The 75th anniversary of Independence is indeed a big occasion, and we have ample reasons to celebrate. Apart from the impressive accomplishments in the scientific and technological spheres, we as a nation have been able to manage our myriad socio-economic woes to a reasonable extent though several still remain. The most creditable achievement is that we remain a democracy with sound institutions, a functioning bureaucracy and a judiciary of remarkable integrity and credibility. Instances of when we had to send our gold to be pledged in London shamefully and when American wheat under PL480 was eagerly awaited are things of the past.
With an impressive foreign exchange reserve and our young people making a mark in the global technological and corporate landscape, India has every reason to be proudly celebrating 75 years of freedom. The demonstrated resilience of Indian polity to live with contradictions and diversity is the foundational source of national pride.
However, during this festive phase, when the buzzword is freedom, we have to confront a basic question. Is the ordinary citizen of India freer today than their parents were seventy-five years ago? The term ‘ordinary citizen’ merits a brief elucidation. The Constitution of India has been adopted by and for ‘the People of India’. It is an all-encompassing term which 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 poor people of India.
Several dividing lines have appeared based on education, caste, power, entitlements, etc. Caste barriers recognised much before Independence as a bane of our society continues to divide and dehumanise the Dalits and the tribals with vehemence, eliciting far less concern from the dominant elite or lawmakers. The term ‘ordinary citizen’ means for our purpose the poor and the marginalised; the exploited and the vulnerable; those with neither power nor entitlements.
When we gained Independence, we inherited a social and economic mess. From those dismal days of utter backwardness in every sphere, we have marched forward to modernity. But many have not joined this march and are still left behind. The question is about their experience of freedom.
How is freedom experienced? Freedom, as envisioned in the Constitution, is social, economic and political. We could hastily infer from the increased turnout in every election that the participation of citizens in elections is a healthy sign of political freedom. However, it would be tricky to limit political freedom to the process of casting a vote alone. In a democracy, expressing dissent is a privilege and a right. In every law that comes out of Parliament and State legislatures, the eagerness to ensure the freedom and dignity of the citizen should be the authentic hologram.
Sadly, our recent legislative history conveys a different story. Laws newly introduced or rewritten making several offences non-bailable (like the amendments to PMLA that the Supreme Court strangely endorsed) and other Acts like the UAPA are drafted to make them harsher and passed with no meaningful legislative scrutiny or discussion. Every new law and amendment seems to be audaciously violating and inversing the well-settled dictum that unless proved guilty, an accused is innocent. As a result, ‘the process becomes the punishment’.
There are increasing arrests by ED and CBI and State Police for various offences, and after several months in jail, the accused is either acquitted or continues to languish in jail. That trend per se is quite disturbing but what is more lethal is the supreme indifference of the government, which is the guardian of the Constitution. Not only is this indifference not recognised, but flagging this apathy itself is frowned upon. In other words, governments expect compliance, not a contradiction, submission, or suspicion. Does this ambience expand human freedoms?
Recently, 121 tribals accused in the Bhima Koregaon case were acquitted by the NIA court after five years in jail. Were those arrests a mistake of fact or an error in judgement? Is there any mechanism to ensure such errors do not happen in future or to compensate them for their loss of five productive years and their suffering? Is the power-elite really bothered? It is a shameful fact that the number of under-trial prisoners in Indian jails far exceeds the number of convicted.
The record of social and political freedoms is no better. Corruption, intolerance and alienation mark our social reality today. The years after Independence have seen the ever-rising tide of all-pervasive corruption. Apart from the immorality of corruption and the sin of ‘othering’, the denial of services and entitlements to the needy and the powerless is a ghoul that is stalking our public life. Social amity, that bedrock on which a country of immense diversity stands erect, is under siege.
This national occasion of 75 years of freedom could have been a starry moment in history if at least the nation and the powers that be acknowledged the existence of vast pockets of deprived Indian citizens whose freedom has only shrunk in seven decades. It would have been a historic moment if the nation apologised to the disentitled and the deprived and resolved to correct this distortion with a sense of equity and individual dignity. Failure to do so will validate 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.”
Former Kerala chief secretary and ex-VC, Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University