There’s a lot to settle before India turns 100

It was in the early 1960s. Every time we went to our village, we found our great-uncle (my father’s uncle) in front of his huge house, always surrounded by people. And we often heard him say, “You are lucky to have been born in independent India.

Our great-uncle, the late Siddhagopal Chaturvedi, had been convicted in the Mainpuri conspiracy case. He was imprisoned in British India for a long time. He used to tell us stories about Chandrashekhar Azad, Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’ and other similar characters. Bismil’s sister Shastri Devi used to visit our house with her child. When Bismil used to drop her off at her in-laws in Kosma, a village in Mainpuri district of Uttar Pradesh, a gun was strapped to one of her legs. If he was caught, he told himself, the authorities would at least refrain from searching his sister. This happened several times. Who said that the dream of freedom was the prerogative of madmen?

Shastri Devi then lived in abject poverty and died in misery. His son ran a tea room. After independence, our leaders did not recognize individuals who hesitated to brag about their role in the struggle for freedom. On the 25th anniversary of independence, she received no tamrapatra (copper memorial engraving), and none of her descendants received reservations in government jobs. She began to receive a monthly pension of 40, thanks to the efforts of the famous author Banarasi Das Chaturvedi, which she says was her main source of income.

Thousands of these people worked tirelessly until India gained independence, but what about now? The nation was divided. Many people were left homeless and millions were killed. There are many reasons to be depressed, but there are also many things that can make us proud on the Independence Day Amrit Mahotsav.

Let me give you some statistics.

Our total population was 340 million at Independence; it is currently 1.38 billion. We will soon overtake China as the most populous nation in the world. Overpopulation is often seen as a negative thing, but India has been very successful in transforming its demographics into a skilled workforce. This is how, in 75 years, our gross domestic product (GDP) has gone from 2.7 trillion to 147.36 trillion. India’s contribution to global GDP rose from 3% to 7.2%. We were originally seen by the West as a nation of illiterates, tribals and snake charmers. Literacy is around 78% today, India has the highest percentage of graduates in the world. Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK), once said during a debate on the Indian Independence Bill: “If independence is granted to India, the power will go into the hands of rogues, thieves, buccaneers; all Indian leaders will be low caliber and straw men. They will have soft tongues and foolish hearts. They will fight each other for power and India will be lost in political wrangling.

The work done by India and Indians over the last 75 years of independence is enough to offer a mirror to our former British colonial masters. Rishi Sunak, a person of Indian origin, is now one of the candidates for the post of British Prime Minister (PM). Never in the history of Britain has someone with such experience been in the running for such a high position.

In contrast, media around the world make headlines when a Hindu woman is appointed deputy commissioner of police in Pakistan, while IK Gujral, who had come to India as a refugee during partition and spent his first night in Delhi on a train platform, was elected Prime Minister of India 25 years ago. This group also includes Manmohan Singh, who had the distinction of being prime minister for 10 years, and LK Advani, one of the top leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A tribal woman currently holds India’s highest office, that of president. The country’s prime minister is Narendra Modi, a former tea seller. Furthermore, India has had three presidents from the minority Muslim community and two presidents from among the Dalits. Why are members of the Dalits, Adivasi and other backward communities able to rise to the highest ranks in India if not through faith in democracy?

That said, India’s history is not without dark moments. In recent years, social gaps have widened. Economic inequality has also increased; 57% of the country’s overall wealth is in the hands of barely 10% of the population. Even official data on those living below the poverty line mocks the poor. A person who spends 33 each day is not considered poor, according to the guidelines. It makes sense when people claim that the brown sahib has taken over the role of the white masters. Finally, in the midst of such an ebb and flow, I would like to congratulate everyone on the Independence Amrit Mahotsav. I am convinced that we will succeed in meeting all these challenges before our centenary.

Shashi Shekhar is Editor, Hindustan

Opinions expressed are personal

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