The Idea of India

I started writing this on India’s seventieth Republic Day honouring the date when our constitution came into effect (26 January 1950). India’s constitution has just reached the proverbial three score years and ten and, during that time, the average lifespan in the country has risen from 40 to 69 years.  The idea of India* has benefitted from many Christian contributions which have helped to build our nation.

Prior to the advent of Christian missionaries reading and writing in the vernacular languages was confined to the top 5% of the population. Bible translation resulted in dictionaries and grammars and the spread of literacy means that now 70% of Indians are literate in their own mother tongue. Coupled with this are the thousands of schools and colleges started by Christians. India’s Vice President Venkaiah Naidu spoke about education as “the most important tool for social transformation… It helps impart values, compassion, morality and ethics.” He noted that Christians “maintain the best educational institutions in the country…. that create awareness about the need of education for the needy.”** In addition a survey by the London School of Economics showed that there is a direct correlation between Christian education of women and democracy.

Christians were also pioneers in healthcare and today there are over a thousand Catholic and Protestant hospitals and health centres. Two of the oldest medical colleges for women were started by Christian women. They also led the way in service to the poor and marginalised epitomised by the work of Mother Teresa of Kolkata, caring for the poor and homeless, and for the dying destitute.

Over 70 years ago the ‘Constituent Assembly’ of 299 members, chaired by veteran Dalit leader Babasaheb B L Ambedkar, drafted one of the most detailed constitutions in the world.  Its preamble promises justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all. To check the uncontrolled use of power they instituted a separation between the Executive and the Judiciary – the rule of Law with protection of human rights and freedom of religion. They also established a universal franchise for men and women, as well as affirmative action for the Dalits (formerly untouchables) and Tribals (25% of the population), who had been downtrodden for hundreds of years.  Both of these were unique in their day.

In the last few years there has been a perceptible erosion of the separation of powers, with the Executive influencing independent agencies like the Judiciary, law enforcement, the Reserve Bank and others. Influential politicians and thinkers are even talking about making major changes to the constitution, leading India to become a mono religious state (Hindu-stan).

With a general election looming in April/May this year, how long will India last as a democratic republic? Will the ‘Idea of India’ be the country of its constitution or will it increasingly become authoritarian? It needs much prayer.

Article by Dr R, SAC partner in north India

*The Idea of India is a phrase coined by Rabindranath Tagore and used by historian Sunil Khilnani as the title of his 1997 book.

**At the Catholic Cathedral in New Delhi on 12 December 2017