The old narratives which were once dominant necessarily take a backseat as the years roll by. The story that India won independence through a non-violent struggle under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi cannot remain a unilinear narrative. Historians are sure to explore the complexities and unearth other strands. The story of independence cannot be reduced to a struggle between the Congress and the Muslim League on the one hand, and the liberals on one hand and the conservatives — the zamindars, the capitalists, the rulers of the princely states and their ruling elites — on the other. Many progressive things were happening in the princely India, such as in Baroda, Hyderabad, Travancore and Gwalior. These stories too are a part of India’s journey to freedom.
We have also to reckon with the radicals — Communists and socialists — on the one hand and the reactionaries — members of Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — on the other. The dalits, from Jyotiba Phule to Dr B.R. Ambedkar, took a separate stance of their own on the issue of India’s freedom.
Apart from throwing off the shackles of British colonial rule, India’s journey to political freedom is also the story of India’s modernisation and Westernisation. The idea of liberty is something we learnt from the West — Europe and America — and that of representative democracy with its implied concepts of rule of law and constitution-making. It is time to acknowledge the ideas that we borrowed. It is not any more necessary to hark back to some hoary past and assert that democracy existed in the city-republics like that of Vaishali and the 16 “mahajanapadas” of ancient India, though it is always good to study the political institutions of the past.
Partition and the division of India into India and Pakistan, the communal killings of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal and Punjab, Sindh and Delhi, and the forced migration of populations is the ugly side of India’s independence. These cannot be hidden and it cannot be used as an argument to nurse enmities and grudges at the national level. When India and Pakistan became two independent states, they became neighbours and they had immediately taken to deal with each other as two states. The hatred which people who paid an individual price through the loss of life and property could not be the fulcrum of relations between the two newborn nations. Even when war broke out over Kashmir in 1947-48, it was one between two independent states, though they both had only dominion status at the time. The formalities of war like an official ceasefire had to be followed and diplomatic exchanges maintained. As a matter of fact, the governments of the two countries handled the problems of refugees on both sides, the division of armed forces and administrative personnel was handled in a systematic and cool manner. The post-Independence government of Jawaharlal Nehru, which included conservatives like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, handled relations with Pakistan with consummate skill and maturity. Neither the Indian nor the Pakistan governments behaved like peevish rivals.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led governments of both Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi have dealt with Pakistan as they should, and the two have walked the extra mile at the official level to acknowledge the state of Pakistan. Mr Vajpayee went to the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore during the famous/infamous bus ride to Lahore in 1998 to make it clear that his party of Hindutva ideology accepts Pakistan. Mr Modi made his own gesture by inviting then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with other leaders of government of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) at his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. They had to make these overgenerous public gestures because their Hindutva ideology painted Islamic Pakistan as the “enemy”. They had to distance themselves from that demonology at the official level. But at the populist level, both Mr Vajpayee and Mr Modi indulged in anti-Pakistan rhetoric to rake up toxic nationalist sentiment and garner Hindu votes. It is a temptation that Mr Vajpayee could not resist in 2001 and it is a temptation that Mr Modi cannot resist as well, along with BJP president Amit Shah.
Indians, like their South Asian neighbours, stuck to the colonial infrastructure of administration and education, of armed forces, of continuing to use English as a link language. What gives India the advantage in a partially globalised world is English, a colonial legacy. The BJP leadership, dominated as it is by Hindi zealots, maintains a tactical silence on the subject and marches on with English.
The Congress under Nehru and his successors tried rather unsuccessfully to create a place for Muslims who stayed back to create a multi-religious, multilingual polity under the ineffective rubric of “secularism”. The Hindutva advocates have demolished “secularism”, though Hindutva has not really replaced it. The country is in a dangerous zone where religious minorities like the Muslims and Christians are in a vulnerable position, with no assurances from the BJP’s ruling elite. The lynching of a score and more Muslims over the issue of cow and beef creates the ugly spectre of a Hindu India.
My younger brother had recently recounted to me a remark of Pakistan’s military ruler Zia-ul Haq, who is supposed to have remarked: “If Egyptians do not have Islam they will remain Egyptians. If Pakistan does not have Islam, there will be no Pakistan.” Of course, it was a cynical remark of a man who used Islamisation to keep himself in power and destroyed Pakistani society. Pakistan is trying to move away from the toxic notion of a Muslim Pakistan. It should also be noted that India will not remain what it is if it becomes a Hindu India. A Hindu India will be an ugly India. A majority of Indians — including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes — don’t really want a Hindu India. The leaders who now hold the reins of power need to keep this important lesson in mind on this Independence Day.