Sanjaya Baru | Flag of freedom: Tricolour of a multi-coloured nation

India's tricolour comes in four colours but patriotism in our sub-continental, civilisational nation comes in many colours

We have all been invited to drape our patriotism this week in the colours of the national flag. There was a time when many of the laws that today’s democratic government uses against its own citizens were used to prevent the hoisting of the tricolour. My late father, B.P.R. Vithal, a Hyderabadi mulki, had to terminate his education at the Nizam College because the then government of the Nizam of Hyderabad threatened to punish him for sporting the tricolour. My grandfather, a professor of economics at Nizam College, was dismissed from service and reinstated only after he agreed to send my father out of Hyderabad.

In the event, my father ended up at Madras Christian College, where he went on to become the president of the college union and became the first Indian to hoist the tricolour on the college campus. The principal, John Boyd, a Scotsman, ignored the event and chose not to punish the students involved in what was then a seditious act.

Interestingly, though, my father returned to Hyderabad and joined the Hyderabad Civil Service (HCS) in 1949, moving to the IAS in 1950.

If my father rebelled by hoisting the tricolour in British India, I have decided to rebel by not hoisting the flag this week. A slogan has been given, “Har Ghar Tiranga”. I have my own slogan – “Jab har ghar rojgar/ har ghar swasth/ har har ko ghar/ tab har ghar tiranga”. That, indeed, was the mobilising slogan of the national movement. Not just freedom from colonial rule, but freedom from hunger, want, ill-health, illiteracy.

India’s tricolour comes in four colours but patriotism in our sub-continental, civilisational nation comes in many colours. That is why the watchword of the national movement and of our nationhood has been “Unity in Diversity”.

India has achieved much these past 75 years. There is no question about it. As a nation we have much to be proud of. Yet, we have a long distance to go before the objectives of our national movement are fully met. In my recently published survey of our economic journey over the past three-quarters of a century, Journey of a Nation: 75 Years of Indian Economy, I have argued that India is not merely just another “emerging” economy, but in fact a “re-emerging” economy, given the pre-colonial history of achievement and progress. The Indian economy has done reasonably well, re-engaging with the world on its terms, and yet we have miles to go before we can rest on our laurels.

Those who today choose to be excessively critical of the country’s post-Independence record would do well to just remember four numbers. The average annual rate of national income growth in British India (which includes today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh) between 1890 and 1940 was close to zero per cent. Some regions had positive rates of growth, like the Bombay and Madras Presidencies and the Punjab region, and others had negative rates of growth, like the United Provinces, Bihar and the Bengal Presidency.

From 1950 to 1980, the economy of the Indian republic recorded an annual average rate of growth of 3.5 per cent. This was an average of much better performance in the 1950s and much worse in the 1960s and 1970s. From 1980 to 2000 the economy recorded a growth rate of around 5.5 per cent. From 2000 to 2012 this went up to 7.5 per cent. An economic slowdown took roots after 2012, with a couple of years of improved performance. In the period 2019-2024, the average rate of growth is expected to be between 5.0 and 6.0 per cent. The challenge in the 76th year of Free India is to be able to return to and sustain the “seven-plus” trajectory of average annual growth.

There are two ways of viewing this performance. One is to compare the economy’s performance over time -- what is termed as an inter-temporal comparison -- and the other is to compare India’s performance over time with that of comparable countries over the same time period. A purely inter-temporal comparison shows India in a good light. However, when you compare this with the performance of India’s East Asian neighbours (including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China and the Southeast Asian economies), ours’ has been a less than creditable performance.

Two differences set India apart from its East Asian neighbours. Investment in education and human capability and, consequently, labour productivity and research and innovation capability. Building a knowledge-based economy and nation is the challenge as we go ahead. Regrettably, however, two disturbing trends make one worry whether we are in fact focused on that endeavour or not. First, the out-migration of the educated -- what may be termed a “secession of the successful” -- and, second, the growing bigotry of an assertive ruling elite.

Developed countries are making it easier every year for educated Indians to pay their way out of the country. This pull effect is engendered by the push effect of a not so satisfactory domestic social, political and economic environment. Having migrated, the overseas Indian happily waves the flag abroad. If just waving the tricolour is what makes one a nationalist, then I am not joining this bandwagon this week.

When my father hoisted the tricolour in pre-Independence India, the Nizam’s Hyderabad banished him but a Scottish principal of a minority institution in British India turned a blind eye and allowed him that act of youthful patriotism. Will the India of today be like that of the Hyderabad of the Nizam, punishing those who will not hoist the flag, as an act of quiet protest, or will it merely look the other way and allow us this space to be conscientious objectors?

The greatness of democratic India, indeed of Indian civilisation and of Hinduism as it has evolved over the centuries, lies in its pluralism, liberalism and tolerance of dissent. “Unity in Diversity” is what has kept us together over the millennia and in these 75 years. That will always remain the cement of national unity. Intolerance and majoritarianism will weaken the nation and shred the fabric of our revered tricolour.

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