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India’s 75th Anniversary Is One to Forget

Indians who lived through the 50th anniversary of independence, in 1997, will have pretty clear memories of the event. A few years into its program of economic liberalization, India seemed to be on the cusp of greatness. A patriotic music video highlighting the country’s diversity, released by singer-composer A.R. Rahman, practically became a second national anthem for my generation.

A quarter-century later, India’s 75th Independence Day will pass on Aug. 15 with far less consequence. The current government in New Delhi loves nothing more than pomp and circumstance; Prime Minister Narendra Modi knows that every such bit of nationalist theater further secures his position at the apex of Indian politics. Yet, aside from a special logo that looks like it was designed by a committee at the Ministry of Culture — probably because it was — and a campaign urging every household to fly the national flag, the government has done little to mark the occasion.

The fact is that such anniversaries have little place in the New India that Modi and his party have begun to build since he took office in 2014. The self-image of this New India is consciously different from that of the old republic born in 1947. After Modi was first elected, the Guardian said that “today … may well go down in history as the day when Britain finally left India.” Many of Modi’s voters agree his accession to power was when true independence was achieved.

The British left behind in 1947 a ruling class that upheld liberal norms and institutions — and, in the Hindu nationalist worldview held by the New India’s foot soldiers, was also effete, deracinated and entirely Anglicized. Being ruled by Western-educated leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, was no better than being ruled by the British or the Mughals, rendering “independence” meaningless.

In this telling, we were still mentally enslaved, in thrall to imported ideas in our Constitution, too humiliatingly weak to play a leadership role in global affairs. Modi himself declared in 2014 that he would set India free from “1,200 years of slavery” — slavery to a millennium of Muslim emperors and sultans, slavery to the British and slavery to their pusillanimous successors.

This Second Republic is a very different country from the one that celebrated its golden jubilee in 1997. It has a new iconography, for one. Nehru and Mohandas K. Gandhi are gone from the pantheon, replaced by men such as Vinayak Savarkar — who in the 1930s developed the concept of “Hindutva,” described Nazism in Germany as “imperative and beneficial,” and has long been suspected of playing a role in Gandhi’s assassination. Gandhi’s honorific is “Mahatma,” or Great Soul, while Savarkar’s is “Veer,” or “brave,” which neatly encapsulates the values celebrated in their different versions of India.

Even the old, circular Parliament House in which Nehru gave his midnight “tryst with destiny” speech 75 years ago is no longer considered appropriate. Another structure is to replace it, within a revamped central corridor linking government buildings and grand memorials, meant to be forever associated with Modi. On the roof of this new building, the familiar lion emblem of the Indian republic — taken from a sculpture dating back to the pacifist king Ashoka 23 centuries ago — will look very different, too. When the new symbol was unveiled last month, the entire country noticed that the lions now bare their fangs and snarl.

An India that bares its teeth is one that should concern the world. Nehru’s first republic saw itself as a leader of the post-colonial movement, forging a new and fairer international order. Even if that dream of brotherhood was dashed in the 1960s when Mao Zedong’s China switched suddenly from partner to antagonist, it remained at the heart of Indian engagement with the world into the 2000s.

Modi himself seems to have internationalist instincts and may still see advocating for developing countries as part of India’s role. But the country he is creating will eventually demand the world acknowledge its strength.

It will be a strength built on a unitary, North Indian, Hindu identity — one where caste hierarchy may persist but not caste identity politics; where non-Hindus may not be persecuted but must accept secondary status for their beliefs; where Hinduism itself must give up its extraordinary diversity of practice.

The old republic described its vision of itself as “unity in diversity.” That sentiment has little place in the new one, which sees diversity as the fatal weakness that led to 12 centuries of “slavery.”

The patriotic song that defined my generation was a paean to diversity, composed by a Muslim from a southern state. It seemed to fit a 50-year-old India perfectly. Everything about it is wrong for the India that’s turning 75.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”

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