What freedom?

As India celebrates the 70th anniversary of freedom today, does anybody bother to stop and ponder over the content of freedom they are crowing about so smugly and boisterously? To strike just one note (to begin with), three days before the anniversary, the Jharkhand government had informed the Assembly that Santhali writer Sowvendra Shekhar Hansda’s book The Adivasi Will Not Dance had been banned. Evidently, few have noticed the preposterous irony of the simultaneousness of freedom festivities and proscriptions.

For few, if any, care about the content of freedom. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to garrulous television anchors to teenybopper celebrities, everybody waxed eloquent from the glory of our country, its grandeur, and of course the great role played by freedom fighters. On the eve of Independence Day, President Ram Nath Kovind said, “On August 15, 1947, we became a free nation. Sovereignty and the responsibility for our destiny moved from the British crown to the people of India… It was the culmination of a dream for our country—a dream seen by our forefathers and freedom fighters. We were free to imagine and build our nation anew.”

In a similar vein, the Prime Minister said the next day, “For the freedom and glory of the country, those who have contributed, those who suffered and sacrificed their lives, I salute all those noble souls, mothers and sisters on behalf of 125 crore people of the country from the ramparts of the Red Fort. We remember the great women and men who worked hard for India’s freedom.”

But what about Indians’ freedom? The Sahitya Akademi award winner Hansda faces persecution: a criminal case has been filed against him; he has been suspended as government medical doctor; his book has been banned and its copies have seized on the grounds that it has objectionable content on Santhali women.

The state’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister Saryu Roy told the House, “He [Hansda] is an award-winning writer… Therefore, it would be proper if we get it reviewed by some littérateurs.” In other words, had Hansda not been a decorated author, he would have suffered more. A free country indeed!

It is fashionable to heap all the blame on the Bharatiya Janata Party, especially Modi, for intolerance, attacks on free speech, bigotry, etc., but others are no less culpable. The BJP is in power in Jharkhand but it was the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MLA Sita Soren who raised the issue in the Assembly, saying that the book was derogatory to Santhal women. Leader of the Opposition Hemanta Soren then demand that the book be proscribed.

Other parties too have not covered themselves in glory when it comes to free speech. It was the Congress government that banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (at the behest of recommendations made by liberal intellectuals like Khushwant Singh and M.J. Akbar). Congress and communist leaders earlier joined hands to persecute Taslima Nasreen. It was again a Congress regime that threw the late journalist, Alok Tomar, behind bars for publishing a Danish cartoonist’s sketch of the Prophet Mohammad. Ban, like truth, involves us all.

Bans, however, are not the only threat to freedom. Efforts are on to curb freedom, and other Fundamental Rights, on one pretext of the other. Not long ago, the Centre said in the Supreme Court that privacy was a “common law right” and not a Fundamental Right. Attorney General K.K. Venugopal, appearing before a nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court hearing the validity of Aadhaar, cited two apex court verdicts—one by an eight-judge Bench in 1954 and another by six judges in 1962—to argue to buttress his arguments.

A few days later, the Maharashtra government joined the Centre in the jihad against privacy. The state’s senior advocate C.A. Sundaram buttressed the Centre’s stand that Aadhaar-related entitlements precede the right to privacy. “What is better—two square meals or right to privacy,” he asked (http://www.thehinduchronicle.com/2017/08/give-liberty-give-food/).

Two years ago, the Modi government had supported the draconian Section 66A, which was introduced by the previous regime; thankfully, the illiberal measure was invalidated by the apex court.

There are a myriad of other instances to show that the individual’s sphere of liberty in our country is shrinking—and often the culprits are the very same folks who are enthusiastically celebrating 70 years of freedom! Against this backdrop, the President’s homilies and the Prime Minister’s rhetoric appear a bit rich if not downright hollow.