My dear countrymen, countrywomen, brothers, sisters and dear children. Today we celebrate the 61st anniversary of our independence.
But given recent events and the disenchantment many Indians feel over the government, today I will diverge from my speeches past in this august location of the Red Fort, where our forefathers defended and fought for our freedom. I will not invoke the tricolour or the words of Mahatma Gandhi or even those of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Because, my brothers and sisters, we have reached a critical moment in our nation’s history and the responsibility of its citizens. The state of India and the many fractious Indians within are in crisis, making hindsight and nostalgia a most useless exercise.
Thus, I dedicate these words not to the two-thirds of the nation I usually pander to — farmers — but the other two-thirds: our nation’s youth, those under the age of 35 who stand on the cusp of whether this 61-year-old experiment will prosper or sputter.
For at least two years now, I have come here and laid out my mission for this country: An India that is united in thought, not divided by religion and language. An India that is united in Indianness, not divided by caste and region. An India that is united in seeking new opportunities for growth, not divided by disparities. An India that is caring and inclusive.
I admit today, my fellow citizens, my government has failed on many counts. My party, particularly, has helped fuel this divide with its ambiguous policies on caste and religion. While affirmative action is definitely needed to correct ills, the current system treats lower castes like second-class citizens on college campuses, while general-caste students run around telling everyone how their failure is entirely the fault of others.
Meanwhile, pride in our own Indianness feels shaky. Just as it appears that young people are more confident in their own skin, we have popular nightclubs banning guests in “ethnic” dress. Among lower and upper classes alike, consumer products wage battle with promises of whiter skin.
Our cities have become bastions of resentment between old and new money, old residents and newcomers, often divides cut along ethnic lines. Perhaps you do not flinch when the Diwali party invite in your gated community includes a line saying, “No maids”. The middle class divides the world into two: maids and people.
Opportunities for youth have not been inclusive. Of the one million who graduate every year, only a quarter are ready to report to work. This represents a failure of our education system.
And so today, young people who represent this nation’s future, I offer you an apology. But unlike years past, I make no promises.
Because too many times, from this perch, I have listed all the ways government can and will help your life. Universal education, rural employment, health missions, committees devoted to this and that.
But let today go down in history as the first time an Indian head of state will tell you that government is not the answer to your problems. Don’t get me wrong — there is much we must do, there is much we will do. But somewhere in our conversations about the future of India, we have lost the covenant, the partnership between a people and their leaders, and the idea that only together they can make a country great.
So, brothers and sisters, I have no answers. You do.
For proof of this, look no further than our own home-grown hero Abhinav Bindra, who did us proud in Beijing with his gold medal in a 10m air-rifle competition. It marked India’s first gold medal in an individual sport — but no thanks to the government. Rather, Bindra relied partly on his own fortune and that of the Mittal Champions Trust set up by steel tycoon L.N. Mittal; the trust gave him a physical therapist, a trainer and practice equipment.
Young people of this nation, all of you have the power to be like Bindra. You might say you have no access, you have no connections, you have no clout. Bindra, an MBA graduate from a prosperous family in Chandigarh, had all those things and he had talent — and we in government still didn’t help him. But he did not wait.
At some point, all of you have been entrepreneurial enough to make up for the shortcomings of the government. I ask you to apply the same to your life — and to each other.
You cannot wait. If there are no jobs in your village, migrate. If you don’t speak English, learn. And as you go about your life, find ways to give back to where you came from, to each other and to society at large.
Let me conclude by rethinking the obligatory “Jai Hind”. Instead, I ask you to join me in my deep wish that India in its current form should not live much longer. But if the young of this nation rise — in ideals, compassion, service, responsibility, a belief in self and country — then that would be a New India worth celebrating indeed. Jai Hind.
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