FIFTY YEARS ON

Independence Day in 1947, far from bringing peace and solidarity, heralded a time of war and oppression. Half a century on, what do India's present and future hold for its people?
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As The Clock in the Central Hall of the Indian Constituent Assembly, New Delhi, ticked towards midnight on 15 August 1947, India's leader Jawahalal Nehru began a speech that ranks as one of the most impressive in political history.

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of the nation, long suppressed, finds utterance."

Fifty years on has India lived up to Nehru's hopes? Have the real "Midnight's Children" stepped out from the old and found utterance in a new nation?

The early omens were not good. The new India was born of violence. First the partition of the country into two dominions - India and Pakistan - brought in its wake communal butchery. A year later Indian troops invaded the state of Hyderabad and integrated it into the Union by force. In 1961 they took over the Portuguese colony of Goa and it, too, became part of the Union. There was war between India and China in 1962, between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh in 1971, and intermittent fighting between India and Pakistan over Kashmir - a dispute dating back to 1947 - continues to this day. Whatever else independence produced for India it has not produced a lasting peace.

But there have been successes. When I lived in India, from 1960 to '62, people said: "Why can't India be like China?" What they meant was why couldn't it have a Mao-style "Great Leap Forward", double its grain production, and feed all its citizens? It took nearly 30 years for the lie behind this comparison to surface. At the very time China was being held up as an example, the worst famine in China's history was killing 30 million people.

India, on the other hand, has not had a famine since independence and its agricultural production has been so successful that it is now exporting food, a fitting conclusion to what is probably India's greatest achievement of the past 50 years.

When people have full stomachs their thoughts turn to consumer goods. Under the rule of the Nehrus, India shielded its own industries from Western competition by tariff walls. A side effect of this policy meant that the native ingenuity that might have gone into industrial innovation turned instead to recyling on a level that became the envy of Greens all over the world; plastic scrap was melted down and reshaped, going round and round as buckets and containers until exhausted; cars were kept running with hand-machined parts and the skill of roadside mechanics.

Friends of India remember the period well because anyone announcing a forthcoming visit to the country would be innundated with requests for Western manufactured goods. Ironically, this hunger for material goodies coincided with the West's hunger for Indian spiritual enlightenment. So, while a generation of young Indians lusted after record players, tape record-ers, movie cameras and Californian clothing, a generation of Westerners backpacked their way to India to find piece of mind at the feet of their gurus.

Then, about three years ago, came the revolution. The central government in Delhi floated the rupee, pulled down most of the tariff barriers, looked even further the other way over smuggling, and opened India to the world. The result has been astonishing. Visitors now note that you can buy anything in India, and a lot of it better and cheaper than in the West. Nowadays people take nothing with them and instead return with suitcases laden with clothing, household utensils, watches, costume jewellery and computer hardware.

A nation of ingenious entrepreneurs and hard-headed businesspeople - so why isn't India one of the Eastern Tiger economies? The answer is simple - too many people. The population at midnight on 15 August 1947 was under 400 million. Today it is nearing 1,000 million and in a few years India will overtake China as the most populous country in the world. The one outstanding failure since independence has been the birth-control campaign. Indians, who put family above all else, still reproduce as prolifically as ever.

For the poor in the poorer states, like Bihar, this results in female infanticide because dowry-giving means that girl babies are seen as an enormous financial burden. Indian non-governmental organisations are tackling the problem, but the state governments - which should take a lead - are not. There is a reason: all state governments are, if not broke, then close to it because of India's tax problems.

Income tax just does not work in a country with so many self-employed citizens all intent on avoiding liability. Out of a population of 1,000 million only 12 million are in the income-tax net. So the main source of revenue is from indirect taxation - sales taxes and customs-and-excise duties - and the states miss out.

Good incomes and low taxes mean that the middle class, estimated at 200 million, has a lot of disposable income and has become the target of international cor-porations. Bring these corporations together with Indian entrepreneurial talent and the mix is explosive.

So, what is the bottom line? Over the past 50 years Indians have seen their share of war and violence. But none of them died of famine. They watched the Nehru dynasty come to an end and the Congress Party lose power. Two Prime Ministers were assassinated and there are never-ending allegations of corruption and nepotism. But democracy still functions, albeit shakily. Most Indians feel that they are better off than their parents and that the future looks bright. Given the state of the rest of the world, Midnight's Children will settle for that.

Phillip Knightly has twice been named Journalist of the Year. He also contributes to India!, the new issue of Granta, out this week (pounds 7.99). His autobiography, 'A Hack's Progress', is published in August.

VP SINGH POLITICIAN, Bangalore

VP Singh is an imposing, handsome man who takes it upon himself to offer the "official line" on India. "You know that I was posted to the UK for four years - looking after Indian investments. I enjoyed it but there's nothing permanent there. People move on all the time. But in India, I can still go back to my grandfather's house. We have roots." But surely India is changing? "Certainly, we have an educated pool of manpower, the industrial base has increased, and there's nothing you can buy in the West that's not on sale here." But has affluence brought greater divisions in sociey? "No. In the countryside there's hardly anyone who dies of starvation. We have good, basic healthcare." This is true but Singh will not admit that Bangalore is expanding so fast that the infrastructure simply can't cope. He argues that "Cities all over the world attract the poor seeking jobs."

Singh's career has been illustrious. "I came into the service because my father wanted at least one son to get into a premier service." Does he get job satisfaction? "Yes, but early on there was no financial satisfaction." Singh often had to go back to the family for money, but the idea of service kept him going. "Am I tied to India? Yes, certainly. It's a good feeling - I'm growing with India." Singh recites the list of UK companies investing in Bangalore - National Grid, Powergen - with the confidence of a man whose country has come of age. So British companies are being attracted by opportunities in a new and hungry market? Singh smiles: "Oh yes. But this time we're ready for them."

BRINDA KARAT WOMEN'S RIGHTS CAMPAIGNER, Delhi

In 1967, Brinda Karat went to London, where she worked for three years. Profoundly affected by the events of 1968 in Paris, and by the Vietnam war, she became a socialist. "I was politically naive before I left; I accepted my parents having servants without thinking. But I returned here in 1970 and decided that until I really knew India, I would not leave her again." Twenty-seven years later, Brinda Karat has stuck by her decision.

Karat is not a conventional Indian woman. Married to a successful lawyer, she has chosen not to have children, and lives a life of politics as a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and as the general secretary of the All-India Democratic Women's Association. "Class inequality has grown since Independence. India's political system is bankrupt," she declares. Karat says that the position of women has also deteriorated: "The forces of modernity are as oppressive as the forces of feudalism." Her aim is to aid women who have little or no access to the law and the political system. The Women's Association addresses the issues of wages and equal opportunities and runs 110 legal-aid centres working to counter domestic violence. There are laws against violence and to promote equal opportunities but, says Karat, "the gap is in enforcement". She adds that women have fewer positions of power than ever. The rise of India as a so-called "Tiger economy" has, she maintains, only added to their misery. Now they are wage slaves to an international system, not just an Indian one.

MOHAMMED MUSA WEAVER, Varanasi

"My eyes are gone and I can no longer see to work." Musa rises stiffly from behind his loom and strokes the head of his nephew whom he has been helping. "I feel much older these days, the last years have been a struggle ... who wants a blind weaver?" He lights a beedi (a cheap Indian cigarette) and sits on the roof to talk, away from the clatter of the looms. "You know I used to love that sound." He leans over and whispers: "But now, I'm too tired to care." Musa is a master craftsman and has worked in the trade since he was 10 years old. "My father before me was a weaver. That is our way here - from father to son - I had no choice." The "factory", just a large room with four looms, is part of his family house in a Muslim enclave of Varanasi. The city, one of the holiest in India for Hindus, is also famous for its silk. Do Musa and his family have any problems as Muslims in a Hindu city? "From time to time there are fools who cause trouble, but nowadays there is relatively little and in this area we are away from the city centre."

How has India changed since he was a boy? "There's more corruption, I think people are less honest. Here we try to tell our children, behave well, respect your elders. It's a losing battle, they want televisions, they want music." He leans forward: "They want to dance together. When we became independent, we were promised so much. But I have seen over the years - it hasn't improved." Surely now Indians are free and can make their own decisions? Musa is adamant: "You cannot eat freedom."

RADHA PRIESTESS, Varanasi

As she does most mornings, Radha prays to the sun from the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, one of India's most sacred cities. She steps forward, offering incense and flowers to the deities. She walks down the steps of the ghat and fills her pail, and as she empties it she prays to the seven sacred rivers. Afterwards, as boatloads of pilgrims and tourists are rowed along the river, she begins to look frail and poor in the morning light. Radha is a self-appointed priestess who helps the low castes with rituals and prayers. "I felt a calling," she says. "It was almost 25 years ago ... I was always a poor woman and, through me, the other poor people can hear and speak to Lord Krishna."

Was she fortunate to be born in 1947? "I can't say that I have grown with India. I've no care for this country, just my family." She points to an alleyway where she lives with her family in a shelter. Her two sons and three daughters sometimes play instruments on the ghat to accompany her devotions. Is religion a comfort? "Yes, but this is a difficult age, that of Kali [age of the end of the world]. Now the poor are poorer and the rich richer."

Like many Indians she feels isolated and outside of the political system that is meant to represent her. "Voting is nothing, it has no meaning for me." For her the concepts of India as a political entity, as a new investment centre, as a world power, as a modern nation, are meaningless - it has always been free and independent. The 50th birthday of the state created in 1947 means nothing to Radha because, for her, India is incalculably older.

NARAYAMA MURTHY ENTREPRENEUR, Bangalore

Narayama Murthy is an Indian success story. In 1981, he founded Infosys, India's first software company. Now he is a millionaire and his projections indicate that by 2000 the company will be worth US$100m. Murthy became a capitalist after a stint in Paris in the Seventies. "Going to the West I realised that you can't solve problems by dividing wealth; you have to create it and people need incentives." Murthy thinks, "the beauty of India is that we are children of two cultures - at home, I'm comfortable in my lungi [a sort of sarong] - outside I'm comfortable in my suit and tie." He thinks that countries like India which didn't have an industrial revolution have had to adopt a more radical stance to catch up - "We've had to question our traditions." Like religion? "Well, religion gives me peace of mind at home but we need to keep religion out of public life."

Murthy believes that independence was "inevitable" and "entirely right" but adds that "India was not ready for universal suffrage, we are still not." Murthy doesn't expect the next 50 years to bring great structural changes to the country and is convinced that the middle class will be the motor behind any changes. If India embraces the middle-class capitalist ethic, what will happen to its spiritual heart? "It will remain to an extent but we have people to feed ... I'm very fortunate having seen so much and being born when I was. We were surrounded by people of such vision and our parents gave us a unique sense of hope and optimism. We knew there'd be jobs - the ones the British left!"

MOHAMMED FAROOQ COBBLER, Calcutta

Mohammed squints against the light as he opens the curtains of his pavement shack on one of Calcutta's busiest roads. Inside, the room is bare but clean: despite being a refugee whose children collect rags to earn money, Mohammed is a proud man. His family was originally from Calcutta but moved to Dhaka to be with relatives when he was one year old. Before Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan) gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, Mohammed worked in a chemist's shop in Dhaka; although not an educated man, he worked hard and "learnt business there". The war for Bangladeshi independence saw families displaced from their homes or even wiped out. The Farooqs escaped relatively unharmed: Mohammed lost his half-brother. But most of his wife's family were killed. Despite being Muslims, the Farooqs sought refuge in Calcutta after their home was looted, because India "was still our homeland. We had to start again and, by the grace of Allah, we are still alive. I learnt how to mend shoes and we are a hard-working people. The Bangladeshis are hard-working - tell the world this, we do not beg."

Mohammed is not too old to remember his parents' tales of the British and their harsh ways. But like many Indians, he says their time was characterised by a degree of fairness and adds: "We [the Indians] are so young and we have no one to guide us. We have not learnt enough to make our own way. My children's generation will have to take the lead." In the corner, his youngest son is sleeping, oblivious of his impossible responsibility.

TOM PATHAK MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT AND POLITICIAN, Delhi

Om Pathak is on his way to the settlement of Bishara in Gaziabad, 40km east of Delhi. He is a management consultant and also an experienced politician who, in the last year, has switched from the Congress Party to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Today, as a member of the party's executive council, he is off to press some flesh.

Pathak was born in Lahore, now in Pakistan, but after Partition in 1947, his civil-servant father found work in India. It was to the civil service that Pathak also turned, during the third Indo-Pakistani war in 1971, rising to the position of Second Lieutenant in the Indian Army. But he didn't want to remain in the military and was asked to join Congress by Rajiv Gandhi in 1983. During his Congress days, he was an MP in Lucknow where he learnt Urdu and, he says, helped ease tensions between Sunni and Shiah Muslims while developing a deeper personal understanding of the "Muslim problem". At the last election, he fought and lost against the then BJP Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Vajpayee subsequently asked Pathak to join his party, and Pathak accepted. What made him turn against Congress? "It allied itself to the forces of the lower castes." Specifically Pathak speaks of Congress's alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which wants positive change for low-caste people. Pathak believes that the next 50 years will see a greater division between the well-educated and the poor but, like many affluent Delhi-ites, believes that India must embrace capitalism, and fast.

SIYATHA VIJAYARAGHAVAN MUSICIAN, Madras

Sitting in her Madras house, surrounded by the achievements of a lifetime in the arts, Siyatha declares that she was once a rebel. And with this, the elegant musician once again becomes a giggling schoolgirl. She came from a very middle-class family but, inspired by the Gandhian ideals of her teacher, went to school "only dressed in a cardi" (a heavy cloth, uncomfortable in the heat of Madras). All this was to the alarm of her parents. "But in the Twenties my grandfather had been active against the British."

To Siyatha, the present system is "sullied". Take education: "Education means very little ... it does not mean the acquiring of knowledge, rather getting into the rat race." Can India succeed when there's such a gap between rich and poor? "No," she says firmly, "we have tried all different systems, there has been some progress but our population is our biggest problem. We need to educate the masses, give them opportunities." Her servants flutter in the background, she doesn't notice the irony.

Does today's MTV generation threaten the cultural traditions Siyatha represents? "This will not last ... but also it is not new." She is right: India has always absorbed other cultures and synthesised them into something that is unquestionably Indian. Her current work focuses on the changes since 1947. "Even today, if you want to bring about gentleness you must have music. Of course," she continues, "British rule brought to an end the patronage of the arts by the nobles. That is something we have to reassert." !

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