The Standard of Freedom


The old and moth-eaten systems of Europe have had their day, wrote Walt Whitman in the Brooklyn Eagle. “Here we have planted the standard of...

The old and moth-eaten systems of Europe have had their day, wrote Walt Whitman in the Brooklyn Eagle. “Here we have planted the standard of freedom, and here we will test the capacities of men for self-government.” As India celebrates the 67th anniversary of its Independence, we might as well admit that Jawaharlal Nehru may have thought on similar lines in 1947 although the “tryst with destiny” speech did not say so explicitly. But Gandhiji and Nehru were far too great not to have echoed the sentiment of Abraham Lincoln who told Congress in one of his annual messages that “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present”, and that “as our case is new, so we must think anew… (And) disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country”. Sixty-six years after attaining freedom, can we honestly claim that we have “disenthralled” ourselves? Do we not still remain slaves to old habits of thinking, to the “dogmas of the quiet past”?

Freedom is a blessing that ought not to be disparaged. But what is freedom? Is it just an attractive abstraction capable of making a people endure every kind of suffering to protect it? What does it need to be protected from? India wrested it from the British and then surrendered it to a section of its own people. Is there anything to choose between two brands of slavery? Tennyson wrote that “freedom broadens slowly down from precedent to precedent”. Far from broadening, it seems to have only shrunk in India. It is, however, true that it would have shrunk further but for a robustly independent higher judiciary. Many of those who died so that India might live free did not care for material gains; but the few who could reap the benefits of freedom now own palatial buildings where their huts once stood. That is why, as the country celebrates 66 years of Independence, many are apt to ponder over the “capacities of (our) men for self-government”.

In most cases, they have been tested and found inadequate, so much so that the average Indian has begun to ask if there could ever be a greater threat to freedom than that posed by the ineptitude of most of these worthies. If somebody, however high and mighty, did receive kickbacks in some deal, whether for the purchase of defence equipment or urea, or was proved to have cheated NRIs of hundreds of thousands of dollars, why was he not hanged by the nearest lamp-post? Such politicians as have had no difficulty in enjoying, right here in India, ill-got fruits of freedom deserve at least a life sentence. Look at the lifestyle of the average Indian politician or bureaucrat, and contrast it with that of Gandhian Vavilala Gopalakrishnayya, or of Lal Bahadur Shastri who, even as Prime Minister, did not have money to buy a sari selected by his wife. In a country where, according to the findings of the Sengupta Committee, more than 70% of people live on Rs. 20 a day, there is hardly any politician, even a small-town one, who does not travel by air!

What is the source of income of such worthies? If they have any “known sources of income”, to repeat a cliché mouthed by income tax authorities on those rare occasions when they apprehend tax-evaders, it is not known to the nation. They have indeed made the most of freedom! Now consider the case of Uma Shankar Chaudhary, a resident of Dacca village near Kingsway Camp in Delhi. Did he commit suicide or could it be said that he had been killed by freedom? Of course, the police said he had been unemployed for long despite being educated, and had arrived in Delhi from Bihar a few months earlier in search of a job. Or consider the case of two sisters, aged 21 and 19, whose bodies were found hanging in their house in Seelur area of Madurai in Tamil Nadu; the girls said in a suicide note that their father, a plastic goods vendor, had borrowed heavily for their elder sister’s wedding and was, consequently, in great distress; since he would have to borrow more money for their weddings too, they were sparing him the worry!

These may not be the ideal observations to make when the country is celebrating the 67th anniversary of its Independence, but one does not know of any more honest ones. Besides, such dismaying facts are otherwise apt to be forgotten in the orchestrated orgy of national self-praise, a flaccid, partial and, in the end, profoundly depressing celebration of what is right about the country (though a great deal still is). To say that it will be an unhappy monument to enterprise directed amiss is not treason. Treason is acceptance of funds from abroad, funneled through subversives to destabilize the country. After all, what were the Jain Hawala funds? It was during a stray raid in New Delhi that the CBI discovered that huge amounts had been brought from abroad and distributed among politicians for wrecking the integrity of India. When some of the suspected recipients of those funds behave as though they were not only super patriots but also arbiters of patriotism, the first impulse of the masses is to reach for the holster, though metaphorically.

Of course, it is easy to say things would not have been so bad in India as they are if only Nehru had been alive and Prime Minister, but it would be prudent to recall the words of former Prime Minister of Britain Robert Walpole that “no great country was saved by good men because good men will not go to the lengths that may be necessary”. Thomas Paine, the writer of the American Revolution, said: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” Indian masses are still willing to “undergo the fatigue of supporting it”. But what is the “fatigue” that Paine had in mind and that Indian masses have been undergoing for 66 years? It is politicians who are “reaping the blessings of freedom” while the masses “undergo the fatigue of supporting it”. While the “blessings” are precious, though intangible, for the common people, they have meant money and power for those deserving of neither.

On August 13, Chairman of the Rajya Sabha rightly described its members as “a federation of anarchists”. It may be argued that 66 years are not a long time in the history of a country, particularly one as ancient as India. But the Indian clock has the irregular tick of a heart-murmur, and our own sense of time reflects the distortions of speed. Otherwise, how come that while it has been too short a period in which to provide even safe drinking water to all villages, it has been long enough for those who were paupers at the time of Independence to have become millionaires? All this, however, does not prevent the political parties from attacking one another, and in a manner that makes the masses wonder if the Original Sin could be introduction of adult suffrage amidst adult illiteracy.

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