354495 - a personal journey

India celebrates 150th anniversary of the 1857 uprising often known as the first war of Independence. The capital is in festive mood, a holiday had been declared and the police is on tenterhook as is usual every time we celebrate an event!

For the past week TV channels and national dailies have been replete with visuals and articles about a sometimes forgotten page of our history. One such article caught my eye yesterday as in some tenuous way it links me to that important historical day. The article which appeared in the Times of India of 10th May 2007 is entitled Malegaon to Mauritius: On the trail of 1857, and retraces the destinations taken by the 1857 refugees fleeing the revenge of the Company and sometimes the old feudal repressive order. One of the destinations was Mauritius and its ever growing need of indentured labour to work the sugarcane fields.

In 1871 on board the SS Nimrod, my ancestor landed on the shores of this island as Labour no: 354495. Many stories were crafted to explain why this landlord of a village near Patna had fled his homeland. I have never been able to ascertain which of the tales is the right one but the two British officer's swords that form part of our family's legacy make me believe that he may have been part of the great uprising.

Labour no 354495 was not an ordinary man as his descendants became leaders of the community and some like my father chose to come back to the homeland after Independence. My past often haunted me and I made the journey back to the very village he had fled from. It was there that I realised my incredible destiny and made the decision to pay back what I felt was a debt to my country, for had things been otherwise I would have been a simple village woman and not a diplomat's daughter.

One tends to forget one's heritage as one gets busy with the simple act of living and building one's own history. As you go along and create your own comfort zones, the past gets conveniently obliterated and memory selective. But one is never free of one's past that has an uncanny way of catching up with you as I experienced via a simple newspaper article.

Once again I see myself as the descendant of an indentured labour who was compelled to leave his home as he had chosen to fight for his land and probably knew his days were counted. Most of us have forgotten the struggle of those who laid their lives down to ensure that we could grow in a free country. A politicised extravaganza is perhaps not the right way to commemorate this important day. Maybe one should delve in some soul searching and assess whether we have been worthy of the numerous sacrifices made by simple individuals. And if we do so honestly the picture is not pretty.

A simple perusal of any newspaper or news bulletin is sufficient to prove this as it is often a litany of items ranging from rape to murder, from corruption to scams. But what strikes the most is the growing gap between two Indias: that of the rich who seem to be doing better by the day, and that of the poor who are just surviving.

What is truly frightening is the ever increasing abdication of responsibility by the rulers in every field possible: you cannot provide safety to women, so stop them from working at night; you cannot provide basic amenities to school so hand them over to private agencies. And it gets worse: you want to get rid of a disturbing person, the police will do it for you at a price. To earn extra money you can pass a woman for your wife and smuggle her out. Everything is possible when law makers become law breakers.

As one who has now spent close to a decade trying to help underprivileged children get what is rightfully theirs, what has shocked me the most is the total lack of concern of the privileged people who are unwilling to reach out in support. On the contrary many are contemptuous of the work one does. This break down of the moral fibre of our society is dangerous as it carries the seed of destruction.

How long do we think we can shield ourselves behind theories of fate and karma and wish problems away. How long can we maintain a stony silence in front of the injustice we see. True that we have seen an awakening of civil society but it is sad that it is only heard when the victim is belongs to one's own strata.

Those who fought for our independence did not seek freedom for a selected few, they sought it for every one. This is something we seem to have forgotten.