As one year dips and another dawns, a calendar of anniversaries is un-scrolled. In India, this happens with the hectic intensity of a traffic jam. The year that begins today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi and the death of Mirza Ghalib.
What is it notably the 100th anniversary of? Curiously, not of historic persons as much as of three historic happenings. First, a much-hailed enactment, the Government of India Act of 1919, which increased the participation of Indians in the Government of India. Second, a much-hated law, Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, known notoriously as the Rowlatt Act or Black Act, which entrenched war-time restrictions on civil liberties — indefinite preventive detention or judicial review of those suspected of terrorism, trial without juries, jailings without trials. Third, a national trauma that arose from the vortex of protests against the Rowlatt Act — the massacre by army bullets of 379 according to the Raj, and some thousand men, women and children according to the Indian National Congress, at JallianwalaBagh, Amritsar. Terrorism is wrong, Gandhi and other leaders said, violence evil. But are the civil liberties of a whole people to be frozen? Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood a hundred years ago, this year. But scores of other ‘Sirs’ and ‘Rai Bahadurs’ did not.
So this is the centenary of something that brought enchained India some hope, as well as huge despair and, hauntingly, mass death. And it is also the centenary of heroic courage, of sacrifice.
And 50th? This is the 50th anniversary of the Gujarat riots of September-October 1969, that involved massacre, arson and looting said to constitute “the most deadly Hindu-Muslim violence since the 1947 partition of India”. Out of the 512 deaths reported in police complaints, 430 were Muslims. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, then nearly 80, visited India that year. A guest of the state and of the people of India, he fasted for three days for communal peace, went to Ahmedabad to see things for himself. In his acceptance speech while receiving the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, he repeated to the audience what a Muslim girl in Ahmedabad had told him: “Muslims were being asked by Hindu communalists to leave the country or live like untouchables.” And in an address to a joint session of Parliament, he was brutal in his assessment: “You are forgetting Gandhi the way you forgot the Buddha.” This is the 50th anniversary of that chastisement.
Thirty-five is not a particularly memorable number but when an event is of some moment, its 35th anniversary carries something of that moment’s star-dust. This year marks the 35th anniversary of one such.
The year was 1984, the month April. Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma of the Indian Air Force was going round the earth aboard the Salyut 7 Orbital Station (picture). He was the first Indian to be in outer space. The ISRO-Intercosmos Indo-Soviet space programme had put six men into space, five from the U.S.S.R. and our own Rakesh, then all of 35 years old. Rakesh received a satellite call from India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She asked Rakesh, “Upar se apko Bharat kaisadikhtahai? (How does India seem to you from up there?)” Footage shows the hero-in-motion slightly startled by the question but collecting himself in a moment to respond reflectively: “Sarejahan se achha (Better than all the world).” That immortal half-line from Allama Iqbal’s song reverberated through the air-waves into millions of homes watching the first-ever Indian orbiting the planet we live in. And as the nation heard and saw him, a sense of India’s greatness stirred within it. This year is the 35th anniversary of that dizzy moment.
Not a star twinkles over India as an envious eclipse veils it. We celebrate India only to be checked by our misfortunes.
Orbiting with stars Rakesh Sharma did not know that India had a date with another ‘star’ within two months that very year — Operation Blue Star, leading to Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the killing of anything between 8,000 and 17,000 Sikh Indians at the hands of fellow Indians. Large numbers of Indians reached out to the victims, taking them to hospitals, sheltering them. And, most important of all, documenting their trauma to fight for them another day. But much larger numbers did no such thing. They stayed put, watching with glazed eyes.
This year is the 35th anniversary of that tragic sequence as well. And so, as we enter another new year, a question to pose to ourselves is: Will India in 2019 look sarejahan se achha? Or will it be a blend of pleasure and pain, glory and shame? No one can tell. But if one may have anniversary wishes, this citizen-nobody does.
On this anniversary of hopes and of griefs, of courage and of cowering, we must look at the opportunities that knock at our country’s great and gaunt gate. We must make the national elections due in a few months a great example of democratic self-assertion, making the weak self-assert. In 2019 the people of India must vote, even more emphatically than ever before, without succumbing to manipulation and to fear.
Seventy years ago this year, speaking in the Constituent Assembly, B.R. Ambedkar said: “…it is quite possible in a country like India – where democracy from its long disuse must be regarded as something quite new – there is danger of democracy giving place to dictatorship. It is quite possible for this new born democracy to retain its form but give place to dictatorship in fact. If there is a landslide, the danger of the second possibility becoming actuality is much greater.”
Why should we be so alert to the danger that he pointed out? Not just because an opportunity has come for effecting a change of government but because far-reaching, liberating changes are needed in the country.
What are these liberating changes? The first is the liberation of our public life from fear. Under Swaraj no less than under the Raj, fear can paralyse dissent, immobilise free speech, free association. It is not just an insecure state but insecure techno-commercial monopolies as well that are uncomfortable with freedom.
Threats to Right to Information (RTI) activists and whistle-blowers and attacks on them, trolling of dissenters on social media and even murder, constitute democratic India’s single greatest failure, shame. In the eighth decade of its independence, India ought to be afraid of nothing, save its conscience.
The second is the liberation of our politics from the stranglehold of money. Which, in effect, means saving our national resources from the darkness of deceit and exploitation. Money minted by illegal mining, unauthorised clandestine monopolies and brazen preferment has a vice-like grip over our polity, particularly over our electoral politics. Money frustrates democracy, negates it. Ruling parties everywhere say, “Our hands are clean!” The Opposition says, “Show us your pockets.” And when they change places, the charge changes direction.
The third — and most difficult — is the liberation of ethics from the hegemony of lifeless conformism. For far too long, centuries in fact, have custom, and callousness overwhelmed conscience in India. Routine and rote rule over humane instincts, making women, tribals, the Scheduled Castes, children, prisoners, the mentally challenged and physically unable exposed to danger. The same dullened sensitivity has rendered our wetlands, rivers, coasts and commons vulnerable to misuse, misappropriation. Whoever be the Asoka or the anti-Asoka on Magadha’s throne, India’s Bodhi-tree needs an Enlightened One to sit by its root-bed and speak to it now, more than ever before, to be able to say to it to become not just ‘sarejahan se achha’, better than all the world, but ‘apnedil se sachcha’, to its own self, true.