The 1970s were plagued by a spate of cyclones that wrought havoc in various parts of our country. I particularly remember learning of the devastation caused by the 1977 Andhra Pradesh cyclone that killed at least 10,000 people.
Our Don Bosco Rector Fr John Samala spoke of it at morning assembly in school. He described the gale-force winds, causing humans and livestock to be “swept up into the air, tossed about like footballs.” We eleven-year-olds reflexively looked up into the sky, trying to picture it.
But the graphic description succeeded in conveying the horror of the calamity to us. When an appeal was made to go out into the community to collect donations for the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, the response was overwhelming.
Seven of us got together and went door-to-door, shop-to-shop after school. Those were the carefree, innocent days when a group or pre-teen kids could go all over Panaji unchaperoned. The response was fairly good, with only a few negatives. But one such rejection stands out in my memory.
It was in a dimly-lit shop on the ground-floor of the magnificent building that preceded today’s concrete Sousa Towers. A bad-tempered gentleman (whose name I never did find out, as I never stepped in there again) drove us away. But it is what he said that etched the incident in my mind: “I will not give you anything. I didn’t ask to be part of India, and what happens to people elsewhere is no concern of mine!”
“B-but all Indians are our brothers and sisters,” I blurted out, parroting the second sentence of the National Pledge, at the beginning of most of our school textbooks then. The gentleman launched into a tirade about the way Goa had joined the Indian Union, and we beat a hasty retreat.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot (not in school, but through independent reading) about the chain of events leading up to December 19, 1961. But where I differed with that gentleman, then and now, is that I’ve always felt Indian. Whatever his views about Goa entering the Indian Union, his angry refusal to help, and his explanation for that refusal, were to my mind, in very poor taste.
By an accident of birth, I wasn’t born here, but I’ve grown up here. Except for my first four years in Germany, and a decade living and working in the UK, Goa has been home. I feel Goan and I feel Indian. I belong to the post-1961 generation, so I didn’t experience the turmoil that the pre-1961 generation must have lived through.
As I go through my ten-yearold’s schoolbooks, I get a sense of déjà vu when I see the familiar National Pledge that adorned the front pages of my own textbooks in my school years. All those early years of seeing it, reading and reciting it have meant that not only can I still rattle it off, but I guess I’ve subconsciously assimilated and internalised its message.
The message is a warm one, with all-embracing, inclusive sentiments: love, respect, devotion, happiness.
The ‘My India Pledge’ on my son’s school handbook spells it out even more elaborately: After reiterating the first two sentences of the shorter Pledge, it goes on to say: “I appreciate and celebrate our cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity. Living together in love and peace is our strength. Justice for everyone and opportunity for all is my vision. Inclusive education and global learning is my aspiration. Any form of hatred and violence is against my ethical principles. I want to grow in a democratic space guaranteed by my Constitution. I respect the dignity of all as children of God. I appreciate the rights and duties of all citizens of this great country. I welcome the global opportunities to learn, labour and live the joy of life. As fellow citizens of the 21st century we are committed to the common destiny of a beautiful world of love, justice, and fraternity.”
Again, such marvellous, laudable, positive sentiments: Appreciation. Celebration. Diversity. Living together. Peace. Justice. Equal opportunity. Inclusive education. Democratic space. Common destiny.
There has never been a more urgent, pressing need to revisit, re-examine the letter, the spirit, the compelling message embedded within the Pledge than in the last few years, and right now even more than ever. Never before in our history have hatred and intolerance and violence been so widespread, so ‘normalised’ and ‘permissible’ as in these sad times we live in.
While the international media ranging from various corners of the globe continue to highlight the spate of lynchings against minorities, especially Muslims and Dalits and the rising tide of Islamophobia, apologists here dismiss them as ‘conspiracy theories’, even though there is irrefutable evidence that these incidents did happen, and continue to happen, with even the acquittal of the vigilante perpetrators in one notorious case.
Merely looking at the NRC (National Register of Citizens) and the upheaval in the lives of lakhs of lives, or the current unfortunate situation unfolding in Kashmir from any perspective other than the Centre-driven narrative can be slammed as ‘anti-national’, or even worse, ‘seditious.’
Instead of appreciating and celebrating our cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious diversity, an oppressive monolithic conformity and uniformity is being foisted upon us.
What has happened to the ‘democratic space guaranteed by our Constitution’? To living together in love and peace? To respecting the dignity of all as Children of God?
On the subject of God, it calls to mind Matthew 25:40: Whatsoever we do to the least among us, we do unto Him.
To watch silently, and say and do nothing merely because it is expedient to do so, makes us complicit as well.
It also calls to mind something else we learned at school: the famous Rabindranath Tagore poem ‘Chitto Jetha Bhoyshunno’: Where the mind is without fear, where the head is held high…… Into that Heaven of Freedom, my Father, let our country awake!