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Independence Day: When our grandparents were nation builders

Our grandparents were raised in a culture where the country came first—no sacrifice was too small—an ideal we may have forgotten

The first Independence Day celebration in Mumbai, on 15 August 1947.
The first Independence Day celebration in Mumbai, on 15 August 1947. (Getty Images)

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There’s a story I used to tell at parties. Remember when Article 370 was abrogated, I begin. For days this was all that seemed to matter. Newspapers were full of reports on what it meant, who it affected. Talking heads screamed on television. Flame wars broke out on Twitter. It was a historical moment by all accounts. Five days later, I was in the elevator of the building I lived in, in the gleaming end of Gurugram. A fellow resident got into the lift. She looked up from her phone and asked me in a tone of mild exasperation, “Something is happening in Kashmir or what?”

The reactions vary depending on whom I tell this story to. My journalist friends usually burst out laughing and then pause to absorb what it says about their profession. My non-journalist friends are not sure what the joke is. When I took a break from journalism myself, though, I too began to find this story less comical. There is a lot that goes on in the country, and it is impossible to keep up with it. Every day, it seems, is a new outrage.

In the shiny corridors of corporate India which I now haunt, the non-work discussions are usually about holiday destinations and real estate portfolios. This is a generation of people who listened to their parents and unwaveringly chased down the ambition of getting into an IIT or IIM. For upper-middle-class Indians born post-Emergency who came of age post-liberalisation, shutting out the distraction of the country has always been lauded as a virtue. We began to believe it was not just for our own good, but even the country’s, that we focused on being quiet, productive citizens and followed the education-marriage-children-house-vacations abroad blueprint. Now, affluence in India means building a life that has as little to do with the reality of India as is possible.

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This distancing of the educated class from the fortunes of the country is a relatively new phenomenon. A year ago, I started work on my book, Independence Day: A People’s History. The idea was to understand ordinary people’s recollections of the lead up to, and celebration of, the first Independence Day. My subjects are mostly over 80 now, men and women, upper and lower castes, Hindus and Muslims. They all had varied experience. Yet I noticed one underlying thread: They were all raised in a culture where the country came first. The freedom movement was a singular goal that united the country, and no sacrifice was too small.

In many families, political-minded young adults gave up their education to devote all their time to the freedom movement. They were concerned about their future, of course, but for them that future could only unfold in a free country.

In Bengal, Tarun Kumar Roy, a young teenager, proudly marched past his home, where his mother and sisters were watching, and past the local court where his father was employed. The district magistrate walked up to the group and asked them to go home. Instead, they shouted slogans with renewed vigour. His father could have lost his job and that would have sunk the family into penury. But Roy was thinking of the country.

In Mumbai, four-year-old Ganpat Aiyar watched his father take his beloved double-breasted pinstriped suits and Tootal ties to Gowalia Tank near Tardeo and throw them into the large bonfire. The year was 1942 and Mahatma Gandhi had launched the Quit India movement. Indians everywhere joined in the protest and burnt their non-swadeshi possessions. “It was a bonfire of my father’s vanities,” Aiyar said, “quite literally.”

The leaders’ calls were heard even in remote parts. Sahib Singh Virdi grew up in Goralla Lallian, in Gurdaspur district in present-day Pakistan. The village only had dirt tracks. The local school did not go beyond class IV. The newspapers arrived a week late. Yet Virdi and his family kept abreast of all the developments in the freedom movement. “We were very aware of what was going on in the rest of the country.... We loved our leaders, we respected them. We used to stand for hours to catch a glimpse of them. Nationalistic fervour was a potent potion. We all wanted to be Bhagat Singh,” he told me.

Even after they grew up and the freedom struggle became a story of their past, the idea that the comforts of the individual were secondary to the needs of the nation endured. The engineers in the group all said they had chosen the discipline because by the time they finished school, Jawaharlal Nehru had embarked on the second Five Year Plan and infrastructure building was the focus. Some of my subjects went abroad, training as managers, economists, academicians, but all returned to India because they felt the country needed them.

Yet, in 75 years we seem to have gone from this nation-first, self-second philosophy to a state of indifference to the goings-on. Maybe it is the fact that we do not have a common vision for India any more. Polarisation has ensured people cannot unite against a single issue. Every point has a thousand counter arguments: People will always fight each other, we tell ourselves, what can we do, why bother; we pay our taxes even though we barely get anything in return. These are comforting arguments—but are they ethical ones?

What gives us the freedom to disconnect is class difference. As India’s elite, we are in a position where we can simply buy our way out of India’s inconveniences. It is true that it requires some wilful blindness to live here and remain sane. The road to ruin lies in allowing our hearts to bleed for every poor child who knocks on the car window. But in shoring up our ability to not see the worst, we have managed to evolve into beings who can turn away from all suffering. This privilege of being able to look away has not been in our blood for hundreds of years. It only took a couple of generations. It was our grandparents who toiled at nation-building.

As the original Independence Day generation has shown us, real Indianness is rooted in the spirit of the nation and the community. Seventy-five years on, maybe it’s time to pause and think about that for a moment before hitting the forward button on the Happy Independence Day message we get on the phone.

Veena Venugopal is a Gurugram-based writer. Her book Independence Day: A People’s History will be launched by Juggernaut on 15 August.

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