August 12, 2022The Intersectionliberal democracy

To shape the future we must stop obsessing about the past

We must free our minds to be able to imagine the future

Mint This is a special The Intersection column to mark the 75th anniversary of India’s independence. My regular column appears every other Monday in Mint.

I think the song captures the enthusiasm and aspirations of the newly independent India; before the wars, economic crises and cynicism of the 1960s.

Perhaps the most inspiring lines celebrating India, as evergreen as they are rousing, are from a Hindi film made just 13 years after independence. In the title song of Hum Hindustani (1960), Usha Khanna, Prem Dhawan and Mukesh earnestly persuade us Indians, to forget the tired old matters of the past, and shape a collective new narrative for a new era.

Chhodo kal ki batein, kal ki baat purani/Naye daur mein likhenge, mil kar nayi kahani, hum Hindustani!” 

Ever since I began blogging in the 2003, Independence Day (like Republic Day) has been a moment for quiet contemplation. See my three thoughts archive.

As new parents, my wife and I celebrated every time our children attained a developmental milestone. She turned over! She crawled! She stood up! She walked! But the child didn’t seem to notice or care. She enjoyed parental appreciation, but sans any self-consciousness crawled, toddled, walked and then ran onwards towards the future. India is a lot like that. She is filled with an intrinsic momentum that propels her onward, while we pause to celebrate her from time to time. Such celebrations are necessary and important. But as a young republic (yes, seventy-five is a youthful age for a nation-state) and a youthful nation (half our population was born after 1994), we should be looking forward. To the next 25 years, to the next 75 and beyond.

Naya khoon hai, nayi umangein, ab hai nayi jawani, hum Hindustani!”

We will do our children a favour if we take off the historical albatrosses that have been put on their necks. Asking them to be prosectors and defendents of the acts of their remote ancestors merely perpetuates old grievances.

This is not a call to forget history. Rather, it is an argument to bring the future into public conversations, into our civic lives and into our politics. Let bygones be bygones. We are often so consumed with relitigating the backlog of history that we have little time to prepare for the future. Yes, India has done well for itself over the past 75 years; but we could have done better. This is not merely perfect hindsight. At every stage in our post-independence history, there were contemporary voices who drew attention to unfolding opportunities or warned us of impending threats. One reason why didn’t heed them – and indeed why we struggle to even today –  is our preoccupation with the past, our indulgence in the fallacy of sunk costs. Of course, we need good rear view mirrors, but they should not be bigger than our windshields.

Aaj purani zanjiron ko tod chuke hain, kya dekhen us manzil ko jo chhod chuke hain.”

I have found that public discourse on politics falls into four levels, each centred around a basic question. The lowest, foundational level, is the question of who we are. Above it, is the a contest to define what our problems are. The third level concerns how we should collectively solve these problems. Finally, at the highest level, is the question of where we want to go. Now, a society that plots its future without understanding itself is likely to run aground. Equally, one that spends all its time debating who we are” finds very little time to consider where we want to go”. Such a society is likely to end up wherever chance and circumstances take it. We cannot leave it all to fortune. So at 75, we must jettison the deadweight of past issues and find the bandwidth to chart the course of our future.

Aao mehnat ko apna imaan banayen, apne haathon ko apna bhagwan banayen/Ram ki dharti ko Gautam ki bhumi ko, sapnon se bhi pyara Hindustan banayen”.

The Union government had issued sticker just at the time when sticker sheets were in at school.

I recall celebrating India’s greatness in the Mera Bharat Mahan campaign in the mid-1980s and then, just a few years later, even before those nice stickers had worn out, lurching into a deep economic crisis. We were puzzled: if we had indeed achieved greatness, why was our government pledging our gold and begging the IMF and World Bank for help? In the event, that crisis led to reforms that unshackled India’s collective genius, the first generation of modern entrepreneurs and the talent of hundreds of millions of citizens. It was then that we noticed that we had been far from greatness. But we also discovered the way to get there.

Chand ke dar par ja pahuncha hai aaj zamana, naye jagat se ham bhi naata jod chuke hain”

There is no objective definition of what makes a nation great, so it’s hard to say when greatness has been attained (and indeed, when it slips away). What we do know is that at least a couple of hundred million of our citizens live in abject poverty, that we need to create twenty million jobs every year, and that while material conditions have improved for massive numbers, our society continues to deny equality, dignity and fraternity to quite a large number of our compatriots. Our celebrations must be tempered by the immensity of the task that lies before us.

Humko kitne Taj Mahal hain aur banane, kitne hain Ajanta ham ko aur sajaane.”

This is an argument my colleague Pranay Kotasthane made in a conversation several years ago. He said we want to change India in a manner we would like”.

We must write an inclusive new narrative. It does not have to conform to what our grandparents might have wanted. It should be about what we want. As Ambedkar argued …how the Society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances.” It is for today’s generation of Indians to uphold freedom, equality, pluralism and fraternity because we understand their importance. And if we fight for these values every day, we will not have to fight for them again.

Naye daur mein likhenge, mil kar nayi kahani!

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