Understanding the foundations of India’s democratic tradition in the postcolonial era

Written by Shruti Venkatraman

The recent release of Indian politician Shashi Tharoor’s book, Inglorious Empire, advocating for greater awareness of the blood-soaked history of India’s colonial past under British rule, and the release of the film Viceroy’s House, which was heavily criticized for portraying events covering the final months before Indian independence under Lord Mountbatten through an anglicized lens, have prompted discussion of the way the subject is studied and discussed today, both in India and in Britain. Historians, commentators and indophiles are working to dispel widely circulated myths in order to foster a greater understanding of Britain’s colonial past, particularly in light of arguments circulated around the time of the Brexit referendum pertaining to Britain strengthening ties to its former colonies. These discussions have prompted further considerations as to whether the Indian nation, as we know it today, is a colonial construct.

On the eve of Indian Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, stated in his speech, titled Tryst with Destiny:


    ‘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 a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’


This reiterates the theme of India’s rebirth and rediscovery and of a nation chartering a new path. While the legacy of colonialism remains entrenched in the history of the subcontinent, the construct of the Indian nation or the principles and ideologies upon which it was founded can only be attributed in part to British rule. Undeniably, British rule had a direct impact on the events that followed independence in the Indian Partition and its lasting impact, with its consequences still unravelling to this day. This is more a factual link in terms of the causation of events, rather than a conceptual link that ties India as modern democracy today to its colonial past.

The Indian Partition is evidently the most obvious and significant outcome of British rule. The debate prior to the Partition was dominated by opposing views on secularism, and rhetoric was deeply rooted in the categories created and utilized by the British as a part of their divisive ruling strategy, which politicized different groups in society based upon religion, caste, race and language. This encouraged religious nationalism and communalism, which heightened community tensions in an attempt to retain total control. The Indian National Congress (INC) initially focused on increasing Indian representation and then moved to a policy of non-cooperation, in a movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi. The struggle for Purna Swaraj (complete independence) began in 1930, and was heightened by India’s participation in World War II without consulting with Indian leaders, leading to the Quit India movement. The partition of the province of Bengal created the first Muslim majority province and was the clearest example of Britain’s desire to divide Indians on religious grounds, and to coerce opposition politicians to prevent any one group from rivalling their control. An increasingly insecure Muslim minority concerned about representation were forced to consider a two-state solution leading to Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s, leader of the Muslim League, 1940 Lahore Declaration that called for the creation of a Muslim homeland. This led to a violent and mismanaged Partition, with the British intent on making a hasty exit failing to consider the implications of changing border lines and the rise of religious nationalism. The Partition has had lasting implications, both including the religious riots and violence, the call for Khalistan, persisting conflict on the India-Pakistan border due to conflicting claims for border state Kashmir, and the later partition of Pakistan.

Interestingly, unlike colonial pursuits by other countries, such as in Latin America, the British had little interest in cultural or religious diffusion. Instead, they used a modified version of British education, not to encourage social mobility, but to train government clerks. In doing so, they created a new, westernised Indian elite. Conversely, Karl Marx advocated the belief that


    ‘England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.’


This never truly came to fruition. Instead, by creating a generation of middlemen, over time, the English language found a home in India, despite the intention that it would eventually be phased out of administration. British motivations in India were generally economic, because this gave them a monopolistic trading position, lucrative employment opportunities for its citizens and geopolitical power as a result of India’s geography and military manpower.

Commentators often claim that the power of Indian democracy originated under British rule that provided Indian leaders with schooling in democratic governance. Conversely, Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winning economist, attributed Indian democratic success to ‘India’s long argumentative tradition and toleration of heterodoxy,’ citing the fact that not all British ex-colonies have had comparable achievements on this front. Secularism has formed an intrinsic aspect of democratic tradition, and these values can be traced back to Gandhi and Nehru who both firmly believed in territorial nationalism, rather than Hindu nationalism. The 1931 Karachi Resolution, to which they were both party, establishes state neutrality to encourage tolerance. In this sense, Indian democracy developed outside of British teachings. The final transition to a full democracy was in the hands of India’s first government, and this included the constitutional provisions for universal suffrage and liberal rights. The INC movement alone provided the groundwork for governance conducive to democracy from the point of independence. India’s unique democracy, at least officially, cannot be attributed to its British rulers. The key architects of this foundation were Nehru, and to some extent Gandhi, who combined Nehruvian politics with his own understanding of ethics. Democracy and secularism are the two most substantial and enduring pillars of Indian society; beyond party lines, language and religion. In their understanding, India is a nation born from an ancient civilization that was a world in itself that has had to bear the burden of extractive colonialism. In his Tryst with Destiny speech, Nehru acknowledges this very point saying:


    ‘Yet the turning point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the east, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materializes.’


In India’s current commitment to democracy and secularism India continues to realize its potential as a ‘star of freedom in the east’ as it writes new chapters of its history.  


Note: This article is an adaptation of an academic coursework piece.



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