Monday, August 15, 2011

On Independence Day: Happy Birthday India!

As some of you know, I have been slowly migrating my old blog posts from to this blog. Rather aptly, today I found this post from 2001, written about my father's retirement from a life-time of serving in various branches of the government. I have added some updates at the end. Happy Independence day!

August 15, 2001: This Independence Day, I have a confession to make: I get tears in my eyes every time I see the tricolour flutter against the sky. I also get teary eyed when I see young Indian men in uniform, and when I hear the first strains of Vande Mataram. Of course, I swell up bigger than a balloon with pride at the same time.  Of course, I understand that this form of sentimental patriotism is not considered "cool" by many. It is not nearly as fashionable as mehndi, tattoos and pierced noses that epitomize "Indian" chic these days. But, let me tell you, it is a lot harder to maintain.

India is not an easy country to love. Our politicians are a joke; our courts are a travesty; and the bureaucrats are equal to the most heinous form of torture imaginable. The "system", that all of us love to blame, ensures that all of us are pulverized into submission by a steady, daily, grind. Try getting a child into a half-decent school and you'll realise how omnipotent the "system" is. The parents are put to test, not the child. In fact, the child's intelligence, energy, talent count for nothing even in the so-called "progressive" schools. What counts is the parent's position and their bank balance. Or try getting a complaint registered at the police station. From chain-snatching to domestic violence to murder; you'll feel that the cops are doing you a favour by hearing you out.

In fact, even death is a fairly humiliating business in the country, since the doctor signing the death certificate, the police constables, the morgue, all want a "cut" from the family to "expedite" the matters.

So why the hell do I get teary eyed at the sight of the tricolour? Well, I have a story for you: Back in 1961, a young man from Allahabad University joined the defense forces. On the first day of training, he found a sign - a fairly common one around most cantonments in India - that said: "Watan ki izzat, unit ki izzat, apni izzat." (Country's honour, unit's honour, your honour). Unlike many people, that twenty-year-old believed the words and decided to live by them.

In the ensuing years, he served the country in two wars and countless special operations. He received no decorations, no special medals or awards. Instead, he chose to become one of the "unsung" ones, who would do the work but could never receive the credit.  As he grew older, his willingness to serve the country took him to foreign lands and to tougher assignments. And to many disappointments. He learned that the most powerful enemies of the country are those who profess to serve it: the bureaucrats who put personal interests before the nation's; senior officers who care more for the petty loyalties to their particular branch of service; the journalists who care more for the story than for the lives of those who defend the country; the academics who sell their integrity for an invitation to attend an overseas conference.

I often wonder how that man coped with such disappointment? How could he continue speaking up, drawing the line, practising patriotism day after day, when he was penalized for it by his own people? How could he bear to carry on, paying the price - daily - for his integrity, his dedication? How could he preserve his patriotism in face of daily pummeling of his ideals for so many years? I asked him that recently, mostly because of the anger I felt on his behalf.

His reply was sanguine, calm, self-assured: "This country has always had 90% asses and 10% horses. The horses ensure that the country continues forward when the asses would drag it backwards. And a horse's job is simply to run."

Independence Day 2001 shall be the first in forty years that this man will see as a civilian. He will watch the ceremonies on TV and not stand at attention to watch the tricolour unfurl above him. And watching him keep the faith, I promise that for just one day of the year, I will not threaten to immigrate to a country that is easier to love. More importantly, that I will try to keep the faith for at least as long as he has. 

Easy philosophy perhaps, but it didn't take away the bitterness I felt for all that had been denied him by "the system." He didn't seem to mind as much. He explained, "I didn't look for payments for my loyalty. And as far as not receiving what was due to me, no patriot ever does. Haven't you learned anything from history?"

You see, that unsung hero, who is hanging up his boots, is my father. And he is a constant reminder of the sacrifices my ancestors have made for this land. He is also the reason that I cry at the sight of my tricolour.
But I feel proud for a different reason: My father is not alone. Every where I turn, in civilian clothing and uniform, in software development firms and the rice fields, in all parts of the country (no matter how strife torn the region may seem), there are innumerable others exactly like my father. These are the unsung heroes who give everything to the country and ask for nothing in return.

And you know something else that gives me hope? Even 10% of one billion people is one hell of a lot of patriots. Happy Independence Day.

August 15, 2011: Updates: I still get teary-eyed at the sight of our flag and our soldiers. My father is happily retired, and now serving, not the government of India but the country with his many social welfare and upliftment activities which include haranguing politicians and bureaucrats out of their complacency and into acting. Both my parents also spend a lot of time educating neighbours, friends, absolute strangers on basics of civic responsibility. Sometime that makes me worry about their safety, but over all, I am proud that they stand up for the "aam aadmi" (although they do shamelessly use the privilege bestowed by their age and grey hair to do so). As the adage goes, "all that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing." And that is never an option. 

In the past ten years, India has become "chic," with our growing economic strength and concurrent global changes. Yet many of the systemic problems remain. Yet I remain optimistic, perhaps more than ever. India has never been one for cataclysmic revolutions, but slow, deep-rooted yet gradual change. And those are more visible each day, especially for those of us who have clear memories of how far we've come. Is the journey over? Not by a long shot! Have we gotten as far as we could have? No! But the dynamism, hope, the "buzz" on every street corner of India is evidence that we are - clamorously, with many arguments, many sulks, dharnas, step backs, and optimism - are still heading in the right direction. It is true that our journey is all too often despite the state, and often in face of great obstacles set up by our political class, but "bottom-up" change is always more enduring than a "top down" solution. And that gives me hope. 

Finally, I have not emigrated after all. Globalisation and India have conspired well to create a whole new class of Indian expats, those who work, live, study abroad with no intention of cutting our ties with home. I am one of them, and despite the small hassles of travelling the world with that blue passport, I am not giving up mine! 

Happy Independence Day.  

Note: My father has received decorations for his military service. However for most of his life, he was an intelligence officer. And in another blog post in the future, I promise to make a case for reforming and strengthening our intelligence sector. But that is for another day.