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We do not belong to past dawns, but to the noons of the future

August 14, 2008
Claude Arpi on the prospects for India.

August 15 is a special day for me. It is not only the day that India became independent some sixty one years ago, but it is also the birthday of the person I consider the greatest Indian of modern India: Sri Aurobindo.

The great nationalist leader and yogi not only initiated the Purna Swaraj campaign in the first years of the 20th century, but at the Surat Congress in 1907, he led the Nationalists (then called the Extremists) against the Moderates who wanted to compromise with the British. The Indian National Congress eventually split, but when it was re-established, there was no question of cohabitating with the imperial power anymore.

On August 15, 1947 Sri Aurobindo celebrated his 75th birthday. It was a day for rejoicing; India was free at last. But it was not entirely a happy day: India was divided. Ever since, the tragedy of Partition has loomed over the sub-continent. The nation has made tremendous progress in the fields of economy, development or education, this milestone remains heavy around the subcontinent's neck.

In 1947, Sri Aurobindo wrote: 'India is free but she has not achieved unity, only a fissured and broken freedom... if it lasts, India may be seriously weakened, even crippled: civil strife may remain always possible, possible even a new invasion and foreign conquest... By whatever means, the division must and will go.'

The recent events in Jammu are a violent reminder of the 'unfinished task.' The division has not gone and has become exacerbated with the increasingly open role played by the ISI in Pakistan's (and its neighbour's) affairs.

Sri Aurobindo brought me to India. I have stayed in Bharat for the past 35 years, because I still believe in his vision for this nation and for this land. In the early years of the 20th century, he wrote:

'India of the ages is not dead nor has she spoken her last creative word; she lives and has still something to do for herself and the human peoples.
And that which must seek now to awake is not an Anglicised Oriental people, docile pupil of the West and doomed to repeat the cycle of the Occident's success and failure, but still the ancient immemorable Shakti recovering her deepest self, lifting her head higher towards the supreme source of light and strength and turning to discover the complete meaning and a vaster form of her Dharma.
We do not belong to the past dawns but to the noons of the future.
'

But where is India, sixty-one years after Independence?

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Some say India is shining, others will tell you, India is incredible, India is the nation to reckon with in the future, but this India is still far from where she could and should be.

Just look at what is happening in the Lok Sabha, crores of rupees are exchanged to keep the government running (or to derail it). And it is merely the syndrome of a reckless race for money where rich industrialists become kingmakers and fixers, the heroes parading on the covering page of 'national' magazines.

I often wonder what people can do with so much wealth? Does it bring happiness? The king of Bhutan was right when he decided to measure the growth of his tiny nation by the Gross National Happiness standard.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article entitled The Ten Things I Hate About India. Today, I would add many items to my list. The main one seems to be a lack of general interest about India as a nation. Whenever you read newspapers or watch a television programme, this is quite striking. Each one thinks only for his/her own parochial interests. The question is how to change a system which is disintegrating by the day.

With Independence Day approaching, something occurred to me. The only solution would perhaps be to start afresh from scratch. It would mean to restart the process of building a new India as it was done on August 15, 1947. The first task would be to write a completely new Constitution and for the purpose to nominate a new Constituent Assembly. It would comprise not only of legislators, but also people from all walks of life who have been successful and made India proud in the past (very few legislators have made India proud).

The first thing to change would be the parliamentary system of governance. If one wants a strong and united India which could play a meaningful role in the concert of nations, a Presidential system seems more fitting. The President could choose his council of ministers amongst respected Indians having expertise in their own field. They would be answerable to a House of the People.

Look at the situation today, is it not ridiculous that a former Chief Election Commissioner is rewarded with the ministry of sports? Later, 'experts' will be surprised that India has fared badly in the Games!

The number of ministries should be limited, why have a ministry of mines just to attract the covetousness of politicians? So should the age of the ministers be limited, so that they retire into the sanyasa ashrama (or with their grandchildren, if they prefer) after the age of 65. Look at the dynamism of China where this is implemented!

The President would, of course, be elected by universal franchise.

Further, reservations would be abolished and replaced by a fair and efficient system of scholarships for the poorer sections of the society irrespective of their background. This would remove the caste-based discrimination encouraged by the Constitution today, which reinforces the caste system.

Of course, a special effort will have to be made for the remote regions of the Northeast or Ladakh or the other less developed parts of India.

It would probably be good to send some bureaucrats and other 'deciders' to China to study how they have developed their infrastructure. I was recently told that the Chinese government has just built splendid roads in the Nyingtri district of southern Tibet. These roads can cater for the development of the area for the next few decades. Ironically, this area is located north of the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh where an antediluvian Inner Line Permit system is still in force.

Another advantage of writing a new Constitution would be that it would not only bring a new breath of air to hundreds of antiquated laws based on the old Constitution (often drafted during the British Raj). Articles like Article 370 have only created problems for the nation during the last 50 years. The wrong sense of separateness it gave to militants, the Hurriyat and others in the valley will be gone. An issue like the current Amarnarth conflict could not have existed without this sense (or non-sense) of 'we are different' given by Article 370.

It would be an interesting experience. India could use her successful experiences in several fields to take a new leap forward. Just after Independence, while many players wanted to reject imperial power, most had been trained and educated by the same power. It resulted in a system which was (and remains) a carbon copy of the British one.

But what will be needed are men with a vision. In February 1950, though in a different context (he was commenting on a project for a new constitution for then French-ruled Pondicherry), Sri Aurobindo wrote words which sounds contemporary: 'If nothing is changed in local conditions and freedom is left for a certain type of politicians and party leaders to make use of their opportunities to pervert everything to their own profit, how are they to be prevented from prolonging the old state of things... misgovernment and corruption and things will become worse even than in the past. Only a strong control ... a period of political discipline in which the population could develop public spirit, the use and the right use of the powers and the democratic institutions placed at their disposal, could ensure a change for the better... It cannot be ensured by a paper constitution; the right type of men in the right place could alone ensure it.'

Men of vision means men who can see decades ahead (like the Chinese for infrastructure), and this in all fields of life. Take environment. If we don't have men of vision to take the lead, the planet will not exist in 50 years, more than 50% of its inhabitants would have died due of the lack of potable water.

Take the differences between the rich and the poor, how long will India accept that individuals build 30 floor mansions when others are still starving. I was amused recently when I read a grand project of Juan Manuel Baroso, the European Union president who wanted to invest 1 billion to 'save' the planet from starvation. At the same time, an individual builds a house for himself in a supposedly poor (or emerging) country.

Take research. Suppose India would invest the cost of nuclear (or thermal) plant to undertake research in the field of solar energy. She has enough brain power to make a breakthrough within five years and find a cheap way to produce and store electricity. Only the will and the proper set-up are necessary. The debate on nuclear deals would then become obsolete.

But there is something deeper than the external and political organisation. India has to re-find her true roots. It is fair to once again quote Sri Aurobindo on the occasion of his birthday:

'There are deeper issues for India herself, since by following certain tempting directions she may conceivably become a nation like many others evolving an opulent industry and commerce, a powerful organisation of social and political life, an immense military strength, practicing power politics with a high degree of success, guarding and extending zealously her gains and interests, dominating even a large part of the world, but in this apparently magnificent progression forfeiting its Swadharama, losing its soul.' This was a message given to the newly opened University of Andhra Pradesh in 1948.

He believed that youth was the only hope for this nation. It is still true today.

Rediff.com columnist Claude Arpi, a dentist by training, moved to Auroville from his native France 34 years ago.

Image: India has the largest number of young people in the world. About 540 million Indians are below the age of 30. And it is in these young people that India's future lies. In this image, June 15, 2008, children play cricket during a heavy downpour in front of the landmark India Gate in New Delhi. Photograph: Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images

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