The 75th anniversary of independence is a big event indeed, and we have many more to celebrate. Aside from the impressive achievements in the scientific and technological fields, we as a nation have been able to manage our myriad socio-economic problems to a reasonable extent, although some still exist. The most notable achievement is that we remain a democracy with sound institutions, a functioning bureaucracy and a judiciary of remarkable integrity and credibility. Instances where we have shamefully had to send our gold to London to be pawned and where there has been eagerly awaited American wheat under PL480 are a thing of the past.
With an impressive foreign exchange reserve and our young people making their mark on the global technology and corporate landscape, India has every reason to proudly celebrate 75 years of freedom. The proven resilience of the Indian polity to live with contradiction and diversity is the fundamental source of national pride.
However, in this festive period, when freedom is the watchword, we must ask ourselves a fundamental question. Are the ordinary citizens of India freer today than their parents were 75 years ago? The term “common citizen” deserves a brief explanation. The Indian Constitution was adopted by and for “the people of India”. It is an all-encompassing term that is class, age and gender neutral. But the term is no longer a monolith. We, the people of India, have differentiated into we, the rich people and the poor people of India.
Multiple dividing lines have emerged based on education, caste, power, privileges, etc. Caste barriers, recognized as a bane on our society long before independence, continue to vehemently divide and dehumanize Dalits and tribals, and arouse far less concern from ruling elites or legislators. The term “commoner” for our purposes means the poor and marginalized; the exploited and the vulnerable; those who have neither power nor rights.
When we gained independence, we inherited a social and economic mess. From those murky days of complete backwardness in every area, we have marched into the modern age. But many have not joined this march and are still being left behind. The question relates to their experience of freedom.
How is freedom experienced? Freedom as provided for in the Constitution is social, economic and political. From the increased voter turnout at each election, we might be too quick to conclude that citizen participation in elections is a healthy sign of political freedom. However, it would be difficult to limit political freedom to voting alone. In a democracy, it is a privilege and a right to express dissent. In every law that emerges from Parliament and state legislatures, the zeal to ensure the liberty and dignity of the citizen should be the authentic hologram.
Unfortunately, our recent legislative history conveys a different story. Newly introduced or rewritten laws that make multiple crimes non-criminal (like the PMLA amendments that the Supreme Court has oddly approved) and other laws like the UAPA are drafted to make them stricter and passed without meaningful legislative scrutiny or discussion . Every new law and amendment seems brazenly to violate and reverse the established dictum that an accused is innocent unless proven guilty. As a result, “the process becomes punishment.”
Arrests by ED and CBI and state police for various offenses are increasing and after several months in prison the accused is either acquitted or remains in prison. This trend in itself is quite troubling, but what is more deadly is the utter indifference of the government, which is the guardian of the constitution. Not only is this indifference unacknowledged, but showing this apathy itself is frowned upon. In other words, governments expect conformity, not dissent, submission, or suspicion. Does this ambience expand human freedoms?
Recently, 121 tribesmen accused in the Bhima Koregaon case were acquitted after five years in prison by the NIA court. Were these arrests an error of fact or an error of judgement? Is there a mechanism to ensure that such mistakes don’t happen again in the future, or to compensate them for the loss of five productive years and their suffering? Are the power elite really worried? It is an embarrassing fact that the number of people held on remand in Indian prisons far exceeds the number of convicts.
The record of social and political freedoms is no better. Corruption, intolerance and alienation characterize our social reality today. The years following independence have seen the ever-rising tide of pervasive corruption. Aside from the immorality of corruption and the sin of “othering,” the denial of service and entitlement to the needy and powerless is a ghoul that haunts our public lives. Social friendship, the foundation on which a country of immense diversity is built, is under siege.
This national celebration of 75 years of freedom could have been a star moment in history if at least the nation and those in power recognized the existence of vast groups of disadvantaged Indian citizens whose freedom has only shrunk in seven decades. It would have been a historic moment if the nation had apologized to the disenfranchised and disadvantaged and resolved to correct this distortion with a sense of justice and individual dignity. Failure to do so confirms what Charles Dickens wrote more than 150 years ago: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was.” the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”