Thursday, August 15, 2013

15th August: A Wish

'Happy Independence Day' is a new kind of wish, which may neither denote too much happiness nor independence. But chanting this may remind us of its exact opposite - that we were 'dependent' once - and that, one may hope, should remind us to strive harder and protect the Independence. This is needed because that state of servitude is a distant memory: Not many of us have known that state and what that may mean. Such vacuousness is easily demonstrated in the text and social media messages congratulating each other for Independence Day, but this has a more sinister effect as well.

Take, for example, the current blockbuster joke, initiated by one prominent politician: 'One Dollar used to be equivalent to one rupee on 15th August, 1947; it is now equivalent to the Finance Minister's Age'. This statement has all the qualities of being nominated as the Joke of the Year in a Comedy competition, and would be hilarious if it came from a Comedian. However, coming from the politician who is seen by the Middle Classes as the Messiah and a future Prime Ministerial candidate, this illustrates the point I wanted to make. On 15th August 1947, India had no external debt, because the Indian government did nothing. It was not just equivalent to one dollar, it would have been equivalent to any existing currency in the world if one wished to: It was being born, and like a newborn, had no follies. But it was also dependent: The artificial equivalence was only willed to get it started. Such naivete sells well in India, Hindi movies being a good example, but soon this may inform policy-making, which is indeed a terrifying prospect.
 
The second problem with this statement is the reference to the Finance Minister's age. The Finance Minister is quite young by Indian standards, but the politician was still bringing up the point of age apparently to mock his elder opponents, both in his own party and others. This is a deeply subversive statement about 'we don't need older people anymore'. In that sense, this is representative of street sentiments in India, an young, impatient country, desperate to break into the world, suffering from all the acne and insecurity of young adulthood. This is indeed the mindset that makes the Independence Day a happy occassion.

Here is an alternative script to this Rupee-Dollar conundrum: 15th August 1947 was a deeply unhappy day; we have now made it into a 'Happy Independence Day'. [This could indeed be a slogan for the Congress Party, which will be equally misdirected] Indeed, the popular imagination of that day is somewhat like the one seen in the video that follows, showed in thousands of Cinema Halls for the next half century.


However, there could be another view. Amid all the celebrations and tributes being paid to his leadership, Gandhi was sitting in Kolkata, in a dilapidated house in Beliaghata, distraught, defeated. He did not raise the Indian flag that morning, he did not celebrate (and certainly did not post on Facebook). His feelings were perhaps like the one captured in this timeless poem, which I come back to every 15th of August:




Ye daagh daagh ujaalaa, ye shab-gaziida sahar,
Vo intizaar thaa jis-kaa, ye vo sahar to nahiiN,
Ye vo sahar to nahiiN jis-kii aarzu lekar
Chale the yaar ke mil-ja`egi kahiiN na kahiN 

(This stain-covered daybreak, this night-bitten dawn,
This is not that dawn of which there was expectation;
This is not that dawn with longing for which
The friends set out, (convinced) that somewhere there we met with)

- Freedom's Dawn, Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Sitting today, it is easy to imagine what the celebrating crowd on 15th August 1947 would have thought of people like Gandhi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz: They are old and grumpy and disconnected with the young nation. But this would be a mistake: Because most people that time would have been rising from the terrible devastation of the partition, having lost loved ones and all possessions, and their celebration, one would imagine, would have been muted by sentiments shared by Gandhi and Faiz. 

Gandhi's brooding mood may have been influenced by another feeling that would be hard to imagine today: That freedom is a responsibility. Having worked for it for most of his life, and having arrived at the dawn of deliverance which looked very different from the expected glory, he would have thought, as he would say later when he arrived in Delhi, 'A worthy enterprise carries its own blessing. On the other hand, if an unworthy project receives any blessings from outside, it becomes, as it should become, a curse.' His thoughts about what to do with Independent India would soon start to take shape, and he would write this a day before he was assassinated:

"(T)he Congress in present shape and form, i.e., as a propaganda vehicle and a parliamentary machine, has outlived its use. India has still to attain its social, moral and economic independence.. It must be kept out of unhealthy competition with political parties and communal bodies.. For this reason, the AICC seeks to disband itself.."

This was indeed not the victory mood but deep reflection, not power grab but its repudiation, informed by a sense of responsibility rather than a sense of entitlement. 

Without sounding out of touch, and indeed old, my wish for the Independence Day will be to rediscover this spirit of responsibility; the understanding that freedom is a precious thing to work for; and that our privileges are not to taken for granted. I don't mind sending out text messages - 'Wish You A Sombre Independence Day. Wish that we recognize the sacrifices that got us here, and carry out our responsibilities as every citizen must'. For me, I wouldn't want to go back to the day when we were dependent and one Rupee equalled one Dollar: I would rather reflect, and celebrate through reflection, all our achievements despite all our follies.

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