Note: This is the transcript of a speech that was delivered by the author at Vedavalli School, Walajapet, Tamil Nadu, on January 26, 2018, the 69th Republic Day of India.
I feel deeply honoured by the opportunity to be with the Vedavalli school community on the occasion of India’s 69th Republic Day.
To be honest, when I was a child going to school, this day did not mean much to me other than a half-day. Though my maternal grandfather, Dhanraj Tated, who lived in Rajasthan, was a freedom fighter who participated in non-violent resistance against British colonial rule, the significance of being a sovereign democratic republic was lost on me. The Constitution was an abstract thing, far removed from my own reality. All I knew was that Dr Ambedkar, who fought caste discrimination all his life, had played a leading role in creating it.
If I remember correctly, I think the first time I felt a deep emotional tug listening to the Indian national anthem, and looking at the Indian national flag, was when I visited Pakistan in the year 2012. I was then a school teacher who had been invited to join a 21-member delegation of students and teachers from India, who were visiting Pakistan for an educational exchange programme hosted by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and Routes 2 Roots.
I still remember that morning quite vividly. It was February 17, 2012. We were at a school in Lahore and were welcomed with the singing of the Indian national anthem. Little children held Indian and Pakistani flags right beside each other. The beauty and generosity in that moment completely melted my heart, and there were tears streaming down my eyes. Children from a country that I had been taught to dislike, fear and hate since childhood were extending the deepest regard possible to the Indian national anthem and the Indian national flag, both of which are symbols of pride in our country.
When I recall that moment today, it is to emphasize how we, as Indians, need to rise above the biases and prejudices we have inherited and cultivated towards people of other communities, caste identities and religious affiliations. We are fortunate to be living in a country that is gifted with such variety of languages, cultures and cuisines, and we have a Constitution that offers protection to these. It would be a tragedy if we lose the opportunity to learn from this rich diversity. We should treasure it as something to be proud of.
How can we hope to grow as a vibrant democracy if we continue to keep separate utensils for people of different castes, threaten those whose food habits are different from ours, and kill young people who love someone practising another religion? With a Constitution like the one we have, none of these things should have continued into the 21st century, and yet they do.
What is it that you and I can do to deal with these challenges which seem too big for us to do anything about? Well, let’s take one step at a time. For me, the best form of resistance is not through burning buses or banning books or blackening someone’s face. For me, the best form of resistance is through this powerful thing we call friendship.
If each one of us could put in the effort to make friends with people who are different from us, we will find that we are actually quite similar. This is why I started an initiative called “Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein” in 2014. It began as a way of celebrating friendships between Indians and Pakistanis who were challenging our history of hate.
Four years down the line, I realize how desperately we need to address divides within our own country. Politicians, journalists, religious leaders, so many other forces are coming together to destroy that which is most valuable about our republic — our capacity to cherish people’s unique identities.
On this Republic Day, let us resolve to do all that we can to promote the values of peace, justice, and mutual respect. Having interacted with many of the students here yesterday, I am sure that we can do this together. Thank you, once again, for inviting me to your wonderful school. May you all flourish and blossom, and be the best version of yourselves that you can be.