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India at 75

The Round Table – the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs – brought out two special issues on India and Pakistan on the 75th anniversary of their independence. The previous column discussed the Pakistan issue which was much shorter in comparison with the India issue; this one deals with India.

Aparna Pande and Amit Ranjan – both have impeccable credentials – were guest editors of the special issue. Pande is director of the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, Washington, DC. Since foreign policy is her special area of interest, she did her doctorate on Pakistan’s foreign policy. Her book ‘Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy’ (2011) continues to attract wide readership and critical appreciation.

Amit Ranjan is research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, the National University of Singapore. He specializes in South Asian politics and water disputes in this region.

The Round Table special issue on India at 75 offers a wide variety of articles on India, spanning from economy and majoritarianism to the state of Indian military and foreign policy. The issue contains 21 pieces including 14 articles and seven opinion pieces by highly acclaimed academics and experts on India.

One of the best articles is by Suhas Palshikar who is the former professor of politics at Savitribai Phule Pune University and chief editor of ‘Studies in Indian Politics’. His article ‘The expanding role of majoritarianism in India’ gives an eye-opening account of what is happening to India today under the BJP government that Modi has been leading since 2014.

Palshikar begins by defining the concepts of consociation and majoritarianism in the Indian context. Many observers consider majoritarianism almost a synonym for populist nationalism; Palshikar clarifies that there is an implicit link between democracy’s tendency to slip into disregard for non-majority views and the complicated phenomenon of the more numerous community becoming claimant to political authority. Indian jurist Ambedkar was perhaps the only intellectual and politician of his era who captured this impending problem of India’s democratic project. He pointed out that, while in a democracy political majorities keep changing, in India there is a permanent majority that is not a political majority.

Palshikar argues that majority is the basic and sacrosanct principle of democracy, giving their community the right to claim the public arena to itself. This includes claims on culture, history, power and space in the country; the historic memories of the majority become ‘authentic collective symbols’ in the space of the nation-state belonging to the majority. One culture becomes the ‘true culture’ and the majority must control state authority to ensure this.

In India this has led to the erasing of Muslim names of cities and the writing of ‘correct history’ that juxtaposes Hindus and Muslims as adversaries historically. The state in India is also legalizing ownership of controversial places of worship in favour of Hindus, which Hindu organizations have demanded for decades. Hindutva majoritarianism in India has sought to claim that the majority should have legitimate control over public ideological resources, and Palshikar calls it the first principle of majoritarian politics.

Amit Ranjan has contributed two excellent articles – first introductory, ‘India’s foreign policy shift, adjustment, and continuity’, and the second, more detailed, ‘The colonial origins of Nehru’s foreign policy’. Ranjan begins by highlighting that the Indian National Congress had in its fold largely British-educated liberal-minded Indians who gradually followed an anti-colonial policy and even deplored the annexation of Upper Burma by the British Raj. After independence, Nehru’s vision and foreign policy shaped India’s course of action that drew inspiration from the anti-colonial movement. Even after the end of the cold war, Nehruvian principles kept guiding India in world affairs.

After the cold war, India made a shift in its foreign policy, but the shadow of Nehru was always there as his ideas on non-alignment, his approach to the Kashmir issue, relations with China, and the questions of India’s membership to the United Nations Security Council all kept resurfacing. Amit Ranjan’s insights into the foreign policy of India help us understand why India has followed the path it has taken on various international issues. Initially, Nehru had good expectations of China but then after the 1962 war with China and the 1965 war with Pakistan, all changed and since then India has considered both China and Pakistan as its major adversaries.

Kiran Bhatty’s article ‘The education system in India: promises to keep’ gives us a detailed orientation to what has been happening to education in the country. Bhatty is a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and is a well-known name in the education sector of India, advocating for accountability and more transparency in both private and public education. She has underscores what she calls a ‘conundrum’ of Indian education that no one can explain easily.

India has been able to expand access to education in most parts of the country and boasts some world-class institutions of higher education. But it also has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world and ‘a very poor record of school learning levels’. A major reason for this wide difference between higher education and learning at broader school levels across India is that there are growing inequalities in access to basic education.

Over the years, these inequalities have been growing and have remained persistent while quality of learning and teaching at schools has been declining. Kiran Bhatty calls into question the approaches adopted by successive governments and the strategies that bureaucrats have been following.

In 1951, the average literacy rate in India was just 18 per cent, which has climbed to nearly 75 per cent. Though the 86th Amendment to the constitution of India made elementary education a fundamental right in 2002 –which Pakistan did through the 18th Amendment in 2010 – both countries are far from realizing this commitment; more so in Pakistan where literacy rate is still hovering around 60 per cent which is 15 per cent lower than India. It is a pity that in both countries, tens of millions of children are out of school but both boast to be nuclear powers.

If you are interested in media freedoms – or lack thereof – Salil Tripathi’s article ‘Bend, crawl, or fight? The role and record of the press in a democratic India’ offers ample food for thought. He is an acclaimed author and editor who is also currently chair of PEN International Writers in Prison Committee. His book, ‘Offence: The Hindu Case’ is a must-read for those who want to understand how Hindu fundamentalists have succeeded in banning and censoring cultural works and have tempered with university teaching by preventing academics from continuing their jobs.

In his article for the special issue, Salil Tripathi delves into the making and maintenance of the laws, practices, freedoms, and regulations that govern electronic, print, and social media in India. He focuses specifically on the emergency in India and its aftermath by demonstrating how the Indian media is often made to accommodate political agendas and commercial interests; sounds familiar? The main argument of Tripathi is that the present-day Indian media is worse off than it was during the Emergency of the mid-1970s under Gandhi.

Venkat Iyer, the editor of The Round Table deserves a big applause for the two issues on India and Pakistan though the Pakistan one could have been much better with a little more attention.

Email: mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "India at 75," The News. 2023-03-13.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political agendas , Foreign policy , Politician , Democracy , Suhas Palshikar , China , India , BJP , PEN