I feel privileged to have been invited to deliver this year’s lecture to remember Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. He was a great scholar, an outstanding leader of Indian Muslims, a visionary social reformer and a protagonist of Hindu-Muslim unity who strongly believed that religious discord would destroy the fabric of our society.
Sir Syed, born in a well established family, joined the East India Company and served in several parts of northern India. He received honours and awards for his innovative ideas and commendable achievements.
Deeply perturbed by the atrocities inflicted by the British during the 1857 Mutiny and the enormous sufferings undergone by his people, particularly the Muslims in and around Delhi, Sir Syed vowed to uplift his community. He spent the rest of his life in carrying out reforms to encourage freedom of thought and eliminate bigotry, fanaticism and sectarianism.
To counter the propaganda, which was being methodically spread, that the Mutiny took place because of the activities of Muslims, Sir Syed wrote a well- argued monograph which held that 1857 happened because of the government’s own lapses, particularly its failure to redress serious grievances of the people. He pointed out that another reason for the mounting public anger which had led to the revolt was the failure of the British to provide for Indian representation in the Imperial Legislative Council. He continued to fight for this cause till the British agreed, in 1861, to Indians being nominated to the Council and for some of them to be given positions in the judicial system.
Sir Syed strongly believed that Muslims, who were an intensely religious community steeped in conservative traditions, would not be able to progress and achieve advancement unless the upcoming generations were enabled to pursue modern education, particularly the sciences and engineering. In his long battle to end orthodoxy he vigorously campaigned for Muslim youth being encouraged to learn English, which would open the door to their gaining admissions to institutions of higher learning. To motivate and expose his community to western concepts and develop a scientific temper he set up the ‘Scientific Society’ and started bringing out the “Aligarh Institute Gazette”.
An Islamic modernist, Sir Syed stood for tolerance, reason and a scientific outlook. Being convinced that orthodoxy and ignorance could not be reduced unless the Muslim society was exposed to wide-ranging reforms, he launched a vibrant campaign which soon became widely known as the “Aligarh Movement”. To acquaint himself with the latest advancements in the field of higher education he visited England and came back with many new ideas which he spread by bringing out a journal, “Tahzeeb-ul-Akhlaq”, which became an important agent for triggering social reform. The writings in this publication, and those generated by the Aligarh Movement, were aimed at reforming the Muslim society by attacking ignorance and, side-by-side, propagating a rational interpretation of the Quran. Among other objectives, he sought to establish that there was nothing in Islam which opposed or debarred Muslim youth from learning English, pursuing western education and becoming highly qualified teachers, scientists, engineers and doctors. Undoubtedly the most notable Indian Muslim leader of his time, Sir Syed worked assiduously towards the advancement of his community to see that it excelled in all fields and was not left behind in any arena.
In furtherance of his conviction that the Muslim society could not be reformed unless the youth were provided opportunities to gain higher education, he established a school which soon became widely reputed for its high quality of teaching. His endeavours to establish a modern university could not go through for lack of the required resources. However, In 1877, he succeeded in setting up the Muslim Anglo-Oriental College, an institution modelled on the pattern of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Over the years, many alumni of this college rose to occupy positions of great eminence in various walks of life, all over the country.
Over four decades later, in 1920, the Muslim Anglo-Oriental College achieved the status of a university. Today, the Aligarh Muslim University is among the foremost in the country. Over the past century, since its inception, the AMU has played a pivotal role in shaping the destinies of all those who were lucky in gaining entry into its portals. Today, this university is providing education to over 34,000 students, in almost every area of learning.
In my view, perhaps the best tribute which can be paid to Sir Syed’s life long work would be to recall the following words of Dr. Tara Chand, the eminent historian:
“The Aligarh Movement exercised a tremendous influence on the minds of Muslims; it created among them the ambition to achieve for their community its proper place among the communities of India and turned their thoughts from the fruitless contemplation of their past glories and defeats to the actual pursuit of progress and advancement in the modern world”
India is the world’s largest democracy. Since attaining freedom our people have been governed by their own chosen representatives, elected every five years in freely conducted polls.
While seven decades is not a particularly long period in the life of a nation, it would be beneficial to look back, even though fleetingly, to reckon how far we have travelled towards the attainment of the nation building goals envisioned by the founding fathers of our Constitution.
Among the mandated tasks of establishing a strong and caring democracy, built on the pillars of Secularism, Equality, Liberty, Justice and Fraternity, a crucial goal which continues to await attainment relates to our failure to provide food, shelter, safe drinking water, healthcare, literacy and employment opportunities to millions of our people who subsist below the poverty line. Unfortunately, the continuing pandemic, Covid-19, has added many more millions to the number of those already poverty stricken. Thus, by all accounts, we still have to travel a long way to eradicate poverty and inequality, alleviate the lot of the economically downtrodden and socially depressed segments of our population and empower them to truly enjoy equal opportunities with all others in the country.
In any discussion on the governance of India it would do well to remember that we are a vast country of sub-continental dimensions and a land of awesome geographical dissimilarities. We have large desert areas, the highest mountain ranges in the world, land and sea borders of nearly 23,000 kms, over 1200 island territories and an Exclusive Economic Zone of several million square kilometres.
Even more daunting is the heterogeneity of our population. Our people, nearly 1.38 billion today, comprise over 4600 communities which practice all the world religions, speak 122 languages and nearly 2000 dialects. Their vastly diverse traditions and practices are imbedded in thousands of years of history and the life styles of our different communities reflect the myriad social, cultural, linguistic and religious diversities which comprise India.
At the time of Independence, after the country was partitioned, millions were killed in the communal riots and millions more were uprooted and rendered homeless. Large parts of the country, from Bengal to Panjab, were devastated by widespread lawlessness, arson, loot and killings and a famine like situation prevailed in the land.
India faced a grave financial crisis and a horde of complex challenges. The British, who ruled India for nearly two centuries for advancing their own interests, had left behind a backward and feudal agrarian economy, huge regional imbalances, a weak industrial base, large scale unemployment, poverty and abysmally low income levels.
It was the selfless commitment of the tall leaders who had carried out the long struggle for freedom, and the strong determination of other front ranking political personalities of that time, which inspired the Interim Government — our first national government in 1947 – to deal with the prevailing communal violence; restore law and order; provide food, clothing and shelter to millions of refugees; set up thousands of ration shops to distribute essential food supplies; fight droughts and floods and, in the midst of the endless troubles on various fronts, to also counter Pakistan’s aggression in Kashmir. Besides the benefit of an enlightened leadership, the endless challenges were successfully met because of the devotion and sustained hard work put in by the limited cadres of the Civil, Police, Defence and other services, all of which had been badly splintered by the partition of the country.
While the Interim Government was engaged, day and night, in battling with the virtually insurmountable problems facing the country, the Constituent Assembly remained involved in prolonged debates to finalise the Constitution of free India. Adopted on 26th January 1950, our Constitution provides the broad framework of cooperative federalism for the governance of the Sovereign, Democratic Republic of India and lays down a largely socialistic pattern for India’s economic development. It demarcates the respective jurisdictions and responsibilities of the Union and the States and the subjects which can receive concurrent attention.
Under our Constitution, the people of India set out to attain for themselves:
JUSTICE – social, economic and political
LIBERTY – of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship
EQUALITY – of status and of opportunity
FRATERNITY – for assuring the dignity of the individual and unity of the nation.
The Constitution contains specific provisions for safeguarding the fundamental rights of citizens and the chapter on the Directive Principles of State Policy provides the direction of the tasks to be carried out for building a strong and vibrant nation, particular attention being given to secure the upliftment of those segments of our society which had suffered neglect and oppression for centuries. The Constitution provides for the establishment of a uniform set of inter-related institutions which lay the basis for a common framework of governance across the country and a strong Centre for guiding and supporting the States in the collective tasks of nation building.
It would be relevant to recall that, during the debates in the Constituent Assembly, Sardar Patel had repeatedly cautioned that the effective governance of free India and the harmonious working of Centre-State relations would be crucially dependent on the collective pursuit of a national perspective. He strongly believed that the unity and integrity of India could be safeguarded by a federal administrative system in which the all India services would be required to play a vital role. Thus, our Constitution provides for the establishment of All India Services of such kind and in such number as may be required. However, we have only three pan India Services viz the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service and the Indian Forest Service, besides the stand alone Indian Foreign Service. All these four services together have a total of about 12,500 officers.
For securing balanced human development and economic growth it was decided to implement five year plans, which would be finalized by the Planning Commission and the National Development Council after discussions with the States and other stake holders. It is fortunate that those at the helm after Independence recognised, right in the beginning, that any failure in bringing about orderly change to establish a stable environment across the country could lead to unrest and disorder on a scale which would not be easy to control. Thus, it was wisely decided that tackling the problems of poverty and unemployment would be among the government’s first and foremost priorities. Because of the extreme paucity of financial resources in that period, another sound decision taken was to mobilise the local communities to render voluntary services for implementing rural development programmes in the villages. This approach engendered very good results, at least in the early years. As a district officer in the early 1960s I recall our significant successes in building village roads, wells, dispensaries and other assets with the help of voluntary labour we mobilised from the beneficiary villages.
Considering the severe financial constraints and many other serious problems, all of which required to be dealt with at the same time, it could well be concluded that in the first two decades after Independence the successive governments at the Centre worked satisfactorily and successfully laid the foundations for the country’s future growth and development in almost every arena. Briefly recalled, this period witnessed considerable enlargement of the educational and health systems; establishment of rural dispensaries, hospitals, colleges, universities and institutions for teaching and research in medicine, science and technology; expansion of civil aviation, seaports, highways, railways and public transport systems; implementation of land reforms, consolidation of holdings and security of tenure to the actual tillers; construction of large dams and irrigation systems which later enabled the phenomenal success of the Green Revolution; enhancement of power generation and steel and cement production; establishment of Space and Atomic Energy Commissions and many other visionary initiatives which paved the way for the many creditable advancements which our country has been able to achieve in the recent years. During this period, besides Pakistani’s aggression in Kashmir immediately after Independence, the country faced war on three occasions. While we had to accept humiliation in the 1962 conflict with China our military acquitted themselves with great honour in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan.
Around the end of the 1960s the Congress party, which had continuously ruled at the Centre and in most of the States since Independence, was faced with serious internal feuds and dissensions. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s determination not to yield office and authority, at any cost, led to the enforcement of Emergency during 1975-77. This regrettable period witnessed the infringement of the rule of law and the Constitution and severe damage being done to the functioning of the cabinet system.
While there may have been no dearth of corruption in the earlier years, the period of Emergency saw the growth of a most unwholesome link-up between dishonest politicians and the brand new breed of unprincipled officials, the so called “committed” civil servants who pledged loyalty not to the Constitution but to the ideology of their political masters. The wanton abrogation of laws, policies and the well laid down systems led to the emergence of extra constitutional elements who played unlawful roles in governmental functioning, both at the Centre and in the States.
The post Emergency period was marked by the growth of political instability and rapid changes in the ruling hierarchies at the Centre. During 1991-2004 the country faced five elections to the Parliament and six Prime Ministers were at the helm in this short period. The 1980s and 1990s also witnessed the exposure of a series of murky corruption scandals which involved allegations against the senior most echelons in the polity, including the Prime Minister of India. In the States, at about the same time, there were alarming cases of corruption and gross abuse of authority which involved high ranking civil and police officers, ministers and chief ministers.
A look back at the evolution of the polity would show that while the elections in the past decades have not been related to contests between differing ideologies or to opposite positions in respect of important public issues, there has, nonetheless, been an enormous growth in the number of political organisations all over the country. In 1951, at the time of the first General Elections, there were only 54 National and State Parties and today we have 8 National, 53 State and 2538 Unrecognised Political Parties registered with the Election Commission of India! Besides this highly wasteful proliferation, another alarming phenomenon which has taken root relates to the extremely damaging role which money and muscle power have been playing in elections at all levels in the country. Among many other adverse consequences, this has enabled candidates with criminal backgrounds to gain entry into the State Legislatures and the Central Parliament.
While the Legislature and the Judiciary are vital organs of the Constitution, the Executive is perhaps the most important pillar as all our nearly 1.38 billion people, in their day to day existence, have to approach one or the other wing of the governmental machinery for the resolution of their grievances. The Executive comprises the elected representatives, i.e. the political Executive, and the public servants who are the appointed or the permanent Executive.
For the past many years now the functioning of the Executive has been on the decline. Among the varied factors which have led to its continuing failures and which, in turn, have resulted in delaying the achievement of crucial nation building goals, perhaps the most damaging have been those generated by manipulative politics, politicisation and interference in the working of the administrative apparatus, unchecked growth of corruption and unaccountability.
The unfettered inter-play of corrupt and unlawful practices has resulted in severely eroding both the capacity and the credibility of the governmental machinery. Leave aside ensuring the efficient functioning of the key institutions of governance, it is regrettable that even the management of the day to day public dealing offices and agencies has been invariably entrusted not to functionaries of proven merit and integrity but to those who are generally selected on considerations of caste, community or proximity to the political masters. Continuing deficiencies in the delivery of important public services has led to enormous dissatisfaction among the people, but to no avail.
Unceasing political meddling in the orderly working of the governmental apparatus has generated indiscipline, inefficiency, corruption and unaccountability among the employees. Functionaries who carry out unlawful orders and collect funds on behalf of their political masters, as well as for themselves, are not accountable to anyone, least of all to their hierarchical superiors who dare not question such elements. In such an environment the common man is the worst sufferer; his grievances remain unheard as he cannot pay bribes.
Political interference in the working of the police organizations in the states has caused irreparable damage to the discipline, morale and professionalism of these forces. Instead of being allowed to work unfettered and being held fully accountable for enforcing the law and maintaining public order, for which they were by law established, the constabularies have been misused for carrying out unlawful behests and, over the years, they have got mixed up with the very elements whose criminal activities they are duty bound to check and bring before the law. A grave consequence of this situation has been the progressive deterioration in the maintenance of law and order and, consequently, the virtually unchecked growth of criminality. The police has acquired a frighteningly negative image and the common man is mortally afraid of visiting a police station even if for no better reason than to report the commission of a serious crime which he may have witnessed.
With known criminal elements enjoying the protection and patronage of powerful elements in the ruling hierarchies, a “criminal nexus” between the polity, corrupt public servants and the mafia networks has been functioning for the past many years now. In this context it may be recalled that, consequent to the serial bombings in Mumbai in early 1993, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had directed the Union Home Secretary to take stock of the activities of Crime Syndicates and Mafia organisations which were being protected by government functionaries and political personalities with whom they had developed links. Essentially, the Prime Minister was anxious to know the circumstances in which the mafia had been able to transport large quantities of explosives into the city of Mumbai and freely carry out serial bomb blasts in the financial capital of India. The Home Secretary submitted his report in early October 1993. Nearly three decades have since elapsed. The action taken on the findings in this report, which has generally been referred to as the “Vohra Committee Report”, is not in the public domain. However, meanwhile, the criminal nexus has enormously extended its reach in several parts of the country and become many times more powerful.
It is equally unfortunate that the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the apex central agencies which deal with complaints of corruption against public servants, are no longer looked upon as credible professional agencies whose functioning is beyond the pale of political pressures and extra-legal influences. The sharp decline in the integrity of these vital institutions has led to the general belief that the rich and the wealthy, who provide funds to successive political regimes at the Centre and in the States, and persons who hold high public offices, are beyond the reach of the law, no matter how serious the crime which they may have committed. In this context it may be recalled that in 1997 the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice J.S. Verma, while hearing a case involving a bunch of corruption scandals, had directed the Union of India to set up an Independent Review Committee (IRC) to examine the manner in which personnel were appointed to run the ED and CBI and to also review the functioning of these agencies. The IRC Report, drafted by me, was accepted by the CJI and all its important recommendations were reflected in the Judgement in the well known case of “Vineet Narain and ORs vs Union of India” (1997). The concerned echelons in the Government of India may benefit by revisiting the IRC Report.
Successive governments at the Centre, irrespective of their political complexion, have failed to enforce an effective pan India law to curb corruption at the highest levels, including the Prime Minister of the country. The proposal to appoint a Lok Pal was mooted almost half a century ago. Several draft bills were examined and endlessly debated by successive Parliamentary Committees and expert groups till the Lokpal Bill was finally passed. Consequently, after delay and dithering for several decades, the incumbent government at the Centre appointed the first Lok Pal in early 2019. Sadly, till today, there is no indication whether and when this important institution is likely to become functional.
The successive governments in the States have not been able to satisfactorily discharge their mandated role of providing clean and efficient governance. There has been failure to maintain public order and achieving rapid growth and development for equitably promoting the welfare of all their people. It is shameful that, from year to year, even the outlays earmarked for executing schemes and programmes which are specially conceived for poverty alleviation have continued to remain unspent or got embezzled and eaten-up. Needless to stress, the Executive has not succeeded in discharging its responsibilities constitutionally, to the satisfaction of the people.
The Legislature has also failed to effectively deliver its constitutional role of passing wholesome laws which would empower the people, specially the weaker sections of the society; strengthen the framework of the rural and urban self-governing institutions; enhance the efficiency and accountability of the public services; and protect the common man from suffering from hunger or want. It has also failed to act as the parliamentary watchdog of the Executive’s functioning. Another alarming development has been that almost one third of the total strength of the Legislatures in the country is represented by persons of unseemly backgrounds and known involvement in criminal offences. This despicable phenomenon, generally referred to as the “criminalisation of the polity”, has degraded the Legislature and adversely affected its functioning.
The continuing shortcomings in the functioning of the Executive and the Legislature have thwarted rapid growth and development and the achievement of important nation building goals. Among the many shameful consequences of this failure: India ranks 129th among 189 countries in the Human Development Index, published by the United National Development Programme in 2019 Equally deplorable: India continues to retain an elevated position in the global ranking of the “most corrupt countries.” In the 2019 report of the Transparency International our country was at the 80th position among 180 countries listed under the Global Corruption Perception Index.
Besides corruption, which has ruined the very foundations of our society, growing inequality is another worrying challenge. While the ten fold increase in the per capita incomes achieved in the past years is an encouraging development, it cannot be ignored that, as per a recent assessment, one per cent of the richest in our country possess sixty per cent of the total national wealth of which only 2 % is owned by the entire bottom half of our population! Needless to stress, meaningful steps require to be taken to timely reduce the stark socio- economic disparities which exist today.
Every year the annual reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and of the Public Accounts Committees of the Parliament and the State Legislatures bring out substantive information about the manner in which scarce public funds, allocated for achieving important economic and human development goals, remain only partly spent or are mis-spent and even eaten up. It is indeed most regrettable that none of these reports have so far resulted in reducing corruption or sending the offenders to jails.
Social activist groups, NGOs and the media have been perennially exposing scandals and cases of corruption which involve political persons and public servants holding high positions. In many cases the higher courts have also been passing strictures against the concerned governmental agencies for their failure to investigate and prosecute those involved in serious cases of fraud, embezzlement and corruption. It is unfortunate that these various interventions have not so far led to deterring the corrupt and criminal elements.
Recurring failures in the functioning of the governmental apparatus, corruption, criminalisation of the polity and the unchecked enlargement of the “criminal nexus” could perhaps have been controlled and contained if the
Judiciary had remained intact and effective. Unfortunately, the functioning of the judicial system has also got grievously impaired, alongside the downward slide of the Executive and the Legislature. Interference in the functioning of the judicial framework, side by side with the politicisation of the state police organisations, has adversely affected the functioning of the entire system, particularly the effective delivery of criminal justice.