Me: “Hey dude, I have to work on this piece about what independence really means to me. Any pointers?”
If there’s one thing that’ll never change, it’s that my friends and I will always be cracking jokes about anything and everything, even if it’s our Independence Day. That’s what we do – try to one-up each other all the time. Which is why when I think of people my age from 70 or 80 years ago, there’s a hint of surrealism right there. Did they have time for banter while trying to win freedom from the British? People gave up their lives for the sake of independence but I can’t help think about how their lives might have been more exciting than mine, because every single moment could have been their last. Yep, there’s a chance I’m romanticizing the past, but doing so only proves that there was something back then worth romanticizing. Fifty years from now, would anyone weave tales in their heads about me. Probably not. And that’s really humbling.
So, what does independence mean to someone like me? I can’t speak for anyone else – I’m not the voice of any generation. But yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels the way I do, about the things I’m about to write about.
Growing up in the North-East, 15th August was always confusing. One one hand we had flag-hoisting ceremonies in schools and offices, while on the other we were advised to avoid public areas. There was always some militant group or the other calling a ‘bandh’ on that day. See the irony here? Freedom fighters in the past won us independence, but these new ‘self-proclaimed’ freedom fighters forced us to stay indoors. But the lack of traffic meant, some kids could play cricket on the main road. So there’s that.
Moved to Delhi for higher studies and work. The first independence day in the city was quite amazing. I went out with my friends to Old Delhi and stuffed myself with food. But when dad called to ask where I was, the lie came almost naturally. “Oh, I’m in the hostel, dad. Couldn’t pick up your call earlier cause I decided to wake up late today. Aaj off hai na.” Why, you ask? Because for some of us like my father, 15th August is a day of caution no matter where we are. It tells you a lot about the times we live in. I look forward to a day when it won’t be so anymore, and when that happens, maybe I’ll truly celebrate it the way it’s meant to be celebrated.
Now that I’m working full-time and paying taxes, and consider myself slightly more mature than whatever I was a few years ago, the idea of independence has taken a whole new form. Thanks to the 2G spectrum scams and the Vyapams, the murder of rationalists and silencing of adivasi activists, I’ve come to believe that your independence depends on your identity – the badge you’re wearing that day. As a middle-class urban male, I get to enjoy certain freedoms that others don’t. I get to tweet about some steak or bacon I just ate and score many likes and retweets, but at the same time in the same country, some other man is getting beaten up or lynched for doing his job. How do I come to grips with that? As someone who knows the difference between a nationalist and a patriot, I often find myself surrounded by people who’re trying to snatch away my right to have an opinion, but that’s nothing compared to the teenager who gets arrested for posting a status about Bal Thackeray or liking a pro-Kashmiri freedom page on Facebook. It’s nothing compared to what a Soni Sori or Lingaram Kodopi faces when they try to speak against the government and the private mining nexus. Heck, as a man, I might be scared of venturing into the wrong part of town at night for fear of getting mugged, but that fear takes a whole other shape for a woman in the same situation.
I could go on and on about this, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t. The point is, there is no such thing as absolute freedom. Sure, we’re better off than some of our neighbours but that’s a really poor yardstick for comparison. I love India. More than the land, I love the people. Especially the ones whose voices often get trampled. So I want my country to get to a point where everyone can celebrate their independence, whether it’s from greedy corporations, the subtle pressures of society, superstition, religious dogma or the fear of being silenced.
Until then, I’ll probably think of Independence Day as the day I don’t have to go to work.