Wednesday, August 16, 2006

India Celebrates Freedom and Democracy

Freedom under the shadow of hope and terror

ND Batra
From The Statesman

On the occasion of India’s Independence Day observed yesterday, while the world has plunged into gloom because of the pre-emptive discovery of the terrorist plot to blow up ten transatlantic airlines ~ only a month after the horrific train attacks in Mumbai ~ I still believe the good will ultimately prevail.

The bonds between the United States and India are very strong. Terrorism will be finally beaten, if the free world continues cooperating. There is so much common between India and the United States that I can’t love one without the other. Freedom deeply rooted in secularism makes every one a productive citizen in the United States, for the simple reason that when an individual cannot assert his superiority or make a special claim on the basis of his race or religion, he has no choice but to show his natural born abilities and talents to succeed, which has turned the United States into a merit-based a society, more or less.

The idea that success, in whatever terms it is defined, is possible for any one with talent, from Wall Street to sports arena, Silicon Valley to Holly-wood, is essentially everyone’s ambition. It is a secular version of the Biblical oration: “If you knock, it shall open until unto you.” The price of not knocking at the door is that you are left in the cold. There’s no choice but to try and try again, which has made the US a highly competitive society.

Secular freedom has proved productive not only in economic terms, but in every field of human endeavor. It breeds in you a sense of equality, dignity and self-worth, and your heart cries out, Go and take the risk. Every field of activity in the United States teems with talented people drawn from various nationalities, cultures, races, and colors. Americans are so unafraid of the otherness of “others,” though it has not always been so if you recall the burning of witches to Japanese-Americans’ incarceration during WWII and the McCarthy era terrorism.

The foundation of secular freedom was laid in the United States with the Declaration of Independence, as it was done in India when Nehru evoked India’s “Tryst with Destiny” at the mid-night hour on the 15th of August 1947. It has been a long struggle to keep up with the demands of secularism, freedom and equality in the United States as it has been in India. The struggle isn’t over. It will never be over. It has been a long struggle when you consider how much it has taken for African-Americans to reach their present status. A generation ago it would have been impossible to think of an African-American woman occupying one of the most powerful diplomatic and political positions in the United States.

The rise of Condoleezza Rice as US Secretary of State demonstrates the truth that talent matters and freedom has many possibilities. So does the rise of a Muslim scientist to become the President of India; a Sikh to become the Prime Minster of India; an Italian-born Christian woman to become the leader of a major political party. The richest man in India is a Muslim. Some of the most successful and glamorous Bollywood personalities are Muslims. Christians in India run some of the best schools, colleges and hospitals. That’s what India should be celebrating. But the elevation of a few in the United States from the dungeon of invisible oppression might also give a misleading impression that all American Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are upwardly mobile. Far from it.

The painful truth is that racial profiling is a common occurrence in the United States, which prompts the police sometime to shoot first then ask question, if the non-White person, especially if he is Black, Hispanic, or Middle-East/South Asian-looking, is not properly responsive. In India the equivalent of racial profiling is caste-and-religious profiling. A Muslim might be under suspicion for no reason except that terrorism has become associated with Islamic extremism with its hub in Pakistan. Like the United States, India has a long way to go to eliminate blind and irrational prejudice, though the most heartening aspect of it is that no one is giving up the fight. Acceptance of diversity has become a necessary condition for political survival both in India and the United States, which is another fascinating parallel between two great democracies founded on multiculturalism and secularism and now both fighting Islamic terrorism.

For me freedom has no meaning unless it breeds equality in the sense of equal opportunities for everyone, a level playing field where a person can prove his best and give his best and be rewarded for it. That’s more than a personal sentiment if you consider it from India’s national interest. You cannot have a strong market economy in upwardly perpetual motion unless the best and the brightest are allowed to come forward and compete for and expand economic opportunities.

The marketplace, howsoever Darwinian it might be at times—rather than one’s caste, gender, or religion—should determine the competition and reward the best. The government’s obligation is to build the infrastructure, maintain law and order and take care of the poor because the marketplace cannot solve these problems.

It is only through the power of the open marketplace that minorities and other left-behind-people could be integrated into the fabric of India. Hope is the best front against despair and terrorism.

On this Independence Day let’s keep our hearts and minds open, as Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru would have wanted us to do.

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