It was in the year 1942, while walking to my school in Chhota-Simla, that I first heard the now traditional greeting exchanged each year on Independence Day. A galloping horse with rider astride swiftly passed by, but not before I heard a voice, loud and clear, say: “Jai Hind”. It was Panditji, instilling in an unknown schoolboy, the love of what was yet to become independent India.
Since 1950, we have had our “freedoms” carefully written into our Constitution — but on this 70th Independence Day, freedom to me means something more, something different: Freedom from an over-abundance of political power concentrated in a single political party at the Centre. Let me explain.
In the first general elections after independence — in 1952 — members of the Indian National Congress (which had fought for India’s freedom from British Rule) were returned in an overwhelming majority to the first Lok Sabha and a one-party government was formed at the Centre. With victory thereafter at each successive general election, the Congress became a bit too cocksure. Whilst it did tolerate a contrariety of beliefs and opinions amongst the diverse people of India, it became progressively intolerant. The refrain of those then in absolute power in Delhi was: “We have an overwhelming majority to change the constitution. Let’s do it.” And they did, as the poet said, “to remould it nearer to their heart’s desire”.
But that aspiration got frustrated in 1973, when a bench of 13 judges of India’s Supreme Court put a stop to all amendments that violated the Constitution’s “basic structure”. To this, the response of the government was that “an elected parliament must be supreme, an unelected court can never be”. It was then that the judges pointed out that it was neither parliament nor the highest court that was supreme — what was supreme and paramount was the Constitution of India.
Dissatisfied with this explanation, and at a time when Indira Gandhi herself was unseated in Parliament by the judicial verdict of a high court (not immediately interfered with by the Supreme Court), India’s prime minister declared an internal Emergency in June 1975, which deprived India’s citizens of all personal liberties under a spate of oppressive laws headed by the dreaded MISA.
There then followed a period of public administration in India that was dominated not by the rule of law, but solely by “insolent might”.
However, the excesses of the internal Emergency (and dissatisfied with the practice of frequent “toppling” of state governments inimical to the Centre by invoking Article 356) alienated the people from the government at the Centre. The results of the general elections, declared after the end of the Emergency in March 1977, were catastrophic for the party in power. A new political party was voted into power. But due to internal dissensions within the Janata Party, the government did not last long. After another somewhat indifferent decade of Congress rule (1980 to 1989), there emerged a prolonged period of coalition governments for the next 25 years — 1989 to May 2014 — during which no single political party could, on its own, form a government at the Centre.
It was during this period when political parties were reaching out for alliances — in order to form a stable government — India witnessed a complete change of attitude in their leaders. Stepping down from the high ground, they became much less fractious and much more friendly. They began practising the spirit of fraternity — one of the prime purposes for which the Constitution was framed, as stated upfront in its preamble.
The Bhagwad Gita says “that whatsoever great men do, that other men also do; the standards they set up, by that the people go”. So, in India ordinary people follow the example of their “leaders”. And when governments do good things, people do the same. When those in the government speak temperately, and without excitement, anger or malice, the people — ordinary people — do likewise.
However, after the general election of May 2014 — not immediately, but after a brief lull — we once again witnessed the bogey of an intolerant super-majority government. There was a marked aversion to accept opinions contrary to the beliefs and views of the political party in power; there was (and still is) the same irritation at judicial verdicts against the government of the day; as well as the same tendency of attempting to topple governments in the states that do not subscribe to the manifesto of the party in power at the Centre. In fact, it is the same old story played out all over again — only with a different set of actors.
I hope and believe that in god’s good time we will revert to the spirit of tolerance and accommodation in the true constitutional spirit of fraternity, when governments at the Centre will accept with grace persons, opinions, views and habits, even those with whom or with which they do not agree. It will be then that ordinary people — people who have voted governments into power — will stop, shouting and shrieking, cease indulging in unsocial acts and acts of violence, and will calm down, in conformity with the refrain of the Gita: “The standard set (by men in power) is what people go by.”
But this can only be when Parliament and politics is no longer dominated by one single political party at the Centre.
Only then will India become a country where all points of view will be once again freely expressed, freely heard, and freely tolerated. For me that is the freedom to wish for and to strive for, in this, the 70th year of India’s Independence.