My father, Henry Devadas, was born on December 19, 1919. He would have been 100 years old today. He was a freedom fighter.

I didn’t quite understand what that meant when he was awarded a Tamra-patr bronze plaque in 1972. I was just a boy.

My father had become the “dictator” of the Quit India movement in Mysore state before the police arrested him. As I grew up, I didn’t quite understand what it meant to be “underground” in 1942, leave alone running the movement in a large principality.

He used to talk about standing in a vast crowd as a young man and shedding tears when Netaji Subhash spoke, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Nehru. But it did not quite touch a chord in me.

He would talk about British officers coming to the prison and suggesting a scholarship to Oxford or an army commission if he renounced the freedom movement. The romance of dedication and that sort of idealism still didn’t quite hit home.

Burning idealism

I only began to understand the values he represented when one of his classmates became the Union petroleum minister 30 years ago, sought out my father, and offered him the award of a petrol pump under some kind of freedom fighters’ quota. My father quietly declined.

I understood a little more of how his classmates must have seen him when another classmate became chief justice of India, and invited my parents to the investiture ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan. This was a judge with whom my father had not been in touch for decades.

Henry Devadas was born in a village in a community that was by no means privileged. My grandfather had already taken the nationalist path, standing for the district board seat reserved for Christians during the 1926 local bodies’ elections – standing on a Congress ticket, holding aloft a tricolour with a charkha in the middle.

My grandfather sent his eldest son for higher education and held my father back to learn agriculture, so that he could take over the field.

But my father was determined to get an education. So he ran away to a cousin in Bangalore, where he went to school. He then went to Maharaja’s College in Mysore, where he took to student politics.

He went on to do short courses at the London School of Economics and at Yale, but one of his life’s regrets was that he was in London when Independence came. He remained dedicated to the vision of a free India that would nurture all its citizens, guaranteeing equality and justice.

A new struggle

For his son, the fact that large sections of the nation are filling the streets and public parks across the country on the very centenary of such a life is disconcerting. The plaint that people across the land have brought to the streets is about what it means to be an Indian.

This land, this nationhood, this republic, was promised to all the peoples of this land. It was a unique, unprecedented, seemingly impossible experiment with equal rights for all, universal adult franchise for hundreds of millions. In fact, not just hundreds of millions but hundreds of millions of impoverished, generally starving women and men in what was considered one of the most backward parts of the world.

Protestors displays placards during a demonstration against the Citizenship Act in New Delhi. Credit: Jewel Samad/AFP

It’s been a tumultuous 72-year journey, with many hiccups. But overall, it’s been a marvelous journey of progress and development, of evolving and becoming. Becoming a nation, a many-splendoured nation of many languages and identities, religions and sects, tribes and castes.

What we have held most dear is the Constitution that our freedom fighters and so many others debated and composed. It’s the longest Constitution of any in the world, full of rights, and of duties. Duties of the state and of those in government, alongside duties of citizens.

It’s a commitment to equality and justice, and fraternity. A brotherhood of kindred spirits united in a zeal to build a great country in which all would be nurtured and protected.

Unity in diversity

My parents used to talk about the awful days of the British Raj, when boys would run down railway platforms shouting “Muslim paani”, “Hindu paani”. It seems strange today to think people would not drink water from someone from another religion.

During my lifetime, dosa and dhokla and samosa and wada and paratha – momos too – have become universally available, and liked, in different corners of this country. It’s new. And it’s just a tiny facet of out unity in diversity.

I remember seeing pot-bellied spindly-armed, ragged people begging in the Delhi in which I grew up. That’s a thing of the past.

How is it that wealth and security have generated hate and otherness after a vision of unity and harmony took root and flowered amid the most horrific poverty?

David Devdas is a journalist and author. His most recent book is The Story of Kashmir.