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16 August, 2016

Free country, unfree people

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As India stepped into the 70th year of Independence on Monday, large sections of the population whom the promised freedom has eluded so far served notice that they are not ready to wait any longer.

The Congress, an offshoot of the organisation which spearheaded the freedom movement and dominated the political scene for most of the post-Independence period, is now on the decline. So are other parties of pre-Independence vintage like the Communist Party of India and its offshoots.

Parties whose roots lie in movements which were not part of the freedom struggle now wield power at the Centre and in many states. Topping the list is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. It is now the largest political party.

Since Jawaharlal Nehru unfurled the national flag and spoke from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort on August 15, 1947, the Prime Minister’s address to the nation from there has been the highlight of Independence Day celebrations. States hold similar events at their capitals.

This year the Centre drew up plans for the fortnight-long celebrations with the stated purpose of rekindling the spirit of patriotism. It sought to link the traditions of the independence movement with those of the army, which the nation inherited from the colonial power.

The celebrations began with events marking the 74th anniversary of the Quit India movement, the last major agitation of the freedom struggle which Gandhi had launched in 1942 with a call to “do or die”. Seventy-five ministers of the Modi government led the events at over 150 places across the country. It was a palpable attempt to appropriate the legacy of the freedom movement in which few Hindutva leaders had participated.

Speaking at a Quit India anniversary function, Modi broke his silence on the situation in Kashmir, many parts of which have been continuously under curfew following protests over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani more than a month ago. Responding to the slogan of “Azaadi” (freedom), which resounds in the valley from time to time, he said people in Kashmir could feel the same azaadi as people in the rest of the country.

While Modi thus tacitly acknowledged that Kashmiri protesters do not have a sense of freedom, he did not go into the reasons behind it. Nor did he indicate how he proposed to create conditions in which they can feel a sense of freedom.

The presumption, implicit in the Prime Minister’s words, that outside Kashmir the people experience a sense of freedom is not entirely true.

As Modi walked up the steps at Red Fort to address the nation, several thousand Dalits converged in the small town of Una in his home state of Gujarat where on July 11 foot soldiers of Hindutva, posing as protectors of Cow the Mother, had stripped and flogged four members of the community engaged in their traditional occupation of skinning dead animals.

Worried that the Una attack and similar incidents reported from other places would harm its prospects in the forthcoming elections in the states, the BJP replaced Anandiben Patel whom Modi had installed as chief minister when he moved to Delhi.

Modi said most of the cow protectors were anti-socials. His remark angered a section of the Hindutva leadership but it did not impress the protesting Dalits. Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit activist, organised the march to Una from Ahmedabad, styled as “Azaadi kooch” (Towards Freedom).

In the troubled tribal region of Bastar in Madhya Pradesh, Soni Sori, an Adivasi activist who had suffered physical and sexual torture at the hands of the security forces, was leading a week-long march which began on August 9, the UN-designated International Day of the Indigenous People. She carried the national flag, ignoring warnings by Maoist insurgents who are active in the area.

Dalits and Adivasis together constitute one-fourth of India’s population of 1.2 billion. Outside these backward communities, too, there are large sections of marginalised people who are yet to reap the fruits of freedom. In fact, even among the rest of the population many remain unempowered. The only gift of freedom they enjoy is the right to vote in the elections.

That explains why the slogan “Azaadi” was raised by students of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University early this year. The Hindutva establishment dubbed the students traitors. JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar explained that they wanted azaadi, not from India but in India. “We want freedom from hunger, freedom from poverty, freedom from the caste system, all of that,” he said.

A free country with unfree citizens is not entirely unusual. The lack of social mobility adds a new dimension to the problem in India.

On the completion of the framing of free India’s Constitution, its chief architect and Dalit icon BR Ambedkar had pointed out that it only granted political democracy. It should be backed by social democracy, which meant recognising liberty, equality and fraternity as principles of life, he said.  -- Gulf Today, August 16, 2016

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