On January 26 we celebrate the Republic Day, India’s most important national event. It was on January 26, 1950, that the Constitution was enacted and India became a sovereign, democratic republic. The Republic Day is the people’s day in many ways and the Constitution of India stands fundamentally for the aspirations of the common man, the “aam admi”.
The colonial rule destroyed the Indian economy and greatly impoverished the people of India. An estimate by the Cambridge historian Angus Wilson reveals that in 1700, India’s share of the world income was 22.6 percent comparable to the entire income of Europe which was then at 23.3 percent . By 1952, however, India’s share fell to 2.3 percent of the world income. By all accounts, India was a prosperous nation at the onset of Western colonialism.
At all times in its History, even the most distressing, India was revered by the great minds across the continents. The renowned American historian, Will Durant summed it up “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”.
The freedom struggle was not just for political freedom. It was not merely to dislodge foreign rulers and install our own. It was also for social and economic change and for a life of peace and dignity to all citizens. Whilst India witnesses rapid economic growth, there are still vast numbers of people in the country who face grave problems of illiteracy, disease and poverty. What is required is greater attention to inclusive development that benefits significantly all sections of the population.
A major managerial and policy challenge that we face today results from the speed of urbanization. It is estimated that by 2030, most cities and quasi urban regions of India will witness a substantial increase in population. Unless a massive expansion of infrastructure begins right now, these regions will be affected by a sharp decline in water supply with a large section of the population having no access to potable water at all. Towns could have 70 to 80 per cent of sewage untreated. Whilst car ownership will increase exponentially, shortcomings in the transportation infrastructure might create an unmanageable urban gridlock. Affordable housing for the low income group is a most important concern. At present, a person earning an average salary cannot own a dwelling in most parts of the country and the price of land is bound to further increase over the years.
A strategy ought to be devised to provide affordable housing to the average citizen. Planning mandates in the United Kingdom have generated 20 to 25 per cent of all affordable units built over the last decade. South Africa allots free land for houses to its poorest income group. Singapore provides public housing for more than 80 per cent of its population through a dedicated Housing Development Board, interest rate subsidies and other financial devices to make housing affordable to all.
India is a multicultural country. A multicultural society needs to find ways and means to accommodate diversity without losing its cohesiveness and unity. Two approaches must be rejected. Assimilation which requires minorities to abandon their own distinctive institutions, cultures and values to merge into the prevailing culture is to be avoided. This way is sociologically unlikely to succeed and is morally untenable in view of the people’s deep adherence to normative values such as religion. Similarly, unbounded multiculturalism which entails giving up the concept of shared values and identity in order to privilege ethnic and religious differences presuming that a nation can be replaced by a number of diverse minorities is unacceptable. Such a course of action usually results in an undemocratic backlash, support for extremist parties and anti-minority policies. It is morally unjustified as it does not accept the values and institutions upheld by society at large. Regions that break away from democratic societies hoping to achieve a larger measure of self-government are not likely to enhance self-government and may rather weaken it.
Cultural pluralism values diversity and implements policies of inclusion that cater to the requirements of all groups. The sensitivities of the minorities as well as of the majority need attention. Fundamental rights and fundamental freedoms of all are to be protected. The rights of the weaker sections are particularly important in a society that respects cultural pluralism.
India is home to diverse languages, religions, races and lifestyles. It is a vast country where questions of unity and diversity interplay. Yet, India emerges with an excellent record at managing diversity. This makes it possible to survive as a nation and to move ahead as the largest democracy in the world. The Constitution of India ensures that all citizens have equal rights and should have an equal opportunity. In particular, the principle of secularism enshrined in our Constitution is the best method to accommodate religious diversity and could be emulated across the globe. In a multicultural society, the State cannot be identified with any religious or cultural group and it should either be neutral or even-handed in its approach to all such groups. Unity in diversity is the highest possible civilisational attainment. It is made possible through respect for choice in an atmosphere of mutual trust.
(The writer is a former Union Minister)