Anniversaries chime, mime.
Repeating the sounds and the sentiments of the original event, they are meant to echo. But, mostly, they parody.
Days red-ringed on calendars are like Rose-ringed Parakeets. They please their “owners” by repeating what they have been drilled into doing.
The phrase signifying tedium — “year in and year out” — must come from the dull annuities of routine. Anniversaries placate routine. Repetition palliates nostalgia, packages and pots it.
Potted speeches, even stirring ones, seem “put on” when replayed to order. Archival photographs, even startling ones, seem to be serving another’s purpose when pulled out from their rest and streamed on today’s screens and surfaces.
August 15, for India, is no exception.
Catharsis surrounded that day in 1947. Joy and pain, triumph and tragedy were both in the air, like grey and silver clouds in astral combat. Ustad Bismillah Khan had played his mesmeric shehnai on the Red Fort’s great mound minutes before Prime Minister Nehru, shy of nothing but of the age 60, by two years, sprang to his feet. Chest out, chin up, he freed with unconcealed elation India’s new flag from its furls of subordination. If there is one word that can describe the mood of that day, it is the much-used one about the much-missed spirit — idealism.
What would Jawaharlal Nehru have had to say to the nation today, if he stood on the ramparts of the Red Fort? He would of course be speaking in Hindustani with a sprinkling of Urdu words which today could sound archaic, such as sifat (quality), iman (probity), zamir (conscience). But assuming he were to turn to English, Nehru’s 2013 message to the Indian people might go thus:
“Friends and comrades, I have had the great privilege, for it is no less, and the joy, for that is what it has been, to speak to you from atop these historic walls seventeen times. When I think of the great transactions of time that have taken place here, among these silent stones, such as the stately durbars of Shah Jehan, the petty machinations of Aurangzeb, the trial and murder of Dara Shikoh, the plunder by Nadir Shah, his loot of the Peacock Throne, the carnage around here during the Great war of Independence, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s pained sacrifice, and in what may be called ‘our’ times, the trial of the INA’s brave soldiers, and of the small men who slayed the Father of the Nation, I rather lose my words in my meandering thoughts. But you have not come here today to see me lose my words but, rather, to find them, to find the right words, the right thoughts, which may give you a sense of the importance of this day, this anniversary.
I speak to you today not as your Prime Minister but, rather, as one among you. I do not mean to or want to justify any action of our government. You who see its functioning day after challenging day can do that better than I who am trapped inside it. I often feel more locked up and caged in government than I did when I was in the jails of the British Raj. And the security guards around me — they of course are only obeying orders — stifle me. I often ask myself ‘What is all this for, this protection, this security, against whom?’ And then when I think of the man, the one man to who we owe our freedom more than to anyone else and how he just walked into three bullets, I feel ashamed of the cordons around me. And when I think of the violence both of the direct kind, and of the invisible, subtle kind that India’s daughters, India’s Dalits and tribals have to endure at the hands of brutes among her sons, I am again ashamed of the security around me. It is of course a fact that certain kinds of men, terrorists, they are often called, want to kill me. I am not afraid of death. I can grapple with any attacker and give him honest blow for blow. But I do not want to oblige some low-time mercenary or idiot wielding a gun!
We are living amidst terror, hatred, violence, and therefore in fear. There are people who thrive on those, hatred and fear. They have nothing else to them. How did this happen? When, why? I must say to you in all imandari (honesty) that the style of our siyasat (politics) has created this and politicians and political parties must take the zimmedari (responsibility) for this.
I do not intend to explain anything which our Parliament might have done or not done, either. We set it up with great arman (longings), arzu (wishes) and a sense of abru (self-respect). But when I see the way Parliament functions or, perhaps I should say, the way it does not function, it fills me with shame. Parliament is accountable before it is ‘Hon’ble’. It is obsessed by its honour when it should be absorbed in its duties.
And everywhere, money is King. Not the voter, not the Constitution, but money. When something or someone is King, what becomes of the Republic? From the roadside vendor who has to pay a regular mamul in some hundreds of rupees to the giant Corporate that bribes its way to contracts with so many zeroes that I cannot count, we are now become a Jamhuriyat-i-Naqad, a Republic of Cash.
We have become a soulless people, a people without self-confidence, without morale. A nation that does not have any ideals cannot survive. So, is there no hope? Is it all finished? Harghiz nahin, most certainly not. I spoke of the petty machinations of Aurangzeb, of the loot by Nadir Shah. We have modern versions of those amid us. But we also have, amongst us, great souls inspired by Dara Shikoh and Bahadur Shah. If we have men of the kind who killed our Bapu, we also have great and brave soldiers of a united India such as Netaji Subhas Bose would have been proud of.
What we need
And so while I am a disappointed man, as disappointed as you, not just in our politics and in our administration but in the reshe, tar and sut, the very fibre of our nationhood, I also know that the so-called ordinary people of India have an extraordinary core of values in them, plain human values that make them help each other in distress and in dejection. The number of courageous Indians who, unfazed by the wrongdoings of so many, continue to fight for justice, for honesty, for service, is amazing.
With their help, we must reinvent ourselves. We have to go back to where we started, to the roots of our ideals, our dreams. That good man, Kamaraj from Madras, you will remember, gave us a plan that we called the Kamaraj Plan. Ministers resigned office in large numbers to go back to the people, to where they came from. That gave us, then, an ehsas (sense) of idealism, of sacrifice and service for India’s greatness. I will say no more except this that India needs to be governed by men and women, even if they be from outside of Parliament, outside of politics, honest people, idealists, not self-seekers disguised as pragmatists, patriots who are motivated not by power and money but by the ideals of justice and fair-dealing, giving the nation a leadership that can look us — you and me — in the eye. As I leave you, I have a request: You have shown me love as you have shown perhaps to no one. But please do not iconize me, do not idolise me, do not make a cult of me. All cults are wrong, personality cults more than all others. Disagree with me, show me where I err, correct me. I would prefer that you do that than that you follow me unthinkingly. Oxen and sheep do that, not descendants of Asoka and Rajendra Chola, Akbar and Shivaji.
I now exhort you to say, chest out and chin up, not thrice from hollow lungs but just once like a bellow from your hearts — Jai Hind!”
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former Governor of West Bengal.)