India at 70: Of inclusivity and independence

Last Updated: Wed, Aug 16, 2017 22:50 hrs
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An Indian Muslim woman carries her son dressed in tricolor during Independence Day celebrations in Hyderabad, Tuesday. Image: AP

About ten years ago, I moved to Delhi and found myself in a land more foreign than any to which I had been before. While trying to negotiate my way in a city where the only means of communication with most people was a language I did not know, and through the hostility that came with the presumption that I was feigning ignorance of the "national language", it struck me how little I knew of the country of my citizenship.

I had only been to five states in India, and the furthest north I had travelled before this was Maharashtra. So, I promised myself I would visit every state – a steadily growing number with the ongoing bifurcations and trifurcations – at least once before I hung up my travelling boots.

And so, on the seventieth anniversary of Indian independence, I find myself in Manipur.

Every year, Independence Day is observed here with a bandh, locals told me ironically. As I walked around Imphal this morning, taking in the empty streets, I saw one face grinning from hoardings everywhere – from petrol bunks, asserting that women’s safety was foremost; from toilet complexes, claiming India was leading various global development indices; from the cracked walls of dilapidated buildings, promising a house for everyone – that of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Sitting in front of the closed petrol bunks were enterprising women, selling petrol by the litre from water bottles, priced at Rs. 80 instead of Rs. 67. If they sold all their wares, they would be richer by about Rs. 100 each – the price of sitting under umbrellas for an entire day.

On the eve of Independence, the chief minister of the state, N Biren Singh, had promised that the joint interrogation cell – popularly called the “torture chamber” – would be shifted out of the Kangla Fort, a place the locals consider sacred. And yet, this place was occupied by the Assam Rifles until 2004, when it was given up as a response to the Ima Protest against the killing and possible rape of Thangjam Manorama, during which twelve middle-aged women stripped at the gates of the fort, calling out, “We are all Manorama’s mothers” and holding a banner that read ‘Indian Army, rape us’.

This was one of two protests for which Manipur is famous in recent history.

The other was the 16-year-long fast of Irom Sharmila, hailed as the Iron Lady of Manipur, a fast on which she had embarked demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from the entire state. Perhaps tired of nothing come of her protest except annual laudatory articles, she finally broke her fast and decided to take her battle to the political arena. She not only lost, but was vilified by the people on whose behalf she had been fighting.

Walking through the streets of this state, and remembering fragments of conversations I had had over the last few days – “People ask me where Manipur is when I tell them I’m from here”; “He told me, ‘I think that lady is from Manipur in Assam’”; “Journalists from the mainland don’t do stories about the environmental or social problems here, they only want to write about the insurgency” – I found myself reflecting on the ideas of inclusivity and independence.

I could not relate to the biggest problem of the locals – the racism which greeted them in the mainland – but I could relate to the second biggest. We bonded over the difficulty of not just having to speak Hindi, but the frustration of being addressed in Hindi.

I’ve lost count of the times I have told people there is no national language. I’ve even lost count of the columns in which I have asserted that there are two Official Languages of the Union – English and Hindi. For most of us, having been colonised by the speakers of the former and not yet by the speakers of the latter, English is more familiar.

Among all the languages spoken in India, Hindi may be the language which has the largest number of native speakers, but it is still spoken by a minority of the country’s population.

The lingua franca, even in the northern regions of what is now India, before the arrival of the British was Hindusthani, which is slowly being obliterated in favour of a Sanskritised and sanctified Hindi no one but politicians and scholars appears to understand.

If the government wanted to impose a language we could call ours, they would perhaps be best off trying to popularise Sanskrit itself. It belongs equally to everyone and no one. It is the language of the Hindu gods of whom they are so fond. I would be less resentful of Sanskrit in my passport than I would of Hindi.

So there is the first independence we have lost – that of language.

Not far behind is the second – religion.

You know a country is bigoted when trolls think it is an insult to call a writer a Muslim or Christian.

The only good thing that has come of India’s growing bigotry, in my view, is that at least one animal is relatively safe. But if the cow worshippers really wanted to keep their four-legged mother happy, it might be a good idea to eliminate the cruelty in the dairy industry along with the meat industry.

And yet, not even the cow worship could warm the hearts of animal rights activists. When the sale of cattle was banned, it was an outcome of a Supreme Court judgment on a case filed by the Animal Welfare Board of India, not of the government’s policies – for the first time, the cow was no more sacred than other species of cattle, and the ban of sale truly made us rejoice; until people began to protest against it by killing calves, thinking they were taking on the government.

Where no man or animal has the right to life, perhaps there is little point talking of other freedoms.

The right to privacy has, of course, become a joke. I cannot keep the Prime Minister’s messages out of my phone or my email. With the enforcement of the Aadhaar card, which the BJP-led NDA opposed right until they swept into power, and the seeming inability of the government to stop leaks, I might as well come to terms with the idea that every little bit of data that has originated from me is already in the public domain.

When our money can turn into paper overnight, when books are banned, when social media is being scrutinised, when alien tongues are forced down our throats, when the highest court in the country can be overruled by legislation, and when freedom of expression has turned into fiction, I wonder what independence we can claim to celebrate.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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