Produced below is an essay by Sadanand Varde, published in a 1997 booklet titled Fifty Years After. The booklet was edited and published by Indian liberal stalwart S.V. Raju, and was jointly sponsored by the Project for Economic Education and Friedrich Naumann Stiftung.
I left Elphinstone college where I was a student, joined the freedom struggle in 1942 and was jailed for a year. Hence I was labelled ‘freedom fighter’. But the nomenclature ‘freedom fighter’ and all that is associated with it is not something that I carry with any pride or enthusiasm because many persons who carry that ‘designation’ have ruled the country and some of them, very distinguished ones at that, have been hauled in courts for criminal offences. Those who have been freedom fighters and those who were born after freedom, have a sense of sadness, a sense even of alienation with the sorry state of affairs of our country today.
A Vision of Free India
When Gandhiji gave the “Do or Die” call, many like me responded. We had dreams of what we would do after freedom. And those dreams, or the vision that we had were described, for example, in the 8th August 1942 Gowalia Tank resolution which proclaimed that power would belong to the toilers in the fields and factories and depicted a very inspiring picture of things to come.
Why Bhagat Master Wept
Recently I was at an institution in Neral called the Kotwal Wadi Trust. Kotwal was a freedom fighter. By profession a lawyer, he belonged to the barber community, and responding to Gandhiji’s call, he did a big job in the Karjat taluka, to the extent of making the functioning of government administration almost impossible. He was much sought after by the British, and he went underground. This function to which I went was to celebrate the completion of 50 years of the Kotwal Wadi Trust, founded by Mr. Haribhau Bharsale, a humble Gandhian who has been working among the adivasis. On that occasion, my friend Liladhar Hegde sang a ballad composed by Vasant Bapat on the revolutionary exploits of Bhai Kotwal, who was shot dead during an encounter in 1943. As he was singing that beautiful composition, Mr. Bharsale said that of the 18 people who were associated in that struggle in 1943, only one had survived and pointed out to an old man (‘Bhagat Master’, he called him) sitting in a corner. I could see tears flowing down his cheeks, and I asked myself the question why Bhagat Master was crying. Is it because he remembers Bhai Kotwal or is it because he is sorry that he is alive today to witness the sorry state of affairs of the country.
What Have We Done to India?
The question is what has happened to India? What have we done to India? What have we done to our representative institutions, to our law and order agencies, to our education; to our growing population? Now, while trying to answer these questions, I must mention two things that struck me. Once, while going through India Today magazine I came across a beautiful photograph of Gandhiji. In fact, it was Ben Kingsley’s photo. And the title said: “India, the land that worships feet”. Gandhiji was sitting and an elderly woman with her little child was touching his feet. The lower portion of that page read: “Lakhani, the shoes that worship feet”. Gandhiji was being used to promote a product. I am not going into the question of whether it was right or wrong, but when this advertisement is criticised by many as the outcome of the influence of Western ideas, I feel highly offended. This is a totally indigenous product. I don’t remember having seen any advertisement or product promotion using Lincoln’s or Kennedy’s name.
Recently, I read a news item that some six so-called ‘freedom fighters’ were sentenced to five years rigorous imprisonment for having forged documents to create a record that they were freedom fighters. Though they did not undergo any imprisonment during the freedom struggle they did undergo rigorous imprisonment after freedom!
I don’t take the view that over the last fifty years, nothing has happened in the country. Take a balance sheet. We have had industrial development, our coverage of education has expanded, we have succeeded in establishing a large network of railways and communications and we have a reasonably modern scientific establishment to mention a few. But by and large when we take an overall view, the development that has taken place has bypassed a large majority of the people for whom, the 1942 resolution proclaimed, freedom was to be fought. Maybe we had this illusion that when we attained freedom, all our problems would be solved. And therefore, I would like to quote from Winston Churchill’s speech in the British Parliament when he attacked Clement Attlee. It is a very malicious statement. This is what he said:
“Power will go into the hands of rascals, rogues and freebooters. Not a bottle of water or loaf shall escape taxation. Only air will be free and the blood of these hungry millions will be on the head of Clement Attlee. These are men of straw of whom no trace will be found after a few years. They will fight among themselves and India will be lost in political squabbles.”
When I look at the present scenario in the country, the most dominant factor in our public life today is political squabbles, be it in a state or in Delhi.
Who is to Blame?
When I said that the Development that has taken place has bypassed a large majority of the people, I refer to the lack of the basic minimum amenities of life. We have, after 50 years of independence, a government drawing out a common minimum programme, in terms of drinking water, primary education and health facility! This is not the result of the new economic policies that have been pursued in the last 5 years i.e., since July 1991. It is as though Mr. Manmohan Singh is the real villain of the piece, on account of whom we have landed ourselves into problems of growing poverty, unemployment, overpopulation and so on. I don’t also subscribe to the view that the onslaught of multinationals in the country is jeopardising our sovereignty – our freedom. When I make my submissions, let it not be misunderstood that it is with reference to policies that have been pursued in the last five years.
As the poet William Wordsworth wrote ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”. That was the period in which I was involved in the freedom movement, and therefore I quote from an interview which Mr. Achyut Patwardhan gave over fifteen years ago around the time the Bofors scandal had surfaced. This is what he, one of the tallest among freedom fighters, said:
“Initially I believed that India would flourish when the British left; later I believed that India would flourish when it adopted socialism. Now that I am proved wrong both times, I would prefer to be quiet.”
It is only great men like him who could speak with such humility. Achyut Patwardhan went on to say:
“Today, the State has lost all moral authority. It is viewed as the creation of crooks, by crooks for crooks. Nothing seems to work without the use of money, muscle power or influence. So even if we have achieved a little prosperity, people think it is “inspite” and not “because” of the State. Back in 1947, you could distinguish between ‘bandits” and “politicians”, not now. That is a measure of how far we have fallen.”
These agonising words came from him much before the Kesris and the Sukhrams, came on the Indian political scene.
An All-Powerful State
When, after Independence, we established the National Planning Commission, in our early enthusiasm we placed the State at the head of the economy in all the decision making processes hoping that the controlling mechanism would bring out all that is necessary for rapid economic development. We did not realise that the business of government is not business. We therefore created a closed economy, raised a big tariff wall to protect our industrial structure so that it could grow, which for some time no doubt was necessary. But we created an industrial and trade regime in which enormous powers were handed over to ministers and bureaucrats. We followed in the wake of that model of development, with fiscal policies or taxation policies which could never be expected to be complied with, but which instead led to the growth of a parallel economy which today accounts for nearly half the economic activities equated to half the national production of the country.
We created a huge public sector. We have sunk more than Rs. Two lakh crores in the public sector. And we associated the public sector with public interest in only one sense – protecting the employment of those who are employed. Whether they are productive, whether they add to national wealth, whether they meet the needs of the community, were considered irrelevant considerations and the capital of over two lakh crores did not give a return of even 2.5% on investment.
As the loss making industries were supported with annual budgetary grants, the managers were happy that losses would be taken care of. The result was, that funds from the state exchequer which ought to have legitimately gone to education, infrastructure, health services, were denied those resources. In the process, we inherited a system where government became a very important agent, a very powerful factor in all decision-making processes.
The next point I would like to refer is the complete debasement of the entire political class. There are very many outstanding examples, no doubt, of men committed to ideals, to values. The debasement of the political class has led to what we have in the last 50 years created – a VIP Republic. We wanted to create a democratic republic but what we have created is a VIP Republic.
In this VIP Republic we have MPs who occupy government bungalows even though they have ceased to be MPs. They are in heavy arrears of rent and telephone bills. The result is that those to whom people look to solve their problems, to set the economy going, are the very people who are using their positions of power, their offices whether as MPs or MIAs, to pursue interests which are neither social nor national. During a discussion I attended recently someone asked “How is it that Dr. Ambedkar, after having considered so many constitutions of the world did not make any provision for controlling defections?”
Crabs or Lobsters?
We have representative institutions which speak in terms of parliamentary privilege. I remember, when Pandit Nehru was the Prime Minister, he picked up the telephone and spoke to the Speaker Mr. Mavalankar: ‘Will you please drop in, I have some work’ requested Pandit Nehru. In reply Mavalankar sent him a note saying: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, the Speaker does not go to the ministers’ chambers.’ Within seconds, Nehru rushed to Mavalankar’s chamber and said, ‘I am sorry.’ But what do we have now? We have in our parliamentary institutions new conventions e.g. a government is defeated, yet its budget survives! These are the result basically of the debasement, the degeneration of the political class. Mr. Biju Patnaik (he is no more) was also a part of that establishment. He described the United Front which is in power, as a group of lobsters. George Fernandes in his response said that crabs were being upgraded as lobsters.
I mentioned earlier the point made by Achyut Patwardhan in his press interview about criminals being indistinguishable from politicians. We have a very similar version here in Mumbai. The Shiv Sena took the stand that if you want to apprehend the goondas, you must not apprehend the Marathi goondas before you have apprehended the other goondas! We have the spectacle of an elected member of parliament going on fast within the precincts of a police station because a notorious criminal was arrested by the police. And the MP could not be arrested because parliament was in session. When parliament is in session, you cannot arrest an MP without the permission of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. If parliament was in session, he should have been there.
That is why I said we have created a VIP democracy. Crores that go into VIP security and the crores that go into maintaining this establishment is an indication of the opportunities that are denied to the common people. I don’t think the law and order situation immediately after independence or even in the worst days of Partition was so bad as it is today. The agents of law and order are looked upon more as enemies of the people than as friends.
The question is: Is this a systemic failure? Have we adopted a political system, a constitutional apparatus which is alien to our genius and our tradition, or is it a shameful failure of the principal play actors in the system?
A Question of Legitimacy
Then there is the question of legitimacy. What is legitimate? We have come to a situation where anything that has the sanction and support of powerful groups or interests or the power to hold society to ransom is considered legitimate. Demands get legitimised on the basis of the capacity of those who make the demand to hold the society to ransom. And then, in sheer helplessness the people on the other side yield to the demand. Today is the third day of the BEST strike. It has caused considerable hardship to millions of people travelling by buses. So we now have new ideas of legitimacy.
In our zeal to provide for those who are below the poverty line, we have been dishing out various kinds of programmes with a delivery system which is incompetent and corrupt. Andhra Pradesh has been following for quite some time a policy of dual cards in their rationing system. A study made of their scheme proved that the total number covered by the dual card system, amounted to more than the total population of Andhra Pradesh!
And then we have, both on the side of people’s organisations and on the side of the government what one may call competitive populism. Whether it is a trade union, a government department or it is a people’s organisation clamouring for something, the demands made are often at variance or totally indifferent to the overall requirements of the nation. This has resulted in our governments following the policy of open ended subsidies of different kinds representing a wastage of resources and which are not cost effective – be it in the power sector, or in the sector of education as a result of which our economy has suffered.
Currently there is talk about what is called new federalism. This is a new development. I am of the view that the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution conceived India as a federation where the focus of power would be more in the states than in the central government. The provision of the Grants Commission every five years is in itself some kind of a guarantee for balanced regional development so that resources can be transferred from the better off states to the not so better off states. We have now a situation where the chief minister of Punjab after having come to power gives water and power free to farmers and before the ink on that order has dried, and without batting an eyelid, he comes to the central government with a request that a particular loan extended by the central government for a particular purpose be completely waived.
To what extent is the Tamil Manila Congress an expression of the regional aspirations of the Tamilians other than that represented by the DMK and the AIADMK. I concede the point that there is such diversity in terms of problems etc. that it is necessary to take note of this, but let us remember that it is in this era of planned development that the central government in the name of centrally sponsored schemes has acquired more and more power. So this again is a problem with our republic.
And then, we have over 2.5 million pending court cases. We have not been able as yet to devise a system where we could do something to sort out this problem.
Therefore, when I look back, I do feel that these 50 years have been years of wasted opportunities and lost morality. I think the decline started when Indira Gandhi became the prime minister. Not that these elements were not present in the polity before that, but using men as material to achieve objectives became fashionable and the decline started from that time. Therefore, we are now in a situation where we want freedom without responsibility, power without accountability, rights without duties, remuneration without work. In such a situation where there seems to be an attitude of total unconcern and a no-holds barred obsession to pursue sectional interests, the country is really facing a major crisis. This is not the freedom that I visualised when at the age of 17. I left college and joined the struggle.
I would like to end by reading out to you a letter from Sheila Kaul to Nanasaheb Goray. At that time, Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister, during whose tenure, there were different kinds of gimmicks. And one such gimmick was the ‘Freedom Run’. Another was ‘Dandi March Run’. In her letter Sheila Kaul requested Nanasaheb Goray to associate himself with this particular run. This was Nanasaheb’s reply:
“March 8, 1988.
I have to thank you for your letter dated 22.2.1988. The proposed ‘Dandi March’ is, in my opinion, a parody of the original, as comic as the freedom run in Delhi. Instead of wasting money on this pseudo heroic march, make salt cheaper by 50%. That will be some tribute to the memorable event.
Why not leave Bapu alone? At that time, Gandhiji had compared the real income of the common man with the salary and perks of the Viceroy of India Is Rajivji willing to do it now. Needless to say, I will have nothing to do with these funsters. I hope they will have plenty of Pepsi Cola on their way to Dandi.”