When distant memories have crystallised in time, frozen, a story can begin. When the whiffs of half-forgotten glories rustle through the leaves of the Tree of Life, say the Kalpavriksha or Shajarat al-Kholoud or Etz Chaim, the poetry of existence commences. Tales and bardic narrations that trip and traipse and wander around, as if in a stupor, in the by-lanes of history, half-asleep in legend and half-awake in reality, part-mythical, entirely fascinating. One such gem of collective memory that shines bright in the history of mankind is that of the attainment of laissez-aller and emancipation by a people who had seen the heydays of glorious empires, from the Mahajanapadas to the Delhi Sultanate and the British Raj, and the trepidation that came with despoiling invaders such as Mahmud of Ghazni and Timur, the prosperity that gave their land the moniker of the ‘Golden Sparrow’ and the depths of deprivation and poverty to the extent that the first half of the twentieth century saw growth only just trickling in. A people seemingly so resilient and strong that come-what-may they just would not give up! A natural question is: what made them so resilient?
The highs and lows of life are aspects of the truth of life. Be it the theistic conception of the absolute Truth or a more atheistic, naturalist’s conception of the truth in the workings of the University and society, the basis for existence is, at the end of the day, truth. The truth of an underlying understanding of what it means to be human, or to even exist. The truth of an implicit realisation of the relational reality of nature as well as society: in that, we add meaning to each other in a fundamental way and create a fabric with the intricate weaving of social interactions. India has been a unique nation in that it has had an ancient cultural nationalism, albeit not quite a territorial one. This nationalism has assimilated disparate strands of culture and thought, and evolved – often beyond recognition – to a more practical synthesis of what the people have sought, in terms of social orientations and constructs. It is in this almost-Darwinian evolution and the truth in a consciousness and understanding that could lead to this flexibility and mobility that the Indian people have often seen an unmatched resource. This is why whoever may have been the ruler of the lands and however chaotic transitions between regimes have been, the Indians have fallen back on the resource of their social consciousness and organisation. This is why Gandhi employed the powerful technique of Satyagraha, which is much more than just an ‘honest request’ which is the transliteration of the term, and is reflective of a movement to appeal to the Truth of humanity, of showing a mirror to the inhuman exploitation and injustice meted out by the British, of pricking at the conscience and trying to raise the consciousness of the colonial regime to become cognisant of expression and existence, in the pure, raw form that years of subjugation had left the Indians with.
So, when in 1947, India got Independence, it was only natural for the country to take the motto of ‘Satyameva Jayate‘ or ‘Truth alone Triumphs’. This was an ancient mantra from the Mundaka Upanishad, an Indian scripture. However the Satya that we had fought for: a harmony and truth in the existence and essence of what could be construed as Indian-ness, was apparently lost. Even though India attained its independence from the British Raj on 15 August 1947, I feel that, curiously, within less than a decade, it was back in shackles. The white sahab was replaced by the brown babu. The Viceregal Palace was renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan. Names of a few cities were desi-fied. Bombay became Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata and strangely Madras became Chennai! But certain structures of oppression and hierarchy in society still remained. Certain ideas of what it meant to be Indian remained. Ideas that created conceptual constructs that created philosophies and even politics. India was birthed in a chaotic backdrop, with Partition and its after-effects. Even as a fledgling country trying to make sense of itself, India never quite had a problem with the diversity of its constituents. Unity in diversity became a catchphrase and a cornerstone of what it meant to be Indian. Tolerance and pluralism came to India as easily as breathing was to man. Spontaneous. Simple. Founded on centuries, nay millennia, of assimilation and churning of cultures, philosophies, ideas and people.
And then the undercurrents of differences burst forth, breaking the dams of reason, tearing asunder the fabric of Indian society.
The Hindu-Muslim riots over the decades, the caste-politics and problem of segregation of certain communities, the issues faced by women and LGBTQ+ individuals. Names, identities, appearances, communities and political affiliations started playing such a role that just being human did not matter. The tragedy in all this is that India is the country where sages and seers and prophets and thinkers over the ages have spoken of liberation. Liberation from the politics and realities of identities, of conditioning and culturing, of human constructs that encumber. Moksha, as the Vedic seers would have put it, albeit also in a realm beyond the immediate and the material. This is the promise that India has made over the ages to the world and to humanity: the promise of a path that liberates, irrespective of faith. And today, in our bid to satiate primal human instincts and even vices, we have forgotten this truth and that the politics of identities is based on chance. The chance of being born in a certain family or community. The chance of being a certain gender or having a sexual orientation. No one had a sign-up sheet for selecting identities before being born. So why should they bear the historical baggage accrued over time, relating to a certain identity-construct.
Gone are the days when the colour of your skin defined whether you could enter a certain pub in the United States of America.
Gone are the days when a man from a lower caste in India could not walk on the same street as a Brahmin.
Gone are the days when women were not allowed to vote in the Estates General of pre-Revolution France.
Or so I hope. For surely, even today, we find crimes against black men every day. We find villages in Tamil Nadu that still have walls separating the Brahmin section from that of the lower castes. Even today women are not represented enough in offices, industries, politics and civil society.
When I see the politics of India today, I feel befuddled by the amount of homogenization taking place across the board. All Hindus vote as one, while all Muslims vote as one? News: well they do not. They do not have the same concerns or interests or the same personality or likes and dislikes. All Yadavs and all Bhumihars vote as blocks? Well they do not, or at least I hope they do not, since individuals have that gem of a treasure that man is born with: free will. The expression of one’s individuality and the subtle interplay of identities and culturing is important, as is a compassionate cognisance of the larger society and how one relates to it. When that same culturing and those very identities come with their baggage, which is used for political reasons, then that makes it problematic, nay dangerous. For one then tries to create factory-manufactured robots out of men, blueprints for which are made in the stifling laboratories of communal, casteist, sexist realpolitik. We need to address this subtle point with a lot of nuance, and for this, we need to educate, to make people aware of this. To make them cognisant of their identities and yet not wear them on their sleeves, for the politics of chance is like tectonic plates: ever-shifting and quite unstable.
Gone are the days when the Indians were fighting the British. Gone are the days when the other-ing of people and civilizations played such a big role. Today the battle is within. It is a battle of prejudices. Of how we look at people and at ourselves. Of how identities and ideas become such an end in themselves that we stop looking at people as brother and sisters in this firmament of existence. The other day, I happened to hear the BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav speak about how we live and die for nationalism. Well, we should not! Nationalism is a construct as is the idea of the nation state. Yes, it is invested with ideas and sacrifices and a historical heritage. But it still is not an end in itself. Cannot be. It is the people who constitute it that make a nation, and it is in their humanity that the promise of tomorrow lies. It is in the being and the awareness of one’s being that the true sense of purpose, nay even a certain divinity, resides. The same goes with money and the economy, which is still a construct made for convenience. When one sees the crimes related to money and the avarice of a fair few that can dehumanize people for profit, one wonders: are we truly advanced? Are we truly sensible and reasonable and as post-Enlightenment as many would like us to believe?
In India, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw casteism become the nerve-centre of the nation. Rather the bid to correct the wrongs of casteism, with the establishment of the Mandal Commission. As much as that is something I personally stand by, having seen the oppression of various communities based on their caste, I do believe that it left a whole range of questions to be addressed. Oppression and deprivation is never static. It is breathing, it is evolving, it is dynamic. Like a beast from the bowels of the purgatory of Milton. Then why must one not challenge this beast in a balanced and yet assertive way? Why must one not see how historical wrongs cut across socio-cultural, economic and political spaces, in a criss-cross of legacies? Intersectionality is such a key aspect in this regard. Intersectionality of identities play a pre-eminent role today. A black woman does not earn as much as a white woman does in USA, in offices. A girl child from a backward community in Haryana may still drop-out while her brothers continue with their education and avail the benefits of reservation in government jobs. A Brahmin rickshaw-wala may need support way more than someone from the SC/ST/OBC category who has done well in life as has his family for a few generations! These are all different pieces of the jigsaw of deprivation and systemic oppression, and all are equally true. And our ways to tackle them should be to effectively address these as well as to transcend them.
This neatly brings me to the question of Jammu and Kashmir, and as my previous blog posts may have shown, though I have strongly felt that the state may be Indian, by law and until there is a call for secession under international law if human rights violations cross a limit, I have felt the manner in which Article 370 was abrogated was hurried and without consultations. I have felt the need for greater representation of the voice of the Kashmiris on the ground. Not the Abdullahs or Muftis in power but the shikara-men on Dal Lake or the youth who have to walk miles to get to their nearest town in Ladakh. Of the women in the Valley or the Kashmiri Pandits who were driven away from the state so brutally in the late 1980s and early 1990s. All their truths, all their lives, all their voices. Self-determination is the right of every person and community, since free will is important to be safeguarded and it is only in a society that ensures that do we get a reflection of a truly human society. A Dharmic society. One could argue that there have been external influences and powers that have led people astray but then the prerogative of the government should have been to win them over, to take them into confidence, to show them before imposing why being a part of India is good for them and, most importantly, draw the Indian-ness out through dialogue and discussion rather than a military lockdown. I have had strong reservations against the move even though I have supported the end that they were aiming for. This is crucial since self-determination is an important preceding step to the liberation from the politics of identities for I do believe that when a person looks within and acts on their truest being, they cut across what chance and birth and dogma (from family and/or community) may have encumbered them with. That is the chance that Kashmir deserved, as much as Jammu and Ladakh did. Relative truths may be compromised by fake news the world over, and sadly so at some places in the Kashmir issue, but the absolute Truth that is being compromised even more is the Truth of the lives, free will, consciousness and society of all the people of Jammu and Kashmir. I hope that they do get the chance, possibly via decentralisation and devolution of power, as much as I believe that this is the first Independence Day when the entire nation is truly one again and independent from all external dangers, constitutionally speaking, slightly forced as this development is. But then the question is: are we truly independent yet?
Notwithstanding the liberation for, and freedom to, self-determine, I believe the next struggle for independence, for liberation, for India, nay the world, is liberation from the politics of identities, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph. And that can only be done by a two-pronged approach: truly addressing and correcting historical wrongs, and breaking free from the prejudices and biases and looking at people for their innate humanity (easier said than done). We, as a society, as a species, need to move towards training ourselves to do this. Each of us. Every one of us. In small but sure-footed steps. And at each point in time, for biases and prejudices occur over time, as do hate and liking, emotions and ideas. One has to self-correct at every point and be aware of points when one strays from this balanced path of true liberation. Even though here I speak about constructs of identities, I believe that this true liberation is also a liberation from constructs in general, but that is for another article and something that touches upon a slightly spiritual aspect of things. Much like all the epics of the world and all the battles of the good and the evil are actually battles within, in a higher sense, this battle for true liberation has to be waged within.
To break free of fetters of the mind and soar into the open skies, truly mukt (free), even as we live! I hope that India stands on the promise it has made to humanity since times immemorial, given its rich heritage and spirit, and this Independence Day is truly an occassion for liberation and independence for Indians across the country and even beyond!