Friday, February 1, 2013

Islands in the ocean

Every year, the last week of January provokes many thoughts. And every year, around this time, I get to collect those thoughts and analyze them, together.

It all starts on the 23rd of January, the birthday of Netaji Subhash, one of the prominent freedom fighters of India, who took a stand opposite to that of Mahatma Gandhi, that freedom could be won by Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (insistence on truth) alone. Netaji went on to raise an army of Indian expatriates, establish a free Indian government in exile, and win Indian territory back from the British in battle. He was lucky to raise the tricolor in free India, a few years before our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru could. Many believe that had he succeeded, Netaji would have become to Indians, what general George Washington became to the Americans -- the general on horseback, who took on the mighty British empire, and chased its redcoats out of his country.

A few days later, on the 26th of January every year, along with millions of my fellow Indians, I celebrate the founding of our republic. It is an extremely important day for us, because we celebrate our constitution, along with the rights and the freedoms that it guarantees. Many believe that it is on the 26th of January 1950, that we truly became independent, with our own president as the head of state.

And, then, just a few days later, along with countless other Indians, I mournfully remember the day that Bapu was assassinated. On January 30, 1948, a Hindu fanatic, Nathuram Godse, shot Mahatma Gandhi during an open prayer meeting. And with that, died the person that Netaji Subhash had called the father of the nation, in spite of the many disagreements that he had with him.  

Bapu and Netaji

At the end of the week, like countless other Indians I try and imagine what India would have been like, if Netaji had won the war, or, if Bapu had been alive a little longer. Unfortunately, neither of them had much say into what India eventually became. In the final days of the second world war, Netaji disappeared without a trace. And Bapu, fell to an assassin's bullets, two years before our constitution came into force.

Many times, when I complain about the tyranny of the majority that India has come to be,  my friends, who know about my libertarian leanings, call me a jackboot sympathizer. I make no secret of my admiration for Netaji Subhash, but I admire him for only one thing. I don't think that anyone in our history has had the amount of selfless love that Netaji had for India -- and no one gave so much for India and got so little in return, like him. But, unlike what most people think of us, libertarians do not believe in "jackboot dictatorships." And, I certainly do not believe that India would have been a better country, if it became a military dictatorship following its liberation under Netaji's command.

Just like libertarians do not believe in the "tyranny of the majority", we do not believe in the "tyranny of the minority" as well. Libertarians like small governments, and they believe in the power of the individual to determine the liberties that they should have. One could say, that some of us are borderline anarchists. But, one should know that anarchy is not necessarily the same as lawlessness, but simply, less power available to a repressive state to implement, what it sees as the law.

And that brings me to Bapu, and what he thought India should have become.

Many believe that Bapu was a libertarian. If you want to take on a mighty empire, and rip it apart, you have to strike where it hurts the most. Bapu's movement had questioned the legitimacy of the British empire to rule by law, when simple law abiding subjects had to face the full brutality of the state for peacefully making a point. Bapu had cleverly put anarchist sentiments in a country, which was never completely unaware of  them. Bapu was against the state that he managed to dismantle -- and so, you could perhaps say, that he was a libertarian.

Bapu wanted an India, which was very different from the India that finally came into being on republic day. He dreamed of a state that was a loose federation of villages and city-states, sharing a common military and foreign policy. Bapu's India would have an executive president, directly elected by the people, and unlike many executive presidents the world over, he or she would have minimal powers.

Bapu knew that Indians liked to organize themselves as families, clans and tribes. He understood very well that a pathan from the northwest frontier had nothing in common with a naga from the north eastern frontier. And so, it was futile to try and subject them to a common set of rules along with half a billion other Indians (at that time). It would have been best for people to locally manage their business, with their own cultural identities, religious practices and languages. For whatever reasons that might be, India never went that way.   

In the last sixty or so years of the republic, we have simply tried to become a replica of the west. We started out by adopting a Westminster style democracy, which works well for a few islands in the Atlantic, but miserably fails for a country of  India's size. Then, we turned it into a monarchy of sorts, which maintains all the trappings of a republic -- some say, that this evolution is a close reflection of our feudal mindset. At various times, in various states, we have been ruled by people who believe in a religious theocracy, or in a dictatorship of the proletariat. And, on many occasions, many of us have longed for an American style presidential system, where perhaps, we would be able to elect our very own "emperor" in a country, that seems to need one. Quite badly.

Assuming just for a moment that Bapu's dream of a loosely bound confederation of villages was indeed what modern India became, I keep wondering what things would look like. Perhaps, our villages would be much richer than they are, perhaps our people would be much more involved in the governance of their cities. Perhaps, we would not have separated ourselves into three nations, two of which are at perpetual war with each other. There would not have been a need to separate, as Hindu and Muslim villages would exist side by side with each other, each applying its own justice in the area that it ruled over. Those, who did not like a particular village, would always be at liberty to move to another. The country would simply have too many choices, where something unique existed for everybody.

Perhaps, a libertarian India of Bapu's dream would have been like islands in the ocean, at peace with each other. As many islanders will tell you, there is always plenty of fish to go around, and coconut rum to drink. And at the end of the day, the sunsets are beautiful. Always.


  1. Beautifully written. But I disagree on Bapu's model of democracy. You can't have a common nation without a strong centre.I guess if so much power was vested with local administration, we would have ended in not 3 but 50 plus odd countries. This idea of greater power to federal elements comes in direct conflict with Sardar Patel's ideology of strong centre to combat regional ambitions.The fact is that there was no India before British came, so to preserve the idea, we must have strong centre. But then whats wrong in thinking otherwise. :)

  2. You make a very good point.

    If you think about the India that came into being when the Brits left, you could argue that keeping the nation together was more important than adopting federalism. We have enjoyed more than sixty years of independence now, and our Indian identities have become even more pronounced, with time. Now that our national identities are not in question any more, perhaps, it is time for our "notional" identities to play a more important role.

    Trust me, historically, no nation has ever been undermined by a weak center and a rich diversity of opinion. I happen to live in one, and I believe, so do you :-)


  3. geography teacher always said that perfect models don't apply in India. Since no other nation is as much diverse as we are, and where people still vote in the name of caste, religion, region etc, I think we can't rely too much on local "notions". Let the time come when every citizen becomes rational, and then we shall discuss a more powerful federalism. Till then....Peace!