India, that is Bharat, is an ancient civilization and a young nation. The 75th year of India’s independence is an opportune time to reflect back on our journey since that momentous stroke of the midnight hour on 15th of August, 1947. We have had an eventful and chequered post-independence history.
From the beginning of our journey, we posed our faith in the democratic political system despite problems of massive poverty, illiteracy, backwardness and social schisms. Democracy has not only survived but thrived in this unlikely place, naysayers notwithstanding. For better or for worse, there has been a decisive shift in the polity towards the right. This is in stark contrast to the first 50 years when the left of centre set the tone for the political discourse.
Whilst democracy has flourished and taken deep roots in our body politic; the administration and the civil services retain a strong colonial hangover. They have remained pretty much the same in structure, design and attitude as the British left them; leaving much to be desired.
The Indian economy has been through a rollercoaster – from the derisively named ‘Hindu rate of growth’ of about 3.5% in the first three decades after independence to almost twice that in the three decades since liberalization. While there has been a clear and substantial decline in absolute poverty; income gaps and inequality have risen and continue to do so.
While inequality in general has widened, the rate of social mobility and avenues for it have also increased manifold. Just as much as the progressive laws and affirmative action policies, the unassuming and handy mobile phone and access to cheap internet have been an equalizer and a harbinger of opportunities for the teaming millions.
Education is one field in which we have made tremendous progress. With massive expansion of educational infrastructure; India has witnessed a steady rise in the literacy rate from less than 20% in 1951 to a respectable 74% in the last census of 2011. Much to one’s satisfaction, primary education has been universalized. The gross enrolment ratio of 26% in higher education today means that India has the third largest higher education system in the world, after the US and China. But the quality of education, inadequate fund allocation by governments and lack of innovation and research remain areas of concern.
Women have made some important progress, especially in political representation at the local level with the 73rd and 74th amendments and in educational participation. However, we are far from a gender equal society. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, India ranks a dismal 135 out of 146 countries. Children’s rights have been codified with education becoming a fundamental right, drastic reduction in child labour and child marriages; and favorable laws like POCSO and the RTE.
Cultural and national pride has been infused anew in the country’s collective psyche. There is a gradual but discernible undoing of the colonial yoke and self flagellation. Better late than never, the nation is tentatively and respectfully rediscovering its cultural and civilizational core.
Demographically, India is both young and old. We are poised to, but not fully able to, reap the demographic dividend. If we focus our collective energies on harnessing the potential of our youth; the Indian economy can enter a veritable golden period in the next 20 years. If we fail to do so, the energies of the youth may get dissipated or diverted for destructive purposes. We also have a rapidly ageing population profile; with India’s elderly population expected to rise by over 40% over the next decade. They will need to be provided for. Sex ratio has been a concern for long but the recent national family health survey NFHS 5 has brought good news. Sex ratio at birth, however, remains a cause of concern.
Our standing in the comity of nations has risen since 1991. In the non-aligned days of Nehru, India trotted on the global stage with a sense of self indulgent smugness and an air of moral superiority as a self appointed leader of the third world. Today we do so, not by professing lofty ideals but factoring in international realpolitik and having sided with the winning side (the USA) in international affairs for the most part. Now we deal with the rest of the world, including the west, on far more equal terms; and not as seekers of technological or financial aid.
Since the beginning, our social compact is fragile. It has been based, at best, on toleration rather than accommodation and celebration of differences; the history and professed ideology of secularism notwithstanding. Social cohesion has been tenuous since 1947 and the accompanying bloody partition. Riots and strife have been a recurrent feature of our social lives. More recently, catchphrases like ‘intolerance’, ‘lynchings’ and ‘genocide’ have been added to the inglorious list of words that capture our fractured body politic. 75 years is a reasonably long time for a multi-ethnic country to weave its diverse peoples into a single body politic. We could have done so much better in this regard.
For India at 75; several new areas of concern have arisen – rapid environmental degradation, climate change and the digital divide; to name a few. Many old problems remain unresolved, such as unaddressed inequalities of caste and gender; the unenviable state of public health infrastructure and a difficult but important relationship with China.
All in all, it has been a mixed bag. For a fairly young country, we have done pretty well though one always wishes one could have done better in this area or that. It will serve us well if we cast aside cynicism, pat ourselves on the back for our achievements big and small and continue on the path of nation building with a renewed vigor and vitality. For India at 75; it is time to reaffirm the pledge of the half-naked fakir we call Bapu to ‘wipe every tear from every eye’.
(The author Mr.Pranay Aggarwal, Director, IAS Gurukul is an eminent sociologist and public intellectual. He is India representative in UNESCO’s International Sociological Association. He has completed a course in sociology from Stanford University (USA) and is one of India’s leading public commentators on social issues. He is the most popular teacher of sociology amongst civil services candidates, whom he mentors at IAS Gurukul , and the views expressed in this article are his own)