Happy Independence Day India, India stands at 72 a little shaken, a little stirred, yet a warrior still perhaps we are the only generation who were brought up in the ’80s and 90s that saw the transition and rapid strides made by the country in an epoch.
From scooters to flashy mobikes to the automobile boom, from snail mails to Star TV to the dotcom boom, to the IT boom and our emails in the palm of our hands, we have seen it all.
If a 5-year-old child can have memories, then summing up 35 years is a lot to recount.
As an Army daughter, I found my father in the mid 80s riding a Lambretta with my mother, two other siblings, with the stepney flattened out for my older sister to sit on as we rode our way into the late 80s, then elated to bring a brand new Maruti Suzuki home, also adding a fourth sibling to our brood.
Rajiv Gandhi was the then prime minister of the country. As a young child, there was a sense of awe to see a debonair PM at the helm of affairs. As the rest of the children who were studying with me at the Army Public School, the feeling of patriotism was high. Religion was never discussed at home or at school nor did our parents ever bother to indoctrinate us, the first feeling of ‘otherness’ sank in when I realised that my name had a different ring to it then the other students of the class.
When I was in class 3 studying at The Army Public School, Delhi the class teacher approached me and said- "Saira Shah for next week’s special assembly, I am getting children from all faiths to read out verses from their holy book, please find something appropriate that you can read from the Quran". That is perhaps the first time, a sense of identity dawned on me, not of being 'othered', the feeling that I am part of this big family and my thoughts and voice matter.
So off I went to my father, requesting him to suggest a verse from the Quran.
I reckon he simplified a verse from the Holy Quran -- 109:1-6 -- which reads as “To you your religion and to me mine” for an 8-year-old child was interpreted as ‘’All religions are equal in the eyes of God, unto you your religion, unto me my religion.” Nervous about my first stage appearance, I went to the podium and confidently delivered the line to thunderous claps.
A positive reinforcement of a Muslim child as part of a story to the new narrative of India that was building up was reassuring.
The New India of the 80s was aspirational, Doordarshan had started telecasting the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Every Sunday we sat glued to our newly bought television set- a Weston colour TV, entertainment for children remained largely an outdoor event which meant cycling, swimming or cricket outside with the neighbourhood children, while the occasional Spiderman. He-Man, Chitrahaar, Buniyaad, Nukaad, Idhar Udhar was the usual watch on the idiot box.
The 1980s were largely peaceful, with the economy growing at an annual rate of 5.5% or 3.3% on a per capita basis, industry grew at a rate of 6% and agriculture at a rate of 3.6%.
The economy was further liberalised in 1991 with the dotcom boom of the late 90s that saw India rise as an IT superpower and creating jobs for a pool of unemployed English-speaking graduates that found succor in the ‘India Shining’ campaign, but despite these rapid growth strides and the progress we were making as a nation, a parallel narrative was being stirred in the India cauldron, we perhaps undermined the ‘blitzkrieg’ that was to come when in December 1992 a large group of Right wing activists demolished the 16th century Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya, post which there were communal riots between Hindus and Muslims that led to the death of an estimated 2000 people. Six weeks of riots further escalated in Mumbai resulting in the death of an estimated 900 people, that to my young eyes of a young girl studying in Ooty at a boarding school as trains to go back home for vacation were stalled, was the beginning of an end, an inferno, the death of a secular dream. I vividly remember my parents making their way to Meerut in an Army jeep with ration stocked up for a month for my grandmother as curfew was imposed on our hometown Meerut. The enormity of what had transpired in the country had not yet hit home, as the parents were largely successful in shielding us away from the gore of communalism.
The Left leaning Congress party, mired in corruption allegations, was a spent force.
Circa 2019, as a New India is born again with the re-election of Narendra Modi, our parents did not witness Partition, our grandparents did, however there is another partition of India happening in the hearts and minds of the people, the seeds of which were sown in 1992, but we were so blinded by utopia, that we failed to see the rot fermenting as a potent tonic, as a new military carte-blanche approach to counter resistance and dissent, is being used against citizens today.
So where do we, the Generation X and the Millenials, go from here? With a badly dismantled Opposition, daily gagging of dissenting voices, slow murder of democracy, where do our guttered hearts go? As everywhere I go, the discussion amongst liberals and the minorities is about settling children abroad, away from the squalor of communal conflict and an economic meltdown. And to think that most of us could not dream of acquiring another passport but the Indian one, the ones who could never ever imagine themselves to sing any other national anthem besides the ‘Jan Gan Man’, do we just give it all up? Or rise like the phoenix again?
Now is the time to reclaim the secular dream with all our hearts and sinew and not get rattled by what is happening around us, look at ways to strengthen democracy. Our present generation has a lot on our shoulders and we need to show our children more than a hundred reasons why India is still the land of opportunity and why being a proud Indian still matters.
The author is an educator, a social activist and a proud Army veteran’s daughter. The views expressed are personal.