Swami Agnivesh & Rev. Valson Thampu

It is easy to wax eloquent on freedom, especially when you are at a safe distance from the stench and stink of realities. It is easy to forget that others remain slaves just because you are luxuriating in a freedom that excludes a sense of fellow feeling and the pin-pricks of the conscience that go with it.

The enemies of our freedom left more than half a century ago. And Nehru romanticized the moment as marking the liberation of our collective soul, suppressed for centuries. However, what has happened since then is that we have become the enemies of our own freedom. One set of
oppressors has been replaced by another. No one knows to this day, for example, how much wealth has been siphoned out of this country by our people-loving politicians and bureaucrats and stashed away in overseas banks. Widespread speculations put this amount somewhere between US $ 100 billion to US $ 2500 billion. If the latter amount is anywhere near the truth, the fact stares us in the face that in half a century our desh bhakts have looted Bharat Mata much more than the British did in two and a half centuries. Of course, you would expect them to celebrate Independence Day with gusto.

We assume the British to have perfected the pernicious art of 'divide and rule'. But we easily overlook the fact that post-Independence India has witnessed over 13000 Hindu-Muslim communal riots of various magnitudes. Add to this the atrocities unleashed on helpless Christians and the virtual apathy of the State to the psychology of terror that this bred for a community known to be rather a-political and service-oriented. Worse still, think of the plight of the dalits in various parts of our country. A lion's share of all illiterates, bonded labourers, child labourers and victims of caste atrocities are dalits. Nearly 80% of the women raped, abused and humiliated belong to the same category.

Think further of the millions who live and die in scandalous poverty and subhuman living conditions. In a country getting incrementally fixated on putting a man on the moon and where mountains of food grains rot in godowns, thousands die of starvation against the persistent cry of economists to launch 'food for work' programmes in famine-prone areas. Think further about the thousands who lie languishing in our prisons, waiting for their trial to begin. It is estimated that over 75% of these inmates have already spent 5-10 years without even a commencement to their trial. What this means is that most of them have been punished in excess of what the charges against them would have warranted even before their trials would begin. They too are, presumably, the citizens of a nation the soul of which found utterance
at the 'stroke of the midnight hour' in 1947.

Think further of the venom of hate and violence coursing through the veins of our country, aggravating the insecurity of peace-loving and law-abiding citizens. Can freedom be real in situations of terror? Can liberty survive long after the arm of justice withers and the culture of
governance wilts under the vagaries of communalism, corruption and casteism? How many can afford to be free in a system that operates on the pre-historic dictum of "might is right"?

Looking back, it becomes frighteningly clear that as a nation we have been guilty of taking freedom for granted. We drove out the colonizers. But we did not educate the people of India in the culture of freedom. We committed the all-too-familiar mistake of assuming that the absence of the erstwhile oppressor amounts to the availability of freedom for our people. We overlooked, in other words, the most basic duty in nation-building: that of educating and preparing the people for freedom. It is like achieving a laboratory breakthrough in the treatment of an epidemic without mass producing the medicine and distributing it to the people affected by it.

That happened because we romanticized freedom and assumed, against the evidence of history, that because people thirst for freedom passionately they will practice it dispassionately. In point of fact, however, the very opposite is the case. Those who are very zealous of their freedom tend to be suspicious and hostile to the freedom of others. Given the reality of this perverse logic, the enslavement or exclusion of others seems a necessary condition for the enlargement and full enjoyment of one's freedom. Who ever told the people that one's commitment to freedom is incomplete without a genuine commitment to the freedom of everybody else?

It is this negative and neurotic idea of freedom that sees the freedom of others as incompatible with one's own interests, the interests especially of the ruling elite, that explains the anti-developmental character that freedom has assumed in Afro-Asian nations, and especially in India. A sinister intention to disable large segments of our population from claiming the fruits of development underlies our approach to education, health care, and rural development. It is well known that the money spent on our nuclear programmes, if invested in education, would have wiped out illiteracy from our country. But successive governments have given the alibi of non-availability of resources for disowning this key sector of national development, even as education commission reports continued to emphasize the importance of education for economic development and social transformation. Economic development will not amount to the enlargement of social opportunities as Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze argued in their book on this subject, unless committed political and administrative will is brought to bear on bridging the growing gulf between the two.

At the popular level, freedom is mostly understood in negative terms as the absence of slavery. This exclusive obsession with 'freedom from' makes us blind to the more creative and dynamic question of what we are to do with our freedom and what we are to be 'free for'. A merely negative understanding of freedom degenerates quickly either into license or into the right to abrogate the freedom of others, both of which undercut the very idea of freedom. Such a negative idea of freedom is presupposed in the way we celebrate our independence as an annual ritual.

For freedom to be real, conditions conducive to its constructive appropriation and enjoyment will have to be created. Consider these examples. In theory all Indian citizens are free to aspire for lucrative jobs. But the illiterates cannot avail themselves of this freedom. Likewise, all are free to work. But ill heath robs you of your freedom to work. Those who are equal on the scale of merit are entitled to an even chance for the same job. Not so, in a culture of corruption, wherein a citizen's right to equality of opportunity is subverted by the paying-capacity or political clout of his fellow aspirants.

The 'soul of a nation long suppressed' to return to Nehru's political poetry, has not found utterance just because the British have left us to our own devises. We have failed miserably in imbuing the blessing of freedom with positive contents. Rather than foster a culture of freedom
we bred the anti-national forces of corruption, casteism and communalism, crying wolf all the time that some hostile forces from beyond our borders were hell-bent on subverting our national aspirations. We have bought this canard for too long and we are the poorer for it. We cannot afford to luxuriate in make-belief any longer. The truth is clamouring in our ears. Patriotism and personal integrity demand that we reject this political charade and create the positive conditions that are necessary to make freedom real to the people.

It needs to be cried from the roof-tops, even at the risk of sounding cynical, that a nation where avoidable poverty, ill-health, illiteracy are rampant and where the people are enslaved by political banditry and religious obscurantism, where children in their thousands die of  starvation and farmers use pesticides to end their misery, is not a free nation. Our streets need to resound with the truth that a nation that is not free to stand by its poor and is forced to fine-tune its subsidy according to dictates from a distance does not have any right to celebrate its freedom. Even more importantly, we need to trumpet aloud that the enemies of other people's freedom are the worst enemies of the nation itself. Instead of wasting money on ostentatious celebrations of  freedom can we now begin the radical task of fostering a culture of freedom, lest it becomes an elusive illusion for all except the managers and ventriloquists of power?