India at 75: In search of the lost freedom

Image: BBC

By Shahid Jamal

At a time, when the entire nation is celebrating Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav to mark the completion of seventy-five years of India’s independence, scores of political prisoners are forced to spend their days and nights in the prison cell on sedition charges. Their only crime is that they did oppose the oppressive and discriminatory policies of the government. They are being persecuted for exercising right to free speech, a fundamental right given by the Indian constitution to every citizen of this country. We all know that the draconian sedition law was introduced in pre-independent India by the British to target the Indian political activists. Now it is being used by the Indian government to silence and cage its own people.

India’s noted sociologist Andre Beteille once said, “democracy should be promoted through social movements rather than the contest of the political parties.” But the government has left no stone unturned to curb and suppress the social movements and the voices of dissent. In a country where UAPA exists which allows the incarceration of the members of the civil society without any chargesheet and puts a restriction on bail, freedom ceases to exist. Freedom is being erased by the government from the consciousness and vocabulary of citizens by feeding them the toxic nationalism. This toxic nationalism labels an individual anti-national if he criticises the government.

As a student of History, I do believe that the most lethal weapon invented by the modern states so far is ‘Nationalism’. It is the most disastrous among all -isms. It is irrational, brutal, and xenophobic in its nature. It teaches us to hate others and take pride in meaningless symbols. It is ethnocentric in its approach and does not accommodate a cosmopolitan outlook. Once India’s most acclaimed author Arundhati Roy rightly writes about nationalism in one of her essays titled “War Talk”: “Nationalism of one kind or another was the cause of most of the genocide of the twentieth century.” History of human civilisation corroborates this.

Democracy in India is being replaced by autocracy. This country has witnessed how in recent years the bills have been passed in the parliament without having proper debate and discussion amid hubbubs. Earlier dialogues and debates were considered the lifeline of parliamentary democracy. Since the ruling regime does not believe in dialogue and discussion, monologue is given much space. Now only one person is allowed to speak and only he can share his Man ki Baat. This happens when a party comes to power with a brute mandate and hence it does not consider itself accountable before anyone. Here it is also worth mentioning that when the cultural majority becomes the political majority in a country which is so diverse and plural then the monoculture becomes the norm. We must not forget this basic principle that the more space we will give to the monologue and monoculture, the less space would be left for the dialogue and composite culture.

It has been almost eight years since Modi came to power, but under his divisive leadership nothing except the fall of this country could be seen. If we analyse what he promised when he became the Prime Minister and what he has delivered to date, we will find utter despair and disappointment. He has not even managed to retain the status quo of the country in terms of economic, social, and political health. The country is going deep into a crisis day by day. Modi has failed on all fronts from demonetisation to skyrocketing inflation and from the gross mismanagement of COVID-19 to continuous Chinese incursions. He has no concern for the country or countrymen. He is a narcissist who is in love with the camera. He is having a good PR both personal as well as in the form of big media personalities and their job is to make his image clean and big for the public. They are being rewarded and awarded for their jobs occasionally.

Our democracy is seventy-five years old and so are our institutions. We all know that the democracy is strengthened by its institutions. Strong, efficient, and transparent institutions are the prerequisite for the sustenance of a democracy. Separation of power, which is the beauty of the Indian Constitution, and which is essential for keeping the accountability alive in the parliamentary democracy, is completely missing. From the Supreme Court to the RBI, from CBI to Election Commission, various pillars of India’s democracy are under a threat of subversion. Zoya Hasan writes that the autonomy of essential institutions is clearly under question as the Modi government seeks to influence them politically. The credibility of institutions such as the EC, the CBI, the CVC, the UPSC, the RBI, media, and universities, has been compromised.

It is believed that the media constitute the fourth pillar of democracy. It keeps an eye on government operations and enhances public awareness. The media is known as the democracy watchdog. In a democracy, the media plays a critical role in disseminating information and debating issues. Unfortunately, in India the mainstream media has essentially functioned as the public relations arm of Modi and BJP. The Editor in Chief of The Indian Express, Rajkamal Jha, righty said that the contemporary journalism is a selfie journalism and in this selfie journalism, if you don’t have the facts, it does not matter. You just put a flag in the frame and hide behind it. After witnessing the growing crisis of credibility of the Indian media over the years, I must say that the media has done irreparable damage to this country.

Gandhi ji once said that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. After seventy-five years of Independence, it is time for Indians to introspect how we have treated our weakest members including Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims and women, and how these groups have remained marginalised and weak even after seventy-five years of independence. It is shameful that in a country where everyone is celebrating Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, a nine-year-old Dalit boy was beaten to death by his upper caste schoolteacher for drinking water from his pot. If Ambedkar had been alive today, he would have been ashamed of us. We are taking pride in mere symbols and anthem. We are measuring greatness with the length and height of flag & emblem.

Prof. Amartya Sen, in one of his celebrated books The Idea of Justice, writes that there are three things which are essential for humans: Empathy, Reason and Love of freedom. Unfortunately, in India empathy has been replaced with atrocity, reason has been replaced with superstition and freedom has been replaced with sycophancy.

Last year Modi declared that August 14 will be observed as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. This year the government observed the same with lots of activities. We all know what happened in partition. India’s partition has been one of the major tragedies of the twentieth century. Why is the government forcing us to remember the agony and pain of partition? The violence that unfolded in Gujarat on February 27, 2002, under the watchful eyes of Narendra Modi, is no lesser than the violence that happened during the partition. Would Modi declare February 27 ‘Gujarat Massacre Remembrance Day’? ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ is pernicious! It is not about remembering people who lost families to the partition; this is done to opening wounds and create communal hatred. In a TV debate on Aajtak, Munnawar Rana once said, “Aap itihaas ka wohi panna ultate hain jahan nafrat hoti hai.” His words come back to our mind as the PM Modi declared August 14 as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. Historians believe that the communal tension between Hindus and Muslims could be one of the reasons behind the partition. This government and its policies have furthered communal tension in the country.

Speaking to the Constituent Assembly of India on November 26, 1949, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said, “By independence, we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong. If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves.” Do we have the audacity to blame ourselves for any wrong around us and raise voices to stop the same? Can we introspect for a moment that as a society where we stand today? Have we lived up to the ideals of our constitution? If we have the satisfactory answer to these questions, then we have every right to celebrate the freedom. Otherwise, we ought to come out of the illusion of freedom and we should mourn! Because we have failed as a nation.

Shahid Jamal is a research scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.


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