A tryst with destiny may not always be a pleasant encounter. Think of Oedipus Rex, the man who met his destiny when trying to run away from it. Did India keep its tryst with destiny on August 15, 1947' The question, however disturbing, can no longer be avoided by any self-conscious citizen of India. In a formal sense, Jawaharlal Nehru, when he coined the undying phrase — tryst with destiny — was right. The quest for freedom from British rule had ended when the Union Jack came down for the last time. But the cup of freedom was a poisoned chalice because it came with Partition, enmity with Pakistan, communal violence and problems of poverty and illiteracy. More than five decades after independence, all these problems remain and some in a more acute form than before. That independence would bring forth a utopia — like Minerva out of the head of Jupiter — was, of course, a stupid notion. But the expectation that 50 years after freedom most Indians would feel proud of their sense of belonging cannot be thrown out as something baseless. There is a growing and prevailing sense which suggests that independence has devoured its own children.
It is pointless to blame any individual or group of individuals for this state of affairs. It is emphatically a collective failure. It is convenient to blame political leaders but political leaders are elected by ordinary men and women. If voters do not exercise their franchise — the supreme gift of democracy — with a modicum of responsibility then they are as culpable as the political leaders who abuse the power and responsibility vested in them. There are no known methods in social science to understand and analyse this kind of collective failure. Yet it is astounding how political parties with remarkably different ideologies function in the same irresponsible way once they attain office — think of the Congress when it was in power in New Delhi, think of the Bharatiya Janata Party now and think of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). All of them display the same propensity towards crass populism, neglect of issues of governance and a thinly-veiled acceptance of corruption and violence in public life.
The most tragic manifestation of this collective failure has been the sudden spurt in communal violence. Once again it is facile to say that political parties engineer riots or pogroms. It is ordinary people who kill, burn, rape and pillage. As Gujarat showed last year, even the affluent and the educated actively participate in such violence. This degradation is again inexplicable but undoubtedly it is a subject of national shame from which no Indian can quite free himself. In Gujarat in 2002, in Delhi in 1984 — to recall only two instances — Indians have known sin and they have to live with that knowledge.
A price of freedom is self-consciousness. There is need for this on the anniversary of independence if India is to free itself from its own past.