Reasons to cheer, reasons to lament as India turns 70
As the nation celebrates seven decades of independence from colonial rule, hard-fought freedoms are still under threat by politicians, vigilantes and other divisive forces
Even the harshest critic of India will admit that its constitution has stood the test of time after 70 years of freedom from colonial rule.
This is no small achievement for a poor country which faced the turmoil of partition, famine, wars with China and Pakistan, assassination of three top leaders, riots following the demolition of a 16th century mosque in Uttar Pradesh and militancy in Jammu and Kashmir.
India rose from poverty to prosperity thanks mainly to former prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, who introduced five years plans, and Manmohan Singh, who ushered in economic reforms in the early 1990s. Today, India boasts one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
The Green Revolution in the early 1960s helped India to attain self-sufficiency in food production. It is mulling a second green revolution to raise yields by using digital technology to guide farmers on weather, sowing time and methods, inputs, prices and markets.
In February this year, Indian scientists set a record by launching 104 satellites from a single rocket. In September 2014, they succeeded on a first attempt to send a spacecraft into orbit around Mars at a low budget of US$74 million. They are planning missions to the moon soon.
While Indians celebrate their nation’s 70th Independence Day on August 15, despite these many accomplishments, many will be peeved about freedoms stolen by leaders they voted to power. The sense of loss arguably began when Nehru’s daughter and late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi instituted a state of emergency across the country on June 25, 1975 for nearly two years.
Fundamental rights of citizens were suspended. Those who opposed her policies and rule were routinely jailed. Press censorship was strictly imposed. Most newspapers began to obediently report only what the government told them to write.
L. K. Advani, a veteran leader of the now ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), once commented that when Indira Gandhi asked the media to bend, it crawled. After the BJP rose to power in 2014, Advani expressed concerns that civil liberties could shortly be suspended again.
However, his comments were directed at the unrepentant Congress Party and not at BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as interpreted by the opposition.
Two years later, however, Muslims and the lower caste ‘Dalit’ community has had reason to feel insecure under Modi, who stands accused of allowing anti-Muslim riots to spiral while he served as chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002.
Some of them have been attacked by Hindu fringe groups over suspicion of eating beef or smuggling cattle for slaughter since he became prime minister. Cows are considered sacred under Hindu beliefs.
Modi, who started his political career as member of one such Hindu fringe group, has condemned the attacks and warned the so-called ‘cow vigilantes’ of severe punishment if they continue to take the law into their own hands.
Many Muslims and Dalits, however, are not convinced by Modi’s response. They fear that if BJP attains absolute power, as some suspect the party is angling for, Modi may suppress dissent like Indira Gandhi did in 1975 and bring changes to the constitution that allow for one-party rule. (Parliament cannot override the constitution by law.)
Yet such a move cannot be ruled out since the Congress-led opposition remains deeply divided and lacks a formidable popular leader to take on Modi at the 2019 elections. The party has instead looked for chinks in Modi’s political armor.
BJP has contested recent reports comparing Modi to Indira Gandhi as political mudslinging. For them, Modi is a democratically elected leader with a common touch who works hard for the poor, whereas Indira Gandhi pandered mostly to elites, despite her ballyhooed ‘remove poverty’ campaign.
As India raises its tricolor flag to mark Independence Day, not all regions are getting in line with Modi’s and BJP’s celebration plans.
The West Bengal government, ruled by Trinamool Congress, the fourth largest party in the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament, has sent a circular to schools to ignore a federal directive to organize quiz contests, lectures and debates to mark Independence Day.
In northern Uttar Pradesh, a prominent Muslim cleric has asked Islamic schools to defy a state government order to sing the national anthem and national songs and videotape the event as proof the order was honored. The order came after reports that Islamic schools did not sing the national anthem during past Independence Days.
Nasir Qureshi, spokesman of the cleric from the state’s northern district of Bareilly, said the ‘Jai he, Jai he’ (victory, victory) chant at the end of the national anthem sounded to Muslims like evoking somebody other than Allah, which is forbidden under Islamic beliefs.
Instead, the cleric has urged schools to sing a patriotic song in Urdu written by renowned poet Muhammad Iqbal. This, too, can be seen as an act of exercising one’s fundamental rights protected and enshrined under the Indian constitution on the day the modern nation was born.