When We Were Free to Say What We Believed

The indiscriminate banning of books, films, artwork and plays, disruption of public meetings, and moral policing has spread an undercurrent of fear all across India, laments a former nationalist.

A lynch mob was chasing me screaming “Pakro-pakro woh Pakistani chaddi pahana hai” (Catch him, he’s wearing Pakistani underwear). And, I couldn’t run. Much to my relief, I woke up in a cold sweat and remembered that I do own underwear with Pakistani markings I bought in Lahore. What with lynchings, murders and arrests of Indian citizens all over the place, I guess it was my turn, but luckily it was just a nightmare.

It was the middle of the night and the scare would not go away. I could not sleep. Vignettes of my life streamed through my brain as a disconnected movie. The 26th of January was a cold wintry day in 1955. I, a ten-year-old, stood at attention, chin-in, little chest-out, saluting the national flag as it was unfurled on our school grounds. Sang the national anthem misty-eyed, proud to be a young citizen of a free India.

Later in the afternoon, I participated in a debate on the future of our country. A hugely aspirational generation, we as young boys believed our country was going to be a world leader in democracy and ethical foreign relations as we were non-aligned. I vaguely remember claiming something to the effect that “When we grow up there will be no hungry people. All Indians will be educated and equal. We will not have servants anymore. We will be free to say what we want.” I guess that was the meaning of nationalism for a ten-year-old. We would sing hum laye hain toofan se kishti nikal ke, is desh ko rakhna mere bacchon sambhal ke… (we have sailed through a storm, my children, look after your country with care)” with lumps in our throats.

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There were hardly any book stores around and the most affordable books came from Gita Press. I read with amazement about the likes of Prahalada, Sudhanva, Eklavya and all kinds of sati-savitris who devoted all to god, gurus and husbands, and even gave up their lives for them. Many of my friends didn’t care because they didn’t read much, but those who did thought of the legends as role models.

As we read more and learnt more, some of those early lessons jarred with what we were being educated about freedom, dignity and the values in a society freed of colonialism, discrimination and racism. Later on, there were courses on ethics and logic, and readings of Mohandas Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Frantz Fanon, Sartre, Rousseau, Marx and even Ayn Rand, among others. Many of us went on to study abroad and we used our understanding of the world to protest for women’s rights, against racism, and ultimately joined the marches against the US’s criminal war in Vietnam. And then, thousands of us came back to work with our people here in India. Now we are told by our leaders that we wasted our lives because the first 50 years of India’s freedom were a waste of time.

The years abroad taught us many things. One of the most important was how helpless and vulnerable one feels when facing discrimination as a minority. As important was the understanding that one had some friends among the majority who empathised with you and took up the fight for human rights. We also realised that cursing the leader of the nation and pacifists refusing to fight in Vietnam were not considered acts of treason by most. It is also interesting that because the protestors and the ‘anti-nationals’ were not usually jailed for their beliefs, many of them could pursue normal lives later and are great supporters of their governments today.

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Some of us took to teaching in government institutions because we had learned that one good way to add value in your society was to share truth and knowledge to the best of your ability. Because the taxpayer paid our salaries and gave us a stable life, the most important duty we had was to tell the truth as we understood it, without fear of being harmed too much. We also believed that many people telling their ‘truths’ would foster healthy discussions and help people in deciding their future.

In a society where at least one-fifth of the country is out of government control, where three-fourths of the population do not have access to reasonable healthcare and education, where deforestation and pollution of air and water continue at unprecedented levels, where minority groups cannot rent a home of their choice, or get a job easily in the private sector, it is amazing that the only thing we care about is hounding out ‘anti-nationals’. The indiscriminate banning of books, films, artwork and plays, disruption of public meetings, and moral policing has spread an undercurrent of fear all across the country and made our job as teachers even more difficult.

I still think that I haven’t really wasted my life. I still think that our belief in the promotion of human rights and the right to resist nation-states going to war have some value. So, I waddle around my living room, double-chin in, belly out, muttering to myself “When I grow up all Indians will be educated and equal and we will be free to say what we believe in.”

Dinesh Mohan does research on road safety.

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