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Threescore and Ten

Do we today celebrate our independence, or mourn all the lost opportunities?

The flame of hope lighted at the midnight hour of 15 August 1947 is today dimmed. Our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called independence our collective “tryst with destiny;” the chairman of the Constitution drafting committee, B R Ambedkar, warned the young republic of its “life of contradictions” where it guaranteed political equality while denying the most basic social and economic rights to its citizens. Mahatma Gandhi walked in Noakhali and, perhaps characteristically prescient, used the language of the communists: “Yeh aazadi jhooti hai”!

This ambivalence, and the accompanying debate about whether our independence is real or illusionary, has remained a constant companion over the past 70 years. There is much to celebrate. We have remained a democracy and it can well be argued that millions of people today are far more empowered about taking decisions about their lives and livelihoods than they were 70 years ago. It is equally a banality of daily life that Dalits die cleaning sewers, women are attacked and Muslims lynched on the streets. We have managed to build and run institutions that have excelled, whether it is the Election Commission or the Indian Space Research Organisation, while we have also hollowed out many institutions that are foundational to the health of our republic. We have not only managed to avoid some of the worst excesses of religious violence and discrimination that postcolonial nations have faced, but have also preserved our plurality and tolerance; and yet, we have elected governments which work to destroy secularism as state policy and encourage majoritarian violence.

Do we today celebrate our independence, or do we also mourn all the lost opportunities and be sombre at our present challenges?

This ambivalence or what some call a contradiction, the debate about how we assess our freedom from colonialism and these years of independence, has had at least one positive consequence. It has led to productive political contestations and academic debates, which have enriched us. This journal has been a constant companion to both, providing an open platform for engagements across the spectrum. Today, the number of people contributing to these pages has grown exponentially, the contributing authors spread across all parts of our academia, our state and society. In some ways, social science research and public policy debates are flourishing. And yet, the distance between academia and policy, between debates and politics is perhaps wider than ever before. The voice that academia had in shaping government policies and public ideas has whittled down while those in government and public life rarely have any connect with academia.

In the decades following independence, the big questions with which social scientists grappled all emerged from the immediate demands of nation building. Thus, it was not coincidental that social sciences flourished in India, even under conditions of material impoverishment. Indian universities regularly produced academicians and ideas of global standing. It was again not coincidental that India’s development model, despite all its infirmities, had global lessons, whether it was on economic policy, democracy, or secularism. A laundry list of such achievements can never be comprehensive but whether it was in political science, in sociology, in history, in literature or of course, in economics, India was among the rare ex-colonial countries whose academic voice could not be ignored in global dialogues. In short, despite all its deficiencies, India produced an organic scholarship in the social sciences, which not only seeded public policy but also informed its political contestations.

Over the years, but particularly since the 1980s, there has been an unprecedented expansion in higher education in India. Driven by rising literacy figures and a social churn (which is as yet not fully understood nor researched), we have had hundreds of thousands of new students coming to our colleges and universities. This expansion is not only in the professional courses of science, technology, engineering and management, but also in social sciences and humanities. Government finance, even though it has grown, has remained inadequate to meet this surge in numbers. Private commercialised education has remained unconcerned with the social sciences. At least two generations have grown to citizenship and political voice without access to social science and humanities education. This gap has been partly filled by television and is currently being fed by WhatsApp, a clue perhaps to the politics that emerges from such education.

That hundreds of thousands of young people have been left bereft of a social science and humanities education also means that it has left academia impoverished and unreal. This has had varied consequences, not the least of which has been to encourage a jargon-filled patois to flourish within the social sciences and humanities departments that makes even simple statements incomprehensible to most educated people. It has stilted research questions away from organic links to daily life, often into arcane hair-splitting over meanings and complications. It has made it that much more difficult for social scientists to recognise society around them, and made them, ironically, that much more dependent on the state for sustenance.

India is not the same social and political entity of three, even two decades ago. The number of people who can now read and write, the numbers who now travel for work and leisure, the number who own assets (and the communities which do), the changes in occupations and incomes, the transformation of families, of gender roles, of political participation; all are radically different today from the India at the time of independence, or even one which Indira Gandhi left behind.

Where are the new theories, the new methodologies, to capture this new India? The categories, models and visions that help understand and explain India today? It is not for nothing that the political and social world is becoming inexplicable to us—baffling electoral results or the unpredictable consequences of demonetisation are only two of the proximate examples of this rupture between the new India and academia.

Seventy years after independence, we live in a country that is not just unrecognisable to those who fought for its freedom, but also to many of us—the people who read and contribute to these pages. One is reminded of the old bard:

Threescore and ten I can remember well:

Within the volume of which time I have seen

Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night

Hath trifled former knowings.

Independence Day is also a time for rededicating oneself to the tasks at hand. The Economic & Political Weekly, and its earlier avatar of the Economic Weekly, has prided itself in being a constant companion to India’s self-awakening. In times like this when the search has to be renewed, we reaffirm our commitment to dialogue, debate and to giving voice to the less heard and the silenced. A new voice needs to emerge, to capture the demands and desires of people who have no experience of colonialism.


Updated On : 16th Aug, 2017


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