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A Nation's Tryst With Destiny
Wisdom Letter #50 | The One About India
“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…”
“…At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance...”
“...The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but so long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over. And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams.
Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart."
— Jawahar Lal Nehru, 15th August 1947
Happy Independence Day to our Indian readers. Yesterday marked the 74th independence day of India.
These are excerpts from one of the most powerful speeches of the 20th century, delivered by the first Prime Minister of Independent India, Mr. JL Nehru on the occasion of India gaining freedom.
Many dreams were dreamed that day, and many nightmares lived.
As India awoke to light and freedom, a fragmented subcontinent went sleepless in darkness and horror.
The Brits were running off that day.
They were in a hurry to get this continent sized load off their tiny island sized chest, marred by the second world war, ridden with debt, and faced with an unrelenting freedom movement.
The only thing they cared about was to get out unscathed and unhurt, at any cost.
The cost, as it turns out, was borne by millions of innocents across the country they were leaving behind.
The partition of India was a horrible event.
A British bureaucrat, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who had never been to India before, came here for a few weeks, drew some lines on a map, and returned to his queen and country.
Mass migration, communal riots and rampant bloodshed across the newly created borders ensued. It was the greatest migration in human history, and the violence led to more than a million lives lost.
At that rare moment in history, the soul of a nation, long suppressed, was finally crushed.
What did find utterance, were the souls of two stunted, malformed nations, which would live in conflict for decades to come. No international “experts” of the time gave any chance of survival to these two countries, let alone grow and prosper.
As fate would have it, the two souls splintered into 3 soon enough, and are threatened to fragment further with each passing day. They have fought 3 bloody wars and inflicted numerous attacks on each other. They are nuclear powered today, armed and dangerous.
But, that day we did step out from the old to the new, our fate and fortitude over the years have ensured that today we are members of a growing vibrant democracy.
The ambition of the greatest man to walk this earth was noble and worthy, it was an ambition that suited him and his greatness.
The question we must ask today is, have we lived up to that ambition? We, ordinary men, with ordinary lives and ordinary ambitions, we must contemplate today, have we wiped every tear from every eye, or have we have failed the Mahatma?
The British Raj left India destitute and in despair, but these past 73 years, whatever has happened to this country, we ourselves are responsible. We no longer have the luxury to assign blame to a foreign power.
Good, bad or ugly, all Indians must own up to the destiny we have reached.
And as Mr Nehru said, we must labor and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Our dreams for India, as well as for the World, as all nations are closely knit together.
There are lessons in India’s journey as an independent nation, lessons for everyone, for citizens of India, as well as for the citizens of the world.
Lessons in governance, civil life as well as in politics. And we reflect on them today.
Hello and Welcome to The Wisdom Project, this is Wisdom Letter #50, and today we are talking about India—
We take a look back at the partition of India, dispassionately with a relatively neutral perspective.
We find out what we must do to get out of the eternal rut of being a “developing” country. We learn from, and admire a life in Indian politics, and we try to understand some much needed reforms in the Indian Police system.
Finally, we reflect on the inglorious empire that ruled us for 200 years.
The Horrors of Partition
All Indians know the story of partition, of the freedom struggle and the conflicts there after. The problems in Kashmir, the terrorist attacks and communal tensions and numerous riots since independence.
Yet it helps to take a fresh perspective to old issues. The partition is like a bad breakup we never got over. The wounds have festered for too long, never healing, only getting worse every year.
We don’t have any memorials like the holocaust, neither do we have any museums of partition like 9/11. We have no way of acknowledging the horrors of the time and finding closure as a country.
What we do have is jingoistic nationalism that glorifies the freedom struggle, demonizes the other side and conveniently ignores the geopolitics of the time.
Watch this 2 part docu-series from Al Jazeera that recounts that moment in history. Its a third person account which tries to objectively look at the situation in both countries 70 years after partition. And it also acknowledges the impact of the second world war on Britain’s weakening grip on its colonies.
India gaining independence was almost inevitable - it was not a matter of if but when.
Check it out—
India, Pakistan & Partition: Borders of Blood Part 1 l 101 East
India is a Developing country.
I read this for the first time more than 20 years ago when I was in primary school. And the statement hasn’t change. And the question we all wanted answered at the time, as we want answered now, is — “When will India become a developed country?”
As citizens we believe our duty is to vote in an election and let the politician take charge from there. After that, we just want free stuff from the government and lose all sense of responsibility.
As Balaji Vishwanathan describes in this Quora answer, there’s a lot more to being a citizen of the country than just voting. The day we vote is when our responsibilities start, not end.
The day most of us realize that, is the day we will become a developed society, and a developed country.
Balaji is a rock-star on Quora, and writes passionately on various topics, including India, checkout this answer to the eternal question.
When does Balaji Vishwanathan think India will become a developed nation? What do we lack in becoming one?
A Life in Indian Politics
Being a politician is hard in India.
With 29 states and 1 national election in a 5 year cycle, on an average there is an important election every 2 months in India.
So its no surprise that Indian politicians are always in war mode all the time. Its no surprise that they focus more on the optics than the delivery of public service. And its no surprise that they have to set aside their morals, virtues and values, and play the bottom-line driven election game even after coming into power.
We often compare current day Indian politicians with the statesmen of pre Independence India. And we lament at the fall in quality of leaders across the board.
But we forget that what drew people to politics before independence was public service and a love for the land. Leaders back then had no idea if they would ever get in power, or if what they were fighting for could even be achieved in their lifetime.
Today the incentives of politics have changed massively. Their is a certain ROI that they have to achieve to make a successful career.
If I can be brutally honest, an MLA seat costs somewhere north of 10 Crore Rupees today(that’s close to $1.4m, this is mostly for illegal activities like vote buying and bribing), it varies depending on the constituency, but that’s the base price so to say. So whoever wins a legislative seat has tremendous pressure to plough back his investment and try to make some profit.
Amit Varma is big believer in the power of incentives and how they shape human behaviour and society. He did an interview with politician Jaya Prakash Narayan back in November last year on his podcast The Seen and the Unseen.
JP is the founder of the Loksatta movement and an old style virtue driven politician. (That is the reason perhaps why you haven’t heard his name). This is a fascinating conversation about the nature of Indian politics and problems around it.
While I am usually hopeless regarding Indian politician, this conversation gave me a rare ray of hope that made me feel really good about the future of our politics.
Listen to it to find out about JPs journey from being a doctor to a civil servant to the rare breed of being an honest politician. Check it out —
Ep. 149: A life in Indian Politics | The Seen & The Unseen
Perhaps even harder than being a politician in India, is being a police man.
Lawlessness and violence prevails across the rural heartlands as well as the urban districts of this country. And the responsibility of managing all of it lies solely with the understaffed police system.
Their job is tough, and perhaps for related reasons, they end up exercising more power than needed at times. They end up becoming henchmen of politicians and sometimes they even indulge in fake encounters and extra judicial killings.
While on one hand our police force is over worked, understaffed, under trained and under equipped, on the other hand its over powering and fear inducing to the common man.
Reforming the police doesn’t just mean giving them more weapons. We can see now the impact of militarizing the police in the US, where there is a call to de-fund the force in some areas.
Police reform is a much more complicated and nuanced problem to solve.
This episode of the Pragati Podcast throws more light on the matter. Host Pavan Srinath gets legal expert Ameya Naik to discuss the issue in detail and even draw contrasts with the police system in the US.
Check it out—
Ep. 146: Police reforms in India and Beyond | The Pragati Podcast
It all started with a simple question — “Does Britain owe reparations to its former colonies?”
As overly intellectual debating societies often do, the Oxford Union held a debate on this simple, yet difficult question to answer. Dr Shahi Tharoor represented India in the debate and spoke for the motion, that Britain did indeed owe reparations.
What was intended to be an 8 minute speech, went well up to the 15 min mark, and went viral as soon as it was uploaded on Youtube after a few days. The speech is nationalism-101 for all Indians, it became so popular that Dr. Tharoor later wrote a book expanding on his ideas. The book is called — “An Inglorious Empire”
Its a wonderful book that breaks many myths like “The railways or the national civil services are a gift of the British Raj, and without them India could not have built them”
The chapters on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 and the 1943 Bengal famine are especially gut-wrenching and a must for every Indian to go through. As they say, those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.
Listen to the audio book on Audible in Dr. Tharoor’s own inimitable style. Its full of wit, humor and ridicule for the Raj. Check it out—
Also, checkout the Oxford Union speech that sparked the idea, every Indian should watch this at least once a year—
Redeeming Old Pledges
Some of our problems are our own, that we have created post independence, some can be easily traced back to the pre-independence era. And there are others that go way back in history of our civilization.
In the combination of being the largest democracy and a growing aspirational populace, India is uniquely placed to lead the world into an unknown and uncertain future.
For that, we must learn from our past, we must learn from our own mistakes and we must redeem the pledges our ancestors took.
Signing off for the week, here’s a few more excerpts from Mr Nehru’s speech that all Indians must ponder deeply over—
“The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken.”
“It is a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia and for the world. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the east, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materializes. May the star never set and that hope never be betrayed!”
And here’s a question that we must never forget.
“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavor?”
JL Nehru, 15th August 1947
Thank you for reading.
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Aditi & Ayush