Sixty years of independence and the mood is dichotomous. India-shining-style optimism is colliding with the stark reality of 250 million still below the poverty line and two of our most important newspapers reflect this divide in the usual, predictable ways. The Times of India is replete with gung-ho proclamations. The front page screams “60 and getting sexier”and a hefty supplement serves up a list of 60 “makers and shakers”. The tone is relentlessly upbeat. There is no mention of the other side of the story, of the ‘other’ India as it is often called.
The Hindu, true to form, provides a more balanced and articulate picture in its substantial supplement featuring lead essays by Amartya Sen and Manmohan Singh and a host of articles by heavyweights in other fields. Of course, the politicians are the most disappointing. Mayawati’s article reads like an extended brag and Rajnath Singh’s usual inane views are on display in his. Chandrababu Naidu is the only one to have addressed concrete developmental issues with any seriousness. Fali Nariman has written on institutions, Narayana Murthy on nation building and MS Swaminathan on agriculture. Strangely enough, there’s nothing on literature though cinema, art, music and history have been covered.
In sharp contrast to The Times metro supplement, which features Shahrukh Khan wielding the flag and looking distinctly silly, The Hindu metro pages lead with a story on how the market has taken over Independence Day. I was hard pressed to choose between the two, frankly. While I balk at the thought of adopting a Bollywood star as my national icon, I’m also reluctant to completely kill all spirit of celebration with an extreme dose of cynicism.
While it’s true that Independence Day (like most other ‘days’) suffers from the market onslaught, its import goes beyond that and I doubt that it has the same hype-based meaning for Indians that say, Valentine’s Day does. Yes, many flags will be bought, unfurled and displayed. A few restaurants will offer special lunches. A few dozen sales will break out across the city. But the meaning and value of our independence goes a long way back, to a time long before sales and restaurants assumed such gigantic importance in our daily lives. And I suspect, most of us are well aware of this.
There’s no denying that there is much to be done yet. The statistics relating to agrarian poverty, farmer suicides, maternal mortality, malnutrition among children, dowry deaths and female foeticide stack up too high to ignore or forget–even for a day. A staggering number of people still don’t have access to education, basic healthcare, clean drinking water, toilets. Freedom is a luxury they can’t even fathom. And between being ruled by the British and by Indians who belong to the economic elite or upper castes, there is little difference for them.
But equally, 60 years of independence–and the significant strides made in many areas–have made a difference to millions of lives. Not all of India has awoken to life and freedom yet but the first stirrings are visible. And surely, this is reason to celebrate. Happy Independence Day.