A specially commissioned essay for Outlook
Sixty years ago, in the summer of 1948, our nation, then newly born, was struggling for its very survival. In January, Mahatma Gandhi had been murdered by a Hindu fanatic. The act had shocked many Indians, but apparently it had the approval of some. According to one news report, the jailed assassin, Nathuram Godse, received an average of 50 letters a day expressing admiration for his action. This was part of a much wider right-wing, religious, reaction against Partition. Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan were calling for retribution against the Muslims who had stayed behind in India. The relations between the two communities were poisoned further by the tribal invasion of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. With the raiders aided and equipped by the Pakistani army, the religious conflict had, inevitably, become a national one. A bloody battle was on in the high mountains of the Himalaya, as the Indian Army sought to rid Kashmir of the intruders.
Six weeks after Godse fired those three shots from a Beretta pistol in New Delhi, the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI met in a secret conclave in Calcutta. At this meeting, the leadership of the CPI was taken away from a gentle and very cultured Kumaoni named P.C. Joshi. Joshi wanted the Communists to collaborate with Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in building the new nation. His replacement, an austere Maharashtrian named B.T. Ranadive, believed on the other hand that the transfer of power from British to Indian hands was a sham, and that Nehru and his men were puppets of the Western imperialist powers. He took the Communists towards a new ‘people’s war’ line, which mandated the overthrow of the Indian State through armed struggle, and its replacement by a single-party dictatorship.
In June 1948, the infant Indian State looked very fragile indeed. It was pierced from the left by the Communists, and pinched from the right by the Hindu extremists. And there were other problems aplenty. Eight million refugees had to be resettled; provided with land, homes, employment, and a sense of citizenship. Five hundred princely states had to be integrated, one by one, a process that involved much massaging of egos (for the Maharajas tended to think very highly of themselves), and just a little coercion.
The task of princely integration was in the hands of Vallabhbhai Patel and his outstanding secretary, V.P. Menon. Some rulers were willing to immediately join up with the new Dominion. Others waited in the hope of better terms. And some princes were actively hostile. In this very hot summer of 1948, the ruler giving the most trouble was the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was probably the wealthiest man in the world, and without question the most miserly. He insisted that the independence of his (very large and very badly administered realm) had been guaranteed by the British monarch; and that he would now negotiate a separate treaty with His Majesty’s Government, which would assure the State of Hyderabad its political sovereignty.
British politicians, Winston Churchill among them, were egging on the Nizam to declare independence. That was a truly dangerous possibility. For, as Sardar Patel observed, an independent Hyderabad would be "a cancer in the belly of India", cutting off communications between the north and the south of the country. Despite the ruler’s ambitions, it was clear that the majority of the people of Hyderabad State wished to be citizens of a free India. After waiting a year for the Nizam to come to terms, Patel sent in the Army and compelled him to join the Union.
Few Indians now alive know how uncertain our future looked in the summer of 1948. The question then being asked everywhere was ‘Will India Survive?’ Now, 60 years down the road, that fearful query has been replaced by a far more hopeful one, namely, ‘Will India Become a Superpower?’
This new, anticipatory, expectant question has been prompted by the extraordinary resilience, in the long term, of India’s democratic institutions. When the first general elections were held, in 1952, they were dubbed the ‘Biggest Gamble in History’. Never before had universal adult franchise been tried in a poor, divided, and largely illiterate society. Evidently, it is a gamble that has worked. The country has successfully held 14 general elections to the national Parliament, as well as countless polls to different state assemblies. Rates of voter participation are higher than in Western democracies. And after what happened in Florida in 2000, we can add that the conduct of polls is at least as fair.
Back in 1948, doubts were also being cast about the Indian experiment with nationhood. Never before had a new nation not based its unity on a single language, religion, or common enemy (or, preferably, all of the above). However, all Indians did not have to speak Hindi or be Hindus. They did not even have to hate the people who colonised them (in fact, Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, counted an Englishman, the Christian priest Charles Freer Andrews, as his closest friend). As an inclusive, plural and non-adversarial model of nationalism, the idea of India had no precedent or imitator. It set itself apart from European nationalisms, which were based on a common language and, often, a shared faith and common enemy as well. Thus the citizens of England were united by the fact that they all spoke English, that they were mostly Protestant, and that many of them disliked France and the French. Likewise, the citizens of Poland spoke Polish, were almost all Catholic, and often detested Russia and the Russians. (In this respect, the idea of Pakistan is wholly European, based as it is on the privileging of a single religion, Islam; of a single language, Urdu; and, not least, on a collective hatred of the larger nation to its east.)
In the words of the political theorist Sunil Khilnani, India has been "a substantial bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent". As such, it inspires hope that the largely poor, still divided, and formerly colonised countries of Africa can likewise move towards a more democratic political system. Meanwhile, through its collective coexistence of different faiths, languages, cultures and cuisines, India is a better model for world governance than more homogeneous countries such as China, Japan or the United States. Once, the heterogeneity of India was seen as its greatest flaw; now, it may justly be celebrated as its greatest strength.
India was not expected to survive as a democracy; but it has. India was not expected to hold together as a single nation; but it has. These manifest successes, achieved against the odds and against the logic of human history, have compelled a worldwide admiration. If calls are now being heard that India must be made a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations, then these demands are not just legitimate, but also overdue. It is India’s long-term record as a stable, multicultural democracy that lies behind its claims for a place on the High Table of Global Affairs. But if politics were all, then we would not be asking whether India will become a superpower. That question is prompted also by the spectacular success, in the short term, of the Indian economy, the impressive growth rates of the past decade, the entrepreneurial drive manifest in such crucial, cutting-edge sectors such as information technology and the creation of an ever larger and ever more confident middle class.
Superficially, the summer of 2008 looks all too different from the summer of 1948. Then, we Indians did not know how long we would hold together as a single nation; whether we would come under a Communist dictatorship of the left or a theocratic regime on the right, or simply balkanise into a dozen or more different parts. Now—despite the dissensions in the borderlands, in Kashmir and the Northeast—we know that we are and will be a single country, whose leaders shall be chosen by (and also replaced by) ourselves. We no longer fear for our existence as a sovereign nation or as a functioning democracy. What we hope for instead is a gradual enhancement of our material and political powers, and the acknowledgement of our nation as one of the most powerful and respected on earth.
Look more closely, however, and perhaps the more things appear to change, the more they are actually the same. For, in the summer of 2008, the Indian State once more faces a challenge from
extremism. The Prime Minister of India, no less, has identified the Communist Party of India (Maoist), known more familiarly as the Naxalites, as the "greatest internal security threat" facing the nation. The Union home ministry lists more than 150 districts as being ‘Naxalite-affected’. This is an exaggeration for, with even one single, stray, incident, a state government is moved to get a district listed under that category, so as to garner more funds from the Central treasury. Still, the Naxalites do have a considerable presence in some 40 or 50 districts; these spread out over the central and eastern parts of the country. Their greatest gains have been among tribal communities treated with contempt and condescension by the Indian State and by the formal processes of Indian democracy.
The conventional wisdom is that the erstwhile Untouchables or Dalits, are the social group who are most victimised in India. In fact, the tribals fare even worse. In a recent book, the demographer Arun Maharatna compared the life chances of an average Dalit with that of an average tribal. On all counts the tribals were found to be more disadvantaged. Some 30.1 per cent of Dalits are literate, but only 23.8 per cent of tribals. As many as 41.5 per cent of Dalits live below the official poverty line; however, the proportion of poor tribal households is even higher, at 49.5 per cent. One in six Dalits has no access to doctors or health clinics; as many as one in four tribals suffers from the same disability. 63.6 per cent of Dalits can avail of safe drinking water, but only 43.2 per cent of tribals.
Two summers ago, I visited the districts of Dantewara and Bastar in the state of Chhattisgarh. Here, a civil war is under way, which pits the Naxalites on one side against a vigilante group promoted by the state government on the other. The revolutionaries identify with the tribals in the short term, fighting for better wages for forest work and against their harassment by petty officials. Their long-term goal, however, is the capture of political power by armed struggle. In their bid to plant the Red Flag on the Red Fort in New Delhi, the revolutionaries view tribals merely as a stepping stone, or, one might say, as cannon fodder. The Maoists use violence regularly and recklessly. Policemen are slaughtered in their police stations, civilians killed by land mines set off on main roads. Their treatment of dissenters is especially savage; they are tried in ‘people’s courts’ and then sentenced to amputation or death.
When I was in Bastar, the Nepali Maoists had just declared a ceasefire. Their leader, Prachanda, had gone so far as to say that multi-party democracy was the political system most suited to the 21st century. I put it to a Naxalite ideologue we met that perhaps they could think of emulating their Nepali comrades. He was contemptuous of the suggestion. He insisted that in India bourgeois democracy was a sham; here, the state had to be overthrown through the use of force. Shortly afterwards, I came across a statement on the Internet, issued by Ganapathi, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). This reported the ‘successful completion’ of a party congress "held deep in the forests of one of the several guerrilla zones in the country...". The party congress "reaffirmed the general line of the new democratic revolution with agrarian revolution as its axis and protracted people’s war as the path of the Indian revolution...". The meeting "was completed amongst great euphoria with a call to the world people: Rise up as a tide to smash Imperialism and its running dogs! Advance the Revolutionary war throughout the world!"
Tragically, the vicious and violent methods of the Maoists have been reproduced by the state government of Chhattisgarh. They have set up a vigilante army called Salwa Judum, composed of tribal youths equipped with rifles. Bands of vigilantes now roam the Bastar countryside accompanied by the police and paramilitary, in search of Naxalite sympathisers, alleged or real. They have attacked dozens of villages and burnt hundreds of homes. They have killed many innocent people and terrorised many others. With the Supreme Court, as I write, are some first-hand testimonies of villagers who have suffered at the hand of these state-supported vigilantes. The residents of Pakela village, for example, recorded that 20 of their homes had been burnt by Salwa Judum cadres. "Everything in the homes," reads the English translation of their evidence, "rice, clothes, utensils and money—got reduced to ashes." Other villagers offered more precise accounts of the damage, listing the number of paddy sacks or hens or pigs seized or burnt from individual households. The collective sentiments of those targeted by the Salwa Judum were expressed most poignantly by the residents of Korcholi village. They said: