Happy 75th Independence Day! Please Take Care Of Your Belongings, Especially Your Freedoms
Statism more visible in sport than in public sector, Bhils making Constitution their own, Partition literature across South Asian languages, cow critical of dubious flag marches takes direct action
A newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas | Contributors: MK Venu, Seema Chishti, Siddharth Varadarajan, Sidharth Bhatia, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam | Editor: Pratik Kanjilal
Snapshot of the day
August 15, 2022
In India at 75 PEN America, which tracks curbs on creative freedoms worldwide, looks at the state-mandated celebration of Independence Day with mixed feelings. It notes that the country, which was born championing a wide range of freedoms, rejecting untouchability in the personal sphere, embracing multiculturalism in communities and non-alignment in external affairs, nevertheless “retained many colonial-era laws that restricted freedoms and, over the years, added more such laws, undermining its democracy.” And after 2014, the party in power has turned up hate speech and violent discrimination against minorities, and hollowed out co-opted institutions to annul resistance to the confiscation of freedoms.
In the creative domain, PEN America regretfully finds that in its Freedom to Write Index, “India is the only nominally democratic country included in our count of the top 10 jailers of writers and public intellectuals worldwide. In recent years, India has seen an acceleration of threats against free speech, academic freedom and digital rights, and an uptick in online trolling and harassment.” But ancillary developments are also disenfranchising creative speech ― inflation, unemployment, insecurities created by poorly managed external threats and diabolically well-managed internal violence, and the constant pressure on citizens to march in step. These factors also determine how free we are.
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PEN America sought responses from writers in India and the diaspora, and they range from despair to defiance. On the 75th anniversary of freedom at midnight, they note the destruction of freedoms which Indians have enjoyed ― barring the blip of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency ― as their birthright. Here is a small selection, led by Salman Rushdie, the original midnight’s child, who is thankfully off the ventilator after a potentially lethal attack. It happened halfway around the world in New York, but the trail which led to the incident began over three decades ago in India. After the publication of The Satanic Verses, an interview of Rushdie appeared in the country’s leading newsmagazine of the time. It was apparently spiced up a little too enthusiastically by an editor. Over in Iran, it incensed Ayatollah Khomeini, and the fatwa against Rushdie followed.
Then, in the First Age of Hindustan Hamara, our India, we celebrated one another’s festivals, and believed, or almost believed, that all of the land’s multifariousness belonged to all of us. Now that dream of fellowship and liberty is dead, or close to death. A shadow lies upon the country we loved so deeply. Hindustan isn’t hamara any more. The Ruling Ring — one might say — has been forged in the fire of an Indian Mount Doom. Can any new fellowship be created to stand against it?
Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay and lives in New York. He is the author of 20 books, including Midnight’s Children. His many international honours include the Booker Prize, the Best of Booker Prize, Companion of honour (UK), PEN Pinter Prize, PEN/Allen Lifetime Achievement Award, US), and the EU’s Aristeion Prize.
15 August, 1942. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Azad and thousands of other freedom fighters are in prison. More than 90,000 people will be arrested and up to 10,000 killed as the Quit India movement is crushed. Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai will die in prison. Millions will perish of hunger. India is an occupied and hostile country, says a British general. Virtually no one — not the rulers looting the country’s wealth, nor the people crushed under their weight and induced to fight one another instead of their exploiters — can imagine, in this darkest of dark times, that in a few years the land will be free.
15 August, 2022. Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu, GN Saibaba, Gautam Navlakha, Arun Ferreira, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut, Vernon Gonsalves, Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Sharjeel Imam, Umar Khalid, Aasif Sultan, Siddique Kappan, Sanjiv Bhatt, Teesta Setalvad and countless other freedom fighters are in prison. So are thousands of Muslims, for being Muslim, Dalits, for being Dalit, and Adivasis, for living on mineral-rich land that billionaires covet. Stan Swamy is dead. Gauri Lankesh, Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and far too many other truth-tellers — rural reporters, Right to Information activists — are also dead. Murdered. And innumerable people whose crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Three-quarters of Indians are malnourished and being induced in their desperation to turn upon one another instead of their exploiters. Just one of their rulers is the world’s fourth-richest man.
India is once again an occupied and starving country. It’s hard to imagine, in this darkest of dark times, that the country will soon be free. But history repeats. And great evil always falls to great courage.
(Madhusree Mukerjee is the author of Churchill’s Secret War and The Land of Naked People. She is a Guggenheim awardee and senior editor at Scientific American.)
While reading a book, I came across a thought. Quite a profound one. That nudging thing would not let me sleep. No matter how hard I tried, it didn’t give up, so I
simply decided to sleep with it.
When I woke up in the morning, I found that the thought had sprouted, so I rushed with it to my front yard, in order to plant it. However, I knew that the soil in my own yard was not quite productive, while my neighbour’s land was very fertile. Besides, he liked gardening. So, I crossed over the fence and carefully planted the tiny sprout there. Even before it rained, the little sprout drew nutrients and bloomed to become a plant. Soon it was a tree that bore flowers and fruits. The neighbour was delighted.
I was then surprised to learn that the fruits had therapeutic value that provided an instant cure for many ailments. People flocked at the neighbour’s door asking him to give them some. The generous neighbour never sent away anyone empty-handed. Whenever he was at private get-togethers or at public meetings, the neighbour shared his fruits with the people.
News started popping up about this healing fruit. The stories were afloat, day in and day out.
Someone who could not see well now had a clear and effective vision.
A confused soul claimed to have gained a new-found understanding.
Someone who had been faltering to see the path clearly, now had the foresight to see what was coming.
A person whose intelligence had gathered dust found the wheels turning again. Even someone with severe brain fever was cured.
What surprised me the most was when I saw Mr X, a person known for his crooked ways, was now most well-natured, as good as Mr A1. Even the abusive Mr Y and Mr Z, who always mouthed profanities, were unrecognisable with their newfound persona of piousness.
Before long, the fruit had become popular on Facebook, the number of its followers increasing with every passing day.
Nevertheless, all good things always face an alternate viewpoint. The disapproving frowns gradually started rising.
Someone had a severe stomach ache from just the smell of the fruit.
Some got indigestion.
Some others’ migraines had worsened.
Some started throwing up at the smell of the fruit.
While some suffered from insomnia.
When things became worrisome, the affected people held a meeting and decided to give my neighbour a piece of their mind. “Do not go around distributing those fruits, do not even let people take them away,” they said.
When the angry men found the neighbour not paying any heed to their plea, they saw to it that the fruits were legally banned. They spread rumours that the seed was smuggled from the enemy country, giving people a reason to troll the neighbour for it.
“Such anti-national activities will not be tolerated by our Bharat-Premi Sena,” the patriots vowed.
The perpetrators then realised to their chagrin that the neighbour was named Bharat! So they decided to look for a new name for their outfit.
One day, I overheard their conspiracy to teach my neighbour a lesson. When I called on him and cautioned him about it, he simply laughed.
Soon afterwards, in the dread of a dark night, I heard frightful sounds in my neighbourhood. I felt a chill in my spine when I could sense truckloads of people gathered there. I plugged up my ears and tried to sleep. I envisaged my neighbour being put to sleep for good. In no time, I could sense the sparks flying, hear the embers ticking and feel the heat on my skin. Did they set the house on fire?
It was much later in the wee hours that the spell subsided. Yet, I could not get myself to fall asleep. The thought I had found in the book kept nagging me.
The next day, gauging the situation, I solemnly made my way over to my neighbour’s house. He was in a murky mood. It was not his house but the tree that was in ashes.
“They should have just killed me instead. Why the innocent tree? They incinerated it along with its flowers, fruits, roots…” He said. I wiped his tears and quietly walked away without even a fleeting look at the burnt tree.
As I reached home, I suddenly had an inkling of doubt. I examined it closely. And look —
the thought that was nagging me at night, had grown a sprout.
(Translated from the Konkani by Riya Kirtani. Damodar Mauzo lives in Goa and writes in Konkani. He is the recipient of the Jnanpith Award 2022.)
I am not allowed to say the name of the person who told me, years ago: “India is not a nation. It is a prisonhouse of all possible nations.” Now this person is incarcerated, but I can’t describe the specifics of their suffering. What if these words are read somewhere in the command tower of that vast, subcontinent-sized prisonhouse also known as India, and orders are then passed demanding more suffering? As Colonel Joll puts it in JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, “First I get lies, you see … first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth.”
That is the sort of truth that has led to thousands in Indian prisons at the same time as India supposedly celebrates 75 years of freedom. “Ignorance is Strength.” “War is Peace.” And, of course, “Freedom is Slavery.” But still there are some names that can be said, should be said, in case we forget these prisoner citizens whose crimes include being opposed to Hindu majoritarianism and to capitalism and wanting justice for the most immiserated, marginalised sections of India’s vastly unequal society.
I can say the name of Stan Swamy, incarcerated and eventually killed by the Indian state on July 5, 2021. I can say his name because his life, if not his memory, is beyond the reach of the prisonhouse. Father Stan, dead at 84 because those running India are terrified of a Jesuit priest whose life was dedicated to working with indigenous people brutalised by Hindutva, the state and the market. Father Stan, suffering from Parkinson’s, but denied bail by “His Honour the Special Judge Dinesh E Kothalikar,” who called it an “alleged sickness.” Say Father Stan’s name. Say it.
I can say the name of Arun Ferreira, who writes about his incarceration in his memoir, Colours of the Cage: A Memoir of an Indian Prison and who was back behind bars before I had time to write the foreword to the American edition of his book. Say his name. Say it. And say the names of Umar Khaled and Rona Wilson. Say the names of Anand Teltumbde and Surendra Gadling, of Sudhir Dhawale and Shoma Sen, of Mahesh Raut and Jyoti Jagtap, of Gautam Navlakha and Hany Babu and Sagar Gorakhe and Ramesh Gaichor.
Say the names, known, unknown, of thousands of political detainees in India’s prison system. Say the names of the people of Kashmir.
Say the names of the half a million people in prison for non-political crimes, among which being poor, being Dalit and being Muslim rank the highest. Even if we don’t know the names, say them all.
Say the names of those not yet in prison but on this list or that list, those in the crosshairs of the National Investigative Agency, the CBI and the UP Police, those who give the political leaders of the Hindu right indigestion and bad dreams.
Finally, say your own name because you sometimes worry that one day they will come for you as well. Say your name because you think, late at night, that you might be reported for what you wrote, for what you said, for what you thought. Say your name because you can’t help wondering if they will come for you, if they will stop you from flying out, or if they will stop you when you are coming in. This is how you know that you may be against prison-houses posing as nations, but that you are always on the side of the many worlds that are possible.
(Siddhartha Deb was born in Northeast India and lives in Harlem. He is the author of two novels and one work of nonfiction.)
For at least half a century, indentured labourers in British Guiana escaped plantations, trying to walk back to India. One scamp who took their paisa said: Waaalk—waaalk ’til you reach one mountain. De road to Calcutta deh pun de other side. From the start, return could be a con, the dream fatal. Some died in its pursuit, martyrs to a particular idea of India. The motherland represented freedom, as it did for those aboard the last ship of ex-indentured to sail back, in 1955, to a newly independent nation. Now I, heir to their longings, attached to their idea of India, boycott return.
(Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, lives in New Jersey.)
Op-Eds you don’t want to miss
“On this historic occasion, we must resolve to never let our freedoms be robbed by authoritarian arrogance or allow fomented hatred to undermine the unity of the Indian people. That is the best tribute we can pay to our flag,” writes Manmohan Singh.
Harish Khare listened to the Prime Minister’s Red Fort speech today and saw in it the apogee of the Modi personality cult.
Here’s a quick catalogue of Partition literature across languages, from nationally celebrated works like Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas and Quarratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya to the classics of the new borderlands, like Jyotimoyee Devi’s Bangla Epar Ganga Opar Ganga and Gobind Malhi’s Pakhiara Valarakhan Vichriyaa, in Sindhi.
How can the government celebrate 75 years of India’s independence by erasing Nehru out of the history of independent India and the freedom struggle, asks Sushant Singh.
If a man can go to hear Salman Rushdie speak on the freedom to create, with murder in his heart over three decades after the Ayatollah’s fatwa, it reminds us that deep divisions of the sort that freedom at midnight once exposed in South Asia are alive the world over, or are at least brought back easily to life, writes Pratik Kanjilal.
Mukul Kesavan writes that Rushdie is no different from any Indian writer who has been attacked or murdered for his or her opinions. Think for a moment of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh. Intellectually, they were strongly rationalist, hostile to religious orthodoxy, and convinced that right-wing majoritarianism is the mortal enemy of republican democracy.
Seema Chishti reviews Kala Pani Crossings: Revisiting 19th Century Migrations from India’s Perspective, a book of essays which takes an imaginative dive into the journeys of Girmitiyas beyond the Indian seas to work in plantations.
Seventy-five years after Independence, some Indians are still forced to clean human excreta for a living. PenPencilDraw illustrates the saga of how failed laws, caste biases and apathetic governments have kept manual scavenging alive.
“Gita se na chalta hai na chalta Quran se, chalta hai desh hamara Bhim ke Samvidhan se (our country is neither governed by the Gita nor the Quran, it is governed by Bhimrao Ambedkar’s Constitution).” Through folk songs, small gatherings and addressing issues of daily life issues, the Bhils and many other communities are increasingly finding meaning in the Constitution, writes Rajesh Ranjan.
Veena Venugopal writes: “Mine has been a namby-pamby generation, fattened by post-liberalisation affluence, softened by easy access to everything. We are taking the coward’s option in looking to leave, and in doing so we are letting down a couple of hundred years of history of fighting to make right what was wrong.”
On the anniversary of Partition, let’s consign the pitiless logic of Hindu v Muslim to the past, urge Pankaj Mishra and Ali Sethi.
“Those who give cash always call in for greater returns. The Indian sportstar must become a social media supporter of state policy. Statism today is more deeply entrenched in Indian sport than even the public sector job. The star athlete, now richer than in the past, also signs up as cheerleader,” writes Sharda Ugra.
As India turns 75, this may be the last chance to hear directly from the people who lived through Indian Independence and the subsequent tragedy of Partition, perhaps the biggest forced migration in recorded history. National Geographic explorer Sparsh Ahuja has been documenting the stories of people who were forced from their homes during Partition.
In this 1958 interview, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru discusses the distinction between religion and spirituality, and what happens when dogma rules and stifles the life of the spirit. [10:57 onwards]
Over and Out
Mumtaz Ali, 65, son of a master craftsman who made percussion instruments to accompany stars like Ravi Shankar, has honed his skills for 45 years and doesn’t plan to stop. The third-generation tabla expert is among the last of his ilk in a Varanasi market that once housed a thriving industry of instrument makers, but is now fading away.
A Pakistani rabab player performs the Indian national anthem and dedicates it to listeners here.
With direct action, Mother Cow made her opinion about Gujarat deputy chief minister Nitin Patel’s Tiranga Yatra gig abundantly clear. Tough titty!
That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.