“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.”
– Jawaharlal Nehru, “Tryst with Destiny,” 14-15 August, 1947
With these words, India, a newborn independent country stepped into the world with great hope, sincerity, and a promise to deliver. Although not in as many words, the sentiment expressed in Nehru’s inaugural address, delivered on the eve of 15 August 1947, echoed among the millions of people who had become citizens of Pakistan at the same time as many more millions became citizens of India.
The moment was one of a promise: to rise up, to learn from past mistakes, to move forward, and most importantly, to work towards becoming good, responsible nations and peoples; to honor the many sacrifices of those who had passed away striving hard to break the shackles –the absence of equality, democracy and mutual respect – of colonial rule; to ensure a better world for the coming generations; to work towards raising generations that would work towards similar goals while in the pursuit of their different yet remarkable dreams.
The generations that lived through and after 1947, both in India and Pakistan, truly believed the potential of the same. There were hiccups, but nonetheless, most people looked towards the coming days and years with fervent hope of experiencing the realization of these promises.
“The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?” Nehru asked, in his address to the newly independent India.
When I asked my grandparents about this question as a nine-year-old who had just discovered this speech (and who was mostly fumbling to understand the meaning of many new words), they said, “In the hearts and minds of those listening to him over radio, we decided we will give all our everything.” I believed them. I felt good; I felt optimistic.
Today, almost two decades after that conversation with my grandparents, and 68 years after that question was posed, I still feel good and enthusiastic. But I simultaneously find myself questioning the deliverance on the promise and the hope of generations of 1947 and immediately after. We are two seven-decade-old nations; fraternal twins whose paths paradoxically diverged so much that the distance between the two is humongous.
How did we let this happen to each other? Why did we sit back and watch the negative elements sabotage the midnight promise so immensely that not only did the two countries grow apart but inside both countries a systemic rot was allowed to take shelter and in fact prosper?
Today, in both India and Pakistan, the levels of corruption, degradation of human values, tolerance, and the sentiment of peaceful co-existence, and gaps in governance are aplenty. According to Transparency International, it exists more in Pakistan than in India, but the point of the matter not whether one is “better” than the other as it is often mistakenly understood; but instead, it is whether we as countries and peoples with 70 years to learn, improve, grow, and raise our standards (continue these efforts) in everything, have done it.
Have we really lived up to the time we have taken and the promises that were made and felt?
We have definitely come a long way from 1947, but proportional to the time we had, the passion that was abundant and the sincerity that was teeming when both our countries we born and at least until the countries were adolescents, we have really not. Both countries are now “senior citizens.”
Senior citizens are almost always the ones with a wealth of experience, knowledge and wisdom. But as countries, are we anywhere close to resembling senior citizens? In reality, irrespective of our achievements and shortcomings, we resemble a squabbling couple.
Domestically, both countries still have unacceptable levels of poverty, corruption, infant mortality rates, women’s rights issues, low accesses to education, limited employment opportunities, security issues, and brain drain.
As countries, we distrust each other for a litany of reasons. We do not speak with each other often. Most of us only hear stories about the other side via various media. There is a long list of grievances against each other, and this list keeps growing. Often, animosity and misplaced priorities are the sources of the various motivations for not feeling neighborly towards each other, never mind fraternal.
Does this mean we have forgotten the tryst?
Hope isn’t entirely lost. Innocents and well-meaning people exist on both sides. Indians’ responses to the December 2014 Peshawar attacks and Pakistanis’ response to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi’s bail demonstrates the glimmer of hope that will only get stronger if we all invest even just a little bit of effort. To let go on either side would mean we let the negative elements win.
Are we really that weak-hearted? Not in the least.
As Nehru identified in the midnight address,
“That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we might fulfill the pledges we have so often taken and the One we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer…This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others.”
Progress is a two way street. The state will do as much for its subjects as it can, but as citizens, we too have a responsibility to be responsible citizens. Let us try to harness political (and other) differences towards building a sustainable future we can feel collective ownership of. Perhaps we can learn from post-World War II Germany.
India’s journey, along with Pakistan’s, began on the eve of 15 August 1947, and with an address that succinctly captured the moment:
“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.”
It shouldn’t matter how governments or other people behave. Let’s work on making our individual selves worthy by contributing to the betterment of the region for future generations.
It is time we give partition and any mutual animosity a place in our histories and make space for moving further, and working to become better than our own selves were in every moment that precedes the current.
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations she is affiliated to.
Image: Chris Pecoraro, Getty