Head-on | India at 75: Why former foreign secretary Shyam Saran misses the point

A spate of articles by Indian authors in the run-up to the country’s 75th anniversary of Independence has called India a failed state. This ...

A spate of articles by Indian authors in the run-up to the country’s 75th anniversary of Independence has called India a failed state. This is part of an old Indian tradition that misses, often deliberately, the wood for the trees.

So how has India done as an independent nation in the past 75 years? A forensic examination is necessary: Critical but clinical.

If you thought you were going to get it from Shyam Saran, India’s former foreign secretary, you’d be disappointed. In an op-ed in Business Standard (16 February 2022), Saran makes several observations but arrives at erroneous conclusions. Start with Mahatma Gandhi’s vision for India.

Saran writes: “Gandhi was more than aware of the demons that lurked under the surface among India’s incredibly diverse multitudes: of fires that could be ignited through the easy sale of hate. Which is why he was so passionate about Hindu-Muslim unity, the emancipation of the lowest, most oppressed castes and communities of India and the embrace of a more inclusive and egalitarian pattern of economic development.”

Mahatma Gandhi. Getty Images

The need for Muslim-Hindu unity was obviously uppermost in the minds of every Indian leader before independence: Lokmanya Tilak, Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, C Rajagopalachari, Babasaheb Ambedkar and countless others. How could it not be in an undivided nation which in the mid-1920s had a population of 270 million, of which 180 million were Hindus and 65 million Muslims, the rest comprising Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and others.

The Ottoman Caliphate was abolished in 1924. Gandhi’s full-throated support of the Khilafat movement was to assure Muslims that they would be safe in an independent Hindu-majority India.

Saran notes that Gandhi was “opposed to India’s partition, which he saw as a vivisection of India, a mortal wound that would fester for years to come. And so it has.”

Has it? A mortal wound? Partition brought unimaginable suffering to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others. But what was the alternative? An undivided India with a 35 percent Muslim population at birth, including those in a putative West Pakistan and East Pakistan? Unending civil strife could have resulted. That indeed would have been a mortal wound festering in a new nation.

Muslim League leaders, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, regarded the Islamic Republic of Pakistan as their territorial and religious birthright. They were not prepared to live in a Hindu-majority India where they would have no special rights.

Under the Mughals, they were part of the ruling hierarchy. Under the British, they were a favoured martial race. They made up a large section of the British Indian army. The British had a particular affinity for Muslims. After all, Islam’s armies had conquered large swathes of Europe and were stopped only at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Spain was under Muslim rule for over 700 years, right until the decisive battle that liberated Granada in 1492.

As Anglo-Saxons, with genetic roots in Germany, the British too, like Muslims, are a martial race. Post-Roman England had been settled by three German tribes — Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The British Royal family’s name was, for centuries, the Germanic “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” before it was quietly changed to “Windsor” in 1917 amidst the First World War against Germany.

After Independence, Britain leant towards Pakistan. London played a nefarious role in the United Nations during the first India-Pakistan war over Jammu and Kashmir.

Saran notes that Gandhi was an advocate of ecological sustainability. He writes: “During the time Gandhi lived, climate change was not a matter of concern but it is now clear that climate change is really a symptom of the much larger ecological emergency that our world is confronting today. And Gandhi foresaw, with a prescience that is truly astonishing, the ecological crisis that is upon us.”

What Saran doesn’t note is that colonial Britain had been spewing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution in the 1760s. Today’s climate change crisis is a result of industrialised countries amassing great wealth while colonising and polluting the world.

Saran quotes Gandhi “It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require?”

This is extraordinary. Saran seems to suggest that Gandhi believed colonising other nations and stripping them off their natural resources is the only way to “achieve prosperity”.

Gandhi, of course, was avowedly anti-industralisation. India lives in its villages, was his stern reminder to Indian leaders. Gandhi said: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single kingdom (Britain) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar exploitation, it would strip the world like locusts.”

For good measure, Saran adds: “Indian culture has always looked upon nature as a Mother, a source of nurture, and you must not take from her more than what allows her to regenerate and renew herself. This is what Gandhi tries to put across to the people of India who were already bedazzled by the affluence of the West: ‘We may utilise the gifts of Nature as we choose but in her books the debits are always equal to the credits’.”

India obviously needs to focus on sustainable development. But the keyword is development. The world is urbanising. In India, however, nearly 70 per cent of the population still lives in villages. The proportion is set to gradually reduce to 50 per cent as urbanisation accelerates.

Britain was happy to keep India rooted to its villages. Gandhi supported that rural ideal. Development passed India by during British colonial occupation. The average per capita income of an Indian in 1700 was around $600 (in adjusted currency). In Britain, the Netherlands and France, per capita income in 1700 was around $750. The gap between European and Indian living standards in 1700 was relatively narrow.

By 1947, India’s per capita income had plunged to $100 (again in adjusted currency). In Britain, the United States and Western Europe per capita income had meanwhile risen to over $10,000. The prosperity gap between the West and India had widened from 1.2x in 1700 to 1000x in 1947. Colonialism had left its mark.

In the 75th year of India’s Independence, per capita income has risen steadily from $100 to $2,200. By purchasing power parity (PPP) it is $6,500. There’s a long way to go. Saran is right to stress inclusive growth. But he misses the larger point.

Without growth, inclusivity would be much harder to achieve. If India can sustain economic growth at 8 percent a year for the next decade, prosperity, stripped out of India in the 1700s, will gradually return. So will inclusivity.

The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.

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