• ‘We must first make good the right of free speech and free association before we make any further progress towards our goal. We must defend these elementary rights with our lives’.
• ‘Liberty of speech means that it is unassailed even when the speech hurts. Liberty of the press can be said to be truly respected only when the press can comment on the severest terms upon and even misrepresent matters.’
• ‘Freedom of association is truly respected when assemblies of people can discuss even revolutionary projects.’
• “Civil liberty, consistent with the observance of non-violence is the first step towards Swaraj. It is the breath of political and social life, it is the foundation of freedom. There is no room here for dilution or compromise, it is the water of life.’
These words of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, written during the epic struggle for freedom, keep resonating in my mind as I struggle to write to commemorate 72 years of our independence.
What has happened to the glorious legacy bequeathed to us by our freedom fighters, that the government of the day can wilfully deprive an entire people of a state of their basic freedoms? What will we celebrate this 15th August, when millions of our own fellow-citizens in Jammu and Kashmir remain locked up, when laws which can be used to declare any one of us as terrorists are passed with impunity, when rights long fought for, such as the Right to Information, are seriosuly eroded, when the best educational institutions and their students and teachers are deliberately targeted ?
The legacy of the freedom struggle is manifold but the crucial elements in that are a commitment to secularism, a commitment to democracy and civil liberties, with civil liberties being seen as an essential part of democracy.
There is also the legacy of the vision of an egalitarian social and economic order or a pro-poor orientation and of sovereignty and independence. These are some of the crucial legacies that we have from our freedom struggle, which are embodied in our Constitution.
This Constitution was not a gift of the British, nor was democracy a gift of the British; we fought for it every inch of the way. And it is this Constitution which is under assault today. And the assault is the strongest on the democratic norms, on the methods of governance through dialogue, debate, consultation and consensus, and on civil liberties
And yet, I know of no better way to keep hope alive than to go back to the rich legacy of our movement for independence for inspiration and guidance. For the times in which our ancestors fought for liberation were even darker than ours, when civil liberties were severely restricted, and a racist, foreign occupying power freely used long jail terms, exile, kala pani or banishment to the Andamans, and the death sentence, as instruments of repression.
At the same time, British rulers encouraged communal or religious/sectarian political organisations to emerge and grow as bulwarks against the anti-imperialist revolutionary movements.
What is remarkable, therefore, is how in these very difficult circumstances, the freedom fighters fashioned such an ennobling vision of an independent nation, and incorporated that vision into the political practice of their own movement.
In fact, it was the first generation of nationalist leaders who made maintenance of civil liberties and their extension an integral part of the national movement, and this tradition continued right through. They fought against every infringement of the freedom of the press and speech.
The Press played the role of the institutional opposition to the government. In the absence of democracy, it was the Indian Press which fought for its freedom everyday which performed this task. The motto of the Press was: ‘Oppose. Oppose. Oppose.’ Every act of the government was subjected to sharp criticism.
Lord Dufferin, who was the Viceroy, in March 1886, barely three months after the formation of the Indian National Congress, said, and I quote, ‘day after day, hundreds of sharp witted babus pour forth their indignation against their English oppressors in very pungent and effective diatribe’.
Would anyone say that of our Press today? He continued in the same vein two months later. I quote again, ‘in this way there can be no doubt that there is generated in the minds of those who read these papers, a sincere conviction that we are, all of us, the enemies of mankind in general, and India in particular.’
In this week, we also commemorate the anniversary of the Quit India Movement on the 9th of August. In that context, there is a very moving example of the practice of the idea of democracy as not just tolerating difference, not just accommodating difference, but actually encouraging it, and when necessary, protecting those who differ from you. It is an example of this tradition of the national movement exemplified by Gandhiji himself.
A day before the Quit India movement broke out, a meeting of the All India Congress Committee was held at the Gowalia Tank, in an open maidan in the heart of Bombay. This was during the Second World War, when the draconian Defence of India Rules were in place, and political activity, including all public assemblies, were banned.
Yet the Congress, in its session called to take a decision on the Quit India movement, held its meeting in an open maidan. It was supposed to be a meeting of the All India Congress Committee, but thousands of people turned up who were there despite the ban on assemblies. People were very angry against the British for what was happening during the war years. And this was one day before the entire leadership of the movement was picked up and thrown into jail.
The main resolution was in favour of launching a movement for the British to Quit India. It was on this occasion that Gandhiji made his famous ‘Do or Die’ speech. There was overwhelming support for the resolution and the atmosphere was very charged.
However, there were 13 Communist members in the All India Congress Committee who were opposed to the resolution. This was in keeping with their line of Peoples’ War; their understanding was that this was a war against fascism. Soviet Union was on the side of the Allies which included the British, and we must support them in the War, they believed. So these thirteen Communist members pressed amendments to the resolution and, in fact, asked for a division and voted against the Quit India resolution.
And what did Gandhiji do, after they opposed the resolution? He said: ‘I congratulate the thirteen friends who voted against the resolution; in doing so, they had nothing to be ashamed of. For the last twenty years we have tried to learn not to lose courage even when we are in a hopeless minority and are laughed at. We have learnt to hold on to our beliefs in the confidence that we are in the right. It behoves us to cultivate this courage of conviction for it ennobles man and raises his moral stature. I was, therefore, glad to see that these friends had imbibed the principle which I have tried to follow for the last fifty years or more.’ What was Gandhiji doing by this statement? He was not only establishing the right to dissent, he was also providing a protective cover to the dissenters in this situation of mass enthusiasm for Quit India.
This is how the best of our national leadership and Gandhiji himself inculcated in the Indian people the notion of democracy. It is not just about the parliamentary system of government, it is not just about elections. As Nehru said, democracy is something deeper than voting, elections or a political form of government: “In the ultimate analysis, it is a manner of thinking, a manner of action, a manner of behaviour to your neighbour and to your adversary and opponent.”
On this Independence Day, we need to recall the ideals for which millions of our people struggled so hard, and resolve to realise and keep alive their vision, for on it depends our present and our children’s future.