Let the Independence Day speech travel from place to place each year, in deference to the plurality of India
Why does the Indian Prime Minister have to give his annual Independence Day speech from the Red Fort in Delhi? You can say, well, it has always been so. The first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did it, and so has every Prime Minister after him.
But think about it — must they?
I want to argue that there is really no reason — apart from being trapped in unthinking tradition — that the venue should not shift. In fact, if you think about it, there is more reason than ever before to argue that this annual speech should find new homes each year.
The most obvious reason, of course, is that India, with its multitudinous, cacophonous diversity, is the world’s most plural nation. We are naturally multilingual. We are naturally multi-ethnic. For all our problems, diversity is something most Indians take as casually as most other nations think of nationality as a synonym of homogeneity. We were a melting pot before the West understood what a melting pot really was. Yes, we are a bit like Europe — within one nation — but we understood long before Europe that what holds us together is not merely political processes or bureaucratic institutions.
What holds us together is our culture. Kultur, wrote the German philosopher, Johann Herder, defines a people, a nation. Rishi Aurobindo knew this. Swami Vivekananda knew this. It is almost a spiritual force that pervades through everything in a civilisation — which, let us remind ourselves, we were long before we became a nation — art, language, history, geography (what is the shared tapestry of cultural memory if not the paths that lead to our holy places in India, from Kashi Vishwanath to dome-less Cherman Masjid to the Sistine-like chapel of St. Aloysius to that sacred place where the Buddha saw the light?), education is, but a mere tributary of the ocean called culture.
Education cannot teach you to touch the feet of your elders, as we do in India — culture does. Make no mistake, this is not just about the act of touching feet, it is about that whisper of memory that resurrects within you — it does not matter if you don’t actually bow. Like the stark and delicate outline of a leaf left in a book, that memory is lesson enough. It does not need to be green. Its fragility ensures both its protection and its inheritance.
I fold my hands in greeting not by the books I have read but through that which has travelled to me by the blood of my forefathers. It is in the name of that culture that I argue — the venue of the Prime Minister’s speech on Independence Day must change.
By trapping the celebration of our independence to one venue — that too a fort, in Delhi — we are choking the span and breadth of what independence means to us. We are ensnaring our idea of freedom to one northern city which does not, in any way, sum up the limitless imagination of the Indian mind.
What do we remember today about the Red Fort? An emperor built it — should that be the indefinite receptacle that holds our recitals of freedom?
What do we remember today about the Red Fort? The loot of that which was most precious to us — not just the eviction of an old emperor, not just the plunder, but also the loss of the Koh-i-Noor. The Red Fort is a scene of crime, of destruction, of robbery and vandalism. It is from where we lost the jewel of our self-esteem.
What do we remember today about the Red Fort? Defeat twice over — to the barbarian Nadir Shah, and then the crushing failure of our first uprising for freedom in 1857.
If we want to reimagine this nation of ours, let us have a speech of independence at Kashi, the city of illumination where our sages realised — that which is within us is in the universe; that which is not, lies nowhere. On the very banks where the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh attempted to bring together a confluence of Vedas and the Upanishads and the Quran.
If we want to reimagine this nation of ours, let us have a speech of independence at Surat, where the merchant Bhimji Parekh rose in revolt against the tyranny and bigotry of the mass murderer, Aurangzeb (who, as it happens, also killed his brother Dara).
If we want to reimagine this nation of ours, let us have a speech of independence at Travancore, where 275 years ago a young king Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma defeated the Dutch East India Company.
If we want to reimagine this nation of ours, let us have a speech at the Vijay Stambh (Victory Pillar) at Vadgaon Maval near Pune, built to rejoice the Marathas routing the British East India Company.
If we want to reimagine this nation of ours, let us have a speech at Dandi, where Mahatma Gandhi marched so that we may call ourselves free.
If we want to reimagine this nation of ours, let us — I say — have a speech at Alipore in Kolkata, the site of the heroics of Khudiram Bose, Prafulla Chaki and Aurobindo.
Let the Independence Day speech be next to the statue of Birsa Munda at Bokaro for teaching us that it is not formal education that teaches you to love your country but the trees, the earth, the waters, the boulders, the animals, every bit of sacred land.
Let the Independence Day speech travel from place to place each year, telling us about freedom as our bards once sang of the heroics and martyrdom of our forefathers from village to village, from town to town.
Only then shall we remember the sharp, invigorating taste of freedom.
This piece was first published on Medium and has been republished here with permission.
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