Thursday, August 18, 2016

Indian Independence Day in a British agency

 In 2012 I joined a British Government Agency in New Delhi. It was just a normal transition into new job until the nationalist in me got triggered.

Its normal in India to see the tricolour and remembrances of freedom fighters in the run up to Independence Day. Its more marked in the school education sector, where I come from. 

The first trigger was a display of paintings in the office corridor. Made by school students during summer, some of them had the tricolour and portraits of nationalist leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Radhakrishnan and Ambedkar. It was interesting to see pictures of Indian nationalists in a ‘British’ space.

Little did I realise that I would be triggered, yet again, soon as Independence Day was around the corner.  

I have been used to office spaces being decorated with Indian flags and its colours, a couple of days before Independence Day. I knew I will surely miss it in my current office with it being a British agency. But then how can an official agency of Britain celebrate Indian Independence Day…as the very concept of Independence in India is anti-British…and it has to be since we got independence from the British. Being a nationalist historian as well, interesting thoughts started crossing my mind.

Indian nationalism has been constructed on a variety of pillars and one of the pillars is definitely on how British colonialism exploited us and how we came out of it with our freedom struggle. No doubt every Indian child is shown numerous films and plays of how we fought with the British. Children read books about it and all of this gets together to support our nationalism.

It was that pillar of Indian nationalism, which was triggering me…and making me uncomfortable to celebrate Independence day inside a BritishGovernment agency, being an employee. A couple of us friends just joked around…perhaps we should go around the office shouting slogans - British Quit India!

At the same time I was thinking how difficult it would be for Britain (or Britisher) to be a part of Indian Independence Day celebrations.  While Britainrespects India’s independence, how can it support a day in India, which is all about criticising what Britain did to India? I wonder if Britain sends India Independence Day greetings.

I immediately started admiring the modern world and the current world context. On one side, we Indians do take pride in having fought the freedom struggle against Britain and on the other side, a supposed nationalist Indian works for a British agency. And then the nationalist writes in English (the language of the people whom we won the freedom struggle from) for a English newspaper.

The journey of Britain from a coloniser to a development aid partner in the last 66 years is interesting to note. And that’s what I admire about the modern world that the notions of traditional nationalism do not exist now…though some of us may want to tag along with them.  Perhaps, we need to redefine the way we celebrate Independence day and contextualise it in alignment with the newer paradigms of the modern world.

I wrote this piece onyear, and thought I must share it with the British Government Agency top boss before I make it public. However, the agency did not allow me publish it saying that it may jeopardise Indo-British relations. Well these are some last hurdles we have to cross in this post -colonial world.

A conversation with a British...actually Scot colleague reminded me of what I had written and I thought I should publish it now having moved on from that job established myself in the new one. We had something called a 'Scot-xit' referendum and then Brexit, which prompted my Scot colleague to use the term Inde-exit for Indian Independence... jokingly. Another, Canadian colleague corrected that it was not an exit but a rejection of colonisation. But, the incident got this article out of my archives at least.

Right now I am trying to choose the right words so as not to offend either Indians or British. Be politically correct. How silly? Training of being part of an inter-governmental body. Why do we humans have to be politically correct and not speak our minds...even for fun. And while my national identity was taken aback by Inde-exit, it did put me on a thinking track.

Also, what I am thinking is that if Kashmir becomes another country and gets freedom (which I wouldnt want)...would a Kashmiri be writing a similar article about India House in Srinagar and I call it Kashmirexit.

Interesting thoughts!


Anonymous said...

As a British person almost as old as Indian Independence itself it is strange to note the emotions an Indian Independence Day stimulates. They are certainly not entirely good ones as it is a reminder of the injustices served upon the Indian peoples by a ruthless imperialism that has also been turned inward and served upon nation states within the United Kingdom itself. However, I have great misgivings about any kind of nationalism that divides peoples and dilutes their ability to solve common problems.
I am also uncertain about this term political correctness as it is used today as I feel that frequently, it becomes an exercise in righteousness for its own sake. I suppose the key here is who defines what is politically correct? It is certainly true that one should be sensitive to others’ feelings but in that case does not the vaunted celebration of an Independence Day impinge on the feelings and sensibilities of a generation of British that has had no hand in the idiocies and injustices of the Raj and who have suffered similar indignities by the same hand internally. Can this kind of flag waving be regarded as politically correct?
Independence is always worthy of celebration and in this case it is to be hoped that this is a celebration of how things have progressed towards positive outcomes.
However, as with our media’s on-going obsession with war films for entertainment, whilst serving as a reminder of what should never happen again they also keep conflict as a resolution to international problems alive in the global consciousness. For this reason, I wonder if it is not time to regard all concepts of nationalism of this kind with deep suspicion.

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