Liberty’s children

Meghaa Gupta | Updated on August 14, 2020

Crowd-puller: For the children of a young India, Jawaharlal Nehru wasn’t just prime minister but also their handsome chacha   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The journey of free India, viewed through the memories of Indians born in 1947

* Seven 73-year-old men and women chart the nation’s journey — milestones, heartbreaks, tragedies — through their memories

They were born in the year India awoke to freedom. How was it to grow along with the newly independent country? Seven 73-year-old men and women chart the nation’s journey — milestones, heartbreaks, tragedies — through their memories.

“The freedom struggle was fresh in people’s minds and patriotism was part and parcel of every household,” recalls Bengaluru-based Sumathi Vishwanathan, who retired from the Press Information Bureau, the government’s media department, in 2007. She grew up learning patriotic songs and hearing stories of freedom fighters.

Simple pleasures: For septuagenarians, the austerity and simplicity of their early days were replaced by glitzy capitalism and ground-breaking technology by the turn of the century   -  DEBASISH BHADURI

“Jawaharlal Nehru wasn’t just our first prime minister. He was handsome chacha, who wore a rose on his achkan. He had inaugurated my school in Delhi. We adored him like god,” says Vishwanathan.


However, it was not an easy time for the country, fraught as it was with tension at the borders. The disastrous Sino-Indian war of 1962 was a bitter blow to the morale of the young nation.

For Bhopal-based Azad Krishna Chaturvedi, it proved to be a turning point. “I remember people on the roadside gathered around radios, listening eagerly to updates on the war and to what Nehru had to say. He was clearly distraught,” Chaturvedi, then a teenager, recalls. Everyone, he says, wanted to pitch in — even street-dwellers were giving away alms as donation for the war-effort. “As a young boy, these scenes had a profound impact on my life,” he remarks.

Chaturvedi joined the army in 1967 and retired as a colonel in 2001. Yet, he couldn’t help but notice how the emotional fervour wasn’t the same after 1962. The loss had dented the euphoria of freedom and given everyone a taste of a stark reality.

Political intrigue

In the 1950s and ’60s, India was on a nation-building exercise. Land was being earmarked for agriculture; infrastructure, institutions and industries were being set up. Yet politics was at the forefront of public imagination. How could it not be? The grief of losing Nehru in 1964 was swiftly replaced by the sudden death of the second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, in Tashkent in 1966. What followed was one of the most tumultuous periods in contemporary history. Politics and polity were both splintered and transformed forever.

When 48-year-old Indira Gandhi first became prime minister in 1966, she was dismissed as a “gungi gudia” (mute doll). The moniker could not have been more off the mark. Gandhi defied all opposition and had her way in a manner that won her admiration, envy and bitter reproach. She abolished privy purses, split the age-old Congress, dissolved the Lok Sabha for the first time in history, called for early elections and registered a thunderous victory in 1971. After that, there was no stopping her. She waged a successful war against Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh, nationalised banks, launched Project Tiger — India’s first wildlife conservation programme — and, in June 1975, suspended democracy and thrust India into a 21-month-long Emergency.

Environmentalist Bittu Sahgal   -  ABIR JAIN


“For the first time since Independence, there was a serious split in the Congress. The country was abuzz with rumours about what the future would bring,” recalls environmentalist Bittu Sahgal, the founder of Sanctuary Nature Foundation. Sahgal notes at the time the Congress and India were like two sides of one coin and it was literally perceived as unpatriotic to vote for anybody but Indira Gandhi’s Congress party. He maintains he has never been a ‘political animal’ and it was the Emergency that opened his eyes to the trauma the country was experiencing.

Laila Tyabji, a founding member of Dastakar   -  special arrangement


Laila Tyabji, one of the founders of Dastkar, which works to revive traditional crafts, remembers those dark days only too well. “I drove around Delhi on my little motorbike, distributing anti-Emergency leaflets, encouraging people to vote against the Congress in the elections that were announced at its end,” she says.

The brazen abuse of power had shaken the children of independence, then in their late 20s. “We were passionately opposed to the shocking curtailment of civil liberties. The brutal sterilisation campaign set back family planning for decades. The forcible evictions and bulldozing of illegal colonies without notice were ghastly,” Tyabji says.

She observes that the Emergency also twisted the idea of a government irrevocably. “The government turned from being the caring maa-baap to an enemy who had to be evaded, bribed or tricked by any means possible. I think that divide is now built into the general Indian view of governments — whichever [the] party.”

Lines that divide

Militancy in Punjab and Kashmir, reservation and caste-based riots in North India, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and communal riots — by the ’80s and the ’90s, the body politic was significantly frayed and divisive tendencies grew roots in society. Separatist forces claimed the lives of Gandhi in 1984 and her son Rajiv in 1991. The violence was shocking, yet it completed the circle of disenchantment with politics and the state of the nation.

Journalist Ashok Handoo, who was born in Srinagar, has been a witness to the change. As a schoolboy, he was among those who crowded the roadside, waving small tricolours to greet Nehru and other leaders on their frequent visits to Kashmir. “But the same Kashmiris, who came out against Pakistani raiders on the streets with sticks and bare hands in the initial decades of freedom, began slowly drifting away from India,” he says. The changing perception about Kashmiris was definitely not lost on him. “When I first came to Delhi to study journalism in the late ’60s, my Kashmiri identity mattered little. But it started getting increasingly pronounced as Indians began identifying themselves by their region and community.”

The world’s worst industrial disaster

India was keen on economic progress through industrialisation, but the year 1984 exposed it to the perils of unsafe industrial establishments. Poisonous gas spewed out of the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, killing thousands and rendering unspeakable environmental damage. It was a watershed not just in India’s industrial development but also in its environmental history.

Sahgal says, “The Bhopal gas tragedy came like a dark cloud over this country even as lakhs of people had united to protect the Narmada river, which was being ‘assassinated’ by a series of dams.” In a time when people questioned whether India should even care about the environment given the magnitude of its problems, heart-rending images of the Bhopal gas tragedy shook up the collective conscience. As Sahgal observes, they “denied power brokers the ability of papering over the deaths of innocents”.

Growing old in a youthful country

In 2007, as the children of freedom prepared for retirement, the austerity and simplicity of the early days had given way to glitzy capitalism and ground-breaking technology. For the first time in since independence, India found itself inundated with material abundance.



The striking contrasts are not missed on Mumbai-based KR Prithvi Raj, who worked in the public sector before opening his own consultancy. “In our youth, air-conditioners, refrigerators, telephones and television sets were considered luxuries”. He recalls a time when, in an entire lane of houses, only a couple of them at most had a television set. “The neighbourhood would gather there during the weekend to watch the customary movie aired on Doordarshan or to enjoy the serials — Ramayan and Mahabharat. They were invited in warmly and served home-made snacks. Today, such scenes have disappeared from our lives.”

Material prosperity also brought in new norms. “People today have less time and more money. They don’t want to wait for buses when they can take a taxi. They don’t want to spend hours cooking a delicacy when they can pay to get it delivered at home. Today’s generation is growing up in a country that can afford instant gratification and waste,” Prithvi Raj notes.

Homemaker Shanta Bijawat, who was born in a village near Jaipur, observes that a path-breaking change she witnessed in the course of her life was the arrival of electricity. “Electricity came to my village in 1963. Back then, no one could have imagined how it would go on to change our lives.” Women of her generation were used to doing household work on their own. “There were no washing machines and mixer-grinders. Even today, I cook and clean my house on my own. It keeps me fit. We were healthier because the air and water were clean and food was wholesome, unadulterated and home-made,” observes Bijawat.

Unequal development

Even though the septuagenarians have sometimes struggled to keep up with the tectonic shifts in society and lifestyle, they don’t lose sight of the positive changes ushered in. Better education and opportunities, improved healthcare facilities are just some of them. Most of all, the generous salary revisions brought in by the fifth and sixth pay commissions following the economic reforms of 1991 have made their retirement years comfortable. “I’ve been earning more as a retired man than I did all my working life,” Chaturvedi observes.

Yet, the gifts of rapid development have been unevenly distributed. “Class differences have only added to the lines that divide India,” reflects Handoo.

Tyabji agrees. “Forty years ago, when I first began working with craftspeople, rural India was in a time-warp.” In the past, villagers lived in thatched mud huts, without water, electricity or sanitation, and had little contact with the outside world. While this has changed, differences persist. “Today a majority have pukka houses, gas connections, toilets, power. They travel all over India, whether for work or to sell their wares. They have cell phones to chat with one another, trawl the internet, access TikTok. The rural-urban divide still remains though, and in many ways the emotional disconnect between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ has increased,” she believes.

On the 74th independence day, Nehru’s words, spoken as India became a free country, ring just as true.

“As long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over... Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity... This is no time for petty and destructive criticism... for ill-will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.”

Meghaa Gupta works in children’s publishing and is the author of Unearthed: An Environmental History of

Independent India

Published on August 14, 2020

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