Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Should We Indians Be Celebrating the Independence Day?

Today Indians across the world celebrated India's 70th Independence Day. Obviously, my Facebook and WhatsApp feeds today were filled with Happy Independence Day wishes. However, within my Facebook feed, I also noticed a post that upset me. In this post, one of my friends bemoaned the celebratory wishes of Independence Day on her feed. She said that she failed to understand why we should be celebrating the Independence Day when there wasn't much that India had accomplished since attaining independence. In her words, what the country had accomplished was nothing short of "pathetic", and urged everyone to contemplate on the true meaning of progress instead of celebrating independence. In my today's post, I "contemplate" on the questions raised by my friend.

In response to my friend's assertion, I won't make a list of India's accomplishments since independence. India certainly has accomplished many big things in the post-independence period and probably more so in the recent years, but putting up such a list would be meaningless because my friend could also easily come up with a list of India's failures. In other words, my friend and I could argue forever about whether the proverbial glass is half-full or half-empty without really going anywhere. The point is not whether India has accomplished or progressed enough in the post-independence period. The point is that post-independence accomplishments or lack thereof have nothing to do with the celebration of Independence Day.

Why to celebrate Independence Day?
My friend wrote on her Facebook post, "I fail to see why we are celebrating [Independence Day]." Actually, a full length book can be written on why people celebrate--and should celebrate--the Independence Day, but recognizing the limitations of a humble blog post, I will just quote another friend's message that I received on my WhatsApp feed today.

My friend, Alendra said, "[On Independence Day], we celebrate [the] bravery of our ancestors and their gift of freedom." I think Alendra nailed it! Independence day is about honoring with gratitude the gift of independence that we received from our ancestors. Our ancestors sacrificed their entire lives to the cause of independence. So Independence Day is about appreciating and celebrating the gift of independence that we received from them; it is not about deploring the lack of (or even gloating over the presence of) major post-Independence achievements.

If we do not hesitate to celebrate our birthdays, then why hesitate to celebrate the birthday of our nation?

Is it hypocrisy to not celebrate Independence Day? I definitely think so. Now my friend and many others who criticize the Independence Day celebrations have no compunctions celebrating their own and their family members' birthdays. If we do not hesitate to celebrate our birthdays, then why hesitate to celebrate the birthday of our nation? If we should not celebrate Independence Day because of the lack of sufficient achievements, shouldn't the same logic apply to ourselves? I can't speak for my friend, but I think that my achievements are pretty mediocre in comparison to what some of my age-group peers have achieved by now. Now, just because my achievements are poorer in comparison to some of my high-school classmates or to what some noted personality had achieved by my age, should I refuse to celebrate my birthday? The answer is a resounding no. And that's because birthdays are about celebrating the gift of life. Irrespective of what we have or haven't made of our lives, we need to first learn to appreciate that we are alive. As in our personal lives, we as a country have done better than some and worse than others; there is no point in being harsh on ourselves for not have accomplished what somebody else has.

Was independence necessary?
My friend wrote, "What has our country accomplished that could not have been possible if not for our independence?" If I am reading this correctly, then I think my friend here is insinuating that whatever India has achieved post-independence perhaps could have been easily attained even without independence. I think it is truly shameful if my friend thinks so, because it belittles our independence.

These days it is becoming fashionable among some Indians to question all nationalist sentiments. Not only do they have issues with celebrating Independence Day or singing the National Anthem, they even feel that it is within their constitutional right of freedom of speech to say, "Bharat tere tukde honge (or India, may you break into pieces)." I don't think my friend holds such extreme beliefs, but let me explain why she is absolutely wrong in believing that the post-Independence achievements of our country could also have even attained without independence.

Could the social and economic successes that we enjoy today have even possible even without independence? Absolutely not! Anyone familiar with the literature on colonialism knows that colonialism had devastating effects on the social and economic structures of all occupied countries (including India). Worse, research shows that these effects have endured even decades after independence. If India's social and economic growth suffered in the Post-Independence period, it was largely because our colonial rulers made sure that our indigenous intellectual, social, cultural and economic pillars were completely broken and modified during their rule to suit their purposes. They even modified our history books to ensure that we could not take pride in our cultural heritage. It takes a very long time to fix the social structures that were messed up by our colonial masters, and even a longer time to completely extricate ourselves from our colonial mindset.

Since most people prefer to measure progress in terms of economic well-being, let me quote the work of Angus Maddison, a noted economist and economics-historian who is most known for having estimated the share of countries to world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since the ancient times, specifically since 1 AD. His research shows that India held the largest share of world's GDP (at about 30%) for almost the entire period until the early 1700s by which time the British had completely occupied our country. During the centuries of British colonial rule, our GDP fell steeply and was less than 5% of world's GDP during the time of our independence. That is kind of damage our colonial rules did on us! Now, because of the colonial legacy, our shares did not improve right away and stayed at those abysmal levels for almost the first five decades after Independence, but over the past two decades India's GDP share is again slowly rising and is now about 7.5%.

I think anyone who says that our progresses could have been achieved even without independence either has no clue about colonial history or deliberately ignores it. Let me stop with just one more example. During the period that the British occupied our country, over 50 million people died from famine alone. Even just a few years before our independence in 1943, the Bengal famine claimed some 4-5 million lives. No wonder some historians claim that the British engineered the worst genocide in human history for profit. Never before in Indian history (and perhaps world history) and after had so many people been killed in human-manufactured famine! Monsoon delays and famine situations have happened many times during the post-independence period as well, but thankfully our governments made sure that they didn't lead to more than a few thousands. My point is not that we should celebrate this as achievements in the post-Independence period. Instead it is that we should not remain in the illusion that we would have done fine without independence.

I have no issues with questioning our progress? As an academic, I always welcome questioning. There isn't anything wrong either in being a little self-critical about our progress we have made or failed to make since independence, but let such critique not prevent us from from appreciating the gift of independence that we have received from our ancestors. Lastly, as they say a picture is worth more than a thousand words. So let me end my post with this deeply moving picture supposedly from some flooded school in Assam. When it comes to celebrating Independence Day, I think we can all learn a lot from the simple folks in this picture.

Hoisting of the Tricolour in flood-hit Assam

No comments:

Post a Comment