Usually Republic Day comes and goes without this column paying any attention. Having been a child in those early years after the republic was formed, I remember with nostalgia those cold, rainy (it always rained) mornings when we would be bundled up in warm clothes and taken to Rajpath to watch Pandit Nehru honour our troops and our achievements. Security virtually did not exist so us children could wander up to the prime minister’s podium and share in the patriotic mood. Then things changed. The Republic Day parade became a hollow display of weaponry and silly tableaux. One year a troop of girls performed Jane Fonda-type aerobics in front of Indira Gandhi and her American guests. So I lost interest. If I mark the day this time, it is because we have a different kind of prime minister who likes to use important occasions to hold a mirror up to India’s flaws.
While us media types have been hysterical with excitement (colonial hangover?) over the visit of the American President, Narendra Modi quietly made a powerful appeal to save the girl child. In doing this, he acknowledged one of the terrible things about India that must change. There is probably nothing more terrible in our ancient legacy than the treatment of women and, of these, the most terrible is the manner in which even educated Indian women kill their daughters before they are born. The euphemism for this type of murder is ‘foeticide’, but it is really infanticide and we have a long history of this.
So let us talk about other legacies that need to change for the state of our republic to improve. In Davos last week, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley talked of ‘legacy issues’ that the Modi government has to deal with. When I asked him what the worst of these legacies were, he said, “The land law and the retrospective tax.” He spoke in the context of the economy and it is true that the worst legacy of the Sonia-Manmohan government was the abysmal state of the economy they left behind. This is why economic analysts and those invested in India have been worried about the reform process moving too slowly. The irony is that Jaitley has moved faster than other ministers. The ministers dealing with power, infrastructure and rural development have moved much slower. But, for me personally, it is changes in ministries dealing with human development that are much, much more important.
Of these, the most important is education and here we have so far seen no sign that the minister has understood the immense responsibility that rests with her. She continues to meddle in worryingly petty fashion in matters that lie in the arena of academia, instead of creating a new template for Indian education. Everything needs to change because the legacy that has come down since the early years of the republic is a colonial one. It has remained mysteriously unchanged.
So Indian children, if they learn to read and write, which most do not, read books written by foreign writers about foreign countries but almost never know anything about India’s great wealth of literature. Language is an even bigger problem, and we could be producing a generation of Indians that has lost touch with their own languages without learning English except in its most basic form. International tests like PISA show that Indian children fail the simplest cognitive tests. Schools are a state subject, but a new template can only be created at the highest level.
Only when we sort out our educational legacy will it become possible to seriously deal with other legacy issues: public hygiene and open defecation. How do you convince illiterate, rural people that open defecation has to stop because it spreads disease, stunting in children and shamefully, in more recent times, violence against women. These are all legacy issues that Narendra Modi’s government will have to deal with and deal with firmly because so far the response of governments past has been to treat them with disdain. In the unforgettable words of a high official in the Sonia-Manmohan government, “If you live in India you have to learn to accept that our people are basically primitive and barbaric.”
An official of the British Raj could not have been more contemptuous. So when you watch the parade tomorrow, please remember that the state of the republic is not worth celebrating. It could get better in the next five years but for this to happen, the Prime Minister will need to warn each one of his ministers that they have legacy issues to deal with that need urgent attention. The Prime Minister himself appears to have understood this but have his ministers? Too many seem to have just settled into the moulds left for them by yesterday’s ministers. Meanwhile, Happy Republic Day.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh