The Idea of India – By Shabana Azmi

In this political season of slugfest where our netas are outdoing each other in dividing us on the basis of our differences (caste, creed, language, religion) ; it’s good to come across a piece that talks beautifully about the ‘Idea of India’ and how these differences unify us.

I would thank Shabana Ma’am for sharing the script of her speech which she delivered at an event for Rahul Bose’s NGO ‘The Foundation’ on 22nd February 2014. And with due permission, posting it here because it’s a must read! 

Speech – The Foundation’s – The Idea of India 

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

Rahul Bose’s commitment to the Foundation is that of a missionary. I have watched him from the beginning of this journey and feel privileged that he has included me in ‘this path less traveled by’.

For today’s event I have watched him become a one man army. It has taken him two years to put this together – involving people of such repute as are present this evening. He has been both the Chairman of the Foundation and its Peon. More power to you Rahul and thank you for including me.

I’ve been asked to speak on ‘The Idea of India’. I’d like to begin with a sher of my father-in-law the noted Urdu poet Jan Nisar Akhtar.

 Tu is qadar mujhe apne qareeb lagta hai.

Tujhe alag sey jo sochoon ajeeb lagta hai

India is in the air I breathe. India is in the fragrance of the mogra, India is in the poetry of Kabir, Ghalib and Tagore, in the strains of Pt. Ravi Shankar’s sitar. India is the silence of meditation in the muted serenity of the Himalayas. India is also a cacophony – loud weddings, louder prayers, honking horns and shouting TV anchors.

India is a country that lives in several centuries simultaneously – She lives back to back in the 17th , 18th, 19th , 20th and 21st centuries and her people at any given time and place encapsulate all the contradictions that come from being a multi religious, multi cultural, multi lingual and multi ethnic society. Her rich diversity, her inherent pluralism is both her strength and her weakness. Her diversity makes her unique but it also makes her seemingly impossible to govern.

India exudes beauty: the white symmetry of the Taj Mahal, the vibrancy of Madhubani, the colors of Kutch, the carvings of Konarak. Yet India is a visual sore: garbage mounds, discarded plastic bags and open gutters.

India is an olfactory assault: smoky air, putrid drains, and burning cow dung. Yet India floats the fragrance of agarbatti, the smell of coconut and the seduction of Itr.

India is a story of lost opportunities, unresponsive governance; the abode of illiterate, poor, blind and the sick. But India is dreams and soaring aspirations of the young the energy of entrepreneurs, and feisty spirit of voluntary organizations.

India assaults sensibility with its women abusers walking with impunity amongst the goddess worshippers; with starving children living next to warehouses with rotting food. But India offers hope with Democracy a Constitution and a Justice System.

To me the idea of India is simple. She is a Secular Democratic Republic and her greatest strength is her composite culture – her ganga- jamuni tehzeeb.

I was raised in a commune like flat of the Communist party which was called not surprisingly The Red Flag Hall. Comrades like the great Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafri, my father Kaifi Azmi and eight other families had just one small 280 sq. ft. room each with a strip of a balcony that was converted into the kitchen. Eight families lived together with just one bathroom and one toilet. My father was a whole timer and would get only 40 rupees to look after my mother, my brother and me. So there was never any money but it didn’t seem to matter at all because the residents of Red Flag Hall were tuned to the sound of a different drummer, they were committed to a larger goal. They were determined to struggle for social justice, gender sensitivity and celebration of India’s composite culture. All festivals were celebrated with much fanfare – Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas. As kids we were taken to the Sarvajanik Ganesh Pandals. On 26th January we would be put in a truck and taken to see the lights at Chowpatty – we imbibed India’s pluralism almost by a process of osmosis.

Today however that pluralism seems to be under threat. Communalism is raising its ugly head and permeating into all stratas of society. Religion is being used by Fundamentalists of all hues to divide people for vote bank political mobilization. Mobocracy is threatening the very tenets of Democracy and much more needs to be done to stem the rot. We need to recognize the signs of danger around us. It is said that if you put a frog in a cauldron of boiling water it jumps out and saves itself. But if you put it in tepid water and gradually turn the temperature on the frog doesn’t realize it till it is too late and dies. We are like the frogs who do not realize that the temperature around us is being heated up and very soon it might become too late.

If you ask me who I am I will say I am a woman, an Indian, a daughter, wife, actor, Muslim, Mumbaikar etc… my being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity and yet in India today it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity only into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into at the cost of all other identities! But this is a construct; it is not the truth of India – India’s greatest identity is her composite culture. If you look at a Kashmiri Hindu and a Kashmiri Muslim they have much more in common with each other because of their cultural identity their Kashmiriyat – than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Muslim from Tamil Nadu inspite of the fact that they share a common religion.

There is much that needs our attention if we want the Idea of India to flourish. As India seeks to become a global power we must also pause to ask which model of development needs to be pursued. Who’s development and at who’s cost is a question that begs to be answered. It cannot be the progress of a few at the cost of many. One of India’s greatest challenges to me is that large infrastructure projects need to be put in place to drive the engine of growth but this will necessarily lead to displacement of large numbers of people. Unless the principle of social justice is applied to resettling the displaced no genuine development will be possible; in fact there will be social unrest and chaos as has been witnessed in Nandigram and other places. The project affected person asks “If I am displaced from the land of my birth for ‘the greater common good’ then surely I have a right to demand that I am the first beneficiary of that project or at least one of the beneficiaries”. Alas! such is not the case as experience shows. We need economic progress without doubt but the benefits also need to reach those sections of India where ‘the sun is not shining’.

The vision of Rahul Bose’s The Foundation is to see a world free of discrimination of all forms. We know that in India all kinds of discrimination exist but what is heartening is that a robust civil society and hundreds of NGOs are putting up stiff resistance to work against discrimination of all kinds particularly discrimination against women. Women are breaking their silence, women are speaking the language of rights. Women are saying don’t call us Goddesses, treat us as equal human beings and the change is perceptible. In Mijwan a tiny village in UP Azamgarh where I work, girls as young as 8 and women as old as 80 are saying girls are equal to boys. Girls are refusing to be pushed into marriage before the age of 18 and are aspiring to work and become self sufficient.

There are also our artists, some of them present here today who are fighting for the right to freedom of expression and through their work have demonstrated that Art knows no boundaries; Art soothes, Art excites, Art provokes. I believe Art has the possibility of creating a climate of sensivity in which it is possible for change to occur.

The major idea of India is inclusion – men and women, poor and rich, old and young, tribal and urban all must become active participants in the polity who strive for Equity, Justice, Agency and Empowerment.

India is not a melting pot in which individual identities are submerged. Instead India is a colourful mosaic in which individual identities are retained whilst contributing to a larger whole. India will always remain more than the sum of its parts.

The long and the short of it is simply this – I am proud to be an Indian.

Thank you.