When the British departed from the subcontinent 70 years ago, the most appropriate epitaph was probably provided by an Indian official who remarked: “You British believe in fair play. You have left India in the same condition of chaos as you found it.” The months that followed the partitioning of British India seemed to confirm the nature of the gift of independence. The subcontinent endured a lawless, bloody anarchy that encompassed some of the 20th century’s greatest migrations and crimes. Born in blood were two newly created nations of mostly-Hindu India, and Pakistan, a Muslim homeland in south Asia, as well as about 500 feudal autocracies, which ranged from princely states – some as large as a European nation – to village-sized chiefdoms. When the British predicted there would be many more partitions, it was because the former colonial masters thought “no one can make a nation out of a continent of many nations”.
In Pakistan, that forecast came partly true, thanks largely because of an attempt to impose a single language – Urdu – on its most populous province, East Bengal. By 1971, after a civil war in which India played a part in stoking, Pakistan had been cleaved in two. The unfinished business of princely states remains: continuing revolts – in Pakistan’s Baluchistan, India’s Kashmir and Manipur – are rooted in identities distinct from the nations that swallowed them up. However, gloomy prophecies of fragmentation have been proved wrong decade after decade in India despite the poverty and diversity. It is perhaps India’s greatest achievement that one-sixth of humanity now cast their votes regularly in free and fair elections.
Unlike democracy in the west where voters first had to be rich men, then adult men and later women, India’s democracy came into being peacefully in 1951 with its first general election where every citizen – irrespective of gender, caste, creed, religion, occupation, wealth or level of literacy – got to vote. It is also a democracy where the military have been confined to their barracks in peacetime. Almost alone in the non-western world – barring a brief interruption in 1975 – India has clung doggedly to its democratic convictions. Voting is only one part of a liberal democracy. India’s noble aim of political equality is undermined by a creaking criminal justice system, flagrant interference in its public institutions and the inability to eliminate large-scale political corruption. Freedom of expression, necessary for true democracy, does not exist in full measure. India is a land of taboos where almost every fundamentalist – be it religious, linguistic or regional – can call for books to be banned or film sets burned. That India was the first country to ban the Satanic Verses is a blot on its democracy.
Indians were once in academia described as Homo Hierarchicus, a species of human who most intensely practised inequality. This in-built discrimination chained Dalits and women for centuries. India’s laws abolished untouchability and made men equal to women, yet in practice violence and prejudice continue. Thanks to casteism and bigotry against India’s tribal peoples, the country is home to the world’s largest slave population. However, we can see examples of everyday equality between people in India. The link between a person’s occupation and their caste is weakening, thanks in part to the world’s biggest affirmative action programme. There’s also evidence that women are choosing their own spouses, a big shift in a nation where marriage was seen as a contract between families.
In an Asian century, India has long been considered as a democratic counterweight to its larger authoritarian neighbour, China. Last year India’s economy grew faster than China’s, although alarming pollution levels suggest Delhi risks making many of Beijing’s mistakes. Worryingly, Indian and Chinese troops have in recent weeks been engaged in a tense Himalayan standoff. But India’s biggest threat is internal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an impressive politician but he also runs a government backed by rightwing Hindu extremists who condone and actively support violence against minorities, especially Muslims. Like its less-peopled cousin, the European Union, India works because no single culture or language is central to its identity or mandatory for unity. Mr Modi seems to want fundamental changes in India’s pluralistic democracy – and not for the better. The quest for equality and the rule of law have shown impressive resilience in India, but they are under threat from within.
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