Nation-building lessons from a Bollywood song

As a young republic (yes, 75 is a youthful age for a nation-state) and a youthful nation (half our population was born after 1994), we should be looking forward. Photo: AFP
As a young republic (yes, 75 is a youthful age for a nation-state) and a youthful nation (half our population was born after 1994), we should be looking forward. Photo: AFP


Our public discourse is much too dominated by the past as we dwell on our backlog of history at the cost of the future

Perhaps the most inspiring lines celebrating India, as evergreen as they are rousing, are from a Hindi film made just 13 years after Independence. In the title song of Ram Mukherjee’s Hum Hindustani (1960), Usha Khanna, Prem Dhawan and Mukesh earnestly persuade us Indians to forget the tired old matters of the past, and shape a collective new narrative for a new era. “Chhodo kal ki batein, kal ki baat purani/Naye daur mein likhenge, mil kar nayi kahaani, hum Hindustani!"

As new parents, my wife and I celebrated every time our children attained a developmental milestone. She turned over! She crawled! She stood up! She walked! But the child didn’t seem to notice or care. She enjoyed parental appreciation, but sans any self-consciousness crawled, toddled, walked and then ran onward towards the future. India is a lot like that. She is filled with an intrinsic momentum that propels her onward, while we pause to celebrate her from time to time.

Such celebrations are necessary and important. But as a young republic (yes, 75 is a youthful age for a nation-state) and a youthful nation (half our population was born after 1994), we should be looking forward. To the next 25 years, to the next 75, and beyond. Young and confident, new Indians have new aspirations. “Naya khoon hai, nayi umangein, ab hai nayi jawani, hum Hindustani!"

This is not a call to forget history. Rather, it is an argument to bring the future into public conversations, into our civic lives and into our politics. Let bygones be bygones. We are often so consumed with re-litigating the backlog of history that we have little time to prepare for the future. Yes, India has done well for itself over the past 75 years; but we could have done better. This is not merely perfect hindsight. At every stage in our post-independence history, there were contemporary voices who drew attention to unfolding opportunities or warned us of impending threats. One reason why we didn’t heed them—and why we struggle to even today—is our preoccupation with the past, our indulgence in the fallacy of sunk costs. Of course, we need good rear-view mirrors, but they should not be bigger than our windshields. “Aaj purani zanjiron ko tod chuke hain, Kya dekhen uss manzil ko jo chhod chuke hain."

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Public discourse on Indian politics can be classified into four levels, each centred around a basic question. At the lowest, foundational level is the question of who we are. Above it is a contest to define what our problems are. The third level concerns how we should collectively solve these problems. Finally, at the highest level is the question of where we want to go. Now, a society that plots its future without understanding itself is likely to run aground. Equally, one that spends all its energy debating “who we are" finds very little time to consider “where we want to go". Such a society is likely to end up wherever chance and circumstances take it. We cannot leave it all to fortune.

So at 75, we must jettison the deadweight of past issues and find the bandwidth to chart the course of our future. “Aao mehnat ko apna imaan banayein, apne haathon ko apna bhagwaan banayein/Ram ki dharti ko Gautam ki bhumi ko, sapnon se bhi pyaara Hindustan banayein."

I recall celebrating India’s greatness in the Mera Bharat Mahaan campaign in the mid-1980s, and then, just a few years later, even before those nice stickers had worn off, lurching into a deep economic crisis. We were puzzled: if we had indeed achieved greatness, why did our government need to pledge our gold and beg the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for help? In the event, that crisis led to reforms that unshackled India’s collective genius, the first generation of modern entrepreneurs and the talent of hundreds of millions of citizens. It was then that we noticed how far we had been from greatness. But we also discovered the way to get there. “Chaand ke dar par ja pahuncha hai aaj zamaana, naye jagat se hum bhi naata jod chuke hain."

There is no objective definition of what makes a nation great, so it’s hard to say when greatness has been attained (and indeed, when it slips away). What we do know is that at least a couple of hundred million of our citizens live in abject poverty, that we need to create 20 million jobs every year, and that while material conditions have improved for massive numbers, our society continues to deny equality, dignity and fraternity to quite a large number of our compatriots. Our celebrations must therefore be tempered by the immensity of the task that lies before us. “Humko kitne Taj Mahal hain aur banaane, kitne hain Ajanta hum ko aur sajaane."

We must write an inclusive new narrative. It does not have to conform with what our grandparents might have wanted. It should be about what we want. As Ambedkar argued “ the society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances."

It is for today’s generation of Indians to uphold freedom, equality, pluralism and fraternity because we understand their importance. And if we fight for these values every day, we will not have to fight for them again. “Naye daur mein likhhenge, mil kar nayi kahani!"

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.

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