Aspirational challenges to Indian nationhood

By Lt Gen Dalip Singh

In the quest to attain the ultimate objective of all-around assured prosperity, every nation struggles by neutralising or bypassing challenges and encashing opportunities. While attempting to march forward, a nation strives to ride on its strengths and undermine its weaknesses. In many ways, this resembles the long-drawn game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’, where one is more mindful of juggling through own challenges and opportunities.

As India announced its tryst with destiny on 15 August 1947, multidimensional challenges were staring menacingly and questioning its survival itself. Integration of Princely States, the aftermath of the bloody partition and the illusionary sense of nationhood in a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious society were all looking ominous. Hindus were the majority community but they were badly scarred by a long history of caste discrimination. Add to this was the nearly crippled economy of India and its external threats.

Everyone can be wiser in hindsight, but today when we commemorate the platinum jubilee of our independence, we need to judge our performance considering the multidimensional enormity of challenges. If one has to fall back on the terminology of ‘Snakes & Ladders’, opportunities-ladders were largely in the field of Economy but we managed to miss catching some big ladders, though succeeded in crawling through a fair distance, rather laboriously and are now poised to find a few ladders.

However, when it comes to the snakes of socio-political challenges, we have been lucky to bypass a few but couldn’t neutralise any and these snakes have repositioned themselves as multi-head hydra in the path to our desired destination. This multi-head hydra represents socio-political challenges and is dangerous enough to take us down to square one if not neutralised or bypassed.

Holistically viewed, not one but there are three elephants in the room and interestingly our political class is aggravating the matter by failing to even recognise them. These are:

  • Caste Conundrum in Hindus and the hurt psyche of marginalized classes
  • Diminishing efficacy of Caste / class-based reservation.
  • Muslim failure towards National integration

After the dawn of Independence, the advent of democracy has certainly unleashed the hitherto dormant higher aspirations of the downtrodden. As people understood the power of votes, the caste identities became more pronounced, acquiring newer and aspirational coats. It is as if a cancerous tumour has been tinkered in the process of mitigating the complications. Well, one cannot blame the messenger for the message’s content. It is high time, the upper-class mindset acknowledges that while Hindus form nearly 80% of India’s population, almost 31% of them are SC /ST and 43 % are OBCs, therefore, there can’t be any meaningful social harmony without addressing the genuine aspirations of the historically marginalized.  It is imperative that genuine aspirations be respected, even if one must endure certain socio-political turmoil.

The policies of affirmative action were initially conceptualised by William Hunter and Jyotirao Phule in 1882. British Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald later instituted the reservation policy in 1933 under the name ‘Communal Award’. While the reservation provisions for only SC-ST were introduced by the Constituent Assembly, OBCs were also covered by the reservation in 2007 after the acceptance of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations.

Under the All-India Quota Scheme, today, 15% of the seats are reserved for members of the SC category, 7.5% for members of the ST category and 27% are granted OBCs. Beginning with the 2021–22 academic year, the Government of India also granted 10% reservations to the Economically Weaker Section in Educational institutions and Government jobs.

While affirmative action including reservations has been somewhat successful in ameliorating a lot of marginalised classes, a number of anomalies have surfaced from time to time. The biggest drawback seems to be that it has put the caste system on steroids, seriously threatening to cast a shadow on democratic values. With the clout of numbers, few affluent castes have managed to get the tag and are literally monopolising the benefits at the cost of more marginalised. Experiments of further compartmentalizing into Maha-dalit and Ati-pichda etc have proved to be more of a political gimmick.

There is no system of creamy layers in SC-ST reservation and such people who got benefited earlier and improved their competitiveness, continue to garner maximum benefits. To start with, it should have been a strict time-bound exercise. In a politically charged atmosphere, the provision, which was to last a few years, is still gaining steam, even after three generations having benefitted. The political cost of any pragmatism in this regard is considered to be prohibitive and the situation is expected to deteriorate beyond repair before any political will would surface.

Muslim alienation is not peculiar to India, but with the second-largest Muslim population in the world, a lack of desired success in this field may be catastrophic for all. In the midst of the euphoria of Prime Minister Narender Modi’s recent visit to the United States, former US President Barack Obama had a word of caution, “if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility that India at some point starts pulling apart”.

While we may dismiss the scepticism of Obama as motivated by extraneous consideration, one has to acknowledge that Muslims as the largest minority have failed to fully integrate into the national mainstream. While all political dispensations which have ruled India and its states from time to time have to share the blame for this failure, a fairly large chunk of failure must also be attributed to Muslim community leaders, be it political or religious. In the causal conundrum of cause and effect, one can argue endlessly as to which came first, Egg or Chicken? As a community, Muslims need to answer a few questions:

  • Do they consider themselves Muslim or Indian first?
  • Why is it only their community, which seems to be having integration problems, not only in India but in all corners of the world?
  • While the minority status does deserve sympathy, why do the majority of communal riots get initiated, where they are actually in the majority?

As a nation, we take tremendous pride in being a robust democracy, though our political parties are guilty of shamelessly exploiting socio-political fault lines and the entire spectrum of political thought is blameworthy for ignoring obvious pitfalls. One spectrum has shamelessly indulged in appeasement politics and has deliberately hurt the sentiments of the majority community, while the other spectrum is blameworthy of howling from rooftops, projecting themselves to be messiahs of the majority community, though actually doing nothing. They are more interested in arousing majority backlash rather than taking any pragmatic measures. The situation calls for a comprehensive review and political honesty, which has proved illusionary so far.

Lt. Gen Dalip Singh, PVSM, VSM retired from Indian Army after 39 years of service. He held important posts such as Director General – Recruiting, and Director General Ordnance Services in his distinguished career as a soldier.


Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times  

Images courtesy of Times NIE and Provided

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