Independence Day each year, I must confess, produces as much anxiety as joy. This may have something to do with the fact that our religious liturgies are colourful, participatory, exuberant and admirably not heavy on piety. But our civic liturgies, by contrast, are solemn, boring, official and too pious. More than anything, they remind us that independence is still not an internalised fact lightly worn and taken for granted and pressed in the service of life itself; it is still something that feels more precarious than it should 70 years down the journey.
The sense of anxiety is reinforced by reading the one speech that still defines Independence — India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous “tryst with destiny” speech, one of the great yet enigmatic speeches of the 20th century. When we were young, the speech conveyed a straightforward meaning; as we grow older, Nehru’s poetic licences seem both more profound and mysterious. “Tryst with destiny” is a memorable phrase whose eternal power will survive the age of Twitter. But a “tryst” is a private rendezvous with a lover. Why a private rendezvous? Did the private rendezvous actually take place? Does the “private” character of that relationship seem out of place in that most public of moments? Perhaps, not. Nehru, more than anyone else, knew something about the enigmatic nature of the relationship between an individual and the nation, and between the nation and what it stands for. It does have more characteristics of love. Not the scripted, publicly declaimed, compulsory love of official nationalism, but the more mysterious, individualised romantic love (perhaps, also with the possibility of estrangement), that the word “tryst” suggests. Which is why, official declamations of nationalism, though necessary in very limited contexts, seem not to capture the essential character of the moment.
Then, there is the whole phrase: “tryst with destiny.” For all its poetic licence, it contains a paradox worthy of abstruse philosophy. What is “destiny?” Is India fated to be one way rather than the other? Is its future foreordained? Or, is it “destiny” in a second and more powerful sense — destiny as the hidden power that shapes the future? Is India’s future scripted, in which 1947 was one foreordained moment that finally caught up with us? Nehru even calls August 15, “the day appointed by destiny.” Or, does India recognise that it is a power itself, that it can script its own future? There is, also, the association of “tryst” with “destiny.” We are choosing to have a tryst with who we were fated to be; or, if you prefer the second meaning of destiny, we have a rendezvous with our own power. This is a rather paradoxical idea. But it is one that captures the psychological nuances of Indian nationalism quite deeply. On the one hand, Indian nationalism seems to wear a sense of destiny on its sleeve — it has an enormous sense of entitlement; it is as if, as Nehru suggests, history is just waiting for India to reclaim its place. On the other hand, there is an acute sense of choice — we have to choose to become what we are. Unlike American nationalism, which was always more providential, Indian nationalism oscillates between two poles: a sense of entitlement, but, also, great frustration that we do not exercise the choices available to us.
There is another phrase — “the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance”. What is this soul? Is it a fixed identity that has been suppressed, or a value that has not been realised? The question becomes even more complicated because Nehru presents both India as something to be discovered and something to be changed. But, despite the magnificent gestures to the past, the emphasis in the speech is on change. Nehru writes, “The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken. Yet, the turning point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about.” The concern shifts to not as much of a soul being liberated as to promises that need to be redeemed: wiping a tear from every eye, removing poverty and ignorance, creating an India that is in the service of humanity.
Nehru’s choices of who the nation remembers at its moment of destiny are interesting. Most obviously, Mahatma Gandhi, whose moral ideals we fall short of, and, the volunteers and soldiers of freedom. But, perhaps, most movingly, he also wrote, “We think also of our brothers and sisters who have been cut off from us by political boundaries and who unhappily cannot share at present in the freedom that has come. They are of us and will remain of us whatever may happen, and we shall be sharers in their good and ill fortune alike.” It is a measure of how far we have come from that “tryst with destiny” that this sentiment seems not just alien but almost unintelligible. The dismissal of this sentiment is, perhaps, understandable. What is more disquieting is that the constitutional vision he outlines also seems a bit more of wishful thinking than it should: “We are citizens of a great country, on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”
Independence restored agency to Indians. But it was not, despite Nehru’s opening sentence, a “tryst with destiny.” There is no destiny because India’s success is not foreordained. Indeed, the whole speech labours under the suspicion that there is no destiny at work here: only the wills of free people who may or may not choose to make something of themselves. That is the peculiar dignity freedom bestows on us; it is also the anxiety it induces.