Last week, I found myself at Teen Murti House in the heart of New Delhi. This is where the Nehru Planetarium and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library are located. I was here to attend a talk, a couple of hours too early. On impulse, I decided to stroll through the museum, a great alternative I though to sitting under a tree and scrolling through my phone!
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, lived and died in this house. The grand building witnessed not only many important moments of a young nation’s history, but also absorbed the vibrations and echoes of many meaningful debates and reveries, I am sure. I had heard terrible things about the museum, of how badly the great photographic collections was displayed, how much more is possible, etc. But I am a sucker for museums and I set that sort of negativity aside during my time there.
I walked through pictures from Nehru’s early life without much interest, but the fascinating perspective of the freedom struggle that the display offered got me thinking. Few of us realize what a long way we have come and how precious our freedom is! I read the names of hundreds of people on those walls, brave people I didn’t even know about who had dedicated their lives to a cause, because of whom we can dream the dreams we have today.
Even fewer question what we are doing with this freedom? Are we choosing to reinforce prejudices and stereotypes that our colonial masters reinforced for political and economic gain or are we working to create institutions and processes that set our nation on a new path of change (Historian Romila Thapar talks about this)? In fact, are we really free?
Isn’t that a great question to ponder over today, as our nation goes to polls. India is the largest democracy in the world and its relatively high voter turnout astounds the West repeatedly. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, this puts a great responsibility on each of us to vote intelligently and to vote for change and NOT vote for people who reinforce the old stereotypes and continue to play us against each other for narrow political gains.
I’m not even getting into how we abuse our freedom everyday (break traffic rules, bribe the cop, have differential rules for others and none for ourselves!). I’m not going to ramble about how we need to become better citizens and better people, find ways to work with each other, contribute to our own community and neighborhood, etc. To me, these are no-brainers! We know all of that, but we choose to ignore it because we believe the future of our country is in the hands of THEM, corrupt politicians, stupid egoistic bureaucrats. Perhaps it’s time to think differently and take that future in our hands, in whatever way we can!
We are fortunate to live in a democracy. The wise men (and some women) who wrote our Constitution and set up our democratic processes gifted us many powers we don’t bother to use. I’ve been reading up and thinking deeply about these issues and only beginning to understand what these powers are. I’ve made many friends in Gurgaon (you know who you are!) because I’ve been curious about these issues and I laud the dedication of those who take up citizen activism at sometimes great cost to themselves. And I see great hope for a country that has people like these as its citizens. I’m learning everyday that citizenship is as much about GIVE as it is about TAKE; it is as much about our relations with EACH OTHER as our relations with THE STATE.
The last issue of HT’s Brunch carried a one pager by Shashi Tharoor on the 40s as a decade for India. In this piece he outlines “democratic institution building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home and a foreign policy of non alignment” as the 4 pillars of the Nehruvian legacy, which was evolved equally by Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and Ambedkar, the four stalwarts that guided India through that tumultuous decade to a bright future in a world being torn apart by fascism and violence.
All four pillars stand contested today. Institutions are severely crippled by corruption, nepotism and a serious lack of vision and direction. Secularism is threatened not just by communalism (which was top of the mind for statesmen in the aftermath of the bloody Partition) but by racism, regionalism, casteism and the class wars. The incidents unfolding in Bangalore and Chennai, where hundreds of people from north eastern India are fleeing home in fear underlines that many Indians feel threatened in their own homeland, for absolutely no fault of theirs. It is a despicable situation and whoever is behind this is both racist and cowardly. I am upset that there were no strong steps taken by the city and state governments to counter this fear and the resulting exodus. That is another sign that even those in power inadvertently accept the unfolding disintegration of India. Scary!
The remaining two pillars. Socialist economics is something we are struggling with in the face of capitalistic forces, the need to be competitive in the global scenario. Our large population of poor people is a drag on our economy, no matter how much we try, we are unable to translate this into an opportunity. Mind you, there is real potential here and several social sector entrepreneurs have shown that innovations in technologies and trying new business models can harness the aspirations of the poor and fire the double bullet of giving them upward mobility while creating modestly profitable businesses. The problem is that even the government looks at the poor as objects of pity and not as customers for services or even as citizens with equal rights. That is the real failure, the failure of vision.
I won’t discuss non alignment. The world has changed much in the past six decades and I am no expert on foreign policy.
If all these four pillars are contested, it means we urgently need to re- envision the tenets of democracy for India today. That is what political manifestos are supposed to do, but instead they pay lip service to vision and announce populist measures. Why are we shying away from asking the vital questions? There are certain things every Indian wants- security, opportunities for growth, etc- but there are many issues on which consensus may not be possible. We need to build a climate of debate, an ability to hear the plural voices out there. Instead, we find it easier to watch and wait for the end, the revolution, the disintegration into chaos. I suppose it is time for me to read the latest works of both Chetan Bhagat and Tharoor to explore these thoughts further. Until then, I am attempting to place my agitation on hold and focus on making my weekend productive and enjoyable!