Indians urged to fight for freedom

In the vast colonnaded sandstone drum of India's parliament building, where 50 years ago Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of India awaking to freedom, the Speaker of Lok Sabha, the lower house, called yesterday for "a second freedom struggle".

This time, he said, the struggle should be for "freedom from our own internal contradictions between our prosperity and poverty, between the plenty of our resource endowments and the scarcity of their prudent management, between our culture of peace and tolerance and our current conduct sliding towards violence, intolerance and discrimination".

Under Rule 360 of India's constitution, the Speaker can address Lok Sabha on his own initiative. This right had never been exercised, but Mr Sangma, a member of the Garo tribe from Assam and a member of the Congress party, decided such an unprecedented sitting would be an appropriate way to mark the nation's golden jubilee. The debate he has set in motion will continue for four days, mulling the entire state of the nation.

Mr Sangma's remarks see-sawed between congratulation at the survival of democracy, and dismay at a polity in which "the chain of accountability of the civil service to the political executive, of the political executive to the legislature and of the legislature to the people has got snapped all the way".

The emphasis fell on the failures: 460 million illiterates, a 1 per cent share in world exports, stagnation in the ratio of employment in industry and a share of foreign direct investment into all developing countries of less than three-quarters of 1 per cent. "Means can be created only by generation of wealth," Mr Sangma suggested. "Even the People's Republic of China has come to accept this position."

The House he addressed is very different from the one to which Nehru spoke. Then, and throughout India's first 40 years, it was dominated by Congress; today it is a mass of bickering parties with no single one dominating. Then, it was ruled by the educated, English-speaking elite; today many MPs, "Bandit Queen" Phoolan Devi being the best-known, are from low castes and a number are, like her, illiterate. Then the centre ruled the states; increasingly the states dictate to the centre.

Yet amid such drastic change, Mr Sangma is a paragon of the ideals that set Indian democracy rolling. Born into a poor family from a peripheral minority, inculcated thanks to missionaries in the importance of hard work and liberal values, he epitomises the secularism on which India's hopes for unity have always rested. Barely a month ago he came close to resigning as Speaker when the House dissolved in shouting and uproar. "I can't preside over this House; I feel ashamed to be the Speaker of this Parliament," he told MPs then over the hubbub. But although yesterday he spoke of "frequent bouts of pandemonium in the House" and the need for aspiring MPs to have training in proper behaviour, he is not that easily beaten. In addition to a law degree, Mr Sangma has taught in nursery school and as Minister of Labour he had to tackle India's 50,000 trade unions. "When you've handled unions, you can handle anything," he once remarked.

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