The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, Issue 104 Vol IV, January 31, 2010
IT happened a decade after Independence. I was a student of 7th grade in Mahatma Gandhi Memorial National School - the name had been changed to mark Independence, from much simpler, Public High School, by the Congress Party activists of the small market town of Ahmedgarh, 20 Km from Ludhiana. One pleasant February evening, I was both intrigued and delighted when my father introduced me to the the new decimal coins - Naye (i.e. new) Paise, in denominations of one, two, five, ten, twenty-five and fifty, which he had received with a small sum of Muaffi (i.e. revenue) reimbursement from the Government treasury of Tehsil town of Sunam. While the virtues of the concept of the decimal system took much more time to sink in, the brand new shining coins, with the Sarnath Lions as emblem, surely reinforced in my consciousness that the freedom of the country has been further consolidated. The republic of India had truly arrived! Bollywood songs proclaimed, as they do today, the march of the nation - Badla Zamana, Bhai, badla zamana; Chhe Naye Paison ka, purana ek Aanna! It was after more than seven years that coins with with image of the British monarch were officially withdrawn from circulation.
School Books of Mathematics took their own sweeter time to introduce decimal measurements, replacing calculations using 1 Rupee = 16 Aannas and 1 Aana = 4 Paise = 12 Payees! The old 1 Rupee coin, with silver content, given to me by relations as 'shagun' on my birth 13 years ago; preserved in the family, I was then told, had come to fetch 14 new Rupees!
Time, conveniently or intuitively reckoned in decades; in personal lives or historic context, has indeed been witnessing a constant revaluation and devaluation of not only of all money, metals, materials but prominent people and other livings species too. It took more than four decades for the ruling elite in India to put Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar on a pedestal where he truly belongs, i.e. as the Architect-in-Chief of of the Constitution of the Republic of India and the foremost original thinker on the totality of the complex heritage and challenging future of India as a modern democratic state. He is now not only the 'reincarnation' of Lord Buddha for the mythologists of 'Dalitology'. The vote bank ideologues of all hues of India's political spectrum, from Saffronite Hinduttava, the Grand Old Party with the patent of Tricolor, various fringes of Red - all would seem to have discovered their comfort level in hailing the 'Untouchable' Doctor as a great modern day law giver ('Manu'); a visionary social reformer; a revolutionary thinker etc. Hounded during his life, denying him any political space, all parties would now seem to be competing to exploit the legacy of 'Bharat Ratna, 1991' in their own terms. The social and economic emancipation of his people, alas, still awaits! Betrayals, by manipulators from the ranks of even Dalits, continues.
As for the noble document of the Constitution of the Republic, the wise Doctor was at great pains to emphasise over and over again that ultimately even the best of system would depend on the quality, character and commitment of those entrusted to run the levers of power of governance. The Parts 3 and 4 pertaining to Fundamental Rights & Directive Principles have been characterised as the 'conscience' of the Constitution and it has been here that the leadership of the country has miserably failed to deliver. The high ideals of equality before law, freedom to profess any religion, access to education and social welfare, improving public health and raising level of nutrition and standard of living have been grossly neglected. India ranks lowly 134 in the Human Development Index of nations, with a staggering 46% of children in the under 5 age group malnourished! Meanwhile ,the number of MP's with declared assets in Crores has increased from 156 in 2004 to 315 in 2009; further, the number of MPs with criminal cases against them rose fom 128 to 150, and 73 (i.e. 15 %) with serious crimes, during the same period. The mystery of sacks full of currency notes emptied on the floor of the Parliament during the No-Confidence Debate on July 22nd, 2008, proven cases of MP's in scandals of 'Cash for Questions'; direct involvement in immigration rackets and crimes all kinds would make the Father of the Nation and the founding fathers turn in their graves! The Rajya Sabha, Upper House of Elders, has its own horror tales with 'cash & carry' ticket of membership to the rich, and resourceful looters. The live telecast of the sessions - when Parliament is allowed to function for brief intervals by the rowdies - present a pathetic spectacle! Most of members regularly play truant like spoiled school children and most significant bills are passed without a word of debate. What a privilege and soulful opportunity it was for me to gain entry into the sacred precincts of the Parliament House on 22 March, 1971 - and listen to Comrade AK Gopalan belabouring Finance Minister YB Chavan with the refrain in speech - 'treat thy self, Dr Chavan!'
The Indian Constitution, the lengthiest in the in the world, has been amended 94 times up-til now. To quote Ronojoy Sen, "India's astonishing religious and ethnic diversity, caste inequalities and widespread illiteracy and poverty demanded unique provisions...a remarkably forward looking document that enshrined individual liberty, equality of opportunity, social justice and secularism." The 86th amendment in 2002 making free and compulsory education for children from age six to 14 a fundamental right, followed by Right to Free and Compulsory Act 2009; Right to Information Act 2005; National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 have been cited as examples of peoples movements on constitutional rights. The renowned constitutional expert Fali S Nariman underlines, "... we cannot work any system unless we re-inject some degree of idealism and morality into politics." Azim Premji of Wipro says, "All the wealth we generate is meaningless unless we have corruption free good governance...Inclusive growth and social justice is outcome of good governance." The eminent author on the Indian constitution, Granville Austin, points out that successive governments, nationally and in states have fallen short of living up to the values of the Preamble, and the fundamental rights and Directive Principles. This has allowed lower castes to remain in poverty and under oppression by upper caste politicians. The crusader for rights of the marginalised people, Medha Patkar, says that, "state has progressively sabotaged the basic values of our constitution." The 11 member National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution with former Chief Justice MN Venkatachaliah appointed by the NDA Government in February 2000 submitted its report in March 2002, "taking care to steer clear of the controversial issues." The 249 recommendations of the commission failed to generate much debate and was confined to oblivion by the successor UPA Government.
The period of the last two decades of the liberalisation of the economy with impressive GDP growth has also witnessed the shrinking of the role of state in the crucial sectors of social development. The gross commercialisation, particularly of education and health, is indeed unwise and worrisome. The slogan of 'public -private partnership ' is viewed by many as, 'a partnership for private profit.' A sound and inexpensive system of education within the easy reach of the vast number of the deprived sections of society would be the key to the realisation of high aspirations of the nation, instead of cutting into more and more pieces of quotas and reservations. Ambedkar's people continue to face discrimination and oppression, taking new forms and atrocities against them, have seen a steep rise across the country. The birth centenary of Ambedkar in 1991 indeed inspired many to be determined to resist any manifestations of prejudice and discrimination against them by the upper caste in the rural interior. The triumph of Dalit leader Mayavati in the largest state of the country, inspite the negative media reports, has instilled new confidence and pride among Dalits in not taking things lying down. A radical and thoughtful agenda to transform their their social and economic conditions, however, still awaits.
So much is being said and written about the most pervasive emergence of 'Parivaarvaad' , 'Paisavaad' and 'Pehalvaanvaad' i.e. family and dynasty, money and muscle power in politics, sapping the vitaliy of democratic values. The extremist elements with domestic roots and the cross border terrorism pose serious and complex threats to the security of the nation - they have to be met resolutely. The centre-State relations would require to be managed in a more even handed manner, above the narrow party lines.
The 61st Anniversary of the Republic of India deserves to be re-dedicated to the serious revaluation of the works of Dr. BR Ambedkar, the most scholarly and most bruised titan of the freedom struggle of the country who always thought ahead of time. A firm believer in democracy as a real way of life and citizens rights, he could very well visualise all the evils the democratic practice in India could be heir to. He sounded stern warnings, "To have popular government run by a single party is to let the democracy become a mere form for despotism...Despotism does not cease to be despotism because it is elective. The real guarantee against despotism is to confront it with the possibilty of its dethronement." Let the many splendored life of Ambedkar inpire us all - the Indians for whose brighter future he gave his all.
It would be a sheer pity for India if a giant of the universal ideas of Ambedkar were dwarfed to belong only to his caste!