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India is celebrating 75 years of independence from Britain

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Seventy-five years ago today, India took its independence from the British Empire. The country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, called it a tryst with destiny.

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

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: Independence began with calamity. Britain partitioned India into two nations - Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. Millions of Hindus and Muslims fled or were forced to cross the new border, and many people killed their neighbors. But today, India is often called the world's biggest democracy, soon to overtake China as the world's most populous country. And NPR's Lauren Frayer covers it from Mumbai.

Hey there, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How are people marking the holiday?

FRAYER: Well, it's torrential monsoon rains where I am. But nevertheless, all the homes, cars, even rickshaws and tea stalls are just festooned with Indian flags. It's a day off work and school for Indians, and families gather around their televisions to watch this celebration at Delhi's 17th-century Red Fort. It started with a military salute. A marching band played the national anthem. They released balloons in the colors of the Indian tricolor flag. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a speech celebrating democracy.

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PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: Mother of democracy.

FRAYER: Modi called India the mother of democracy. You know, obituaries have been written time and time again for Indian democracy. People said India was too big; it was too diverse; it was too poor of a country; it would never work. There were predictions of widespread famine, of military dictatorship. And none of that happened. India proved the world wrong. And so that's what people are celebrating today. There are also, though, some real questions about the future health of democracy here.

INSKEEP: And criticism of Narendra Modi, even though he's extremely popular - what is the criticism?

FRAYER: Yeah. I mean, he is one of the most popular prime ministers in Indian history - one of the most popular - you know, highest approval ratings of any leader in the world right now. He is a Hindu nationalist, and he has brought his Hindu faith into politics in a way that critics say discriminates against minorities. I asked Ramachandra Guha - he is Mahatma Gandhi's biographer - and he said that Indian democracy is in decline under Modi, and he gave three reasons.

RAMACHANDRA GUHA: One is the curbs on a free press, the malfunctioning of parliament, the politicization of the civil services. Reason number two would be increasing demonization of our largest minority. Our social and political climate has been contaminated by religious majoritarianism. And finally, this cult of personality.

FRAYER: And that minority that he mentioned are Muslims. India has one of the biggest Muslim communities in the world, but their future is pretty uncertain as Modi's Hindu nationalists erode secularism in this country.

INSKEEP: Well, that reminds us of the partition between a Hindu-majority nation and a Muslim-majority nation 75 years ago. How do people think about that legacy now?

FRAYER: There are deep wounds that remain here. It was one - partition was one of the biggest mass migrations in human history. You know, there are survivors still alive in their 80s and 90s, and they have this trauma. They carry that with them. It reverberates through families here. India and Pakistan remain on a war footing. And so today, it is a celebration of democracy, but it's also a remembrance and mourning and a resolve not to have that bloodshed ever happen again.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Mumbai. Lauren, thanks as always for your insights.

FRAYER: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "HELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.