Calling all free-spirited Indians

Democracy belongs to the fearless. We must fight for the expansion of our freedoms, or they will shrivel and wilt even more

Calling all free-spirited Indians

Kanhaiya Kumar

It has been 75 years since India became independent. Today, when the country celebrates that hard-won freedom in an ‘Amrit Mahotsav’, it’s necessary that all citizens address a few important questions. For example: is freedom a boon, which once received can be taken for granted forever? Does it keep even if uncared for and even if no effort is made to grow its remit? Freedom is neither a gift nor benefaction nor a boon. The saying goes: yesterday’s slave is today’s rebel, and it’s the struggle of the rebel that writes the story of independence. In an independent country where freedom no longer rings, where the booming echo of freedom has faded to a trailing vanishing note, nobody is safe.

The independence we celebrate today is really about liberation from a physical, intellectual and ideological slavery. It’s to celebrate a freedom from discrimination, it’s about a beautiful dream to create a just and equitable society instead of a discriminatory hierarchical one. It’s a celebration of the unity of India’s diversity and the diversity in its unity. It’s a celebration of a shared martyrdom and of a common heritage. It’s a celebration of a sense of equality, in which every citizen, irrespective of birth, caste, religion, language, culture, belief and identity, has equal rights. It’s a celebration of a right to vote that puts the President and a peon on an equal footing. It’s a celebration of a dream in which ‘We, the people of India…’ are committed to a sovereign, socialist, secular democratic republic. It’s a celebration of a sacred covenant between the State and individual that stipulates a government ‘of the people, for the people, by the people’. It’s a celebration of the idea that it’s the people that make a country. It’s a celebration of the struggles and sacrifices of our ancestors.

We celebrate, lest we forget that people sacrificed their lives for our right to live freely in a free country. As we celebrate, we must ask ourselves how we shall nurture this freedom for future generations, how we shall grow and expand it so that it reaches every Indian in every uncared-for corner of society. We must all remember that one person or group’s right to exercise a freedom should not become a prison sentence for another person or group. If we do not raise these questions over and over again, we face the very real danger of a handful of powerful people, acting in self-interest, deforming the very meaning of freedom. It should not be that one dark day, the freedom to live also grants the freedom to kill someone else. The exercise of democratic rights should not strangle democracy itself. One person’s music should ideally not become another’s noise. Freedom needs cooperation and coexistence.

History bears witness that only a democracy affords the most treasured values of freedom and can aspire to liberty for all. Democracy has deep roots in India and Indian society. India’s civilisational genius has coped with repeated assaults on its freedom and has known how to break free again. Be it logic or philosophy, literature or science, our history is replete with stories of determined challenges to conservative authority, daring with truth a stagnant, festering, status-quoist establishment.

Our more recent, post-Independence history of the defence of freedom, democracy and civil rights is more patchy. There is no doubt that post-industrial society needs a different understanding of freedom—the idea that took shape during the Industrial Revolution won’t serve today. The idea of freedom—and everything it entails—must be reinterpreted in the new digital era, where our personal ‘data is the new oil’. Democracy needs to expand and old notions of freedom have to be reconciled with emergent realities. The way digital media today spreads half-truths and plain lies is a grave challenge to India’s unity, its integrity and democracy. The way scientific tools are being used to spread misinformation, superstition, hate and lies, the way people’s rights are being attacked in the name of religion, faith and hurt sentiment are extremely dangerous.

The way dissenters and critics of the government are being gagged or put away in jails, often without trial, the way counterbalancing institutions are being compromised, the way investigative agencies have been let loose to smother all political opposition, the way mainstream media has been co-opted to distract from the failures of governance are all ominous trends. There must be a spirited fightback. The house our forefathers built needs urgent repairs. It needs to be dusted clean and set right. Or we will soon be confronted with a worse fate: even those freedoms that were ours, even those among us fortunate to have experienced freedom in some flawed or limited way in independent India will be left wringing our hands.

There is always hope. Our mythologies tell us of the triumph of good over evil and history reminds us that every extreme bears the seed of its own destruction. Besides, if Kabir could dare a Lodi in his time, why are we afraid to speak the truth to a certain Modi today? Democracy belongs to the fearless.

Greetings to all free-spirited Indians of independent India!

(The author is a former president of the JNU Students’ Union, is a politician and author. His book ‘From Bihar to Tihar’ was published in 2016)

(This article was first published in the National Herald newspaper on Sunday.)

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Published: 15 Aug 2022, 7:00 PM