Freedom at Midnight
India's continuing tryst with destiny
Long years ago, India made a tryst with destiny. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in 1947 that the time had come for India to redeem that pledge. But did India really discover its destiny 76 years ago? Or is it still searching for it?
Nehru’s speech just after midnight India time on August 15, 1947 was inspiring, but somewhat cryptic. As the bells rang out on an independent India, he said that:
Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny; and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.
When was that tryst made? According to Nehru,
At the dawn of history, India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her successes and her failures.
The dawn of history was a long time ago, even in 1947. Nehru seemed to imply that the nationhood of a united India was not only the dream of the independence movement that he helped lead, but the dream of 3000 years of Indian civilization. And it really is true that although there had always been a united Indian civilization for as far back as literature can take us, there had never been a united Indian nation before August 15, 1947.
Of course, even on that day the sun did not rise on a united India, but only on the promise of an India to be united. It took a decade for the Dravidian south to reach a full consensus on Indian nationhood, and even longer for the northeast. In the northwest, there are still murmurs of discontent. But all in all, India seems as united today as 1.4 billion people ever can be.
And so independent India now has the luxury to reassess its past, its present, and its destiny. The government has just announced the complete replacement of its colonial-era Indian Penal Code with a modern Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (that’s Hindi for Indian Judicial Code), and efforts are afoot to give India its first uniform civil code providing equal treatment under the law for people of all religions. These reforms are long overdue.
They will help transform India from a merely independent country into a truly modern country. The exact shape that modern India will take is still being worked out, and it is sure to be hotly contested. Such debates are as inevitable as they are appropraite in a democracy. The key difference between 1947 and 2023 is that this time India’s destiny is entirely in the hands of Indians.
Nonetheless, the birth pangs of modernity are no less challenging than those of independence, though one hopes and trusts that they will be much less painful. The new India that emerges between now and the country’s centenary in 2047 will owe much to the old India of the independence era, but it will look very different. Shopping malls and office blocks, airports and train stations, temples, mosques, churches, and indeed parliaments are all being renewed. So are worship practices, school curricula, and indeeed legal codes.
It must be an exciting time to be Indian. It is an exciting time just to follow India from a distance. It is, quite obviously, India’s moment. And the success of India’s transformation concerns us all. For as Nehru observed at midnight, 76 years ago:
Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom; so is prosperity now; and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.
Happy Independence Day, India!