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Anatomy of a proud Indian

August 14, 2010 14:07 IST

Nilova Roy Chaudhury on what Independence Day means to her.

There is something about India's national holidays like Independence Day (August 15) and Republic Day (January 26) that fills me with a sense of pride. Getting up early to listen to the prime minister speak from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort is like a ritual, one which I enjoy. Or watching our national flag being unfurled before the armoured columns and children troop down the Rajpath on Republic Day, which still gives me goose bumps and, I must confess, makes my eyes well up with tears. For me the message of India, like that of the (US President Barack) Obama presidential campaign, is 'Yes we can.'

This is despite the chaos that abounds and screams at us from the morning newspapers. While I don't exactly remember the hand-to-mouth situation of the mid-1960's, when food coming in on American ships in the form of the PL-480 doles was eagerly awaited to ensure there would be food on some tables, the debate today is also about food.

Except now, after the first decade of the new millennium, the debate is about having so much of our own food grain that it lies wasting, while thousands, maybe even millions of our children go hungry. There is a major shift in emphasis, from not having enough to having so much we don't know what to do with it.

The problem is that we cannot store or distribute it properly, not that it is not there. If there was not enough, there would be no criminal wastage. I remember an era when milk could only be procured with tokens and 'challans' (permits) were needed for everything from bags of cement to gas cylinders.

A telephone connection conferred a certain status in the neighbourhood. Today, over 700 million of our people boast of mobile phone connections and connectivity is all about just getting there. Not if or how but when.

From being treated as pariahs of the 'developing' world of the non-aligned movement and patronised particularly by western 'developed' countries like Britain, today India is emerging as a major world economy and, by extension, a major power. My earliest image of Britain is of an elderly Sikh lady sweeping the floors in Heathrow airport as our flight touched down in the early 1970s.

Today, Indians are among the largest investors in that country. An Indian has actually bought over the East India Company, synonymous with our colonial subjugation. Our voices are heard with respect and Indians are welcomed not only in Britain but across the world not merely for the quality of their thought, but also for the size of their wallets.

I might speak for a part of India's more privileged people, but there are more of us than there are of several major developed countries. Size does matter as do our numbers.

Seen from the outside, India's size and numbers defy the imagination. But seen from the inside, there is a security in those very dimensions. After the fear of too large a population and the population control era of the 1970's, our people are now our primary assets.

I got a real sense of the security of size when I visited Israel some years ago and saw first hand the insecurity of the average Israeli citizen. Surrounded by neighbours hostile to its existence, I could understand the sense of siege because the hostility was palpable, barely a stone's throw away. There was no place to hide, it was in your face.

India too, is surrounded by neighbours who are not exactly friendly most times and often downright hostile. It has faced several wars since it gained independence in 1947 but for as long as I can remember, the sense of India being overwhelmed or physically overtaken has never occurred to me. There was faith that the Indian entity would prevail and it has, against very long odds.

I did not face the partition, but I have heard enough horror stories mostly from my parents and their friends to know that such a catastrophe could not recur. Whether it was during the Emergency, when civil liberties were suspended and several fundamental rights curtailed, or during the awful few days after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated, when some incredible, unforeseen bestiality surfaced in the heart of India's capital city leaving most of us shell-shocked with horror, I did not get a sense that India as we knew it would end. Elections did restore democracy and better sense did prevail, though not soon enough for many.

Most recently, during the Kargil conflict, when colleagues and friends from abroad agonised over the nuclear holocaust that would surely ensue, I was convinced and tried to convince European and American friends, though not with any success, that the war would not escalate to the point of annihilation. I was proved right, despite the adversary being our implacably hostile western neighbour.

There is, however, one real fear that has dented my sense of security and does exist in my mind; that of terrorism. The phenomenon of mindless violence and killing innocent people who have no bearing on perceived grievances is the one threat that leaves me worried.

It has already caused us to change the way we view issues and people and it is sad that so many freedoms we took for granted have now become more difficult to retain. It is difficult to go into crowded places anywhere in the world, but especially in essentially open, primarily democratic societies like ours, without a gnawing fear that some despot could blow it all up.

That is the challenge we face as we look to the future.

In India today, however much we pull ourselves down, the media can highlight criminal wastage and hold a mirror to society, the legislature can and mostly does debate and legislate the issues that matter, the Supreme Court can pillory the government and take it to task for its failings and yes, the administration can ensure the food gets to those who need it most, despite slippages and corruption.

In a bumbling sort of way, the monolithic entity of India does work and people are beginning to matter like never before. Of course there are glitches, large and seemingly endless, but faith holds and the system does offer us options. Somehow through the chaos there is a sense that order will prevail, we will manage and things will come together because 'yes, we can,' we have and we must.

That is the essence of India.

Nilova Roy Chaudhury