The world’s largest democracy is soon to become the most populous country on earth. Therefore, the celebration of 75 years of Independence brings a special responsibility to set global standards in the protection and the promotion of individual and collective freedoms. While every Indian will proudly salute the flag as it flies high, the Tricolour must also remind us of the composite culture which makes us a uniquely great democracy in the world. On this historic occasion, we must resolve to never let our freedoms be robbed by authoritarian arrogance or allow fomented hatred to undermine the unity of the Indian people. That is the best tribute we can pay to our flag.
A unity that is precious
India emerged from the chokehold of colonial rule to build a nation from a wide scatter of British-ruled territories and princely States. This unity did not magically materialise overnight. It was the freedom struggle, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and led by the Indian National Congress, which united Indians across the land to seek an end to foreign rule. This movement united Indians across multiple identities of language, religion, caste, gender and social status. That unity is precious to India and should not be frittered away through communally divisive, linguistically chauvinist, callously casteist and gender insensitive campaigns that will fragment the Indian identity. Such ploys may pay temporary political dividends, by setting Indians against Indians, but they will create craters on India’s path to progress as a great nation.
We were robbed of our riches by colonial rule and began our life after Independence as a poor developing country. We rose from that level to become one of the world’s leading economies, whose growth is essential to the stability of the global economy. The policy of economic liberalisation, initiated in 1991, had a galvanising effect on our economic growth. At the same time, poverty reduction and the bridging of economic inequalities became a cardinal principle of public policy. As we pursue the path of inclusive economic growth, we should not permit only a select few among India’s business leaders to reap the benefits of prosperity while income gaps keep widening.
Flag divisive politics
Jobless growth is not a safe bet for any economy. Unemployment not only does not permit the optimal use of our human resources but also creates the breeding ground for social discord and divisive politics. As we move ahead towards the next 25 years of independent India, we must aim to optimally utilise the demographic dividend of a young population through education, skilling, suitable employment and support to young entrepreneurs and innovators. This requires easy mobility across the country for education and employment. Communal and linguistic barriers will hinder such mobility and adversely impact growth. Captains of Indian industry must recognise this danger and raise their voice for national unity, not remain mute spectators when divisive politics are posing a threat to the economy.
Uphold scientific tradition
India adopted excellence in science as a path to progress since the early years of Independence. The national science policy was forward looking. Great institutions of scientific learning and research were established. India’s various institutes of technology have won world renown, with many of their graduates leading global enterprises of repute. Our space, oceanography and nuclear programmes have placed us in a select group of nations whose scientific prowess and technological excellence are respectfully acknowledged by the whole world. It would be unfortunate if our scientific institutions, universities and research bodies are undermined through the induction of sub-optimal leadership, whose given mandate is to pursue cultural revivalism at the cost of academic integrity. India has had a proud scientific tradition since ancient times, but that should not become the camouflage for pseudo-science that brings discredit to our scientific community.
In the comity of nations, India won respect for adopting principled positions, opposing colonial rule, leading the Non-Aligned Movement when two power blocs were seeking global domination, espousing human rights and promoting the cause of peace. Our relations with most of our neighbours were cordial. Even when we had conflicts with some, we tried to build bridges of understanding to enable peaceful co-existence. We need to maintain these positions, even as the world witnesses new conflicts and alliances. It is essential for us to be regarded as a reliable and respected friend in most countries of the world, but especially in South Asia. We should not let our foreign policy wobble through dependence on personalised gestures for the camera but follow clear-headed initiatives through wise leadership supported by able diplomats.
Well-being of the young
India must focus on enhancing the health, education and skilling of young persons. The recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) reminds us that stunting, under-nourishment and anaemia continue to afflict a large percentage of our children and women in the reproductive age group. We need to ensure that the nutrition-specific programmes deliver, even as we advance nutrition-sensitive policies in other sectors, especially water and sanitation.
COVID-19 revealed several weaknesses in our health system. From disease surveillance to provision of health care, we need to strengthen the capacity of health services. There are marked differences in the capacity and performance of health systems across different States. It is essential that States invest more in health and also that centrally sponsored programmes aim to provide greater support to States whose health indicators are lagging. Providing needed health services to all persons, with adequate financial protection, must be the goal of universal health coverage. We must achieve this uniformly across the whole country.
For the citizen to ponder over
As a young boy of 14, I experienced both the exhilaration of newly gained independence as well as the painful tragedies that marred the country’s partition. I hoped that India would grow strong as a nation without ever again having to experience such discord. Today, I am proud of what India has achieved and am optimistic about the future of this great nation. However, I am also worried about the sectarian slogans and communal slurs that are vitiating social harmony and dividing the people. Alongside, there is also a weakening of institutions which must safeguard democratic freedoms, uphold norms of good governance and shield electoral politics from the onslaught of money power and co-opted state agencies. It is for the citizens of India to protect and preserve the hard won gains of our freedom. Let each one of us reflect on that duty as we raise and salute our flag.
Dr. Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister of India from 2004 to 2014