DEMOCRACYby Vinta Nanda March 4 2016, 11:25 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 48 secs
I grew up in several places in India, amidst many changing political times as we know.
I lived with the two books, Discovery Of India by Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru, and Experiments With Truth by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, which while we were growing up, were left for us to read on the bookshelves of our living rooms in several parts of the country where our father was posted every three years or so.
One of the places we lived in for over four years was Amritsar, which is in the Indian State of Panjab.
It was way back in the late 1960s and I was barely four years old at the time when I faced contradictions and the conflicts that follow from them, for the first time.
I was playing with my friends on the sidewalks of Majitha Road which is in the heart of the city, opposite the Majitha Eye Hospital, when we heard a group of men shouting slogans, which were getting louder as they came closer. I was about to toss the ball, which was aimed to strike a pile of 8 flat stones, when I stood still.
We were playing Pithu (an interesting game kids play in North India, but too complicated to explain it here).
I turned around to look, and my best friend’s father was walking up toward us with about 10 to 12 of his male compatriots, waving a saffron flag.
Jan Sangh Ko Vote Do, (Vote for Jan Sangh)
Bidi Peena Chod Do, (Stop smoking the bidi)
Bidi Mein Tambaku Hai, (There is tobacco in the bidi)
Congress Daku Hai! (Congressmen are dacoits)
All the kids playing with me joined the cortege and trundled along with the ‘juloos’. I was jolted and stood still in silence.
I wanted to follow my friends who had gone along with the tiny procession, because it would be fun, but my father was a smoker and because he smoked the pipe, the word ‘tambaku’ (tobacco) was a frequently used word in my house; so I froze, feeling sort of paralyzed.
“Eeshra (my father’s man Friday’s name) mere tambakooka packet lana - Eeshra, meratambakukahanhai? (Eeshra bring my packet of tobacco - Eeshra, where is my packet of tobacco?),” my father would call out to his beloved housekeeper who had, as a matter of fact been an employee with my father’s family for over 50 years then.
And the words, ‘Congressmen are dacoits’ had left me speechless too, because my father, Krishen Nanda, was a Gandhian, and we, particularly my two sisters who were elder to me, were encouraged to read the two books I have mentioned above.
My father would even make us sit around in the living room on cold winter nights, reading passages from the books, among others, and he would tell us stories about the heroes from India’s struggle for freedom.
The Congress was as frequently used a word around me, as tambaku; not that I am trying in any way to mean something here.
My father was born in Eminabad, in Gujranwala, now in Pakistan, and he was brought up in the present State of Jammu and Kashmir where he went to school before he graduated from the famous FC College in Lahore and then went to Lukhnow University to do his Masters and subsequently study Law.
His father, i.e. my Grandfather, Diwan Kanhya Lal Nanda, was an employee of the Maharaja of Kashmir, and was also the man who engineered the first concrete road, which was constructed between Jammu and Srinagar.
Interestingly, as I was writing this piece, I also just chanced upon a Photo Essay about the city of Eminabad in Gujranwala, Pakistan, depicting its past history of the illustrious Diwan family, some of whom, including my forefathers, were later known as the Nandas.
For those of you reading this piece and who are interested, here’s the link to this fabulous story; it is a window that gives us a view to some of how much many Indians sacrificed for the country to be able to make the shift from British imperialism to democracy; at the time when India was divided in 1947.
As I showed this story to my mother who is 82 years old now, and as I took her through the pictures in it, she told me, that Hari Singh, the then Maharaja of Kashmir would often travel to Pakistan from Kashmir, and would get his train stopped in Eminabad specially to visit my great grandfather Diwan Guru Das Nanda Khatri, who lived there till the early 1900s and who was one of the members of the Diwan family, which had lived for many generations in Eminabad, Gujranwala.
And it was at one such visit to Eminabad that Maharaja Hari Singh learnt that my grandfather Diwan Kanhya Lal Nanda was soon to return after studying Civil Engineering in England, so he told my great grandfather, Diwan Guru Das Nanda Khatri, that he would like to hire his son to engineer and build the first ever motor-able road between the cities of Jammu and Srinagar.
Soon my grandfather, Diwan Kanhya Lal Nanda moved to Jammu and Kashmir, a much more than a century ago; before he got married and before my father and his sister Rano Nanda Rattan, were born.
Some members of his family continued to live in Gujranwala and some had moved to J&K before him– they would live in Jammu during the winters and move with of the government of J&K, which would shift to Srinagar during the summers every year.
My father must have been about nineteen years old, when the riots broke, and at the time when violence was at its peak, my father who was in Eminabad visiting his uncles, aunts and cousins, was asked by his elders to escort his maternal grandmother who lived in Sheikhupura, Panjab, to what was now going to be called divided India.
My father went to Sheikhupura to fetch his grandmother but instead was left to face the horror of her being stabbed by the mob because she refused to leave her haveli when they arrived.
She was overconfident that the mob would not harm her, because hers was a respected and eminent family of Sheikhupura.
By the time she was able to process the truth, it was too late.
My father and his cousins tried to take my great grandmother out of her house and did everything they could to make her get into the army three ton truck that was waiting to take them away from there, but she was adamant and it cost her, her life; and when my father was dragged into the vehicle and driven off amidst the bloody violence, he watched his grandmother being cut to pieces and the haveli being put on fire.
This is not a scene from a movie, nor taken from the pages of some fiction.
This is also not the only such incident that happened during the time of partition; but right along the length and breadth of what is now divided India; this, as well as worse atrocities were meted upon millions of people living on both sides of the borders. It wasn’t only the sacrifice made by those whose names now appear in our books of history, and nor am I taking it away from their contribution towards our freedom, but every Indian family has an anguished tale to tell, that registers their subscription towards the independence we enjoy today.
That moment had left my father emotionally wounded forever; and at different stages of our lives, my father would tell us about his experiences.
He would tell us about how he dealt with his fear and how he confronted angst that had often tried to consume him; and how he had finally surrendered to the memories that haunted him as that was the only way he found that he could leave the past behind.
I remember he would bundle us into his car on impulse and take us for long drives, sometimes over days during weekends and holidays, with no plan in mind, and when my mother would object to the mindless journeys with the four of us in tow (which were organizational nightmares for her), he would tell her that it liberated him.
Much later in the 1970s and 80s before he died, my father would lament about the divisions taking place in the States of Panjab and Jammu and Kashmir and would often say, “What a waste of all the sacrifice; what a tragedy that violence continues even 30 years after of our independence.”
In some ways I am glad that he is not alive today, because it is almost 70 years since our Independence, and we still haven’t figured out how to integrate and accept the differences that have textured our part of the world for so many centuries.
The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits and the bloodshed that drove them out of their homeland (we forget to mention the Panjabis, Sikhs and other settlers in J&K who have also suffered as much), and the endless displacements of indigenous communities in various other parts of the country from their habitats, if not because of terror, then because of a covert imperialism imposed upon them; would have broken his heart to pieces.
So on that day, when I was barely four years old and I heard those men shouting slogans, I ran straight to my house. I couldn’t make sense of what they were saying, but their words were hurting me.
I was tormented because the words were that of hate; because they dishonored heterogeneity and because they applied people to categories with the objective of distancing them from each other; also more importantly, because they initiated me to the idea of separation and differences by ideologies, when I was too young to understand it.
My father was a smoker and he was an admirer of the Congress, because he believed that a collaborative of stellar men and women, a collective of great people belonging to different faiths and cultures, interdependent on each other were called Congressmen; and it was their effort which had brought to us our freedom.
As a young child, I couldn’t imagine (not even now) that my father was wrong, and that he was misleading us by promoting the wrong literature to us; yet when I entered my house that day and saw him light his pipe, I told him that he was a bad man and that he was a dacoit.
It was right there, when I was given my first lesson in Nationalism.
It was some years later that I spent one summer vacation after another, reading the Discovery of India at first and Experiments with Truth later.
However, on that day I was made to understand, that the meaning of the word Democracy, was Nationalism.
I was told that there was the Constitution of India, which was drafted through painstaking deliberation over many years; and that it had embraced diverse ideologies in its fold to give unconditional legitimacy to the co-existence of dissentient convictions forever, and through non-violence means.
I was told that security of every citizen in the country was enshrined in the Constitution of India and that it was compulsory for everyone to abide by it and accept heterogeneity in his or her varied cultures, diverse languages and traditions.
I was told that the tenets adopted by our Constitution were non-negotiable and that every Indian who acceded to it was a Nationalist.
I learnt then, that I was well within my rights to convince others of my ideas through debate, and so were others well within theirs to make me change my assumptions; but any use of coercion or force was an act of crime.
It was my first encounter with differences and diversity, my first tryst with heterogeneity and I was fortunate to have a father who took the trouble to explain it to a four year old, because he didn’t want me to live a single day of the rest of my life either in denial or in fear.
“One of the hardest things to teach a child is that the truth is more important than the consequences.” – O.A. Battista
The kids I was playing Pithu with that day continued to be my friends, some of us were reunited by Facebook decades later; and my best friend’s father who was leading the procession shouting those slogans with his own friends, was greeted by me courteously every time I met him until my father was transferred from Amritsar, and we left the city of the Golden Temple for the sand dunes of Rajasthan, where we were moved for the next three years.