What freedom means to me today

On the occasion of India’s 74th Independence anniversary day, I listened to some students and teachers discussing what freedom means to them – at a personal or a societal level. These conversations gave me the impetus to coagulate my fluid thoughts across the years together into a more solid visible structure below.

The central question that this piece will explore is: “What might freedom mean to Indians today, and what can we do about it?”

The freedom that we celebrate

Each independence day, we celebrate the political freedom that allowed us to become an independent sovereign nation in 1947 after nearly 2 centuries of subjugation by the British. It’s both an apt occasion for us to remember and celebrate the efforts and sacrifices of our freedom fighters. And it’s all the more essential today to do so, given that after nearly 75 years of independence, very few of us have any direct experience with the freedom struggle. We can only imagine from stories and movies what it was to be treated as a 2nd class citizen in your own country in pre-independent India.

Because we aren’t really very good at understanding large numbers, this chart by Freedom House shows the world’s democracies by population with India being by far the largest and a free democratic state:

That we are by far the largest democracy by population, that we aren’t a failed state, that we have sustained a democracy despite huge diversity, that many of our institutions have done a credible job for the last 75 years, that our constitution has been mostly sacrosanct are all stellar causes for celebration.

Other than the emergency period, India has had legitimately elected leaders heading the central government, as has also been the case in most of the states. Despite issues earlier, thanks to the efforts of the Election Commission and usage of EVMs, India’s elections have been quite clean for the last 2-3 decades. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Centre gives Indian election system the top marks in freest and fairest elections, 12 out of 12 marks as against the US which gets 11 marks.

Can we take this freedom for granted?

Freedom has generally improved for Indians whether we look at it from the lens of politics, economics, caste or gender. A recent heartwarming improvement in freedom is that of the repealing of Section 377, which has allowed LGBT rights to be recognized. However, it’s a long way to go before the country allows same sex marriage or allowing same sex couples to adopt. And it’s important to remember that this reform was a result of a Supreme Court judgement that used the Indian constitution to repeal Sec 377 rather than it being a legislative action.

It’s difficult to think of freedom that has improved as a result of proactive political or legislative actions. Even the Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization economic and policy reforms that happened around 1991 were the serendipitous result of a dire economic crisis rather than a well thought out proactive plan of reforms. Some might argue that the criminalization of the triple talaq is a proactive improvement of the freedom (for some women) – but this legislation is far too shrouded by political machinations to be deemed as a genuine freedom reform.

On the other hand, there’s much that has been going in the other direction. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Democracy Index, “erosion of civil liberties” was the primary reason due to which India fell by 10 ranks from it’s 2018 rank of 41 (out of 165 democractic countries worldwide). India scored 6.9 points out of 10, which puts it in the category of flawed democracies, as against full democracies which are in the 8-10 points range. India was graded 8.67 in the electoral process and pluralism, 6.79 in government functioning, 6.67 in political participation, 5.63 in political culture and 6.76 in civil liberties.

The Fragile States Index ranks India as the 68th most fragile state out of 178 countries based on 12 parameters. India scores the lowest in the these 4 categories: group grievances (caused due to political, social, religious divisions), demographic pressures (of ensuring food, water, health, education etc. to large growing population), human rights and the rule of law (whether the state protects its citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms)  and factionalized elites (consider the fragmentation of state institutions along ethnic, class, clan, racial or religious lines, as well as and brinksmanship and gridlock between ruling elites). 

We can flatter ourselves by comparing ourselves to countries which are worse off in these rankings, including most of our neighbours. However, we must face the reality that much more needs to be done to enhance and even preserve freedom.

Freedoms that are threatened today: freedom of speech

Freedom to express, especially the freedom to criticize is one freedom that’s highly threatened today. Whether it’s the states, the central government or even the judiciary there have been multiple instances where laws such as the sedition law (sec 124A) , the defamation law, Sec 66A of the IT act, contempt of the courts have been misused by the state (which includes politicians, bureaucrats, police and judiciary).

A kafkaesque and horrifying example of the misuse of the sedition law was it’s usage to harass a young student from Bidar (Karnatak), the staff of her school and her parents on the basis of an anti-CAA play enacted in their school. Numerous people have been charged with sedition across India, mainly to stop dissenters from criticising the government’s policies or actions (whether state or central).

The defamation law has been used multiple times against journalists by the state. Tamil Nadu filed 28 defamation cases against a host of media houses and journalists between 2012 and 2013 for speaking up against the then Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa. Thankfully the Madras High Court (but only in May 2020) quashed all the cases saying that the state cannot use criminal defamation cases to throttle democracy, and that public servants and constitutional functionaries must be able to face criticism since they owed a solemn duty to the people. However, this hasn’t stopped states from using criminal defamation to silence journalist, a recent case being the defamation case filed against the Editor of the Wire magazine in Uttar Pradesh on the basis of 2 tweets posted by him. 

Talking about tweets, India’s highest court has taken much offence against Prashant Bhushan, an activist with many laurels, on the basis of two tweets which criticize the court. 41 practicing and senior lawyers have appealed to the court saying that the tweets don’t amount to contempt of court. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has said that the verdict is a sign of the “current deterioration in the state of free speech in the country”.

Given India’s general weak state capacity, despite the Supreme Court repealing Sec 66A of the IT act, which criminalizes offensive / insightful statements posted on the internet, the act was in 2017 to arrest a student in Uttar Pradesh to arrest a student, 2 years after it was repealed. Of course before it was repealed, it was used across India to shut down any criticism of those in power. In an earlier post on the necessity of freedom of speech, I have listed many other examples in India where freedom of speech has been restricted.

Decreasing freedom of the media and on the internet

The Freedom on the Net 2019 report gives India 55 points out of 100, with 100 being the most free and 0 being the least free. This score gets India a status of “partly free”, which puts India in the bottom half of 65 countries studied for this report (which cover 87% of the world’s population). The two categories  which India fared badly were obstacles to access and violation of user rights, which includes lack of access to Internet, blocking of websites or social media or total access to Internet, harassment and arresting of Internet users etc.

Indian media, which is supposed to be the fourth pillar of democracy, is also struggling when it comes to freedom of speech. The World Press Freedom Index places India at the 142th position out of 180 countries, with India’s best rank being 131 in the last ten years. The economic model of journalism has made media companies highly dependent on direct or indirect revenues from the government.. This  along with the aforementioned actions taken by journalists by the state, that most Indian media channels kowtow to the state and independent critical news is very difficult to find. Of course this issue is exacerbated by the fact that very few of us want to pay for quality news – in print or otherwise.

We should be mindful of the adage, “if you are not paying for it, then you are the product”. In this context, it means that unless we are ready to pay for media, we aren’t going to get the quality that’s necessary for a thriving democracy. 

Why are various freedoms increasingly threatened?

Most of the laws that are being misused are relics of the British India. The sedition law was enacted and used by the British to put many freedom fighters behind bars. While in the first 50-60 years the law may not have been used much, but with the advent of mass media and now social media, it’s much more easier for both prominent citizens as well as laymen to criticize the government and even get heard. 

Governments, politicians and law enforcement officers believe that they need to react to such criticism otherwise their images will suffer, and that it will give an advantage of sorts to their opponents in the next election. Other than it being motivated by showing to their voters that they are strong, such criticism, whether legitimate or not, also hurts the ego of politicians who tend to react with the power of the state.

The power struggles that dampen political freedom are also seen at a social level. Male patriarchs are threatened by the increasing freedom that rural and urban women are gaining, whether in areas of education, career, marriage and beyond. Self-appointed custodians of caste and religious purity feel threatened by inter-caste relationships. And there are those who feel threatened by “westernization” of India – some of those show their insecurity by thrashing young couples on Valentine’s Day. 

Not surprisingly, almost all the people who wish to curb the freedom of people to choose for themselves are those who are in power, or those who wish to gain power, and they are almost always male. And many of these actions are politically motivated in some way or the other, whether at a village or a small community level, or at a large level.

Democracy depends on elections, but what if winning elections becomes the primary goal

Unfortunately, at this point of time, India’s first past the post electoral system means that even a small but loyal number of voters can ensure electoral success. Therefore, politicians have all the incentive to polarize their constituencies even at the risk of alienating a majority as long as they get more than others. This is where India’s diversity is a bane that those in power find easy to exploit.

And of course, when your goal is a 5-year short term goal of winning or rewinning elections, then all political, economic and social decisions are geared towards finding your voters. This means that more and more states are finding ways to give locals a certain quota in both the public and the private sector – which is in direct opposition in both spirit and letter of the Indian constitution which broadly allows every Indian the right to live and work in any state.

Similarly for the central government, rather than enacting economic or policy reforms related to agriculture, industries, trade, education that will bring long term benefits, but in the short term may bring a lot of opposition from many groups with vested interests, thereby providing fodder to the opposition to exploit, it’s much easier to take the path of the least resistance. Reforming bureaucracy or police or the judicial system or improving healthcare and education, or changing policies on usage of natural resources, or removing inefficient subsidies and welfare schemes, are long term games fraught with opposition and even failure. For e.g. the New Education Policy 2020 brings in many necessary academic reforms, but doesn’t make the deep administrative reforms that will ensure that either make public schools accountable to delivery quality education or deregulate private schools in a manner to allow high quality people and capital to come in. It’s therefore facile for anyone in power to take short term actions which instead of increasing freedom may reduce freedom (of business, of individuals), but such moves still pay off because they win elections. 

Wealth and education allows individuals (but doesn’t necessarily happen for all) to think beyond narrow boundaries of caste, religion, communities when it comes to elections. Such people are more likely to think about the merits and demerits of their candidates and the parties rather than being driven by any of the polarizing factors. Therefore, there’s also a perverse incentive for politicians to keep Indian dependent on them as directly as possible – through what was and may still be called a mai-baap sarkar. Subsidies, agricultural MSPs, reservations in colleges and in jobs, nationalistic actions within and outside the nation, pandering to social issues and red herrings that incite emotions and division is therefore a generally sound strategy of getting votes of the less privileged, who see these politicians (and bureaucrats) as the only ones who will do good for them.  Good systems of delivery, policies and economics will reduce significantly the dependence of the poor and therefore there’s no political incentive to work hard on those areas.

Should we give up or can we do something about it?

There are many of us who look at what’s going around, and what’s going wrong and we really really want to do something about. But yet, it seems too gloomy, too difficult. I have spoken to some youth who have said they really want to get into politics and make a difference but have no clue how to go about it. 

And the situation truly is despondent because it’s such a huge overwhelming task that it seems useless to even give it a try. On top of that, there isn’t an urgency or an imperative for Indian citizens, especially for those who can do something about this. The rich are comfortable the way they are. The middle class is working hard to become comfortable. And others have too many daily struggles to face to contemplate bigger issues of nation building.

Those who can do something typically don’t face race, caste, economic or even social issues. All the more true for privileged men (not unlike me). There’s no burning cause to join. There’s no life or death issue – not a dignity issue for those reading this – like the freedom struggle was. It’s a much larger opportunity cost now to give up a career than during pre-independence days when the economic opportunities were far more limited and when even the most privileged Indians were treated as 2nd class to the British. 

Very few grave issues are the kind that affect those who can really do something about it. This is also why you see far more activism in those pockets which are marginalized socially, economically or politically – think Kashmir, “maoist” or tribal belts, north eastern states, and so on. 

Because there just isn’t an urgency or an imperative we are letting things slide. I worry that we are the providential frog in the boiling water. We might get into a situation that’s irreversible or at least far more difficult to improve upon as things might stand today.

The last of human freedoms

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

It’s difficult to dismiss Viktor Frankl’s thought, because he truly practiced this. He lost his career, most of his family, his health and his dignity in concentration camps during WWII and yet he had a reason to live. His manuscript had been torn during the camp. He lived his theories and then wanted to make sure that they are published to the world.  He came out of the war, published his book on logos theory and has made a seminal contribution to the world of “search for meaning of life”.

While as a nation we have many freedoms that we must celebrate, some that we might even take from granted, there’s much that we need to do to ensure that we not only help India retain it’s freedoms but also expand on it need to find such missions. We must commit to it and give it time – it’s not going to happen overnight. We might take different paths or do it at different times. But to give up is not an option. We are still a very young nation – most democracies that have matured have taken a few centuries to do so. We may not have that much time or we don’t need that much time given the pace of globalization today, but we must remember that it takes time, effort and sacrifices of comfort and more to ensure that our freedoms increase as our nation ages rather than the other way around.

One comment

  1. I am still not clear about what it means to have freedom. Does anyone in the world have freedom?

    Companies/Businesses (including religion) of all sorts – conditions our mind and take away the ‘Free will’. The smartest people on the planet work for those businesses – and uses all the psychological analysis to target everyone as effectively as possible – in the end, they will say ‘Now you are free to choose’.

    Let’s take a less controversial example: I just checked ‘Countries with Highest sugar consumption’ – Most of the oldest “Democratic” countries are in the Top 10. Has it been a free choice for the people of those countries?


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