Serenade to India: A look from abroad at the world’s largest democracy at 75

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The Federation of Indian Associations of Tristate held the first ever Indian Independence Day flag hoisting ceremony at Times Square Aug. 15, 2020. Consul General of India in New York Randhir Kumar Jaiswal, hoisted the flag. Photo courtesy FIA

“The non-violent, anti-colonial movement Mahatma Gandhi led to forge the foundation of the world’s largest democracy is one that I draw immense inspiration from.” “I hold deep pride in the values that this movement embodied, and I can only hope to emulate them in my life moving forward as an Indian American,” says Karthik Nagappan. Nagappan, a recent fellow at Washington Leadership Program, does not have a history with India. Belonging to a much younger generation, and having been born in the U.S., he still values India and takes pride in his heritage.

Speaking to Desi Talk, Nagappan said he feels India’s Independence Day brings the ideals of freedom, democracy and justice to the world. He said he is going to add to his knowledge of India’s political and cultural history.

Similar are the sentiments of Karan Virmani, chief financial officer at Profreight Inc., New Jersey, who is a first generation immigrant. “Having been born and raised in India, only moving to the US at the age of twenty one, Independence Day still brings me pride and an unspoken connection to my country. It may be almost two decades since I moved away but my heart still belongs to India and on this day the feeling of belonging is the strongest. The longer one lives in a different country, the more you integrate and lose that touch with your motherland, but certain days help relive that emotion and connection that no other country can give you,” he said to Desi Talk.

He said he plans to celebrate India’s Independence Day by doing “all things Indian”, from the clothing to the food to the music, and also teaching his two children about India’s rich culture.

The young Indian Americans have different dreams of a different world. There are no hold bars in their world. They want to be politicians, historians, space scientists, engineers, writers, actors. Their world is much wider and is not restricted by national or racial borders. And yet, with deep roots in India their parents hold, they relate to India and Indianness with ease today, and however superficial their knowledge, they show their support by surprising acts. If an eleven year old does a science project of collecting used cell phones for Covid victims in India, some other teenager is creating new softwares to help protect identities. There are others contributing to scientific research. The world has really been one big family for immigrant children. They don’t differentiate between countries, origins, color of skin, national identity.

Indian Americans who are public figures like former Kansas state rep Shanti Gandhi, Congressman Ro Khanna (D-California), Vice President Kamala Harris, Kumar Barve of Maryland State Legislature, Kesha Ram, former Vermont State Assembly member, Sabrina Singh, the national press secretary for New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s presidential campaign, all have spoken of their parents or grandparents being part of India’s freedom struggle, and of a feeling of pride in their roots. Being of Indian origin has given them a sense of pride and a sense of belonging to history, they have said.

Eager fans wanting selfies and pictures as Suniel Shetty, Bollywood actor and successful businessman, leans out of the leading float at the Aug. 18, 2019, India Day Parade in Manhattan where an estimated crowd of around 100,000 people came, according to the Federation of Indian Associations-NYNJCT. (Photo: Paresh Gandhi/FIA)

It then becomes obvious that such pride needs to be injected into all of the younger generation. Observers have often expressed doubts about links to Indian heritage of the younger Indian Americans. Anju Bhargava who is the founder of Hindu American Seva Communities, and an ordained priest and also former member of President Obama’s  inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, feels the younger Indian Americans have little interest and information about India. But she is still hopeful of a change. “Notably, every association and everybody from India will be celebrating India’s Independence Day around the U.S. So it will creep into the consciousness,” Bhargava said in an interview with Desi Talk.  “The good thing is all these associations will make the Independence Day celebration more mainstream – plant the seeds for future generations,” she continued. “And in the long term it helps shape policies toward India. Hopefully, over time, brown children will be asked about India’s independence in class. And just like Diwali has become well known, so it will be with India’s Independence Day. We are all ambassadors”, Bhargava said.

As India braces itself to cross the line of 75 years of independence in its marathon run to its ultimate dream, thoughts arise about the milestones that have been crossed. Independence for a country can be from a foreign rule and independence can also be freedom from its own restrictive and self-destructive actions and belief system.

If India, at this point turns around and takes a look at what it left behind, it may find gold. It may also find intermittent darkness. History tells us India’s warming up to independence began with the freedom struggle and non-violent resistance. The starry dreams of thousands of patriots filled their hearts with joy over India’s tryst with destiny, of being free.

History tells us that before that came much pain, sadness, loss, and mountainous tasks, the toughest being the one of uniting all the small city states to be part of the union, and create an idea of one unified country. History also tells us that the resultant independence has, over 75 years, manifested itself in India’s achievements in space technology, in education, in women’s upliftment, in longevity, in literature and arts. A look backward on the trail would reveal a Mars orbiter and a moonlander,  a literacy rate going from 12 per cent at Independence to 77 per cent last year with millions graduating from high schools and universities, and a huge group of women achievers such as Sarla Thakral, the first woman pilot, Muthayya Vanitha and Ritu Karidhal, the scientists who headed India’s moon mission Chandrayaan two, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, CEO of Biocon, Sushama Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman, the external affairs and defense ministers, and much more.

But it is not all gold. The backward look would also bring in view the stumbling blocks, analysts and India-lovers would agree. Many have wondered if India would ever get independent of prejudice which has crept into all layers of life, be it politics, education, work, economic progress, and has brought the country to a stand-still now and again. One would also see extreme lethargy in giving up vain comparisons which have fed false pride, personal competitions and cruelty. Back there, almost reaching up to the mark of 75 where India stands right now, would also be seen huge dust storms of lack of sense of social and collective responsibility. India may pause and dwell some more on its dream of independence, and wonder if it has today achieved what was charted out in the early dreams and the constitution.

Perhaps India has not fulfilled its promises. Gyan Prakash, professor of History at Princeton, and author of several books, the latest entitled, Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi & Democracy’s Turning Point, holds a grim outlook on India’s achievements, and feels the present-day India is a repudiation of what it stood for. “Independence … was sought, with all its shortcomings, as a promissory note for equality, plurality, secularism …”, Prakash said to Desi Talk in an interview. “There are many achievements to speak of, but in the moment, if you look back from this moment, it is so dark, it overshadows the achievements,” he said.

Others have held less grim and more forgiving views. According to Professor Ramesh Rao of Columbus State University, a section of Western intelligentsia imposed its own concepts, a Eurocentric interpretation of ideas of tolerance, secularism and humanism. Indians would have done better if they had only followed their own ideas and constructs of these ideals handed down from ancient traditions like the “darshanas, itihasa, and puranas, and the arthashastras and dharmashastras of indigenous masters,”  he said to Desi Talk. “The cry that “democracy is dying in India,” is both premature and politically inspired, and democracy itself, as a way of managing our affairs will need to be rethought,” Rao added. Speaking of the Independence Day, Rao said, “Let us see. Let us hope this 74th Independence Day celebrations will bring some new vigor in India, and help Indians show the way out to a cleaner, greener, less meaner world to our pandemic-ridden world.”

Social observers and cultural anthropologists say India is yet to achieve inner independence. India needs to perhaps pause a little in its race for modernity and think why fetters such as prejudice, rigidity in thought and action still hold India back. If Ancient India gave us the idea of a unified universe, “Vasudhaiwa kutumbakam”, of universal brotherhood amongst all human beings, modern India has seen a total neglect of the principle. The extremes of individualization turning into selfishness and “I-centric ideas” have permeated into the Indian ethos, leaving no place for ‘agape’, it has been said.

Seventy five years is a long time in the life of a free nation. In spite of that, on the trajectory of becoming an ideal nation, India is still young. There has been enough analyses and introspection. Perhaps it is time to stop looking inward and looking back. Perhaps it is time to look forward, take into account its strengths and build new structures. The findings of the backward look would empower it if India decides to use that knowledge to reaffirm its strengths and rid itself of the debris and dirt. At this juncture in the race, it remains to be seen by India if it has achieved complete freedom in reality and woken “into that heaven of freedom” that poet, thinker and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore proposed.

At whatever point India is today, it is still most first generation immigrants’ love. And so, Indian Americans gather together and celebrate India’s Independence Day with parades and fairs and flag hoisting and concerts of patriotic songs. The president of the Federation of Indian Associations, organizer of the New York City parade, Anil Bansal, reiterated the pride and the hope Indian Americans feel. “Today we stand proud of all the people of Indian origin, who made very significant contributions during the pandemic, all over the world. On this special day, we salute the visionaries of modern India for giving us today, a thriving multicultural country and contribution to the entire world,” he said to Desi Talk.

Indianness is a state of mind. It has kept alive within immigrant Indians. And, we look to our younger generation to be torch bearers to the homeland stuck in the middle. The young, both here and in India, seem to hold the promise of a different freedom, a freedom Tagore spoke of “Where the world has not been broken up into fragments By narrow domestic walls” and “Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit”.

Archana Adalja is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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