75 years ago, Britain ended its 200-year rule of India and the independent nations of Pakistan and India were born. IDS researcher Lyla Mehta who was born and raised in Bombay, India, reflects on this anniversary and today’s struggle for freedom and human rights for all.
This partition was brutal. Around one million people died and millions more were displaced through the conflict and violence that ensued. Both countries are still living with the legacy of partition and many communities and families all over the world are still affected by the traumas of loss and dispossession. The region of Kashmir in particular remains an unresolved issue with both countries claiming rights over the territory, and local Kashmiris being caught up in never-ending spirals of conflict and violence.
On 14 August 1947, one of India’s principal secular anti-colonial leaders who later became the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, noted India’s “tryst with destiny” and “how at the strike of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will wake to life and freedom”. And indeed, 15 August is a day of celebration in India, but increasingly a day of assertions of nationalism and patriotism.
No doubt there is a lot to celebrate in India. In the past 75 years, India has achieved remarkable progress in science and technology, medicine, agriculture, education and innovation. But India still remains a land of extremes and extreme inequality. Some of the world’s richest billionaires are from India, but India is still home to some of the world’s poorest and malnourished people.
Millions are still not free
Despite 75 years of freedom, millions are not free. Dalits and Adivasis are routinely discriminated against and treated like non-citizens. Dalits continue to be harassed and excluded from most spheres of life and even killed for drinking water from pots owned by Brahmins and upper castes. Gender based violence is high in India, ranging from dowry deaths to rape and honour killings and is rising according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
Violence and hate speech
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, inflammatory hate speech, vigilante nationalism, and violent acts against Muslims and other minorities have been widespread. Since winning a decisive second term in May 2019, the promotion of a majoritarian fascist right-wing Hindu agenda has been more pronounced and many minorities feel insecure in their own country. Consequently, the core principles enshrined in the Indian constitution that underscore the importance of democracy, secularism, unity within diversity and the equality of all Indians regardless of religion or belief are under threat.
The recent violent attack on Bombay-born Salman Rushdie has shocked the world. But it should be noted that India, the country of his birth, was the first country to ban his book The Satanic Verses after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued the 1989 fatwa (religious edict to kill). In fact, India has a long tradition of clamping down on freedom of expression and criticism, and there is a never-ending list of films and books that have been banned in India. Also while much is made of Islamic extremism, writers such as Gauri Lankesh, Dr N Dabholkar and others were killed by Hindu extremists for their struggles against discrimination of minorities and rising fascist forces in India.
Currently, so many human rights defenders, journalists, student activists and intellectuals such as Umar Khalid , Sanjiv Bhatt, Khurram Parvez, Gulfisha Fatima and others are in jail in India, simply for fighting for inclusive citizenship, social justice and human rights for all. Until they are free, India cannot be free.
Shared history across South Asia
Since I was born and raised in Bombay, India, my focus here is largely on India. But I know that Pakistan is no stranger to political and economic crises, social and gender injustices as well as religious extremism.
I have been to Pakistan twice and on both occasions I was so moved by the warmth and hospitality extended towards me, despite the outward enmity between both nations. While partition led to so much loss, aggression and the erasure of a shared history, in reality there is so much that both nations have in common given all the cultural and linguistic similarities and a shared past.
Unfortunately, given existing hostilities and political posturing, visa and travel regimes between India and Pakistan remain very difficult. I hope there will one day be a South Asian union (which includes Bangladesh), which will allow for easier or even visa free travel, improved economic, social and cultural exchanges as well as commitments to the human rights of all South Asians.
Seeking true freedom
There is still so much hate, division, inequality and bondage all over South Asia. Independence must not just mean waving flags or being patriotic on August 14 and 15. Instead, it means striving for and celebrating diversity, and freedom and justice for all beings regardless of gender, caste or creed. These are the values that I grew up with in Bombay and the India I will always identify with and cherish.
To be truly free, all Indians and Pakistanis need to enjoy basic freedoms – jobs, access to food, water and sanitation and good quality education – and be free from religious extremism, intolerance and hate.
Happy birthday India and Pakistan! May all beings flourish and be truly free!