India’s republic robust yet lacking

Posted on January 25, 2011

India celebrates its 62nd Republic Day on January 26. For Indians, this day is more important than Independence Day because it was on Republic Day that India gave itself a constitution, with democracy and secularism as its bedrock.

Debates in India’s Constituent Assembly, held after the creation of Pakistan, heard demands that India declare itself a theocratic state with Hinduism as the state religion.

However, in their infinite wisdom, the founding fathers of the constitution opted for a democratic system based on adult suffrage.

The constitution has stood the test of time except for a brief interlude when one prime minister, disenfranchised by the Supreme Court, imposed emergency rule and curtailed people’s democratic rights.

Democracy is definitely on firmer ground now. Elections in India and orderly changes of government are a model for the rest of the world.

Indians have also changed.

Women enjoy equal rights and occupy at least one-third of the positions in all government bodies such as village councils and municipalities. However, their representation in state and national legislatures is minimal.

They have established their presence in all walks of life, sometimes overtaking men in certain fields.

Similarly, other traditionally downtrodden sections of society such as dalit and tribal people, or the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, now enjoy the benefits of affirmative action.

On the economic front, India has achieved phenomenal success, particularly after it liberalized the economy in the early 1990s.

Today’s near-double digit annual growth rate is a far cry from the miserly 3-4 percent — derisively called the “Hindu growth rate” – recorded in the first few decades of the republic.

A significant failure of the federal government is that the economic growth has not percolated down to the majority.

They are so poor that they believe the centrally-funded job guarantee scheme, which assures a job for 100 days a year to anybody willing to undertake manual labor at less than US$3 per day, a bonanza.

Few realize that India never used to be a poor country. In fact, it was its riches that attracted fortune-hunters from far and wide.

However, wealth was concentrated in a few hands, a phenomenon which is now being repeated if the growth in the number of Indian billionaires is anything to go by.

Even “philanthrocapitalism,” expounded by the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investment wizard Warren Buffet is yet to take root in India.

Today children enjoy the right to an education, although the kind of education provided in schools is below par as a recent “State of Education” report has revealed.

Most students in grade 5 can’t even read textbooks used in grade 2. Nor can they do simple arithmetic.

This is because the state has virtually withdrawn from education and healthcare, while the profit-driven private sector is not interested in running schools in rural areas, where most Indians still live.

Quality education and healthcare are, therefore, increasingly inaccessible to the poor.

What’s worse, minority Christians who are heavily involved in education and healthcare, feel dispirited because hostile forces keep trying to place obstacles in their way.

They also find that when they face attacks, such as in Kandhamal in Orissa two years ago and in the Dangs district in Gujarat, they do not get adequate support from the state.

The attackers get away with their crimes by claiming they were protesting against proselytization attempts by Christian “missionaries,” although demographic statistics belie their claims.

What’s most disappointing is that the constitutional guarantee that gives Christians the right to preach and propagate their religion is being curtailed by one pretext or another.

The controversial freedom of religion law in force in some states, which were upheld by the Supreme Court during emergency rule, continues to remain on statute books, mainly to harass Christians in those states.

Notwithstanding such problems, Christians cannot but continue their work in areas such as education and healthcare, for it is their solemn commitment to do so.

Their condition is no worse than that of other minorities like Muslims and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

This is all the more reason that they should join hands with them and strive for a better tomorrow without, of course, compromising their faith.

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