As a rather inadequately educated Madrassi, it took me sometime to figure out the meaning of the word “aatmanirbharta”. It took a friend to help me to understand that it meant self-reliance. Being self-reliant as an individual, as well as a nation has been an important part of our national discourse and also standpoint. Good, so be it, I thought.

But into this resolve, dear little Greta Thunberg has broken in. We are after her. We have made her persona non-Greta. We have associated charges of criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity with a tweet that she made in support of India’s farmers who are protesting the new agricultural laws. We have damaged the aatmanirbhar shield with which we were protecting ourselves.

Self-reliance was a strong and highly practiced idea in free India, right from the beginning. If we look at Gandhi’s exploration of swaraj, it is all about aatmanirbharta: make your own cloth, eat your own field-grown food, trade amongst yourselves, move away from dependence – a wonderful message to build self-confidence, to affirm identity as well as to feel secure against yapping from the outside.

New education

As someone who has lived in the decade of the 1960s and onwards, the dialogue between building a self-reliant economy based on a programme of dispersed production with the charkha and the teaching of skills as part of the education – nai talim – Gandhi suggested for aatmanirbharta.

In a country that was confident in its own ideas of progress, wedded to religious diversity, we never took too much interest in, among other things, viewpoints emerging from the West – the big economies. The nation was confident in itself – in its culture, its music, its dance, its heroes, its genius.

So it is puzzling to me, why an aatmanirbhar ideology-driven state is getting so worked up about a few words by Greta Thunberg. If we dance to the tune of every foreign comment then we have lost the spirit and strength of aatmanirbharta.

To my generation this seems absurd and it is again, to my generation embarrassing, if not humiliating to have our national government take umbrage to the opinion of a young Swedish woman. How are Rihanna and Thunberg relevant to our debates? In reverse, does the US government or press debate the opinions of Indian stars, be they from Bollywood or music and dance, on events in America?

We are living in a huge world – made smaller and smaller by new communication technologies. Like the fable about the children and the big bad wolf, we may huff and puff but we cannot blow the house down. The mouse of communication cannot be caught. But it can be ignored or taken notice of, in order to understand ourselves better.

Economist Devaki Jain is the author most recently of The Brass Notebook: A Memoir.