As India approaches the 71st year of its attaining freedom from nearly 200 years of British colonial rule, it is time to reflect upon some of the critical values of India’s freedom struggle, the 'Idea of India' they had professed and dangerous erosion of those values in recent years.
Today two major issues loom large over the Indian landscape. First, unprecedented levels of intolerance towards free speech leading even to the silencing of dissent by extinguishing lives—the brutal murders of Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh are glaring examples. As I write this, on August 13, 2018, news comes that JNU student Umar Khalid, a valiant critic of the government, was shot at in front of the Constitution Club, minutes away from the Indian Parliament, where he had gone to address a meeting titled ‘Towards Freedom without Fear’ (Khauf se Azaadi). The meeting was to inter-alia address the routine mob-lynching of Muslims on all sorts of pretexts.
Second, today through the whole exercise of implementing a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, the question of who is a legitimate Indian citizen is being raised in a manner that millions belonging to a particular religion, Islam, and also many poor people without any resources are sought to be denied Indian citizenship even when they have been born and brought up on Indian soil and lived, worked and voted here for decades and some were even elected legislators.
Much can be learnt from our glorious, nearly hundred years long, freedom struggle, which had very clear positions on both these counts. A free press and freedom of speech was a central, non-negotiable demand of the Indian national movement right since its inception. The leaders of the movement used this freedom to constantly critique and oppose the colonial government on a very wide range of issues.
The tallest figure of our national movement, Gandhiji, who had just led the nationwide Non-Cooperation Movement, too was tried in 1922 for the same offence of sedition under section 124A for writing ‘seditious’ articles in his paper ‘Young India’. Having the courage to oppose an unjust Government, whatever the consequences thus has a long and glorious heritage
The colonial state tried to restrict this freedom by putting curbs on the press and by charging with sedition those who opposed the Government invoking the draconian Section 124A which was introduced in the Indian Penal Code in 1870. (Students of JNU, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were accused under the same section for raising slogans against the Government in free India in 2016!) The early nationalists resolutely fought against these attempts to curb freedom and willingly paid the price for this open defiance.
Surendranath Banerjee was the first to be sent to jail in 1883 because of the editorial he wrote in his newspaper, Bengalee. Lokmanya Bal Gangadahar Tilak was charged with sedition under Section 124A in June 1897 because of what he published in his Marathi newspaper Kesari and was given a stiff sentence of 18 months of rigorous imprisonment.
Tilak bravely took the sentence while there was nationwide protest at this curbing of the free press. But punishment did not deter our brave nationalist leaders. Tilak came out of jail and continued his scathing critique of the government and once again he was charged with sedition under section 124A in June 1908. This time the punishment was much harsher, six years in prison in exile in Mandalay, Burma.
The tallest figure of our national movement, Gandhiji, who had just led the nationwide Non-Cooperation Movement, too was tried in 1922 for the same offence of sedition under section 124A for writing ‘seditious’ articles in his paper Young India. Having the courage to oppose an unjust Government, whatever the consequences thus has a long and glorious heritage.
At the peak of the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922 Gandhiji was to very clearly state the vital importance of free speech and civil liberties in Young India. It is well worth quoting what he said:
“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.” (emphasis mine).
Again, he wrote a little later:
“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 in the severest terms upon and even misrepresent matters…. Freedom of association is truly respected when assemblies of people can discuss even revolutionary projects.”
He goes on to say:
“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.”
So, for Gandhiji, civil liberties were as important for life as water and like water it cannot be diluted.
The Indian people had listened to Gandhiji’s sage advice. Gandhiji was deeply disturbed by the reported RSS slogans “Hindustan belongs to Hindus and nobody else” and “Drive out the English first and then we shall subjugate the Muslims. If they do not listen, we shall kill them”
Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhiji’s lieutenant and the key builder of post- independence India after Gandhiji was brutally murdered by Hindutva forces, was equally committed to civil liberties. The 1931 Karachi Resolution on Fundamental Rights guaranteed the rights of free expression of opinion through speech and the Press and the freedom of association. The resolution was drafted by Nehru and was in many ways the precursor to the Indian Constitution.
For Nehru the heart of democracy lay in civil liberties and the right to disagree and oppose. In fact, when he found not enough opposition to him at the peak of his popularity he wrote articles severely criticising himself under the pseudonym of Chanakya. He believed that “if civil liberties are suppressed, a nation loses all vitality and becomes impotent for anything substantial.”
Apart from free speech and civil liberties as being the corner stone of a democracy, the other idea which was as critical to the “Idea of India” imagined by the Indian national movement and to democracy was secularism.
Let me now briefly, revisit the question of who can claim to be an Indian, at a time when the Hindutva forces who rule the country today believe that only those whose punya bhoomi and pitri bhoomi are in India can claim to be Indians thus declaring the Muslims and Christians (if not the Parsis and the Jews) as foreigners.
This issue was reaching its peak in the years leading up to independence. Was India to be a mirror image of Muslim Pakistan by declaring itself a Hindu Rashtra or was it to be a secular country in which people of all religions could claim equal citizenship.
The Indian people voted overwhelmingly for a secular India in the first general election of 1951, despite the highly charged sentiments following the communal violence leading up to the partition of the country. The Hindutva forces got less than 6% of the votes and only 10 out of 489 seats in the parliament in the first election.
The Indian people had listened to Gandhiji’s sage advice. Gandhiji was deeply disturbed by the reported RSS slogans “Hindustan belongs to Hindus and nobody else” and “Drive out the English first and then we shall subjugate the Muslims. If they do not listen, we shall kill them.”
He wrote in the Harijan of 9 August 1942, the day the quit India Movement was launched under his leadership:
“Hindustan belongs to all those who are born and bred here and who have no other country to look to. Therefore, it belongs to Parsis, Beni Israelis, to Indian Christians, Muslims and other non-Hindus as much as to Hindus. Free India will be no Hindu raj, it will be Indian raj based not on the majority of any religious sect or community but on the representatives of the whole people without distinction of any religion.” (emphasis mine).
The author is Professor of Contemporary History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi