This is the first time that the political narrative of this nation has provided occasion to write on not what the Prime Minister says from the ramparts of the symbolic Red Fort. Instead, this is an exploration to assess deep-seated reasons for this watershed day in the life of independent India – marked by apprehension and cynicism, even misgivings, of his utterances.
To begin with the least political, in his first speech in 2014 from the podium where almost every leader in any capacity aspires to stand one day on August 15, Narendra Modi, speaking on ceaseless incidents of rape, said “our heads hang in shame”. And, reminded his rapt audience: “Those who commit rape are also someone's sons. You should stop them...”
Yet, when the son of a party leader stalked a young woman in Chandigarh when she was returning from work, Modi chose to remain silent and took no action, while colleagues cast aspersions on the woman professional’s character for returning home so late at night. This leader remained at the helm of the state unit for another 26 months, till he failed to get himself elected to the state’s Vidhan Sabha.
The idea, however, is not to get entangled in the web of double-standards that has been allowed to be spun at all levels in the ruling party and government. This reminder was merely to establish that prime ministerial words – insofar as fundamental change for the better is concerned – often remain stuck in the groove of ritualism, even on the anniversary of a momentous occasion.
Barely 10 days ago, in a speech at Ayodhya, after having acted as jajman (person performing the rites) at the Bhoomi Pujan ceremony, he said that August 5 will now onward be as important day as the Independence Day in our national annals. Yet, it is ironical that Modi, despite presiding over the regime that harps on centuries of ‘slavery’ at the hands of foreign forces, feels impelled to return to the 17th century fort, emblematic of India's composite culture and the power centre towards which multiple forces gravitated during the uprising in 1857.
Despite steady refrain in recent years for “rewriting Indian history” from an “Indian viewpoint”, it is worth recalling that the medieval fort, commissioned by a Mughal Emperor, served as the rallying citadel of political command when staging the first-ever revolt against imperial power. It is ‘this’ history which has been undermined and is close to being junked, yet the annual ‘marking’ of presence here remains heartfelt.
The imposing red sandstone and marble structure stands stoically, almost in-mock. The overwhelming walls echo a famous line of this land, penned by the now-abhorred Mohammed (Alamma) Iqbal. Oddly, this has been also recited by Modi on more than one occasion (without attribution):
Kuch baat hai ki, hasti mitni nahi hamari (There is something about our existence for it doesn’t get wiped).
Poetry can provide solace and consolation for the harsh truth that much has changed; has been changing for several decades. Just as the regime’s narrative that pre-2014, India was a cipher nation is untrue, it wrong to suppose that everything in India was idyllic prior to the year when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured absolute majority and rendered most of its adversaries, politically outmanoeuvred and ideologically speechless.
Over several decades, multiple ideas that formed the essence of India have been chipped away, piece by piece. Its place has been taken by a unitarist vision that knows no truth but its own, and lays emphasis solely on unity while undermining the nation’s diversity. It is this tunnelled-vision that propels people to speak the language of hate and spread fear among the hearts of ‘heretics’.
India did not emerge from Partition as a perfect nation, with consensually evolved commitment to never being a mirror image of Pakistan. India became a nation where the government grew out of a national movement which was steeped in religious symbolism, howsoever pluralistic this may have been. Consequently, there was always fear that the Congress, with characteristics of an ideological umbrella, would get pulled away by forces of religious conservatism for whom religion and politics were inseparable, especially as religion was the basis of partition.
Although he succeeded in gaining control of its power centre, Jawaharlal Nehru erred in assuming that modernity would hollow out the preserve of religiosity. With passing years, the political forces populating and backing this regime, secured increasing support within the majority Hindus. To a great extent, this was done by creating space for rationality and modernity within the confines of sectarian religio-cultural nationalism.
Witness, for instance, how obscurantist ideas and programmes enabled political mobilisation in favour of this regime in the name of overcoming the novel coronavirus, even though technology remained the basic tool for connecting one person with the other, the leader with the masses.
When prime ministers unfurl the national flag on the rampart of the Red Fort every year, they do so on behalf of “we the people”. The collective destiny that the nation once believed would be ours, no longer appears certain. There was always a miniscule section who disagreed with the inclusive path that the nation’s builders had deigned fit. By drawing parallels between the Ram Janmabhoomi Andolan and the freedom struggle, Modi unequivocally pointed towards another destiny towards which he and his tribesmen are shepherding India and its people.
The number of people who are deeply perturbed by the ironclad and inflexible character of the promised ‘New India’, which may become reality in a not so distant future, is certainly more than the naysayers at the time of our nation’s birth. Yet, many among them are driven by self-doubt and remain unsure of exercising an alternate choice, of thought and much more. Moreover, the processes of expressing choice are being increasingly compromised.
This government swears by the name of Sardar Patel, yet does disservice to the memory of the Sardar of Kheda and Bardoli Satyagrahas. This underscores the continuing iconisation of idols in half measures, because it furthers a certain political narrative although their appropriation is absolute.
On the first anniversary of India's Independence Day, Nehru had said that freedom was not merely about taking political decisions and adopting a new constitution. Rather, he argued, it was all about freedom “of the mind and heart, and if the mind narrows itself and is befogged and the heart is full of bitterness and hatred, then freedom is absent.” Mature nations and considerate communities have to ensure their jubilation should never become reason for the other's fear. India was not and is still not, a unitary nation.
All prime ministers of India have stood at the same place from where Nehru began the tradition of addressing the people of India every Independence Day. Sadly, many of his successors deviated from another extremely significant message: “Freedom has no meaning unless it brings relief to masses from their many burdens. Democracy means tolerance, tolerance not merely of those who agree with us, but of those who do not agree with us.”
This is the most crisis-ridden Independence Day since 1947. There is no certainty of life and livelihood now, almost matching the scale of challenges then. Once again, the peril of following a different faith and holding a contrarian viewpoint stares in our faces like never before in an independent India. The bigger worry is that an old slogan is beginning to ring in our ears: This is merely a preview or promo, the ‘real’ film is yet to unspool!
The writer is a Delhi-based writer and journalist. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin