It is remarkable how similar the histories of US and Indian independence are. And yet the two countries have such drastically different polities, politics, and performance. We must ponder over why, and strive to do better…
[By Bhanu Dhamija]
4 July commemorates the United States’ adoption of its Declaration of Independence, a document considered to be one of the world’s most eloquent statements on democracy. It has inspired freedom movements in many countries, including our own struggle against the British imperialists.
Mahatma Gandhi’s Purna Swaraj (Complete Self-Rule) Resolution, adopted in 1930, was drawn along the lines of the US original, and even used similar language. But we Indians were not consistent in following the principles enshrined in our respective Declarations. This produced a disunited polity in our country, and an incongruent Constitution, with an unworkable mix of US, British and Indian principles.
Declaring a New Future
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident,” the US declared, “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
The Declaration outlined a slew of “abuses and usurpations” by the King of Great Britain which made it necessary for the thirteen American colonies to exit.
It said they were throwing out the “absolute despotism” of the British government in order “to provide new guards for their future security,” and “alter their former systems of government.”
And it declared, “all political connection between (the colonies) and the State of Great Britain…totally dissolved.”
The Declaration was adopted unanimously by the local governments of the thirteen colonies – the Continental Congress. The US’ hostilities with the British Crown had begun a year earlier when King George III had ignored a list of grievances.
The Congress had responded by establishing a Continental Army and a continental currency. This resulted in a royal proclamation declaring all American subjects in “open and avowed rebellion.”
Different Routes to Freedom
By contrast, the Indian declaration of independence was not a severing of relations; it was a political party’s manifesto. Gandhi’s Purna Swaraj resolution stated, “the most effective way of gaining our freedom is not through violence… We will therefore prepare ourselves by withdrawing… all voluntary association from the British Government, and will prepare for civil disobedience, including nonpayment of taxes.”
It resolved “to carry out the Congress’ instructions issued from time to time.” Gandhi did however, assert the “inalienable right” of the Indian people to have freedoms, and the right to “alter or abolish” an oppressive government.
He also listed a set of grievances, stating that the British had “ruined India economically, politically, culturally, and spiritually.” “We believe, therefore, that India must sever the British connection and attain Purna Swaraj or complete independence.”
Gandhi had no choice but to issue a soft call. Unlike in the US, Indians were not in control of local governments or military resources. His non-violent approach took the high moral ground, and was instrumental in winning India’s freedom. In the US, on the other hand, a bloody Revolutionary War resulted, which lasted more than a decade.
The non-violent approach of the Indians may have served the country even better if only we had spent the peaceful times preparing for independence. Instead, our diverse communities—mainly Hindus and Muslims—did not agree on a Constitution for the new nation for many years. Even worse, as a condition for granting independence, Britain partitioned the country.
US Constitutional Experiments
In the US, two constitutions were adopted within ten years, even as they battled the world’s mightiest empire. The first, the Articles of Confederation, created a loose union of colonies under a weak federal government.
But its inadequacies brought the country to the verge of bankruptcy and made its army ashambles. So in 1787, they invented an entirely different type of Constitution.
The main aim of this Constitution was to fulfill a pledge in the Declaration of Independence: to alter the country’s system of government from the British parliamentary type.
They formulated many new constitutional principles. First among these was a Bill of Rights, which barred governments from interfering with people’s fundamental rights. The US invented federalism as a way to provide a decentralized structure of autonomous state governments. It also created an entirely independent Supreme Court and gave it powers of judicial review.
It also invented the office of a directly elected chief executive – the Presidency. The US Constitution thus established a form of government that was both strong at the Centre and yet decentralized.
India Chooses an Odd Mix
We desultory Indians, however, took the opposite direction and kept the British form of centralized government. We tried to fit in many US principles—federalism, the presidency, judicial review, the Bill of Rights, etc.—within the British parliamentary system. But since such a mix was inconsistent and ill-fitting in its very foundation, those principles have all been debased and bent out of shape over the years.
Many, including the British themselves, cautioned India against its decision to go with the British system.
As early as 1933, a British parliamentary committee reported that “in India, none of the factors essential for parliamentary government can be said to exist today.”
In 1939, Muhammad Ali Jinnah said he was “irrevocably opposed to… a majority community rule under the guise of… parliamentary system.” The American envoy, Louis Johnson, wrote to President Roosevelt, that in India “a majority form of government may not be applicable.”
In 1947, Ambedkar wrote to India’s Constituent Assembly that “the British type of Executive will be full of menace to the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for India’s minorities.”
Even Mahatma Gandhi said, “If India copies England, it is my firm conviction that she will be ruined.”
It is remarkable how similar the histories of US and Indian independence are. And yet the two countries have such drastically different polities, politics, and performance. We must ponder over why, and strive to do better.
[The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal Group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’.]
A version of this article was first published on The Quint on 05 July 2018.