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As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?
The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition?
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On the night of August 14, 1947, as Indians around the country were gearing up to celebrate imminent announcement of Independence from British colonial rule, a group of young students set out to walk from the Oval Maidan in south Bombay to the popular Chowpatty beach.
The marchers called themselves the All India Students Congress, and among them was a 23-year-old student of medicine, G.G. Parikh. “The group, which had no official relationship with the Congress party, had been formed in jail in 1942, when all of us had been kept after we participated in the Quit India movement.”
Parikh, then a student in St Xavier’s, was among those who heeded Gandhi’s call to the British to quit India, and was soon arrested. “I was in jail for 10 months, and when I came back, the college took me back. Guess the fathers (of the Jesuit run college) did not mind.”
The Students’ Congress marchers reached Chowpatty just before midnight. “People had gathered there, the atmosphere was festive, the lights were on everywhere.” Bombay’s authorities had declared that public transport would be free, and crowds were arriving at popular spots such as the beaches and the Gateway of India.
That was the night when Pandit Nehru gave his famous Tryst with Destiny speech in the Constituent Assembly and the crowds in Bombay — and everywhere else in the country — erupted with joy. “It was amazing,” Parikh recalls. The students ended the march and joined in, but, as those who had participated in the Quit India movement just five years ago, made their point—freedom had not just come, it had involved sacrifices.
Parikh was a member of the Congress party and but was closer to the socialist group in the organisation. In 1952, when the socialists, who had put up their own candidates in the elections, the Congress declared that there could not be another party within the party. “All the socialists left, and I was among them.”
He has remained a socialist all his life. Looking back today, the 98 year old, still wearing his signature khadi kurta, Parikh does not talk much about the hopes and dreams of the time and how the country has fared. But he does speak about how the socialists kept on splitting, some of them, including his close friends such as George Fernandes, moved away from socialist ideals.
During the Emergency, Parikh was jailed again, this time for his involvement in the Baroda Dynamite Case, where several people, including Fernandes and industrial Viren Shah were caught because they had plans to blow up train tracks.
Fernandes was his friend, and cell mate in Delhi during the Emergency. Parikh had helped him disappear when the police were after the leader, but eventually both were arrested.
“Fernandes was in the Janata government, spoke in favour of it, and next day joined those within the party who wanted to bring Morarji Desai, the prime minister, down,” Parikh recalls. This reflects his own views of how India and Indian politics evolved.
The Socialists who were doing well when Dr Ram Manohar Lohia was leading them and was their main ideologue, split in two in the 1960s and then split and reformed again. After the Emergency was lifted, Parikh was offered a ticket for the 1977 elections, but he declined. He had realised that mainstream politics would demand compromises.
“Even as a doctor I was being asked to give fake certificates. As an MP it would have been impossible to manage such requests.”
Instead, he continued his practice, on the ground floor of the building he still lives in. Parikh’s clinic became well known in the area, and he has seen kids grow up, become parents and then their kids grow up.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Dr Parikh gave up his practice. He is nominally still the editor of the Janata weekly, which was founded in 1946 by Aruna Asaf Ali and Edadata Narayan, which Parikh took over in 1952. But for the past two years, the magazine is run by a younger team. It still has its loyal followers and subscribers and focuses, like it always did, on current topics. A recent issue was a special edition on the Liberation of Goa, something that the socialists were closely involved in. The magazine retains that old spirit, when the socialists were a vocal and visible bunch of politicians; and G.G. Parikh, who is very close to his own centenary, embodies it even now.