Independence Day Reflections: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


Neelum revisits the August 19, 2002, issue of the India Today. The special Fifty-Five Years of Freedom issue carries a lead article listing fifty-five things that made India proud in the years 1947 to 2002. It covered a vast range then. As the columnist looks back with pride, she finds a dissenting voice in her that somehow won’t buy into the big myth, not all of it. Things have changed a lot in 2016. There is a ring of sadness in her. She revisits and reviews our hits and misses now, exclusively in Different Truths.

You wouldn’t think of 2002 as pre-historic exactly, it being this side of the millennium that our lives straddle. But I find this particular issue of India Today intriguing as an insistent recap of achievements. A tonic recommended for those days when the road our country has travelled since   15th August, 1947, till now seems discouraging. In short, a feel-good piece. You may agree with specific items of it or find yourself disagreeing but you might, by and large, be persuaded to cheer, as I was. If you are historically perceptive you might also wonder why in August 2002 it was thought important for Indians to feel good about themselves.

This is the August 19 India Today, the special Fifty-Five Years of Freedom issue, and it carries a lead article listing fifty-five things that made India proud in the years 1947 to 2002. Mind you, this is how we Indians see it. Others might see us differently. I remember what a hue and cry arose when poor Prince Philip committed a huge gaffe at a public function and suggested that India-manufactured things are clumsy. And at a Singapore sound-and- light show I witnessed a most amusing, if provocative parody of the nations of Asia in which the Indian was the most pompous and comic. But the 15 th of August is our business and we’re free to regard ourselves any way we please, excuse me. So let’s count the fifty-five blessings that India Today listed in 2002.Indian-army

They cover a vast range. The first is India’s Fire Wall, its Armed Forces. I find this para worth citing: “The high morale and motivation of the armed forces remain an enigma despite the shortage of officers, paucity of high-tech equipment or ‘force multipliers’ and poor career prospects. But the armed forces appear to have taken all these negatives in their stride and are actively pursuing the doctrine of turning India into a global military power….” Not just that, but handling floods, earthquakes, kids-fallen- down-bore- wells, riots, you name it!

The second is our Space Program, something really commendable, if a tad controversial. Since 2002, our Indian lunar mission Chandrayana 1 found traces of water on the moon – the first to do so. And there was our Mangalyana too! The Americans and Russians did it after several trial and error hitches but it goes to our credit that the Indian space mission went smoothly without so much as a hiccup the very first time round.

The third was the three Pokhran blasts between 1974 and 1998, which, Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared “have given India shakti”. And which, said Jaswant Singh, the then Planning Commission chief, was “one-sixth of humanity seeking its rightful place in the calculus of great powers.” India Today claimed in 2002 that after this “the regional balance was changed forever – in the great game, India counts.”

Among the things to be proud of is our democracy and our constitution, the first in the world to grant universal adult franchise. Our border roads, our judicial system, organisations like SEWA. Our I.I.M.s and our Udupi restaurants, our Mumbai dabbawalas, our Chipko movement. Listed too is something like our Rural Water Supply program, and in the magazine the pic alongside shows village folk heaving and hauling away at a hand-pump in a desert-like landscape. Oh well, I’m not so sure about this one. The next in the list is Our Dams and Our Banishing Drought Achievement. No comments on that in 2016, I guess. Then come our ‘over a hundred satellite channels, over 5000 dailies, 16,000 weeklies and more than 6,000 fortnightlies.’ Followed by, yes, our Amul phenomenon. A big hand there. The Jaipur Foot. Another round of applause. Our yoga. Oh, yes, do we need reminding? The Indian Railways, the largest railway system in the world. And, the magazine says, the Great Indian Joint Family. Now that, methinks, is a Facebook and WhatsApp reality in 2016. Cricket, Lijjat papad, and what’s this? Temple Management in places like Tirupati. Tea, the diamond industry, tourism and our roadside dhaba network, Indian advertising and handicrafts. Yes, Bollywood! That world possession. The article includes our dynamic Indian NRIs as well as our wonderful kabadiwalas on the same page, then our ethnic fashion designers and our beauty queens. Rather low down in this list is the Indian writer who writes in English and has gone international. The Green Revolution and Ayurveda. The Mid-Day Meal Scheme, the Sulabh Shauchalaya chain, followed by Indian spirituality (!!!) And Vividh Bharati, our Metro in Kolkata (in 2002 only that Metro existed), our IITs and our common-or-garden-variety System of Jugaad. Mumbai’s Transport system, Indian cookery, our Info-Tech Revolution and our many unspoilt natural spots like the Silent Valley, cradled between the Western Ghats and Kerala. The Indian Postal Service and the Nehru Jacket round off the list.

After such a surfeit of affirmation, why does the perverse critical sense auto-kick- start? One part of me wants to go on and write about our great pharmaceutical story that kept generic drugs accessible to the poor in the teeth of severe opposition, our RTI and NREGA, our granting rights to transgenders at par with OBCs, our telecom and mobile penetration into the interiors of the great Indian landmass, our upbeat young, our massive publishing scene. Our excellent film industry, which has contributed a great many world-class films in recent years. I feel like writing about our robust mixed economy, thanks to Manmohan Singh, which kept India unaffected by recession when it overtook so many so-called first world countries.

But there is this dissenting voice in me that somehow won’t buy into the big myth, not all of it. I can’t help thinking of the rich plural culture we had and which stands besieged. I can’t help bringing in the massive human rights violations against the Dalits and the tribal people, the horrific saga or rapes and farmer suicides that each day’s newspaper carries. I can’t help mourn the scientific temper we seem to be losing fast. If citizen journalism and social media have boomed, there is also that shrill hate-pitch that surrounds us as also the noxious fumes of a nameless fear gathering in the air. Remember, this India Today issue belongs to August 2002 and 2002 has come to stand for a sort of turning point. I have inventoried the good, the bad and the ugly, a bit of stock-taking all too necessary in our 69th year of Independence.

©Neelum Saran Gour

Pix sourced by author and Net.

Neelum S. Gour

Neelum S. Gour

Neelum Saran Gour is a well known IndianEnglish fiction writer and academic. She has been an active book reviewer, critic, translator, humour columnist, creative writing guide and jury member in the award of national literary prizes. She works as Professor of English Literature at the University of Allahabad.
Neelum S. Gour