As India celebrates another Independence Day, we asked some eminent personalities about what they thought was the one best, and the one worst, moment in the 63 years of our tumultuous democracy…
Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister, Delhi
The liberation of East Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh exemplifies Indian democracy at its best. There was a lot of euphoria and a huge measure of pride. It would go down in history as a major conquest, a record 90,000 plus soldiers from the other side surrendered. And yet India not only treated them well but also proved that it had no intention of holding on to the territory in Bangladesh. We stepped out immediately.The problem in Punjab which ultimately led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent violence have left festering wounds. Those were the tragic years. Unnecessarily, sentiments were raked up, leading to the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi. They forgot that Punjab was an integral part of India and people there could never have been separated. Still an attempt was made, leading to violent incidents.
B.B. Bhattacharya, Vice Chancellor, JNU, Delhi
The strongest point of Indian democracy is that it is continuing uninterrupted since Independence. Regular parliamentary elections in a country of one billion plus people with extreme poverty and backwardness divided by religion, language, caste and regionalism is itself a unique feature unparalleled in the history of mankind.
Unfortunately, however, the pillars of democracy in India have begun to shake. The tolerance of crime, communalism, corruption and casteism could eventually lead to a loss of trust in democracy in India.
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia
Indian democracy’s finest hour was the electorate’s rejection (1977) and subsequent re-election (1980) of the late Indira Gandhi. All those stiff upper-lip commentators who permanently looked down on India’s ‘illiterate masses’ were forced to swallow a humility pill when our teeming masses put their sagacity, wisdom and democratic muscle so piquantly on show for the world.
Democracy’s lowest hour probably came in 2006, when coalition politics forced a government to be arm-twisted into passing a poorly drafted Forest Rights Act, which granted individual land rights to millions of forest dwellers, thus instantly shattering the foundations of thousand-year-old community tribal structures.
Dhanraj Pillay, Hockey World Cupper and Olympian
Shri Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister: He wanted to put India on the global map and introduced many innovative measures. Pushing for the widespread use of computers was another development of his times.
As Prime Minister, he was accessible to the people as should happen in a democracy. Our country’s biggest loss was his death before his vision for India could be fully implemented.
The 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai: Sixty-three years after Independence, we have not been able to protect our cities, our citizens and heritage buildings like the Taj Hotel. The security agencies were found wanting, resulting in people from outside causing harm to the nation. That day was the darkest for our democracy.
E. Sreedharan, Technocrat and MD of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation
People think that the ‘Emergency’ imposed by Smt. Indira Gandhi in 1975 was a severe blow to democracy. I personally feel that the Emergency brought a good deal of benefit. In any case, this made democracy come back with more vigour and vitality. But, it is the ‘vote-buying bribery scandal’ that took place during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure as Prime Minister that I consider as the worst for the Indian democracy. This was the beginning of money power controlling and steering democracy in the country. Casteism, money power and mafia have taken over the election process in the country.
The unanimous election of Somnath Chatterjee as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha in 2004 was the best event that has happened to the Indian democracy, as even though he was from the opposition Communist Party of India and a severe critic of the Government, the Congress government and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) supported his candidature across party lines. This showed that a person with integrity and competence holds respect in the Indian democracy irrespective of the moral decay and degeneration of other sections in the country.
Girish Karnad, Playwright and writer
It is always easier to think of the failings of a democracy... Assassination of Gandhi and the pulling down of the Babri Masjid spring to mind immediately. It is harder to name big and dramatic events that show our democracy’s strengths. They are usually small incidents here and there. I suppose that is how democracies are made. One event I can think of is Sonia Gandhi refusing to become the prime minister of the country. In a sense it saved the democratic state for us.
Jasdev Singh, Political Commentator
To my mind, the imposition of Emergency in 1975, in total disregard to democracy and human rights, was the worst single event in the years after we got Independence; on the other hand, the same public which literally hated Mrs. Indira Gandhi after the Emergency, brought her back as PM in 1980 with a thumping majority, and this was the best example of how democracy works, because the common man had taken note of the shameless way in which the Janata Party and its leadership had behaved, and it quickly showed them the door.
Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman Aditya Birla Group
Way back in 1947, India’s independence was greeted with enormous scepticism, given the country’s total inexperience in running a democratic republic. Also India’s mindboggling diversity both, linguistic and religious seemed to raise the hurdle rate of success.
To me, the high watermark of India’s democracy, then, is in the institutions and mechanisms that have made democracy a reality at the ground level. The Election Commission of India (ECI), constituted in 1950, has enabled the process of elections, the lifeblood of democracy, to be autonomous from the government of the day. Under the stewardship of the ECI, India has had 15 general elections. The election process has been strengthened considerably over the years, and the election mandates enjoy an extremely high degree of legitimacy.
Today, the triumph of India’s democratic processes have won acclaim the world over.
Mike Pandey, Wildlife and environmental filmmaker
The Godhra riots were without a doubt the worst and most tragic incident that I can think of, where overnight, neighbours and friends suddenly turned against a community. Politics fuelled the fire and unprecedented violence erupted. The pillars of democracy shook, sending shock waves throughout the nation.
One of the sights that really gladdened my heart in recent times was witnessing a woman Sarpanch hold court in rural Bihar. She was surrounded by over 400 men and women .The crowd listened to her respectfully, in silence. For me, that was a milestone. When men and women can share the same platform and be equal partners, in the task of governance, that day democracy will have come of age setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.
Namdeo Dhasal, Marathi Writer and Dalit activist
Ours is not a true democracy at all. I believe the freedom we achieved in 1947 was compromised. And the Congress is responsible for it. Even Gandhi and Nehru share the blame. Ours is a bourgeois or a capitalist democracy, where we don’t have the liberty to freely express our opinions.
But still I believe that the Janata government’s success in the 1977 election, which was dubbed as the second freedom movement for democratic values, exhibited the positive side of our democracy. But it was an illusion and indeed very short-lived.
The Khairlanji judgement and the Worli riots of 1974 are the events that come to my mind as those showcasing the worst of our democracy. If our State is really lawful and welfare-oriented, would a biased decision like that issued in the Khairlanji case have suited us?
Also, in 1974, the Dalit Panther had appealed to the people in Worli to abstain from voting in the parliamentary elections due to the atrocities of the upper castes. The State used force to break this peaceful and democratic protest.
Rahul Bajaj, Industrialist
The Emergency, its peaceful rejection by the electorate and transfer of power to electoral victors, to my mind, represents the worst and best of Indian democracy. It meant that we still valued freedom and would brook no interference with it. At its worst it meant that it was possible for those in power to act arbitrarily, muzzle the judiciary and the press and make the bureaucracy supine. At its best was the resistance to it and the spirited fight in the 1977 elections which rejuvenated democracy in our country.
Sharmila Tagore, Actor
A Functional Democracy and the Independence of the Election Commission: For a nation pulling in different directions, to have crores faithfully exercising their franchise despite politicians failing them is probably our greatest achievement. The credit goes to the Election Commission, probably the one government agency which has managed to stay free of political influence by and large.
The Representation of Women at the Panchayat Level: Though the Representation of Women in Parliament is yet to become law, at the panchayat level women have begun to exercise political power that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago.
The Right to Information Act: For a nation where disclosure of government information is governed by a law enacted during the British rule, the Official Secrets Act of 1889 as amended in 1923, the RTI is nothing less than a revolution. It is a landmark legislation that for once truly empowers the common man.
The Emergency: Probably the one defining moment of our polity. The Emergency brought to light the worst in our political class, burying once and for all the idealism of Independence.
The Demolition of the Babri Masjid: What the Emergency did to our political fibre, the Babri demolition did to our image as a secular, peace-loving nation. That something as grotesque as this could happen, ostensibly to right a 500-year-old wrong, remains India’s eternal shame.
Still an Unequal Society: It is close to forty years since we first heard the slogan ‘garibi hatao’, we have seen the green and the white revolutions, yet we have starvation deaths, farmers committing suicide, mothers selling off children in exchange for a bowl of rice. According to the Planning Commission, 27.5% of the population was living below the poverty line in 2004–2005. And what we do is debate whether people who have the purchasing power of more than Rs. 560 p.m. in urban areas and Rs. 368 p.m. in rural areas are above the poverty line. Rampant corruption at all levels, the insidious influence of caste, faulty planning priorities, all contribute to a situation where our development programmes remain only on paper.
Valmik Thapar, Conservationist and Natural Historian
For me the worst moment of this country was in the 1970s when an Emergency was declared and for two years we lost the right of writing and speaking freely and censorship cast its ugly shadow on our nation. The finest hour was when the ruling Congress suffered an enormous election debacle and the Emergency was lifted. A nation had spoken in one voice irrespective of all its barriers. It was the only intense moment of togetherness that I have experienced which enveloped the country. Most of what’s happened since then for me has been downhill.
Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Mohana Veena Maestro
I think the best event was on January 26, 1950 when our Constitution was implemented, which gave all of us the right of freedom — to speak, right of equality, moving to any place of our choice, right to education, right to form a Govt. of our choice and other fundamental rights. Even a small man can become PM. of our country. The largest democracy is at its best here. What I don’t like is that we still have corruption, disorganisation, poverty, pollution and bad road conditions. Still hope for best.
Keywords: Indian Independence