In a wide-ranging discussion at SFU Woodward's last night, Indian journalist Tarun Tejpal offered a great tribute to the founding fathers of his country.
Tejpal, the Delhi-based editor of Tehelka, declared that the birth of India was "the single greatest creative act of the last 1,000 years".
To illustrate his point, Tejpal said that Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, and many others were dealing with a continent of 350 million people with a 90 percent illiteracy rate, and which had been brutally colonized for 300 years. Out of this, they decided overnight to convert it into a modern, liberal, secular democracy.
Tejpal said that when he reads about India's founders today, his hairs stand on end "because they were so extraordinary both in intellect and in noble aspiration".
"It has become very fashionable in the last 15 or 20 years to knock a man called Jawaharlal Nehru," Tejpal said. "I am among those who believes that had a man called Jawaharlal Nehru not existed, we would not have the secular, democratic India that we have today. People forget what the founding fathers cobbled together."
Tejpal made his comments at the Indian Summer festival, which continues through Sunday (July 17).
Early in the discussion with Teamwork Productions managing director Sanjoy Roy, Tejpal touched on the impact of colonialism on the Indian economy. He pointed out that as the British were starting to sink their tentacles into the subcontinent in the mid-18th century, India was responsible for 18.6 percent of the world's gross domestic product. England, on the other hand, was generating just 1.8 percent at that time.
By the time the British left India following the Second World War, India was responsible for just 1.2 percent of the world's GDP. Great Britain's share had risen close to 19 percent, according to Tejpal. [For more on this, see the papers of economist Angus Maddison.]
"What the founding fathers are left with is an incredibly impoverished people—illiterate people, no manufacturing, no sources of any easy kind of growth," Tejpal declared. "There is a railway system made by the British, largely to transport and advance their own economic advantages. There is really nothing. And in all this nothingness—all this great nothingness—these extraordinary men and women say, 'We will create a modern, democratic, secular republic.' "
Some Indian commentators, such as Times of India columnist and Indian Unbound author Gurchuran Das, have blamed India's "licence raj" under Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, for thwarting economic growth and contributing to widespread poverty.
Tejpal, however, focused his attention on the sorry state the British left India in after independence. "The fluorescence we see today—the economic fluorescence, the creative fluorescence, the excitement of cinema and art and culture and yoga and cuisine—all these come from a basis that was laid 60 years ago by some of the most extraordinary men in the history of man."
Tejpal emphasized that since independence in 1947, there has always existed a competing view of India, which is not nearly so generous toward religious minorities. At one point, he bluntly stated that racial, language, and class bigotry always simmers close to the surface in India. Tejpal said that even when the country was created, there was a "majoritarian" view that India should be a dominantly Hindu country. (It's worth noting that a member of a Hindu extremist group, Nathuran Godse, assassinated Gandhi.)
"This was something that was resisted by another school of thought that deemed India would only be a success if it became a great mosaic—a great melting pot—and a nation that protected its minorities with great zeal," he stated. "Even today, 64 years later, that battle is on. Forty years on, that battle will still be on. These are battles of world view. People like me belong to the Nehru world view, who believe the soul of India is fundamentally an inclusive soul."
He described how this view has been challenged at different times. At one point, Roy asked Tejpal to discuss why the movement for an independent Sikh homeland called Khalistan fizzled out.
Firebrand Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a key player in this revolt, which led to his death during an Indian Army attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984.
"I met Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale when I was 20 years old—in probably my second assignment of my life," Tejpal revealed. "I met him at the Golden Temple. And I have to say he was a very charismatic figure, but he spoke utter nonsense. I spent two hours with him. He was very charismatic, but he didn't speak any sense at all."
He went on to say that there was a "very peculiar ratcheting up of disaffection" at that time in Punjab, with some coming from overseas and some unhappiness originating within the northwestern Indian state.
Tejpal is Punjabi himself, having been born into a Hindu family. He noted that Sikhs are among the "most prosperous and energetic groups" in India, if not the world.
"It was very, very paradoxical that the Sikhs and the Punjabis...were feeling disaffected to the extent they were," he said.
The secessionist movement lasted for about eight or nine years, Tejpal added.
Tejpal acknowledged that the differences between Sikhs and Hindus created a "momentary schism". Things blew up after the attack on the Golden Temple when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. This led to what Tejpal described as the worst event in the history of modern India.
"It resulted in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, which were a terrible, terrible moment, only to be then equalled in the last ugliness by the Gujarat killings of 2002."
At times, Tejpal criticized the Indian elite for disregarding the country's widespread poverty. He pointed out that 46 percent of children in India are suffering from malnutrition, which appeared to shock the crowd.
"We are an incredibly poor country—500 million in India live at sub-Saharan poverty levels," he acknowledged. "We have more poor people than the entire population of Africa. For us to forget that in the headiness of the economic successes we've had is a great tragedy. These are things we have to struggle with every day."
At the same time, he estimated there are between 200 to 400 million Indians in the middle class, which has created a tremendous market for western companies.
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