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OP-ED: From 1947 to 2020: Does India today have an identity crisis?

  • Published at 04:42 pm August 15th, 2020
India still has a chance REUTERS

Hindu nationalism has been undermining the country’s pluralist spirit, but not all is lost

Upon India’s independence day, I wish to share a personal dilemma.

What does it really mean to celebrate a nation’s independence?

Does it really mean, above all, to take stock? Or, to reflect on what has been and what is to come, in life ahead? By no stretch of imagination are we in a golden age of our sub-continent’s history. Painfully so, unemployment had hit a 45-year high -- according to the government’s own admission last year. The debilitating pandemic has revealed the lacunae in our health infrastructure. And in India it can be argued that sectarianism has gone from the fringes to the political mainstream.

A lot is wrong in the countries of the Indian sub-continent today, but in order to address these wrongs, it is important to recall what we have done right and re-evaluate our independence in its limelight.

What was it that had made us believe that the nations spread around the sub-continent are independent? Yes, there were the unforgettable contributions of the freedom fighters, the coincidence of monumental events like World War II with the freedom struggle, our War of Liberation, Pakistan’s decade-long fight against extremism, the ebbing of the imperialist vision; but above all, there was an unflinching commitment to principles, which, though never promulgated on pamphlets, emerged organically from the forces that shaped each of the three countries -- India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Given where we are right now, it is our principles that need to be re-evaluated to see if we are true to these -- if we are to continue celebrating the legacy for another seven decades and more.

The first of these principles is reconciliation -- the ability to put differences aside in order to drive forward towards a peaceful, common goal. Not only was reconciliation pivotal to the mass movements that were championed by Mahatma Gandhi, India’s founding father, it was instrumental in persuading the numerous princely states to accede to the Indian Union, shortly after independence.

The principle of reconciliation is based on the ancient religious value of acceptance, which is much more than the normative concept of tolerance popularized by Western secularism. Speaking at Chicago’s Parliament of World Religions in 1893, India’s philosopher Swami Vivekananda had described how tolerance can be a patronizing idea, as it believes that the tolerant possess the truth while indulging the tolerated in their right to be wrong.

On the other hand, acceptance regards the accepted to be as much the possessors of the truth as the accepting party, and it is out of this reciprocity between two diferent truths that reconciliation can emerge.

India today needs to initiate such a reconciliation more than ever in Kashmir, which has been engulfed in a web of lockdowns. Kashmiris have been given reason to feel that the current government of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not interested in Kashmir’s idea of truth and Kashmir’s idea of identity.

If India is to seriously address the Kashmir problem, it has to reconcile its ambitions with those of the locals, engage in sympathetic communication and not brazen political manoeuvres like the sudden abrogation of Article 370. In the absence of reconciliation, there will simply remain two antagonistic truths that serve neither of its believers.

The second principle behind independence that requires re-evaluation is that of dissent, the touchstone of any well-functioning democracy. The echo-chambers we inhabit today have made it difficult to debate and discuss without descending into derision. Name-calling, toxic labels such as “bhakt” and “sickular,” and a mainstream media more interested in noise than news have compounded the Indian mindscape where free thought, speech, and expression is increasingly becoming anathema for those in the corridors of power.

Had India’s combined freedom movement not allowed scope for dissent, Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Bose could never have taken such divergent paths to swaraj and self-reliance. It was the principle of dissent that allowed Gandhian non-violence and Netaji’s belligerence to create two fronts of opposition to imperialism, a principle India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was well aware of.

It is impossible to imagine the current prime minister emulating Nehru in writing an anonymous critique of his own actions in order to fuel discourse, but it is imperative to expect India’s political parties and its common men and women to realize that they need to listen to contrasting opinions without opprobrium and encourage varying views.

Finally, the third principle in this axis of re-evaluation is one which is the hardest to define or articulate. In some ways, it is less a principle and more a philosophy, a way of looking at life. It is the peculiar power of hope.

Starting from the build-up to India’s first general elections in 1951-52, premature obituaries have been written for independent India time and again. It was the same before 1947, when, successively, the failure of the First War of Independence, the suppression of assertive nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the calling off of the Non-Cooperation Movement, among others, had been pinpointed as the nadir of the freedom movement, the final nail in the coffin.

Post-independence, the humiliation at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Emergency of 1975, the communal riots of the 1990s, had all been designated (by the rest of the world, particularly the Western commentariat) as the tipping points beyond which India would begin to disintegrate. And yet, on every single occasion, India did not crumble under the weight of these grim predictions. Forging a way through collective hope, it managed to not only survive, but thrive.

If one were to read the forecasts currently made by much of the world, it would be easy to believe that India, at the mercy of a Hindu nationalist government, is beyond recovery -- its flagging economy, its corrupt conversation, and its undermined pluralism being hallmarks of this great decay.

But all this should make Indians cautious, not cynical. For whatever the ideology, whatever the faith, whatever the culture, this land’s fabric has been woven through realizing the inconceivable, conquering the unscaleable, and dreaming the impossible.

Back in 1947, few would have given India a chance. Now, in 2020, with circumstances perilously poised, all of us must give India a chance; the India where a lot is wrong, but where a lot can still go right.The countries of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan all share common roots in their journey where hope truly springs eternal.

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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