Why, I wonder, as I write a despondent message and post this link on all the social networks on which I’m active, do I feel so gloomy this Independence Day? As far back as memory goes, August 15 was a meaningful day, a day on which, everything else forgotten, I would rejoice in the fact that I was born in a free country. A country where the colour of my skin was of little consequence, a country whose name my passport could proudly bear, a country whose diverseness was cause for celebration. So, why is it that, in 2012, I feel nothing but disillusionment?
Maybe it is that there has been a sudden surge in communal violence on both sides of both borders – against Bangladeshi immigrants, or anyone who could be a Bangladeshi immigrant, in Assam, and against Pakistani Hindus, or anyone who could be a future migrant to India, in Sindh.
Maybe it is that this is the first Independence Day that isn’t centred around a ritual – in middle school, it involved thinking up an excuse to skip the celebrations and sleep in; when history textbooks and the entertainment industry had indoctrinated me enough, it involved going to the flag-hoisting and feeling fiercely patriotic; as a bored teenager, it involved watching a movie that gloried the celibate Father of the Nation, Version Ben Kingsley; as an expat, it involved finding some desi group carousing in foreign accents; as a journalist, it involved finding enough material to throw together an Independence Day special.
Maybe, now that I don’t have to think up a story more original than the ignorance of those who sell and buy plastic and paper flags, when it is illegal to print the flag on any material but khadi and silk, I can weigh what independence really means to me.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that most people who witnessed Independence – and Partition – including Kuldip Nayar, whose book I’m reading now, have decided to put down their versions in writing. And we no longer need to use adjectives like ‘inevitable’ and ‘imminent’, since the decision-makers are now dead. So, we know that Partition happened because of several gigantic egos, and several selfish ambitions.
Maybe it has to do with the burgeoning of social media, and therefore articles on communal hatred and the visa-related realities of love across the salt desert going viral.
But today, it seems to me that the power struggle that Independence precipitated among the acknowledged leaders of the movement, and the politics spawned by that struggle, have lasted far longer than the unity that was credited in our school textbooks for ousting the British.
It’s not just religious minorities that feel the need for a homeland that they can rule the way they want to. It is ethnic minorities. And linguistic minorities. And people who want to feel they are one with those ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities, whether it is the Eezham movement, the Telangana movement, the Gorkhaland movement, the echoes of the Khalistan movement or the big Kashmir question.
There’s practically a step-by-step guide for any politician who wants to stamp his presence on to a state:
Step 1: Embrace a Cause
Step 2: Criticise the rulers of the state for not embracing the same Cause
Step 3: Screech about the Cause, however insignificant, till you rouse enough rabble
Step 4: Hire goons to beat up a few people who symbolise the Bane that necessitates the Cause
Step 5: Formulate an itinerary of hartals, speeches, protests and marches
To unite a section of the rabble, one needs a divisive element – language, religion, ethnicity, caste, or cultural ‘values’.
As countries across the world tighten their boundaries to keep out immigrants with dreams of greens, a dystopian domestic scenario presents itself – what if states started tightening their boundaries? What if we needed permits of various grades to visit, live and work in states other than the ones in which we were born, or other than the ones we can claim an ethnic connection to?
I tell myself that day, if it ever arrives, is very far away, but as the likes of Raj Thackeray keep up their rhetoric, can we really dismiss them, when ruling state and central governments have the sweeping powers they do? What if, at some point, an alliance of convenience is sought, and promises are made? And what about ‘disputed territory’? Didn’t I need a permit to visit Arunachal Pradesh four months ago?
As we grow increasingly jingoistic about national identity, aren’t we also getting increasingly insular about the several identities each of us can claim?
When we are slaves to such trivial persuasions, can we honestly celebrate our Independence and not sound hollow?
Throughout August 14, Twitter has been trending with the hashtag #IfThereWasNoPartition, a trend that will likely continue through August 15. Responses have ranged from the facetious to the evocative, soppy to witty, wordplay to grammar Nazism. But maybe, instead of wondering whether the likes of Ashish Nehra and Ishant Sharma would have made it to a cricket team that had Shoaib Akhtar, we should ask ourselves whether we’re actually rid of the syndrome that tore those gashes through British India.
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The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com