Someone said to me today that the BJP (Bharatiya Jana Sangh) supporters consider May 23 as the “true Independence Day” and that Aug. 15 is pro-Pakistan, Brit-engineered one that Gandhi-Nehru swallowed. After all Godse is a patriot now!
In 1967, I turned 17 and headed to college at Delhi University in July. Earlier that year, in February, there had been a famine in Bihar and a number of students from my college had gone to Bihar to work as relief workers, sponsored by our college.
I came to know most of them. They were one to three years my senior. For some of them it changed their lives forever. One of them told me that the day he saw a long line of children waiting for kichidi at a food kitchen, when their families were eating leaves and raw mango seeds, he started, in earnest, to seek a way to change that.
And like so many, myself included, it changed the way we thought about economic and political relationships.
1967 was 20 years after Independence and one party had held sway over India. Bengal and Kerala were exceptions. However, by and large corruption, inequality, lack of opportunity and the bleakness of the future for the vast majority had simply grown. The landless suffered like medieval serfs. Without social media, we can only guess at the state of caste hatreds, religious bigotry, the corruption and caste strangleholds of panchayats, a subversion of an eminently good idea, and the stink of daily oppression for thousands upon thousands.
We ( my college mates and I) were possibly the top 1–2% of that society. We were educated, never wondered about hunger, the future was rolling out in front of us and we laughed often.
As children, when I sat in the back seat of our car as it wound its way on Calcutta roads, I tried not to look at the children, my age and younger, who lived on the sidewalks. But then again, my child’s conscience had an extraordinary balm — -my family ran an educational institution where 99% of the students were poor and blind. This institution was founded and run without government aid for generations. So perhaps I could get a pass? As I finished my first year in college, I couldn’t find a good answer to how I would contribute to making my country better. There didn’t seem to be many options — -civil service, corporate companies, a small and influential journalism sector for English-language publications and academia.
Of all the political parties then, the closest one trying to get the sharecroppers (probably about 11–12% of the agricultural sector, counting in millions) who were landless some redistribution, was the Communist Party Of India, Marxist or CPI(M) in Bengal. However, there was a more radical group forming within the CPI (M) pushing for more aggressive land redistribution. That group was the Communist Party of India, Marxist-Leninist or CPI ( M-L), commonly known as Naxal or Naxalites, after the village of Naxalbari in North Bengal where the spark started but never quite blazed as prairie fire.
At its most elemental level, the hundreds of thousands who joined this upsurge in the late sixties were people who wanted to do something toward justice, equity, and human dignity. Their failure and mine is a tragedy. I am lucky but many weren’t and their suffering is one of my generation’s hidden stories.
Every political party since then has promised something along those lines. We have yet to see concrete results though three steps forward and two steps back is still progress.
India today has about 22% of its population below the poverty line ( $1.25 per day). It used to be over 40%.
Till today, I didn’t feel that I didn’t belong in India. This Hindu Rashtra (country) is different from the India for Indians that the Independence fight was for. I, an atheist, come from a line of converted Muslims and Hindus to Christianity on both sides of my parentage. They converted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The BJPs elected ministers are openly calling such people non-Indians.
The Religious Diversity of India
In recent years, when vigilante gangs and assassination squads killed or brutalized Muslims, Dalits, northeasterners, and intellectuals who spoke out, friends — -ordinary Indians — started spontaneous protests such as Not In My Name. They will continue and I will add my support but the stakes are much higher and the consequences of protest in India might be a whole different ballgame. The RSS might still wear ill-fitting khaki shorts but they now fulfill their time-honored goal — as the militant cadres of the ruling party. After all, the inspiration all those many years ago were the Italian fascists.
Darkness rolls in. I’m reminded that darkness has rolled in before and we have emerged from it. But never without great suffering. I fear that.