In search of freedom

In search of freedom

Little to celebrate

We lost the central hinge of the plot on August 15, 1947. We thought that raising the tricolour over Edwina and Lord Louis Mountbatten’s palace marked the end of the freedom project launched by Mahatma Gandhi in 1919. It was only the beginning of a second and equally difficult freedom struggle. The first had been against the British. The second Indian freedom struggle would be against fellow Indians.

Past and present compete for primacy as I ponder over the innumerable things we still want freedom from. There is, at the very top of the list, hunger. We do not have to search for hunger in the rural and tribal hinterlands where Maoists have mobilised masses not in the name of ideology, but in the name of human rights: which need could be greater than the right of just enough food to keep an emaciated and tortured soul barely together? The Maoist gunfire is still only a growl; this hunger has not yet turned into anger, and God help the indifferent fat-cat and complacent middle class the day — and night — the poor decide that those who have nothing also have nothing to lose.

The poor are not a distant reality. They sleep on the pavements of India’s most spoilt and smug city, Delhi, on the plains in front of rising apartment towers whose value could buy up a small town. The street has been the only home of generations of remarkable children who still manage to smile when they are not begging. What is the upward mobility of a homeless child? The roof of a prison? Ninety per cent of the teens who end up in Tihar have absolutely no possession, not even a second shirt. Prison is the only home that Indian India offers them, after six and a half decades of freedom.

I do not want to sound unduly harsh. We inherited an India in 1947 in which up to four million had died in a famine within three years in the east, with its focal point in Bengal. We have left famine, a consequence of British economic policies, behind, a terrible memory now confined to the personal history of millions of families. But that is scant solace to those half a billion who still live on the edge of sustenance, their hopes gone at 20, their teeth gone at 40, their lives withered not much later. This is the freedom project that must consume the whole of Indian attention over the next decade; this is the last chance, and last duty, of the generation fortunate enough to be born in 1947 or later, after the British left.

Crystal clear demands

The children of this midnight generation, now at the high noon of their lives, are crystal clear. They want freedom from corrupt Indians. It is fatuous to believe that only the other person is corrupt. If corruption was limited to powerful ministers, there would be enough space in prison for the guilty. Corruption is fatal because its caste system permeates down to the lowest levels of authority, the clerk at the passport office who milks a hundred rupee note out of your misery; the babu in the district magistrate’s office who will not hand over your legitimate due without keeping a percentage in his pocket; the constable who treats every rule as a means of self-enhancement. Every pothole that you see is a signature scar of corruption: have you wondered why our roads become a serrated battlefield after the first rains? Is Delhi the only city in the world where it rains? Why doesn’t rain lacerate roads in London, Istanbul or Singapore — where, in fact, it rains every afternoon?

The list of liberation is a long one. Indians want freedom from inequity, hypocrisy, sycophancy, stupidity. The sly corruption of sycophancy is perhaps the worst of these maladies, because it twists truth in order to feed the leader’s ego. An illustration comes immediately to mind, but it would be unfair to cite just this one young hope. Every party is equally guilty of this malady.

Mahatma Gandhi, who made August 15 possible, could not find the moral will to celebrate freedom the day our tricolour replaced the Union Jack. He was not among the joyous revellers in Delhi; he was in Calcutta, saving Indians from Indians.

He could not even find a celebratory phrase when BBC interviewed him at his lonely perch in Belgachia, a single-heart army against the depredations of human evil. Gandhi was a far happier man in 1919 and 1920; he knew, once the people had risen, that freedom was now a question of when, not if.

He could see a quarter century ahead. Perhaps in 1947 Gandhi could see half a century ahead. Gandhi would have beamed at modern India’s great accomplishments; but he would have never let us sleep in peace as long as hunger and corruption raged across the motherland.

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