A lot of nations won – or were handed – their independence in the years immediately following the Second World War. The imperial powers were, irrespective of the side they were on, destroyed, their heydays of old only a pathetic reminder now of how vaporous that dominance actually was. Insular nations such as Germany and Japan were torn apart, while expansive ones like France and England were struggling to keep their own legs out of the freezing water.
Our history books tell us that we ‘won’ Independence from the British in 1947. With all due respect to our freedom fighters and taking nothing away from their contribution or their sacrifices, it would be fairly more accurate to accept that we were abandoned to our (plundered and depleted) resources, the gift of Independence itself accompanied by a poisoned pill in the form of Partition and the sort of brown-lives-don’t-matter panache the Raj was partial to. In essence, we were the kids the parents no longer wanted; we were sent on our way with nothing in hand, and we were expected to be grateful for it.
Having gone around parts of East Asia, I now have a theory as to why, even when united by similar cultural values and philosophies, some nations have surged ahead while others – such as ours – totter forward at a molassic pace, hampered from within much more than from without. And the one thing that stands out is that the nationalist sentiment – such a dirty word these days, na? – combined with a sense of identity and destiny to bring about an uncompromising attitude in the nations that succeeded. Where there were compromises, there was failure.
A friend of mine, whose opinions I respect even if I don’t always agree with him, holds the view that one of Jawaharlal Nehru’s greatest contribution to India was to maintain the spirit of democracy that had been ‘bequeathed’ to us by the British (If it were such a noble idea, I wonder why the Britons never let us rule ourselves – as the majority of Indians undoubtedly wanted – and why, at the end of a war brought about by a democratic leader – irrespective of what a crazy coot he was – were insistent that we should not go any other way). Which is pure balderash, because the first instance of misusing the Centre’s power happened when the EMS government in Kerala was dismissed and the Communists hunted down with state sanction. If Nehru were the statesman he was supposed to be, he wouldn’t have let this happen; nor would he have stood by so helpless in the face of the Partition. Indian cultural values stress on the appearance, if not action, of sympathy at a time of great loss; what, then, was the reason for Nehru’s glee? That, for once without his father’s help, he was going to grab the apogee again? Or that he could now be even more unimpeachable legally and emotionally in the land of the people he’d always deigned to be lesser than their more ‘culturally-refined’ betters?
I digress, though. This isn’t a rant on Nehru. It’s about calling out the bluff that we ought to be grateful for the chance to screw things up for ourselves.
As anyone who’s ever needed physiotherapy can attest, weak muscles cannot function without directed effort – on the contrary, random exercises will even prove harmful. If that’s too difficult to imagine, then picture this: a kid whose parents don’t bother teaching him right from wrong, how to be kind or polite, how to be ethical and law-abiding, even the right way to write or express… such a kid will grow, in the absence of a countervailing influence, into an unruly, unmanageable, spoilt, selfish brat. Rather like most of our political heirs today.
India, in 2016, is the teenaged version of that unruly child. We excused the lumpen elements in our system, made excuses, blamed poverty, discrimination. We said it’s okay to lie, cheat or steal – or heck, even kill – if you are convinced you are wronged, but this permission came with conditions attached. You’ve got to be able to scream ‘victim!’ at the drop of a hat. You’ve got to be able to cloud people’s minds enough, blind them to the mistakes you did and make them see only your caste, your religion, your affiliation.
What if, at the time it all started to go wrong, in the circa 1950s, our leadership had said, “Look, we need discipline. We need to recover our lost glory, and the first step to that is cleanliness. Anyone found littering will be dealt with severely. There are no degrees of guilt, nor of severity of crime depending on the culprit. Corruption, irrespective of the parties, will result in execution. Drugs and other illegal trades, likewise. Our independence was won on the blood and sweat of a million bodiies; we shall not abuse them by speaking of breaking the nation. Education shall reach everyone not when it will, but within the next ten years. India will not adopt a chalta hai, chalega attitude. We must be better than that…”
What if, at the end of the 1962 debacle, we’d said those who caused us this dishonour from within must pay?
What if we’d made sure every criminal paid, instead of excusing him with extenuating circumstances, his background, his ‘lack of opportunities’?
What if, instead of a dictatorship brought about by the selfish need of a woman to save herself from an imminent arrest, we’d had one when we were a younger nation? When the firm hand of a parent instead of the casual hand of a friend was called for? When it was, for us, the same point in our history as when Lee Kuan Yew refused to bend under the immense demands and pressures of an interracial Singapore or when Mao united a nation vastly bigger than our own and returned their Confucianism and historic identity to its peoples?
Would we still have been as unruly???