Kids Corner

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh



India Turns Sixty



An unknown wag claimed there were four stages to life: infancy, adolescence, adulthood and obsolescence.

Finally nearing the fourth stage myself, I wondered about the life span of civilizations, and decided that the analogy worked just as well for nations. Of course, the lives of nations and of individuals are measured on very different scales.

India became independent of the British on August 15, 1947, but like a toddler in the early stages of infancy, it remained tied to the British apron strings until January 26, 1950, when the Indian Constitution was adopted.

So, I don't quite know whether to dub Great Britain as the mother or the midwife of modern India; perhaps it was a bit of both.

India is an ancient civilization, and the subcontinent has always been known for the richness of its culture.  There are so many people, better than a billion at last count, of so many different ethnicities, along with a mélange of distinct languages, some from Sanskrit, the mother-tree of Indo European languages, others that are Semitic in origin. An endless variety of cuisine welcomes and tempts you, some that would burn the tongue, others that caress the palate, with a gentle sensuousness that remains truly unmatched.

But was the subcontinent ever a country? 

The Mughal invaders who reached India in 1526 and ruled it for better than two centuries were the first to create a crazy quilt of a nation from its diverse cultures. The British were more successful in creating a nation-state, but only administratively; they left the various cultural, religious and linguistic traditions pretty much undisturbed. 

So, India became one country that included many nations whose political boundaries were determined by British abilities to wage war and conquer people.

Long before the British, this land was important to the Chinese silk trade, and to the world that needed India's spices. Even Columbus was looking for the route to India when he stumbled onto America. 

Anthropologists tell us that the Caucasians of Asia Minor may have migrated in two different directions  -  towards Europe or into India. Except for the British, French and Portuguese who came by sea, most invaders  -  whether Alexander the Great and his Greeks/Macedonians, Mongols, Arabs, Persians or Mughals  -  like the Caucasians, hurtled through the Khyber Pass and into North West India and the land we now call Punjab.

What was this conglomerate of nations called before the British named it "India"?

I really have no idea, and history books seem silent on it. 

But why "India"?

One credible legend claims it was because one of the five rivers that ran through Punjab was named "Sindhu". The British called the river "Indus"; they dubbed the people Hindus, and the country became known as India.

The British ruled India for two centuries and the former Sikh territories for only half that time. But, they left the cultural and religious pockets relatively undisturbed. So, there was hardly any unifying Indian theme or trait when they left in 1947, except for the very thin veneer of a class of British-educated Indians.

When, after the Second World War, a militarily weakened and financially strapped Britain left the subcontinent, it was no surprise that fault lines based on religious and cultural differences surfaced in the land.

At independence in 1947, the subcontinent was broken up into two nations  -  India and Pakistan  -  and about six hundred quasi-independent states, which later joined one country or the other. India, at independence, was as much one nation as would be a single entity hammered out of all the European countries that shared the same land mass.

A serious, coordinated effort to create a national cultural identity for India did not start until after 1947, and it was and remains primarily a promotion of the majoritarian Hindu worldview. Even now, the one glue that unites India into a single nation, besides its formidable armed forces, seems to be the Hindi movie industry, popularly known as "Bollywood".

I think a nation deserves better.

Adolescence is a time of testing.  There is a surfeit of energy, erratic, even idiosyncratic behavior and chaotic contradictions. I would honestly term free India's past sixty years its infancy and adolescence. 

An economically impoverished country, densely populated with a variety of nations within it, cannot but show fateful strains. Economic disparities created corrupt culture, minorities were oppressed, people rebelled and were crushed. Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, each in turn, were the recipients of an "Alice in Wonderland" model of justice. 

India's record is rife with sins of the modern world  -  exploitation of child labor, human trafficking, and infringement of intellectual property rights. Today, as a growing regional power, India is courted by the United States, but it has also thrown its weight around and acted, at times, like an overgrown banana republic. 

In other words, I see a nation passing through adolescence, with all the attendant growing pains. Yet, India is and remains the most populous democracy in the world. 

The world has now changed, and so has India along with it. In fact, fate may have put India in the driver's seat. After the troubles of adolescence that brought it to the brink of fragmentation, India might even be poised at the beginning of a promising adult life.

First, there was an internal unexplained miracle in India. Less than five years ago, the political bosses in India had an epiphany, and the culture of cronyism took a back seat. Minorities no longer appeared to be shunned, but instead seemed to be welcomed. 

For the first time in sixty years, India's governing political troika became a Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister and a Christian head of the dominant political party. Another miracle: for the first time, a Sikh general commanded the Indian army.

The icing on the cake  -  the Muslim president was also an internationally respected nuclear scientist, and the Sikh Prime Minister an internationally acclaimed economist.

Secondly, someone up there must be watching out for India. India, with its billion people, now seems to be the engine driving the global economy. Its millionaires are multiplying exponentially. 

But a chasm remains. India is fast becoming a service industry, somewhat like the back office of large multinational corporations. To me, back office personnel are clerks, not innovators, nor captains of industry. India is creating office jobs, not managerial or manufacturing infrastructure, as China is. Are we then becoming a nation of clerks, as envisioned by Thomas McCauley, the architect of Colonial India's educational system for the British?

India still has a large proportion of its population in poverty that can only be addressed by expanding its industrial base, not by setting up more call centers.

India also sits astride some very strategically critical real estate. The United States, the sole superpower today, sees China as a competitor in every sphere  -  in the global economic marketplace, in manufacturing, in space, as well as in the arms race.

We need a counterweight to China. In Asia, India is the only country with the infrastructure, the heft, and the population base to provide the balancing presence to a muscular China. But, India needs help in developing its base, creating wealth, and lifting its burgeoning population out of poverty.

Then there is the Islamic world that sits across oil reserves that are the lifeline of the developed nations. By our ill-designed efforts in the Middle East, we have stirred up a hornet's nest. Of the Islamic states, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, while Iran may be on its way to acquiring one. If the Muslim world ever comes together, how safe would we be, and how vulnerable would Israel be?  How assured would be our relatively affluent lifestyle? How best to keep the Islamists in check? Again, from the American perspective, India can be its surrogate.

So, it seems to me that in such a worldview, India's sins would be forgiven, whether it is testing nuclear weapons, committing infringement of trade and patent laws, or violations of human rights.

And that is why India has been able to negotiate such a sweetheart deal with America on nuclear technology, despite its refusal to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Certainly, Iran and North Korea, among other developing nations, must be salivating at such a cozy arrangement. That's also why, despite India's heinous record on human rights, no opprobrium would stick.  It's like India has a Teflon coating.

In the adult world, we soon recognize that people are imperfect, and that many sins are best overlooked, otherwise life would be impossible. What matters is to be prepared to enter the adult phase of life with a clear code of ethics and integrity. Nations are no different, and life is not black or white. Is India willing and able?

Let's welcome India at sixty into the gray world of adulthood.


Conversation about this article

1: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), August 14, 2007, 1:45 PM.

An informative and interesting overview of India's history, especially of the post-partition period. I think India can venture into adulthood with confidence despite the road-block of attempts at its hinduisation camouflaged as nationalism.

2: D. J. Singh (U.S.A.), August 14, 2007, 6:50 PM.

Why do individuals of Indian origin excel in their chosen fields outside India? Does India lack the infrastructure to support their projects? Is it the bureaucracy or babu culture? Does the work ethics of emigrants undergo a radical change outside their safe haven? Or, it is just that India cannot contain its talented within its seams? Does the appointment of individuals to the top post reflect the change in the political attitude of the masses and acceptance of minority communities at large? President Zail Singh occupied the coveted post in 1984. The rest is lost in history!

3: Harinder (Pune, India), August 14, 2007, 11:36 PM.

Power corrrupts. Other wise it would not be called power. Mughals tried to make India into a Muslim country. Missionaries tried to evangelize it. RSS guys tried the hindu card in Nagaland, J&K, Goa, and later, Punjab. All have to just realize that the ways of God are unique and unfathomable. It is by His will that this planet is alive and pulsating and not by the imperialists of different shades. Nanak naam chardi kalaa, tere bhane sarbat da bhalla!

4: Prabhu Singh Khalsa (Española, New Mexico, U.S.A.), August 15, 2007, 12:05 PM.

India's "sins" will be forgiven when it attempts to make efforts towards justice. Or maybe even when they take the very first step of removing the criminals from power. The Congress leaders that killed Sikhs are still in power, how can those sins be forgiven?

5: Tejwant (U.S.A.), August 15, 2007, 12:20 PM.

Once again, I. J. Singh has given us the view from his wide/zoom angle and has hit the nail on the head. India does seem like a big puzzle whose pieces were filed, sawed, cut and some decimated to fit the puzzle that was concocted by some afterthought, unlike the puzzles we buy in the market. When we make the pieces to fit, then some are forced into their chosen nooks rather than falling into their respective places with ease. The Brits had perfected the art of divide and rule, like cementing a facade on broken cardboard walls, to give the impression of uniformity. India was a quilt of tribal princedoms, haphazardly patched together with weak threads which could be easily snapped by the bigger ego of a neighbour. The Brits knew that. They brought their own clippers to shape the patches of the quilt as they desired, except they failed to work on the biggest patch of all: the one led by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the great Sikh Peace Warrior. Until his death. Many Indians were used by the Brits as munshis, bean counters, and were trained to be content with the allotted abacuses: the Epsilons of the British Raj. Then one day, all of a sudden, the Brits left, after letting the kids in the kindergarten draw the map that created East & West Pakistan and disappeared in the sunset. The sun had finally set on the British Raj. They let the shredded quilt on the floor, to be picked up by the Brown Babus who were educated under their tutelage. They also lent them their stiff upper lips to give them the feeling of superiority. These Brown Babus created the constitution from which they omitted the ones who gave up the most for freedom, the Sikh Warrior-Saints. After 60 years, the nation rewmains one of mere munshis ... of the big corporations, this time time around; still content with the abacuses. Until we strive to be the trail blazers of this new economy by laying foundations upon which the future generations can build, we shall remain as such, stuck in the cubicles of some broiler rooms in old Delhi; the Epislons of the Brave New World, sipping our Soma, which we just bought by using our first Mastercard, from the Starbucks just built outside the Red Fort.

6: G.C. Singh (U.S.A.), August 16, 2007, 2:05 AM.

Dr I J Singh, in his customary style, has elucidated the troubled history of India and its many contradictions. However, Dr. Singh seems to be overly optimistic for India's adulthood and somewhat carried away by the high blitz "India shining" campaign when he refers to the "icing on the cake". This is the image that most official and unofficial Indian envoys and lobbyists are peddling to obscure the systemic gross injustice and violence against minorities. Shashi Tharoor, who lost his bid to become UN Secretary General, recently wrote an article in the L.A. Times, gushing how three years ago, after the awe-inspiring experience of the world's largest exercise in democratic elections, India saw a Roman Catholic political leader (Sonia Gandhi) making way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as prime minister of India by a Muslim (then-President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam) - in a country that is 81% Hindu. What he failed to inform in his article was that the real power rests with the Hindu establishment and the Sikh prime Minister is totally helpless when it comes to returning the looted Sikh heritage or punishing the well known and well recognized criminals responsible for butchering tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs ... while some Sikhs are still being sent to the gallows in politically motivated cases by Indian courts. In 1984, a symbolic Sikh as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces was unable to prevent the pre-planned attack on the Golden Temple and was totally helpless in deploying the army to stop the massacre of Sikhs within 20 miles radius of his own residence. Similarly, the Muslim President remained totally silent for five years and could not ensure that criminals responsible for the Muslim massacre in Gujarat are brought to justice.

7: I.J. Singh (New York, U.S.A.), August 16, 2007, 9:41 AM.

I absolutely do not mean to suggest that Sikhs should or would overlook India's transgressions in 1984. My point is that the present global realities have endowed India with its teflon coating. And that's why, at this time, its sins are ignored and brushed aside by the international community. This is what a reality check tells me.

8: GC Singh (USA), August 16, 2007, 1:13 PM.

I agree with Dr. I J Singh that India seems to be having a Teflon coating and its egregious behavior and gross human rights violations have been overlooked because of trade and geopolitical considerations. However, we must also give India credit for its propaganda networks which it has very effectively deployed by wearing the cloak of democracy, secularism and Gandhian non-violence, while being one of the most violent and violence-prone countries in the world. Effective use of money power and lobbying by Indians and a naive American administration, has helped India manipulate the sweet-heart nuclear deal without even signing the NPT. On the surface, it is meant for civilian power production but its real intentions are suspect and may be used to build hundreds, if not thousands, of weapons of mass destruction which India euphemistically refers to as its "strategic assets". The Economist hit the bull's eye in its March 2006 cover story which shows American president riding on a nuclear missile with the headline "George W Bush in Dr. Strangedeal - or how I learned to stop worrying and love my friend's bomb".

9: M.S.Sodhi (Toronto, Canada), August 16, 2007, 2:28 PM.

Well said, Prabhu Singh Ji and G.C. Singh Ji, and thanks I.J Singh Ji for clarifying your view-point! The whole world might ignore the grave injustices done to minorities in general and Sikhs in particular in India, but Sikhs will never and shouldn't forgive India unless and until there are sincere intentions of justice being meted out (which now seems only like a dream!). In fact, I actually recently had a dream that it's the year 2047 (100th anniversary of the so-called independence from the British Raj), and the Indian courts have just announced (as a gift to all Sikhs) that the main ring leaders/perpetrators of the crime against Sikhs be put behind bars. The general public is interestingly very quite and no hue & cry is raised against the verdict this time (unlike the previous times when people like Sajjan Kumar were called to the courts)! The reason for this & the only problem is that all the ring leaders have already died some years ago from natural causes! I woke up perturbed and cursed a little and went back to sleep, hoping I don't get such a dream!

10: D.J.Singh (USA), August 16, 2007, 9:36 PM.

Forgiveness. Who can forgive? The victims, their families, friends or their representatives. The rest are only spectators! How do we forgive? First forego pride, anger, greed, lust and worldly attachment. Then forgive. This is the Sikhi way of forgiveness. If in doubt, we should delve into our scripture. Read the Word, understand the message, follow its direction to enlighten our soul.

11: D.J.Singh (U.S.A.), August 17, 2007, 6:15 PM.

In 1947, the reins of the country were handed over by the Queen and Governor General to the political parties and the politicians. The new rulers have enjoyed their role in independent India. The common citizens have been unable to save their families from eve-teasing, female feticide, dowry, bride burning, riots, and social injustice. Sixty years later, we need to empower the masses and free them from the clutches of corruption!

12: Jasbeer Singh (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada ), February 15, 2009, 6:20 PM.

A very logical and readable story of India. While the author ought to be thanked and congratulated for this, I'd like to suggest a slightly different perspective. In my opinion, he overlooked the "nation building" contributions of the British. If one were to critically and objectively analyze the role of the British, one would find it extremely difficult to come to any conclusion other than, the fact that it was the British who turned a hodge-podge of small, fragmented, diverse societal entities, ruled by a variety of exploiting ruling elite, into a single administrative and centrally governed entity, that was thanklessly inherited by present India's Congress leaders, who never (still) tire of criticizing the British. Let's take a look at the nation building initiatives undertaken by the British: 1) Armed forces. Drawn from all parts of India and centrally managed / administered. No other institution brought Indians of different backgrounds together in such an effective manner. 2) The legal system. One uniform system of law applied to all. 3) Educational system. No universities or colleges existed in India, prior to the British initiative. 4) Railways network. 5) Network of roads and highways. 6) National power grid. 7) Postal, telephone and telegraph system. 8) Representative system of government. They had started the process of inducting local people into the system of governance as members to legislative councils. 9) Police services - unified and uniformly managed 10) Single currency. This never existed before. 11) English Language. The only reason for India's economic boom starting in the late nineties is the availability of English speaking population and the use of well understood and reliable legal system. 12) India's largest hydro / irrigation system (until then) - the Bhakra-Nangal, had been planned and started by the British, before they left in 1947. While one must accept the fact that the imperialist British came as traders and gradually took over the process and powers of governance by hook or by crook, we must not deny that they made very significant voluntary contributions to make this land mass and the people who inhabit this land, a better place and better equipped people. Let us learn to give the devil his due, in a graceful and respectful manner.

13: Gurinder Johal (Amritsar, Punjab), May 28, 2009, 8:56 AM.

I.J. Singh's views are right. There is a need to make India stronger within Asia to keep the balance, but the people of India will first have to change their medieval mind-set. People here are still promoting dynasties even though this is supposed to be a demoracy. It is merely a hypocratic "democracy" in which only a handful of families are dominating the scene. Unless the people are educated and have some political opinions of their own, it is not possible for India to grow.

14: Meena (Delhi, India), August 24, 2009, 2:51 AM.

Sardar G.C. Singh ji ... you are fast becoming my hero! You have said it like it is. Way to go!

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