“…it is not survival but the quality, the plane of survival, that is important.”
-B R Ambedkar
Image: India Today
In the wake of a horrific tragedy in Gorakhpur that devoured 71 children within just five days for the lack of oxygen in the local BRD hospital, highlighting the grave reality of India’s healthcare system, prime minister Modi proudly unfurled the tricolor on the 71st independence day and delivered his self-congratulatory speech from the ramparts of the red fort.
Notwithstanding his characteristic half truths and pure lies thrown on the face of 125 crores countrymen with an élan becoming of a hero from Bollywood, it was portentous that after 70 years of so called freedom the Indian people have to meekly endure such deception from their prime representative about development, a euphemism for gratification of the rich at the cost of a vast majority of poor.
Development without swaraj, for which people had primarily battled against the British and became martyrs, was meaningless. Swaraj meant freedom, self-rule that subsumed access to education, healthcare, livelihood security, democratic and cultural rights, so that the people could enjoy Swaraj in reality. Seventy years of systematic deprivation of all those covered under the boasts of development has amounted to no less than roguery of the ruling classes.
The Fragility of Freedom
The ultranationalists at the helm who claim millions of years’ antiquity to their claims of 'Indian' (read Hindu) nationhood may not care for the fact that India itself was a gift of the British rule and hence there is no question of any nation in that name existing before. The idea of the nation emerged during the freedom struggle in which none of these worthies or their forefathers took part. This incipient emotion itself was due to political and administrative unification of the Indian subcontinent made possible and sustainable by the modern means of communication and transportation under the British rule. These changes effectively destroyed the static balance of socio-economic life of localised formations called village communities in India, setting into motion a process of nation-making. This process, as our founding fathers warned, was to be carried on by the independent India by pursuing the policies for achieving ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ and not for any jingoist Pakistan bashing or singing of anthems or songs. It is paradoxical that those who make such claims have effectively terminated this process for their political agenda to make this country a hindu rashtra.
As a matter of fact, there is little in Indian history to speak of the capacity of the ruling elites in India. Their conduct was always characterised by extreme self-centeredness and myopic self interests. They often betrayed people for their selfish gains and gave this country a long history of subjugation by the outside invaders. Cheating people has been part and parcel of their class/caste character. It is therefore many people were skeptical about their capacity to manage India after transfer of power. Winston Churchill, that rank colonialist but contrary to his projection not an India hater, had very perceptibly commented about them during the debate on the Indian Independence Bill in British Parliament:
If Independence is granted to India, power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India.
There is a controversy over Churchill had ever said these words, but whosoever did it very aptly describes what happened during the last 70 years of Indian independence.
The second is from our own C Rajagopalachari, who is counted among the founding fathers. He said:
We all ought to know that Swaraj will not at once or, I think, even for a long time to come, be better government or greater happiness for the people. Elections and their corruptions, injustice, and the power and tyranny of wealth, and inefficiency of administration, will make a hell of life as soon as freedom is given to us. Men will look regretfully back to the old regime of comparative justice, and efficient, peaceful, more or less honest administration…. Hope lies only in universal education by which right conduct, fear of god, and love, will be developed among the citizens from childhood. It is only if we succeed in this that Swaraj will mean happiness. Otherwise it will mean the grinding injustices and tyranny of wealth.
Even Gandhi, the progenitor of the idea, was himself worried that Swaraj had the danger of becoming a mobocracy.
Nothing Has Changed
The independence came ill-omened, bloodied with partition. The Congress Party, despite its transformation into a mass movement by the master strategist Gandhi, had remained the representative of the bourgeoisie at its core. Mouthing pro-people socialist slogans, it systematically structured the state and drove its policy that would further the interests of capital. Even before the formal transfer of power these intrigues began playing out. The constitution of the constituent assembly with the members indirectly elected by the provincial assemblies, elected in the March 1946 elections, which were based on barely 28 per cent franchise was symbolic of the concurrent duplicitous regime that would come into being.
The Constitution which incorporated the Government of India Act, 1935, the last colonial Constitution, ensured that essentially there shall be essential continuity from the previous regime. The same institutional structure of governance, the same laws, the same palaces, the same processes and police with the same draconian laws, only with native elite replacing the white rulers and thereby western liberal ethos with the brahmanic cunning, ensured the sameness of oppressive regime, intensified with their characteristic sly.
Post-1947, the five year plans emulating the soviet system and thereby reinforcing the socialist rhetoric of the new regime was actually stuffed with the content taken from the Bombay Plan which was the vision of the Indian big bourgeoisie. It was publicly rejected but surreptitiously adopted. The Land Reforms were implemented ostensibly to meet the aspirations of millions of landless but calibrated to create a class of rich farmers from among the populous shudra castes as an alley of the Congress in rural India. The Green Revolution, the capitalist strategy for agricultural development, was implemented in the name of quenching mass hunger. Its huge gains fed this class to replace the erstwhile upper caste landlords, spin off as petty businessmen and later as politicians with their regional parties. While this rural rich from among the middle castes thus got hitched to the dwija caste-band through capitalist ties, the dalits were denuded of their traditional jajmani relations and reduced to be the farm labourers in contradiction with the rich farmers. This class contradiction would precipitate through the familiar fault-lines of caste into new genre of atrocities. Kilvenmeni to Khairlanji to Kharda to Una are the direct byproducts of independent India. As political competition as well as crises of living intensified, the state began showing off its draconian fangs to repress people. As though it was not enough it brought social Darwinist ideology of neoliberalism and began pushing people off the margins. The new regime wearing a republican mask did everything with impunity that the colonial regime would not dare to do.
Quality of Survival
Contrary to doomsayers’ prophesies, and Ambedkar’s stern warning delivered on November 26, 1949 that if the political democracy created by the Constitution was not supplemented soonest by social and economic democracy, the victims of this lack would blast off the edifice of political democracy, Indian democracy has neither perished nor flourished but limped along past its 70 years. Should we be elated at this survival? If the import in Ambedkar’s warning is understood, we should not.
Today, the Indian elite and the middle classes that try emulating them are euphoric about the GDP growth and ‘development’ of India not caring to know it comes at the cost of misery of the millions of poor. While the present ruling dispensation as part of its ideological project wants to regain its imagined leadership of the world with missiles and bullet trains, it cuts outlays on basic healthcare and education of people.
India continues to languish at the bottom of the comity of nations on every parameter that constitutes real development of the country. India holds the dubious distinction of land of largest population that defecates in open, largest population that lives in slums, largest malnourished children, largest anemic mothers, largest children out of school, largest illiterates, and the list could go on.
In education, India ranks 92 which is way behind the ranks of other developing countries such as Phillipines (76), Malaysia (51), Sri Lanka (59) and many more. Her achievement on a range of health indicators ranks her at 143 in a list of 188 countries, far behind countries like Sri Lanka (79), China (92), even war-torn Syria (117) and Iraq (128). The country that boasts of being sixth largest economy in nominal terms, third largest in PPP terms; possesses fourth largest number of dollar billionaires and is the fastest growing economy, ranks below much poorer nations such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Ghana and even Liberia when it comes to healthcare for its masses. New research by medical journal Lancet, on the basis of data from the Global Burden of Disease report, 2015, ranked India at 154 out of 195 countries in terms of access to healthcare. Modi may day-dream of India being a superpower, but she is nowhere near the top 10 countries when it comes to economy, entrepreneurship and opportunity, governance, education, health, safety and security, personal freedom and social capital. According to the Legatum Prosperity Index 2015, India ranks 99 among 142 countries that have been assessed in these sectors.
(A version of this article has also been published in the Economic and Political weekly and is being re published here with the permission of the author)