ON Aug. 15, 1947, a major event occurred. India, crown jewel of the British Empire and largest colonial territory in the world, became independent. The transition to independence was not smooth or peaceful. The British, who had been holding back the inevitable for 40 years, rushed to independence a year ahead of schedule. They were unable to prevent the bloodshed that preceded and followed independence and the Indian-Pakistani partition.
India was immediately beset by communal violence between Muslims, the majority in newly created Pakistan, and Hindus, who were the majority in India. Millions were killed and millions more became refugees, migrating each way across the border as centuries-old cultural and religious animosities erupted. Yet today, although constituting only 11 percent or so of India's population, Muslims number close to 80 million in this essentially Hindu state.
As if this were not diversity enough, imagine trying to govern a nation with 14 major language groups recognized by the Constitution. While the official language is English, the colonial tongue, there are some 1,600 local dialects. Conversation, let alone governing, is incredibly difficult. Decentralized administration is mandatory to get anything done in such an environment. But the federal government must also be kept strong so as not to allow the existing centrifugal tendencies to tear the society apart.
In the years since independence, India has fought several wars with its neighbors. In 1947-49 and in 1965 it battled with Pakistan; in 1962, with China to the north over the border area of Ladakh; and in 1971, with Pakistan again over the secession of Bangladesh. India has endured the cold war rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, and under former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru founded the the nonaligned movement. India has managed to keep reasonably good relations with both superpowers, despite wars with the allies of each.
And despite some flirtation with rule by decree in the mid-1970s, the country remains a democratic political system with a largely capitalist economy, surviving - even improving - against tremendous odds. Two-thirds of the population is illiterate; voters cast ballots by symbols rather than by reading words.
A major problem at the moment is the political violence stemming from parts of the Sikh community which is demanding political autonomy. A high percentage of India's military officers, many politicians, and a number of its more successful farmers and businessmen are Sikhs, a religious minority constituting about 2 percent of the population. Yet, despite the recent political agitation, the country continues to function.
India is the site of one of the world's most successful agricultural experiments. By its green revolution India has demonstrated that high-tech agriculture, relying on hybrid seeds, intensive irrigation, and fertilization, can produce dramatically higher yields in a variety of crops. Starvation, once common, is now rare. In 20 years India has changed from a net importer of wheat to a net exporter.
True, the anomalies in the society are great. An American visitor may lunch at the fashionable Gymkhana Club, live in air-conditioned splendor in New Delhi with the Indian elite, and enjoy all the high-tech conveniences known to man. Days later the same visitor may lurch over country roads in a bullock cart seeking nonexistent medical attention, attempting to communicate in the official language - English - which can't be understood. A country that has demonstrated the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons and put satellites in space also has a per capita national income of $240, rampant child labor abuse, and millions of homeless who exist on the scraps they get from begging.
Yet, the marvel persists. The wonder is not that there are so many problems in India, but that it exists as a country, a society, a political system, or an economy at all.
To most states and peoples, India is of greater significance than the superpowers. It has faced the same challenges and succeeded, not in another century or with radical ideologies, but here and now.
India has proved that what we in the West take to be poor, backward countries burdened by overpopulation, illiteracy, tremendous health problems, and linguistic and cultural diversity unknown in the West can exist and prosper in spite of it all.
Happy birthday, India - and many happy returns!
Grant T. Hammond is chairman of the Department of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.