Let’s start demanding multi-dimensional freedom

Those of us who worry about shrinking freedoms in present-day India must also start thinking about ‘freedom’ a little more expansively

Let’s start demanding multi-dimensional freedom

Sudheendra Kulkarni

The mainstream of India’s freedom movement, which was led by the Indian National Congress under the guidance of Mahatma Gandhi, had three inter-related objectives. One was to gain national independence by ending British colonial rule. This was achieved on 15 August 1947. The second was to establish a democratic society and a democratic form of government. Democracy here was understood in its broadest sense—political, economic and social. An enlightened Constitution, adopted on 26 January 1950, was a solemn beginning in this direction.

The Constitution gave us a parliamentary system of governance, anchored in the principle of equality of all citizens. It envisioned ‘equality’ not merely in the eyes of the law but also in terms of social equality, social justice and equality of opportunity for advancement and economic well-being. Realising these ideals through peaceful means and participative governance, with the State playing a leading role, was broadly understood as the socialistic pattern of development—even though ‘socialism’ formally entered the Constitution only in 1976. Similarly, even though ‘secularism’ too was introduced into the Preamble in 1976, respect for all faiths and keeping the State non-theocratic was a conceptual cornerstone of the Indian republic. Furthermore, the Constitution guaranteed, to all citizens, a set of rights and freedoms—albeit circumscribed by reasonable restrictions—related to thought, expression, association and religious belief, and made it the State’s duty to respect these freedoms.

In the 75 years since gaining independence, India has made considerable progress in the economic sphere. We are now a far more prosperous nation, and extreme poverty has reduced. Untouchability has largely disappeared. Democratic governance, barring aberrations, has taken root. However, over the past eight years, both its democracy and the citizen rights it was able to make space for—which made India the world’s envy—have faced systematic assaults, as a result of which that global admiration has been replaced by concern.

The third objective of the freedom movement was to safeguard national unity. It failed: the Partition itself was a tragedy, but the ensuing communal violence and the massive trans-border migration it triggered made it far worse. No doubt the divide-and-rule policy of the British Raj played a hand, but the historically inherited disunity and antagonism between Hindus and Muslims also played a decisive role. The freedom movement couldn’t dissolve this disunity and arrive at a mutually acceptable constitutional framework of governance for undivided India.

The consequences of this failure are being felt even today. Islamisation of the polity and society once a part of plural and undivided India has encouraged Hindu majoritarian fanatics on a mission to convert truncated but still plural post-1947 India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. They are playing with fire. Repeating the grave mistake Pakistan made will have ominous repercussions for peace, progress, social cohesion and people’s well-being and freedoms in our country.

The question ‘How Free Are We?’ cannot be answered unless we analyse it through the prism of these three objectives of the freedom movement. Freedom from foreign rule is now an irreversible reality. What we must worry about, though, is India’s uneven record in ensuring economic and social justice for the poor and marginalised; in removing discrimination against the ‘lower’ castes, tribals, minorities and women; in securing citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution; in preventing the misuse of the instruments and institutions of governance by the rich and powerful; and in remaining faithful to the Indian (not Western or Communist) concept of secularism, so essential for national unity, national integration and inter-religious harmony.

Present-day discussions about freedom and the threats to it are marked by two kinds of omission. The ruling establishment cynically directs citizens’ patriotic sentiments towards a ritualistic celebration of a past event, without any accountability for the nation’s present conditions. The socio-economic elite, including intellectuals, tend to focus on the diminishing freedom of thought and expression. No doubt these threats are grave—as are the ways in which the democratic space has shrunk for opposition parties under the current autocratic regime—and they must be firmly resisted. But we are ignoring the larger dimensions of freedom that animated the national liberation movement and the makers of our Constitution.

Freedom is a profound, comprehensive and indivisible concept. In its most fundamental sense, it must include freedom from poverty, hunger and other debilitating deprivations that millions of Indians still suffer. It must mean freedom from stark—and growing—inequality in opportunities for educational and economic advancement that shatters the hopes and darkens the future of our children and youth. It must mean freedom from environmental destruction in the pursuit of a myopic and flawed model of development, whose worst victims are again the poor and voiceless. Freedom of thought, expression and association are esoteric for those Indians whose entire lives are a struggle to secure a bare minimum level of existence. Democracy for them has come to mean nothing more than the five-yearly right to vote, which is often manipulated and rendered hollow by the corrupt and divisive ways of the political establishment.

Sadly, there is hardly any discussion any more on socialism. Almost all political parties, and nearly the entire media and academic establishment has forgotten that socialism is also a preambular principle of India’s Constitution. As a result, socialism has become an orphan child of the Constitution. In the 75th year of our independence, we should reflect deeply on why democracy, secularism and socialism must be viewed and pursued as a single, inseparable, irreducible and non-negotiable national mission to expand freedom multi-dimensionally for every Indian.

(Sudheerndra Kulkarni is a columnist who served as an aide to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee)

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

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Published: 15 Aug 2022, 6:00 PM