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.
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.
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.
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