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75 years after leaving British rule, India's democracy is on the line

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today marks 75 years since India emerged from British rule. That freedom began with bloodshed, the partition of Colonial India into two new nations and mass migration across their shared border. Now, India has become the world's largest democracy. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Seventy-five years ago, India had what its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, famously called a tryst with destiny.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAWAHARLAL NEHRU: At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to light and freedom.

FRAYER: Colonial India awoke to become two free nations - Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims and India envisioned by Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and its other founders as a secular republic with a Hindu majority. That religious divide sparked violence, though. More than a million people were killed, says historian Tanika Sarkar.

TANIKA SARKAR: It's true that India got this great gift of democracy, but the way partition came about through unimaginable violence - not inflicted by the British this time, but by Indians against each other - that cast a very long shadow.

FRAYER: Gandhi's biographer, Ramachandra Guha, says over the decades, people said India was too big or too diverse or too poor for democracy to last.

RAMACHANDRA GUHA: There were periodic obituaries written for India, you know, that India would break up and balkanize; it would come under a military dictatorship; there would be large-scale famine. None of that has happened.

FRAYER: Instead, India today celebrated a festival of democracy...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in non-English language).

FRAYER: ...Raising the tricolor flag over Delhi's 17th century red fort while a military band played the national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF RABINDRANATH TAGORE'S "JANA GANA MANA")

FRAYER: In a televised speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called India inherently democratic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: The mother of all democracies, he said.

SARKAR: But whether it's a healthy democracy, that's another matter altogether.

FRAYER: Sarkar, the historian, says India has fallen in global democracy indices in recent years. Modi's Hindu nationalist government has eroded the free press, politicized the civil service, co-opted the judiciary and treated some 200 million Muslims, the country's largest minority, as second-class citizens. India does have one of the world's fastest growing economies. Life expectancy at the time of independence was around 37. Now it's nearly double that, Sarkar notes.

SARKAR: The standards of living for the poorest have improved over the years, but not as much as it should have been. There is mass illiteracy. Wealth is highly concentrated.

FRAYER: Modi is nevertheless one of the most popular prime ministers in Indian history. He's a Hindu nationalist who has brought faith into politics in a way that many voters like. Romila Thapar is sort of the grand dame of Indian historians. She's 90, so she remembers when India won its freedom in 1947 and recalls how nationalism back then wasn't a bad thing.

ROMILA THAPAR: What did nationalism mean to us soon after independence? It meant secularism, democracy and the concept of a nation-state. Religion was not to interfere in politics. It has done so.

FRAYER: Religion is back in Indian politics, she says. And considering what happened at partition 75 years ago, that makes some Indians nervous.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.