Independent India is 66 years old today, as is Pakistan. Both countries got their Independence from British rule on August 14/15, 1947. Pakistan celebrates August 14 as its Independence Day. Mohammed Ali Jinnah was Pakistan’s first Governor- General and the main driving force for the formation of that country. Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first Prime Minister but Mahatma Gandhi is considered the father of the nation.
Both Jinnah and Gandhi died soon after their countries’ independence, but Nehru remained to guide India. In Pakistan, an elected government has recently given way to another democratically-elected, an unprecedented devolution for Pakistan, bedeviled as it has been with coups and long bouts of military rule. Indeed, a disastrous army dictatorship, that of the bumbling General Yahya Khan, led to a humiliating defeat at the hands of India, the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.
Fortunately, India has not broken up, though the doomsayers predicted that it would, since it was much more diverse than Pakistan, with more languages, communities and faiths that threatened to pull it apart. Pakistan imagined that religion was the glue that would bind it together. It was wrong. India’s democracy proved to be a much stronger binding force than religion. First, there was the revolt of the Nagas in the northeast who wanted an independent Nagaland.
Despite the continuing unrest in the region, many former rebels have become elected leaders. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, in the south, there was a powerful separatist movement, the demands of which were much more radical than those of the Bengalis in East Pakistan. Yet, the Tamil separatists moderated their demands once they were elected to power – and got them – whereas East Pakistan was forced to rise up in revolt when it was denied its representative rights.
Democracy has kept India united; the lack of it broke up Pakistan. India has, of course, had other serious divisive threats, mainly in Punjab and the State of Jammu and Kashmir. In Punjab, Indira Gandhi made a fatal error by sending in troops into Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs. Her advisers told her that the army would clear the Sikh militants, who were holed up in the shrine, in no time at all with little loss of life.
And she would be seen as upholding the unity of the country against terrorists. Her advisers were grievously wrong. It took the army two days and nights to defeat the heavily-armed and well-trained terrorists. Hundreds of Sikh militants, soldiers and innocent pilgrims (who were caught in the crossfire) were killed in the fighting (the exact toll has never been released by the Indian authorities). Indira Gandhi paid for the blunder with her life, when two of her Sikh bodyguards gunned her down in her garden.
Eventually, the traumatized Sikh community returned to the mainstream, the election of a Sikh, the gentle and upright Dr Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister being symbolic of the change. Again, democracy had provided the healing touch and rescued India. Meanwhile, Kashmir had also gone up in flames, thanks partly due to a rigged election and corrupt misgovernance. Kashmir remains one of India’s major unresolved problems and the main sticking point in better ties between India and Pakistan.
So, is India’s glass half full, or half empty? The empty part relates to insufficient progress in two main areas: Education and health. India’s literacy rate is still only a little over 70 per cent, which means that over 300 million Indians, mostly girls, cannot read or write. And the expectancy of life – the surest indicator of health – is still less than 70 years. Countries like China, Indonesia and even Sri Lanka, which were behind India in these social parameters six decades ago, have done better than India.
Where the glass is half full is in the rapid economic growth India has made in the past two decades, next only to China’s, creating a middle class of around 300 million Indians. India has become a giant in the information and technology (IT) areas and a major base for outsourcing jobs and skills for major western multinational companies. Indian companies like the Tatas and Birlas have also successfully ventured abroad. A quarter century ago, India did not figure among the nations that mattered in the world.
It now matters and Indians can justifiably be proud of that. Major challenges remain, but they can hold their heads up high, in India and abroad. The same, sadly, cannot be said for Pakistan. However, with a stable democratic government in power and the army in the background, it may be about to finally turn the corner. On August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru made perhaps his most eloquent speech. He spoke about his nation stepping out “from the old to the new” and of India’s “tryst with destiny”. That tryst still needs to be fulfilled.