Independence Day 2018: Time to reclaim the middle turf

Mumbai can show the way—it has nurtured the best of citizen efforts

August 15, 1972, my father took my sister, a school friend and me on a drive around south Bombay as it was known then. All the city’s official buildings were gloriously lit up: we were celebrating 25 years of India’s Independence. Despite a war just fought, despite a socialist government, despite various shortages and shortcomings, we were immersed in hope for a great future for a new India. We were all under 10 years old – is that a legitimate excuse for hope?

In 1997, together with noted journalist Ayaz Memon, I co-authored a book to commemorate 50 years of Indian Independence. It was a time of coalition government and political uncertainty. But in spite of everything that had happened in between, from the destruction of the Babri Masjid, to riots in Bombay to the serial bomb blasts, it seemed that the dream for India was still strong.

Does this all sound too serious? After all, the India of 2018 is practically unrecognisable from the India of 1947 or 1972 or even 1997? In some parts of the country, we are an India of gated communities and fancy shopping malls. We travel abroad in vast numbers, unimaginable 20 years ago. Our “soft culture” has also travelled the world. Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova was pilloried on social media for not knowing who Sachin Tendulkar is. Swiss tennis star Roger Federer definitely knows who Tendulkar is!

But you and I both know that there are several other realities that lurk below the surface, realities that are unconcerned that Priyanka Chopra has wowed Hollywood and the British Royals. Crumbling infrastructure, groaning cities, environmental devastation, growing chasms between social classes, dangerous tendencies and ideologies gaining sway… Almost everything our founding parents were trying to avoid are now aiming for control.

Though, if we have anything to learn from our past, it is that no obstacle or conquering power is too big to overthrow. We have to fight on, cheesy as it may sound. Drowning in despair will not help either our environment or our future.

I use Mumbai as an example because for all that it has been accused of — apathy and being too busy — the city has also nurtured some of the best citizens’ efforts. The fights for conservation of heritage structures, for mangroves, recently for saving Aarey, all involve efforts from concerned citizens. Many other Indian cities have learnt from Mumbai how to take on the authorities. This is far more precious than that overused “spirit of Mumbai” which essentially means that most people have to go to work to earn money more than any other deeper “spiritual” feeling.

People forget that the Quit India movement started in Bombay, in Gowalia Tank, on August 9, 1942. People will casually say “August Kranti Maidan” but usually fail to connect the dots. Bombay was and Mumbai is, in the public mind, all about Bollywood and cricket and money and glamour and the underworld and slums. But in the core of this mercantile city, lies that nugget of Independence, of freedom. Not far from August Kranti Maidan is Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s home when in Bombay. It remains a delightful haven of peace, away from the horrors of everyday Mumbai life.

My dream for Mumbai would be for it to reclaim its history from itself and demand a better tomorrow from those in charge. Demand a return to glory for its once great police force, its once unparalleled transport system, its once unbeatable civic services. A return to a humanitarian Mumbai in the midst of all its “development” and corporate concerns. There is no Mumbai without its people, including all those vilified by politicians and those nurtured as votebanks.

Of course, that is the dream for India as well. That we manage to rise above ourselves and understand that in 71 years, we have no business sinking into bedlam and hatred and blame games. Time to reclaim the middle ground, the free spaces, the room to be different and to be dissenting and be ourselves. Into that heaven of freedom…

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