Saturday, January 29, 2011

Looking for moral freedom

Has the Indian state failed? That is sensational wording for a discussion topic. Yet that was precisely what was on offer at the Bangalore launch of the late L. C.Jain's autobiographical book “Civil Disobedience”. Considering Jain's lifelong crusades, it was an appropriate topic too. But either because of its provocative nature or because the evening was all too nice and friendly, no one touched the topic mentioned in the notice. Instead they dwelt exclusively on the magic of L. C. Jain.

Which was a pity because the panelists were eminently qualified, in their respective ways, to dissect the current state of the Indian State. Nandana Reddy had seen first hand the state's questionable sides, U.R.Ananthamurthy had exposed the state's underbelly in more than one memorable novel and Ramesh Ramanathan had shown the inner strength to give up corporate certainties and plunge into the uncertainties of activism. Even Nandan Nilekani, although part of the state now, had experienced enough of the travails of the entrepreneur to talk knowledgeably about the state's current direction.

With all of them deserting the featured topic of discussion, we were left with only one person to boldly address it: L.C. Jain himself. Fundamentally he was against the state as it developed after 1947, much like his hero Mahatma Gandhi was.

Gandhi consciously turned against the state as soon as independence was won the way it was won. Even as his comrades in arms were savouring the first inebriating taste of power, Gandhi said: “The Congress won political freedom, but it has yet to win economic, social and moral freedom”. Those words of 1948 have only grown grimmer over the decades. It would be correct to say today that social and moral freedom would never be won by the Congress or any other political party as they are presently constituted.

That is the failure of the Indian state. It had started in 1947 itself. One of the biggest issues of the day was the resettlement of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who flowed in from Pakistan. Various schemes were worked out including the creation of new townships like Faridabad. But the bureaucracy's obstructionism at every turn would have been unbelievable but for the first-person account provided by L. C. Jain.

Nehru himself developed attitudes that spelt danger. There was an uprising against landlords in the Telangana region and the communists made the movement effective by killing landowners and redistributing the land among the poor. Jain writes:

“The news of the killings, of hanging dead bodies on trees, shook newly independent India. Nehru was deeply disturbed. But as Prime Minister he did not say, 'A major issue has arisen; how do we deal with it politically'? Instead, he sent in the army. The communists sought refuge in the jungle. To hunt them the army started setting fire to the forest, cutting down trees... The Congress became politically dead”.

India's saving grace was that the Nehru generation, including visionaries like Ambedkar who disagreed with Gandhi-Nehru, laid firm foundations for the democracy that India embraced. That democracy has in many ways been reduced to a farce, but the foundations are holding. That is why the Indian state has remained successful in comparison with Pakistan or Bangladesh.

But unlike in the time of the Nehru generation, the state has developed a tendency not to respond to the voice of citizens. The over-riding tendency is to brazen it out when irrefutable evidence of moral degeneration surfaces. The state does not even recognise the anger it has provoked among the people. We seem to have reached a stage where the state is not only not representative of the people but actually in opposition to the people. That is not the characteristic of a democratic state. India is by no means a failed state. But nor is it, despite the flattering growth rates, a successful state. The course is correctable and there is time enough to correct it. But what if we do not have a moral leadership interested in correction?