By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent
NEW DELHI: Amid tight security, with more than 60,000 armed security personnel spread over the capital city from Saturday evening, India celebrated its 64th Independence Day on August 15. The key event of the day was Prime Minister Manmohan Singhâ€™s address from ramparts of the historic Red Fort. Before delivering the speech, he unfurled the tricolor national flag. Singh is the third Prime Minister to unfurl the national flag for seventh time in a row. His predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee unfurled the flag six times. The first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru hoisted the national flag 17 times, for the first on August 15, 1947 after India achieved independence. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, the first and only female prime minister of India, unfurled it 16 times. She remains the worldâ€™s longest serving female prime minister, having remained in this office for 15 years. Having assumed office last year on May 22 for the second consecutive term, Singh has the distinction of the countryâ€™s third longest serving premier, after Nehru and Indira.
During his address, Singh covered wide-ranging issues, from problems faced by Indians, including poverty, inflation, food-crisis, health, education, employment and deficits in infrastructure among others. Though, â€œIndia has covered a long distance on path of development. But our destination is still far away,â€ Singh said. â€œWhen our government came to power in 2004, we resolved to build a new India under a progressive social agenda,â€ he said. â€œWe still stand committed to the welfare of the poor, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, minorities, women and other backward sections of our society. But today we do not need many new programmes to achieve our goals. However, we do need to implement the schemes we have already started more effectively, minimizing the chances of corruption and misuse of public money,â€ Singh said.
Describing secularism as â€œone of the pillars of our democracy,â€ Singh said: â€œIt has been the tradition of our country and society to treat all religions with equal respect.â€ â€œSecularism is also our constitutional obligation. Our government is committed to maintain communal peace and harmony. We also consider it our duty to protect the minorities and provide for their special needs,â€ Singh pointed out. Referring to â€œmany new programsâ€ started by his government for welfare of minority communities, including scholarships for minority students and development of districts which have high concentration of minorities, he said: â€œThese schemes have shown good results. We will vigorously take this work forward.â€
Delving on Kashmir crisis, Singh emphasized: â€œIn Jammu and Kashmir, we are ready to talk to every person or group which abjures violence. Kashmir is an integral part of India. Within this framework, we are ready to move forward in any talks which would increase the partnership of the common man in governance and also enhance their welfare.â€ â€œRecently, some young men have lost their lives in violence in Jammu and Kashmir. We deeply regret this. The years of violence should now end. Such violence would not benefit anyone,â€ Singh said.
On Indiaâ€™s regional diplomacy, Singh asserted: â€œWe want prosperity, peace and harmony in our neighbouring countries. Whatever differences we have with our neighbouring countries, we want to resolve them through discussions.â€ Referring specifically to Pakistan, he said: â€œWe expect from them that they would not let their territory be used for acts of terrorism against India. We have been emphasizing this in all our discussions with the Pakistan government. If this is not done, we cannot progress far in our dialogue with Pakistan.â€
Though Independence Day was celebrated with fervour across the country, in certain areas â€œtensionâ€ was visible. With less than two months left for Commonwealth Games, Delhi State government is facing strong criticism for incomplete preparation and for alleged corruption. After unfurling the flag at a state-level function at Delhiâ€™s Ambedkar Stadium, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit said: â€œThere has been lots of criticism of preparation for the games. If there is corruption, we will find out who is responsible and take stern action against them, whoever they might be whether a central government, Delhi government or any other official.â€ She also rendered apology to Delhi citizens for the inconvenience caused by the ongoing construction for the games. â€œFor the last three to four months, Delhiites have suffered because of construction work in the city. I apologize to the citizens for this. But if we are to achieve something, then we have to sacrifice,â€ she said. Notwithstanding the controversies linked with them, Dikshit claimed that sporting event, scheduled for October, will be finest in history of Commonwealth Games. She is optimistic that all construction work will be completed smoothly and in time.
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, already burdened by tension in the Valley, was accosted by it at a different level. A suspended policeman, seated in the VIP pavilion, stood up and threw a shoe towards the podium from where Abdullah was taking the salute after unfurling the national flag at Bakshi Stadium, Srinagar. He shouted, â€œWe want freedom,â€ as Special Security Group personnel took him away immediately. The shoe had fallen on the ground. The shoe-thrower, Abdul Ahad Jan â€œhad no remorse for what he did,â€ police officers said. The incident, exposing a major security lapse at Bakshi Stadium, which had been turned into a fortress for the dayâ€™s function, shocked the people present there.
Without appearing to be disturbed by the incident, during his address, Abdullah said: â€œI donâ€™t mind that when I came in today, some one stood up and shouted slogans. If he had a shoe and not a stone in his hand, then itâ€™s a better way of agitation.â€
Shoe-throwing has turned Jan into a hero among many Kashmiris as well as policemen. They view his action as a reflection of their frustration and anger against the government. It has also led to suspension of 15 policemen for â€œbreach of security,â€ when they were on duty in the area. Jan allegedly used a politicianâ€™s pass to gain entry into the VIP pavilion.
In northeast, militants had called for a 17-hour strike to boycott Independence Day celebrations. Their call, however, was ignored by the people. â€œThere was an open defiance to the boycott call in Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Manipur. People participated in large numbers in the celebrations,â€ an official said.
During his Independence Day speech in Guwahati, acting Assam Chief Minister Bhumidhar Barman said: â€œWe are happy indeed to see people rejecting calls by some militant groups to boycott the celebrations and coming out in large numbers to attend the national day function.â€
In their respective speeches, Barman and chief ministers of Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura appealed to rebel groups to come for peace talks with the government. â€œOur doors for talks with militant groups are open. Problems can be resolved through negotiations and not through the barrel of the gun,â€ Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh said.
Prime Minister Singh also laid stress on need for dialogue with rebel groups in northeast. During his address, he said: â€œThe north eastern part of our country has been witness to some unpleasant incidents in the recent months. I would like to convey to all political parties and groups of the northeast that disputes in the name of state or tribe can only harm all of us. Discussion and dialogue are the only options to resolve complex issues.â€