We are independent of what?
And it started again as it does every year….without fail on the same few days before the same two days. Many bare-footed men, women, children, of all ages, congregated on traffic signals in large urban cities, selling Independence Day flags. And yes, you are right, this also happens a few days before the Republic Day. So while 15 August and 26 January are milestone and epic moments in the history of the nation (India), it’s significance has without doubt (but rightfully so) become a mere economic survival activity for the poor.
For families after families who scour the traffic junctions in the country hoping for a tricolor flag, hat, car decor, anything tricolor sale, independence is being independent of any solution that provides even temporary succor in the daily struggle for survival. The not-so-appealing colors of abject poverty, entrenched disenfranchisement and unconcerned masses continuous to play devil in thwarting whatever little modicum of individual and national pride, dignity and honor that the poor communities in the country seek to hold on to.
I write this piece because the parade of the downtrodden as they try to appeal to the well off in cars to buy a flag is symptomatic of a number of ironic dimensions. For one, as consumers who buy tricolor ensemble, we would rarely question our own sense of patriotism or national pride. For instance, we would not mind rolling down the car window, spraying the road with pan masala spit and in the same breath (it would not be so pleasant!) buy a national flag. Or for that matter, we are the same people who see a vacant spot on the road in chaotic traffic situations as an opportunity to jump in, thinking nothing about the concept of rash driving or lane cutting! We are the very same people who deem our privileged status as our birthright and the underprivileged status of the poor as their birthright.
Simultaneously, the local FM radio station blares, since it is 15 August, that Independence is every one’s birthright! It’s a different matter that the item in question is an advertisement that is attracting customers with discounts on the occasion of independence day. As marketers, we of course would not question our uncanny ability to link discounts and consumerism to the notion and the fundamental principles of a free, independent, just and humane India. Brands are indeed violent when it comes to people’s well being, unless of course it’s a matter of those who have the purchasing power to buy! But more about this, later…
So what is independence day and what are we independent of? In theaters in Mumbai city, it is mandatory to play the national anthem before the commencement of a movie — a fact that we grudgingly acknowledge and falteringly rise from our seats to pay respects to the nation and the tricolor. Many see this tricolor intervention as an hindrance and it is these very people who would have the Indian flag adorn their car dashboards. The point should not be lost — we have lost our sense, definition, rationale and belief in independence, national pride, self-esteem, among other evocative emotions. We believe other’s misery has got nothing to do with our well-being and their braving the summer heat, the gut-wrenching hunger, the unquenchable thirst as try to make a sale, is a matter of their destiny. We don't think twice as indeed for us, it’s another day in paradise (see and listen to Phil Collins on the same theme — he did try and bring street struggle and homelessness center-stage in everyone’s psyche — or at least I would like to think so).
To my mind then, a majority of us well-off folks are independent of the notion of independence itself. We are independent of any thinking that even remotely concerns the constitution, equality, human rights, gender sensitivity and inclusion — just to name a few facets. The well-educated and amply well endowed amongst us to whom life has dealt an exceedingly good hand think of independence day as an event — where we try to remember and sing the national anthem — sometimes with a heavy accent since we are foreign-returned and our kids now go to Indian schools! Or we demonstrate tearful empathy with the concept of the flag and nation without realizing that crocodile tears and national pride have nothing in common.
Yet we buy the flag at traffic signals from marginalized communities who in fact would like to be dependent on the notion of an independent nation — one that provides for them and their families through giving an exceedingly enhanced quality of life. So the buyer-seller equation in the matter of the tricolor is lopsided and its course correction would depend on how we define our patriotism quotient and mean and do well for those who see the flag as their next meal. We can’t and should not patronize the poor and the nation — the latter being made and built by the toil of the former, without doubt. We should use the occasion of national glory days such as the I-Day and the R-Day to connect with the reality and contribute to creating inclusion.