(This is the transcript of the speech I delivered at IIT Bhilai on the 73rd Independence day of India (August 15, 2019).)
Respected dignitaries, director Prof. Rajat Moona, Mrs. Rajni Moona, dearest faculty and staff members, most beloved students, the organizers especially Dr. Sonal Jha, Dr. Rishi Ranjan Singh, and Mr. Ashok Gupta; My heartfelt greetings to all of you on the 73rd Independence Day of India (70th for the Republic of India).
What I am going to say today may not be very new for many of you, or with which you may not agree — partly or totally. And that is perfectly alright.
It starts from these very few basic questions:
What is a person’s nation? Why is it needed, if at all it is?
What you see now on the slide 1 is India, our country, our nation. Ever since we were born, we knew it. The map is quite fascinating, is not it,
almost resembling a woman in some act of some Indian classical dance. Her two arms spread out – east and west, the head forms the north and, it is not difficult to imagine her feet to be the slender south (slide 2).
So this is our country, our nation (slide 3).
It is quite important that every person should have a nation of his or her own. It gives you a sense of camaraderie and belongingness. You feel a sense of security to belong in a nation. Notwithstanding, the most important of all, to my mind, is that, in your own nation, you have automatically earned the right to participate in its internal matters, you have the right to even criticize your nation, and you feel happy that the nation listens to you; and we all agree that there could be no happier feeling than criticizing someone or something to one’s heart’s content 😉
These differences will be extremely stark, and palpable when you live in a foreign nation. For instance, I see that some of my friends who are now citizens of a different country, often receive the opprobrium that “you do not have the right to criticize India, since it is no longer your nation”. Such comments are not very fair, but quite real scenarios.
When India as a country merely means the lifeless landmass within this curvy geographic boundary, India as a nation is a far more deeper and lively (and of course lovely) idea that relates to wide ranging aspects, starting from cultural identity, shared values, to languages and lineages, even to — as common as — cuisines, dresses, climate, etc. So far so good. Right. But not so easy. This is still not enough to complete the idea of a nation. With many other countries, we share our cultural identities, languages, lineages, foods, etc. — as I just said — but we hardly consider them our nation!
I must emphasize that not considering a country our own nation is not equivalent to considering it our enemy: quite the opposite. There are plenty of such examples.
Then what is a person’s nation? The more you try to define it, the more you fall into trap of missing so many attributes of it. Yet, the feeling of belonging in a nation is one of the strongest.
You must have seen this map on slide 4 before, at least some of you surely did. This orange patch is India in 1947, as carved out directly from the British India; the white part includes 552 princely states that later on came to be a part of the independent India. Today’s Indian nation could have been a different country, if, even, one of these 552 princely states could not be a part of it.
Interestingly, my very own state, West Bengal, is not there in this map — at least partially — as I see it. Some of you may recall that when certain handful of influential people were literally dissecting the map of British India in about the time 1946-47 behind closed doors, bargaining hard with each other for a few extra miles of the land, one plan which gained some momentum was to have the united Bengal as a separate country — which was roughly equal to today’s West Bengal and Bangladesh combined. If that had happened — a decision over which the people of either West Bengal or Bangladesh had no control — I could have been in a different country today!
But the fact of the matter is this: all these 552 princely states one by one became part of India, so did West Bengal, and finally what we got as our nation is this on slide 1.
Another interesting event that was there on my mind for a long time, and that appears to have almost been erased from our living memory is the story of Burma, now known as Myanmar. Burma was a part of British India until as late as 1937, which is just 10 years before India got her independence. Burma has been separated from British India not because of any freedom movement or any civil uprising, but to reduce the administrative load on the government of British India. If this separation had not happened, the shape of independent India could have been very different again.
If you go backwards further in time, you will find a lot of such events, a slight change in the outcome of even one of which could have drastically changed the boundaries of many of the nation states that we see today.
So finally, belonging in a particular nation may be just an accident, a small random beep in history.
Nation is much more about an idea — than about history or geography — the meaning of which takes time to get rooted in our minds. Not only that, the idea of a nation has many layers. And that it needs to be constantly cultivated, debated, worked towards and dissected to get to the bottom of it. In short, building the idea of a nation is a profound physical, mental and emotional investment. And this exercise is every bit worth it, because this is the most important identity that you carry with you.
Thank you and Jai Hind.
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