Legacy of the struggle

Legacy of the struggle

The Indian nationalist movement had a triple connection with the nature of society in independent India. One, it contained in its womb the blueprint for the development of independent India.

Two, it left a deep and enduring legacy for Indian society. Three, there were remarkable resemblances between the way the nationalist movement was fought and the dominant political and economic norms that developed in independent India. The nationalist movement also had a global context. All of it, put together, makes for an interesting story.

By the end of the 19th century, the system of imperialism had been well and truly established. The domination of the world by some European countries had been deeply entrenched. Some imperialist powers began to take this domination for granted, as something very natural, and started hoping that things would remain that way forever.

However, in the early decades of the 20th century, powerful protest movements challenging imperialism developed in parts of Asia and Africa. Formal imperialism began to be eroded after the Second World War, and between 1945 and 1960, nearly 120 countries got independence from foreign domination.

The arrival of independence, exhilarating though it undoubtedly was, confronted the newly independent countries with some very serious questions. The leaders of the independent countries discovered that the pursuit of affluence and liberty — two key aspirations of any modern or modernising society — might not be easy. There were too many obstacles in the way.

The presence of imperialism was one major obstacle, but by no means the only one. It was true that these societies’ transition to industrial affluence had been delayed by the active presence of imperialism. But once this transition got underway after the formal end of imperialism, enormous complexities surfaced, rendering this transition difficult and distant.

The authoritarian traditions of many pre-modern societies, political turbulence and instability, absence of modern institutions and economic infrastructure, were some of the factors inhibiting the transition. How did these societies cope with these new challenges?

Against all odds

A military takeover, one-party rule, shift from medieval authoritarianism to modern authoritarianism, retreat to some form of imperial domination, or simply anarchy, were some of the responses in most of the post-colonial societies.

On the whole, it did appear that for the non-European societies, the combination of affluence with liberty was an unattainable objective, or at any rate a rare accomplishment. You could have one or the other, but not both. This began to be seen as a basic divide that separated Europe (and USA) from the rest of the world.

The intellectuals of the developed world looked upon this divide sometimes with condescension and sometimes with contempt. But all in all, a developed northern hemisphere fully in possession of affluence and liberty and an undeveloped (or precariously developing) southern hemisphere far from acquiring a grip on the two main human aspirations, began to be seen as a natural profile of the post-war world. Some even began to see these aspirations as basically European, not meant for everybody.

Independent India was one of the few societies that made a serious attempt to break out of this dilemma. The leaders of independent India decided to create a blueprint for India’s development which accorded top priority to both affluence and liberty and refused to prioritise between the two values. It has to be added that as a result of this, the progress of both affluence and liberty has been slow, patchy and uneven. Nonetheless, the overall record is not something Indians need to be ashamed of.

At the time of independence, the average life expectancy of an Indian was around 32 years. The literacy rate was around 14 per cent.  The shortage of food was acute. A famine in Bengal in 1943 took as many as three million lives. Deaths due to starvation were not very unusual. In all these areas, independent India has made significant progress. What is particularly significant is that all this has been achieved under a parliamentary democratic framework.

Some success...

The achievements of independent India have not been spectacular by any standards, but they are fairly impressive by all standards. What is it due to? Is there a basic underlying explanation for the Indian trajectory of development? There are, broadly speaking, three main candidates which have been considered pivotal in shaping the nature of India’s response to Modernity — the traditional Indian social structure, British colonial rule lasting two centuries, and the Indian nationalist movement.

Each one needs to be seen as a kind of matrix which has shaped the nature of India’s journey towards modernity. This essay focuses mainly on the role of the Indian nationalist movement in shaping the contours of independent India.
India’s freedom movement was not simply a struggle to throw out the alien rulers. It was, above all, a grand project to build modern India.

The movement against the British was part of this grand endeavour to build modern India. It was during the course of the national movement that the blueprint for India’s social transformation was prepared.

It would be appropriate to say that the nationalist movement did cast its shadow ahead of itself and provided the direction for some of the major developments that occurred in independent India. Anyone wanting to understand the broad parameters of the political and economic developments since 1947 would do well to focus on the nationalist movement.

It prepared the road map for independent India and left a very rich legacy — of ideas, practices, struggle, hopes and aspirations — for the people of independent India. Soon after 1947, this legacy was codified in the Constitution. Even today, India’s political and economic life continues to be guided by the Constitution, which was essentially a product of the nationalist movement.

So, what was this legacy bequeathed by the nationalist movement to the Indian people? It would be true to say that whereas the administrative apparatus (laws, bureaucracy, etc) of independent India derived much from British colonialism, the ideological apparatus of independent India was provided almost entirely by the nationalist movement. There are two major components of this legacy that have tremendous implications for the collective political life of the Indian people: making of the Indian nation and democratisation of politics.

The seeds that were sown...

A nation of the Indian people, expressing common hopes and aspirations, was created during the course of the nationalist movement. It is important to remember that this nation did not already exist; it had to be created. The task of the national movement was not just to represent the Indian nation, but also to create it.

This was important because some of the British scholars, ethnographers and other commentators had virtually ruled out the possibility of nationhood for India. Given the size and diversity of the society — religious, cultural and linguistic — they were convinced that the people of India could never weld into one nation and that India would at best remain a “geographical expression”.

They ruled out the possibility of Indian people evolving a common nationality. The 19th century Indian nationalist response to this was to assert that the Indian people were a “nation-in-making”. This concept (articulated for the first time by the leading 19th century nationalist leader Surendranath Bannerjee) consisted of a recognition in the 19th century that the people of India, divided into regions, castes and religions were not a nation, but were those who were on their way to acquiring a nationhood.

They were not inherently incapable of acquiring nationhood and their internal diversities of caste, religion and region were not a hindrance in their journey towards nationhood.

Gandhi put the nature of this Indian nation-building in perspective in an article written in 1940: “India is a big country, a big nation, composed of different cultures which are tending to blend with one another, each complementing the rest. If I must wait for the completion of this process, I must wait. It may not be completed in my day. I shall love to die in the faith that it must come in the fullness of time”.

Jawaharlal Nehru gave the Indian-nation building an evocative name — Unity in Diversity. He highlighted that India’s enormous diversity was not a liability for nation-building, but was actually its strength. Nehru was confident that Indians would retain their diversity while remaining as one nation. It needs to be added that Indian people are still a nation-in-making, not a fully formed nation.

Never the twain shall meet?

The project of nation-making has major implications for the twin aspirations of affluence and liberty. For a large society like India, any sustained affluence can only come by making a transition to industrialism. A transition as mammoth as this can never be painless and involves tremendous displacements and dislocations.

In other words, society as a whole has to pay a huge social cost for making this transition. The transition can sometimes be so explosive that it can tear the whole social fabric apart. It is here that nationalism comes in handy.

It acts as a sponge in absorbing the explosive potentials of the social tension generated by the transition to industrialism. In other words, nationalism ensures that the cost of transition is paid without the social order being eroded.

Democratisation of politics is another major legacy of the nationalist movement. The democratisation took two major forms — mass participation in politics and promotion of civil liberties. Indian nationalist movement was arguably the biggest mass movement ever launched in the world history. It started as a small stream of middle class intellectuals in the 19th century.

But gradually, different sections of the populations — peasants, workers, students, women and tribals joined in to make it truly a mass movement. Women played a bigger role in the nationalist movement than in any of the revolutionary struggles in any part of the world.

Interestingly, the process of democratisation in independent India has proceeded along very similar lines. The domination of Congress as the most important political force lasted for only two decades. The Right, the Left, the regional parties, caste-based parties and the communal parties have all joined in the Indian democracy without ever questioning it. The main political contests have been conducted within the democratic framework, not about it.

The Indian democracy has also given enough confidence to its marginalised people — women, tribals, Dalits, Muslims — to launch their specific struggles on their own, without seeking any outside mediation, and by making use of the democratic option. Quite often, it is the mainstream political parties that have gone to the marginalised people rather than the other way round. Indian democracy today is alive and kicking, though far from perfect.

The decision to go in for universal adult franchise invited criticism from some European observers. They argued that the low level of literacy in India was not very conducive for adult franchise. But the leaders of independent India thought otherwise.

Their contention was that if the illiterate masses of Indians could participate actively in the nationalist movement, they were mature enough to take independent political decisions and elect their own government. The leaders’ faith in the people was obviously rooted in their experience of the national movement. It is important to recognise that the roots of Indian democracy neither go back to the distant past of Indian history, nor to the two centuries of British rule, but to the practices developed during the national movement.

Clash of ideas

On three key issues — secularism, nature and direction of economic development, and the struggle for social justice — there was considerable diversity and internal conflict among the Indian leaders. Nehru’s preference for modern industrialism based on centralised planning and the use of modern science and technology clashed with Gandhi’s preference for decentralised village republics and small scale cottage industries.

Likewise, Gandhi’s ideas of emancipation for lower castes through social campaigns and moral struggle clashed with Ambedkar’s insistence on political struggle and empowerment for the lower castes. On the question of secularism also, there existed different perspectives within the nationalist movement, even though they all agreed on the necessity of a secular polity.

Some were clearly anti-religious; some explored ways of communal harmony; and some hoped to evoke religion as a moral force which would propel people towards a secular way of thinking. In other words, they looked at religion itself as a source of secularism.

It is, however, important to note that these internal conflicts did not really weaken the struggle but rather enriched it. In fact, such conflicts existed precisely because of a lack of strict centralised control from the top. The threads tying various strands into common political action were held rather loosely. This meant that the consensus arrived at was often accompanied by differences of approach and opinions.

The force behind the consensus about the objectives was never strong enough to flatten out existing differences. This gave the movement enough flexibility and plurality, but often it also necessitated a compromise with coherence and precision. It is interesting that independent India has inherited these features of the national movement and incorporated them into its response pattern. The Indian society has displayed and thrown up enough areas of consensus, but often in a messy, loose and incoherent kind of way.

The Indian nationalist movement carried in its womb the vision of independent India. It was a vision of India embracing modernity without giving up some of the positive features of its traditions. This was also to be India’s message to the world at large. As Nehru said in a speech in 1958: “Will we have to pay too heavy a price for (modern economic development), or will we be able to retain some of the other factors which have gone in the past to make India what she has been? I don’t know the answer.

Perhaps nobody knows the answer. But anyhow, I hope that in our quest of science and technology, which we must pursue with vigour and earnestness and determination, we shall not forget some other aspects of human existence, which are at least equally important and so perhaps we might be able to serve not only India, but be of some service to the rest of the world also, so that in this world of storm and stress and tension and hatred and violence, the small gentle voice of India may carry a message of goodwill and friendship to all and try to serve others in reducing these tensions.”

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