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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 37 September 3, 2022

India at 75: What Happened to the Promise of Freedom and Democracy? | Badre Alam Khan

Saturday 3 September 2022, by Badre Alam Khan

India has now completed 75 years of its democratic journey, and we are busy in celebrations. This time perhaps, Indian people across communities and castes have celebrated Independence Day with deep commitments and enthusiasm. In this respect, the Har Ghar Tiranga Yatra campaign has been launched by the government (from 13th August to 15), as part of the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav . This time Independence Day is being celebrated across the world by the Indian diaspora. To mark the said occasion, various schools and colleges have organized several cultural and social events at the pan-India level, mostly dedicated to patriotism. While doing so, the larger purpose is to create the nationalist and patriotic feelings among the people of India.

My purpose is not here to report the events that unfolded ahead of the Independence Day, but rather to raise a few questions for serious interrogation and critical reflection after 75 years of journey of secular democracy. Now questions need to be asked about what happened to ideals of freedom and democracy, as promised by the nationalist leaders especially by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawahar Lal Nehru, BR. Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and others. And secondly, whether we have achieved promises made by nationalist leaders during the course of freedom movements or not? What has gone wrong since Independence? Who is responsible for the backsliding of democracy and freedom in our country and society at large? These are the questions that need to be seriously examined.

In this respect, discourses among Indian academic and intellectual circles associated with different shades of thinking are not identical. Left leaning intellectuals including Ambedkarites have often reiterated that we have got political freedom but social and economic freedom is still an unfinished agenda. But a section of scholars and the ruling party have highlighted the achievements of India after 75 years of Independence . I am not going to enter into these contentious debates. Rather my focus will be to understand and explore here the meaning of freedom and democracy, as visualized by the founding fathers of our freedom movements. Keeping in mind, the ideals such as secularism, democracy, diversity, and non-violence, etc,- emerged during the freedom struggles- question needs to be raised here, what happened to these progressive values? And who is responsible for the backsliding of democracy and freedom in our country, for instance state , civil society and public at large?

A section of academics have underlined that terms like Azadi and the symbol like National Flag( Tiranga) both are now appropriated by the BJP. The Azadi, as a slogan, has been raised to get freedom from hunger, fear, unemployment and communalism. This has been seen in anti-CAA protests. In a similar way, our National flag emerged during the freedom movement that cherishes the values like peace, courage, prosperity and diversity, as envisioned by the founding fathers of our freedom movements. To carry forward the legacy of the freedom struggles, the students of JNU and Jamia Millia Islamia ( while holding National Flag) have raised slogans especially during the time of the anti-CAA protests, to reclaim freedom, democracy, secular values, enshrined in our living Constitution. It is an irony to note that the communal forces had attacked protesting students of universities (especially JNU and Jamia) and called them bogy of anti-nationals. Hence, one could argue that this is sheer hypocrisy of the ruling forces.

Contrary to a historical fact, the RSS Chief, Mohan Bhagwat has said that Savarkar had contributed and played an important role in the freedom struggle along with Gandhi, Tagore and other nationalist leaders. This point has been also reiterated by PM Modi from the Red Fort on 15 August 2022. However, historians have said that the RSS did not play any significant role in anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles. To compare Savarkar with Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore is historically untenable. (see, Mohan Bhagwat, “ AT 75, let’s take Bharat to the pinnacle of its glory”, Hindustan Times, dated August 15,2022). The fact should be noted that the RSS has opposed freedom movements and they did not hoist the national flag at Nagpur office for 52 years

Having said that, let me here critically reflect on what happened to freedom and democracy, as envisioned by the nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar. To be precise here, Gandhi’s concept of freedom is based on swaraj (self-rule) in the realm of political, economic, moral and intellectual domain. His concept of freedom was not limited to merely political freedom from the British colonial rule but the realization of socio-economic and moral freedom of Indian people irrespective of caste, religion, creed, etc. While discussing about Gandhi’s conception of swaraj, scholar like Rudrangshu Mukherjee mentions:

“In Gandhi’s philosophy, swaraj for the nation did not mean merely political dependence from British rule. Swaraj, for Gandhi, was something more substantive, involving the freedom of each individual to regulate their own lives without harming one another”. (Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Economic & Political Weekly, 2009, p 35-36).

For Gandhi ji, the goal of development should be based on an idea where the least advantaged people (poorest among the poor in society) must get benefits. However, after 75 years of journey of Indian democracy, so far the country has got huge development but still the successive governments have not so far eradicated poverty and inequality witnessed by a larger section of Indian society.

In a similar vein, Babasaheb time again reminded us that we have got political democracy and drafted a vibrant and living Constitution, but if political freedom (one man one vote and one vote one value) will not translate into social and economic democracy, our country will not progress and achieve swaraj. While underlining the Amdekarian’s perspective of swaraj, a scholar like Aakash singh Rathore writes:

“For Ambedkar, svaraj means profound democratization, tied up with the agency of the governed. Savraj is not a time travel back, but a place-travel down, to the lived experience of the masses” (See Rathore, “Indian Political theory: Lying the groundwork for Swaraj”, 2017, p-12).

In my view, after 75 years of Independence, Babasaheb’s statements about Indian democracy are entirely correct. He reminded long ago that to achieve the social and economic democracy, we have to fight twin enemies for instance, against the brahamanism and capitalism. However, truth is that forget for a while reducing the gap between rich and poor and demolishing the caste system, the successive ruling governments have had normalized both capitalism and brahamanism in the public domain. The PM Modi government has further deepened and adopted both capitalism and brahmanism by implementing the neo- liberal Hindutva economic policy with much vigor. One can say that the current political dispensation led by PM Modi is trying to appropriate Ambedkar for political benefits rather than following his radical social and political views to demolish Brahmanism and capitalism at same time, and establishing an egalitarian society.

Recent empirical studies done by civil society, several national and international human rights organizations ( See, for instance, Freedom House Report, 2021)have underlined that India is now a “partly free” , and democracy and civil liberties are under threat since the Hindu nationalist party led PM Modi came to power in 2014. On most of the issues related to freedom, democracy, hunger, rights of religious minorities and women, Dalits, and Adivasis, record and the performance of Indian democracy is not worthy to celebrate. On these issues, data are available in the public domain, and I have also underlined elsewhere. In this respect, Kanwal Bharti, a Dalit activist has said that after 75 five years of democracy, process of brahamanisim has become now hegemonic force in the larger public sphere. Azadi ka Amirt Mahotsv is celebration of brahamin not for Dalits and Adivasis, as pointed by Bharti. (See, Forward Press, “Celebration of 75 years of Brahmin rule”, 13 August, 2022). In a similar way, left-leaning academics have consistently argued that due to the economic policy of consecutive governments, the process of capitalism has now become a more powerful force. Under the BJP rule, both capitalism and brahmanism has further strengthened and normalized in the public domain by implementing the neo-liberal Hindutva economic policy with much vigor.

From the Red Forts, this time PM Modi has emphasized that we need to respect women and address their problems. Without addressing the genuine concern of women, we cannot progress as a nation. After his speech, Gujarat government has released 11 people who were convicted in Blikis Bano’s gang rape case which took place during Gujarat riots, 2002. After this step , Bano’s quest for justice has been completely shattered. This was done by the Gujarat government because the assembly election in the state is expected to be held in December, 2022. Honestly speaking, if PM Modi is so serious about women’s empowerment why his government has so far not taken any serious efforts to pass the women reservation bill which is still pending in the parliament for many decades.

To conclude, it can be said that real swaraj, as envisioned by Gandhi and Ambedkar (although there are differences between them) is an unfinished agenda and still a far way to achieve. No doubt, India has got tremendous progress, in field of education, economic, agrarian and industrial sectors but the plight of Dalit , Adivasis , women and minorities are continue unabated. In other words, the fruits of economic development are not equally shared by all sections of society. Only a chunk of brahamin and elites of India have enjoyed the fruits of development and now they are dominating in civil society, judiciary, parliament, media, industries and educational institutions. Most of the university vice-chancellors, civil servants, judges of Supreme and High Courts, and owners of media houses, etc, are belong to the upper caste.

Let me end here by saying that in a given situation, it is the responsibility of every Indian citizen, especially those who are left, progressive, public intellectuals and civil society groups, to take pledge and reclaim the freedom and democracy, as envisioned by Gandhi and Ambedkar in times to come.

(Author: Badre Alam Khan is a research scholar at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi)

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