India: A Moment in History

Today, as India celebrates its independence day, let us return to the derelict house in Beliaghata in Kolkata, where Gandhi took refuge on the day of independence of India. There he was, frail and all of his 78 years old, not in a celebratory mood. The independence, celebrated with pomp in Delhi, where Nehru read out his famous speech, delivered in English, was nothing alike what Gandhi visualized.

This is what Faiz Ahmed Faiz would write in his 'Dawn of Freedom', which assumed a different view from Nehru's awakening of a nation:

These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light --
This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing,
so sure that somewhere in its desert the sky harbored
a final haven for the stars, and we would find it.
We had no doubt that night's vagrant wave would stray
towards the shore,
that the heart rocked with sorrow would at last reach its port.

Friends, our blood shaped its own mysterious roads.
When hands tugged at our sleeves, enticing us to stay,
and from wondrous chambers Sirens cried out
with their beguiling arms, with their bare bodies,
our eyes remained fixed on that beckoning Dawn,
forever vivid in her muslins of transparent light.
Our blood was young -- what could hold us back?

Now listen to the terrible rampant lie:
Light has forever been severed from the Dark;
our feet, it is heard, are now one with their goal.
See our leaders polish their manner clean of our suffering:
Indeed, we must confess only to bliss;
we must surrender any utterance for the Beloved -- all yearning
is outlawed.

But the heart, the eye, the yet deeper heart --
Still ablaze for the Beloved, their turmoil shines.
In the lantern by the road the flame is stalled for news:
Did the morning breeze ever come? Where has it gone?
Night weighs us down, it still weighs us down.
Friends, come away from this false light. Come, we must
search for that promised Dawn.

[Translated by Agha Shahid, This translation was first published in Annual of Urdu Studies 11 (1996), now made available by MINDS@UW under a Creative Commons license.]

That search, of promised dawn, I shall contend, is still on. While our usual independence day mornings were about unfurling the flag in public libraries or schools, and then watching Indian military march past at various state capitals and Delhi, followed by a boringly predictable display of India's various folk dresses and dances, every Independence Day morning is a new reminder of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's vision of False Dawn, of what we have not achieved, to be celebrated in penance like Gandhi's morning in Beliaghata, which he made a day of fasting. While our day is usually one of noise and celebration, it should be a day of silence, dedicated to the millions that died in the wake of partition. While it is a reminder of our huge military strength and our ability to wipe out Pakistan of the face of the earth, it should be a moment of remembrance that we have tried that mistaken course before.

Nothing can be taken away from the achievements of Independent India, but our selective memory affects the country's ability to stay the course and deliver sustainable prosperity to all its citizens. It is not just the Babus in Delhi and Calcutta and Mumbai who had won the Independence, it is rather those little people who got sacrificed at the alter. For those little people, of a different generation now, fighting with the same Indian state they helped to create in various fatigues in the jungles, trying to cling on to their ancestral lands or indigenous cultures, freedom has not arrived yet. Independence Days are reminders that we should reach out to them rather than sending helicopter gunships for them: This is a message still terribly lost on our leaders, our intelligentsia and our gentlemen.


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