For federalism to be functional, plural polity is a necessity.
The proudest achievement of our nation in its 75 years of existence as a modern state, which the founding fathers of the Constitution defined as “India that is Bharat”, is its tryst with democracy. When Free India embarked on its journey, doubts were expressed about its fallibility. Partition came with its accompanying bloodbath—perhaps the worst instance of ethnic violence in the history of mankind. Within five months of the Constituent Assembly hailing Independence with the chant of “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai”, the apostle of peace, who had led a non-violent revolution, was gunned down by a communal fanatic, on 30 January 1948. In October 1947, Pakistan embarked on the world’s first ever proxy war when it sent in tribesmen in an attempt to annex Kashmir—a continuing war, which has become the longest conflict in modern times. Despite these glitches, Free India gave to itself a democratic Constitution with universal franchise and equal rights for all citizens within two years of attaining freedom, converting the Dominion of India into Republic of India.
In contrast, Pakistan gave itself a Constitution only in 1956 (which was abrogated as military took over. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto-drafted 1973 Constitution, enacted after Bangladesh left Pakistan, is their present statute). Pakistan could finalise its national anthem only on the eve of its seventh Independence Day, in 1954. India had ushered in Freedom with the singing of Vande Mataram, Saare Jahan Se Achha and Jana Gana Mana in the Constituent Assembly—the last was adopted as the National Anthem on 24 January 1950; Vande Mataram became India’s national song. Saare Jahan Se Achha Hindustan Hamara, with a tune composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, became the most popular marching tune for the armed forces.
In the 75th year of Freedom, when India has a tribal lady as its Head of State, it may be recalled that on the midnight of Freedom the national Tricolour was handed over to the Constituent Assembly on behalf of the women of India by Hansa Mehta, who wore a saffron sari, with these words: “It is in the fitness of things that this first flag that will fly over this august House should be a gift of the women of India. We have donned the saffron colour. We have fought, suffered, and sacrificed in the course of our country’s struggle for freedom. We have today attained our goal. In presenting this symbol of freedom, we once more offer our services to the nation. We pledge to work for a great India, for building up a nation that will be a nation among nations. We pledge ourselves to work for a greater cause, to maintain the freedom that we have attained. We have great traditions to maintain, traditions that made India so great in the past. It is the duty of every man and woman to preserve these traditions so that India may hold her spiritual supremacy over the world. May this flag be the symbol of the great India, may it ever fly high, and serve as a light in the gloom that surrounds the world. May it bring happiness to those who live under its protection.” These words ought to echo when we observe the “Har Ghar Tiranga” festivity. Empowerment of women is a work in progress; India embarked on this endeavour on the midnight of Freedom.
Republic of India has traversed a bumpy path. The ignominy of the 1962 defeat; the resolve of 1965 when Pakistan’s “Operation Gibraltar” in Kashmir was thwarted; the glory of 1971, when Indian armed forces assisted Bangladesh freedom fighters to alter the map of the subcontinent, shattering to smithereens Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Two-Nation theory—these landmarks took place within the span of a decade. It was perhaps appropriate that the three main dramatis personae of the Indian Army in the 1971 triumph represented the mosaic of India—Sam Maneckshaw, a Parsi, was the chief; J.S. Aurora, who took the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani troops in Dacca (now Dhaka) was a Sikh; and J.F.R. Jacob, who negotiated the surrender, came from a Baghdadi Jew family settled in Calcutta (Kolkata).
In 1962, the nation observed a black Diwali on 24 October, as four days earlier, China had begun the war. Amidst food shortages in 1965, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appealed to citizens to forego eating cereals so that food could be available to soldiers. In 1971, when ten million refugees poured in from the then East Pakistan, Indian people took to austerity to ensure that the refugees were looked after. A tax of five paisa was imposed on all transactions—thus in effect every citizen of India contributed to the relief effort. Till the 1960s, India was dependent on food imports. The days of “ship to mouth” existence ended with Indira Gandhi’s “Green Revolution”. Today, when the world looked to India for food while supplies were affected due to the Russia-Ukraine war, the pride of India’s 75-year journey comes to relief.
India’s multi-party democracy has evolved over the years. In the initial years, Indian National Congress, the party of Freedom, was the dominant force. Till 1962, the undivided Communist Party (CPI) emerged as the main opposition in Parliament, followed by the Socialists. During the freedom struggle, Communists and Socialists had been a part of the Congress. In 1952, for the first time, a party emerged which did not have an umbilical link with Congress—Bharatiya Jan Sangh, which today has emerged as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Jan Sangh got only four Lok Sabha seats in 1957. In 1962, it won 12 Lok Sabha seats and had two in Rajya Sabha. (The sinews of India’s democracy ensured that in the midst of the 1962 China war when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was among the two Rajya Sabha Jan Sangh MPs, demanded a special session of Parliament, Jawaharlal Nehru relented.) Swatantra Party, a right-wing party which had broken away from Congress too emerged as an Opposition force—in 1967 these right-wing parties overtook the Communists and Socialists to emerge as main Opposition. “New Age”, the CPI mouthpiece, in its edition of 11 March 1962 wrote: “It is the Jan Sangh that promises, because of its militant and disciplined character, far greater opposition to the Congress in the years to come. One might or might not like this particular expression of the Hindi electorate…but it is undoubtedly a force of great importance.” Prophetic words indeed: Jan Sangh’s descendant BJP emerged as India’s ruling party, on its own strength, sans coalition, 52 years after this projection by the CPI organ—footprint of the Communists, meanwhile, shrunk.
In its 75th year, India is struggling on the functionality of its federalism. A strong Centre can be successful if the states, many of which prefer to vote for regional parties, act in tandem and are not discordant. Harmony of India is based on its plurality. India’s political parties must develop mutual respect and cede space to diversity. Recent realignment of forces which have seen change of guard in Mumbai, Patna, show that only constant in the variable of politics is a party’s interest. Bashir Badr’s words perhaps sum up the necessity for civility in politics: “Dushmani jam kar karo, lekin, yeh gunjaish rahe; jab kabhi hum dost ho jayen to sharminda na ho (bear enmity with all your might, but this we should decide—if ever we be friends again, we are not mortified).”