Death In A Time Of Freedom
This week, we will turn 50 years old. I have grown weary of reading those words -- "50 years" -- and perhaps you, reading the first few words of this
column, are even more weary. I can't keep track of the functions that are
going on to commemorate the anniversary: from prabhat-pheris to a Quit
India remembrance to award giveaways of various kinds. Products ranging
from Pepsi to Action Shoes to India Today have discovered freedom as
advertising strategy; their ads are awash in subtle saffron and green. Loud
are the debates about whether we should celebrate at all, besides those
about how, who, when and even just what we should celebrate.
Me, I might have plumped for one big, spectacular bash all over the country
on August 15. One day, one night filled with lots of fireworks and noise,
that's it. I might have. But now, as I write this, I'm weary. Now, and
forgive me for being a wet blanket, I want to run away somewhere and cover
Celebrate? I know at least one family that will not have celebrations on
their mind. Sanjoy Ghose -- son, husband and father to that family -- died
only days before our 50th birthday. I still don't know why he had to die.
Maybe I never will. It was simply pointless, bewilderingly brutal. So
sudden. He was among us, I think only yesterday, working hard, writing
lucidly, insightfully, of his experiences. Today he is gone. What should we
Thinking about Sanjoy, I've been telling myself: sad, unfortunate deaths
happen all the time, everywhere. His was not the first, it will not be the
last. But it does remind us of things in our country that are, in our 50th
year, terribly wrong.
In an ideal world, Sanjoy would never have been abducted. ULFA, the
organisation that abducted him, would never have existed. Assam would never
have spent the last 40 years under the thumb of a grey, grimy law called
the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. The country would have paid more
attention than it has to the states of the North-East. There would never
have been the poverty there is there, the alienation and resentment that
have seen groups like ULFA springing up throughout the region. We might
have asked questions about all these things.
And Sanjoy would never have died.
But I know. This is not an ideal world. And in this less than ideal world,
deaths like Sanjoy's happen. He must have known that.
So in this not quite ideal world I live in, I dearly want to see ULFA lose
any legitimacy it may once have had, any support it might still command
among the people of Assam, for this sickening crime. In this today that
Sanjoy Ghose will never know, I want to know what fifty years of
Independence has meant to a state where a repressive law has ruled for
forty of those years. I want my government to explain why that law is in
effect, what it is about Assam and the North-East that has warranted such a
trampling of freedom. Why those states have remained so poor, so neglected
that there are ULFAs by different alphabets operating in every one of them.
I want to learn just why they stay so firmly at the periphery of our
I may even get some answers. None of them will bring Sanjoy back. None of
them will reduce the anger and sadness I feel, far less the desolation his
family must feel.
So forgive me once more for being a wet blanket, but right now, right after
this tragic waste of Sanjoy's death, it's hard to find a thrill in 50 years
of Independence. He died close enough to our 50th birthday, in this time we
are all asked to feel a national spirit, to raise just a few doubts about
this national spirit. To send a number of angry, depressing thoughts
coursing through my mind.
Like: whose Independence is this that we are celebrating, anyway? The women
I see from my train every morning? They must collect water by stepping
through some black ooze to stick their pots under a leaking drainpipe on a
building next to the tracks. Or is it the man who sprawls on the pavement
outside my office? He's blackly indistinguishable from the dog that lies a
few paces away; all of us busy office-goers are equally adept at stepping
around and over them, whether dog or man.
Or the Thackerays and Paswans who roam my city, surrounded by bristling
guns, garlanding a Shivaji statue here, cutting a ribbon there, making a
speech somewhere else, renaming something or the other always on their
Or ULFA? Or the army? Sanjoy Ghose? The people among whom he worked? You?
Yes, there's much that's wrong with India as we muddle through into middle
age. From the absence of universal primary education to the violence of a
hundred ULFAs, from the Laloo Yadavs to the Bal Thackerays, from poor
health care to pitiful standards of cleanliness: it's all there to be
written about by gloomy columnists like me.
And you are probably just as tired of this kind of rhetoric as I am of
seeing the word "freedom" in every incongruous place possible. Maybe this
time you will allow me my maudlin rambling, my spoiling the party, only
because Sanjoy's death has so saddened me. But you are probably also
wondering: will this guy write nothing of some hope at all? Nothing fitting
for a 50th anniversary?
Yes, there is hope. It's hard to see just now, looking past this death, but
it's there. And strangely enough, it's best embodied by men like Sanjoy.
India lives on, persists as an idea, because of the Sanjoys who are
sprinkled through the land. It was he and his group who made the first real
difference in years to life on Majuli island, quietly succeeding where
governments and movements had not even cared. No silly artifices like
renaming for them, no hollow garbage about destroying mosques, building
temples. Just simple, solid work among ordinary people. Just showing them
what they could be, could achieve.
Just true, down to earth, bottom line, nation-building.
We hear that phrase often, often at anniversary time. But few of us know,
or ask, just what it means. What does it mean to build a nation? He may not
have looked on it like that, but I think Sanjoy had an answer. Many more
like him around the country have it too. They take some idealism, some more
training and pragmatism, a great deal of hard work and perseverance, and
put it all together where it is most needed. With the very people who, for
half a century, have had the least reason, with reason, to feel Indian.
That's why I know, despite Sanjoy's death, that there are also things right
with India. Of all people, George Bush once spoke about the vision he had
of "a thousand points of light" in his country. The Sanjoys are the points
of light in India, their quiet work often the only light many of us will
know. Yes, a criminal ULFA put out one of those points of light in Assam..
Don't forgive them, but they truly know not what they do. They know not,
either, that there are thousands more points of light.
And one day, I keep the faith, they will overwhelm the darkness.
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