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The momentum of social reforms was lost by the early 1950s

Bipin Chandra, the eminent historian, evaluates the achievements and failures during these fifty years of freedom.

Celebrating its Independence on 15 August, India was faced with immense problems posed by the transfer of power, Partition and Partition riots and the immense refugee exodus from Pakistan to India. Still the Government of India and the Indian people set out to develop an independent modern economy and a secular, democratic, civil libertarian and socially just polity and society.

The newly framed Constitution came into operation on 26 January 1950, establishing India as an independent republic based on a system of representative parliamentary democracy. An outstanding feature of the new political system was adult franchise for all men and women. The Constitution also established an advanced system of personal and civil liberties to be enforced by an independent judiciary. The workers, peasants, agricultural labourers and clerical and other lower middle class employees were given the right to form unions and associations and to organize movements of social protest.

The Constitution guaranteed equality before the law to all citizens, prohibited any discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, and assured full freedom of religion. It also provided for a federal structure with a strong centre but also a great deal of autonomy for the states. Parliament was made the institution where basic and ultimate power resided.

India's all-India services like the Indian Administrative Service and the officers and ranks of its armed forces are recruited from all the the regions and linguistic areas of the country. The armed forces and the central services are highly professional and non political and execute the orders of the elected government.

India's democracy came into its own with the first general election held in 1951-52. These elections were the biggest experiment in democracy in human history. The fair and peaceful conduct of the poll showed that the democratic system had taken roots in India. The effort to build a democratic and civil libertarian political order in a socially, culturally and economically backward and highly unequal society was unique by any historical standards. And India is the only Third World Country to have a continuous record of political democracy and civil liberties for a long period of 50 years after Independence.

A major problem India has faced since 1947 has been that of national unity or consolidation of the nation. Perhaps being culturally the most diverse country in the world, it has been open to continuous challenges to its unity. The founders of the Republic realised that the Indian people had to be unified by accepting its immense diversity. And so they began the consolidation of the nation around the concept of 'unity in diversity.'

A major aspect of the territorial and administrative unification of India was the integration of more than 560 large and small princely states, which occupied nearly 40 per cent of the territory if colonial India. With great skill and masterful diplomacy using both persuasion and pressure, Sardar Patel, the home minister, succeeded in integrating all but three of them -- Junagadh, Hyderabad and Jammu and Kashmir -- with the Indian Union by 15 August 1947. Firm action against the Nawabs of Junagadh and Hyderabad, and the armed defence of Kashmir against a Pakistani-sponsored invasion led to the merger of these states with India by the end of 1948.

By 1953, the problem of the rehabilitation of the refugees from Pakistan and their full integration with the Indian people had also been successfully tackled.

The language problem was the most divine issue in the first 20 years of Independent Indian -- one language problem was that of the official language of the country. It was, of course, accepted by the Indian leaders that Indian was a multi-lingual country and it had to remain so. The Constitution, therefore, recognised all the major languages as India's national languages. But it also decided that Hindi would be India's official language, with English being used for official purposes till 1965 when it would be replaced by Hindi. But as time for the changeover to Hindi came nearer, there were agitations galore and even occasional violence by both the supporters and the opponents of the changeover.

Fully aware of the danger that the controversy could pose to Indian polity, the central leadership worked for a compromise. In the end, the entire issue was defused when Parliament adopted a bill in December 1967 providing that the use of English as an associate official language would continue as long as the non-Hindi states wanted it.

The reorganisation of the multi-lingual states of the Union on the basis of language was another contentious issue that came on the agenda very soon after Independence. The leadership was reluctant to disturb the status quo for some time to come, but it soon yielded as public opinion in the country was overwhelmingly in favour of linguistic states. Today, nearly all the Indian states are formed around a dominant language.

The task of integrating millions of tribal people, divided into hundreds of tribes, constituting over 6 per cent of India's population and dispersed all over the country, was extremely complex. The Indian leadership rejected the two alternative policies of letting the tribal people stay more or less as they were or of assimilating them completely into the neighbouring Indian society in the name of 'uplifting' them. Instead, it adopted the policy of making them an integral part of the Indian nation even while maintaining their distinct identity and culture. As Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of India's tribal policy, put it, 'The tribal areas have to progress' and 'they have to progress in their own way.'

The tribal people in North-Eastern India demanded greater autonomy and in case of the Nagas and the Mizos even started insurrectionary movements for independence. The Government of India responded with a two track response. While willing to extend greater autonomy, it would not tolerate secession from India, nor would it give way to violence. In the end, four tribal states were formed in the North-East: Nagaland in 1963, Meghalaya in 1972, and Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram in 1987.

A major national task after Independence was to undo the damage done to the economy by colonialism and to initiate economic development on the basis of the most advanced technology in agriculture and industry.

Land reforms had been one of the major promises of the national movement. In the early 1950s, the different state governments framed laws abolishing the zamindars, landlords, and other intermediaries between the state and the cultivators and made the existing tenants the owners of land. While hardly benefiting the landless agricultural labourers, agrarian legislation did mark a basic transformation of agrarian relations. The semi-feudal agrarian structure has disappeared from most parts of the country. Moreover, zamindari abolition put large chunks of land in the hands of the old rent-paying tenants many of whom, along with the erstwhile zamindars, have taken to capitalist farming as rich peasants or as large-scale farmers. Increasingly, over the years, political and social power in the rural areas has also passed into the hands of these new strata of capitalist farmers and rich and middle peasants, who, along with the urban capitalist class and the middle classes, constitute the political ruling class of the country.

Along with the land reform, the most urgent task was to overcome India's industrial backwardness -- the share of modern industries in national income at the end of British rule was only 7.5 per cent. In 1950, the central government took the most important step of setting up the Planning Commission and initiated other active measures for planned economic development. With the Second Five Year Plan, from 1956 to 1961, emphasis of government economic policy shifted to rapid industrialisation - based on the development of heavy, capital goods industry, even while encouraging small scale industry, and state ownership and control of the commanding heights of the economy.

The private sector was, however, not to be eliminated. Under government direction, regulation and licensing, it was to play an important role in economic development. India was thus to have a mixed economy, with the public sector gradually dominating it. There was, however, a major shift in the government's economic policy in 1991 when liberalisation of the economy, initiated in 1980, went full speed ahead. The system of controls and licence was mostly disseminated and the public sector started retreating.

Indian agriculture has made sturdy progress since 1950, growing at a slightly higher than 2.5 per cent rate per year. The Green Revolution, based on new seed-fertiliser technology, was introduced in the 1960s. It has gradually spread to all parts of the country except the rain-fed non-irrigated dry land areas. Industry has grown nearly 12 times since 1950. The annual rate of overall economic growth has been 3.75 per cent between 1950 and 1980, about 5 per cent between 1980 and 1990 and nearly 7 per cent since 1994.

It is on the front of greater economic equality and the removal of poverty, illiteracy and disease that India has faltered since 1947.

All the major political parties in India have been committed to the eradication of social inequality, discrimination and oppression. The Constitution provided for reservations in educational institutions, legislatures, and employment in government service for the scheduled castes and Scheduled Tribes. The provision of reservations in educational institutions and government employment was extended to backward castes and classes first in many states and later at the Centre.

In 1955, the Hindu Code Bill was passed enforcing monogamy on both men and women, permitting divorce to both and granting women equal rights with men in inheritance of property. However, Muslim orthodoxy succeeded in preventing the passage of a similar law for the protection of Muslim women.

Unfortunately, however, no social movements against the hierarchical caste system or for gender equality were organised, and the momentum of social reforms was lost by the early 1950s. The result is that the scheduled castes and women continue to suffer social and economic oppression especially in the rural areas.

Independent India has been committed to secularism. Despite the Partition of India in 1947 and the attendant communal riots, Indian leaders did not give way to communalism and made secularism a basic pillar to India's Constitution as also its state and society. They were helped in this by the revulsion in the country against the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948 by a Hindu communal fanatic. After 1986, communalism has had a certain resurgence because of the feelings aroused by the Babri Mosque-Ram Janambhoomi dispute. One result was the destruction of the mosque on December 6, 1992.

From the outset, India has followed an independent foreign policy based on non-alignment and anti-colonialism. Foreign policy has been used to defend and strengthen India's Independence and to promote world peace. During the Cold War, India firmly refused to get involved in it and opposed the policy of dividing the world into hostile power blocs. It also tried to lessen the mutual antagonism of the big powers. During the Nehru and Indira Gandhi years, India's foreign policy also contributed to a sense of national pride among the people and thus contributed to national cohesion.