OPINION

Words of freedom

Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Gopalkrishna Gandhi  

When the Prime Minister unfurls the national flag at the Red Fort, ‘we the people of India’ unfurl it through him

Our Independence Day is, very specially, our Prime Minister’s day. It has been that way since our very first Independence Day, August 15, 1947, when Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister, chiselled his name for all time into that date with his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech in Parliament House. Independence Day, the Red Fort and our Prime Minister unfurling the national flag from there have come to make up a triptych of freedom.

So on this Independence Day we must felicitate our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as he unfurls our flag at Red Fort. And when we felicitate him on this day, we celebrate the helmsman and the helm.

PM of all Indians

He is Prime Minister for all Indians, whether they voted for him or did not. He is also Prime Minister for those Indian voters who chose NOTA (None of the Above) or chose not to cast their votes at all.

And so when he unfurls the national flag, he unfurls it for all of us. In fact, all of us — ‘we the people of India’ — unfurl it with and through him. That phrase from the Constitution of India translates in sonorous Sanskrit as Vayam Bhaaratasya janaahaa , in lyrical Urdu as Hum Hind ki Aawaam and in categorical Tamil as Naam Intiyavin makkal . Some of us from that janaaha or aawaam or makkal of India will recall Nehru standing there 17 times and, all too fleetingly, Lal Bahadur Shastri. Some of us will remember Atal Bihari Vajpayee beckoning us from there in his very special Hindi.

Some would also wish one Indian with an unusual magnetism around him had had the chance to raise that flag — Jayaprakash Narayan. I certainly would. Federalists and republicans among us would have liked to see so-called ‘regional’ leaders hoist the flag from there — K. Kamaraj, C.N. Annadurai or E.M.S. Namboodiripad or Jyoti Basu — and be grateful for the fact that H.D. Deve Gowda brought a southern State, Karnataka, to the nation’s rampart. Hindi has gleamed on height but Hindi is not stingy. It can share that privilege with India’s other great languages. Men have shone from there, with Indira Gandhi changing the gender pattern emphatically. I can think of other women leaders with grit, vision and commitment who would have made great Prime Ministers — Sucheta Kripalani, Hansa Mehta, Aizaz Rasul, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Mrinal Gore. Independence Day is a day to remember them and others like them with nostalgia, but also with hope because leadership lies but an inch beneath the soil, like grass-seeds, and will unfailingly emerge, droughts of dedication and floods of opportunisms notwithstanding.

Nehru’s example

But to return to Nehru on his first Independence Day at Red Fort, on August 15, 1947. He too ‘remembered’ someone that day — Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. On that very first occasion — August 15, 1947 — Nehru said in his un-recorded but sporadically transcribed maiden speech from the Red Fort, “This should have been the day of his return.” Nehru, in a sense, made the aawaam see the two of them standing there, together, shoulder to shoulder — one real, the other imagined, but both there. When he made that plangent reference to Bose, Nehru extinguished himself for that moment on the ramparts and stood Netaji in what was his own place. The historian-democrat in him also knew that had Netaji been there, in Delhi, on the day India became free, he may well have commanded majority support in the Congress and certainly across the country and become India’s first Prime Minister.

Bose, with Abid Hasan, coined the phrase “ Jai Hind ” but Nehru gave that coinage currency, at the Red Fort, by ending his speech with it that day and every single Independence Day, thereafter. Hind has become, over the decades, an idea, a metaphor. It brings to India’s great name, Bharat , the vitality of its human emotions. If Bharat is mahan — great — as an ideal, Hind is real, a tactile, urgent state of being.

But this article is not about a word or words; it is about independence, freedom. It is about freedom in India, that is Bharat , as Article 1(1) of our Constitution puts it. And it is also about freedoms in India that is also Hind as an article of our collective faith.

All our Prime Ministers have unfailingly given to the nation a vision of its greatness and a sense of its agonising realities. On August 15, 1948, exactly 70 years ago today, Nehru said from Red Fort: “... freedom is not a mere matter of political decision or new constitutions, not even a matter of what is more important, that is, economic policy. It is 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.”

On August 15, 1965 Lal Bahadur Shastri said the country was bigger than its leaders in these self-abnegating words: “... whether we remain or not, let this country remain strong.” In his characteristically blunt way Morarji Desai said on August 15, 1977: “You can catch me by the ear when I make a mistake. But do not catch me alone, catch all the colleagues of mine if mistakes are committed. That is the kind of people’s power we want to build.”

Mistakes are to be expected in leadership as they are in regular folk — large ones such as the one Emperor Ashoka lamented in his self-mortification over the Kalinga war or small ones. Owning them is the first step towards correcting them and preventing their recurrence. Will we hear of omissions, commissions, errors of judgment this August 15? We well might. If Prime Minister Modi says that for anyone lynched he feels responsible, he will make Bharat feel proud. And if he were to say that for anyone entitled to Indian citizenship in Assam but being kept out of the National Register of Citizens he would take responsibility, Hind would feel safe. Terrorism, a curse of our times, comes from no religion save the religion of blind hate and it hurts everyone regardless of religion or ethnicity, and so we must beware of its grim shadow — polarisation. If he were to chastise both terrorism and polarisation in the same breath, he would strengthen us politically and emotionally in our great plurality, compositeness and unity.

A long legacy

The march, five months ago, from Nashik to Mumbai, of 40,000 of India’s kisans , Bharat ’s farmers, Hind ’s peasants showed the severity of our agrarian crisis and their tenacity to fight it. Had Sardar Patel, hero of the Kheda and Bardoli satyagrahas, been Prime Minister, he would have agreed to their demand — a special session of Parliament to discuss their travails. If Prime Minister Modi were to do so, in the name of Sardar Patel and Babasaheb Ambedkar, who wanted political democracy to be supplemented by economic democracy, he will fulfil a historical imperative.

Jawaharlal Nehru, on August 15, 1947, made a metaphorical Subhas Chandra Bose stand there beside him. Will our Prime Minister make the metaphorical Indian peasant stand next to him to speak for her or his travails? Will our Prime Minister make this pre-election Red Fort speech of his an election-free speech? Will he on this historic day furl the politician in him and unfurl the Prime Minister of India, that is Bharat ? If he were to do that, he would bring to life, as never before, the Bose-Nehru peroration – Jai Hind !

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

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