India at 70

Freedoms won, freedoms being lost

Print edition : September 01, 2017

“There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the crossroads of history and must choose which way to go.”

—Lal Bahadur Shastri

India was at a crossroads 70 years ago and it made choices that were enshrined in the Constitution it adopted a few years later. Now that it was free from alien rule it had to make choices in such a way that its workers and peasants were freed from class and caste oppression.

Early in the struggle for freedom, the Indian National Congress was adequately warned about remaining a party of “merchants and manufacturers”. At the Ahmedabad session of the Congress in 1921, M.N. Roy, the leader of the fledgling Left, said:

“The Congress must have the workers and peasants behind it, and it can win their lasting confidence only when it ceases to sacrifice them. Ostensibly for a higher cause, namely the so-called national interest, but really for the material prosperity of the merchants and manufacturers. If the Congress wants to have the nation behind it, let it not be blinded by the interests of a small class... let it not be guided by the invisible hand of the merchants and manufacturers.”

The Congress realised the truth of this warning. As Bipan Chandra says in his India’s Struggle for Independence, “the youth as also the workers and peasants were increasingly turning to the Left, and the national movement as a whole was getting radicalised in its economic and political programme and policies.” That explains the Karachi resolution of the Congress (1931) on Fundamental Rights and the National Economic Programme. It promised the fundamental rights of free speech and press, freedom to assemble and form associations, equal rights to all, adult franchise, compulsory primary education, protection of the cultural heritage of the minorities. On the economic front, it promised relief from agrarian indebtedness, reduction in land rent and revenue, better conditions for work, living wages, limited hours of work, right to form trade unions.

The Congress, which was prompt to incorporate fragments of the socialist vision of the Left into its agenda, was reluctant to accommodate the social justice vision of leaders like E.V. Ramasamy Periyar, who exposed the hollowness of the freedom that left untouched the oppression of the varnashrama dharma social order. In the face of the Congress’ new-found radicalism on the political and economic fronts, says Bipan Chandra: “The zamindars and landlords—the jagirdari elements—finding that open defence of landlords’ interest was no longer feasible, now, by and large, switched over to communalism for their class defence.”

The leaders of the communal projects sought to project Hindus and Muslims as homogeneous groups with common political and economic interests and permanently in conflict with each other throughout history. To them the major contradictions were not between colonialism and nationalism; between capitalists and workers; between landlords and peasants and agricultural labourers; between “upper castes” and those in the last rung of the social hierarchy and outside of it. It was a fight between Hindus and Muslims. However, the reality of secularism and class exploitation in everyday life and the sway of nationalism kept large sections of these religious communities from falling into the communal trap.

Pakistan is the “shining” example of the falsity of religion-based nationalism and a state founded on theocracy—one area where the Hindu right-wing emulates its sworn enemy. And India was sought to be converted into a theocratic state called Hindu Rashtra. Its guru, M.S. Golwalkar, who was in awe of Hitler’s Nazism, minced no words: “The non-Hindu peoples in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture…. In one word, they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less no preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.”

The first major victim of this narrow cultural nationalism of the Indian right-wing was the Father of the Nation. After being driven to the margins of Indian politics in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the right wing represented by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and its latest political incarnation, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is at the helm of India.

Nehru had promises to keep. “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman,” he said at the midnight when India woke up to freedom.

The problem was that he tried to keep his promises within the essentially capitalist order and without dismantling the feudal system afflicted with the canker of casteism. The slide started post-Nehru and was complete in 1991, when the Congress went back on its promises and ushered in the neoliberal order. Now, with the BJP, unburdened by the legacy of any egalitarian struggle as Prof Irfan Habib puts it, in power, the “free” people of India are under the twin onslaught of neoliberalism and rabid communalism.

At peril are the gains and achievements made by the movements for national independence, socialism and social justice. India is once again at a crossroads where the choices it made 70 years ago are being undermined. This special issue of Frontline is an attempt to give a broad-brush view of what was won and achieved by India in the past seven decades of freedom and what is sought to be reversed now.

R. Vijaya Sankar