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Go India Go!

August 14, 2003

I missed India's independence by over 16 years.

My father, who must have been in his early 20s on that momentous day, apparently joined Ram Manohar Lohia's Socialist movement, only to be badly disillusioned. But he rarely spoke of those days.

So my ideas of what happened at the time are largely culled from books and archival material I have trawled -- for reasons both professional and personal -- films like Gandhi and colourful anecdotes from a couple of freedom fighters I had the fortune of befriending during my years in Calcutta.

One of them had an interesting (though simplistic) theory about why the Punjabis from India and Pakistan who survived Partition still remain hawks, while the Bengalis who suffered equally -- 'remember Noakhali?' -- during that bloody period do not retain that smouldering rage.

'The Punjabis,' believed the veteran of Netaji's Indian National Congress, 'are a martial race, and hence could not get over the horrors of Partition.' This explained why the right wing had strong supporters from places like Delhi.

'The Bengalis, on the other hand, preferred to intellectualise the issue. And having decided that religion was the primary reason for the bloodshed, they turned Communist.'

Sure enough, when I left Calcutta for Delhi, I found that Pakistan was a far more emotive issue there than it had ever been during my days in the east. Most of the people I met from that generation (the park outside my barsati had a whole gang of morning walkers who had borne the brunt of Partition) had translated that visceral hatred of Pakistan into a hatred of Muslims per se. Many actually drilled the same thoughts into their sons and daughters.

'Nehru and Gandhi were responsible for the mess we are in now,' they would fume. 'If only Sardar Patel had been prime minister…' they would sigh.

They were overjoyed when the BJP-led NDA government came to power. They were euphoric over the nuclear tests. And they refused to believe that peace could ever be achieved with Pakistan.

56 years after Independence, they might just be proved wrong.

No, there will be no overnight peace. In fact, peace per se with our truculent neighbour might not come in our lifetime. There will always be radical elements on both sides who fear that they will lose relevance in peacetime, and hence continue to stoke the embers of violence, of divisiveness.

But there is a generation now coming up for whom Partition and its horrors are twice removed. They cannot recall a unified India. Many will not even remember that Bangladesh was once known as East Pakistan. Or how China nearly overran the Northeast in 1962, a humiliation that still clouds our policy today. Reading about such things and actually experiencing them are two very different things.

Heck, I was only eight during the 1971 war and don't recall much other than the blackouts we faced in Jallandhar city and the excitement of hearing the air raid sirens and the drone of fighter aircraft.

The groundwork for this new generation has already been laid. The mistakes are there to see and learn from. And unlike earlier attempts, when Indian leaders rushed into every chance at peace without thinking of the possible fallout, this time there is a calculated and deliberate attempt to actually improve conditions on the ground before even talking about peace. Pakistan is on notice, and sooner or later, and however grudgingly, it must realise that each terrorist attack on India directly affects its own chances of growth and development.

More than that, India's constant attempts to correct the world's view that New Delhi's foreign policy could never be separated from the diplomatic and political baggage of Pakistan seem to be finally bearing fruit.

Finally, the world seems to be veering around to the opinion that India is, if nothing else, too big a nation to be compared with its Western neighbour. Pakistan is learning that the hard way. Despite the 'thousand cuts' policy promoted by the goons of the ISI, economically, politically or socially, India even in its darkest days was never described as a failed State.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has seen more martial law and military rule than actual democracy, and its economy is still heavily dependent on American and other handouts.

Things are, however, different when it comes to the other neighbour India is compared with, often unfavourably in terms of economy. The Chinese, for reasons best known to them -- though one can make educated guesses -- are keen to keep the border issue unresolved. Conventional Indian strategic wisdom says that this, and Beijing's extremely cordial military relations with Pakistan -- and Burma and of late Bangladesh -- are generally aimed at ensuring that India does not aspire to be anything bigger than a regional power. If that is indeed their intention, so far, they seem to be succeeding.

But again, the new generation slowly coming to power in both nations will hopefully figure out that they can compete without being enemies.

I, for one, would not be surprised if the Chinese one day concluded that doing business with India is more profitable than trying to hem it in, the same way that India has hemmed in the wily general in Pakistan by befriending Afghanistan and Iran.

I remember a time when the choice of automobiles was limited to the Ambassador and the Premier Padmini, and people paid premiums to get delivery before they retired. I remember a time when a phone was considered a luxury that few could afford. I even remember a time when television was limited to black and white, and Doordarshan.

Today, India is a serious contender for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Indian scientists are planning a lunar mission for 2007. Technology developed by Indians powers the Internet revolution which has so radically changed the way the world lives. Despite the US sanctions, our nuclear programme was developed indigenously.

Today, India can actually afford to reject aid.

Yes, more than half-a-century after Independence, poverty, population and populism, corruption and cronyism continue to plague our nation. But we have also achieved incredible feats in the face of much adversity, and it is very important that we remember that as we turn 56.

My father, were he alive today, would have been proud.

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