By Raffique Shah
August 19, 2007
Last week, India and Pakistan marked their 60th anniversary of independence from Britain. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, where more than half the population has roots in the sub-continent that is now divided into three countries (Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, is often forgotten), the occasion went almost unnoticed. India’s High Commissioner held his usual reception, but nobody else seemed interested in this landmark occasion. Curiously, I found myself intrigued by it-not only because of India’s emergence as a potential global power centre, but more so by its history, by what happened during those tumultuous days preceding and following India’s independence.
I am not one of “Midnight’s Children”, as controversial novelist Salman Rushdie described those who were born in 1947. I was already one year old when the Union Jack was lowered forever in Delhi and Karachi. But by age five or six, I noticed the neatly folded green and white flag tucked away in the lower drawer of our bureau. I would later learn that my father was a staunch supporter of Mohammed Jinnah, the man who founded Pakistan and who helped promote the partitioning of that great sub-continent. When, in my late teenage years I read and learned more, I came to dislike what Jinnah had stood for. I felt then, as I do now, that an undivided India would have been as immensely powerful country as China is today, with Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs and sundry other communities living together in relative harmony.
Sixty years later, India is touted as a country on the move, with its economy growing faster than most, while Pakistan (and Bangladesh) is seen as a failed state. The truth lies somewhere between those extremes. Yes, India has moved on and up, while Pakistan remains wrecked by military regimes that have done little to lift it.
But even as India boasts of massive industrialisation and technological advances, the fruits of a galloping economy cannot be tasted by the overwhelming majority of its 1.1 billion people. A report last week spoke of 887 million Indians living on less than 50 US cents a day! The scandal surrounding girl children who are either aborted when their gender is determined by MRI (one doctor was jailed a few weeks ago), sold into wife-slavery at tender ages, or simply murdered by primitive “husbands” (one man used a scythe to cut off his child-bride’s neck when she refused to have sex with his brother!) stinks.
But India’s 60th anniversary was revealing in other snippets and names that cropped up. We all know (or ought to know) about Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah. But do the names Subhas Chandra Bose or Nathuram Godse mean anything to us? Bose’s story is, for me, a fascinating one, not only because he was a military officer who formed the Indian National Army with which he had planned to rout the British out of India.
More important among his closest allies-who paid with their lives for their ideals-were fellow officers Shah Nawaz, Kumar Saghal and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon-a Muslim, a Hindu and a Sikh. This was pre-independence India at its idealistic zenith. Sadly, with this dream shattered by the hangman’s noose at the famous Red Fort, divisive elements had their way and their day, and left behind countries steeped in poverty, militarily impotent, but mercifully with rich cultures and enterprising people.
Nathuram was the assassin who shot Gandhi on January 31, 1948. A Brahmin by birth, he viewed Gandhi’s acquiescence to the partitioning of India as unforgivable. In murdering Gandhi, he saw himself as a saviour of Hindus, and when he stood in the dock charged with murder, he never begged for mercy. To the contrary, he remained defiant, convinced he had not killed a saint so much as he had disposed of a despot. In justifying the three bullets that felled Gandhi, he told the court: “Rama killed Ravana… Krishna killed Kansa… Arjuna had to slay the revered Bhishma. It was my first duty to serve Hindudom and Hindus both as a patriot and a world citizen.”
In the maelstrom of an independence struggle, the British sought to derail, recognising that with India gone, the sun would start setting on the Empire, were opposing forces that were so disparate that one wonders, 60 years later, whether similar elements may yet trigger an implosion. Nehru, like Gandhi, was bent on establishing a secular state. The BJP, which held power for a limited period recently, is alive and kicking and wants to return India to Hinduvta. In Pakistan, the military has repeatedly intervened in politics, and has thus far served to keep the country secular-officially, anyway. But Islamists are on the rise, insisting on enforcing the laws of Sharia. Indeed, they have committed many atrocities in pursuit of this goal, much the way promoters of Hinduvta have wreaked havoc in India.
India-and I use the term in its pre-independence, broader sense-is a very complex country. But its story is even more fascinating as one delves behind the facade of the Taj Mahal.