O, SWEET LAND OF LIBERTY, OF THEE I SING….
AT the stroke of midnight, August 14-15, 1947, a cry of freedom such as the world had never heard rose up from the teeming millions of India. The Indian Empire was no more. Gone forever were the pomp and magnificence of Kipling’s British Raj. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was heaven!”
How did it all happen? Long before that historic midnight, Mohamed Iqbal had filled every patriotic Indian with a sense of pride and glory with his “Sare jahamse acha, Hindusthan Hamara”. Of our India and its people he sang: “It is our rose garden, we are its nightingales.” That was how we rang in the twentieth century.
Down South, Subramanya Bharati recited to his ode to freedom, equality and brotherhood – Viduthale, Viduthale, Viduthale. Acham illai, acham illai, acham enbathu illaye, uchi meethu vaan idindhu veezhugindra podilum, acham illai, acham illai, acham enbathu illaye…(“There is no fear, there is no fear, even when the sky falls, there is no fear”, he sang.)
The sweet melody of Rabindra sangeet did not lull us to sleep but awakened us to our duties and responsibilities. Gurudev filled us with lofty ideals through Gitanjali: minds without fear, free knowledge, undivided by narrow domestic wall, clear stream of reason; that was how we were exhorted to enter the haven of freedom. How elated Indians used feel those days when young revolutionary heroes mounted the gallows singing Rabindranath Tagore’s memorable lines – “Blessed is my life that I am born in this land”. It was the same spirit, which could neither be suppressed by the bullet and the bullying of the Raj nor by the incessant ideological refrain of the White man’s superiority.
We joined the struggle for independence. An idealist led us - a “ half-naked fakir”, staff in hand, clad in loincloth, bespectacled, a cleft in the row of front teeth when he laughed or smiled (which he always did). He led us from behind, for he said, “I follow the people, because I am their leader”. He showed that empires were made of salt. With a spinning wheel he worked magic.
He spoke of his dreams: swadeshi, swaraj, panchayati raj, Harijan, Raghupathi-Eshwar-Allah, Ramrajya. He said: “The swaraj of my dreams is the poor man’s swaraj. The necessities of life should be enjoyed by you in common with those enjoyed by the princes and moneyed men…I have not the slightest doubt that swaraj is not purna swaraj until these amenities are guaranteed to you under it.”
When Independence was ushered in, Jawaharlal Nehru summed up the purpose of the “incessant striving” and ‘service of India” that lay ahead: “The service of India means…the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so, long our work will not be over”. What was promised was the ensuring of “justice and fullness of life to every man and woman”. A social structure that denied the common man the opportunity to rise to a decent standard of living “stands self-condemned and must be changed”.
Minutes before that historic midnight Dr. Radhakrishnan remarked that men like Washington and Lenin, Napoleon and Cromwell, Hitler and Mussolini, had used blood and steel to secure power. “We have opposed patience to fury, quietness of spirit to bureaucratic tyranny…History and legend will grow around this day. It marks a milestone in the march of our democracy. A significant date it is in the drama of the Indian people who are trying to rebuild and transform themselves…”
No nation was born in a more civilised way than India. But barbarity reigned on its borders. The civilised air in the Central Hall of Parliament against the barbarity on the bleeding borders reflected the state of the new nation – a backward country led by civilised men.
No doubt when we are celebrating the 64th anniversary of our independence we can look back with some satisfaction on our achievements, howsoever modest in global terms, since we became free on August 15, 1947. Compared to many of the developing countries, especially those that were under colonial rule for long years, these achievements have not been insignificant.
During the past 64 years India has striven to keep faith with the memory of the lean brown figure who led her famished millions to liberty. India was born a free nation; she sought to remain a free nation. She has tried to remain a free society respectful of the rights and dignity of its inhabitants, one in which the citizens would have the right to dissent, to protest, to express themselves freely and openly in a free press, to select their government in free, secret, honest elections.
India’s achievement in building a democratic nation is one of unsurpassed magnitude, worthy of the world’s respect, worthy above all, of the great leader who led her to the liberty that she has refused to cast away. O, sweet land of liberty/It is of thee I sing/Land where my forefathers died/Land of my pride/From east to west/north to south/let freedom ring…
The spirit of non-violence continued even while fighting a brief spell of tyranny. Perhaps nowhere else in the world was a tyranny voted out. The institutions of democratic governance, despite oft-voiced fears of erosion, have survived and gained strength. The so-called fall in Parliament’s debating standards could also reflect a pleasant reality. That, meeker mortals of the Indian earth have replaced the barristers with the right accent in the portals of Parliament. Democratic traditions have struck roots among even the unlettered millions of our country.
To record advance in different fields of economy, agriculture, industry, science and technology and developing a remarkably efficient technological manpower by world standards without in any way giving up our democratic way of life reflected in our pluralistic and multi-religious society, rich in its extraordinary diversity, has been striking to say the least. And yet a sense of deep depression grips one as one witnesses not only the all round poverty but the fact that in the last 64 years instead of markedly reducing poverty in real terms what we have done is to build islands of vulgar opulence and wealth in the vast sea of destitution and deprivation.
What is worse, the vocally influential segments of the wealthy fraction of our populace have increasingly become oblivious of the multitudes living on the fringe to eke out their pitiable existence. This has been markedly sharpened by the “market economy syndrome”. The net effect of such a phenomenon has been that we have allowed our younger generation to run after money and wealth forgetting their hapless poor neighbours barely able to survive. It has resulted in corruption and criminalisation of the polity growing leaps and bounds alongside proliferation of the black economy all around us, especially in the higher echelons of power.
That is precisely why we have to evolve a new strategy, a strategy that would aim at scaling down the mounting disparity in society, a strategy that would have to be accompanied by policies of social intervention to help ameliorate the conditions of those in the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. For that both decentralisation of the polity and empowerment of persons who have suffered persecution for centuries are as essential as ensuring genuine universal education and opening new avenues of productive employment so that our enormous manpower could be harnessed meaningfully in nation-building. Social, economic, educational upliftment of the people as a whole must constitute our priority task. And it is high time the rhetoric on this core is finally translated into practice. For the bulk of the populace has waited for too long. There is a limit to their patience which cannot be taxed beyond a point.
Only by such a strategy would the fullest mobilisation of our teeming multitudes be guaranteed to national reconciliation. Not only that, such a strategy would also help us to root out such vices as religious intolerance of both majority and minority communities that not only afflict the society but have also registered a sharp rise of late thereby undermining the basic values of the freedom struggle.
Building a nation-state is not a painless effort, but such pains of today are transient. Contrast them to the joys and sorrows of that historic midnight. True, the ambience, the flavour, the ethos of that midnight need the tribute not of sentimental nostalgia but of critical analysis.
Fifteenth of August continues to be a sacred day in the minds and hearts of the people of this great country. To celebrate the end of the long night of foreign rule and to breathe the air of freedom cannot but be a proud occasion even after sixtyfour long years. We should sing together today the famous American folksong: “Freedom, doesn’t come like a bird on the wings/ Doesn’t come down like summer rain. /Freedom, Freedom is a hard-won thing. /You’ve got to work for it. /Fight for it/ Day and night for it/And every generation’s/Got to win it again…”
Chairman & Coordinator
Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD
15th August 2011