On August 15, we celebrate the Independence Day. On that day, in 1947, Prime Minister Nehru proclaimed a tryst with destiny, “a moment which comes but rarely in History when we step from the old into the new, when an age ends and the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”.
The colonial rule destroyed the Indian economy and greatly impoverished the people of India. An estimate by the Cambridge historian Angus Wilson reveals that in 1700, India’s share of the world income was 22.6 percent comparable to the entire income of Europe which was then at 23.3 percent. By 1952, however, India’s share fell to 2.3 percent of the world income.
By all accounts, India was a prosperous nation at the onset of Western colonialism. The French traveller Jean - Baptiste Tavernier in his ‘Travels in India’, written in the 17th century, gives the following account of Indian life. “Even in the smallest villages, rice, flour, butter, milk, beans and other vegetables, sugar and sweetmeats can be procured in abundance”. Yet, during the British rule, as per Government records of the time, 70 to 80 percent of Indians were living at subsistence levels, two thirds were undernourished and in Bengal nearly four fifths were undernourished.
At all times in its History, even the most distressing, India was revered by the great minds across the continents. The renowned American historian, Will Durant summed it up “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”.
The freedom struggle was not just for political freedom. It was not merely to dislodge foreign rulers and install our own. It was also for social and economic change and for a life of peace and dignity to all citizens. Whilst India witnesses rapid economic growth, there are still vast numbers of people in the country who face grave problems of illiteracy, disease and poverty. What is required is greater attention to inclusive development that benefits significantly all sections of the population.
We, the people of India, must rise above our religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity and together deal with the multifarious tasks that confront us today. The framework for responsible citizenship and national regeneration has been laid down in the Indian Constitution in three parts. Part III of the Constitution deals with the Fundamental Rights, Part IV with the Directive Principles of State Policy and part IVA with the Fundamental Duties. Fundamental Rights are basic human rights which the State recognizes and it provides for their enforcement. We are all equally human, the world is one family and all human rights are for all. The nature and extent of State responsibility for the protection of human rights in India was indicated by the National Human Rights Commission in the case of the Gujarat riots of 2002. It said “It is the primary and inescapable responsibility of the State to protect the right to life, liberty, equality and dignity of all those who constitute it. It is also the responsibility of the State to ensure that such rights are not violated either through overt acts or through abetment or negligence”.
The Directives Principles of State Policy are guidelines to be kept in mind by the Government whilst framing laws and policies. These guidelines include free and compulsory education to all children below the age of 14 years and provision of adequate means of livelihood to all.
The Fundamental Duties are moral obligations of all citizens and are specifically intended to promote responsible citizenship and national unity and harmony. We often harp on our rights but neglect and may even be unaware of our duties. Mahatma Gandhi remarked “I learnt from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved come from duty well done.”
The Constitution lists ten Fundamental Duties. Each has a distinct role and importance in our polity. One of the fundamental duties is “to provide harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood among all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities”.
What is needed is a citizenry conscious of their rights and of their duties. The Union and State Governments should work together with voluntary organizations to promote awareness of our constitutional rights as well as of our responsibilities and to sensitize the citizens to the values enshrined in the Constitution.
India is a multicultural country. A multicultural society needs to find ways and means to accommodate diversity without losing its cohesiveness and unity. Assimilation which requires minorities to abandon their own distinctive institutions to merge in to the prevailing culture is to be avoided. This way is sociologically unlikely to succeed and is morally untenable in view of people’s deep adherence to normative values such as religion. Similarly, unbounded multiculturalism which entails giving up the concept of shared values and identity in order to privilege ethnic and religious differences presuming that a nation can be replaced by a number of diverse minorities is unacceptable.
Cultural pluralism implements policies of inclusion that cater to the requirements of all groups. The sensitivities of the minorities as well as of the majority need attention.
The Constitution of India ensures that all citizens have equal rights and should have an equal opportunity. In particular, the principle of secularism enshrined in our Constitution is the best method to accommodate religious diversity and could be emulated across the globe. In a multicultural society, the State cannot be identified with any religious or cultural group and it should either be neutral or even-handed in its approach to all such groups. Unity in diversity is the highest possible civilizational attainment. It is made possible through respect for choice in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
(The writer is a former Union Minister)