By Moin Qazi
August 15 is the most cherished date in the Indian calendar .it was on this momentous day, more than seven decades back, that we were born an independent and free country. Mahatma Gandhi’s luminous leadership finally made the British Quit India in 1947. It is undoubtedly an occasion for celebration. More than that, it is a point in a nation’s journey when we need to introspect and evaluate whether we have realized the dream of our Father of the Nation, who guided the nation’s journey of liberation from colonialism. We must remember that Gandhiji had proclaimed that true freedom would be one where every Indian can live a life free of hunger and deprivation. As the great philosopher Voltaire said, “The poor man is never free; he serves in every country.” Gandhiji himself emphasized several times that his mission in life was to wipe every tear from every eye.
In his famous’ Tryst with Destiny’ speech, broadcast on the radio at the midnight hour of India’s birth as an independent nation on August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister, articulated the new nation’s promise to its people in words whose soul-stirring resonance still echoes today:
“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go, and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the commoner, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic, and progressive nation; and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”
My grandfather remembers how fired he and his friends were by Nehru’s sincerity and determination; indeed, how some of the venerable elderly elite who listened to that historical speech commented that they felt like the old and frail war horses who spring back into action propelled by the bugle call. They felt like they were hearing the Delphic oracle.
Nehru’s vision remains as inspiring today as when he first spoke the words, but the goals remain equally elusive. India’s poor still wait for opportunity and justice; too many of their lives are still fraught with poverty, ignorance, and disease. Undoubtedly, some of the worst exploitation of human beings occurs in India.
The great poet Faiz Ahmed’s Faiz lament is laden with stark truth:
“..This is not the morning we’d fought for,
In whose eager quest, all comrades
I had set out, hoping that somewhere
In the wilderness of the sky
Would emerge the ultimate destination of stars…”
Indeed as Mahatma Gandhi had envisioned, the struggle for the larger freedom was the journey towards the second independence, the faithful but elusive freedom, the freedom from poverty.
Nehru reiterated Gandhi’s vision of independence:
“Mahatma Gandhi taught us to view our national struggle always in terms of the underprivileged and those to whom opportunity had been denied. . We realized there was no real freedom for those who continually suffered from want. Because millions lacked the barest necessities of existence in India, we thought of freedom in terms of raising and bettering the lot of these people”.
On this day, as we remind ourselves of the noble and grand vision of our Father of the nation, you will be amazed to know that the inequality gap between the rich and poor has widened to unbelievable proportions.
This concentration of wealth and power in a very circumscribed elite brings to the fore many vital issues. This culture strains the values which define democracy. A critical strength of a democratic culture is that it allows everyone to pursue their interests freely. But, as Alexis de Tocqueville reckoned, the democratic individual can easily be trapped by the delusion that they are wealthy enough and educated enough to supply their own needs. “Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anyone. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”
This is an ancient problem. Pericles, the grand champion of democracy in ancient Athens, praised the individual initiative but also cautioned against citizens who live only for themselves. He believed that such individuals have no right to be part of the city-state to which they owe their prosperity. He had a noun for such folks, too, idiotes – from which we get the well-known English word.
According to the Global Poverty Project, women make up half the world’s population and yet represent a staggering 70 per cent of the world’s poor. They earn only 10% of the world’s income and half of what men earn. The report notes, “We live in a world in which women living in poverty face gross inequalities and injustice from birth to death. From poor education to poor nutrition to vulnerable and low pay employment, the sequence of discrimination that a woman may suffer during her entire life is unacceptable but all too common.”
Capacities for specialized problem solving and mass communication, until recently controlled by a few elites, are now accessible to anyone with a smartphone. There is the democratization of leadership, where everyone can make and lead change. Yet our education system and other institutions remain geared towards the old, siloed, hierarchized, repetitive approach leaving young people ill-prepared for the cascading changes coming. Young people need to look outward, get out of their zip codes, and experience situations different from the ones they are conditioned to expect.
India is striving to build hundreds of smart cities, towns and villages. We must ensure that they are humane, hi-tech and happy places leading to the creation of a technology-driven but compassionate society. In this age of technological advance, machines are being pitted against men. The only way to survive this is to acquire knowledge and skills, and learn to innovate. Inclusive innovations linked to the aspirations of our people can benefit a wide spectrum of society as well as preserve our diversity.
It is time we understand that India will grow only when all of India grows. The excluded ones have to be included in the development journey. The hurt and the alienated have to be brought back into the mainstream. In these challenging times, Nehru’s’ Tryst with Destiny’ speech has great resonance:
“The future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means ending poverty, ignorance, disease, and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation (Gandhiji) has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but our work will not be over as long as there are tears and suffering.”
One unique feature that has held India together is our respect for each other’s cultures, values and beliefs. It is our amazing strength, and we should safeguard it. The essence of plurality lies in cherishing our heterogeneity and valuing our diversity. In today’s networked environment, a caring society can only be developed by harmonizing religion with modern science. Swami Vivekananda once observed: “What is needed is a fellow-feeling between the different types of religion, seeing that they all stand or fall together, a fellow-feeling which springs from mutual respect, and not the condescending, patronizing, niggardly expression of goodwill.”