Between Freedom and Independence

This time Independence Day sounds like a strange word. We have been held captive for nearly five months and are told to avoid contact with other humans so there is no Independence Day fanfare this year. This respite from celebration and ritual should provide the rulers of this country and the states an opportunity to reflect on whether the Independence we gained at the stroke of midnight in 1947 is synonymous with the freedom we enjoy today. True we are no longer slaves of a colonial power but as citizens can we access all the freedoms guaranteed to us by the Indian Constitution?

Democracy or the Government of, by and for the people that is the gift of western political thought and promises equality for all was implanted in a country that was sharply divided by caste hierarchies.  To expect this implant to work without a glitch and without addressing the social divisions that exist even today in this country, is perhaps an unfulfilled ideal. Besides, there is a difference between freedom and independence. Though both are compatible and even complementary the objectives that each seek to achieve are different. The seeds of freedom were sown in the Indian mind by MK Gandhi in 1921 during the non-cooperation movement when he mobilised the people to fight for independence through non-violent methods. This was something the British found difficult to handle, used as they were to the tools of subjugation.

When India became independent in 1947, freedom was already firmly implanted in their minds. The Indian Constitution, one of the longest documents was adopted on January 26, 1950. Interestingly, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, moved the first amendment to the Indian Constitution on May 10, 1951, seeking changes to certain fundamental rights. Nehru’s first intervention was to amend Article 19, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression. For some reason, Nehru believed that this freedom might lend itself to abuse.  Hence Article 19 (1) (a) which essentially guides the behaviour of the media in India has now become the Sword of Damocles which threatens media freedom with libel on flimsy grounds.

There are other freedoms which the Constitution guarantees but which the average citizen struggles to access.  Access to justice remains a distant dream for many. Access to potable drinking water; to shelter, clothing and food are still not guaranteed. Many of our villages do not have basic infrastructure like roads. They lack basic healthcare and education. What can freedom mean to this category of citizens? This is something that the political class and those manning the three pillars of democracy ought to be exercising their minds on today.

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