Remembering our tryst with destiny

69 years ago a nation of 390 million people tasted freedom and blood all at once. It was a historic moment, the end of a 300 year old foreign rule and the “legal” emancipation of a people long subdued.

Celebrating India’s 70th independence day today, I wonder what the people felt when the clock struck midnight and “India awoke to life and freedom”. I imagine it was a mixed bag. The people who sat in the Constituent Assembly listening to Pandit Nehru would have felt very differently from the families who without the slightest prior notice found themselves in an alien land. A long fought non-violent struggle for freedom had resulted in the booting out of the mighty British Raj but had also divided India and its people into two dominions.

While the transfer of power happened at the stroke of midnight, what would be India and who would be Indian was yet uncertain. 14 million people migrated across the India-Pakistan border, on both the eastern and western fronts. An estimated 1.5 million people were killed and about 75,000 women were raped in senseless violence that was fueled by rumors of revenge killings and a deep sense of insecurity. The hastily drawn Radcliffe line that divided India into three parts cut through many villages, diving communities that had long coexisted and creating an environment of violence. The stories of those who survived the bloodshed sends currents through me to this day.
As a Sindhi-Punjabi I’ve had the fortune of hailing from two hard working communities that were unfortunately transplanted from their homes by partition. I’ve grown up hearing stories of my grandparents who fled Larkana, Sukkar, Wah and Rawalpindi to make their way to the refugees camps of Koliwada, Ulhasnagar, and Delhi. These are stories of sheer will power and determination that inspire every generation of our family to pursue our goals no matter what the hardship. Maybe, it is this history that makes Independence day mean a lot more to me than just a holiday on which we raise the tricolor.

Increasingly today we hear voices on two ends of the spectrum – one which is gingoistic about how great India is and the other which is always pessimistic about the issues we face. When I hear either of these two ends I just want to remind those people that India is a social experiment. It is a conservative society, governed by a largely progressive constitution. As Dr. P.B. Mehta once told me, India hasn’t had the chance to debate and discuss the progressive policies that govern it. It is only now that the churn in the society is forcing us to ask ourselves what the fundamentals of our society should be. While we adopted our constitution in 1950 we must now reason with it question it and then integrate it’s values into our social systems. I would also point out that we are a outlier in the world’s democracy landscape. We are a country which is both democratic and poor, a dichotomy which disproves political theory about the need for a large enough middle class to sustain democracy. In India, democracy came before developmental and for the good of this nation, democracy has only strengthened post 1980.

Looking back today at the stories of my grandparents and my parents, the historic growth we have witnessed post liberalization, the progressive ideals pushed to the front by our constitution and vociferously protected by the courts, I am both optimistic and cautious. I am optimistic because Indians are an optimistic people, we know how to find solutions to our problems and we are more ready than we have ever been to uplift the plight of our people. I am cautious because in India it doesn’t take us much to get carried away and forget our target. Today we must keep in mind the sweat and blood that went into getting us here, and we must use that to chart a new course for that sixth of the world that calls itself Indian.