30 August 2014

On India, Independence, and Indian Independence

EDIT (November 2, 2014): This is worth a read: http://www.firstpost.com/india/sniggering-at-modi-deriding-ganesha-remark-misses-the-elephant-in-the-room-1778305.html

<not my age to be preachy, and definitely not my place to be cynical>


This month, we completed our 67th year as an independent nation, celebrating 67 years of a tryst with destiny that we substantially set to fulfill. On Independence Day, our collective skepticism and moral disdain reaches amazing levels, each layered within the other. It’s deeply meta. We sing praises of an era long gone by. We claim an Indian origin in everything that the world is grateful for. We talk about how we’re not truly free. We talk about how cliched it is to talk about how we’re not truly free. We talk about how we never walk the talk, and then talk about how we are not talking about the right things. We mourn how we are occasionally patriotic, and then pity how we are patriotic on occasion.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to express opinions about collective opinions. One more layer won’t hurt now, will it?

For starters, we need to stop staking Indian origin on everything good. You know, it is okay for something nice to not have an Indian hand, or for something revolutionary to not first be done by us. I’m not saying it is wrong to claim credit where it is deserved; we just need to know when to stop being ridiculous. So when you are talking about Gandhi, the movie, celebrating the fact that Ben Kingsley has Indian roots misses the point. It’s just worse when we dig through centuries of misplaced pride. Let’s set the record straight: Indians weren’t the first to discover the cube root. Are we really that insecure as a nation that our patriotism is solely dependent on our achievements? Are you any less Indian if Ben Kingsley’s grandfather wasn’t born in India? I’m not, thank you very much.

Next, all the talking about the talking, and all the talking about walking the talk. Maybe, it’s not so bad that we do that. We need to introspect, at least annually, don’t we? A state of the union reflection, undertaken collectively. But, we keep asking the same questions over and over. Does that get us anywhere? If we don’t want to question whether we are truly free, what do we want to question?

This year, I asked people the following question: which decade was the best for independent India? I would appreciate knowing why you choose the answer you give, and how you define best. The reason why I began asking this question is a long unrelated story, but I thought this was a good beginning point this Independence Day.

We all have our opinions about where we’ve gone wrong, and we are definitely entitled to these. However, do we have an opinion about where we’ve done things correctly? Maybe if we identify what’s right, we’ll be able to correct what’s wrong. Maybe we need our history for us to be better or worse, for in isolation, we’ll always just be good or bad.

No decade was a clear winner. In fact, at least someone deemed every decade to be India’s finest. Clearly, our definitions of a happy nation differ widely. Not surprising. More importantly though, this means that every point in our history has something we could emulate today. I was rather pessimistic to begin with. The 50s saw widespread communal violence, in the aftermath of the Partition. We lost a major war in ‘62. The 70s saw another war, along with the Emergency. A Prime Minister was assassinated in both the 80s, and the 90s. The first decade of the new millenium was remembered for political scandal and terrorist activity. And the current decade has already seen more than its fair share of ugliness. No decade has been pure and untainted. Even nostalgia can’t induce a pristine flawless perspective. But, on the other hand, the 50s led to consolidated nationalism, the 60s saw remarkable national progress, and we won a war in the 70s. 80s introduced the concept of information technology, while the 90s saw the markets opening to the world. Important legislative steps were taken in the last decade. Each decade has seen something we hold dear, even today.

It is interesting to observe what trade-offs we are willing to make. The 60s were wonderful, despite the war, says someone. The 70s saw great economic progress, despite the temporary loss in our democratic standing. People’s answers reflected what they thought was an acceptable compromise. It depended on their age, political affiliations, as well as religious beliefs.

However, the one thing every answer showed was that we appreciate moral clarity the most. As a nation, there are various values that we hold dear, values that our Constitution directs us to imbibe and follow. Our favourite times in our own history are when these values have been upheld, not forcibly, but with the respect that our founding principles demand. Winning the ‘71 war, or the Kargil War is important, not only because we won, but because of what we fought for. Economic progress and scientific development are valued because they create channels that allow these values to be upheld: better lifestyles, equal opportunities, and transparent governance for instance.

It does not really matter whether you believe that 1960s were our best generations or the 1990s. You value the first few Five-Year Plans more, as compared to the 1991 economic reforms. Fundamentally though, you value positive policy change. Maybe then, that answers the cliched question we ask. When will be truly free? We’ll be truly free when we are fuelled by values our Constitution prescribes. We’ll be truly free when we uphold these values willingly. We’ll be truly free when these values are practised in thought and action both. We must persevere to live with these very values.

I believe that every time (and that means Independence Day and Republic Day) we go through a nationwide existential crisis, we should look to our Constitution, that we should recollect the best of our past, and try to emulate the ethical balance we achieved. Hopefully, that'll guide us through political pungency, internal indignation, and other present-day problems.

To quote an answer I received, "let's be optimistic, and believe that the best decade will always be in the future." Let every decade surpass the last. That's a rather nice way of looking at it, don't you think?

So if your actions, in whatever form, contribute in ensuring that India stays a sovereign, secular democratic republic, thank you.


PS: I'd love to hear what decade you think is the best for Independent India. If I haven't already asked you, I'd really appreciate it if you tell me what you think.