Today is the 75th Anniversary of India’s Independence. The present generation may therefore be forgiven for not appreciating the seminal impact of that event, not just on the inaugural Guyanese leaders for our independence, but indeed on all the other leaders of the British Empire, on which they boasted “the sun never sets”. As the “Jewel in the Crown” of Britain, even before 1947, India held great significance for the colonies. It is not a coincidence that from the Pan-African Conference (1900) changing its name to the “Pan African Congress” in 1919 following the 1912 founding of South African “Native National Congress” and even the “Peoples National Congress” in Guyana in 1958. They were all inspired by the Indian National Congress – the party that led India to Independence, and which became simply “the Congress” to the world.
Founded in 1885, the Congress was quite reformist for the first quarter of a century of its existence. Some explicitly called themselves “Moderates”, and taking the British at their word, insisted they simply wanted to become “full and equal members of the British Empire”. Those who felt the struggle for independence had to be fought for “by any means necessary” – including violence – were dubbed “Extremists”, were exiled and jailed. This divergence of approach to gaining independence was duplicated across the Empire.
But one issue that brought the “Moderates”, “Extremists” and Muslims together was the status of Indentured Indian labourers who had been shipped to more than a dozen British colonies, and, in particular, their treatment in South Africa. Gandhi, who was in South Africa but in touch with the “Moderates”, assisted the British in the Boer War of 1899-1902, when they fought the Afrikaans. They were astounded when the British joined the Afrikaans after the war to enact very draconian laws against the Indians – whether indentured or “free”. The beginnings of the apartheid system were being instituted, and the Whites insisted Indians must be restricted to certain areas.
The “educated” and “upper crust” Indian nationalists in India and in South Africa were more insulted they were being treated as “coolies” than anything else: they had been, they thought, transformed into “gentlemen of the realm”. The unified Congress introduced legislation in the Indian Parliament, and organised demonstration across the country to demand that Indian emigration to South Africa (Natal) be stopped. This occurred in 1911, since the whites would rather have increased labour costs in their plantations and mines than accept the equality of Indians and Whites. Indenture elsewhere was abolished in 1917.
While some were like Gandhi, who was dubbed a “Mahatma” or “Great Soul” for his espousal of Satyagraha” or “non-violent struggle” for India’s independence and refusal to support violence, some younger leaders of Congress, such as Subash Chandra Bose, did opt for the latter route. During WWII, he formed an army that allied itself with the Axis powers, and helped precipitate a rebellion of the Indian Navy in Port Bombay in 1946. More than anything else, this brought independence to India the following year.
Unfortunately, that came at the price of partitioning the country into “India and “Pakistan” in a bloody process in which more than one million persons lost their lives. This horror was still fresh in the minds of Guyanese when some proposed partition here in the 1960s. India became a Republic in 1950 under a constitution drafted by a local team headed by Dr B.R. Ambedkar, a member of the lowest caste, which now call themselves “Dalits”. He was educated at Columbia University in USA, and India was defined as a “sovereign, democratic, republic.”
In the years since, the Indian Republic has maintained its democratic credentials, and apart from one aberration in the 1970s, all leaders have observed the protocols of the rule of law, division of power, and judicial review. Those countries originating as British colonies that attempted to short-circuit the process, such as Guyana in the West Indies and so many in Sub-Saharan Africa, should take a lesson from the Indian “hare”.