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The ship of New India has not yet arrived at the shores that our founding fathers set their eyes on

December 28, 2008 14:27 IST
As a son of Punjab, and a child of Partition, I deem it a special privilege that I am here to deliver the Bhimsen Sachar Memorial Lecture. Bhimsen Sachar was a great Indian, a great freedom fighter, a nationalist to the core, a nation-builder, a man of letters and learning. His statesmanship and genial personality helped heal the wounds of Partition in a strife-torn Punjab.

Our nation was fortunate to have, at the time of its birth, a generation of wise and compassionate leaders who calmed many political storms. Bhimsen Sachar was one of them. Physically diminutive, he was intellectually and morally a tall leader. A larger than life personality, the people of Punjab will forever remember him for his courage and simplicity, his warmth and grace, when in office.

Bhimsen Sachar was not only a chief minister and leader of the Punjab, but he was also a national leader. Though he devoted his life to the freedom, welfare and well-being of the people of Punjab, he was equally devoted to the building of a new India through constructive programme. He played a very important role in the reconstruction and development of Punjab after the devastation brought about by the Partition in 1947. He had a deep and abiding concern for the protection of fundamental human rights enshrined in our Constitution.

Bhimsen Sachar was like many leaders of his generation, a person deeply rooted in his own region, but who was an Indian first and Indian last.

This too was one of the great legacies of our national freedom movement. Each of our national leaders had a sub-national political personality. They belonged to a region. They identified themselves with one or another section of our society. They engaged in the local politics of their province or town. Yet, they were all national leaders with unquestionable national commitment.

Rajaji was as engaged in the political life of the Madras Presidency as he was in national politics. Pattabhi Sitaramayya was as engaged in the politics of the Andhra region as he was in national politics. Sardar Patel was as involved in the political life of the then Bombay Presidency as he was in national life.

Each of our national leaders derived pride from their knowledge of both their mother tongue and of the English language. Many of them were multi-lingual, speaking English, Urdu, Hindustani, Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil and so on. They were truly secular, even as they remained deeply religious. They were truly nationalist, even as they valued their international outlook. They valued the nationalism of the Indian people. They valued the internationalism of our national politics. They valued modernity and the fruits of modern science and technology.

Our nation was fortunate to have had such a modern, progressive, plural and liberal social and political leadership. It was not as if their views were not challenged. They indeed were. By forces on the Right and the Left. By religious extremists and regional chauvinists. By those who valued their religious, caste, ethnic, linguistic or other identity more than their national identity.

It is to the good fortune of our nation that the people of India rejected such sectarian and extremist political platforms and extended their over-whelming support to the civilisational idea of India. The wisdom of our people encouraged sectarian, separatist and extremist political groups to embrace a national, consensual agenda over time. Movements that rejected the idea of India, have become a part of the national mainstream. And so we have built a modern nation on the foundations of an ancient civilisation. This was the project that Bhimsen Sachar devoted his life to, like so many of our national leaders.

In a month from now the Indian Republic enters its 60th year. Like all anniversaries, this anniversary too will witness a lot of introspection and analysis of our experience. We must not belittle our achievements, but we must undertake an honest stock-taking of our strengths and weaknesses. We must do so in order to re-discover and re-dedicate ourselves to the ideas and ideals of our freedom struggle. We must do so to purge our body politic of negative energies and re-energise our nation building project.

In so doing, we must draw inspiration from the life and work of leaders like Bhimsen Sachar. I say this because I do often worry about the centripetal tendencies in our political and social life. I do worry that far too many of our political leaders prefer to identify themselves first in terms of their sectional and sectarian identity and only then in terms of their national identity. Far too many of our political parties seek today to promote sectional and sectarian agendas, with little regard for the vital national interest. Far too many of them posit a dichotomy between the national and the regional or the sectional identity of a citizen when in fact there is none.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was a great son of Gujarat, but a great leader of India. Babasaheb Ambedkar was a great son of Maharashtra, but a great leader of India. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was a great son of Bengal, but a great leader of India. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was a great Muslim leader, but also a great leader of India. None of them found it necessary to project their sectional identity to build a constituency for themselves.

Sardar Patel was proud to be a Hindu, Netaji was proud to be Bengali, Dr Ambedkar was proud to be a Dalit, Azad was proud to be Muslim. But each of them was prouder still to be an Indian and each dedicated this life to the creation and building of a new India. They did not deny their linguistic, religious or caste identity. These identities may have shaped their personality, and may have defined their personal life. But their public life, their politics and their policies were shaped by their Indian-ness.

I do sincerely believe that as we celebrate sixty years of our Republic we must once again build a national platform for our sustained development and progress. There are many developmental hurdles we need to cross. Regions that are economically backward must catch up with the developed ones. People who are socially and/ or economically less privileged have to catch up with the better off. This requires a unity of purpose, a strong, cohesive national effort.

Of course there would be differences on what kind of a national platform we must build. That is the essence of a democracy. As a free society, as an open society, we will see a diversity of opinion on public policy. But if that diversity of opinion is articulated purely in sectional, communal, sectarian, caste-based, regional

or extremist agendas, it would weaken the national fabric. No Indian can be empowered by diminishing India.

The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution were alive to the need to strengthen the idea of India against possible disintegrative pressures. They were aware that a culturally diverse nation must be protected from disruptive and disintegrative sectarian forces. The unity of India was of paramount concern as expressed by the great architect of our Constitution -- Dr Ambedkar, when he said:

"Though the country and the people may be divided into different states for convenience of administration, the country is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source... The Drafting Committee thought it was better to make [this] clear at the outset rather than leave it to speculation...."

The rationale why Dr Ambedkar went to the extent of opposing the idea of linguistic States on the grounds that this would divide India rather than unite it, is self-evident. In his submissions to the States Re-organisation Commission Dr Ambedkar spoke at length about the tortuous journey the "United States" of America had to make to become "One Nation." He then went on to suggest: "India is not even mentally and morally fit to call itself the 'United States' of India. We have a long way to go to become the United States of India. The Union of India is far, far away, from the United States of India."

Dr Ambedkar then went on to lament: "God seems to have laid a heavy curse on India and Indians, saying 'Ye Indians shall always remain divided and ye shall always be slaves'."

Cognisant of their historical experiences, our founding fathers created a unique constitutional framework, which itself became a vehicle for giving expression to regional, linguistic and other sub-national identities of the Indian people. This was the expression of a national leadership worried about sectarian and divisive tendencies in our body politic.

Today, we need to emphasise our unflinching commitment to the unity and integrity of India. This is based on the foundation of secularism -- the cornerstone of our nationhood. This is our civilisational strength. Our composite culture and secular commitments have evolved over centuries of cultural synthesis. Our composite culture absorbs all cultural and regional diversity. Its vitality and resilience will survive the distortions of a functional democracy, where some elements surrender values and larger gains for short-term selfish advantages. Political opportunism and expediency cannot be allowed to go uncurbed.

The first generation leaders of independent India, following the inspiring example of Jawaharlal Nehru, were men and women of great integrity. They regarded public life as a societal trust to be used for public good and not as an instrument of self-aggrandisement. Very few people remember today that S Partap Singh Kairon, the then chief minister of Punjab and Shri Keshav Dev Malviya, a Union minister in Jawaharlal Nehru's Cabinet, had to resign on the basis of minor irregularities. There is no doubt that standards of public life in our country have greatly deteriorated since then.

Unless there is a sharp reversal of this trend, the effectiveness of the Indian State's role for societal transformation will be seriously in doubt. Shri Bhimsen Sachar belonged to that generation of leaders who lived up to the ideals of the highest standards of public life. The best tribute that we can pay to him is to wage a relentless struggle for probity and purity of public life in our country.

There is urgent need today for a broad-based visionary leadership. There is urgent need for a pan-Indian perspective in our national political life. The commitment to values and ethos of national integration must be our uncompromising charter. The narrow loyalties of language, caste and religion must be transcended. The people of India must develop a strong and conscious identity beyond loyalty to language, caste and religion.

Today the world sees us as a 'Rising Power'. This journey is one of the most exciting and important journeys made by any people in modern history. But we have miles to go, and mountains to cross. We have weathered many storms, but the waters remain choppy. There remain old problems, and there are new challenges. The ship of New India has not yet arrived at the shores that our founding fathers set their eyes on. We must come together and work unitedly to realise their dreams and meet our goals.

I, therefore, urge all political parties to eschew the temptation of focussing on narrow agendas. I want every Indian to fight the cancer of communalism, casteism and linguistic chauvinism that eat the very vitals of our democracy and our Republic. These internal divides weaken us. These internal divides also strengthen our enemies. This has always been our bane. Those who seek to harm us do so by exploiting our internal weaknesses.

We must, therefore, first be citizens of India before we associate ourselves with any other identity. The leadership of all our national political parties must challenge these divisive tendencies, these sectarian agendas, these communal and caste-based platforms and breathe new life into the idea of India, and the ideal of a new India. I am reminded of the famous words of Swami Vivekananda: "Sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilizations and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now".

Hence, I urge every patriotic Indian to shun the politics of divisiveness and the politics based on our narrow identities. I urge you to embrace the politics of national development. Let us work together to devalue the currency of so-called 'vote bank' politics, and mint a new currency of the politics of national development and unity.

A united India has made history this past century and a united India will continue to do so in the march of progress. Those who wish to weaken our unity and hurt our nation should remember that India has always endured and emerged stronger. The force of history is on our side. Those who wish to see us diminished will be disappointed. India knows how to rise to a challenge. It will. We will not betray the sacred memory of people like Bhimsen Sachar who dedicated their lives to build a new India free from the fear of war, want and exploitation.

Dr Manmohan Singh is the prime minister of India.

Manmohan Singh