I don’t fully know or understand India and yet I am in unending love with her. Having spent all of my life in the south, the rest of India is still a puzzle in the dark to me. I spend a lot of time trying to learn more about the India that I don’t know. What is glaringly obvious ofcourse, is that India is not a monolith. What is less obvious is understanding what it is that brought and kept millions of vastly different people together. 75 years ago after a long and hard struggle, this large and intriguing nation wrestled itself out of a two-century long colonial occupation. If the fight for independence was what brought us together, then what kept us together after? Perhaps the search for freedom has yet not ended. Indeed for many, in many senses it hasn’t and we’re still fighting. There are, as they say, many Indias inside India. As Nehru observed in the Discovery of India, “[India is] a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads”. He went on to add,
“Overwhelmed again and again, her spirit was never conquered, and today when she appears to be the play thing of a proud conqueror, she remains unsubdued and unconquered. About her there is the elusive quality of a legend of long ago; some enchantment seems to have held her mind. She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.” -Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (1946)
I remind myself that Nehru wrote this in 1944/45 at a time when India was still under colonial rule. As the curtains fell on that chapter, it was our turn at the reins of history. The path we charted in decades to folllow had its share of critics but perhaps what matters most is that it was OUR path. One that we set for ourselves for better or for worse. 75 years later we’ve come a long way and in the process we’ve miraculously held together this “bundle of contradictions”. Our economic and technological growth has been no mean feat. We’ve lifted millions out of poverty and we have one of the largest GDPs in the world. We’re a market that’s open to business and one where every major global company wants to play. But marcoeconomic progress alone was never the ultimate yardstick to measure independent India by. Economic progress is a means to an end. A goal to assure a life with dignity and self-respect to every individual who lives there. At that, we’re still at work. While we’ve more than halved our poverty rate since independence, the absolute number of people living below the povery line remains alarming. For scale, in 2021 India has more people living in poverty than the entire population elligible to vote in our first general election in 1951. But I come back to that point: Economic progress alone was never the goal.
In school, we were taught a pledge in which one line stuck with me: “I am proud of my country and its rich and varied heritage”. Our heritage. Our combined, complex, historial heritage. One that we don’t fully comprehend or even appreciate. One that’s always taught through the tinted lens of political agendas. One that’s so vast, it will take us a lifetime to see fully. Its our rituals, our food, our languages, our art, our attitudes and so much more of our glorious past that we’ve preserved over millenia. The extraordinary diversity in our places and people amazes me to no end. It is that diversity that we seek carry forward. But our heritage also comprises our societies, their atrocities and all the people, art, culture and history that we’ve lost to marauding conquerers and castesist violence. In addition to giving us control over our economic destiny, Independence gave us the opportunity to rectify the injustices of our past, the consquences of which are still being experienced by millions of Indians socially and economically.
Our freedom fighters were all warriors in the cause of social justice. Dr Ambedkar famously said “So long as you do not achieve social liberty, whatever freedom is provided by the law is of no avail to you”. Our fight for freedom itself was not just for independence from the British but for Swaraj. In fact, Gandhi rejected the notion that if we simply “get the Government of India in our own hands everything will be alright” as “mere superstition” and that “No nation has thus gained its independence.” Ensuring justice for all was an inalienable pillar of Swaraj. Leaders like Sarojini Naidu and Dr Ambedkar among others were champions of the cause for true liberty and justice. “When there is oppression”, she said, “the only self-respecting thing is to rise and say this shall cease today, because my right is justice”.
Our fight for swaraj was built by a constant and unyielding struggle for social justice and one that we must not let end until it is acheived. As I think about my hopes for India in the decades and centuries to come, none is bigger than the hope that we continue the work of uplifting those who are most in need, ending their exploitation and ensuring a dignified life for everyone. A land where one’s clothing, food, art and poetry is culture we seek to protect for millenia not a target for violence and polarization. One where the circumstances of your birth, your gender, your faith, your ancestory are part of our ever-growing “varied heritage”, not tools of oppression.This isn’t a mindless dream for Utopia. It is an India that we seek. 75 years since Independence, we have come a long way but the path ahead is still long. India has changed in that time as have her people but we are still held together by some invisible threads. In the India I know, those threads are made of kindness, empathy and magnanimity and to that hope, we will hang on. Nehru summed it up best at the end of his Discovery of India:
“The old enchantment seems to be breaking today and she is looking around and waking up to the present. But however she changes, as change she must, that old witchery will continue and hold the hearts of her people. Though her attire may change, she will continue as of old, and her store of wisdom will help her to hold on to what is true and beautiful and good in this harsh, vindictive, and grasping world”-Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India (1946)
The British are long gone but our own collective discovery of India continues. Happy 75th, fellow Indians.