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Home > India@60 > Columnists > Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Could we have been worse off in 1947?

August 14, 2007

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It's that time of the year when patriotic fervour is at its peak across the country, one of the biannual occasions when Indians -- at least in the metros -- wear the tricolour on their sleeve, the other occasion being January 26.

This year there is an added impetus to the light and sound around since it also happens to be the 60th anniversary of our Independence, which coincides with the 150th anniversary of our First War of Independence.

Great occasions to cherish, no doubt, but this year more than ever before, I am filled with a sense of foreboding, even depression, at the thought of India's future. This must fly in the face of all-round festivities over an important milestone in the nation's life, so let me clarify.

I have no doubt that the strides India has made in the last 10 years -- notably in the economic sphere -- are impressive by any yardstick. This feel-good factor translates into the frenzied crowds at our shopping malls, the hot-off-the-assembly line automobiles that are getting snapped up, the increasing number of Indians flying overseas, the phenomenal paychecks one reads about and the brand invasion we are subject to day after day.

It's a far cry from the socialism-driven, deprivation-hit India I, and many others grew up, when a telephone line or a cooking gas connection was a luxury. I fumble for words to describe the times as they were to my teenage daughter; there is no point of reference I can use from her life to illustrate my point -- heck, even the hovels near my house sport a colour television and fridge!

If this is not economic progress, what is, right?

Wrong. Try saying that to the poor kids who beseech outside car windows at traffic signals. For the past many years, I have noticed, only the face changes, not the hand that extends forward, tap-tapping on the car window filmed to keep out just such uncomfortable sights. At this time of the year there is an added feature: The hand also waves a bunch of tricolours, hoping you will pick one in exchange for some cash, since it is Independence Day.

It is a sight that doesn't fail to traumatise. Why is this child out begging on the streets? Why is s/he not in school, working at a better life away from this misery? Has the nation failed these children? Have we?

And, unfailingly, I recall the words of a rousing nationalist poet I grew up on who raged that even if one person were to go hungry we will destroy the world. That was the promise of Free India we were nurtured on; has that promise been kept?

It is obvious that we have not kept our tryst with destiny so eloquently, and optimistically, announced to the world on the night of August 14, 1947, by Jawaharlal Nehru; if we had, 60 years of self-governance is enough to emerge as a powerhouse, smaller countries to our East have done it.

60 years later, even as the world toasts us for our economic muscle, we are far from winning the war on poverty; as we are in the other battles we face, on illiteracy, female disempowerment and unemployment, to name just a few. As if the woes we faced in 1947 were not enough, we have also gone and added a few more of our own: Religious intolerance, extremism, yawning urban-rural divide, poor infrastructure, again to name just a few.

What astounds me, through all this, is the Indian's ability for denial. Tell the festive Indian that there is little to celebrate, there is plenty of hard work left to do, and he will scoff at you, if he doesn't turn downright abusive. For this denial goes hand in hand with an ability to shout down those who disagree.

Even if you get shouted down, you can see the state of the nation in our cities: Most of them are crumbling under over-population; the rich live in islands of affluence floating in a sea of poverty and squalor; the government schools are ready for the wrecking ball; and there is no visible authority. I often ask myself, could we have been worse off in 1947?

And yet we find reason to cheer, to celebrate. If this is not denial, what is?

You won't find a better test of the national character than on our roads that are now furiously expanding to accommodate traffic that will need twice as wide roads. The lanes here, as well in shopping malls, are reflective of the I-me-myself trend that is sweeping the landscape, claiming families in its wake. Toasted as the model immigrant in other nations, at home Indians remain boors in public space.

Could it be because we as a people abuse that which we cherish -- whether it be our rivers that are choking with filth, our mountains that we litter so liberally, our temples that we deface without thought, our heritage that we ignore, our women that we deny equality to, our elders that we neglect, our nation that we forget except on August 15 and January 26?

If only nationalism were as simple as sporting a tricolour boutonniere twice a year!

Nationalism is not easy symbols like rising for the national anthem or saying Jai Hind. It is another word for nation-building, which involves making the fruits of our hard-won freedom available in equal measure to everyone. And yes, it involves tremendous hard work. Can we honestly say that India is such a nation today?

It is not, but it can become one. And that is where the citizen comes in. Not to crib and blame the government of the day for the many ills, but to roll up the sleeves and attack the task at hand. All it takes is a commitment to abide by the law of the land, whether on the road or in the matter of discouraging corruption, and to uphold the Constitution of India, which promises equality to all Indians.

I believe Mahatma Gandhi [Images], the most misunderstood Indian ever, had it right when he said: 'Be the change you want to see in the world.' For Indians to see the India of their dreams, we need to change first.

More about Saisuresh Sivaswamy here