do not have the resources to, encourage the sort of industrial and business growth that is required to employ the local educated and semi skilled workers, and the large number of the landless labour. Bullet trains are meant for the upper crust who are afraid of flying, so to say, and are not seen as a boon for labour, not even in Japan where they originated, nor in China which adopted them for connecting its massive economic powerhouses on its east coast.

There will be 100 million young men and women looking for jobs, apart from those in the un-cleared backlog. Encashing the demographic dividend will not, therefore, be an easy task with the main markets in Europe and North America still not out of the doldrums, and little spare capital from abroad for the much wonted Foreign Direct Investment that is such a pet of Union Finance Minister. And this is not even hinting that much of this FDI is really Indian black money generated by the Indian corporate world which is then laundered through tax havens in various countries including Mauritius whose prime minister was such an honoured guest at Mr. Modi’s Rashtrapati Bhawan extravaganza when he was sworn in as Prime Minister.

The Budget presented in Parliament by the Union Finance [and Defence] Minister, Mr. Arun Jaitely, acknowledges this economic crisis, though by blaming the preceding government of Dr. Man Mohan Singh. It acknowledges the threat posed by the fuel bill, as much because of the troubles in West Asia from whence comes much of India’s oil, as the country’s own failure to tap its natural reserves in basins on the east and western coasts.

The economy’s refusal to resurrect itself in a rapid manner and the failure to create jobs on a massive scale are dangerous portends. They may collectively pose a threat to the self-confidence of the government, and frustrate Mr. Modi in his self-appointed role as the man who would deliver India from all its Ills and past failures.

Much will depend on how he responds to a future economic crisis. He just cannot afford a failure. The people would pray that the crisis does not come about.

And, I suppose, a prayer is needed.

The BJP’s election rhetoric, amplified by honourable members of the Sangh Parivar and such pillars of support as yoga industrialist Ram Dev, left no one in any doubt as to the ideological foundations of the group which was then aspiring for power.

Once in power, they have been true to this promise in a large measure. The call for a Uniform Civil Code, which is now popularly understood as a punitive measure against the Muslims to control their demographic growth, Article 370 governing relations between New Delhi and the state of Jammu and Kashmir, were the early signs. The massive changes that have started taking place in the Ministry of Human Resources Development under the euphemism of harking back to the ancient Indian cultural values, and the sudden attack on perceived vestiges of western culture such as the English language and the so called “pub culture’ are weather wanes of future storms.

In turn, they have encouraged maverick groups across the country. There have been actions that injure the Muslim community in a rash of hate crimes. One such was the lynching in Pune of an Informational Technology engineer whose solitary crime was that he was a Muslim, had a beard and was wearing what is now known as a Muslim dress just when a local fundamentalist goon brigade was hunting for targets on who it could vent its anger for a social media slight to a Hindu icon.

The Christian community has not been spared. There has been a rash of attacks on pastors and home churches in several states. In the State of Chhattisgarh in the tribal Bastar region, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram have persuaded many village local self-government Panchayats to pass “resolutions” banning any religious activity in their areas banning the “official” Hindu worship, structures and religious practices. The matter may be taken to court as it clearly violates the guarantees of freedom of faith, expression and movement.

Patently, there is a growing environment of laissez faire and disregard for the law at the grassroots where local extremist militant groups thinks they will be protected if they act against religious minorities. This puts the Indian church under stress. Together with administrative actions like scrutiny and harassment by the Intelligence bureau, threats to permits to receive donations and grants from foreign countries under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, and the bigotry of the local police and subordinate judiciary, these serve to silence and emasculate the church. Little wonder that Church hierarchies, Catholic and Protestant, have been so silent since Mr. Modi took over. Many religious leaders in fact are singing praises of the new Prime Minister, some delving into theology to call him a “gift from God”.

I do not blame them. The first human instinct is of survival, to live to fight another day, perhaps. But silence at critical times leaves the victims directionless, and very depressed. It breeds a mood of helplessness. It also robs the Church of its very important role of a watchdog of the interests of the poor, the marginalised, the helpless. The Indian church hierarchy has seldom critiqued development and technology policies of the governments in the past, and it is not expected to do so now. This is a great pity.

Now, as never before, is the time for the spirit of the people to assert and defend the Idea of India. This is an India, which is, above all, inclusive. It acknowledges and celebrates diversity, cultural, ethnic, social, religious, linguistic and ethnic. It cares for the poor and the marginalised without rejecting development and growth. It loves the antiquity of the Indian civilization while rejecting such intrusions as the intrusion of the concept of untouchability and patriarchy. It protects the environment, the forests, and mountains and the rivers, each one of which is holy.

This was the India for which out forefathers fought in the Struggle for Independence under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the Father of Modern India and its scientific temper, and others. Nehru may be a reviled figure now in certain political circles, but we risk the future of coming generations if we revile and reject this dream of a modern, plural India, which has its doors, and windows open for fresh wings to blow in from all directions, and which would hold its head high in the comity of nations.

This vision needs to be reiterated from the ramparts of the Red Fort every Independence Day.

The writer is a senior journalist and civil rights activist. He is also member of the National Integration Council (NIC) of India and Secretary-General of the All India Christian Council.