June 06, 2020
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Freedom's Just Another World

We still struggle with freedom—we have to defeat the sins within

Freedom's Just Another World
India became independent on August 15, 1947. When did Indians become free? Jawaharlal Nehru, an architect and master-builder of independent India, often remarked that Mahatma Gandhi's greatest gift to Indians was abhaya—freedom from fear. Some 50,000 Britishers held over 300 million "natives" in the grip of fear. Gandhi led them out of this prison, but only after he had lost his respect for the Empire. Till virtually the end of the First World War, Gandhi was a servant of the Empire, fawning and obsequious in his support of the war effort. Jallianwalla Bagh smashed that heavy illusion. Once Gandhi had released himself from himself, he crafted the non-cooperation, or the aptly named Khilafat, movement between 1919 and 1922. It was a swivel moment of history. Gandhi could not end British rule, although he made the Empire's knees wobble, but he destroyed British mystique. After 1922 it was never a question of if, but when.

August 15 is celebrated as Independence Day. We should rename January 26 Freedom Day, because that was the day that India first celebrated its freedom, in 1931. The Congress declared itself free on January 30, 1930, at its Lahore session, with the adoption of the Purna Swaraj resolution. Gandhi gave the party and the people time to commemorate this moment of liberation, and chose January 26 as the day for nationwide celebrations. Not many now know why the framers of the Constitution chose January 26 as Republic Day; We have enjoyed more than 75 years of freedom, as against only six decades of independence.

The amnesia is not accidental. We celebrate independence because we have protected it with pride. Freedom is quite another matter. Gandhi gave us freedom from fear, but that was only the first item on a long wish-list. We have freed ourselves from famine, a remarkable achievement of modern India; but we have not freed India from hunger, illiteracy, communal bias against minorities, economic exploitation, injustice, the legal and social indignity suffered by women, casteism.

We Indians have a rather awkward propensity. We keep declaring victory in the quarter-finals. And sometimes even before that: remember the parties we organised even before our cricket team had left for the World Cup? No victor's laurels could have been illuminated with more gauche glamour. A similar sentiment is evident in the triumphal hurrahs raised each day to economic growth. The government and the media are the main cheerleaders as both have limited themselves to the same constituency—the middle class.

Growth is good, but there is a mine hidden in each letter of that word. Growth can be sustained only if it is protected by a few adjectives, starting with equitable. Instead, a trickle-down theory is always tagged to this 9% growth, that some of the great froth at the top will trickle down to the bottom, eventually lifting the poor from their morass. What pernicious self-delusion! The poor need the benefits of growth most, and quickly. They won't accept a waterfall for those whose stomachs are sated, and a trickle for bellies bloated by hunger. Both justice and nature demand a reversal.

As do the Naxalites, of course. How often does the Indian Establishment need to be woken up by the crackle of gunfire? Faced with a problem, frightened by the price of a prescription, the Establishment retreats behind the thin security of an assumption. Punjab festered for decades, but we only saw the face of its agricultural wealth until the 1980s left us reeling. The tribals have experienced nothing in the sixty proud years of independence except neglect, exploitation and marginalisation, but we assume that they are too weak, or "uneducated", or docile forest people to make themselves count. Indian Muslims have got democracy, so we assume that they don't really need schools and jobs. Indian philosophy is non-violent and non-aggressive, so communalism can only be a passing flare. India is independent, so it can never be snared by economic or strategic neo-colonisation.

Our independence movement climaxed in a triumph. Our freedom struggle, which began earlier, is far from over. Defeating the British might have been the easier part, for now we have to defeat the sins within ourselves. Gandhi could not lead the freedom struggle until he had rid himself of illusions. Is there any Mahatma around who can liberate Indians from their own complacency?
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