Ideas

India At 70: How We Have Departed From Our Own Civilisational Ideals

Seven decades of Independent India (Bharat Bhushan/Hindustan Times/Getty Images) 
Snapshot
  • The 70th day of Independence should remind us of our departure as a free nation from our own civilisational achievements and ideals and of faltering on a path laid out for us by others.

In India, it is often taken for granted that political Independence from the British rule also ushered in an era of cultural and social freedom. It is further imagined that in spite of its poverty, India is admired by the richer nations of the West as a culturally evolved nation. This self-congratulation, lingering on from the euphoric days of the freedom struggle, so beautifully recorded in the literature of more than two dozen languages, now sounds like thunder on distant mountains but sheds not a glimmer of hope in our homes darkened by casteist politics, unresponsive bureaucracy, linguistic regionalism, and a huge class of politicians who have garnered entitlements for themselves little known to monarchs of yore.

Looking back at the seven decades, I see a cultural decline that set in barely two decades after freedom. I write to counter the smug belief, still fostered in schools and political speeches about the superiority of our culture, once voiced in Iqbal’s song, "Saare jahaan se acchaa hindostaan hamaaraa". Very insidiously, this rhyme nurses the conviction that while many other ancient civilisations were wiped out in time, India alone is indestructible (Yunaan-o-misr-o-Romaa sab mit gaye jahaan se/Ab tak magar hai baaqi naam-o-nishaan hamaara!/Kuchh baat hai ki hastii mitati nahiin hamaarii/Sadiyon rahaa hai dushman daur-i-zamaan hamaaraa). It boasts that while the Greek and Roman civilizations, the so-called predecessors of the West, lost to ravages of time, India alone is immortal.

Such headiness was excusable during the struggle for freedom, but not after more than half a century of self-misrule. Our name and significance (naamo-nishaan) are now under gradual but marked erosion, fading faster than anything witnessed in the last millennium. The ravages of Western technology and cultural hegemony are greater than those thought to have been perpetrated by the Islamic rule. In every sphere of life, it is now obvious that India has not been able to internalise European technology to its match its own civilisational concepts, the foreign techno-kaayaa into its dharma-kaayaa.

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In addition to Iqbal, we have now trumpeted another self-praise called “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” which declares us as a world-embracing-culture, open to cosmic diversity. We are liable to forget that if we are not careful, this may end up as a Sanskrit version of Nehru’s concept of India as a cultural inn that accommodated permanently every plundering invader as a rightful contributor. Bharat ek khoj cannot mean Bharat ek serai.

India has developed not through accidental, sundry or invasive inputs, but through a careful development of certain philosophical notions that make up our identity. These are enshrined in our classical texts, which have been ignored and even ridiculed and more so after our freedom and to which the present regime also seems unwilling to pay any attention.

After Independence, each passing decade, except the first, ushered in an uncomfortable and dislocating change. The fifties were characterised by hope, of India, as well as of her well-wishers. She was expected to perform by leaps as a developing nation.

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The optimism of this decade was symbolised by "chaachaa Nehru" who spent his birth day, November 14th, with school-children projecting the expectation that the nation was going to grow big and strong like its children. Every year, international exhibitions brought big and small nations of the world to our new Republic. The nation, like its kids and their chaachaa, smiled and smiled.

In the sixties, things continued to take shape as schools and colleges expanded. The new factories and dams, Nehru’s "temples of modern India", gave employment to many. The less lucky but more enterprising ones went to far off lands. India as a newly born sovereign nation, in spite of heavy bullying by China and severe injury by Pakistan, was able to defend most of its territory and reaffirm its identity. Faith in nationalism and social amelioration remained a palpable reality.

The seventies, in their first half, witnessed another triumph of nationalism when India played midwife to the birth of Bangladesh and consolidated her socialist agenda. But soon after this flash in the pan, the turning point in history ushered itself imperceptibly. By the mid-seventies darker days set in. External support to terrorism and internal regional factionalism cast their net around the nation. Both were promoted under many garbs by a pernicious propaganda masterminded in the bastions of western subversive agencies and academia. To contain the politically centrifugal forces, India Gandhi, flushed with her earlier success, made the pendulum of state governance swing from the dictatorial socialism at the centre to conspiratorial manipulations in the regions, thus seriously eroding democracy.

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This period was also beset with a grand illusion shared by all at the left of centre. They imagined that socialism could be poured from the top and changes at the grassroots would follow. The consequences of this make-belief were disastrous.

Socialism created a class of corrupt politicians who acquired total control over national wealth and perpetuated a permit-raj that killed personal enterprise and initiative, while very little from the state percolated to the poor. On the cultural front, in the name of secularism, religious regression was promoted not only among minorities but more so in the Hindu majority. Under the policy of nurturing parochial minions for centrist manipulations, regional outfits were promoted to the extent that they went out of hand. By the end of the decade, both the socialist state and nationalism came to be discredited.

No wonder that the eighties were a decade of caste polarisation and the final withering of socialism that revealed the monumental corruption operating beneath. It is now established that in the early eighties, while a proxy war was begun against us by Pakistan in Punjab and Kashmir, a section of Indians, particularly from Tamil Nadu, sympathised with the terrorist and separatist outfit of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam by providing training to terrorists and supplying arms from the mainland. It is already clear that instead of providing diplomatic, political and moral support to Sri Lankan Tamils suffering at the hands of Singhalese fanaticism, sections of Indian authorities and people chose the path of fuelling militancy, a strategy of intervention of which the nation itself was and still is a victim at the hands of others. But the final blunder of sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force to eliminate LTTE was beyond belief and dealt a severe blow to nationalism.

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Nationalism suffered not only at the hands of separatist movements but also through internal struggles along caste lines that further weakened its social suppleness for absorbing technology and ushering modernity while keeping its heritage. The caste strife diverted India from playing its important role of leading the coloured and the colonised nations of the world in the international arena.

The consolidation of the middle castes, which had acquired enough economic muscle to translate their cultural identity into a political clout, was turned into a misadventure by ideologues like VP Singh, working consciously or unconsciously, under the impact of western notions of "ethnicity.” The results were counter productivity and hyper-regression for technological adjustments. Like all upwardly mobile castes in the history of India, the Other Backward Classes (OBC) have mostly re-enforced the regressive values upheld by the upper caste elite. Even at the present juncture, they are clutching on to the economics of a decrepit socialism and political exploitation of the varna-jaatii system. Their slogan of ‘social justice’ has become another name for social stagnation and for riding rough on the backs of the lowest castes. Reiteration of caste identities has not only subverted Indian nationalism but also made international impact impossible at the grass-root level.

At the end of the nineties, there was a continuation of proxy wars, a greater erosion of national unity, a tighter grip of casteism, and a ping-pong battle between the die-hards of the command economy and the uninformed votaries of liberalisation.

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While in the West, liberalisation, in spite of the evils of a rapid transition, is seen as the unquestioned option after shattered socialism, in India on the contrary, the socialist Juggernaut has too many high priests and acolytes to let the yatra be called off. These priests, spearheaded by the Marxist thought, have promptly substituted the doctrine of class struggle with that of caste struggle (in India, class is caste, they say) and pinned their hopes on affirmative action for social justice to keep their Juggernaut rolling.

So far, "social justice" has only promoted a "raab.rii layer" (cream of the caste) that has virtually stalled the liberalisation of the economy and more so, of thought. Not only the leftists but also the rightist like the Bharatiya Janata Party are not in favour of democratic privatisation as that shall inevitably lead to the end of permit raj and may impel its vote bank of the middle-level party businessmen to be free of political patronage.

In India, products of Harvard Business School and Indian commerce colleges, talk alike. They talk Internet, but practice Inspector-net. They celebrate political power by enforcing a tortuously complicated tax regime. I was hoping that the heritage-proud BJP would listen to Chanakya who prescribed that the king should extract tax without burden to the people as bees take nectar from flowers. Instead, we have a trumpeting of smart apps for increasing the tax collection, forgetting the simple truth that it was heavy taxation of the socialist ideology that was responsible for generating the cancer of black money and tax evasion in India.

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Every political party, for a handful of votes or a momentary alliance, pampers the regional, religious, or caste identities. For instance, the BJP may find in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) an attractive partner, forgetting its decades of anti-Hindi-Sanskrit venom; or to pamper Sikh obscurantists, it may exempt helmets for Sikh women riding two-wheelers, or overlook their involvement in drug trade; or to protect its trader-tenant voters it may allow the most outdated rent control bills to continue, or declare the Jats as a backward caste as in Rajasthan, all for a few votes.

It can adopt the same tactics of "pseudo secularism" for garnering popular support perfected by the Congress, equally mindless of the fragmentation these tactics generate. It aims at enlarging its base by relying on the same Brahmin-Bania-OBC-Minority combine with which the Congress made its salad-bowl for decades. The bowl was toppled for two decades by Mandalism, and now, for the time being, the BJP has shown it the door in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar temporarily with the loud call of 'Sab ka Sath Sab ka Vikas'. But the basket of permit-raj and subsidy sops with the vegetables of “ethnic plurality” remains as of old, the prime trick for seizing power.

The new millennium opened with glaring entropy in the political system and social institutions. The ruling elite of legislators and bureaucrats were unable to handle everyday governance, let alone crisis situations that are as routine as sunrise.

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In the first decade, national interest seems to have been totally sacrificed at the altar of power struggle and corruption. In such a scenario there is a temptation to throw cultural matters in the background and focus on enforcement of law and defence of national territory. But this is not an age of territorial invasions. It is the age of cultural invasion and subversion.

Political territories are altered after the cultural landscape has been eroded from within. Formation of new nations from Yugoslavia is the most recent example. India has to resist that fate as the same strategies are being used against her. Most unfortunately, her ruling classes are abetting the breakup.

There are three distinct forces that have at present laid a strong siege of India after the Cold War and the fall of the supportive Soviet military and diplomatic umbrella. They are Euro-American materialism, Salafi Islam, and proselytising Christianity. The new Indian leadership must counter all three of these. This requires strategies born of a cool and analytical mind and least of all any emotional retaliation of momentary endurance that seems to be the fashion of the day.

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Eka (person), Kula (family), Graama (village or city), Janapada (region), Prithvi (earth) and Aatma make up the mental and terrestrial shells for the inner and outer being of a person in Indian terms. I am fond of these terms as they define the Indian cultural experience more accurately than the Western categories like the ‘individual’, ‘society’, ‘nation’ and the ‘Global Order’.

The ancient Janapada is neither synonymous with the modern nation state or rashtra, nor with the present day provinces of a nation state. It was the local cultural space with community governance that enforced a moral and financial discipline and mattered much more for a person than the distant court of the emperor; it was the de facto emperor. In the age of nationalism and globalisation, it has been virtually replaced for the time being by the nation state but will be further replaced by a newer entity. The six categories seem more natural not only for understanding Indian identity of the past but in order to develop a healthier framework for personal, social and cosmic organisation for the future. More than anything else, they provide a well-tested way/ marga/ pantha to progress from the personal to the universal.

So what is the way forward on the 70th day of Independence?

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The Eka, or the citizen of Bharat, is to be seen not as a mere tax entity but as person with an inner being, with aspirations that are creative, imaginative, artistic, and desirous of freedom to act , for making his/her home anywhere in India, to buy land, marry whom he/she likes and choose a vocation. That means focusing on the youth of our population and not on central and state laws that have divided the nation into so many false linguistic demarcations and caste reservations. People still think of India as a land of holy sites that are dear to them more than their domicile states. The youth want to know of their heritage which is denied to them, especially to the Hindu majority, as tradition and culture have long been removed from education.

The Kula or family, needs to be emphasised as against consumerist individualism. The traditional notions of pitririna or obligations to the parents, teachers and seniors and children should take some special provisional shape like compulsory contributions by alumni to alma maters, supporting the education of extended family children, donations to ashramas housing the old and so forth. Tax concessions can be provided for such duties.

The Grama or the habitat, village or city, should be supported by service that is recognised and celebrated when done selflessly. Office bearers, especially women, from grama-panchayat to members of Parliament should have a moderate remuneration and no pensions and no re-election after two terms. Anyone criminally charged should be debarred for life. This was the practice in medieval India as the records of Chola rulers show.

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The Janapada, the provincial nation state should be handled by persons who have exhibited some higher qualifications in professional areas. It is high time that the Indian Constitution is amended to lay down minimum educational qualifications for legislators, as has been the demand on ruling classes here which most rulers fulfilled. In not many, except the worst periods, was India governed by such an ill educated political class in history as it is now. Democracy has become heartless to the point that, for voicing political demands, roads and railways are routinely disrupted while patients die due to blockades.

The Prithvi or the Earth needs Indians who can really think of it in a dharmic way, in which ideals of multiplicity of view points, free thought, mutual respect and the need for action and living with conviction are stated loud and clear.

But can such ideals be stated if the knowledge systems of India have receded into the background in our own institutions, and most Indian universities take their syllabi from foreign centres of learning, the educated elite is concerned with making careers abroad or sending their children to settle in richer lands?

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The Atman or the Self, the search for which was the ideal of great civilisations, is not the concern of the elite but the poor man who still retains some inherited notion of religion. Moral notions and spiritual pursuit are not part of our Constitution which is secular, i.e. purely worldly, rights centred and duties deficit. It takes pride in delinking itself from all ancient smritis which recognised the realm beyond the material and a cosmic order of which humans are a small part.

The 70th day of Independence should remind us of our departure as a free nation from our own civilisational achievements and ideals and of faltering on a path laid out for us by others.

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