India at 75 From freedom to bulldozer justice Abu Tahir Mustakim
Every year, 14 and 15th August are heydays for the Pakistan and India of the subcontinent, as they celebrate independence days and pay tribute to all liberation warriors. This year is the 75th anniversary of the Indo-Pak subcontinent’s independence from British colonizers, marking a lengthy journey for India and Pakistan that was freed from British rule after a deadly fight.
When India became independent on 15th August in 1947, there was a joy. A long freedom struggle and the sacrifice of millions, over decades, finally led to self-rule. Indians would, finally, have the sovereign right to decide their destiny. But along with the joy, there was a clear recognition that independence came with tremendous challenges and responsibilities.
For one, the task of maintaining national unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity — in the wake of partition — became even more critical. Foreign observers were skeptical about India’s ability to remain free and united, especially given its diversity and internal lack of political and administrative coherence.
But it was not just the challenge of the staying sovereign. The vision of the freedom movement did not confine itself to merely displacing a set of foreign rulers and replacing them with a set of domestic elites. Sovereignty was to reside with the people. Those who governed would do so with the consent of the people. And that is why nurturing representative democracy, creating a set of democratic institutions in a society with deep inequalities and ensuring that freedom for the nation translated into freedom for citizens.
Given India’s deprivation, the overwhelming poverty, and the inequalities that permeated every sphere, Independence had to mean socio-economic justice. Political rights had to be accompanied by social and economic rights. And the State had to shape society and battle social ills.
India‘s breathtaking diversity, its entrenched caste hierarchies, and also its deep intercommunity divisions, especially Hindu-Muslim tensions, social harmony, peace, and the accommodation of all groups were central to moving India forward. Would India be united and sovereign, democratic and free, just and equitable, harmonious and diverse? This was the fundamental challenge presented by India’s Independence. And 75 years later, the Indian project must be judged on this metric.
For India, territorial integrity was sacrosanct. But along with unity, there was sovereignty. India was wounded by foreign invasions. And its leadership was clear that it would not entertain any external intervention in its internal decision-making process. This post-colonial psychological imprint has been so strong that not only did it refuse to join any Cold War bloc. In an interconnected and globalized world, there is give and take to be sure; absolute sovereignty is a myth. As geopolitics shifts, it must be ready for challenges to its unity and sovereignty, directly and indirectly.
India instituted the principles of democracy. Periodic elections have allowed citizens to choose their representatives. Yet, there are today, legitimate questions about the quality of Indian democracy. Elections remain a true people’s festival where citizens exercise their franchise and choose among competing ideologies, parties, and leaders. But some other elements of democracy have suffered. There is an intersection between crime, money, and politics. There is an over-centralization of power among some selective political cronies. Free speech is often threatened under the garb of community sentiment. Individual liberties are often undermined. Government bulldozers are demolishing the homes of the people who demonstrated against BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s derogatory comment over Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him). And parties resort to the most crude, violent, polarising techniques to mobilize voters in their quest for power.
Another big failure of India is its inability to remove criminalization from politics. It seems that criminalization in politics is on the rise in the country. It is alarming that more than 40 per cent of members of parliament in the 2019 Lok Sabha were tainted with criminal records, an increase of 26 per cent as compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha. Increasing criminalization of politics is continually lowering the essence of its electoral democracy as envisioned by the founding fathers of its constitution.
The hope was that when India became free, it could finally address issues of structural inequality and backwardness, and citizens would enjoy the right to live with dignity, study, work, and access public services. India adapted itself to meet these goals. More Indians today have access to basic nutritional intake, education, and work, than ever before. And this is an achievement to be proud of. But the Indian justice story hinges on growth and inclusion. In recent years, both have suffered. India was seeing a slowdown before the pandemic, and Covid-19 is now set to lead to a severe contraction in the economy. This will have a direct impact on jobs, incomes, and the quality of life. This quest for socio-economic justice, achievable only through both high growth and more effective inclusion frameworks, remains a challenge.
The most crucial challenge for India was to ensure internal social unity. To achieve this, the drafters of the Constitution and successive political regimes adopted a range of techniques. The state did not turn into a theocracy, like Pakistan. India’s Muslims would be equal citizens, with equal rights. To address the structural inequities of the caste system, untouchability was abolished, discrimination based on caste was declared illegal, and the state took affirmative action measures to create a level playing field.
Yet, the story remains incomplete — and to some extent disturbing. There has been a turn towards majoritarianism in Indian politics. Minorities — particularly Muslims — have a sense of being excluded from power structures, with their lifestyle, food habits, and cultural symbols becoming objects of suspicion. Arguably, Hindu-Muslim division is at its deepest today than at any point in the last seven decades, with the state itself seen as taking one side — Hindus. Caste, too, remains a fundamental reality which bites hard, with the political assertion of the marginalized failing to translate their economic empowerment. Atrocities against Dalits are only reported to be rising according to official data, and social divisions persist.
On its platinum jubilee, India is a story of unfulfilled potential. It is also a story of an incomplete democracy that has miles to go. It is a story of unity, yet that is increasingly under threat due to many factors particularly the internal ones. It is a story of a dream of a just society, yet a story where this quest for justice has hit some barriers. It is a story of remarkable achievement, yet a story of setbacks. It is a story of freedom, but also a story of how all citizens are not yet equally free.
Journalists in particular are not free. Journalists like Rana Ayyub, who investigated Gujarat massacre and wrote Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-up. Keralan journalist Siddique Kappan, who was the Delhi-based regular contributor for the Malayalam news outlet Azhimukham, was arrested along with a few others on They were on way to Hathras to report the brutal gang rape and murder of a Dalit girl by upper-caste men. Kappan and three others, namely, Ateeq-ur-Rehman, Masood Ahmed, and Alam were traveling in a car when they were stopped by the UP police at the Hathras toll plaza and detained on the accusation of planning to ‘foment trouble’.
Uttar Pradesh’ Ballia district journalists — Ajit Kumar Ojha, Digvijay Singh and Manoj Gupta — who reported against the question leak were detained.
Samriddhi Sakunia was detained for reporting about vandalism in Tripura Mosque. She works for HW News and has a well-established social media presence on Twitter and Instagram that she uses to propagate agenda-based reports. From CAA to farmer protests and from Israel to the central government, Sakunia has published countless posts trying to propagate a specific agenda that falls perfectly in sync with left-leaning media. Notably, she has also written for The Indian Express, The Leaflet, The Citizen, Two Circles and News Click.
To celebrate the platinum jubilee of independence and commemorate it as ‘Azadi Ka Amrut Mahotsav’, the Government of India has called upon people to submit videos of them singing the national anthem. Freedom from hunger, poverty, inequality, slavery mentality and discrimination are needs of the hour.
According to B R Ambedkar: “Freedom of mind is the real freedom. A person whose mind is not free though he may not be in chains is a slave, not a free man.
On paper, people enjoy freedom but in reality they are not free to express their feelings, thoughts, and emotions if it exposes the failures of the ruling class. Media is subverted through allurement of the advertisement or veiled threats and has lost its independence. Present politicians speak about the sacrifices of freedom fighters to derive political mileage but do just the opposite on the ground.
The mainstream media no longer represents the voice of the voiceless, empower the powerless, strengthen the weak whose voices are unheard.
There is a decline in human freedom in India. India is ranked 111th out of 162 countries in the Human Freedom Index 2020 report released by the Cato Institute, plummeting 17 spots from its position in the last index. Democracy seems to be in danger. Time is to take the step and create mass consciousness to sustain ‘India Wins Freedom’.
Of course, India had its share of failures and lost opportunities too in these 75 years. One of its greatest failures is its pitiable public health facilities. Even today the Indian state has not been able to make quality healthcare accessible to most Indians free of cost. Without a solid public health infrastructure, the fancy terminologies of medical tourism and telemedicine make little sense for millions of Indians.
Similarly, free basic education of good quality for all children till Class XII is an elusive dream in India. Successive governments have failed miserably in achieving this essential goal.
Even basic amenities and infrastructure are often beyond the reach of a huge section of Indians and the failure is shameful for the successive governments.
The failure to remove the spread of archaic and inhuman forces of casteism and communalism from society and politics is another big collective failure.
Despite these and many other failures and pitfalls, what is remarkable of this modern nation, like its ancient civilization, is that it is continually progressing.