Independence from the British was never a goal of the freedom struggle as much as it was a means to an end. That goal defined so eloquently by leaders of that freedom struggle was centered on human development — on societal cohesion, on self-respect, on service and sacrifice and on a vision of global peace unlike any we have seen since then. So on this 75th year of India’s independence, I wanted to recalibrate what I celebrate on August 15. For years now I, like many others, drew inspiration from one of the most famous lines from Pandit’s Nehru’s oft-repeated Tryst with Destiny:
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”
That to me was worth celebrating. It was the culmination of decades of martyrdom and hard work and activism of the kind that my generation can barely even fully grasp. So on August 15, we pay our respects to what they achieved for us. But just a few paragraphs after that famous line, Nehru clarifies what they were celebrating in 1947.
“The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”
When I read that speech in its entirety, that particular line hit me like a rising wave. That was a generation that fearlessly faced lathis and bullets and spent decades in jail fighting against an oppressive and powerful empire and here was one of its leaders speaking on behalf of them all asking his own people and generations to come “Are we brave enough?”. Are we brave enough?
I let that thought sink in as I stood at the Indian consulate this morning listening to the anchor introduce a singer to recite, as he put it, “Patriotic songs”. As she sang the first song, some people gathered around me began wandering outside to exchange pleasantries while others took selfies with flags. I was zoned out thinking about my own bravery. Why, I thought to myself, did Nehru want us to be brave? The British are gone! We are free. We have nothing more to fear! But amidst the jubilation of having driven the British out of India, he seemed anxious.
In the background, the singer had moved on. She was now singing Tagore’s Ekla Chola Re to keep up the patriotic fervour. A small group of Bengali speakers joined in chorus but the singer, who apparently was not Bengali, switched to the Hindi version prompting a different section of the crowd to join in. More people wandered out while Tagore’s beautiful words filled the room. Nearly 30 years before independence, Tagore had penned another aspirational poem about India’s future.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Sarojini Naidu too nursed a similar ambition for India:
The nations that in fettered darkness weep
Crave thee to lead them where great mornings break.
Mother, O. Mother, wherefore dost thou sleep?
Arise and answer for thy children’s sake!
I always thought the ambitions and hopes that they and several others like them described in their writings was attained on August 15, 1947, when India “awoke to freedom” from the British empire. But that was obviously not the case and that is precisely what makes them truly great. Gandhi’s role in getting the British to leave India is contested by some who argue that the Subash Chandra Bose played a much more crucial role and that World War II was more likely the reason for the British finally leaving. But these critics miss the point. For many of our greatest leaders, the goal of their activism was not simply being anti-British. It was the much harder goal of building a nation where people lived prosperously and in harmony with each other and the British were simply in the way of that goal. In the Tryst with Destiny speech, Nehru summarizes Gandhi’s ambition as being “to wipe every tear from every eye” and then sounds a note of caution that embodies the spirit of what August 15 should really mean to us saying “That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.”
And therein lay the daunting task that was ahead of that new nation. No wonder Nehru asked if we were brave enough. The generations to come after that day would perhaps not have to deal with the bullets of a foreign oppressor but they would still be left to fight for that “heaven of freedom” where “great mornings break” and where India (and the world) is truly free and unshackled from inequality and injustice.
“To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”
As the singer moved on to the final song in her set – Vande Mataram (whose lyrics, by the way, most people in that room either did not fully know or were totally butchering because perhaps AR Rahman’s version is the one they’re more familiar with), I think I was getting closer to recalibrating what I chose to do on Independence Day and perhaps it should start with being a day of reflection. But rather than reflecting on what Independence means, it should be probably be reflecting on what remains to be achieved and searching the depth our collective souls for the bravery to overcome it. Or simply to ask ourselves that question which Nehru posed to a just-born India:
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