I was born into independent India but in the decade of the 1960s, we were still too close to British rule for freedom to have sunk into the people's minds effectively. So I grew up listening to the words “mai-baap" and “sarkar" quite frequently – from domestic help, from gardeners, from watchmen, from my father's orderlies...
My parents were always mai-baap to them and they always addressed even us as ‘sarkar’. That continued into my teens, whereupon a subtle change was visible – our parents were still the mai-baaps but we were now the didis or babus, not quite replacing our parents as mai-baaps but expected to be now gradually and fully responsible for the welfare of all those who helped us live our lives smoothly and were dependent upon us for their own sustenance.
More than seventy years after Independence, not too many people with memories of the mai-baap sarkar run by the British remain but I notice almost everyone still expects the independent government of India to be their mai-baap, even when the government has no business being one or even when the government is not remotely responsible for their welfare or troubles.
One can understand the people blaming the government for lacunae in health, education or infrastructure facilities. But what about the time when nine members of a family decided to go for a joyride on their tractor which overturned and fell off a bridge into the river below? All but one of them, including women and children, drowned. They were farmers returning from the market after the bountiful sales of rather lush crops and were in a celebratory mood. They knew they should not be riding the roads on a tractor. They also knew they should not be packing the tractor with so much human load. The roads were good. The bridge was pretty steady. The river below though was in full flow. And in avoiding a container crossing the bridge, the driver lost balance, the tractor broke the railings and all fell into the river.
I did not see how the government was responsible for any of this. Yet, after the accident there was a heavy clamour from the villagers for compensation from the authorities. Just to avoid the bad blood among the villagers, the government ended up paying a compensation of Rs. two lakh for every person drowned in the accident that was entirely the victims' fault. So why should my tax payers' money have gone to compensate private citizens for their own foolishness? To me that is a prime example of bondage – of the people, emotionally, to the government. And, more, of the government to the people - for their votes. Neither is free or independent.
These kinds of bondages are repeated over and over again with every government, every regime change – when men and women risk their lives of their own volition or seek employment in danger zones abroad, go mountain climbing and get lost or even attempt selfies against the backdrop of a tsunami or heavy rains, get washed away and then blame the police or the authorities for not doing enough to save them. In every instance, they do not have free minds willing to take responsibility for their actions but expect a nanny state to mollycoddle and protect them against their own foolhardiness.
But now, increasingly, almost as though for the years that we did not seize the opportunity to distance ourselves from the government, the government is now intruding into our lives and denying us the basic freedoms we should have fought hard to safeguard. As a journalist, I have lived with the idea that even before the advent of cellular technology my phones might have been tapped. Indeed, I knew it was tapped when an undercover intelligence officer who was a family friend since childhood came home soon after I had a conversation with an American diplomat after one of my forays into the heart of Maoist territory in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. I thought it was idle curiosity on his part and a casual conversation on mine but this friend warned me against saying anything more to the diplomat. Outraged as I was that my phone should have been tapped, he said, “Don’t flatter yourself. We were not tapping yours. We were tapping his. He is a spy. You are lucky those files came to my desk and I recognized you. Otherwise by now you would have been on our watch list.”
I have been very careful on telephone conversations after that. I certainly don’t feel free or independent even on my mobile phone these days for it is far easier now to tap into mobile phone conversations. But the Aadhar cards too pose a problem. I have refused to link mine to my bank account or my phone, taking advantage of the Supreme Court directive on non-compulsory compliance. It is my small independent bid for freedom. But how easy is it now for the government to intrude into the lives of private citizens?
Even before demonetisation, the ease of the transactions had me using digital payments for all but my maid and driver. But if the government insists on keeping track, why should they have knowledge of the lingerie I may have bought at any particular store or even the latest in consumer goods? So long as I have paid my taxes and filed my returns there should be as little contact or interaction between me and the government as possible. Anything else is intrusive, a bondage, denial of freedom and independence if the government acts as a Peeping Tom all the time, expects to monitor even my private purchases or have a say in how much I should withdraw from my own bank account of my own hard-earned earnings every day.
I am paying all my taxes and dues to the government. I pledge not to seek government intervention if I get caught in a cloudburst on my own adventure into the mountains, except as much as the government is obliged to help its citizens in distress. In return is the government willing to just build roads, schools and hospitals and let me lead my life as I wish, so long as I don’t break the laws or trouble my fellow citizens?
Only then the freedom hard won by my grandmother who suffered British lathis and risked British jails for her grandchildren will be truly realised.