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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Sixty Years of Freedom

Achieved Little with Lack of Cultural Anchor

Shasti purti, ie completing sixty years, is a special year. It symbolizes the end of the cycle of years and the beginning of the new cycle. It marks culmination of a life time in a person's life. I guess in a secularized, anything but our culture, world one will not hear the significance of 60 year cycle in any writings or media - precious metal jubilees matter more now. But still, for some reason, it seems like this year there is lot more introspection about the country then usual - may be because it's a multiple of a decade.

There are some good ones, Sumit Ganguly, and some sore ones, Jaithirath Rao.

While during the past 60 years, sovereign freedom was brilliant with a sovereign flag flying high and there was amazing political freedom with little interruption, economically of the country was in bad shape, socially the country was a bid stable, and, importantly, culturally the country did not have a mooring.

Lack of economic freedom is clear case. Any freedom to start and run a business was throttled crushing at least two generations of economic or personal aspirations, energy, and talent, and created a vast legacy of corruption that is now attributed to being part of culture.

Political freedom is also a clear case. Whether one likes the party that ruled party for most of 60 years (and I don't), there was freedom to form a new political party and contest in elections. The vast majority of the regional parties, the continued existence of communists parties, and rise of BJP were clearly because of this political freedom. It's another matter if these parties performed and people demanded performance from these parties. At least they chose their representatives.

Social freedom or stability was of a more muddle. While caste system was still in place, there was some escape from it, especially for sudras, if one fled to a city. And government helped in it's own bureaucratic and incompetent way. We still have a long way to go on the caste system. But the religious stability- all though there were frequent riots (egged on mostly by the current, apparently, secular Congress I) between various religious groups - the overall situation was stable, although was based on false veneer.

The veneer was a distortion of pre-British history. It was possible to keep the stable veneer as long as the one ideology was in control of the history lessons, the media, and the bureaucracy and there was little independent history research or voices heard. Rise of BJP shattered the veneer. Hence the current appearance of religious and social uneasiness, if not turmoil. As the long the veneer exists, officially anyway, there will be social instability. Only after the country digests it's various layers of history openly will some semblance of social stability return in another state or format. The current version of social instability has a long way to go and has to undergo transformation, hopefully not a violent one, before stability returns.

But the most important aspect, failure, if you will, of the shasti purthi is cultural. Because of the checked history, invasions, adaptations, and colonialism, the country has little cultural moorings. One can identify a broad Hindu or Bharatiya (including Islamic influences) culture, but there is little connection to it for vast majority of people. I am not talking about the religious aspects of the culture, but the social, political, scientific, linguistic, business, and philosophical aspects of culture. There is a huge detachment between an enlightened Bharatiya pre-colonial culture and the current culture. And this gap has, and is, being filled by Euro-centric culture - call it enlightenment, western, white, or colonial culture.

One can easily find quotations that in analysis on independence that Indians started fighting for independence only after absorbing enlightenment ethos of the British and Europe. Of course, this is nonsense. The fight for, and spark for, independence started after the British changed - from being partners in a Bharatiya way of life, like the Mughals did, to becoming colonial white masters and started treating people as slaves. But beyond that example, in every life, post-independence, one doesn't look to pre-colonial Bharatiya culture for reference but to European culture and, increasingly, to American culture. One can easily find a quote from European philosophy or to European historic reference than from Bharatiya philosophy or to historic references when reading an article in a newspaper or magazine. Most college educated can quote Aristotle or Shakespeare or Kipling rather than Vyasa Maharishi or Kalidasa or Sardar Patel.

Being closed to the world for sixty years under socialism and self sufficiency ideology disallowed most Indians to find their cultural moorings. The sixty years were a precious loss because the world was more distant place then. Now with globalization, the influence of the west is in everybody's face all the time. It's hard to find a culture mooring that is any different from the west, ie based on European enlightenment. But unless we can make that culture connection to the pre-colonial enlightened Bharatiya era, our society will be destined to be culturally second-class and will always be at the receiving end from the west. I look to pre-colonial enlightened Bharatiya era not because it was a golden age, but because we have to pick up our moral and culture center, from where we left off, to continue to evolve and improve culturally and solve our unique social and political problems. We'll never make clear break from our past to take the western enlightenment, because it was not our experience or historic baggage, but unless we make that connection back to our historic past, we would always be in our current muddled state of politics with a corrupt way of life and amoral anchor.

Becoming a rich nation from a growing economy and higher per capita will ultimately do little to finding our own cultural moorings. But an open, confident, and a rich society may have chance to pick up the historic pieces and enable the engendering of a proud civilization with it's own cultural center. That really was the real tragedy, the missed opportunity, of the first shasti purti of a newly free, but a closed socialistic, country.

Happy Independence Day. Enjoy the existing freedoms and work for new ones.

Related: Atanu Dey provides an excellent quote from Sri Aurobindo, who was born on August 15th too, at IEB. Also read the quote in Chaitanya's comment.