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Friday, 12 August 2011

Looking back -- 64 years of independence

A memoir: of self and sovereignty

I am a child of the sixties. I grew up in a country that still had vestiges of Nehruvian idealism and traces of the self-sufficient self-assurance that helped win its freedom. Universities and colleges were deemed temples of modern India. Thrift and industry were laudable qualities as was self-reliance and economy. Parents believed education, not religion, was the great leveler. A handful of Lohiawadis still lurked and socialism expressed itself in ways both spartan and sudden. The economy was sheltered and the Great Indian Middle Class was waiting to take wing and emerge chrysalis-like as the Big Spenders of the 21st century.

Independent India is only 16 years older than I am. You can say we grew up together or, at the very least, I have some fond memories of a still-young, gauche country, still marked by simplicity, still touched by the bloom of innocence. While I missed the first flush of exuberant nation-building of the fifties, the stories of great courage and strength of the first generation of pioneering men and women were brought vividly alive when narrated by parents and older relatives. I was old enough, however, to get infected by the spirit of the times captured brilliantly on film by some idealistic Hindi film makers and brought liltingly to life by ‘progressive’ film lyricists such as Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi. The radio, blaring from every panwadi and kirana store, played songs from the popular cinema eulogizing all that was best about a sovereign, socialist, secular republic: Saathi haath badhana, Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega, bachon tum taqdeer ho kal ke Hindustan kii, Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain, and countless others. I can recall just as well the black and white documentaries produced by the Films Division of India which portrayed the nation’s history-in-the-making in drab monochrome through de rigeur screenings in every big and small cinema hall in every big and small Indian town.

I can also recall the thrift and economy of my childhood. You shut the tap while brushing your teeth because there were people who trekked miles to fetch a pot of water in places not too far from our home in New Delhi, we were told sternly. You switched off the lights and fan before leaving a room because, as our parents never failed to remind us, there were villages that had no electricity where people spent their evenings in lamp light. And you always, no matter what, finished what was on your plate because there was someone going hungry in some part of the country, virtually as one spoke.

If you went looking for toothpaste, you could choose from one of maybe three brands. So also with soaps, shampoos, shoes, and most other commodities. There was no rationing or shortages, except during the wars, in 1963 (which I don’t remember) and 1971 (which I do remember for the austerity drives practiced in middle-class Indian homes behind the recycled brown paper pasted on window panes for fear of air strikes). Most goods were plentifully available, though there were fewer brands and even less brand consciousness. And everything was ‘Made in India’. On the roads of Delhi, the city I came to live in when I was four years old, one saw the lumbering Ambassador or the marginally niftier Fiats, the broad-bellied DTC buses carrying advertisements for Nirodh on their rear and telling us that a small family was a happy family, and phat-phatiyas mounted on World War II vintage mobikes driven by burly sardars. And, of course, there were the tongas, ekkas, bail-gadis, cycle-rickshaws and bicycles which far-outnumbered the four-wheel drives. One saw them everywhere, even in Connaught Place which seemed intimidatingly modern back then.

It is of these years, the good old days as one would call them, that I am reminded as yet another Independence Day approaches and India celebrates its 64th year of independence. The country that began its tryst with destiny as a sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic has come a long, long way. The shiny optimism of the early days soon gave way to a hard-eyed realism as we coped with excess in every imaginable sphere – escalating population, rising inflation, and ever-widening rift between the haves and have-nots. A slew of legislatures were introduced over the years to address pressing issues of food scarcity, hunger, poverty, unemployment and graft as also land use, rights of minorities, tribals and dalits. While several government schemes have been designed with the express purpose of generating livelihoods, such as the Mahatama Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme (MGREGA), the lot of the rural poor remains a cause for national shame and the numbers for those living Below the Poverty Line (BPL) continue to be horrifically large.

The great pity, to my mind, seems to be that even after six decades of independence we have still not bridged the chasm between the Two Indias: the urban and the rural India, the rich and the poor India, the developed and the under-developed India, the affluent and the marginalized India. In fact, it is shocking the way urban Indians have ceased to care about the less-affluent, those who occupy the bottom rungs of the socio-economic pyramid or those who are so disempowered and disenfranchised as to be rendered practically invisible. The blithe spirit of market economics is so blasé that a great majority of the urban middle class now thinks it is best not to acknowledge the dark under belly of Shining India.

Socialism – once such a pillar of the Nehruvian era – began to leach out from the fabric of Indian life and polity during the early days of License Raj; the privatization of the seventies and the opening up of the economy in the eighties simply drove the last nail in its coffin. The secularism survives, frayed and patched from time to time though it is but serviceable nonetheless, and if not exactly a role model than certainly better than the template adopted by, say, France or Turkey or Algeria. Moreover, the checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution ensure that our secular fabric is periodically repaired, its rents stitched up and its holes darned and plugged. The sovereignty, however, remains – unblemished, unchallenged and largely unexamined. It is this singular quality of nationhood that I believe we need to celebrate today on the eve of the 64th Independence Day.

Incarcerated in the trumped-up Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, Faiz Ahmed Faiz had voiced the angst of an entire generation – and not confined to his side of the border -- when he had written the following lines from inside his prison cell in 1953:
            Yeh daagh-daagh ujala yeh shab-gazida seher
            Yeh woh seher to nahi tha intezar jiska

While it is true that the night-bitten dawn that came after the long night of partition was indeed not the dawn that many, like Faiz, had dreamt of. It is also true that India and Pakistan chose to chart different trajectories in that moment of patchy light. We in India chose to set off on a path of constitutional democracy while our neighbour and conjoined twin ran aground in the muddy waters of self-determination. Sixty-four years later we in India have still not redeemed our pledge when India awoke to freedom in full or ample measure, but we can say with some satisfaction that we have indeed been true to the notion of sovereignty. We have tested it again and again and found it not fool’s gold but the real thing. The absoluteness that comes from sovereignty has been our touchstone.

There have always been groups within the larger Indian polity that have understood and interpreted sovereignty in different ways. While the Sangh Parivar has viewed the rashtra or nation through the prism of Hindu nationalism, the left parties have claimed the right of self-determination to be the only true principle of sovereignty. But the only definition of sovereignty that has survived 64 tumultuous years of nationhood has been the one that acknowledges that sovereign power rests with the people, individually and collectively. For all our hits and misses, gains and losses, bugbears and blots  possibly the only reason to cheer as yet another 15th of August dawns, is the continuing survival of democracy in our part of the world.

(This article was first published in The Friday Times, Lahore, 12 August 2011)

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