The Indian High Commission in Guyana on Sunday commemorated the 70th anniversary of becoming a republic in a simple ceremony at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre.
As the “Jewel in the Crown” of Britain, even before its Independence in 1947, India held great significance for the colonies of the empire on which “the sun never sat”. 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 People’s National Congress in Guyana in 1958, they were all inspired by the Indian National Congress – which became simply, “the Congress”.
Founded in 1885, the Congress was quite reformist for the first quarter of a century of existence. Some – who explicitly called themselves “Moderates” – took the British at their word that they simply wanted to tutor the Indians to govern themselves 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” and were exiled and jailed.
But one issue that brought the “Moderates”, “Extremists” and Muslims together was the issue in general of Indentured Indian labour that had been shipped to several 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 the Indians must be restricted to certain areas.
The “educated” and “upper crust” Indian nationalists in India and in South Africa were more insulted as 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 demonstrations across the country to demand that Indian emigration to South Africa (Natal) be stopped. This occurred in 1911 since the whites were prepared for a rise in the cost of labour for their plantations and mines, rather than accepting the equality of Indians and whites.
While some, 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, it 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. Less than three years later, India became a Republic under a constitution drafted by a local team headed by Dr BR Ambedkar, a member of the lowest caste that now calls themselves “Dalits”. He was educated at Columbia University, 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”.