Where freedom has flaws

15th August 1997 at 01:00
Chronic illiteracy and poverty overshadow this week's celebrations of Indian independence, reports Brendan O'Malley.

Fifty years ago today, Jawaharlal Nehru declared to a crowd of half a million in Delhi: "At the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India shall awake to freedom."

But it was a time of mixed emotions, joy at winning independence from British rule, and pain at partition - the Muslim states of East and West Pakistan were born at the same stroke. Mahatma Gandhi did not join the Delhi celebrations.

The division of India along religious lines heralded sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims, including war with Pakistan in Kashmir, which cost half a million lives. Among them was Gandhi, shot dead by a Hindu fanatic for failing to secure a united India.

For the next four decades, Indian politics was dominated by one family dynasty. When the vote was made universal in 1951, Nehru became the father of the world's largest democracy and launched a series of five-year economic plans designed to kickstart industrial and agricultural development.

Two years after Nehru's death in 1964, his mantle was passed to his daughter, Indira Gandhi (not related to Mahatma) who nationalised the banks, signed a pact with the Soviet Union and liberated Bangladesh from East Pakistan.

But her popularity waned when she declared a state of emergency to deal with industrial unrest in the mid-Seventies and she later paid the ultimate price for sending in tanks to crush a Sikh rebellion at Amritsar in 1984 when her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her.

Indira's son, Rajiv, reluctantly took up the baton of power, but he failed to deal adequately with armed conflict in Punjab and in the North-east, and he too signed his own death warrant, by sending Indian troops into Sri Lanka to disarm the Tamil Tiger rebels. He lost the 1989 election to VP Singh's National Coalition, and was blown up by a Tamil suicide bomber in an election rally in 1991.

That year proved a watershed for modern India. The collapse of India's main trading partner, the Soviet Union, coinciding with a credit boom, left the country massively in debt. The government had to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund and put in place a programme that changed the centralising role of the government and liberalised the economy.

Officially, literacy rates have risen from 17 per cent in 1952 to 52 per cent today. But educational standards are woefully short of those in rival Asian countries, and 40 per cent of the population remains in absolute poverty.

Even outside the swanky offices of Bangalore, the heart of India's booming computer industry, there are still lepers, deaf and dumb children and destitute old men begging.

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