Mihir Bose, who is the same age as modern India, weighs up how far the country has come.
Salman Rushdie coined the phrase ‘Midnight’s Children’ in his Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name to describe those born as India regained its freedom.
Unlike his hero, Saleem Sinai, I was not born at the precise midnight hour. But I am part of the midnight generation, as I was seven months and three days old when the British left India, the first generation of free Indians for 200 years. I realised what a privilege this was when I had the good fortune to have coffee with Nelson Mandela at his home in Soweto, shortly after he walked free from 27 years of incarceration.
Mandela told me how, in January 1949, he and his friends went to Durban to watch South Africa play a cricket Test match against Australia. Under apartheid, black spectators were confined to a caged section of the ground, so they could not mingle with whites. Like all black South Africans then, Mandela and his friends wanted Australia to win, and his wishes were fulfilled thanks to the brilliance of the Australian batsman, Neil Harvey.
However, when I asked Mandela whether he congratulated Harvey, perhaps got his autograph, Mandela recoiled in horror. ‘No, no, we could not do that,’ he said. ‘We could not approach him. Had we tried, we would have been thrown out, maybe even jailed.’
Seven years later, Harvey came with the Australian team to India. And, at the Brabourne Stadium in my home town of Mumbai, he played another great innings. In the process, he destroyed the bowling of my boyhood hero, Subash Gupte, one of the finest leg spinners in the history of cricket. But, while he broke my heart – no young boy likes to see his hero humiliated – I could not help but admire Harvey’s batting, and had no problems approaching him and getting his autograph. I, a nine-year-old boy, had greater freedom than a man who was 30 years old. It was another 45 years after Mandela had admired Harvey that he and his fellow non-whites were free to do what comes naturally to all sporting fans.
Freedom, of course, is more than being allowed to celebrate on a sporting field. So how has India done? In terms of statistics, the progress is remarkable. In 1947 life expectancy was 32.4, now it is 68.3. Per capita income has risen from £20 to £5,579, and the gross domestic product of £130 million has become £7.4 trillion, ranking it third after China and the US, on a purchasing power parity basis. After British rule of nearly 200 years, a mere 12 per cent of the population had seen the inside of a classroom. Now 74 per cent are literate, with Kerala having 100 per cent literacy.
A country that had 21,800 cars in 1947 now has 23.96 million, ranking it fifth in the world. The number of electrified villages has risen from 1,500 to 579,012, or 97 per cent. India has a middle class of 400 million, roughly the population of the country in 1947, and with 76 billionaires, it ranks fourth in the rich list, after the US, China and Britain, but higher than Germany.
But poverty still remains. Some 250 million survive on less than two dollars a day and visitors can see heart-wrenching scenes of begging. What has changed is how Indians see poverty. In 1962, when I was 15, the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul visited India, and was often told of ‘the Sikh who, returning to India after many years, sat down among his suitcases on the Bombay docks and wept. He had forgotten what Indian poverty was like’.
Indians, said Naipaul, live in the poorest country of the world and poverty ‘releases the sweetest of emotions. This is poverty, our especial poverty, and how sad it is! Poverty not as an urge to anger or improving action, but poverty as an inexhaustible source of tears, an exercise of the purest sensibility’. Nobody visiting India in 2017 can possibly conclude that Indians still see poverty as so uniquely Indian that it needs to be cherished.
But perhaps the biggest change is that now nobody expects India to collapse into chaos. Churchill had said to call India a country was like calling the Equator a country, and this seemed logical, given Indian diversity. India has twenty-two official languages, only two fewer than the EU. Only 20 per cent of Indians share a mother tongue. I lived the first 21 years of my life in India, 17 of them under the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s longest serving Prime Minister and was endlessly told that only Nehru’s exceptional abilities held India together.
In 1975, when I returned to India after seven years in Britain, Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency rule was welcomed by many Indians, particularly the well off, with even foreign observers like Michael Foot and Mrs Thatcher applauding her. Yet in 1977 I witnessed Indians queuing for hours in the hot sun to vote the dictator out, ensuring the emergency was the one brief interruption to democratic rule.
That India has remained a democracy since 1947 is one of the wonders of our age. During this period Greece, Spain and Portugal have been under dictatorial rule. Even in France in 1958, De Gaulle came to power as the result of a revolt which ended the Fourth Republic. What is more, Indians have turned on its head the popular idea of democracy. In the west the disadvantaged often do not vote. In India the poor always do, even if they cannot read or write, converting elections into tamasha, a day of fun and frolics. For the poor, election day is when they become kings, the equal of the rich and the powerful.
Also striking is how western perceptions of India and Pakistan have changed. During the war Churchill told Ivan Mikhailovich Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London, that should the British be forced to leave India, ‘eventually, the Moslems will become master, because they are warriors, while the Hindus are windbags’. Well into the 1960s, Pakistan was seen as the virile Muslim state, the only one in south Asia capable of fighting Soviet communism.
But much as all this is cause for celebration, there is no denying the flaws – colonial repression in Kashmir, problems of the Dalits, the most downtrodden of the Hindu castes, and a judiciary which takes so long to deliver verdicts that it makes a mockery of justice. More worrying is the growing intolerance of the Hindu majority. I was made very aware of this when, on a recent return to Mumbai, I was told by my oldest friend that whole areas of the city had become exclusively Hindu. My friend is a Muslim, married to a Parsi, I grew up surrounded by Muslims and Jews, yet landlords now check a person’s name, and if he is a Muslim he is directed to a ghetto reserved for Muslims.
The world’s largest democracy should be able to debate such issues. Instead, the many television channels that have mushroomed – I grew up with no television – see not reasoned argument, but what are essentially shouting matches. India surprised the world by defying the predictions of doom when the Union Jack was brought down. But the snarling angry face and ‘we know best’ attitude it now often presents holds great danger, and could lead to losing the many gains it has made since 1947.