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'We need to acquire greater coherence as a nation'

August 10, 2011 10:41 IST

Fourteen years ago, on the eve of the 50th year of India's Independence, P C Alexander discussed the state of the nation with Rediff.com

We reproduce that interview, which is as relevant today, in memory of one of India's finest public servants who passed into the ages on Wednesday.

Padinjarethalakal Cherian Alexander was one of the earliest entrants to the Indian Administrative Service. He worked under a government led by Jawaharlal Nehru and was part of the bureaucratic structure that evolved and implemented programmes for free India.

In his memoirs, My Years with Indira Gandhi, he noted that he was proud to belong to Nehru's India and such was his admiration for Nehru that he named his first born after him.

With three postings to the United Nations, serving Indira Gandhi as her principal secretary for three years, governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, Dr P C Alexander was closely associated with the governance of this country for more than half a century.

In an hour-long interview with Archana Masih, Alexander, then the Maharashtra governor, spoke about the socio-political changes that India has witnessed in these fifty years of freedom and his perceptions of this great nation's future.

What are your earliest recollections of the freedom struggle and Independence?

I belonged to what was then called the native state of Travancore. The freedom struggle in the native states was different from that of British India. In British India, which consisted of various provinces, the struggle was for liberation from foreign rule, whereas in the native states, the struggle was for democracy, for curtailing the autocracy of the ruling princes for more civil liberties and rights for the citizens, freedom of the press and independence of the judiciary.

The struggle in the native states was focused mainly on the establishment of a responsible government. The whole context, of course, was freedom from colonialism but the difference which I mentioned was very important in those days.

After graduating from Travancore university, I came to a university in the then Madras province to do research and to teach. I found the student community in the university fully caught up in the freedom struggle.

Then came Independence and very soon after that, I joined the civil service or the Indian Administrative Service as it was called.

My earliest memories of Independence were about some of us gathering around the radio on the midnight of August 14-15, 1947. The shouting and excitement of the people could be heard on the radio and that's how we got a flavour of freedom. But my memories are somewhat tinged with sorrow, because of the trauma of Partition, the communal riots that were raging in various places and the horrendous killings which were taking place both in India and the newly created state of Pakistan.

Who were the leaders you admired most and why?

Travancore had not yet adopted the IAS scheme when I joined the service. So I was posted to the then state of Madras. During my early years in the service, the state of Madras had as its chief minister an outstanding and exceptionally competent administrator of great integrity, C Rajagopalachari. He had became chief minister after having been the first governor general of free India. He was truly a great man and the whole tone of the state administration was set by his personality.

There were many eminent people in the state cabinet in the first decade after Independence. After Rajaji, Kamaraj became chief minister in Madras. Kamaraj as chief minister and his cabinet colleagues like C Subramaniam and R Venkataraman were men of great integrity and extraordinary competence. The quality of administration and political management was very high and the officers had great respect for their political bosses.

Most of the officers at the senior levels in the state belonged to the Indian Civil Service, the ICS. There were a few young officers like me who had just come from the new service, the IAS. After a few years in the districts in the Madras and Travancore-Cochin states, I came to Delhi to work in the central government.

Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister was a great hero in the eyes of the people, including us in the civil service. He was great not because he was PM, but indeed he has been great with a capital 'G' even before assuming any office.

When I joined the central government, Sardar Patel was no more but Maulana Azad was there as education minister. There were several eminent national leaders at various levels of political administration. Even junior ministers were those who had actively participated in the freedom struggle and sacrificed their comforts for the freedom of the country.

Some of them were not great administrators like Sardar Patel or Govind Ballabh Pant, and were new to administration. They had spent 10 to 12 years in the British jails and they commanded great respect from the civil servants by the sheer fact that they had done so much for the freedom of the country.

We were participants in the great adventure of bringing about change. Many new programmes like community development, small scale industries development, agriculture extension service, etc., had been launched generating great expectations and enthusiasm among the common people.

Working in a government led by Jawaharlal Nehru and several great national leaders, we in the civil service believed that we were active agents in bringing about change in the life of the people. It was total involvement for us with none of the cynicism that crept into the civil service at later stages.

Fifty years of freedom is a happy occasion for every Indian. There are celebrations being organised in India and abroad to commemorate this event. What are your perceptions about this celebration?

We should celebrate our freedom along with our democracy. We have remained free for fifty years because we have also remained a genuine democracy. If we did not have democracy, there would not have been much to celebrate for us. Suppose we were ruled by a military dictator, what would then have been that freedom worth?

We have been able to maintain democracy and to preserve the rights of the citizens enshrined in our Constitution and that is what makes this celebration really meaningful.

A few other countries became independent along with us or in another 10 or 15 years. But what happened to them? Take the African continent or our neighbourhood. Within a few years after Independence many of them slipped into all sorts of crude forms of dictatorship, some by generals or colonels and some by those who tried to legitimise their legal access to power through sham elections.

In Africa there was one president -- (Jean-Bedel) Bokassa-- who even proclaimed himself emperor. He even put on uniforms imitating those worn by Napoleon and tried to behave as a modern Napoleon in his style and manners!

Compared to these countries, we have zealously kept the light of democracy burning and glowing. That is why these golden jubilee celebrations have a special significance. If we did not have democracy and the rights that we now enjoy, there would have been no purpose in celebrating just freedom from colonial rule. That freedom became complete because of our democracy.

You have been closely associated with the government, how do you rate the present situation in the country?

We should look at the record of our progress separately in the economic and social sectors. Very briefly, one can say that over half a century, we have advanced considerably in the economic sector. With confidence I can say that we have arrived at a stage in our economy which can be described as self reliant, strong and stable. We have done fairly well in all economic sectors -- agriculture, manufacturing and services.

In the social sector I wish I could claim the same degree of progress.

We should feel unhappy that our progress in the social sector has not matched our potential or equalled our achievements in the economic sector. It is a source of great regret that even after 50 years of Independence there are so many illiterates in the country, particularly among the womenfolk. In many large states in the northern part of the country, in UP, MP, Bihar, Rajasthan -- the overwhelming majority of women cannot read or write.

We have been able to establish a large number of universities and schools, but it is most regrettable that universal primary education still remains an unfulfilled goal. If we fail to give our children the education required to develop their talents and personality they are indeed lost to the nation.

We should also be unhappy at the low level of public health care that we have been able to provide to the people. Now the government has decided to give higher priority to education, health care and literacy. So one can only hope that the next decade will definitely be better than the past one for education and health care.

But there are many who are pessimistic about the state of the country...

There is no reason to be unhappy about the present state of our country or the level of progress achieved by us. Some people are apt to exaggerate the problems that a big nation like ours has to face. What we must not forget is that this is a very complex country with several basic problems of development.

India cannot be compared with relatively smaller and more developed countries like Sweden, Holland, Britain or France. We are 15 to 16 times the size of many of the large nations of Europe.

There are many diversities and inequalities in our society. But they were not the creations of today or of the last half a century of freedom. Inequalities in society have existed from very ancient times, but people are inclined to sceptical and even impatient about the time that is being taken in removing the inequalities in the country today.

However, we cannot expect the problems of a country like ours to be resolved in a matter of a few decades. And we cannot expect every political leader today to be like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel or Maulana Azad. They were men thrown up by historical forces and the circumstances of the struggle for freedom. You cannot expect leaders of that calibre at every stage in a country's history.

I take a very historic view of things. I feel that with all these difficulties, we are on the correct path and our directions are sound. We certainly will emerge from these difficulties in much less time than we have taken so far to cross the threshold of development.

What are the challenges India faces in the next fifty years of its existence?

The greatest challenge that we face is to bring development to our common people, I mean food, shelter, clothing, primary education, employment, health care etc. These are the basic facilities which the masses of our country have the right to expect, but have failed to get.

Therefore, the highest priority has to be given to ensuring for the people freedom from want and freedom from fear -- that is, food, a place to live in, clothes to wear, the opportunities to bring up their children in better conditions and the right to live a life free from exploitation or deprivation. Our poverty line is kept very low; even then there are so many people, almost one third, who live below that line.

Along with the basic needs of life, we need to acquire greater coherence as a nation. Here again, with all the differences, there is something that binds this nation together and that is a common culture that is shared with everybody.

You can identify an Indian in any group, anywhere in the world by just talking to him. His reflexes, his reactions to problems, his value system are the same, whatever region or religion he may belong to.

Integration of a nation is a continuing process and we have to strengthen that process by taking advantage of this plus factor of a common culture that we all share.

Do you see India staying in one piece in 2047?

Absolutely. If there is any nation in the Asian continent expected to remain as a single piece, it is India. We do not have some of the basic problems which trouble several other countries in achieving national unity. For example, though we are a very large country of continental proportions, there is no problem of a racial divide in Indian society.

Another important favourable factor is that there is a will for unity in this country. Nobody seriously wants this country to break up. You may ask about the Khalistani movement. Even at the height of the Khalistan agitation, an overwhelming majority of Sikhs in India never wanted Punjab to be separated from the motherland. The demand for Khalistan was from some Sikhs in Canada and the UK and not from the Sikhs in India.

One may ask about the demand for Dravidistan. There is no such demand in India. In fact there was never any such serious demand. Dravidistan was a movement which originated out of dissatisfaction on certain issues like neglect of local language, inadequate representation in service etc. There was really no demand on the part of the common people of Tamil Nadu to separate themselves from the rest of the nation.

We should recall with great satisfaction and admiration that at the time of the Chinese invasion of India, the leader of the Dravidian party, C N Annadurai, a great statesman and one of the top leaders of the Dravidian movement, proclaimed in Parliament, in a very eloquent and emotional speech that his party would stand up for the integrity and unity of the motherland.

The case of the Bangladesh movement in Pakistan was quite different. The Bangladeshis felt they were different from the rest of Pakistan and that they should have their own national identity outside Pakistan. It was not just language, but an urge for a national identity by the people of Bangladesh which led to the establishment of a separate state of Bangladesh.

You may find points of discontent here and there in India, but no section of the Indian population wants to leave the Indian Union. Therefore, there is no danger at all of this country disintegrating.

Photograph: Jewella C Miranda