Will India ever really change?

15th August 1947 India is finally an independent nation after hundreds of years of British rule.


India fights for freedom

The fight for freedom led by Mahatma Ghandi through direct non-violent action.


A national hero whose portrait can be found on every domination bank note and whose birthday is celebrated as a national holiday.
Ghandi successfully united a nation to fight for her own freedom, encouraged individuals to take responsibility and action, fought passionately for the rights of women and instilled a strong sense of national pride which is still hugely evident today.
The Ghandi museum in Madurai details the entire story from the arrival of the East India company to independence in 1947.  Its a fascinating place.  Admittedly at times I feel utterly ashamed to be British but its important (I think) to understand India’s history or at least part of it.
The most interesting thing for me is the direct comparison you can make from what is happening in India now and what was happening all those years ago.

31st December 1600 The East India Company receive a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I. The company’s shares owned by wealthy merchants and aristocrats with the government only having indirect control.
The company grew rapidly, at its peak accounting for half the worlds trade. By early 1700’s the company came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions.
The battle of Plassey in 1757 officially commenced the start of the Companies rule in India.
By the 1820’s, believed by historians to be the start of the British colonial rule, the company became involved in all aspects of India.
“India was then no longer exporting manufactured goods as it long had, but was instead supplying the British empire with raw materials, [to produce goods that would then be sold back to India]. By this time, with its economic power severely curtailed by the British parliament and itself effectively made an arm of British administration, the Company began to more consciously enter non-economic arenas such as education, social reform, and culture.”
Lord Dalhousie was appointed as governor general of the East India Company and set the stage for changes essential to a modern state.  These included the consolidation and demarcation of sovereignty, the surveillance of the population, and the education of citizens.
Technological changes—among them, railways, canals, and the telegraph—were introduced not long after their introduction in Europe.

Impact of the west

This was the positive stuff that British brought and interestingly things that Indians will still proudly quote at you today.
These things totally changed India.  Suddenly people had greater opportunities to travel, access to news and resources from all over the world. It opened peoples minds to possibilities.
Indians themselves encouraged each other to think beyond their immediate surroundings, to open their minds to new ways and new cultures.

Frog in the well

However, disaffection with the British also grew at this time. Indians wanted to do this for themselves not have another country (so vastly different on every level) dictating and controlling this for them.
India was beginning to witness invasive British-style social reforms, harsh land taxes which left many people unable to survive from the land that they worked, the introduction of laws based on British religious beliefs (Christianity) and summary treatment of some rich landowners and princes.  India was no longer a country of its own.
“To his supporters [Lord Dalhousie] he stands out as the far-sighted Governor-General who consolidated East India Company rule in India, laid the foundations of its later administration, and by his sound policy enabled his successors to stem the tide of rebellion. To his critics, he stands out as the destroyer of both the East India Company‘s financial and military position through reckless policies. His critics also hold that he laid the foundations of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and led the final transformation of profitable commercial operations in India into a money-losing colonial administration. His period of rule in India directly preceded the transformation into the Victorian Raj period of Indian administration. He was denounced by many in England and India on the eve of his death as having failed to notice the signs of the brewing Indian Rebellion of 1857, having aggravated the crisis by his overbearing self-confidence, centralizing activity, and expansive annexations.The Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown to assume direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj.  Britains wealth was increasing rapidly through the exploitation of India’s resources and the formation of the ‘British Raj’ only sought to consolidate this further.”

John Sullivan

Not every British Raj officer entirely supported the work of the Raj and its treatment of India and its people.
Organisation of political leaders
But it would take an Indian, someone, people from every caste, village and town could relate to, not just someone who associated with the rich and influential.


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, born on 2nd October 1869
“Born and raised in a Hindu merchant caste family in coastal Gujarat, western India, and trained in law at the Inner Temple, London, Gandhi first employed nonviolent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, in the resident Indian community’s struggle for civil rights. After his return to India in 1915, he set about organising peasants, farmers, and urban labourers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination.”



“Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, but above all for achieving Swaraj or self-rule. Independence resulted in a new India.”
Indians finally in control of her destiny and the responsibility of all her people to retain this new found freedom. It was a long fought battle that was not just about regaining possession of the land but about changing a mindset of the people, giving them belief that things could be done.
Ghandi’s vision was clear.
Freedom, choice and equality for all Indians.
In 1947 this was finally achieved.


“In the 60 years since, India has had a mixed record of successes and failures.  It has remained a democracy with civil liberties, an active Supreme Court, and a largely independent press. Economic liberalisation, which was begun in the 1990s, has created a large urban middle class, transformed India into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and increased its geopolitical clout. Indian movies, music, and spiritual teachings play an increasing role in global culture. Yet, India is also shaped by seemingly unyielding poverty, both rural and urban; by religious and caste-related violence; by Maoist-inspired Naxalite insurgencies; and by separatism in Jammu and Kashmir and in Northeast India.  India’s sustained democratic freedoms are unique among the world’s new nations; however, in spite of its recent economic successes, freedom from want for its disadvantaged population remains a goal yet to be achieved.”
In the 18 months that I have been in India and the 2 and half years since I first came to this remarkable country, India has been in the media spotlight more times than I can ever remember.  Some of it positive but sadly some of it highlighting to the world some of the major cultural, societal battles India continues to have with herself and her people.
Neither of these cases made worldwide headlines, one of them was reported on BBC India page but the other just in local and national press.  
The first news article is not unique and perhaps explains why it did not make headline news. Incidences like this happen on a daily basis in India but not all of them reported in the media.

“Family problems over the last 3 days is suspected !

Karuppayi aged approx 31, working at Nagayapuram police station, new T Kallupati, Madurai, Tamil Nadu committed suicide by shooting herself with a revolver found in the police station
It is understood that she is married Mr. Pethannaswamy a relative in 2007 and has no surviving children from the wedlock. (two children born to the couple died and there are no more children)
The Husband who was employed in the armed services @ Secunderabad for the last 13 years, is now at home last four months without attending duty
Karuppayi had be posted to the above police station since last year January. On the fateful night, Karuppayi was on night duty at the police station . It is alleged that she called another policeman Mr. Sathyamurthy in the night and said she was having matrimonial problems and was going to commit suicide. A shocked Sathyamurthy called other police personnel and informed them. They in turn informed the panchayat / municipality officer to visit the police station and check. When checked Karupayi was lying dead in a pool of blood inside the police station. It is suspected that she opened the locker in the station took out a revolver and shot herself on the temple.
The Superintendent of police has said “it is understood that she has committed suicide due to family problems”, “we will decide on taking action on the husband”

Layman and Laws, wordpress blog, daily achives.

A major part of Ghandi crusade for freedom focused heavily on the empowerment of women.

Women in India

It seems not much has changed in the last 60 years.  Everyday in the papers you read articles about women being attacked, assaulted, undermined and treated like second class citizens.
Successful women are often critised, not admired or held up as positive role models.

Most women are told what they can’t do rather than what they can do and as this article demonstrates, even for those in a career, in a senior position, they are still completely fearful of doing things for themselves. Society would have outcasted this police office if she had chosen to leave her husband, she would have been entirely blamed for the failure of the marriage.

Bangalore man arrested for being gay

It is currently illegal to be gay in India. In November 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that homosexuality was illegal and anyone convicted of homosexual acts could face a lifetime in prison.
Its known across the country as section 377.
Section 377 of laws the British introduced 153 years ago.
There have been few arrests in the last decade but a recent case involving a man from Bangalore not only highlights the real risk to gay people in India but the outdated societal beliefs and views.
The most interesting part of this article (I think) is this quote below.
“Dr Vivek Benegal, Professor of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), is not surprised by this case.
“There are many people who are still being forced to marry because of social pressure. Society really did not give him a choice,” he said.
“The man cannot be blamed. Neither can the woman be blamed. We can
only blame the social structure. They have been forced to formalise a lie.”
Dr Benegal added: “It is so tragic that in an era when science has proved that sexual orientation is not a vice, society should be forcing zebras to be horses.”

BBC, India news

The challenge here isn’t just about the legalities of homosexuality but also a cultural one. The man forced to marry even though is parents knew he was gay!
Not dissimilar to the UK even just 15 years back when people were completely disowned by families and friends, treated as social outcasts. Of course this still happens in the UK now too but attitudes have shifted significantly.
Weirdly Madurai, a city just 150km from here hosted the first gay pride festival for South Asia in 2012. Two years later someone is being arrested.
Both have happened in the last few months. Two stories of hundreds that happen on a daily basis.

India’s battle for freedom is far more complex right now than 60 years ago.  The fight against the British Raj was about indepedence and freedom from another country and culture.  Right now it is a battle with herself, changing the mindset of 1.2billion people. Shifting ingrained, long standing cultural values, beliefs and fears to a country that is has people who are liberated and empowered.
So what will it take to truly modernise and change India?

26th May 2014 following a landslide victory for the BJP party President Narendra Modi is sworn in as India’s 15th prime minister.
The first prime minister to be born after independence.
It is widely acknowledged that Modi’s use of social media as his primary campaign tool was pivotal to his victory.
In fact his victory tweet is the most re-tweeted in India over 70,000 times!
He talks passionately about womens empowerment, greater freedom for India’s people, encouragement of individuals to take responsibility to change India for the better and finally remove bribery and corruption.  Sound familiar?
Modi’s major focus is about people doing things for themselves, not waiting for government to put policies in place.  Sound familiar?
Modi talks passionately about womens empowerment, huge pride in his daughters achievements and a real desire to ensure women in India have equal status and opportunity to men.  Again, sound familiar?
He has already taken steps towards this, investing huge amounts of money to ensure every household has a toilet. Might seem a strange policy decision to westerners but the fact remains that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted when trekking out to open fields to go to the toilet.
He has also brought the law and those accused of rape and sexual assault to the fore. This issue has once again become widely discussed, whether any action will happen is yet to be seen.
Positive steps and signs that things may change.
Worringly the BJP (now ruling party) were the only one of the major parties not to support gay rights and support the de-criminalisation of section 377.
The 3 other major parties all included something in their manifestos in support of gay rights.
Clearly an issue for the current government that is way down the priority list right now.
Perhaps India could be waiting a long time for this to change?
Modi’s policies all sound good but how many people are brave enough to actually make change happen for themselves?  How many people will continue to just wait for a policy change in government or a change in law to do what is right for them?
Everything is slow progress in India.  It takes an eternity for even the basic things to be put in place. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency anywhere and perhaps this isn’t a bad thing?
But when I speak to people they all talk about the same thing.
Greater freedom, greater choice.
People are quick to complain about the cultural restrictions that hold them back, religious values that keep them confined to a particular set of behaviours.
Few truly follow their hearts and battle against the inevitable criticism they receive if they ‘do what they want’.
It seems (and this is purely perception) that everyone is waiting for someone else to be bold enough to break the norm, to challenge convention and create a new Indian culture that everyone wants.
The exceptions to this are few and far between.
Thankfully for me two people who I regard as very good friends, two Indian women, Raisa and Swathi are the complete exception to this.

Raisa & Swathi

It is no surprise I have ended up working with Silo India.
Silo India a company set up and managed by an Indian woman, who had a love marriage and isn’t afraid to challenge convention.  I will often joke with Swathi that she is not really Indian, not a greater lover of the food and the heat, you have to wonder.
But its much more than this.
Its the complete acceptance of anyone’s beliefs, cultural values and religious practices.  You might say essential if you are going to accept volunteers from all over the world but even in the UK where there is such of mix of race, religion, culture and lifestyles not everyone is that accepting.
In the UK or the west it does not seem unusual for a woman to run a business but to do this in India is like a woman doing this in the UK in the 1920’s, a time when women were largely expected to be home makers, child bearers and opinions never mind actions pretty much ignored.
If you read my post ‘freedom and choice’ you will understand the real challenges faced by women in India.
One of the managers at Silo India, Raisa.  Again an Indian woman defying convention.
An Indian woman who refuses to bow to the conventions of arranged marriage, refuses to give up her career because of her families expectations.
Chatting to Raisa recently she told me that the mentality amongst society is that women can not live without a husband.  I was a little shocked at first to hear this but when I thought about the expectations society has of its women it didn’t really surprise me.
Very bold to follow your heart and refuse to accept this attitude for yourself.
Perhaps this will embarrass Raisa but this is nothing I’ve not said to her before. Meeting her literally changed my life.  If I hadn’t of met Raisa and if it wasn’t for her openness and want to challenge conformity in India I wouldn’t of met Swathi.  Ok the bag of sports equipment saga wouldn’t have happened either, but it did, which led to Vi-Ability undertaking a business trip to India, to Vi-Ability securing funding to send out international volunteers.
Of course it wasn’t simply meeting Raisa that led to all this, it was her and Swathi’s drive to make this happen.
Two people who have totally ignored the ‘conventions’ ‘traditions’ ‘expectations’ of Indian women and followed their hearts.
Over the 16 months I’ve known Raisa I’ve seen (at times) how tough this has been, the upset its caused her and her strength to stick to what she believes.  It’s never good to see a good friend so upset but I can’t deny that seeing someone so determined is a real inspiration to be around.

Of course I have my days when I think, why oh why oh why?
Are things really going to change?
Are we making a difference?
But then I look back at the last 6 months and I can honestly say yes.
Since August we’ve had volunteers here.  Silo India has grown hugely and we can now say that young peoples lives are being changed for the better.
Suddenly kids that would never have thought of life outside of their village have had their eyes opened to something different, their minds opened to possibilities and a belief that that they can choose to follow their hearts.

Now the question is not why? but why not?

Boys at the hostel now regularly say ‘in 10 years time I am coming to Wales’.  Ok Wales isn’t exactly on the ‘bucket list’ for people of places to travel but its the aspiration to want to do that thats impressive!
I’m sure the next 6 months we will see even bigger changes.  
In the meantime perhaps president Modi should exemplify Swathi, Raisa and some of the local people here as Indians that are taking it upon themselves to positively change the country.
Perhaps like me other people will also be inspired to confront their fears about doing something different and do it?
Perhaps we will see the change in India that is much needed?