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Commentary/Dilip D'Souza

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 my ears.

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 celebrate?

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 consciousness.

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 minds?

Or ULFA? Or the army? Sanjoy Ghose? The people among whom he worked? You? Me?

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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Dilip D'Souza

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