India (that is Bharat) will be 76 years old in a few days. The tricolour will be unfurled from the Red Fort. The Prime Minister will give his address invoking national pride, prestige, heritage, and all other commonplace virtues which make Independence Day special. Our WhatsApp and social media will be full of tricolour profile pictures and Happy Independence Day messages, all striking an unsettlingly discordant note.
Kind of a strange cognitive dissonance, you’ve got to admit, wishing Happy Independence Day to a country that is officially one of the unhappiest countries in the world (according to World Happiness Index 2023).
We all already know that we’re anything but happy, but hey, that’s what you do right? It’s Azadi Mahotsav. It’s like an anniversary at this point; you can’t just ignore it. So you put it up on your status and forward those messages on WhatsApp groups. If you’re one of those people who feel that discordance, then you might retweet or repost some public figure making some banal remarks about how we’re not independent and how freedom is still far-fetched for all Indians given all the recent horrific incidents in the country and so on.
Street hawkers will go about selling tricolour-themed merch – little plastic and cloth flags, pinwheels, badges and other knick knacks.
If you have school-going kids, they’ll have to prepare some I-day-related performance.
You’ll be obliged to attend the annual Independence Day celebrations in your office or college or workplace or your housing society or your local organization. The national anthem will be sung, patriotic slogans shrieked with enthusiasm, sweets distributed, and kids will give performances. If it’s raining, the tricolour won’t be able to unfurl with half as much grandeur as would have befitted it had it been bright and sunny.
No amount of WhatsApp messages can match the level of discordance provoked by the Independence Day Parade. Air Force planes flying overhead dispensing tricolour-coloured smoke in their wake. Army soldiers marching to a familiar tune.
And that’s it. We go back to our day-to-day lives.
Does anyone really think about patriotism or nationalism apart from this one day? Not really. Not even the most radical among us.
It’s what is supposed to happen, right? What do I mean by discordance? This is what all countries do on their special day. They have parades, they give greetings, a riot of national flag colours everywhere, a celebration of nationalism at its finest. Everything is as expected.
And yet there is something about all this that…hey, have you watched WandaVision? Or The Matrix? It’s like you’re just waiting in bated breath for someone to drop the ball and say, “This is all a façade!”.
Tune out. The jarring triumphant notes of the anthem start ebbing out until all you can hear is radio crackling and white noise. A brief eerie silence.
And then you hear it. Bloodcurdling shrieks, heart-rending laments, and shattering screams, so loud they might deafen.
And then you smell it. Smoke. Putrid and suffocating. Glowing embers, shrapnel, and dust.
And then you see it, well no – you can’t see it now can you? Smoke. Real clouds of dust from demolished homes and bulldozer tracks on the ground. Smoke from industrial plants sending the AQI plunging. And virtual smoke from the smokescreens of TV channels, social media, and official government statements. Smoke everywhere both literal and metaphorical.
Chilling gusts of wind blow in your face with fury and the wails only get louder. The whiff of apple trees and lavender fields with the friction of barbed wire and the whirring sound of army tanks rolling in and shutters closing and the internet signal dying out. Not the ideal time for a trip to Kashmir, let’s try during Diwali.
The shrieks become unbearable.
Tune out, tune out…
And we’re back again on our daily commute to work, scrolling on our Instagram to pass the time. In between Happy Independence Day messages, there are those “intellectual” posts talking about the meaninglessness of freedom and the violence of the nation-state and the reality of our democracy and the hollowness of the promise of secularism and the truth about post-independent history and… tap like, tap like, save to important collections. Now this one’s nice, let me share to Stories. Matter of fact, let me screenshot and post it in the office WhatsApp group. On second thoughts, leave it, I don’t want a confrontation.
Open the family WhatsApp group. There’s that one uncle who’ll share that popular saying that love of homeland is part of Iman. You find yourself typing a long paragraph about how this is a fabricated hadith and ascribing fabrications to the Noble Messenger of Allah (SAW) is extremely serious and this desire to make Islam compatible with secular nationalism is deeply misplaced but then you delete it. No point arguing with boomers.
Your bus halts, and people shuffle out. You get off and walk towards your office. Yet another day spent with machines and humans. Brick-and-mortar business towers and iron-and-steel office buildings side by side with tin-and-plastic jhuggis and makeshift bastis. Men and women in suits talk fast on their cellphones in English as other men and women who are clearly not from the city sweep and mop the marble floors. Some are washing cars and vehicles. Some are setting up handcarts outside the establishment. Maamas and Bais are ferrying in trays of steaming chai for Sirs and Madams.
You clock in. Before long, it’s lunch break. You pick up a copy of any leading daily and flip through it. Opinion columns are busy discussing recent happenings in the country. Interspersed through the paper are advertisements of Central and State governments. Much is mentioned about India’s “unwavering spirit” and exciting “accomplishments” in development, infrastructure, and socio-economic indicators; the next superpower doubtless. The only responsible nuclear power, you know, unlike our neighbours. We sent yet another rocket to the moon.
Somehow we’ve got the research and technology for making it to the moon and for having our very own posse of WMDs but not so that human beings don’t have to clean our sewage with their bare hands. Kind of strange, that’s all.
You flip to the tabloid section. Two celebrities who reportedly had a feud made up. Man, if only international relations could work that way. If our country and our neighbour could indeed be like France and Germany instead of Rome and Persia.
Somehow we’ve spent hundreds of crores on diplomatic foreign visits and still can’t seem to reach a place in foreign policy where we don’t live in perpetual fear of a nuclear bomb ending everything.
But there is no might nor power except with Allah, the Most High.
Back to work. Wind up and go home.
The rain-soaked streets are lined with keechad and strewn with the discarded little tricolour flags sold by street children.
The wish-wash of windshields wiping away the falling raindrops, the honking of vehicles, and the glowing rectangle in your hand filling up with notifications.
Tune in and the deafening sounds start again, the blinding embers and the suffocating smoke. Real and virtual.
Tune out again because you’re back home.
You decide to do your daily Quran recitation.
You open your mus-haf and your gaze falls on this verse:
…” Lo! Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts”… (13:11)