Whither celebration of Independence?

by Jahnabi Barooah

Today is the 67th Independence Day of India. One imagines a day of celebration, maybe involving something patriotic like hoisting the national flag in a public locale or watching the prime minister’s address, colorful parades or perhaps even an outing with the family. What a stark contrast from the tragic reality for the millions of residents of Assam, other troubled states in the northeast and possibly other parts of the country! Like every 15th August I have spent in India, this year, too, separatist militant outfits declared a “bandh” (literally, suspension of public activity) in the state and most people (including I and my family) are staying indoors for fear of terrorist attacks. The roads are empty. All the stores and businesses are closed. It would be like a regular day off if it were not for the added security threats. [‘Serial blasts rock Assam on Independence Day, 1 injured‘ reads a headline.] So much for a day that is supposed to be about celebrating freedom from colonial oppression! Whither celebration of independence? Whither proud displays of patriotism (outside social media)?

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Schoolchildren taking part in Independence Day celebrations in front of the Red Fort monument in Delhi. (Adnan Abidi / Reuters)

I try not to be overly cynical but could it be true that we actually have little to celebrate? Certainly the daily headlines confirm one’s worst nightmares about a country where the powerful commit crimes against women and girls with impunity, corruption is rampant, the government is more or less dysfunctional, economic growth is slowing and inflation is on the rise. No matter how I think about it, today does not feel like a genuine Independence Day irrespective of the precious political independence that was gained 66 years ago. Yes, 15 August 1947 gave us political independence, and I’m very grateful for it, but there is still a long way to go to achieve economic independence and equality for all.

Indeed it seems that we have abandoned Gandhi’s vision of Swaraj (literally, self-rule) for India. In 1931 he wrote: “The word Swaraj is a sacred word, a Vedic word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint, and not freedom from all restraint which ‘independence’ often means.” (Young India, 19/3/1931, p. 38) In Gandhi’s worldview, the pursuit of freedom is a spiritual pursuit. It is not something that can be obtained from another nation. Indeed, it would be fair to say that freedom is a life-long struggle. Yes, political independence from colonial rule is an important aspect of freedom, but can we really claim to be free if we are slaves to materialism or our passions?

To be fair, there are echoes of the freedom struggle of ages past, moments when freedom appears within reach, not just a glittery dream. Addressing the country on the eve of our independence, the visionary leader Nehru said: “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” (Tryst with Destiny) I think the rallies against corruption, and the protests following the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, short-lived as they were, showed the world (and Indian society too) the resilience of Indian youth. Truly, it is in these moments when the Indian youth galvanize for important social causes that we can see what Indian society is actually capable of. To be hopeful when most people are cynical, to keep our idealistic dreams alive — these are not small things! For these alone, we should celebrate our political independence with pride and joy.