Midnight's children stay silent

Fifty years after India's independence, there is no buzz of anticipatio n, no eagerness to celebrate the end of the Raj. Peter Popham in Delhi looks at the reasons behind a muted jubilee
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The Independent Online
I will be very pleased to be proved wrong, but India's Golden Jubilee party is shaping up to be a damp squib. No celebrations of any sort have occurred so far. The government explains this by saying that, while other countries may choose to celebrate during the 50th anniversary year, India's celebrations will only begin after the completion of 50 years of independence. They will start, therefore, on 15 August, and continue for a year.

So far, so pedantic. The period of celebration is of course for the government to choose - though it leaves them limping along behind other countries such as Britain and the United States, where the festivities have been in full swing for months, despite their having on the face of it less reason to celebrate. But more significant than the timing is the national mood, if one can presume to identify such a thing. The anniversary is only a month away, but there is no perceptible buzz. There is no sense of fevered preparations. Indians do not raise the subject in conversation in tones of happy anticipation. Rather it is the foreigner who raises it queryingly, and the Indian who shoots the topic down with a few sour comments.

So far the only imaginative idea for celebrating the country's birthday has come from the Minister of Tourism in Simla, who wants to turn the clock back to the days when the town was the British Raj's summer capital, with rickshaws, cricket, May Queen beauty contests, Shakespeare. Two cavils: Simla has arguably been damaged beyond saving by an exploding population and the chronic weakness of planning controls. Any number of rickshaws and May Queens will not disguise the despoliation. And isn't this more a celebration of dependence than the opposite?

What else is on offer? The Ministry of Science and Technology seems hell bent on installing a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Antarctica. They have not yet been given the nod; and exactly why they want to do this - unless it's a way of driving home the fact that the old man's ideas have long been consigned to the deep freeze - is never spelt out. Large throngs are not expected for the unveiling. There will be none of the usual problems with crowd control. In fact, if the government finally screws up its determination and agrees, the event should pass off in complete oblivion.

In India itself, meanwhile, over the anniversary period, there will be much huffing and puffing, and many motions will be laboriously gone through. Major buildings will be illuminated for two days, unless the usual power cuts intervene. Historic events will be re-enacted. The adoption of the "Quit India Resolution" of 1942 will be re-enacted in Mumbai (Bombay). In Delhi, parliament will rehearse the events of the night of 15 August 1947, listening to recordings of the speeches of Gandhi and Nehru. The national anthem will be played (twice). There will be a speech by the aged president, Dr Shanker Dayal Sharma. All will then depart.

Why, as it appears, does no one feel impelled to set off a million fireworks, to light bonfires from one end of the country to the other, to set fire to Delhi's River Yamuna (easily done, one imagines), to throw the biggest party in the nation's history? Why is everyone going about their business as if praying that the date will pass off with the least possible embarrassment?

Several answers suggest themselves, some more or less sound or ignoble than others: 1) Congress, the party which fought for independence for decades and ruled unchallenged until only a few years ago, is out of power. Worse, it is in a state of advanced debilitation. Independence was Congress's achievement. Were the party still in power, the rose-flavoured sherbet would flow all night. The present crowd has no wish to splash good money around celebrating the work of political enemies. (They are too busy contriving ways of stealing it, the local cynics mutter.) Mean, parochial, possibly true.

2) For a country as vast and ancient as India, there is arguably some resistance to the idea of drawing attention to the fact that it was so recently unfree; that its hundreds of millions were for hundreds of years controlled by the guile of a few thousand white men; and that its freedom was achieved not by violent insurrection, not in the catharsis of a putsch, but by the clerk of the British parliament declaring, in Norman French, "Le roi le veult" - "the King wishes it".

Even after that, free India was still sufficiently in thrall to English manners and tricks to offer the governor-generalship to Lord Mountbatten (who graciously accepted). Only in 1950 did they shake themselves out of this torpor and declare themselves a republic.

3) Diffidence about the jubilee reflects the mixed feelings at the time, the violent mix of joyful and tragic events that occurred in mid-August 50 years ago. The declaration of independence, the raising of the national flag, the resounding (and still moving) "Tryst with Destiny" speech made by Nehru, the gathering of a quarter of a million people the following day at the Red Fort to cheer - all these happy rites were followed within days by the horrors of Partition, the mass migrations, and the communal murders (up to a million people are believed to have died) as huge numbers of Muslims headed for Pakistan and equally vast numbers of Hindus and Sikhs headed for India. Partition, for which most Indians still blame Britain's policy of divide and rule, cast a huge shadow over the new nation.

Churchill had said (echoing Bismarck on Italy): "India is an abstraction. India is no more a political personality than Europe. India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator." India's nationhood only ever made sense as the unity of hundreds of millions of people with far more differences - of culture, religion, language, custom - than similarities. Congress's achievement in the period leading up to independence was to give life to this improbable dream of nationhood. Partition at once presented the awful possibility that the whole thing could simply unravel.

4) Most fundamentally, people say to each other, "What is there to celebrate, after all?" Instead of having a party, India would be better advised to go into mourning. Fifty per cent of the male population today remain illiterate, and 70 per cent of women. Communal politics and inter-caste violence are endemic in many parts of the country. Corruption is everywhere. Poverty remains rampant, and the illiterate poor continue to multiply as only they know how. The environment is in an advanced state of degradation. Six years after taking the first steps towards liberalisation, the economy continues to grow with painful slowness. Little rebellions pop off across the map like flashbulbs. What on earth is there to cheer about?

While India celebrated in Delhi on the night of 15 August 1947, the father of the nation, Gandhi, was far away in Calcutta where he had been doing what he could to calm the communal riots. Across India hundreds of thousands spent the night singing and rejoicing; Gandhi passed the night in fasting and spinning. Perhaps he knew something they didn't.

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