Freedom came to India on 15 August 1947. The date was selected by the then Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, as it was the second anniversary of the Japanese surrender in Burma to the Allied Forces in the World War II, when Mountbatten held the office of Supreme Allied Commander of the Southeast Asia Command. So, the selected date seems to have resonated with imperial pride rather than nationalist sentiment. However, as soon as the radio announced Mountbatten’s date, astrologers all over the country began to consult their charts. Those in the holy city of Benares and several others in the south immediately announced 15 August a date so inauspicious that India ‘would be better advised to tolerate the British one day longer rather than risk eternal damnation’.
According to Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, authors of the book entitled Freedom at Midnight, one astrologer in particular, Swami Madamanand, wrote to Mountbatten, saying, “For the love of God, do not give India her independence on 15 August. If floods, drought, famine and massacres follow, it will be because free India was born on a day cursed by the stars.” It could not be a day earlier, because Mountbatten was then in Karachi to deliver the King’s message of Independence to Pakistan. The compromise? India would be granted Independence during the midnight hour between 14 August and 15 August, since, according to the West, a new day begins at midnight, but according to the Hindu Calendar, it begins at sunrise.
It was decided to begin the celebrations on the 14th, with a special session of the Constituent Assembly, the body of representative Indians working towards a new constitution. Thus at midnight on 15 August 1947, independent India was born as its prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in his historical speech spoke of the country’s dream: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom… The achievements we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the great triumphs and achievements that await us.” It was an hour of darkness, too, with the flames of Partition blazing across the land, hundreds of thousands being butchered in sectarian savagery and millions seeking refuge across the arbitrary lines that had vivisected their homelands.
At a time when the fires of Partition were blazing across the land, Nehru thought not only of India, but also of the rest of the world and said: “Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this One World that can longer be split into isolated fragments.” This was not entirely surprising as India had, for millennia, been engaged with the rest of the world. However, the overall success in the task identified by Nehru, of “the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity” has been quite limited. Though India became a free nation on 15 August 1947, it declared itself a Sovereign, Democratic and Republic state with the adoption of the Constitution on 26 January 1950.
The 42nd Amendment of the Constitution changed the description of India from a ‘sovereign democratic republic to a ‘sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic’. At the time of independence, there was worldwide skepticism about the future of India as a united democratic republic. Winston Churchill once remarked: “India is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the Equator.” Considering its extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices, it was feared that India would soon break up or at least go back to an authoritarian regime of some kind. But India has not only survived as a democracy, it has emerged as a fastest growing developing country held together, in the words of its first prime minister “by strong but invisible threads ~ She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.”
Today India is more than the sum of its contradictions. The triumph of India’s democratic politics is now acknowledged throughout the world. An important benefit of democratic functioning and free speech is that if wrong policies are followed, a correction of these policies is easier and unavoidable in view of public pressure and open discussion. The role of democracy in preventing famines has also received considerable attention. India has not had a real famine since independence despite endemic hunger and malnutrition. In democratic countries, including India, around the world, democracy in the full sense of the term (that of a government of the people, by the people, for the people) has not been achieved, and there remain many gaps to fill in Indian democracy. Nevertheless, after more than seventyfour years of largely successful democratic governance, India has earned its status as a leading democratic country and shown quite powerfully how democracy can flourish despite a multitude of languages, religions and ethnicities.
Akin to a Human Development Index the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the research division of the Economic Group, a UK-based private company which publishes the weekly The Economist, has devised the Democracy Index to measure the state of democracy in 167 countries and territories, of which 166 are sovereign states and 164 are UN member states. The index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories, measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political culture. In addition to numeric scores and a ranking, the index categorises each country into one of four types of regimes: full democracies (where civil liberties, and fundamental political freedom are not only enforced but also respected); flawed democracies (where basic civil liberties are honoured; free and fair elections are held; but other basic democratic aspects such as media freedom, political opposition and critics are suppressed); hybrid regimes (characterized by electoral fraud, widespread corruption, non-independent judiciaries etc.) and authoritarian regimes (where elections are not free and fair, political pluralism does not exist, absolute monarchies or dictatorships dominate).
India has ranked in the 46th position out of 167 countries in the 2021 Democracy Index’s global ranking, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit. The list was published on 10 February 2022. With the highest score of 9.75, Norway topped the Democracy Index 2021, while India scored 6.91 to rank 46 on the list. Our neighbour Pakistan has been placed further below in the hybrid regime with a rank of 104. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen observes: “Democracy does not serve as an automatic remedy of ailments as quinine works to remedy malaria. The opportunity it opens up has to be positively grabbled in order to achieve the desired effect.” Indeed, the achievements of democracy depend not only on the rules and procedures that are adopted and safeguarded, but also in the way the opportunities are used by the government in response to popular pressure.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, as the British economic historian Angus Maddison has shown, India’s share of the world economy was 23 per cent, as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the British departed India, it had dropped to just 3 per cent. The reason was simple: India was governed for the benefit of Britain. Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations of India. (An Era of Darkness by Shashi Tharoor). It is reassuring that India’s economic base has come a long way since 1947: its size of Rs.203 trillion does not make economic distress as visible as back then, and it is better equipped to handle shocks. There are other economic achievements too. But conditions surrounding the coming 76th birthday reinforce thoughts about what India has not achieved till now since 1947, an increase in the manufacturing sector share for the mass absorption of its surplus agricultural labour; eradiation of poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, to mention a few.