If anyone had asked Jawaharlal Nehru as he made his midnight speech on August 15 and freedom dawned, how he visualized India 75 years hence, he would have described a Fabian paradise of equality and plenty. Would he be disappointed?
The neo-liberal agenda, far removed from socialism, introduced by Manmohan Singh a few decades later was designed to invigorate the economy. He lowered taxes, privatized state-run industries and encouraged foreign investment. It did spark an economic boom but the withdrawal of the state from healthcare, education, banking and credit made it a country obsessed with profit.
If cities boomed, rural areas were left to stagnate. GDP grew but the growth favored the upper 50 percent — the lower half did not enjoy a similar access to education or healthcare or have the same mobility.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), a quarter of the world’s undernourished people now live in India and a fifth survive on less than $1.90 per day. WFP has been working in India since 1963, and it reports that in the last two decades per capita income tripled yet the minimum dietary intake fell, and the gap between rich and poor actually increased despite this high economic growth.
Nehru’s ideal was a country of different faiths and different ethnicities, speaking many languages but living harmoniously and sharing a common Mother India. Instead, unbalanced growth at the cost of the lower half of the population has led to scapegoating and the major target is the sizable Muslim minority.
The blame game now includes historical revisionism blaming Mughal emperors from India’s glory days when the exquisite Taj Mahal was constructed, the arts flourished and India generated almost a quarter of the World GDP.
This game also chides the Hindu Rajput princesses that Mughals married or the respected Hindu advisers that served the Emperors. The much decried last great Mughal emperor in this blame game is Aurangzeb who extended the empire to almost India’s southern tip, ruling a vast area stretching into Afghanistan and its borderlands in Central Asia.
The Aurangzeb narrative excludes a simple fact: the majority of Aurangzeb’s advisers were Hindu. A Hindu chronicler, Bhimsen Saxena, penned a memoir titled Tarikh-i-Dilkusha or a history that warms the heart, describes life as a soldier in service to the Emperor for more than a quarter century. He may rail at Aurangzeb’s tactical or strategic errors but is forever loyal. Hindu generals, nobles and advisers … they were not on the outside looking in, they were an integral part.
For centuries, religion was not a divider. Adherents of the two principal faiths worked together, lived together, married each other, and fought together including in 1857, during what the British called the Indian Mutiny and Indians refer to as the First War of Independence.
Thereafter, the British instituted systems and processes to develop rivalry and resentment, including quotas for intake into the prestigious Indian Civil Service as well as the lower level jobs. The rivalry progressed into mistrust, then riots and killings, eventually into two countries fighting wars, and then to a nuclear stand-off and a divided Kashmir.
North versus South, East versus West, a continent is difficult to govern. Have we heard this story before?