I was with a friend in her car. In the back were three more friends, all women, one of them Indian, the other two German: a mother–daughter duo.
It was the evening of January 25th, 2020, cloudy and chill at dusk. We were caught in a traffic jam—the only saving grace being that we were on the lovely Amrita Shergill Marg, bordering the Lodhi Garden in central Delhi, and so there was plenty of foliage (albeit blurry) to look at and discernible quantities of that rare element, oxygen, in the diesel-and- petrol -scented air.
After about 30 minutes of crawl-and-halt, we drew alongside a small group of policemen, who were trying with limited success to keep motorists to their lanes.
“Jai Hind,” I greeted them, as I always greet personnel of our armed forces and police.
“Jai Hind,” they responded.
“What’s going on?” I went on in my semi-tapori Hindi, “Why this jam?”
“The result of a little VIP transit, sir…it’ll all be cleared in a few minutes.”
I thanked him, and we sat in silence for a moment. And then my young German friend spoke up softly, clearly, in English: “Why did you say that to him?”
Puzzled, I looked around at her. Her Indian friend giggled but didn’t say anything. “Say what?” I asked.
“You said ‘Jai Hind’ to that policeman…why?” she murmured, now slightly embarrassed. Her mother, who spoke very little English, looked on in bemusement. Her Indian friend giggled again, in a slightly self-conscious way.
The question was simple, perfectly straightforward; but in a flash I realized what it was she was really asking and why she was asking; and what the young Indian’s slightly nervous giggle might mean too. It was January, 2020—that was the time when the Shaheen Bagh street blockade was at its peak; when young women and men not just in India but across the world were charged up with the heady passions and revolutionary slogans of the quaintly-oxymoronic ideology known as Left Liberalism; when any word, any sign, of showing solidarity with or pride in or support to even the idea of India was not only old-fashioned but had somehow become equated to becoming a ‘Modi-bhakt’, a ‘nationalist’, a ‘fascist’, an anti-Muslim fanatical Hindu. In India, and across the world.
It was a time when even uttering ‘Jai Hind’ more or less branded me as a narrow-minded bigot unless otherwise proven…or clarified.
The two young women were – are- very dear to me; the question was honest, direct and clear; and so I thought awhile before I replied. “’Jai Hind’means ‘Hail India’, or ‘Victory to India’ if you like,” I said. “I greeted that policeman with ‘Jai Hind’ because I am proud of my country, I love my country, and tomorrow is our Republic Day—the day when, in 1950, a couple of years after winning independence from British rule, India adopted its own Constitution and became a full-fledged Republic. So then, for the first time we Indians had drawn up and given ourselves our own rights, our own guiding principles to live by, the systems by which we would govern ourselves and so on…all the things that we had fought for and won, and that we must hold on to and defend. And so January 26th is a good day to remember. A good time to say ‘Jai Hind’, and of course that’s why ‘Jai Hind’ is a good way to greet military personnel, police…”
I trailed off, wondering whether I’d made any sense at all. She’d listened attentively as I spoke; silent, clear-eyed, nodding slightly.
“Ah yes, of course, now I see,” she murmured. In the meanwhile her mother, who had been listening as intently to our exchange, asked her daughter to explain in German, which she promptly did.
And then, both of them smiled and chanted: “Jai Hind!”
And we all chorused Jai Hind, and soon the jam cleared, and merriment returned and dissolved the tedium.
A trivial episode, no doubt; but for me it was important…and lingers in memory.
I will always be grateful to my German friend for her question.
It helped me think a little, reflect a little, learn and re-learn and un-learn much more than a little. About India, about what this insanely chaotic, wonderful nation means and what it is founded on, and what holds it together…and what can and does tear it apart.