‘Freedom’ is so familiar a word as to be taken as self-explanatory, but, in fact, it has always been a contested concept, giving rise to many different interpretations. Philosophers from the Buddha, Rabindranath Tagore and MK Gandhi to John Stuart Mill and Isaiah Berlin have advanced different understandings of freedom and its cognate terms, ‘liberty’ and ‘emancipation.’ As political currency ‘freedom’ is beloved of both right and left shades on the ideological spectrum, though they usually mean different things. Some argue that freedom is the right of individuals to make profits untrammelled by regulation while others note that the concept is meaningless without empowerment and equality. ‘People have so manipulated the concept of freedom,’ observed the German philosopher, Theodor Adorno, ‘that it finally boils down to the right of the stronger and richer to take from the weaker and poorer whatever they have left.’ Even in the context of the British Empire, ‘freedom’ was used by both sides: it was ‘fought for and won’ by anti-colonialists and, in their own minds, benevolently ‘bestowed’ by colonial powers who claimed that colonialism had always been about ‘emancipating’ the lesser breeds after making them ‘fit’ for self-rule. The Trinidadian historian and politician Eric Williams once quipped that it was as though Britain had set up slavery expressly for the purpose of abolishing it. We should certainly never buy into the myth that Independence was ‘bestowed’ on us. As the great African-American rights campaigner and former slave, Frederick Douglass, noted, ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand’, an observation that remains as true today within the postcolonial nation as it once was within the Empire.
In the lead up to this year’s commemorations in India, we have had a Re-Declaration of Independence in the form of Congress politician and erstwhile novelist Shashi Tharoor’s well-modulated condemnation of British rule, calling for symbolic reparations and an apology from the former imperial master. It was satisfying as political spectacle, perhaps even necessary given Britain’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the depredations of its empire and the ways in which that nation continues to benefit from imperial legacies. Yet, having identified the manifold sins of imperialism, nearly seven decades into the state of being an independent sovereign nation, it’s time to ask not just whether former colonial rulers owe us anything but what use we ourselves have made of freedom, the much longed-for ‘swatantrata’. For all our patriotic declamations and stated commitments to India’s sovereignty, have we have really freed ourselves from the ideological and economic footprints of Empire? While there is much to honour in India’s struggle to free itself of the British colonial yoke, it may be time to talk about how this country, rather than fully undoing the legacies of Empire, has in many ways carried the colonial project forward, only this time with brown rather than white leaders at the helm.
First, we should note what Independence in 1947 did accomplish. Whatever our views on Nehru and his troubled legacies, it is the case that he, along with the chief drafter of the Indian Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar and others, launched a visionary experiment which put into place formal legislative equality and universal franchise. Whatever the manifold glitches that have emerged in practice, the fact remains that the idea of democracy, of mass participation in political processes, has become part of the lifeblood of this country and remains an important resource for social transformation though we must remain attentive to the many attempts to undermine it, whether through abuse of state machinery or ban-happy repressive legislation. Mob rule and the imposition of the will of a communalised numerical majority is also not quite the same thing as democracy. The Indian Constitution, warts and all, provided relatively progressive rights for Indian citizens of all classes, castes, genders and religions, and for a robust judicial system to safeguard those rights. That too remains an important resource for freedom and justice. Though poorly executed in practice and held hostage to corruption and abuse, the early years of the Indian republic were driven by the idea that the country’s major resources and provisions— water, energy, transport, oil and gas, iron and steel and so on— should be held in public ownership towards redistributive ends. That did not happen in practice, but the idea of resources held in common, accessible to all, should not be allowed to die out at the hands of the brutally selfish privateering that is now ascendant.
The muddled Nehruvian attitude to capitalism through a restrictive ‘mixed economy’ allowed for the rightly-reviled ‘licence raj’ to flourish and the consumer was kept in thrall to a few powerful corporations, a state that did not feel particularly free. There remained, however, the outlines of an idea that economic self-reliance was key to the newly acquired political freedom and that personal profit came second to something called the ‘national good’, which was meant to be, but was not always so in practice, the same thing as the ‘public good.’ It is no wonder, perhaps, that the advent of ‘liberalisation’ under the aegis of then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh was seen as the dawn of a new, second, era of ‘freedom’ with India at last finding its place in the ‘global economy’ and Indian citizens increasingly ‘free’ to pursue both profit and consumption on an ‘international’ scale. Today, as Indian companies float on the international stock markets and buy up chunks of Western industries, some gloat triumphally about ‘reverse colonisation.’ The embrace of the free market, it would seem, had become India’s climactic act of ‘freedom’ or as EM Forster had it, ‘waddling in at this hour’ to at last take her rightful place among the world’s wealthy and powerful nations.
This is a good moment then to return to Tharoor’s call for reparations. His litany of charges against the British Empire is largely indisputable if rather formulaic. Among the very familiar, stock ‘depredations’ of imperialism, Tharoor lists the decimation of cottage industries in favour of cheap machine-made goods from Britain using resources taken from India; the Bengal Famine and widespread starvation, wealthy British families making their money from cheap or slave labour in the case of the West Indies; violence, racism and massacres; the use of Indian personnel and resources for British war efforts; and, finally, “the massive psychological damage that has been done, the undermining of social traditions, of property rights, of the authority structures of these societies.” He notes that many ongoing problems, including religious and ethnic tensions in formerly colonised societies are the “direct result of the colonial experience.”
If we are going to ask for former colonial powers to take responsibility for the past, as they certainly should, and if anti-colonialism isn’t to dwindle into a purely symbolic political charade, then we are surely also obliged to take stock of what we ourselves have done with the ‘freedom’ that we fought so hard to get in 1947. Certainly, mass starvation and famines were one of the distinguishing features of colonial (mis)rule. While the postcolonial record shows a dramatic decrease in actual famines, chronic mass hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity remains shamefully high. According to the World Food Programme, a quarter of the world’s malnourished live in India today: ‘While per capita income in India has more than tripled in the last two decades, the minimum dietary intake reduced during the same period.’ The gap between the rich and poor has increased in the last two decades even while a relatively small number have become more prosperous. It’s worth asking why reparations from Britain are in order but not reservations for those who have been at the receiving end of caste exploitation and dispossession for centuries in this country, with violence against Dalits remaining a disturbingly enduring feature of Indian life.
It is a mere rhetorical ritual to criticise imperialism without recognising that empire was fundamental to the emergence of Western capitalism, which needed both the cheap or free labour it provided and the extraction of resources including Indian lands and minerals. Rampant capitalism today has much the same requirements. Why, if colonial dispossession was wrong, do the powers-that-be in India believe in allowing large corporations such as Tata or Vedanta to perform similar acts whether in Singur or Niyamgiri? Why, much like the colonial state, has Independent India peppered swathes of the country, including the Niyamgiri hills which sits on bauxite reserves coveted by Vedanta and others, with paramilitary forces? Like the British in their time who branded all protestors seditious ‘terrorists,’ the label of dangerous ‘militant’ or ‘Naxal’ is slapped on to those such as the Dongria Kondh Adivasis who protest against the postcolonial appropriation of their lands in the face of beatings and imprisonment.
Much as the colonial state condemned both Purna Swaraj and Quit India, both fearing and dismissing nationalist sentiments but taking no chances, the post- colonial Indian state both fears and sneers at aspirations to ‘aazadi’ in Kashmir, obstreperously refusing to address the long-festering wound through meaningful action—which surely ought to include the implementation of the very principle of self-determination this country rightly claimed for itself against the British. There is no doubt that a very large number of Kashmiris see India as a colonising, occupying power: surely, it is necessary to at least ask why instead of dismissing it as the British once dismissed Indian nationalism? Just as the British once used Russian incursions as an excuse to annex and militarise, the Pakistani politicians’ and state’s undoubted machinations have become a convenient and legitimising excuse for all manner of chauvinism within the Indian nation (including suggestions that anyone critical of the Indian state should relocate across the border) and for the Indian Army’s constant hated presence in the world’s most militarised zone. Violence and massacres were not, of course, the Raj’s prerogatives alone: we only need to think of Kunan Poshpora 1991, Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002, to mention the most obvious examples. For all that we boast about an apolitical army, the brute fact is that the postcolonial Indian state is ready and willing to militarise wherever it encounters resistance, whether to corporate globalisation or to unquestioned rule.
One recent glimmer of hope came from the Modi Government’s climb-down in relation to its attempts to bring back the more ‘business-friendly’ elements of the Land Bill which emerged from the colonial Land Acquisition Act that had made colonial dispossession possible. This is testimony to the importance of protest and resistance—terms that are surely fundamental to any concept of ‘freedom.’ But protest and resistance are increasingly dangerous acts to undertake given the scale of repression and harassment that can follow, and not just if you are Kashmiri or Adivasi. If communal tensions are a legacy of colonialism, then why do we countenance the harassment of those who seek to end it? Witness what many commentators have rightly identified as a ‘witchhunt’ against Teesta Setalvad, advocate and campaigner for the rights of those who faced horrific communal crimes in 2002. For a government that has been proud to wave a so-called ‘clean chit’ in relation to the Gujarat riots, there seems to be inordinate keenness to hound Setalvad ahead of a key case coming to trial. There is little doubt that the heavy-handed use of state machinery, including CBI demands for ‘sustained custodial interrogation’, is disproportional to the charges that have been made, even assuming those hold up.
The blatant attempts to deter those who’d challenge the impunity of power should worry all those who are truly committed to democratic principles and to real freedom. We should worry about thuggish attacks on those who disagree with the present regime, challenge the supremacy of its leader or interrogate caste ideologies. A myriad examples abound: the shutting down of the Ambedkar-Periyar reading group at IIT-Madras, the halting of the screening of the documentary, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai in Delhi University and, of course, the endless online misogyny and death threats spewed by votaries of the present dispensation.
Disturbing too are the assaults on and shutting down of Greenpeace India’s activities even as environmental regulations are being loosened in order to please large polluting businesses. As the journalist Madhusree Mukerjee, author of a well- known book on the imperial responsibility for the Bengal famine, recently noted on social media, the recent floods in West Bengal have much to do with climate change and ‘unplanned and opportunistic growth.’ The mantra of ‘development’ means constructing on floodplains, cutting down forests, and destroying older more sustainable systems of irrigation and drainage. Far from reversing what colonialism did to traditional structures in these cases, we have taken the damage further. As one interviewee notes in Rana Dasgupta’s fine book, Capital, Indian democracy is actually being reversed when it comes to such things as access to vital resources, dwindling into a mere voting game. Whereas such things as water systems in Delhi had a genuinely democratic aspect to them in pre-colonial times, with knowledge of and participation in the system distributed to everyone, today, rather than address issues of democratic distribution, affluent India takes refuge in private microsystems of provision which excludes those who cannot afford it.
Noting how ‘freedom’ has become something of a mantra to neoliberal ideologues, the respected geographer, David Harvey, has asked: ‘If we were to mount that wondrous horse of freedom, where would we seek to ride it?’ As of now, India has yet to provide its own answer to this question, in what Rabindranath Tagore called its ‘own voice.’ The grandstanding and bluster of religious nationalism in an embrace with global capitalism is not what he meant (thus earning the hatred of votaries of Hindutva).
To truly commemorate Independence and the many who sacrificed much to bring us there, it is the spirit of brave resistance displayed by people like Irom Sharmila and Teesta Setalvad, that we take forward, abjuring the safety of quiescence and conformity. It’s time to raise the flag not just for freedom for the nation but for freedom from exploitation and dispossession within it.