Fifty Something

Now that the breathless television extravaganza of the 50th anniversary of Independence of India and Pakistan is over, we can perhaps take a more sober look at the past half-century. Satellite television proved once more that the medium is the message with its up-beat look at the anniversary – carefully glossing over the fact that what we were really commemorating was 50 years of Partition. Other than a big bash of Indo-Pak businessmen and celebrities in London to kick off the jamboree and New Delhi´s The Asian Age remembering that there was also a Pakistan, the anniversary was marked separately in the countries that gained independence by cutting themselves apart. In India, there was a celebration of India, and in Pakistan it was a celebration of Pakistan. Not for another 50 years, it seems, will these two nations separated at birth learn to think of each other as twins and celebrate a birthday together.

What of the other South Asians who had no 50th celebration this year, who were all taken along for the independence ride by satellite tv programmers in mid-August? Sri Lankans are, actually, gearing up for their own 50th bash on February 1998, while Bangladesh marked its 25th anniversary of independence from Pakistan earlier this year. Nepalis preen at never having been colonised, but they too had to gain ´independence´ from the Rana prime ministers in 1950 and from the Shah kings in 1990.

And so, as part of the golden jubilee, we were treated to the astounding sight on regional satellite broadcasts of multinational companies and their wannabe desi counterparts falling over each other to wish happy birthday – mostly to India because that´s where the market is. True, there was Macleans toothpaste claiming that it was "spreading smiles across Pakistan", but most went with Nokia, the Finnish cellphone company, which was "proud to connect the people of India on the 50th year of their independence". And so it went: paint companies, detergent manufacturers, ball-point pen wallahs – all subsidising Rupert Murdoch in order to wish clients on their side of the border a happy anniversary.

It all proved what was evident all along: for more than half the populations in Pakistan and India who live in poverty 15 August was a mere reiteration of unfulfilled promises. Promises of an end to a life in squalour, promises of communal harmony, promises of true grassroots democracy, and promises of alternative development models and decentralised decision-making. For about half a billion people of the Subcontinent, the real tryst with destiny is the daily struggle for survival. In the final analysis, it hasn´t mattered much for them whether the ruler sitting in New Delhi is a viceroy or a khadi-clad, Gandhi-capped, Nehru-jacketed politico.

Watching Madhur Jaffrey taking a culinary tour of the Subcontinent to commemorate the anniversary, and finding at the flick of a remote that V Channel was offering 150 free tickets to a freedom concert, one wondered who was benefitting from all this independence. Certainly the elite and upper middle classes, those who can afford the television sets and cable fees on which to watch the parade go by. All this surfacial and oversweet abundance of theme songs, walkathons and television clips – so reminiscent of American feelgood television – have but one target: Yuppy India, which now forms a mass large enough for advertising to target with commercial messages.

The India of the village, tribal, scheduled caste, the desert, the forest, the mountain, was far from the minds of the producers of the independence hoopla. This was freedom reduced to a soap opera. And as a sociological phenomenon, there is no saying what political repercussions are in the offing as saccharin patriotism peddled by satellite enters millions of households in India, and beyond in the rest of South Asia.

Perhaps we will know it is finally time to celebrate independence when on 15 August 2057, Tata congratulates the people of Pakistan and Habib Bank felicitates the people of India.

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Himal Southasian