neera oped

A tailor is busy stitching a tricolor ahead of Independence Day celebrations, in Kolkata on Aug. 10, 2020. The Indian American author of this oped piece, referring to the younger generation, writes: “They who grew up with arrogantly asserting ‘I can do what I want’ and ‘I am free to be myself’, and ‘I owe nothing to anyone’, this coming of Corona is like God’s finger placed on their lips.” (Kuntal Chakrabarty/IANS photo)

Come August 15, we will celebrate Independent India’s 73rd birthday. But “The times,” as Bob Dylan’s famous song goes, “they are a-changin’.” Suddenly, enraged by the brutality of a custodial death, freedom and love of country are being derided – even denied wholesale – by a generation brought up in relative luxury of freedom and the rights it guarantees. Call them X, Y or Z matters naught. What does matter is how easy it is for them to be manipulated as well as to become aggressively intimidating.

At their behest, even as history is being re-written in America’s schools and colleges, and America’s freedom fighters and founding fathers in many cases are being unjustly criminalized and cancelled out, it is worth taking a pause to ponder what our ancestors in India did to gain freedom and gift it to succeeding generations.

As refresher, it is worth recalling that August 15 was not initially India’s birth date. The genesis of free India goes back further to 1929 when the Indian National Congress at its session in Lahore, approved the Purna Swaraj or Complete Independence resolution. Resulting in the "Declaration of the Independence of India,” it designated January 26, 1930 as Independence Day. Each year from 1930 to 1946, January 26 was celebrated as Independence Day with people taking the independence pledge and spending their time in constructive discourse and public service. Later, with August 15 marking the date of India’s Independence, January 26 was chosen in 1950, to mark the historic date when the Constitution of India came into effect, and has since been celebrated as India’s Republic Day.

Decades of hard work and perseverance preceded and followed this hard-earned independence. Fighting primarily a non-violent war, our freedom fighters willingly gave of their blood, sweat and tears. During the freedom struggle, innumerable lives were lost or permanently maimed, lucrative careers and material assets sacrificed, family life given up, and torturous floggings, imprisonments as well as life-long banishment to Kala Pani (isolation camp) bravely endured. For all those sufferings and sacrifices, they got no money or rewards; just the emotional fulfillment of working to free their Mother, i.e., India, from the chains of enslavement.

At the end of World War II in 1945, financially ruined and psychologically beaten by the catastrophic strain of that war, and pressured by the U.S. and global pro-freedom forces to give up its colonial empire, in February 1947 the British announced their decision to hand India over by June 1948. It fell to India’s astute Viceroy Lord Mountbatten to pull out earlier in response to the explosive situation in India and the certainty of Hindu-Muslim fallout. He chose August 15 as the date of transfer not out of attachment to anything Indian but because that date would mark the second anniversary of Japan's surrender to the Allies.

With no way to hold together the separatist forces, India – while still a dominion – split into two separate entities (dominions), with India celebrating its independence on August 15, and Pakistan a day earlier on August 14. That fissure, once formed, has never filled or healed as both countries continue to deride and blame each other for conspiring to destroy the other. With both nations owning a nuclear bomb, the entire world, not just the two nations, has much at stake to keep the two away from a head-on collision.

What is so special about freedom has been difficult to comprehend by successive generations everywhere, not just in India. A jolt to that apathy has come weirdly in the shape of Corona. The pandemic has hit all nations and peoples – rich and poor, black, white, yellow and brown, socialist-communist and capitalist, developed and developing, religious and secular. The potential for contagion has kept us all in cages, behind masks, and with social distancing of 6-10 feet apart. Barring large-scale mass protests linked to Black Lives Matter or its spinoffs, which seemingly are unjustly permitted, people are no longer free to form a “crowd.” Deaths of close relatives and friends occur, newborns arrive, and landmark anniversaries come and go, but like ostriches, we have to stay hunkered down with our heads buried in the sand. To stay within the limit of 10 to 12, larger sized or extended families must forgo some of the relatives and include selected others. Thus, bonds between kith and kin get re-defined and risk being weakened. Concerts, movies, clubs, gyms, and restaurants are out. Unless you are essential you can’t expect to be in a workplace or pursue your own business and calling. This is verily what life without freedom means.

In a way there is sadistic pleasure in seeing particularly the younger generation denied their normal means of fulfillment. They who grew up with arrogantly asserting “I can do what I want” and “I am free to be myself,” and “I owe nothing to anyone,” this coming of Corona is like God’s finger placed on their lips. This is also a divine hint for all of us to awake to what lack of freedom does to us, how deeply it scars and dehumanizes us, and what we need to do to embrace and respect freedom, and by logical inference, for our country. Whatever the intimidation, we must not shy away from standing up to show our gratitude and seek blessings from our natal and our adoptive country’s flag and anthem.

Long back, in my Hindi class, I recall memorizing a couplet, which translated reads as follows:

A heart that is not infused with emotions, in which no passion flows,

That heart is merely a stone, in which there is no love of one’s country.

(The author is an Indian American freelance writer and published author.)

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