Tuesday, August 7, 2007

India: Free and Fearless

India at 60 is home sweet home

From The Statesman

Freedom from fear is the freedom
I claim for you my motherland!
~ Tagore

For what avail the plough or sail, Or land or life, if freedom fail?
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is so much common between India and the United States that I can’t love one without loving the other.

Freedom deeply rooted in secularism makes every one a productive citizen in the United States. The reason is simple: 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 society, more or less. It is gradually happening in India too, especially in Bangalore and Bollywood, where only the most creative and brilliant minds can shine.

The idea that success, in whatever terms it is defined, is possible for any one with talent, from Wall Street to ballparks, Silicon Valley to musical bands, is the essence of what is essentially the American Dream. It is a secular version of: “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 and succeed.

Secular freedom has proved productive not only in economic terms but in every which way you can imagine. 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 human endeavor 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 World War II and the McCarthyism of the Cold War era.

The foundation of secular freedom was laid in the United States with the Declaration of Independence. It happened in India when Jawaharlal 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 USA, as it has been in India. It isn’t over yet. It will never be over.

But India is full of new hopes and new dreams. 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 occupying one of the most powerful political positions in the United States. The rise of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of the United States demonstrates the truth that freedom has many possibilities, as does the rise of a woman, Pratibha Patil, to become the President of India.

A country that joyously accepts Sonia Gandhi and Mother Teresa as its own is a most blessed nation and a great hope for mankind.

In the United States, now it is time for Hillary Clinton to show women the way to the White House. But the elevation of a few from the dungeon of invisible oppression might also give a misleading impression that all American Blacks and Hispanics 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 to shoot first then ask a question.

In India the equivalent of racial profiling is caste-and-religious profiling. A Muslim might be under suspicion for no reason except that he bears a Muslim name. Sometimes I wonder if Bangladeshi Muslims living in India were to assume Hindu names, would they be still regarded foreigners and illegal infiltrators? Just a creative thought.

But consider this: that a large number of Indian restaurants, with Indian names, in the United Kingdom and the United States are actually owned by Bangladeshis and they are doing extremely well. This proves the point that prejudice is sometime very shallow. 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. Look at the slow transformation of political parties including BJP in India.

Acceptance of diversity has become a necessary condition for political survival both in India and the United States, another fascinating parallel between two great democracies founded on diversity, multiculturalism and secularism. 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.

Consider it from India’s national interest. You can’t have a strong market economy on a perpetual roll unless the best people are allowed to come forward and compete for economic opportunities.

India needs brains and the marketplace does not care whether the brainpower comes from a Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Parsi, Dalit or Brahmin.

Open marketplace, of goods and ideas, not one’s caste or religion, should determine the competition and reward the best. The government’s obligation is to build infrastructure, maintain law and order, and take care of the poor because the marketplace does not solve all problems.

The government should get out of the way of the people and let them create wealth for the nation.

That is the only way everyone from Kashmir to Kanyakumari will call India: “Sare jehan se achha yeh Hindustan hamara.”

(Dr ND Batra, the author of Digital Freedom, is working on a new book, This is the American Way).

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