Where then the promised freedom? 60 years and counting…

Sixty years to our independence today, as India awakes to a new president who, when running a bank, took money from the women depositors, distributed most of that money amongst her relatives as loans and, according to RBI, did nothing to recover that money, thereby causing that bank to shut down. A president who can talk to spirits. A president who, during emergency envisioned an India where people with hereditary diseases were to be forcibly sterilized. And yet, a president who is a woman too. In any other mature democracy, our president would be in jail for fraud, not in Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Today, India celebrates its sixty years of independence and its first woman president! The two represent the cornerstones of the evils in our social, economic, and political systems — a resting on the laurels of past actions (we are an ancient civilization), and an apathetic acceptance of our curtailed personal freedom.

The story of our freedom struggle, was not the story of a Gandhi here and a Nehru there — it was about millions of people who wanted to be master of their own destiny. The British empire was a natural target, and the relief is palpable in the speeches made on that historical day, three score years ago. The tragedy is that for most Indians, political freedom was enough. An oppressive regime gave way to an oppressive state, and we did not protest. Lack of economic freedom continued to keep India poor, and we did not protest. Corruption was rife, and we accepted it as a way of life, and did not protest. Personal freedom was routinely denied to us, and we did not protest. In parts of our country today, people are treated worse than the British treated us, and we do not protest. We have come to accept mediocrity, and we do not protest. As a nation, we stopped caring for freedom once we gained independence.

Take economic freedom, for instance. At the time of our independence, the Indian economy was very different – it was much poorer and less industrialized, and government was less important – revenue was just 5 per cent of the gross domestic product. But our governments introduced industrial licensing, and later used it to create government monopolies in a series of industries, including heavy machinery, fertilizer, coal, shipping and aircraft, and prevent new private entry into industries such as steel. Traditional, liberal (in the traditional sense of supporting freedom) Congress-party workers protested, some even left the Congress and started their own political parties, but as a nation we allowed our freedom to be curtailed, little realising the fact that in this lay the seeds of gross economic inequality we were to see sixty years later.

Take trade, for example. When two people make a transaction, they only do so because both are better off. Prosperity is the result of a chain of such win-win transactions between people profiting by fulfilling each other’s needs. But Jawaharlal Nehru once described profit as a “dirty word” and gave in to the fatal conceit, to use Friedrich Hayek’s phrase, of imagining that the economy, and the lives of people, could be planned.

The benefits of economic freedom are largely unintuitive, and rarely has lack of that freedom been protested by the masses in any society. But what about personal freedom? The Indian Penal Code, drafted by our imperial overlords in the 19th century to keep us natives in place, and tailored on Victorian morality, is filled with archaic laws that should have been repealed 60 years ago. Section 377 effectively outlaws homosexuality. Section 295(a), that makes it illegal to “outrage religious feelings”, routinely used by bigots, from all religions, to stifle free expression. It is filled with laws that criminalise the act of giving offence, outlaw victimless crimes and treat women as the property of men.

What about our education system? The British empire set up an education system which guaranteed to generate a body of clerks to serve the Queen. Not once did we think about reviewing the system. Nor did we think about spending money to guarantee education to all our children. When Gandhiji asked for compulsory eight years of education for all children of free India, he was silenced by saying there is no money to do that other than by supporting the sale of liquor. Till date, despite the 86th amendment of the constitution which makes primary education a fundamental right of every child, the government drops the Right to Education bill on false excuses of lack of funds. We, the citizens of India, all these years, accepted this lack of freedom, not just for ourselves, we let this visit our children and the future generation of a nation.

Milton Friedman, a prime proponent of local governance, once said — “There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that is a government.”

Dr. Ambedkar, deified today as the demigod of Dalit politics, rejected the word socialist in the preamble of our constitution and remarked thus — “What should be the policy of the State, how the society should be organized in a social and economic sense are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and local circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether”.

Freedom for a country should mean every person being free to live their lives as they please, as long as they do not interfere with the similar freedoms of others. These past sixty years, India’s democracy has not matured into a participatory republic but has only remained symbolic by allowing an orderly transfer of power through the ballot box. Instead of participating in the governance and demanding our freedoms, for long we have allowed our mai-baap sarkar to treat us as subjects, not citizens, and continue to deny us our freedoms.

In the Hindu culture, the 60th anniversary is an important milestone, amongst other things an occasion to renew marriage vows. Sixty years ago, our nation married democracy, and this anniversary is an opportunity to renew those vows. Today is an opportunity to think about the freedoms we dont have; the freedoms that have been denied to us; the freedoms that we so easily didnt care for. There is an age old political adage that we get the leaders we deserve. Today, as India celebrates its sixty years of independence, let us be the leaders we
deserve to have.