Calcutta: Unlike other icons from the field of sport, who generally are reluctant to say what they should be saying, Abhinav Bindra has never sought to be politically correct.
Abhinav, clearly, sits in a different league.
On Saturday, Abhinav (who remains the country's only individual gold medallist in the Olympics) spoke to The Telegraph almost exclusively on India about to turn 70 as an independent nation.
Not surprisingly, Abhinav was passionately blunt. He'd been busy with a "business delegation," in Chandigarh, yet made time for this newspaper.
Admired for personifying excellence, Abhinav turns 35 next month.
Q You were born in the early 1980s, but have grown up in probably the most defining phase of India's history... Your thoughts just before we turn 70 as an independent nation...
A Growing up, I used to be in obsessive pursuit of my sport... While I have seen technology change a lot, with cell phones becoming ubiquitous, I would like to see a more egalitarian and an equitable society. When I read of at least 60 children dying of lack of oxygen in a hospital in UP's Gorakhpur, it upsets me enormously. We can set off satellites into orbit, but cannot provide even basic health care. That's why I have ventured a lot into that field (through state-of-the-art micro high-performance and rehab centres) post my retirement last year.
Memories of Independence Day, perhaps of the time you were in school (two years at Doon, by the way)?
Memories... Hoisting of the national flag and singing of the national anthem.
What does independence mean to you?
My idea of independence is self-respect and tolerance of every citizen's right to freedom of expression. We must have space for the contrary point of view. Indeed, in a democracy, difference of opinion should be cherished not attacked.
The biggest challenges confronting India...
There are huge challenges, internal and external... We need to ensure that the largest mass of people in history are pulled out of poverty. We need to ensure that this is done with consent and consent is non-negotiable in a democracy. While we need a strong government, I also feel we need an equally strong opposition. Currently, that isn't a reality in India. A strong opposition would give institutional strength to our democracy.
[According to an Asian Development Bank study, 21.9 per cent of India's population lives below the poverty line. In China, that percentage stands at 5.7.]
What is the India of your dreams?
The India of my dreams is an equal society with minimal social policing on issues such as diet, dress and whom to love. I want institutions such as the media and the judiciary to be autonomous and strong.
For quite a few days, Chandigarh made prime time news on account of stalking and an attempt to kidnap a DJ. Well, what ought to be done in such cases?
Stalkers should be behind bars, no two ways about it, and women need to be absolutely safe. While we have all the laws on paper, they need to be implemented. The law has to be equal for all and, just as important, seen to be equal for all... Patriarchy is unacceptable.
Could we see you turning to politics?
My heart and mind say NO, but I guess never say never!
Finally... As a role model, what's your message to the generation which is still young... The boys and girls who may emerge as leaders in one field or the other...
Hold on to your self-respect. Everything else will follow.