Freedom comes at a price. The price of black marketing freedom can be the end of liberty. Strangely, India owes its freedom to two legendary prisoners who dared to challenge a powerful government in their time. Their incarceration was the price India paid for its independence, which has once again been put in chains by corruption. Even after 66 years of turbulent democracy, politicians continue to go to jail. The difference is that we owe our dignity and identity to the two prisoners who wrote free India’s spiritual and political narrative. However, in the arrest and conviction of Lalu Prasad, Rasheed Masood, A Raja, Kanimozhi and other leaders, we read the tealeaves that portend grim tidings for the future of our democracy.
Unlike Lalu Prasad and his fellow prisoners, Gandhi and Nehru were in the habit of writing in jail. In an excerpt from the famous tome entitled My Experiments With Truth, written sometime in 1925 when the Mahatma was sent to Yerawada Jail for penning articles in Young India against the British rule, he observed,“ …my devotion to Truth has drawn me into the field of politics… Self-purification therefore must mean purification in all the walks of life. And purification being highly infectious, purification of oneself necessarily leads to the purification of one’s surroundings.” Gandhi had a long rap sheet: 13 times in jail; each time fighting for India’s liberation from enslavement. Last week, the court sent Lalu Prasad and Masood to gaol for corruption. Unlike Gandhi’s view that purification is highly infectious, the two gentlemen had discovered that it is corruption which is highly infectious.
The other famous pre-Independence prisoner, who is also the Congress party’s most hallowed icon, wrote in The Discovery of India, “All my major works have been written in prison. I would recommend prison not only to aspiring writers but to aspiring politicians too.” It is doubtful whether our 162 MPs with criminal records would agree.
The works of both Gandhi and Nehru—one a spiritual journey that navigated the relationship between the philosophy of politics and personal life and the other, revelations of the essence and spirit of India through letters written to his daughter Indira—reflect the spiritual and intellectual freedom they experienced in prison. Their imprisonment was akin to the ancient Hindu experience of deprivation. It made them reflective, sharpened their phrenic keenness and strengthened their resolve. Deprivation is not a highly desired quality in the politics of our times, even if it’s something as mundane as Lalu Prasad’s desperate demand for paan. A highlight of Kanimozhi’s incarceration in Tihar Jail was the introduction of idli and sambar on the menu.
Decades after Gandhi and Nehru, another leader challenged a despotic state. In 1975, Jayaprakash Narayan wrote to Indira Gandhi that “democratic Constitution cannot be changed into a totalitarian one by a mere ordinance or a law of Parliament. That can be done only by the people of India themselves in a new Constituent Assembly, especially elected for that specific purpose. If Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity have not been rendered to ‘all its citizens’, the fault is not that of the Constitution or of democracy but of the Congress party that has been in power in Delhi all these years”. Narayan was imprisoned soon afterwards during the Emergency declared by Indira—the daughter who had discovered India through the words written by her father in jail. Last week, the party run by her daughter-in-law tried futilely to pass an ordinance to save corrupt politicians from jail.
The nature of political crime reflects the changing face of our democracy. Once political leaders were imprisoned for causes they believed in. Unfortunately, causes have given way to reasons instead. As many as 76 sitting MPs of various political outfits face serious criminal charges and could lose their seats if convicted for over two years. Do not expect any bestsellers. For that, a new freedom struggle is needed.