Argument

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75 Years After Independence, a Changing ‘Idea of India’

India’s liberal founders recede from view as its current leaders craft a new, less tolerant nation.

By , a writer based in New York.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of independence at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Aug. 15.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of independence at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Aug. 15.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of independence at the Red Fort in New Delhi on Aug. 15. MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

The evening before he was sworn in as newly independent India’s first prime minister 75 years ago on Aug. 15, Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the Indian nation. There was immense curiosity around the world. Nehru’s address, which quickly became known as his “tryst with destiny” speech, is remarkable for its eloquence and his awareness of the task that lay ahead for his nation. At the time, the subcontinent was still undergoing a bloody partition, during which millions of people would die and tens of millions of lives would be uprooted.

Three-quarters of a century later, under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, the country’s narrative is undergoing its broadest shift since independence. India’s secular, liberal founders such as Nehru are increasingly lost from view—and blamed for the tragedy of Partition. Modi’s government wants to turn India into a more assertive, nationalistic, Hindu nation—where minorities exist but are expected to be subservient and grateful. As government officials, including Modi, increasingly mix Hinduism with politics, and as minorities, particularly Muslims, find increased restrictions against displaying their faith, India is fast becoming the country Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, warned about when he demanded a separate nation for British India’s Muslims.

At the time of independence, there was understandable apprehension in foreign capitals about what India might become. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had never liked the idea of granting his country’s biggest colony its freedom, had ridiculed India as “a geographical term … no more a united nation than the equator.” When the British left India, it was divided into two nations—two wings of Pakistan to the west and east for the subcontinent’s Muslims and a much larger Hindu-majority nation that said it would be a secular democracy. India included not only regions directly administered by the British but also more than 500 princely states, large and small, whose rulers believed themselves to be sovereign. Many thought Balkanization was inevitable. India would remain the poster child of poverty, many insisted, particularly after the Nehru government opted for post-independence economic policies that professed socialism, vastly expanded state control of the economy, and did not succeed in promoting economic welfare while announcing plans to do so. Indeed, for many decades, the poor remained poor.

The evening before he was sworn in as newly independent India’s first prime minister 75 years ago on Aug. 15, Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the Indian nation. There was immense curiosity around the world. Nehru’s address, which quickly became known as his “tryst with destiny” speech, is remarkable for its eloquence and his awareness of the task that lay ahead for his nation. At the time, the subcontinent was still undergoing a bloody partition, during which millions of people would die and tens of millions of lives would be uprooted.

Three-quarters of a century later, under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, the country’s narrative is undergoing its broadest shift since independence. India’s secular, liberal founders such as Nehru are increasingly lost from view—and blamed for the tragedy of Partition. Modi’s government wants to turn India into a more assertive, nationalistic, Hindu nation—where minorities exist but are expected to be subservient and grateful. As government officials, including Modi, increasingly mix Hinduism with politics, and as minorities, particularly Muslims, find increased restrictions against displaying their faith, India is fast becoming the country Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, warned about when he demanded a separate nation for British India’s Muslims.

At the time of independence, there was understandable apprehension in foreign capitals about what India might become. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had never liked the idea of granting his country’s biggest colony its freedom, had ridiculed India as “a geographical term … no more a united nation than the equator.” When the British left India, it was divided into two nations—two wings of Pakistan to the west and east for the subcontinent’s Muslims and a much larger Hindu-majority nation that said it would be a secular democracy. India included not only regions directly administered by the British but also more than 500 princely states, large and small, whose rulers believed themselves to be sovereign. Many thought Balkanization was inevitable. India would remain the poster child of poverty, many insisted, particularly after the Nehru government opted for post-independence economic policies that professed socialism, vastly expanded state control of the economy, and did not succeed in promoting economic welfare while announcing plans to do so. Indeed, for many decades, the poor remained poor.

Much more recently, Singaporean elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, too, dismissed India, insisting it is not a real country. “Instead,” he said, “it is 32 separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line.” Reality, however, looks different: The multiethnic former Yugoslavia has broken up, the Soviet empire has splintered, and Pakistan has split into two. India, however, remains a unitary state, notwithstanding challenges such as the future of Kashmir.

India did bring together those princely states, and over three-quarters of a century, it has not only stayed united but emerged stronger, became self-sufficient in food, and turned into a much wealthier economic powerhouse. Crucially, India has continued to hold democratic elections, even if election campaign finance is opaque. It has a judiciary that’s independent in theory but rarely pronounces verdicts the government doesn’t like. The Army has not intervened in politics, even though retired generals fulminate in the media. The Indian media is free to criticize—but directs much of its criticism at the opposition while mostly sparing the government.

India has had major internal strife and fought wars. Today, its relations with most neighbors are fragile. Income inequality has widened. But New Delhi no longer needs help from foreign governments when facing emergencies such as natural disasters and no longer seeks concessional aid from rich countries.


India’s singular achievement since independence has been to remain a democracy that clings to its liberal, secular ethos. True, there were significant setbacks—most notably, the Emergency of 1975-1977, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended key civil rights provisions, jailed opposition leaders and workers, and censored the press. But she held elections in 1977. When she lost, she stepped down without disputing the outcome, returning to power legitimately by winning the next elections in early 1980, following the collapse of the government that replaced her.

The world was impressed and inspired by Indian democracy and its astounding ability to hold together a vast geographic, ethnic, and religious tapestry. John Kenneth Galbraith, who later U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to India, called India a “functioning anarchy” in 1958. Many Indians bristled at the word “anarchy,” but Galbraith’s point was valid: Even in what appeared to him as anarchy, India functioned. Anarchies aren’t meant to function. To many outsiders, there seemed to be an Indian genius at work.

Because of India’s democratic exterior—and the socialist, nonaligned policies with which many of in the international liberal community sympathized—the world gave India a free pass for many of its flaws. India’s pernicious caste system that defined an entire swath of society as “untouchable” persisted despite laws banning the practice, and India was never subjected to the kind of campaigns that rightly targeted South Africa’s apartheid regime. Frequent outbreaks of sectarian violence killed hundreds and at times thousands, but India did not face sanctions. Its robust democratic norms—politicians challenging one another, newspapers exposing scandals, and the occasional resignations of politicians guilty of corruption or misdemeanors—strengthened India’s image, suggesting that the country was adhering to its remarkably progressive constitution. And that document was progressive indeed: From the moment of independence in 1947, every Indian of a certain age, regardless of sex, religion, caste, language, or social status, had the right to vote.

In spite of major crises—several wars, droughts, incompetent leadership, corruption, and internal strife, to say nothing of autarkic economic policies and growing inequality—India continued on its path of remaining a liberal, secular, democratic country. It was an oasis surrounded by authoritarian regimes, where generals took over when they didn’t like the elected civilian government, including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The comparison to its neighbors further enhanced India’s reputation. How deserved that reputation was is a different question. One problem was the government’s ability to curb freedoms whenever it wanted under esoteric so-called national security laws, which independent India actually tightened, making its citizens’ freedoms more vulnerable than during colonial times. But India’s earlier governments played by known rules. The constitution India had adopted with independence was imbued with a liberal, secular, democratic ethos. Part of the reason India got a free pass for many horrible things was because the international community trusted India to get it right. And unlike other countries in the region, India did not export its problems, not least because its very large Muslim population wasn’t radicalized by the ideologies that were sweeping Islam from the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

Instead of being a multi-everything society that celebrates its diversity, India has become a majoritarian entity, fearful of its minorities and keen to subjugate them.

I recall a private conversation with a U.S. diplomat in what was still called Bombay, now Mumbai, in the late 1980s. By then, Eastern Europe was restless and in the process of shaking off the Soviet umbrella. One by one, Moscow’s satellite states were freeing themselves. Vaclav Havel, a writer I deeply admire, would soon become president of Czechoslovakia—and later the Czech Republic. (Disclosure: I am a jury member for the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation’s Disturbing the Peace Award given annually to a courageous writer.) The diplomat at whose home I was having dinner told me, quite frankly: “India’s free ride is going to end soon. Until a few years ago, there were a handful of democracies, and most were in the West. You were the exception. Now, with [protest leader Lech] Walesa in Poland, Havel in Czechoslovakia, the world is changing—there are going to be many more democracies. They will write liberal constitutions. Their new leaders have been close to the West. And India’s flaws—the communal riots, caste riots—will be far more visible.”

He was right. In 1990, I went to South Africa for the first time. Interviewing politicians across the political spectrum, I learned early on that the constitution they planned to write after the end of apartheid was going to be far more liberal than India’s. South African intellectuals and politicians such as Nadine Gordimer, Zach de Beer, Allister Sparks, Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk, and many others I talked to admired India and its democracy, not least because of Mohandas Gandhi’s years in South Africa. As South Africans often tell Indian visitors, “You gave us Mr. Gandhi, we gave you the Mahatma,” and anyone who has followed Gandhi’s life would agree that South Africa strongly shaped the Indian leader’s views and political talents.

The “idea of India,” as political scientist Sunil Khilnani described the ethos of the nation’s early years, was assumed to be what every Indian believed in: democracy, liberalism, secularism, and a concern for the poor.


However, since 1925, an organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (abbreviated RSS, meaning “National Voluntary Union”) has sought to write a different narrative. Many of its early leaders have written approvingly or been unabashed admirers of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, admiring in particular Nazi Germany’s nationalism and ideas of racial purity. During the struggle for independence, the RSS vehemently opposed Gandhi’s and Nehru’s cooperation with Muslims. But for all their admiration of nationalism, no major RSS leader made a notable contribution to India’s struggle for independence. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a prominent icon of Hindu Mahasabha, another right-wing organization, was charged as co-conspirator in Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, though he was acquitted. Gandhi’s actual assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a member of Hindu Mahasabha and had previously been a member of the RSS.

India has banned the RSS three times—in 1948, after Gandhi was killed; in 1975, during the Emergency; and then again in 1992, after right-wing zealots destroyed a mosque in Ayodhya because they claimed it was built on a site where they believed Rama, the Hindu god-king, was born millennia ago. One of the RSS’s allied organizations is today’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which, since its inception in 1980, has steadily expanded its influence. Since the Indian electoral system follows the British first-past-the-post system, it’s enough for the BJP to get a plurality of votes, most recently 37 percent in 2019. The opposition vote is splintered, and the grand old party of India’s independence movement, the Indian National Congress, is struggling. Thanks to the first-past-the-post system, the BJP—under Modi’s charismatic leadership—has been in power without a majority of votes since 2014.

The eight years of BJP rule have changed India’s governing ethos—and what the “idea of India” means today. Instead of being a multi-everything society that celebrates its diversity, it has become a majoritarian entity, fearful of its minorities and keen to subjugate them. Hindus have lynched Muslims on the suspicion of possessing meat. The central government has used national security laws to arrest human rights defenders—including Christians and Muslims—who had been working for the poor, in many cases with no charges filed and bail denied. In the populous state of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP-run state government has razed the homes of Muslims who have challenged the government. Indian jails are filled not only with criminals awaiting trials but also with dissident human rights activists, journalists, writers, and others whose voices an older India might have celebrated.

Continuing to describe India as “the world’s largest democracy” is increasingly bizarre; it is merely the most populous country to hold elections.

The Modi administration is unabashed in promoting the Hindu faith over others. Modi ritually prostates himself before Hindu idols and participates in religious ceremonies on state business—when unveiling national monuments, for example. Under his government, India has become a Hindu country whose minorities must accept second-class status without equal rights and protections as citizens. State schools in many BJP-ruled states no longer offer meat to children at lunch out of a mistaken belief that Hinduism prohibits eating meat. Other Hindu nationalists have been running campaigns on social media singling out films with Muslim actors for boycotts. Hindi, a language spoken as their first language by less than half of India’s 1.4 billion people, is increasingly imposed on regions where it is neither spoken nor popular as a second language. Southern Indian states, where the BJP is generally weaker than in the north, often have superior literacy rates, greater female empowerment, and lower birth rates. In cities in southern and western India, such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad, the BJP vote is boosted by large numbers of job-seeking, Hindi-speaking, hard-to-assimilate migrants from BJP-ruled states. “India is like Europe,” the actor Mohan Agashe once told me. “A common civilization, but different local cultures.”

It is that distinction that bothers the BJP, whose long-term aim is to mold India into a unitary state with a single identity and following a single faith. Former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai once told me he considered this vision as ridiculous because, in his view, Hinduism is a faith with many interpretations, many gods, and many paths toward spiritual salvation, and not the singular narrative the nationalists are making it out to be. But, for better or worse, that’s the direction the BJP is headed. Like other strongly ideological parties—communists come to mind—the BJP’s aim is not the next election but the next generation.

In Modi, India’s Hindu nationalists have found a leader who galvanizes the population, even though he was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat when one of the worst massacres in independent India took place in 2002, and his government was severely castigated by human rights groups at the time. Many have forgotten that Modi was banned from entering the United States until he became prime minister in 2014. That the BJP’s vision vastly diminishes India is hardly a concern for its supporters. If it succeeds, India will be reshaped into something very much different from what Nehru described in the 1940s: “[India] was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.”


Continuing to describe India as “the world’s largest democracy” is increasingly bizarre. Today, India is merely the most populous country to hold elections. It has the form of democracy but has lost the content. Since Modi came to power, India’s ranking in the United Nations Development Program’s human development indicators has stagnated. In its annual review of political freedoms around the world, Freedom House no longer categorizes India as “free.” India is the only nominal democracy among the 10 worst jailers of writers and journalists, according to PEN America; according to Reporters Without Borders, India has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work.

Modi operates like a master performer with a keen eye for exceptional photo-ops. Never mind that many of his policies are whimsical—like the sudden demonetization of the currency in 2016—or woefully inadequate, such as India’s response to the pandemic or to the country’s widening inequality. There are 200 million Indian Muslims—and currently not a single one in Modi’s cabinet.

Of course, India remains a hugely important country. During one of my conversations with Lee when I was a reporter in Singapore, he told me his biggest worry was turmoil in China. But have we thought about what might happen if instead of China, it’s India that disintegrates? If poorly educated, Hindi-speaking northern India increasingly imposes its retrograde values on a more educated, prosperous south, there will be trouble ahead. Going back to a social order before British rule (if it ever existed at all)—requiring moral codes that restrict women, enforcing religious practices, legislating bizarre vegetarian dietary practices, and requiring everyone to speak a single language, believe in one faith, and support one ideology—then Indian unity, preserved for the past 75 years, could begin to unravel. As any glance at a history book makes clear, that is unlikely to be a pleasant process.

An outwardly democratic India may seem like a good counternarrative to an autocratic China. But India has been an unreliable ally of the West and is looking increasingly odious. Look no further than India’s votes at the United Nations abstaining from condemning Russia’s unlawful and brutal invasion of Ukraine.

To regain the moral ascendancy India had at independence, the country needs a makeover. India needs to return to its origins—the “idea of India” and the spirit that its sole Nobel laureate in literature, Rabindranath Tagore, celebrated in his poetry. Even democratically constituted nations can be gripped by madness, as Europe’s bloody 20th century shows. India is a great adventure and fantastic experiment, but its current leadership is turning it into a mere shadow of what Gandhi, Nehru, and Tagore imagined. That failure of imagination is the ultimate tragedy as India now turns 75.

Correction, Aug. 15, 2022: A previous version of this article misstated the jurisdictions Narendra Modi was barred from entering before becoming prime minister.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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