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Polishing the crown jewel

International | On the 50th anniversary of India's independence from Britain, think gospel-not Gandhi

Issue: "Dirty little secret," Aug. 23, 1997

When India's prime minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, raised a tri-colored flag over Red Fort Aug. 15, it began a year-long celebration ripe with symbols. Like the stars and stripes over Ft. McHenry, the unfurling of India's green, saffron, and white standard is a traditional reminder of independence from Great Britain.

Indian independence turned 50 last week. It's a milestone marked with children parading in the streets of New Delhi and Bombay. Banners proclaim the slogans of India's fight for freedom in a dozen of the country's more than 1,500 languages.

Genuflection to Mahatma Gandhi will be the order of the day. The mythology surrounding India's "father of independence" runs as deep as ever, but 50 years later it is no easier to pacify this nation of disparate religious cultures.

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A poll released on the eve of celebration found that more than one-third of Indians expect their country to break apart into smaller nations in the future. Daily headlines explain why: Tribal guerrillas in Bodo killed 11 last week; a revolt against lower castes in Bombay led to rioting that killed 12 last month; in the state of Bihar, Hindus attacked a gospel meeting in July, killing Christian evangelist Mangal Pande and seriously injuring five others.

These incidents play over the backdrop of longstanding battles between Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab; between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir; and in the perennial oppression of the dalits, or untouchables, a group that includes many Christians. The warfare led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by Tamil militants; to Indira Gandhi's death at the hands of her own Sikh bodyguard in 1984; and to the killing in 1948 of Mahatma Gandhi by fellow Hindus less than six months after India's post-colonial flag first flew over Red Fort. How can the bloodletting exist in a political era that began with a pacifist for a founding father?

"Gandhi had nothing to do with the democratization of India," says Vishal Mangalwadi. "Gandhi took Christian ideas and clothed them with Hindu symbols, but what we are finding is that nations cannot be built on symbols." Nations need Christ, according to Mr. Mangalwadi's new book, India: The Grand Experiment. Mr. Mangalwadi is an author and lecturer who has worked with India's lowest castes in central Madhya Pradesh (see sidebar). He spoke with WORLD during a speaking tour in the United States.

India's ongoing struggles can be traced to accepting the form of Western democracy without buying into the Christian substance at its core, he writes. The book traces the work of evangelical reformers stretching back to William Wilberforce, whose Clapham Sect tried to establish a biblical basis for colonialism in 19th-century India. It pressed to reform the mercenary rule of the British East India Company, establish a system of education headed by clergymen, and send missionaries. The aim was conversion and the preparation of India for "happiness and independence," according to Clapham member Charles Trevelyan.

But British rule, which Mr. Mangalwadi calls post-Christian even at the time of the Raj, was ultimately controlled by secularists. Upon independence in 1947, Christian truths vaporized into the Hindu-Sikh-Muslim-Christian miasma espoused by Mr. Gandhi. He promoted handweaving in a country already dependent on mass production of textiles. His personal diet would exacerbate mass starvation, and his "simple" lifestyle provoked this aphorism from an associate: "It costs a great deal of money to keep Gandhiji living in poverty."

"India's present decline stems from the assumption that human beings are capable, without God, of creating and sustaining a free social order for themselves," writes Mr. Mangalwadi. He says political corruption feeds violence as well as poverty.

The Economist excludes India from this year's survey of the 30 most attractive nations for global investors; it is too corrupt for safe investment. Politicians symbolize the country's weaknesses, and none more prominently than Laloo Prasad Yadav. Until scandal engulfed him in late July, he was chief minister of the state of Bihar and president of the Janata Dal, the prime minister's political faction. Indicted in a $280 million embezzlement scandal known as "Fodder Scam," Mr. Yadav resigned July 25. He appointed Rabri Devi, his wife, a mother of nine with no formal education, to succeed him as head of one of India's largest states. She quickly expanded her cabinet to a breathtaking 75 ministers in a bold-faced attempt to keep many of her husband's supporters happy.

"Bihar governor A.R. Kidwai had the look of a marathon runner just past the finish line after he administered the oath of office and secrecy to 61 new ministers," the Indian Express said in a front-page article with the sassy headline, "Rabri Devi installs mother of all ministries in Bihar."

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