Time is once again projecting the luminance of another 15th August, the significance being that at this time around it is not just another day commemorative of India’s freedom from colonial hegemony but it also marks the 75th anniversary of that midnight hour in August 1947 when the spirit of a nation, brutally shackled for long, extricated itself towards life and freedom. Prior to the colonial invasions, the huge Indian subcontinent was a cluster of around six hundred kingdoms, mostly prosperous but politically weak, warring as they were among themselves with each trying to expand influence and widen territories. Divided against itself, the entire region became easy prey to external aggression; the imperial powers from outside exploited the situation; a few centuries of colonial rule left the country bereft of its wealth and in dire straits in all respects.
Born eight years later in 1955, I belong to the country’s post independence generation. A few years forward, I was into school from the early 1960s onwards. The day used to be celebrated at the school by hoisting the national flag, parades of senior students duly inspected by the Principal, followed by distribution of sweets. My turn to participate in the parade came several years later. Into senior classes, I was part of the parade line up in 1969. Being short of frame, I was among the front row and readily visible to the Principal who paced up to me in the course of inspecting the parade; and he asked me in a whispering tone, “how many years since India became independent?” Slightly nervous, I blurted out the figure of twenty two. Upon which, much to my relief, he graciously added, “remember we are celebrating the country’s 23rd Independence Day”, and peeled away.
At the national level, there was the customary speech by the then prime minister, enumerating the challenges and opportunities before the nation and governmental plans to lead the country on the path of progress.
Another milestone event in this context was in 1972, which was the silver jubilee year of Indian independence. I was an undergraduate in a college in Madras (now Chennai). The entire nation was ceremonially spruced up and illuminated in splendour befitting the silver August 15, with people all agog in the spirit of jubilation and festivities. For me, away from home in a distant place for the first time, it heralded a special feeling of liberation tempered by a greater sense of responsibility. Poised at that juncture, was the spirit of a young nation together with a teenager, with challenges to tackle and goals to be realised. Years rolled by, and another couple of decades and more slid by to take the nation to its golden jubilee year of 1996. By this time, I was steeped in my career years and stationed out of the country. As an expatriate, I missed the pomp and glory of India’s 50th Independence Day celebrations. Catching up on some of the excitement on TV was the only consolation.
The tone and tenor of the national day celebrations appear, of late, to be undergoing subtle changes. Until not too recent years, a significant number of people who lived through India’s freedom struggle, and the heady days of Mahatma Gandhi and other stalwarts, were still around in public life and other spheres of activity to convey a continuum of the emotions and throes of a nascent country and her fledgling years under a still inchoate democracy. These served as a beacon light illumining the path of others taking over the reins of government. For the past seven years, the country’s leadership predominantly consists of people of post 1947 vintage. As time passes, there will inevitably be no Indians around to present a direct connect to the year 1947, making it a challenge to preserve the relevance of 15th August for future generations. Retaining it as a solemn event of the state with hardly any people’s participation will serve little purpose.
The seventy fifth anniversary of independence, today, may be the ideal time to initiate the process to make it a truly people’s celebration. It may be an occasion to take stock of achievements and failures, and reevaluating the way forward. We have held together as a rambunctious democracy; yet, is the system actually facilitating progress at the desired pace? Or is it that the framework of democracy is in the hands of corrupt practitioners? And is the country suffering from a surfeit of democracy with endless discussions, stonewalling and dissent? True, the country has made fairly impressive strides over the last seven decades in poverty alleviation, attaining food security through higher agricultural production, development of industries and services, education and health care. Still, looming ahead is a vast distance that needs to be travelled, given the size of the country and the huge multitude of its people. Goals are to be broadened to accommodate newer economic and social vision to allow for nurturing young and aspirational India’s innovativeness, flair and talent through quality education and healthcare, building resilience with better preparedness for threats from vagaries of climate, natural disasters and pandemics; reforms in the agro sector to mandate farming practices that are environmentally sustainable and in consonance with requirements of changing dietary habits and lifestyles; comprehensive social security and insurance reaching out to all vulnerable sections of society. The potential of 1.38 Bn Indians points to a booming economy of USD 20 Tn GDP as compared to where it stands at the moment.
While pandemic concerns may be a dampener to celebrations this year, 15th August may well be programmed as a day when official spaces are made open to the public, a day when people are encouraged to wear miniature models of the national flag on their sleeves, promote neighbourhood camaraderie and merriment. The great diversity of India must be subsumed by the greater fervour of patriotism, resonating in the words of the poet “Bharatam ennu ketaal abhimaana pooritham aakanam antharangam”, meaning “the very name Bharat (India’s original name in Sanskrit, meaning the land of Bharata) must fill one’s inner self with pride”. Patriotism is not an exclusionary sentiment that sets up one’s own country and jettisons the rest. Patriotic zeal is an abiding love for the country into which one is born irrespective of its deficiencies and reflected in the act of courage and valour towards one’s country in times of war; it is upholding a sense of attachment to homeland and respecting the rights of other nationalities. It is defensive in nature, both militarily and culturally, in sharp contrast to nationalism and various shades thereof, which is inseparable from the desire for power. India’s ethos is based on Dharma, or the order that sustains. Further amplified as Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, meaning ‘the world is one family’, a Sanskrit phrase occurring at beginning of a verse in the Upanishad exhorting humankind to live in the consciousness of oneness, as an extended family drawing on shared resources, sans discrimination and affording equal opportunities. India’s integrity, despite its diversity and heterogeneity, is also a major inspiration for the countries of the EU, apart from their strategic interests, to stay together.
Across the next twenty five years, when the nation would be heading to its 100 year anniversary, India must metamorphose into an economic powerhouse of the 21st C and, more importantly, a happier and secure place for its citizens. The future generations of Indians must continue to joyously connect with the occasion and pride themselves on the glory of India as amply testified by Mark Twain,”India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most artistic materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”, and Romain Rolland, “If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India”, and Will Durant, “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”. Vande Mataram, Jai Hind…