76 Years of Independence: What’s there to celebrate?

What do India’s jobless, farmers and the minorities have to feel cheerful about?

Educated jobless youth at a ‘Berozgari Mela’ in Delhi organised on PM Modi’s birthday to highlight the problem of rising unemployment in the country (Photo: Getty Images)
Educated jobless youth at a ‘Berozgari Mela’ in Delhi organised on PM Modi’s birthday to highlight the problem of rising unemployment in the country (Photo: Getty Images)

Nandita Haksar

Who will be celebrating Independence Day this year when so many of us Indians feel a sense of growing alienation from an uneasy idea of India? How did the dream of a united and prosperous India turn into this nightmare of neverending circles of violence, hatred, destruction and death?

Let us take a look at the promise and the betrayal. Despite the pain and horrors of the Partition of British India, 15 August 1947 did mark the end of colonial rule and the beginning of a collective journey toward freedom.

For those of us growing up in those early days of Indian Independence, the journey seemed full of hope and the promise of a great future. Many of us had parents who had taken part in the national movement, some had been to jail and others had been through untold suffering and made enormous sacrifices.

There was an urgency and excitement in everything we did to ensure that India would emerge an inspiration to the world, especially the peoples of the Third World still struggling against the humiliation of colonial domination. There was a feeling that we were all taking part in the greatest experiment in the history of democracy.

The first experiment was universal adult suffrage, an idea championed by Jawaharlal Nehru since 1928, despite warnings from some quarters that it would be impractical and unmanageable for the administration.

In the first general elections held in independent India from 25 October 1951 to 27 March 1952, 173 million people were eligible to vote, most of them poor and largely illiterate. More importantly, they were new to the idea that they had the power to choose representatives through secret ballot.

The newly constituted Election Commission made a documentary on the electoral process and screened it in over 3,000 theatres across the country. There were over 224,000 polling booths, one for almost every 1,000 voters. Nearly 620 million ballot papers were printed and about a million officials supervised the elections.

But even as the world was looking to us as a shining example of democracy, ominous signs were already rearing their heads.

There were nearly 80 million women voters in the country, but about 2.8 million could not participate in the elections because local customs prevented them from disclosing their proper names to outsiders. Women from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in particular were the biggest losers.

Women citizens are still the biggest losers. Despite all the progress, they are still denied their right to equality and even dignity. There are those who are victims of violent crimes, others are subjected to sexual assaults, and if they do file a complaint, they have little hope of getting justice because the criminal justice system has become complicit in crimes against women.


Again, as India was celebrating its first successful general elections, unknown to most citizens, the Nagas had decided to boycott the elections in support of their demand to be recognised as an independent country.

Identity politics led to a proliferation of demands for self-determination while ethnic conflicts led to the proliferation of armed groups all over the Northeast, but there was no policy to deal with them, only attempts to suppress these insurgencies through brute military force.

As per a recent RTI request by The Wire, Manipur and Nagaland are the two north-eastern states with the largest number of gun licences issued between 2016 and 2023. The result of this gun culture is evident in Manipur today, where two communities seem bent on destroying each other.

Those who lost family members to the violence, those who have had to leave Manipur, those guarding their villages with guns, or displaced people living in more than 300 relief camps without basic amenities, will not be celebrating Independence Day.

Meanwhile in Kashmir, barely two years after the first general elections, the premier Sheikh Abdullah was rudely awakened from sleep in Gulmarg and told he was under arrest. He would spend the next two-and-a-half decades under detention before he was released following an accord in 1975 between him and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

In August 2019, however, Article 370 was revoked and the Indian government proclaimed that Kashmir would fully integrate into the Indian Union. Kashmiris have not come out on the streets, knowing the response from Indian security forces would be brutal, but they did write ‘azadi’ (freedom) on thousands of apples before packing and sending them to Jammu. They, too, will not be celebrating the Indian Independence Day.


Just two years after Independence, an act of criminal trespass took place and an FIR was filed which would eventually alienate Muslim citizens across India.

In December 1949 in Ayodhya, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, some people broke into a mosque and installed idols of Lord Rama. An FIR was filed immediately and a chargesheet in February 1950.

Nehru asked the premier of the province, Govind Ballabh Pant, to immediately have the idols removed; but Pant had his eyes on the coming elections and the idols were not removed, though the mosque was sealed. And in December 1993, the mosque itself was demolished in broad daylight.

In 2019, the Supreme Court’s controversial verdict on the dispute turned the growing rift between Hindus and Muslims into an abyss across which no bridge can be built.

Crimes against Muslim citizens have been increasing and those who commit acts of violence against India’s largest religious minority seem to have acquired immunity from prosecution. As Muslims grow alienated from the idea of India, they too have little cause to celebrate Independence Day.

But will Hindus be celebrating Independence Day? Not the majority of those who are jobless or those denied basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

It has been claimed that the country is making progress, but the millions of people who have no jobs do not see this development. One report sums up the situation: ‘Though Narendra Modi promised to add 100 million manufacturing jobs, India actually lost 24 million of those jobs between 2017 and 2021… In 2019, 12.5 million people applied for 35,000 railway jobs.’


The Central government’s response to rising unemployment has been to stop publishing data and deny the truth of any studies that show that the number of people without jobs is growing.


And finally, I see the face of Rampukar Pandit, a Bihari migrant labourer working in Delhi. He is the face of today’s India. He is the man who sat on the border of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh as he desperately tried to walk back to his village during the Covid-19 lockdown until the police stopped him. He sat at the border, with no money, no food, with only a mobile phone which connected him to his family. And the family informed him that his son was dying.

Rampukar ultimately reached home, but not in time to see his son. We know his name because a photographer saw him holding the mobile and sobbing inconsolably. There are millions of migrant workers who are indeed citizens of India, but citizenship offers them no protection, nor does it inspire much pride in the nation. They will not be celebrating Independence Day either; they are yet to know the meaning of freedom.

Can we hope the next elections will bring change? Elections are no longer a question of pride, and perhaps show that the greatest experiment in democracy is not going well. With each successive election, more and more people with criminal records have been voted to the Indian Parliament.

Close to half the new MPs in the 17th Lok Sabha, or 233 out of 539, come with declared criminal cases against them, marking an increase of 44 per cent since 2009. While 116, or 49 per cent, of these MPS belong to the BJP, 29 or 12 per cent are from the Congress.


Millions of Indians have been disenfranchised over the years; the rights guaranteed in the Constitution have no meaning for workers, farmers or the landless. But India is not a poor country. It is rich and its treasures are being exploited by corporations. The corporations are making profits, ruthlessly exploiting workers, increasingly replacing them with machines.

The welfare state has been rolled back and corporate India has emerged triumphant. Corporate India will be celebrating Independence Day in five-star hotels and resorts.

How can we, the people, celebrate Independence Day under these circumstances? We must find a way, lest even the significance of the day fades from our memory and we forget the meaning of freedom¬—and the importance of remembering our history.

(Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and an author)

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