Looking back on India's 75 years of freedom
The struggle today is for human rights and human dignity, both within the Church and within the nation.
A worker displays a large Indian national flag at a workshop in Mumbai ahead of India's 75th Independence Day celebrations. (Photo: AFP)
On Aug. 15, India enters its 75th year of independence. Seventy-five years is a long span in the life of an individual. But it’s not all that much in the life of a nation.
The anniversary, however, invites us to take stock of ourselves as Indians and, like the jurist Nani Palkhiwala, to ask ourselves: Is self-rule always better than good rule? What have we gained in these last decades? What did we lose?
Freedom has brought opportunities to almost every class and group of Indians, and this has been the best thing there is. With freedom comes a sense of dignity, an awareness that we are masters of our destiny. We can choose our future. It’s our country.
Not everyone has enjoyed the same kind of opportunity, though. Many Indians have manipulated the system to their advantage. That’s what democracy tends to become — jostling for power, the building of vote banks, electoral fraud repeated every five years.
Many groups have lost out and are embittered today.
Dalit Christians and Muslims are still denied government benefits in spite of being citizens of the country. Sadly, India is still the most unsafe country in the world for its women.
Today India is on the upswing. Its population is young and eager and there’s a heady feeling of success everywhere
We boast of sending satellites into space but still can’t provide decent homes, clean drinking water and electricity to every village in the country.
For decades, the common view of India was that of a poor nation, irredeemably corrupt, desperate for the goodies of the West, sloppy in performance.
No longer. We’ve changed all that. Today India is on the upswing. Its population is young and eager and there’s a heady feeling of success everywhere.
The clearest example is the recent Olympics: in spite of our athletes returning with a meager seven medals, the mood in the country is upbeat and exuberant. Our golden age in sports is just beginning.
There is ferment today in Indian society, seen not just in our big cities and small towns but even in our smallest villages. Author Gurcharan Das calls this “India unbound.”
“India grows by night while the government sleeps,” he says.
Patrick French, another commentator, speaks of “a growing sense that everything, that anything is possible”.
And what has brought about the change? The availability of money and new opportunities for work. It’s money that has churned society and shaken it out of its traditional torpor and religious fatalism.
Money is the new mantra — how soon you can make it, how much you can get, never mind how.
It’s this manthan (churning) that has also revealed the darker sides of Indian society, steeped in hypocrisy, smug in its conceit, retrograde in so many ways.
More than other nations, Indians pride themselves on their religiosity. The recent Pew Survey on religion in India says it all: for Indians to be religious means being both superstitious and conservative. For most Hindus, it simply means “we don’t eat beef.”
Indian writer Nirad Chaudhury once called his country “the continent of Circe,” implying that this land was cursed with contradictions, which turned ordinary human beings into beasts.
For the richer we become, the more the Sensex rises, the more vibrant our economy, the more closed become our minds. Today there is less and less democratic space for contrary ideas and diverse lifestyles.
An oppressive upper-caste minority ... outlaws dissent, spies on its own people and frames charges of sedition and terrorism against activists and intellectuals
A simple kiss in public is seen as going against Indian culture. Muslims are branded as “terrorists” and all conversions by Christians are “forced and fraudulent” meriting police sanction.
An oppressive upper-caste minority, which forms the government today, outlaws dissent, spies on its own people and frames charges of sedition and terrorism against activists and intellectuals.
This is not the India of our scholars and sages who practiced samanvaya and vaad-vivada (discussion and argument). It is certainly not the independent India of which Rabindranath Tagore sang, “… into that heaven of freedom, my brothers, let my country awake!”
This is brute fascism, scavenged from the garbage of Europe, and paraded now as Hindutva (an ideology seeking hegemony of Hindus) and Bharatiya Sanskriti (Indian culture). It is significant that those who promote it played no part in our struggle for independence and were, in fact, British lackeys.
In all this, what is the role of the Christian community? How do we perceive our future in a country in the throes of change? How do others — Dalits, tribal people, women, Muslims, Hindus — perceive us?
The Catholic Church has learned well how to be a compassionate servant of the Indian people. Its schools, hospitals and orphanages, its diverse relief works, are a constant witness to this fact.
The Church must now learn what it takes to be an assertive prophet speaking truth to power against the oppressiveness of the state and against all those who destroy the environment for short-term gain.
Here the life and death of the Jesuit priest Stan Swamy can serve as an exemplar. He fought for the rights of the oppressed tribal people and allowed himself to be unjustly imprisoned, knowing well what death awaited him.
The archaic fights over caste precedence will recede because a new definition of Christian will come into place, a new sense of identity, a new sense of discipleship
One form of prophecy is the call to dialogue, “the new way of being Church today” (Pope Paul VI).
Dialogue provides that common ground so necessary to negotiate, to listen to, to establish consensus, to provide issue-based support if needed. Its opposite is rigidity, an unwillingness to listen, the fear of being overwhelmed.
So perhaps our task for tomorrow as a Christian community is to become an open space where all men and women can find sanctuary, even those who do not share our experience of God.
Perhaps our new mission then is not to convert but to transform, to stand up for the human rights of all who suffer persecution because of religion, community, gender, caste and class. Not just for our own.
When this takes place, the archaic fights over caste precedence will recede because a new definition of Christian will come into place, a new sense of identity, a new sense of discipleship.
This dialogue with the “other” — Dalits, tribal people, women, Hindus, Muslims — is based on an understanding of human rights and an awareness of human dignity. All the constraints of class, caste and creed will not hold it back.
Our struggle in the last century was to become a free country. The fight today is for human rights and human dignity, both within the Church and within the nation.
Nothing, it has been said, is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. The confluence of events tells us ever more surely that the time has come.
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.