UNDERSTANDING FREEDOM: THE PERSPECTIVES FROM THE OPPRESSED MARGINS
‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Recently the Chhattisgarh Nagrik Sanyukt Sangarsh Samiti has been organising an event namely ‘Freedom Festival’ in the state capital Raipur. It was organised to commemorate the 125th Birth Anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar from 8-14 April 2016. The question is why the question of ‘Freedom’ has been raised in the so-called ‘free-India. The week-long celebration was attended by many scholars, writers, intellectuals, students, youths and activists across the state and neighbouring states too. It consisted of public lectures, panel discussions, debates, performing arts, film shows, and bookstalls.
‘Freedom’ versus ‘Nationalism’
For the past few months a lot of discussions and debates have been going around India on the question of ‘Freedom’ (Azadi). After the death of Rohith Vemula and the arrest of Kanhayya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirbhan Bhattacharya the echoes of Azadi has touched sky heights across India. Parallel to this, another question dominating the public spaces is that of nationalism or anti-nationalism and one’s loyalty towards nation. Freedom of speech, expression, religion, thought, governance, choice of ones’ likes and dislikes has been upheld by the Indian Constitution and by various international laws, covenants and conventions to which India is also a signatory as well as ratified by the Indian state. Why such a critical discussion is needed at this juncture?
Today the constitutional values of justice, equality, liberty and fraternity have been in serious crisis, particularly with the unmanageable level of oppression and repression unleashed by the dominant sections and power centres. Over the past couple of years while the attack on Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised groups have increased, the unbridled usurpation of natural resources like land, forests, water and minerals has continued multifold. While efforts to intensify and consolidate casteism are on a high scale with very powerful tools like murder, rape, anti-reservation campaigns and consistent curtail of public spaces, the loot of resources are at the behest of the corporates for whom the government has also arranged all forms of security cordon with police and para-military forces. The lethal weapon of arbitrary power has left the gullible masses to live in fear and terror in such areas. This led to a large section of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs), particularly in Adivasi regions of India. The corporates eye such regions as zones with cheap manual labour, which is easy to be exploited.
The intensification of attack on Muslim and Christian minorities and their institution has exposed the agenda of Hindu Nationalism with a surplus of capture of all resource zones. Minorities across the country live in fear. This is diametrically opposite to the constitutional spirit of plurality, coexistence of multiple ethnicity and secular polity. This unpredictable level of intolerance has led to blatant violation of human rights and it has turned too difficult to voice against such acts. Anyone who dared would be implicated in fake cases and would be termed as anti-national. This is the current situation in India.
Women and working masses are the worst hit due to these emergent trends. The question of freedom is not just a matter of right but it is one of the essential pre-requisite of reasoning, which therefore should be the ideal edifice of democratic plurality, where the people are the Sovereign rulers. According to Justice Krishna Iyer ‘the censorial power lies with the masses over and against the government and not in the government over and against the people.’ The level of suppression of freedom has definite painful consequences which weaken the foundations of secular, socialist, democratic republic. The oppressed, marginalised and minority sections are the receivers of such institutional disparity of the state, which manifests the contest within the social order.
Babasaheb Ambedkar had been the champion of freedom, free thinking and liberty whose words are important to be remembered. He was of the opinion that the freedom of individual is more important that that of the society. He believed that individual liberty would lead to collective or community freedom which would eventually lead to the freedom of society. According to him, ‘there are two fundamental tenets of a free social order. They are: (i) individual is an end in himself and the aim and object of society is the growth of the individual and the development of his personality. Society is not above the individual. But, the individual has to subordinate himself to society because such subordinate is for his betterment and (ii) the terms of associated life among members of society must be based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.
The cancerous caste system is at the root of it. The caste system and equality are incompatible to one another. The principle of gradation and rank is the essence of caste system. The caste system has recognised slavery in inverse order of status and maintained inequality in every sphere of human activity – social, political, economic, legal, religious etc.’
On another occasion while discussing the reality of being a free human Ambedkar said, ‘he who is not a slave of circumstances and is always ready and striving to change them in his flavour, I call him free. One who is not a slave of usage, customs, of meaningless rituals and ceremonies, of superstitions and traditions; whose flame of reason has not been extinguished, I call him a free man. He who has not surrendered his free will and abdicated his intelligence and independent thinking, who does not blindly act on the teachings of others, who does not blindly accept anything without critically analysing and examining its veracity and usefulness, who is always prepared to protect his rights, who is not afraid of ridicule and unjust public criticism, who has a sound conscience and self-respect so as not become a tool in the hands of others, I call him a free man. He who does not lead his life under the direction of others, who sets his own goal of life according to his own reasoning and decides for himself as to how and in what way life should be lead, is a free man.’
Liberation – A perspective of Oppressed and Marginalised
These passages provide the insights of Ambedkar on how one could understand and define freedom for those who are historically enslaved or else are compelled to follow a different pattern of slavery at present. The current pattern of thwarting off the space of the common citizen and reconstructing a socio-economic and political order against the spirit of the constitution is in one way or other the reinforcement of systemic slavery over a majority sections. The plurality-centricity of the constitution – including that of people’s right and control over resources such as land, water, forest, minerals and knowledge – is being reversed from its edifice. Caste, class, ethnicity, gender, religion and other identities have turned out to be key constituents and centres of power, where the noble values of sharing, caring and cooperation are being replaced by accumulation, profit and surplus. This further drifts the egalitarian relationship between human and nature to that of consumption and commodity.
The continuous process of legitimisation of despotic domination and dictatorial pattern of tyranny through social constructs as well as the expropriation of resources is the best method to enslave people as well as to capture and appropriate the knowledge that has evolved over several centuries. Thus the contest is between an ‘Enlightened India’ with accommodative space for all versus the ‘Bharat of a Few’ based on violence, power, discrimination, disparity, conflict, masculinity and power show. Such fear roves today at large.
This seriously calls for a rethinking on an indigenous (Dalit-Adivasi) framework of liberation – which means freedom from fear of social and political domination and control and the development of a free society. Freedom as development and development as freedom are vice-verse and this is the philosophical postulation of any ideal of an inclusive nation. This is the critical to the development of real sense of individual liberation.
It is in this critical context, where the threats and challenges of individual liberty and community freedom have crossed all legitimate limits, there is a need to revisit the fundamentals of freedom from the perspective of oppressed and marginalised sections. The idea is to evolve a different knowledge mechanism on freedom itself, beyond the rhetoric of the current debates in India. It is not only a means to express one from the perspectives of marginality and oppression, but also an opportunity to rediscover the real sense and meaning of liberty in the quest for a better and progressive Indian society.