At home with freedom

At home with freedom

We tend to celebrate Republic Day as an alternative Independence Day - a day when we hoist the tricolour, salute it, and are briefly proud that we are a free country. And these days, it is increasingly easy to be proud.

We have Indians who are honoured by Nobel prizes, Indians who win Olympic medals, Indians who receive Oscars, Indians who become heads of major international business corporations. These days, when major newspapers across the world talk about India, it is not exclusively about poverty or corruption that is mentioned — although that is still part of our reality — but also about wealth, innovation, the miracle of our sustained democratic process. In the past year, the premier of every country that is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council — the US, the UK, Russia, China and France — made an official visit to New Delhi.

So, when we salute the tricolour, we do it with great pride about our achievements. We salute the fact that it now means that not only did we achieve freedom from foreign rule, but also are increasingly adding another aspect to that freedom: the ability to enjoy that freedom with a little bit of dignity. It also creates a new breed of self-confident Indian citizens with broader horizons. Let me tell you about one such person that I met two weeks ago while caught in an impossibly long train journey.

Conscious citizen

I met Akash while travelling on the Gorakhdham Express two weeks ago. A twenty-nine year old guy with a sleeping bag and backpack, he was travelling from Delhi, where he worked as a marketing manager, to Basti in eastern UP. I was travelling just a little farther, to my hometown of Gorakhpur, but the dense fog made a mess of our plans. The train took fifteen hours to reach Kanpur — four hundred kilometres away — moving at the pace of about 25 kilometres an hour. Both Akash and I decided it was wiser to cancel our travel plans and turn around since half of our weekend had already been ruined. There was another six hours until the next train back, so we decided we would catch something to eat.

Akash was especially keen on exploring the city since he had never travelled east of Delhi before. He was originally from Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, and now lived in Delhi. Although his trip to Basti had been ruined, he decided he wanted to at least explore Kanpur. We ended up catching a rickshaw to a part of the old town and having a chicken biryani in a grotty little shop grandly called, ‘Mughal Darbar’. The area might have been messy — I looked away guiltily from all the chicken in their coops waiting for the knife — but the food was great. Afterward, we ended up at a coffee shop with our laptops plugged in, trying to catch up on some work.

Somehow during all this, we started talking about China, democracy, and a few related topics. Since I had just visited Kashmir, Akash also asked me about the situation there, the prospects of peace, the challenges of a state whose population has suffered so much in the last two decades, and over whom we have gone to war multiple times. At some point, Akash turned to me and asked, “So, tell me one thing, what does a person like me do? How do I help in creating peace in a place like Kashmir?”

I did not know how to answer that question, and ended up saying that as a citizen in a democratic country, it was his responsibility to be informed, and interested. His greatest tool was his vote, with which he could elect people he thought were talking sense, and those he considered were only involved in solving problems. More than anything else, it was his responsibility to think of the citizens of the other states of India as citizens like himself — and that they should be allowed to have the freedom and opportunity that he also enjoyed. In the end, the whole premise of our Constitution is based just on that — that people are created equal and should have the opportunity to be able to exercise that freedom in equal measure.

These are all true things, for sure, but I wish I had a more concrete answer. I did not expect the question, and even now I am struggling to figure out what the right answer would be. In an odd sort of way, I think the answer might be pretty straightforward: if we are to be able to cope with the challenges that India faces, we need more citizens like Akash: people who are confident in their own lives, and are willing and interested in learning about others, those with strong foundations and broad horizons. It made me realise also the truth that one of my Sikh friends told me a couple of years ago when speaking about the Khalistan movement.

“Over and above anything else,” he said, “I had this gut instinct against a movement that would limit me, make me smaller, and set the borders of my imagination at Amritsar and Chandigarh. I wanted to be bigger than that.”

That aspiration in my Sikh friend, and the easy confidence that Akash and his generation display, is the freedom that we celebrate during Republic Day. It is not just the simple freedom of not being ruled by foreigners, it goes beyond even the freedom from want, from hunger, poverty and disease (a freedom we are still a long way from fully achieving). No, the freedom that we celebrate on Republic Day is the liberty to rule ourselves under a Constitution that we have created; one which safeguards our rights, and allows us to be good citizens while not trampling over the rights of others.

Breaking free

It did not have to be that way. We could have lost our way, as many have done. India was the great beacon for decolonisation — but it was hardly alone in achieving freedom from its colonial masters. When we achieved Independence, gained after great efforts and great sacrifice, it was from a British Empire that was too weak, and too poor to hold on to us, and having lost us — the colony that supplied it with a war chest, many of its recruits, a captive market and much else — the British lost most of the power to hold on to other people and places. As the biggest colonial power fell, so did others, and slowly, sometimes bloodily, other nations too won their freedom.

It seemed that much of the world was breaking free of their shackles - we would be a planet of equals, at long last - and yet, that did not happen.

In the post-colonial dawn, many countries could not hold on to the freedom they had fought so hard for. They had achieved freedom from outsiders, but lost it to insiders. What had been once denied to them by imperial masters was now stolen by their own petty dictators. Maybe for us, the most disheartening case was that of Pakistan, because as soon as Jinnah died, the attempts to craft a Constitution was relegated to the background, and the military soon moved in to rule the country.

Spirit of freedom

In India’s case, we were luckier — and we showed some good judgment. As the historian Patrick French shows in his new book, India: A Portrait, it was a brilliant move for the Congress government to appoint Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar as the justice minister of the new government, and then chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. Ambedkar was not a member of the Congress; instead, he had been one of its keenest critics.
Therefore, he had a keen eye to safeguard the rights of those who were from outside the circle of privilege and power. Maybe, this is why the Constitution we celebrate on Republic Day has survived, and the democracy and freedoms it envisaged have been deepened and strengthened by initiatives such as Panchayati Raj, and the Right to Information.

On presenting the final draft of the document - after nearly three years of open debate — Ambedkar declared, “No Constitution is perfect (but) I feel that it is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together both in peacetime and in wartime. Indeed, if I may say so, if things go wrong under the new constitution, the reason will not be that we have had a bad constitution. What we will have to say is, that Man was vile.”

The Constitution has survived, and our democracy and country have survived with it. Most importantly, it has helped create citizens like Akash, who care and are willing to do something for others in this country where the freedoms promised under the Constitution — whether in Kashmir, the North East or any other part of the country — have been denied to them.

We are now the third generation of free Indians: the first were those who saw it achieved, and the second was the one that struggled to implement it. It is up to us, the third generation, to make sure we can not only contribute to this, but also extend those freedoms to as many of our citizens as possible. Then we can be really proud of living in a free country.

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