Reinventing the Spirit of Freedom in the 21st Century

Sunil Ray

India has witnessed a deeply embedded spirit of freedom among its citizens. The first two wars of Independence were fought against external colonialism. Now it is being reinvented as what I call the ‘solidarity movement’. It has made its beginning with the emergence of a new political process, -an alignment of progressive forces – politics of ‘polarization’ that independent India is witnessing again with the onset of the farmers’ movement.

Before this, it was an anti-emergency move that succeeded to achieve its immediate goal but failed to culminate to a level that could have enabled the movement to repair our democratic functioning to meet the basic needs of the majority of the Indians, the deprived. Although it was not canonized, one may argue, to achieve the latter, the dominant political discourse at that time could have used this opportune moment to carry forward the movement under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narain to such a logical end.

In other words, the opportune moment that was created remained far away from its use to repair the “fractured democracy’ that our nation has inherited from the Britishers. It is fractured because we still do not know even after 75 years of Independence how to build up democracy on hunger, joblessness, social and religious discrimination, failure to protect the right of women to live with dignity, and finally to speak less, violation of human rights. It, however, limps only to tell the world how we survive as the ‘largest democracy’. The fact is that it limps and could do so by being supported by a stick generously given by the authoritarian forces our present political process continues to cultivate.

The first exterior manifestation of such authoritarian forces was emergency. Emergency saw its peril and got blotted out at a heavy cost to the nation and its people. But the question is: did it happen due to built-in strength of the same fractured democracy or unconquerable impulse of the people of India to be free from authoritarianism- the urge, the human spirit that saw its conversion into a massive political movement, the first-ever peoples’ movement of such magnitude in free India.

True, the fractured democracy accommodated peoples’ resentment temporarily to appease the craving souls for freedom and reject authoritarianism. But it appeared to have paused only to leave itself open for its use again in the future by the same stick, the authoritarian forces or fascist forces (while fascism is a form of authoritarianism) of the Indian variety.

What is this Indian variety of fascism against which another movement is to be waged? It is a resistance movement by the powerless, the deprived majority Indians. against the powerful and those who are tampering with democratic norms that our constitution upholds. And, finally, it is a movement against tyranny under the guise of democracy that stifles the voice of those who oppose it. They gain legitimacy of their undemocratic activities by way of massive manipulation of democratic means and institutions grown over decades after Independence. Nothing is left to an average Indian to distinguish it from what authoritarianism means.

India was somewhat alien to fascism. All that any student of world History knows how fascism in Germany under the Nazi government wreaked havoc to its people and the world community and threatened the human civilization of extinction by destroying millions of people and institutionalizing tyranny as a mechanism to stifle the voice of those who were left to survive.

The fractured or not-so-full-proof peoples’ democracy, as one experiences Indian political development ever since the country gained independence, is easily malleable towards the centrality of power doing less justice to its fair distribution as a resource in favor of the powerless. It gives rise to authoritarianism that may not be the same in the traditional Hitlerian sense but it is detrimental to the norms of democracy. It never stops them to organize themselves around democratic institutions for political legitimacy as fascism initially did in the west.

Of course, there are several other features of fascism that beg one’s immediate attention and see how those features are embedded with the rise of authoritarian forces in India. One is reminded of propaganda on how extreme nationalism was important for national unity and portraying themselves as protector of national culture and religion and propagating themselves as the only community and society from its decadence and therefore only agency to reorganize the society.

The propaganda aims at exploiting peoples’ fear of uncertainty and insecurity and unemployment. Goebbels during Hitler’s regime, as one knows, used a combination of media such as film, radio, newspaper, etc to reach as many people as possible. The only purpose was to build an image of Hitler as a strong stable leader of Germany.

This is what is precisely Independent India has been witnessing. The narratives of the fractured democracy are combatively articulated by the authoritarian regime or neo-fascism that the stick symbolizes. And what is important to bear in mind is that the instrumentalities that the authoritarian regime has chosen to reign in are false cultural narratives and practices, misadventure with the idea of nationalism that has pampered divisive politics bringing more fragmentation to the social and cultural fabrics of the nation.

It is not so distant from constitutional vilification that the Indian polity is pushed to find its constant engagement in endless confrontational politics. While the strategic move is extraordinarily powerful in expanding the sphere of influence in the milieu especially of the middle-class segment of the population, irresistible forces of history may not allow it to do so once they come in conflict with the distressful material conditions of living of the majority of Indians.

The latter eclipses the impact of what all are newly imposed including the rules of fragmentation of the people in terms of cultural superiority, ethnic assertiveness, false dichotomy between national and anti-nationalism, and different religious groups.

The paradox is that the authoritarian regime fails to comprehend how these instrumentalities which perpetrate divisiveness bring cohesion of the deprived simultaneously. Historically speaking, the objective condition for cohesion against the authoritarianism of the people from different socio-cultural and political backgrounds to occur is only when there exists a common binding force.

Here the common binding force of all is deprivation in different forms originating from different sources that instantaneously yields powerlessness. What does it imply? It implies that as the pressure of the instrumentalities of the authoritarian forces that are at work intensifies (is bound to intensify over time), the cohesion of the deprived grows simultaneously. This is an irresistible truth of the changing process, which is impossible to muzzle. For, it is governed by the laws of dialectics.

It is this that provides the historical opportunity for the nation to build up a unified force against authoritarianism in any form based on the forces of solidarity and adopt a cohesive approach to crystalize their cohesion.

If eradication of deprivation is not alien to the political parties with any ideological persuasion, if secularism is the cornerstone of our democracy, if social discrimination in terms of caste, religion, gender, or race is to be banished, if unemployment which is growing at a frightening scale is a serious development concern to be resolved if stopping environmental degeneration is considered must, if agriculture is treated as the backbone of our economy if local economic processes are viewed as key to economic transformation and finally if growing inequality of an already unequal society like ours is treated as the antithesis of development by all political parties, then why can’t they (political parties) come together?

Even if the unfolding political process creates an oasis of hope by means of forging bonds between the political parties, one is not certain if it could continue till the stipulated period is over or finally end up being temporal, as the history of the political culture of post-Independent India demonstrates. The simple reason is that enemy being identified ‘in practice’ by each political party is not common to all as much as it was so during the freedom struggle or anti-emergency movement that had to repel impact equally to all leading to reinforce the process of consolidation of the political forces despite being ideologically antagonistic to each other.

The vested interest under such circumstances was overpowered and could, as a result, barely assert its ugly manifestation. The single most priority was how to achieve Independence or how to get rid of emergency.

However, even if the priorities of the political parties are not so different (essentially speaking) from each other, it is then the struggle for power-sharing between the dominant political party and its allies that finally breaks the common bond that they have forged to deliver better governance.

True, wiping out deprivation in all forms of dignified living, employment, social, economic, and environmental justice, equal rights, etc as mentioned earlier is the one on which each parliamentary political party fights the election and occupies the power. However, priority changes, once the party is in power, at the dictate of the vested interest found either in casteism or religion or corporate/global capital or all.

Corruption in all forms reduces truth to lose its stream of reasons to prevail upon and finally it pushes the nation to sink in a disdainful political culture in that the latter mortgage its prowess to justify its action based on democratic values. It then goes on to breed institutionalized tyranny that creates an atmosphere of fear of uncertainty in the minds of the people.

The project of domination of authoritarian governance is deepened as a consequence, but what is forgotten more often than not, is that it pushes back socio-cultural evolution that no developing society can dispense with. The unquenchable lust for power and control arbitrates the politics of alliance (except, of course, leftist parliamentary political parties in India), which is a sacred gift of our parliamentary democracy.

This uncontested practice appears to have received cultural acceptance as being ‘normal’ providing safe passage to the rise of authoritarianism and legitimizing the supremacy of the dominant political party by hook or crook no matter even if the cost of governance of authoritarian regime is too much to bear with especially for the powerless, the largest majority.

The saddest part is that all these happen under the veil of democracy. The so-called ‘competitive politics could breathe on the politics of concession by turning the powerless as an unbreakable vote bank. What, however, goes unnoticed in this respect is that it never challenges the structure of domination, dispossession, and appropriation. Instead, it reinforces the stability of the latter.

In this theatrical orchestration, the politics of authoritarianism finds its ceaseless engagement in designing an oasis of hope for the powerless. While the instrumental role of the politics of concession never allows their hope to vaporize, on the one hand, divisive politics based on caste, ethnicity, religion, and gender stops them to polarise on the other to have a common voice. They fail to assert their right together to survive a dignified life. They never could get out of development illusion.

The questions are: Is this a ‘normal ‘and hence accepted cultural practice of Indian parliamentary politics? Is it reproducible? The answer is no. And it can never continue to reproduce itself indefinitely. If naivety has no place to estimate the outcome of the inexorable forces of history as a process of dialectical change, such a cultural practice of politics will have to see its demise soon.

The powerful ongoing resistance movement of the farmers against the farm laws is, as I understand, testifies to such a dialectical process. The development delusion that has been creating a mirage of hope since Independence seems to have been debunked.

It is not the movement, as I understand, against the contentious laws alone. It is a movement, I argue, which is going to gradually culminate into a massive resistance against a hollow systemic approach of governance against the rise of the powerlessness of people and growing underdevelopment which are structural. It is potentially strong enough to tear apart the disdainful culture of politics.

It is a non-violent peasant uprisal, perhaps the first of its kind after Independence, and is much more gigantic than that of anti-emergency movement with the direct participation of millions of farmers, small traders, unemployed youth, intellectuals adherent to different ideological persuasions, etc irrespective of which caste or religion and sex one belongs to.

Its mighty roaring call against corporate capital under global capitalism suggests its disobedience to globalization and complete rejection of its prescription regarding development. It is true that the beginning is made by the farmers against the laws, but who stops one to discern that it is gradually going to encapsulate other areas of social and economic degeneration including unemployment, social discrimination in all forms, environment, etc that have pushed back the nation?

The long-drawn battle against the development paradigm that India has been waiting forever since it gained Independence is now taking place. Its astounding feature is that no pollical party could hijack the spirit of this movement which is led by the farmers and the members of civil society organizations. Either individual members of any political party or the political parties, as it appears, are left to express their solidarity with this movement.

Besides, it is gradually turning in to mother of all movements of the deprived Indians in all forms, may they be deprived of social, religious, and economic justice. A solidarity movement is gradually gaining ground to free India from internal colonialism and usher in a new era of survival of all with dignity and justice as our forefathers who laid their lives for freedom from British colonial rule dreamt. It will be naïve to think that the movement which is steered by the farmers will meet its end once issues related to agricultural laws are resolved.

Perhaps the next wave of the resistance movement is in its embryonic stage. It is against unemployment and new labor laws to be followed by barbaric social discrimination that manifests in all forms and holds back civilizational progress. The parade of the deprived will continue. Victims of unemployment are going to join the march.

The cry for the annihilation of caste and the end of gender and religious discrimination is going to echo on all sides. The resistance movement of the deprived, the solidarity movement, will reinvent the spirit of freedom from deprivation sooner or later. The footprint of alternative organizing principles of our economy and society is palpable.

First Published in Mainstream Reinventing the spirit of freedom on November 27, 2021.

About the Author

Prof Sunil Ray

Sunil Ray, Former Director, A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna;
Advisor, CDECS, and IMPRI.

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