Workers pack a giant Indian national flag at the workshop of 'The Flag Company' ahead of Independence Day celebrations at Naigaon in Palghar district of Maharashtra state on July 31. (Photo: AFP)
Among national festivals in many countries, Independence Day usually takes first place.
It’s the day that celebrates the birth of a nation, the shaking off of colonial oppression, the welding of many ethnic groups into one modern state.
When India celebrates 75 years as a nation on Aug. 15, it’s also an occasion to ask ourselves: Has independence made a difference? How has freedom changed us? Have we realized the hopes we had?
Not easy questions to answer.
Looking at the broad picture, one can see two contradictory movements in almost every area of life.
On the one hand, we celebrate the rise of the ordinary person, the aam aadmi, the aam aurat. Today the president of the republic is a tribal woman, a public statement that even the most oppressed groups can make it to the top.
"Standards of education are in decline almost everywhere, universities are in disarray, and in many places, there’s violent hostility to girls going to school"
And yet, on the other hand, every day brings home the almost total failure of the sarkar — the ruling class. In those memorable words of Gurcharan Das: “India grows by night, while the government sleeps.”
Here are some quick examples: After centuries of control, education has at last been democratized, and learning opportunities have opened up to tribals, outcastes and women; and with it, a greater share in the local leadership and administration.
At the same time standards of education are in decline almost everywhere, universities are in disarray, and in many places, there’s violent hostility to girls going to school.
The New Education Policy 2020 is but a cover for indoctrination and rigid thought control, without the freedom to question.
For once, the country can feed itself, and the “green” and “white” revolutions have changed the countryside. Consumer marketing has changed ways of eating, dressing and living.
Yet government food controls have made malnutrition a chronic problem for the poor. Farmers’ suicides are a pandemic. Deforestation has brought drought to most regions. Hunger and landlessness have driven large-scale migration to towns and cities. The urban slum is a symbol of our times.
"One thing which strikes you is the rampant corruption, which like a fungus grows everywhere"
Most of all, the changes are economic.
Most Asian societies were feudal and static, wedded to some form of subsistence economy. No longer. Today, money has become the chief arbiter of social relationships, and it is traders and financiers who dictate the development of the nation, not the landed aristocracy.
Black money — the parallel, underground economy — generates more wealth, employment and investment than the official one. No wonder that’s where today’s youth long to be.
And what of the ordinary Indian — the man in the street, the woman in the kitchen?
For one thing, he is more aware. He is more literate, much more street smart. She watches TV and drinks in the world, even if she doesn’t understand all of it. The all-India Hindi fillum offers role models for us all.
He looks upon politicians and netas with veiled contempt, but realizes they are indestructible as sewer rats. She moves about with others at the communal tap, even mixing with “those people, not like us.” Most of all, she has hopes and dreams her mother never had.
One thing which strikes you is the rampant corruption, which like a fungus grows everywhere.
"The crucial task of making life better for millions of our countrymen has faltered in the hands of successive governments"
Independence has produced a kind of Indian who is grasping, manipulative and exploitative. Traditionally, Indians preened themselves on their spirituality and high moral purpose. Every day, each new scam shatters this hollow claim.
Even more, we realize that there is a dark and violent anger that exists in the national character, and which periodically explodes — in communal riots, in the slaughter of Dalits, torture of prisoners, dowry murders, female infanticides.
The anger comes from not getting soon enough what we desire, and even more, from having to share the little we have with those we despise as our inferiors.
In fact, the crucial task of making life better for millions of our countrymen has faltered in the hands of successive governments, who now use their electoral privilege to loot the public treasury.
Propaganda may promote the image of an “India Shining,” but a sober assessment of the future holds “an uncertain glory.”
So have we realized our hopes of 1947, when we made our famous “tryst with destiny”?
"We have a fascist government today which threatens our very liberty"
Not all of them certainly, else we wouldn’t be looking more and more like “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa” (in Amartya Sen’s picturesque phrase).
The challenge before us is not political liberty anymore. Rather, they are equality and fraternity — or better, community.
Where other states in South Asia have collapsed in civil war, we’ve held together, diverse but united, our political liberty intact. At least until recently, for we have a government today which does not believe in free speech, in dissent, or in any form of opposition.
We have a fascist government today which threatens our very liberty.
But what about equality and community? How to build a nation where each man, woman and child is respected, and assured of minimum dignity and security?
Seventy-five years on, we find ourselves slowly slipping back into the feudal mess we came out of, unsure of our economy, apprehensive of our liberties, nervous about our very future.
Myron J. Pereira is a Jesuit priest who writes on contemporary issues for the news agency UCAN, as well as popular and historical fiction. [email protected]
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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