Freedom for all?

The Idea of India

Freedom for all?

By the time this newspaper goes to the press I will, hopefully, be in Germany attending a two-week programme on global governance. One whole part of that programme is dedicated to the rise of Asia, in which India’s new wealth and power play a key a role.

This is a story we have grown used to, and grown comfortable with over the last few years. The accolades for the achievements of both India as a country and Indians in their personal capacity has grown greatly over the last few years, and we have become increasingly concerned with celebrating ourselves.  

This may not be a bad thing. For example states primarily concerned with themselves rarely make problems for others. The self-congratulation also has some legitimacy. For most of independent India’s history, as Ramachandra Guha’s book India After Gandhi shows us, expert after expert predicted the destruction of the state.

There was no real reason to believe that India would succeed in building a working, democratic and liberal country out of more than 500 princely states inhabited by a largely poor and illiterate population. And yet we took this incredible diversity, faced these great challenges, and made it a success, mostly. 

We take justifiable pride in this massive achievement. No other post-colonial country has managed to keep alive and strengthen their democratic institutions as India has. And even if there have been failures and lapses – communal riots, the Emergency, rampant corruption, the criminalisation of politics, secessionist movements – we have, mostly, corrected ourselves in the light of our Constitution. This is no small thing to be proud of.

And yet, sometimes in admiring our achievements,we lose track of those that do not fall within the ambit of our ‘mostly successful’ selection.  I do not need to remind you of the problems in Jammu & Kashmir. They have dominated our televisions and newspapers for the last two months. More than 50 civilians have died in standoffs against police and paramilitary forces, at the average of one death a day, and with the youngest of them only nine-years-old.

This is not a situation that any of us, in any city or state in the world, would consider all right. But people better informed than I have commented on the issues involved, so I will focus instead on a demonstration I witnessed on the 8th of August at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, where the call to freedom was raised, and I was forced to think about those who do not share all the freedoms we take for granted. 

The permission for the gathering was arranged by Kalpana, a Kashmiri Pandit lady who runs an NGO in J&K. In concluding her short speech she said that if India thought of Kashmir as an integral part, then that should not remain merely a sentiment. It must become operational with Kashmiris being given their full rights under the Constitution. The speaker immediately after her disputed that Kashmir was an integral part of anything. He said that it was a free land inhabited by free people.

A third speaker said, “Hum azadi mangte hain kyonki hum ghulam hain. Ghulam hi jaanta hai azadi kya hoti hai.” (We ask for freedom because we are slaves. Only a slave knows the true value of freedom.)

A fourth young man gave a graphic description of what a lack of freedom means, describing his own beating at the hands of security forces and the travails of his 11-year old nephew. The boy was on his way to meet his mother when he was stopped by soldier at an Army camp. The soldier gave him a hundred rupees and asked him to get some meat. Unfortunately the shop was closed.

The soldier told him to go to another one, but when even that was closed, the soldier said, “If you don’t come back with some meat, I will shoot you.” The terrified young boy spent the whole afternoon wandering around the neighbouring villages looking for a butcher’s shop. The young man telling this story paused, and said, “We are told that the security forces are there for our protection, but if this is protection, we don’t want it.”
Of course at times, some of those in the gathering broke out in slogans.

And when that happened, a large man with a bushy black beard down to his chest took the mike and said, “Please say what you have to say in a disciplined manner. Kalpana ji has asked permission from the police to allow us to tell our story, to share with an Indian audience what is happening in Kashmir. We have this space to share our stories, and we can say what we want, even if we have different points of view. But be disciplined, so all get a chance to speak.”

I sat across the street observing this. Between me and this gathering was a line of khaki clad Delhi policemen. Not known for their sensitivity to any cause, some of them cocked their heads to listen better or craned their necks to see who was speaking. Especially when a speech generated applause like when a college student took the mike and thundered, “If India is the biggest democracy then it is my right to protest!”

On the whole though the police stoically maintained the peace when a counter-demonstration nearby became provocative. One or two passersby scolded the police for allowing the protest to take place, even if it was just a couple of hundred people with candles, posters and a microphone.  

If only such protests and courtesy had been possible in J&K, maybe this all would not have been necessary, I thought to myself, possibly naively.   Azadi, freedom, these are concepts that are possibly beyond my ability to fully understand, or explain. I know that I saw a little bit of it in Jantar Mantar.

Some part of freedom is the ability of concerned citizens to peaceably protest against deep hurts, to freely speak their minds, and to freely disagree, all with the guarantee that the state will protect them and not punish them. I am not so innocent as to believe that this alone will solve all the problems in J&K, but it is no little thing, this freedom that most of us take for granted. We have had it so long that we do not understand how great a thing it is to be able to be free. 

The sad thing is that there are some of us who are not free. India may have succeeded mostly, but the people who are left out of that “mostly” also matter. Whether in Kashmir, in the North East, or in areas of deep poverty and insecurity in Chattisgarh, West Bengal, Orissa, or maybe even in the slums near our doorsteps, there are those who know the real meaning of freedom, because it remains out of their reach. 

A century and a half ago before the terrible American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln famously declared, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free.” That holds true for us as well, although we face no civil war, and on the whole we are more free than slave.

The work of millions of Indians, over many decades, has helped us gain this liberty. On this day when we celebrate this great victory, let us also think of those who are denied this great gift, and resolve to make sure that this house, this country, this land, be united in freedom and endure.

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