Since independence India's rulers have championed inequality and injustice. Look not to these politicians for echoes of the nation's founding spirit
Jagat Ram Joshi, the 87-year-old secretary of the All India Freedom Fighters Organisation, sits in the winter sunshine on the white-painted veranda of the Villabhai Patel library in New Delhi. Imprisoned by the British in 1933 in Lahore Fort for possessing a revolver, he openly advocated violence then. "I was tortured. Hung upside-down over a smoking fire which damaged my eyes and lungs. They inserted a metal roller into my backside. When I was in jail my mother and father died. I was not allowed to attend their funerals."
Later he renounced violence and joined the Congress party. Today, disappointed, he says he is "almost a Marxist" again - although this time there is no mass resistance to the rule of goondas (political thugs), money-power and multinationals that have laid siege to a nominally free India.
Those who speak of "the recolonisation of India" have no want of evidence to support their case. Addressing a recent conference in Calcutta, P Chidambaram, the finance minister, told foreign investors: "To those of you who wish to come to India I say, come here for the long term. The last time you came to India to take a look, you stayed for 200 years. So this time, if you come, you must come prepared to stay for another 200 years ..."
Just behind Rajghat, the national shrine to Mahatma Gandhi and the leaders of free India, there is a vast slum built around the waste from the power station. The discharge from this comes in a milky liquid; sun and wind evaporate the water and the ash remains, blanching the huts and sending white wraiths of dust dancing across the Yamuna river. Migrant workers here are mainly cycle-rickshaw drivers; refugees from an impoverished rural Bihar, landless labourers who, in the burning heat of Delhi, perform some of the most degrading labour on earth.
In this unpromising environment a group of young Gandhians are working. Gandhi's ideas of self-reliance and labour-intensive development have been abandoned by an India obsessed by market reforms, just as they were bypassed by Nehruvian socialism. Gandhi's influence in the free India he fought for has been negligible; but there are signs of renewal. More and more people are asking what is the alternative to an abusive industrialism that has ravaged the soil, overfished the coasts and deforested vast tracts of the subcontinent. It is a paradox that the element in Gandhi's teaching which has the greatest urgency today - frugality and resource conservation - is the one for which he is least remembered. All mainstream political parties are now dedicated to a hi-tech future that disemploys the young and leaves the rate of job creation far behind population growth.
The virtues of frugality may not be immediately apparent to the city poor, but Gandhi did not preach the coercive poverty of slums. "There is a world of difference between economic violence and a freely chosen simplicity," says Satye, who left his work in a fashionable restaurant in Green Park to live in a hut in the Rajghat slum.
Dirubai Sheth of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi says: "In pre-modern society, poverty was also there. This was not elective poverty, but neither was it necessarily the same as misery. There was an ideological acceptance of poverty, that it was the karma of the poor and so on. Yet there was also joy, a celebration of life, folk songs, music, customs and rituals; the poor derived some satisfaction from their indispensability in the scheme of things.
"Much of this was destroyed by ourselves when we dreamed with Nehru the dream of modernity. The forms of violence we see now - the corruption, the looting and burning of houses, goondaraj and organised crime - these were not in the pathology of the old society. Since independence we have had socialism by decree and capitalism by default. This discrepancy has now been remedied, that is all."
In March the United Front government admitted that its own assessment of the numbers below the (ungenerous) poverty line has been inaccurate. It now says that at least 36 per cent of the population of 960 million do not get enough for their sustenance. The earlier claim that 19 per cent were living in poverty was an obvious untruth. The present figure is also an underestimate, yet even this represents the total population of the country at the time of independence.
The government, a coalition of 13 mainly leftist parties, has, in theory, some commitment to social justice. Yet its priority is to continue the "reforms" of the previous Congress administration: a recipe for greater inequality. Indeed, the structural adjustment programme imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and external debt - in excess of $90 billion - ensure that servicing debt takes precedence over servicing the poor.
Since independence more than 25 million people have been forcibly relocated as a result of developmental infrastructural projects: dams, power stations, mining and logging operations. Nehru's vision of Soviet-style industrialisation resulted in vast state-owned industries. Although less than 10 per cent of workers belong to this organised sector, they pose an obstacle to liberalisation and the disinvestment of state enterprises. The other 90 per cent - the millions of landless labourers, construction workers, domestic servants, rickshaw drivers, working children, whose labour can be had for next to nothing - have never presented any such obstacle.
India has been transformed since 1947. The share of agriculture in national income fell from 55.8 per cent in 1950 to 29.5 per cent in 1995. Life expectancy has increased from 30 to about 60. Post liberalisation GDP grew at 7.4 per cent in 1995 and 6.9 per cent in 1996. A new middle class exists, a market of more than 200 million people, and the rich flaunt their wealth with an exuberance worthy of Victorian England.
With such economic indicators, why do doubts persist about India's capacity to achieve growth that will lift a majority out of poverty? After all, the free-market model sets India on a path familiar to the Britain of the industrial revolution.
Yet it is clear that the path followed by Britain is not replicable in India: Britain had an empire, the resources of which were eventually deployed to make life more tolerable for its poor; India is left with a colonial economic policy but no colonies. Greater pressure on its land and its poor is an inevitable consequence.
In no country in the world where structural adjustment programmes are being implemented (and there are more than 70) is there any outcome other than increasing inequality. Furthermore, by cutting income tax and corporation tax in the 1997 budget, the Indian government recognised that the rich cannot be compelled to play the democratic game: let the people vote for distributive justice and the rich will shift their capital at the touch of a button out of any regime that threatens them with levels Of taxation they will not tolerate. Social justice is the first casualty of this disagreeable fact. Gandhians recognise that some of the most violent contradictions of globalisation are likely to be played out in India.
Nor should it be imagined that "modernisation" itself eradicates traditional social evils. Not only does the life of the poor remain untouched, but the position of women worsens in many ways with a growing market economy: the demand for a dowry spreads to groups that formerly did not expect it; more women are attacked, or killed, because they fail to bring to their marriage a scooter or a television set. Techniques for identifying the sex of foetuses make it easier to abort girls. This, together with the differential survival rate for boys and girls, means the proportion of women to men has never been lower.
The exhortations of Gandhi for swaraj (self-rule), based on local artisanal production for use, have been drowned in the clamour of the world market. Millions of Indian graduates remain unemployed; the best brains cannot wait to get their green card and further enrich the economies of the US, Canada or Australia. The environmental degradation of huge areas, a fragile self-reliance in food, with nearly 40 per cent of the people unable to afford enough for survival, are curious indicators of economic success.
The legacy of Gandhi is not to be found in the mainstream political parties. Nonviolence, peaceful yet unyielding resistance and self-sacrifice live on in the people's movements - the unity of the country's fishing communities against industrialised fishing, the protests of Medha Patkar and Sunderlal Bahaguna against the Narmada and Tehri dams, the crusade of Swami Agnivesh against bonded and child labour. These are powerful symbols of a tradition that has been given a new impetus by free-market "reforms".
The success of the Brahmin-dominated BJP has itself called forth resistance, new political groupings, uniting Scheduled Castes (Untouchables) and other backward castes and tribes with the Muslim minority. The vitality of many regional parties suggests that a renewal of Indian democracy is taking place. The problem is that everything is subordinated to the necessities of market economics and no party is going to contest those.
Even if the BJP does come to power at the centre it is unlikely to propose an alternative to current economic programmes. It claims to have mellowed since the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya and the riots that followed - so much so that it is common to hear the new middle class talk of the BJP as the clean party, the best hope for discipline and control in a chaotic, individualistic India, the bearer of an authoritarianism that echoes the "Asian values" ideology of Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.
Overviews of India since independence usually end with reassuring words on the changelessness of India's villages, where 75 per cent of people still live. Yet villages have changed. Land is being concentrated into fewer hands as farmers are forced to abandon subsistence and food production becomes industrialised. Villages are penetrated by television, the iconography of consumerism, and the appearance in even the most remote regions of the small comforts of the transnationals: Cadbury's chocolate, Colgate toothpaste, Hindustan Lever soap, Pepsi.
These displace indigenous equivalents and traditional practices, such as the use of neem twigs for teeth cleaning. Efforts by multinationals to patent neem, as well as other free resources, have been described by the ecologist Vandana Shiva as biopiracy, attempts to recolonise India by controlling its biodiversity and natural wealth.
"How could the British hold down India?" asks Jagat Ram Joshi. "It was easy. They were successful in getting traitors from India. The British were few, but they had command of a wide army from within India. In Lahore Fort, do not imagine that I saw any British torturers. Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims were beating me on behalf of their masters and in pursuit of their own interests."
Official India, the India articulated to the global economy, is increasingly a separate caste, whose life does not interact with that of the majority. It is their destiny to manage a development of increasing inequality, polarisation and injustice. Here is the real fault-line in the rhetoric of an integrated world economy; and it is the site on which the excluded, the dispossessed, the landless, injured and humiliated of the earth will show whether they can resist its onward march or not.
As the Bengali poet Tagore lay dying, he said of the British: "But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries' administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!"
The same could be said for their post-imperial successors, the Congress, who ran India for more than 40 of the last 50 years.…