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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 36, August 29, 2015

Freedom Day at Amritsar

Monday 31 August 2015, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

Three landmarks to cover in a single day—that was how some of us spent our fiftieth Independence Day.

The first of the pilgrimage was to the Indo-Pak border post at Wagah to celebrate the anniversary of the freedom at midnight.

Reaching Amritsar by the Shatabdi Express in the late evening of August 14, about a dozen of us led by the President of the Citizens for Democracy, Kuldip Nayar, we were received by a huge crowd at the Amritsar station itself—which included many dignitaries including leaders from the SGPC. From there, the hour-and-a-half drive to the border itself was filled with memories of that great day fortynine years ago which Jawaharlal Nehru had christened as “our tryst with destiny”.

In the pitch darkness of the night there were those of us who are old enough to recall that day of freedom sweated with the bloody partition which had been unleashed in the country. By this very road and many others, thousands upon thousands had trudged and been killed by the fiendish hatred that the partition had brought about. The memory of freedom’s arrival on that fateful midnight was soaked with the blood of our very kith and kin. All this and more were in our thoughts as we drove to reach in time to celebrate the anniversary of that historic midnight on the very border that marked the partition of the country.

As our cavalcade reached the security zone of the border the BSF authorities, on prior information, let us in. This was a pleasant surprise because this entire border check-post is normally closed by late afternoon. By that time, the celebration participants, numbering over 200, were all let in. We stayed there for about two hours, candles and torches were lit and as we could go up to the very border-line, much beyond the electric fence, the immigration and customs and the Indian flag-mast, it was a moment of joy interspersed with trepidation if those friends in Pakistan, who had informed us of their enthusiastic support for this demonstration of amity, would be able to make it to the border from their side. From the Pakistan Rangers who stood guard on the other side of the fence, it was gathered that nobody would be allowed to come to this point. Later we heard that a group of eight had come but were turned away by the Rangers.

No doubt this was a disappointment that the Pakistan authorities should have debarred such a crystal expression of mutual cordiality at the popular level as distinct from the official demonstration of mutual acrimony. But there was nothing to be disheartened as a message had already come to the Citizens for Democracy from a distinguished group of eminent Pakistanis who identified friendship with neighbours as being in consonance with their citizenship. Their message appreciated the initiative of the Indian friends and called for an early and amicable end to all disputes between the two countries and strongly supported the efforts at the popular level for such a task. The signatories included Asma Jehangir, the President of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, among other well-known public figures of that country.

At the Wagah border meeting, the Indian response was equally forthright. Read out in candle-light amidst deafening calls for Indo-Pakistan peoples’ friendship, the Indian resolution, while acknowledging ups and downs in the relationship between the two neighbours, pledged to work for the removal of barriers of suspicions and mistrust between the two countries: “We have no doubt that we shall overcome.” As the heart-warming songs of friendship and brother-hood by the Nishant Natya Manch rent the silent midnight, the message was inscribed for our brothers and sisters in Pakistan to sense that there are hundreds and thousands in both our countries who are determined to build bridges across the frontier, breaking the barbed-wire fences that stand there. That was the way it was that some of us welcomed the advent of the fiftieth year of our independence.

Next morning, the morning of auspicious August 15, we were at the Golden Temple, the sanctum sanctorum of our brothers and sisters of the Sikh faith. Some of us had made the pilgrimage to this sacred place—both before and after the tragedy of the Bluestar, June 1984—but this time I could not help feeling the incongruity between the messages that came from Wagah and the Golden Temple. If one stood as a memorial to our freedom from colonial rule, the other is marked by a sacrilege which those in authority to rule in this democracy of ours, indulged in. It was a vicious act which was the very antithesis of that democracy, namely, the desecration of the sacred place of worship with the use of the bayonets of our armed forces. Whatever might have been the circumstances, it was a black day for Indian democracy that this holy shrine of the Sikh community was attacked and damaged by the armed forces, just as the demolition of the Babri Masjid was perpetrated eight years later, in 1992, with the elected governments of our democracy choosing to remain inactive making no effort whatsoever to prevent the vandalism. These are the black marks on our democracy which one can hardly forget as one visits the Golden Temple, exuding the pure air of humility and devotion of millions, many more than the Sikh community itself.

No trip to Amritsar could be complete without a visit to another pilgrimage—the martyrs’ memorial at Jallianwala Bagh. The solemnity of the memory of the martyrs has been heightened by the serene atmosphere of the spot where General Dyer had butchered hundreds hoping to terrorise the Indian people into submission. As one looked at the well where hundreds jumped in desperation as British bullets were showered on them, one could not but feel that the sacred trust that freedom had imposed upon us has been largely betrayed by subsequent generations of our rulers. Those among them who are today charged with gross corruption and misconduct in public affairs, can they be brought to this sacred spot and made to confess to their sins? Perhaps the politician of today is too thick-skinned to move before that pristine legacy of the freedom struggle that Jallianwala Bagh symbolises.

Incidentally, a little incident at Jallianwala Bagh brought out how our freedom struggle had woven the texture of our national integration. The caretaker at the museum, a young Bengali, I found, is the grandson of a Congress worker who came here at the behest of Gandhiji at the time of the Amritsar Conference, and stayed on to look after this sacred monument of sacrifice.

Later in the day, when participating at a symposium at the Guru Nanak University on national consciousness, I could not help thinking how rich was this national consciousness left behind by the freedom struggle: General Dyer and his masters could not subjugate the unarmed Indian people by their terror and repression. The consciousness of freedom that was instilled into them by Gandhiji could not be muzzled by terror, and it rose to full heights when independence came. But in these five decades since independence, we have sullied our democracy through terrible lapses. The Bluestar on the Golden Temple represented one such act of apostacy of secularism. And the other, the one for which each one of us is responsible—the prolongation of hunger and deprivation for the millions of our countrymen who had pinned their hopes for a better living in this democratic republic of ours.

As we proceed to celebrate the first half century of our independence, let us remember the messages from those three centres of pilgrimage—the barrier of acrimony that divides us from our great neighbours that the Wagah electropost stands for; the desecration of the Golden Temple by the Bluestar operation; and the monstrous betrayal of the trust reposed on their countrymen by the martyrs at Jalianwala Bagh. It was indeed a thought-provoking Fifteenth August, spent at the great city of Amritsar as the nation reaches out to half-a-century of its independence.

(Mainstream, August 24, 1996)