Over one hundred years ago, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote his immortal poem on ‘Freedom.’ It became part of his celebrated and prize-winning ‘Gitanjali’. The visionary that he was, Tagore would perhaps have envisaged the India of 2022 when penning his poem. Even a superficial reading of the text would goad one to spontaneously exclaim, “the words are all about India today!” No one would be able to contest this hard truth when one reads,
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!”
As India completes seventy-five years of freedom – a platinum jubilee – the only question one needs to ask at this critical juncture of the country’s history is “Freedom for Whom?”
“Freedom for Whom?” Since March 2020, it has been a disastrous period for many: the pandemic COVID-19 played havoc with lives and livelihoods of millions. The victims, in good measure, were (and continue to be!) the poor and the vulnerable; the marginalised and the minorities; the excluded and the exploited; the Adivasis and the Dalits; women and children; the small farmers and the migrant workers and other sub-altern sections of society. It is a bad time for human rights in India: in a systematic but brutal manner, the legitimate rights of people are not only denied but are crushed. To add to it, human rights defenders, and others who take a visible and vocal stand against a regime which is anti-people, anti-democracy and anti-Constitutional, are at the receiving end of a system which reeks of vendetta.
“Freedom for Whom?” Not for Democracy! Democracy is slowly but systematically being dismantled in the country! Democratic space is shrinking! The V-Dem Institute at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg recently published its ‘Democracy Report 2022: Autocratisation Changing Nature?’ India’s performance is dismal. The report states that “an anti-plural political party (is) driving a country’s autocratisation.” It was ranked 93rd in the LDI (Liberal Democratic Index); India figures in the “bottom 50%” of countries. It has slipped further down in the Electoral Democracy Index, to 100, and even lower in the Deliberative Component Index, at 102. In South Asia, India is ranked below Sri Lanka (88), Nepal (71), and Bhutan (65) and above Pakistan (117) in the LDI.
While delivering the inaugural speech recently at the Justice S.B. Sinha Memorial Lecture on 'Life of a Judge', Chief Justice of India, N.V. Ramana observed that in absence of judicial review, people's faith in the Constitution of India would have diminished. He added, “after the end of the 2nd World War, it was clear for modern democracies that law is not a mere one-way projection of authority. Renowned scholars have therefore argued that a law cannot really be classified as a ‘law’ unless it imbibes within itself the ideals of justice and equity. Any enactment devoid of the object of substantive fairness can never be justified on the grounds of meeting procedural fairness alone.”
“Freedom for Whom?” Not for human rights defenders, dissenters and others who take a visible and vocal stand for truth and justice. This regime brooks no dissent. What is happening to those arrested in the Bhima- Koregaon conspiracy case where fourteen are still languishing in prison (for more than three years) under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is a case in point. There are many others who are incarcerated for no reason and even denied bail including those who protested against the CAA. Eminent citizens like Teesta Setalvad, R.B. Sreekumar, Sanjiv Bhatt and others are imprisoned and denied bail just because they spoke out against the regime! On 2 August, the Allahabad High Court rejected the bail plea of journalist Siddique Kappan, who was arrested in October 2021, booked under the UAPA and on charges of sedition in connection with the Hathras rape case. Interestingly, the Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana while delivering the17th Justice P.D. Desai Memorial Trust lecture on 30 June spoke at length about the importance of dissent and accountability in a democracy.
“Freedom for Whom?” Not for minorities! The rights of minorities are being crushed: it keeps happening at a frightening regularity. Muslims and Christians are at the receiving end of venomous hate speeches, constant denigration and even attacks. From the verdict on the Babri Masjid to the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A regarding Kashmir has deepened the communal divide. The ‘Love Jihad’ law of UP is clearly focussed on a Muslim boy marrying a Hindu girl. There has been a spate of unconstitutional anti-conversion laws in the country. A real bogey and which certainly violates the fundamental rights of a citizen. The Gujarat Government wants the Bhagwad Gita to be taught in schools and that all primary schools must do a ‘pujan’ to ‘Bharat Mata’ these days. In Assam the latest is ‘flood jihad’ – when Muslims are held responsible (and even arrested) for the torrential rains and floods in the State. In Madhya Pradesh recently, in a mob lynching incident for alleged cattle smuggling, a Muslim was killed and two others seriously injured!
For the second year in a row, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its Annual Report 2022 has placed India on the list of ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ (CPCs). In this list, India has been placed alongside countries like Afghanistan, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and a few others. The Report stated, “In 2021, religious freedom conditions in India significantly worsened. During the year, the Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies -- including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda -- that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities. The government continued to systemize its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities.”
“Freedom for Whom?” Not for the environment! The environment is being crushed and with that, the rights of all the citizens. Recently, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has given a green signal to more than forty projects without the mandatory environmental clearances. Most of these projects favour their rich crony capitalist friends literally giving them a license to loot, plunder and rape the environment and much more. The felling of thousands of trees and the destruction of a natural sanctuary in Mollem, Goa, brought thousands of Goans out on the streets. The aim of the project was to build a double track railway line for the shipping of coal for the Corporation of one of the country’s henchmen. Our precious biodiversity and our fragile ecosystems are being destroyed. The Government does not care and has clearly gone on a downward spiral: doing everything they can to destroy the environment; the Western Ghats and the Aravalli Hills; the metro shed in the Aarey forest; the Bullet train project being re-started; the building of a dam in Dibang; the selling of coal mines to private companies and much more.
The Environment Performance Index 2022, by the World Economic Forum, has ranked India last among 180 countries on the list. According to the report, India’s 10-year change in terms of environmental performance was in the negative range (-0.60). Even countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Myanmar rank ahead of India on the list. The Report states that, “The United States, along with China, India, and Russia, will account for over 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 unless decision-makers in these countries strengthen climate change policies and accelerate decarbonization efforts…. India, with increasingly dangerous air quality and rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions, falls to the bottom of rankings for the first time.”
“Freedom for Whom?” Not for equality! The ‘World Inequality Report 2022’ by the World Inequality Lab clearly states that, India is now among the most unequal countries in the world. According to the report, “The average national income of the Indian adult population is INR 204,200. While the bottom 50% earns INR 53,610, the top 10% earns more than 20 times more (INR 1,166,520). While the top 10% and top 1% hold respectively 57% and 22% of total national income, the bottom 50% share has gone down to 13%. India stands out as a poor and very unequal country, with an affluent elite.” The report also talks about stark gender inequality in India. As per the report, the share of female labour income is a meagre 18 per cent. This value is one of the lowest in the world, slightly higher than the average share in the Middle East (15 per cent).
“Freedom for Whom?” Not for freedom of speech and ex
The report observes, “With an average of three or four journalists killed in connection with their work every year, Journalists are exposed to all kinds of physical violence including police violence, ambushes by political activists, and deadly reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt local officials. Supporters of Hindutva, the ideology that spawned the Hindu far right, wage all-out online attacks on any views that conflict with their thinking. Terrifying coordinated campaigns of hatred and calls for murder are conducted on social media, campaigns that are often even more violent when they target women journalists, whose personal data may be posted online as an additional incitement to violence. The situation is also still very worrisome in Kashmir, where reporters are often harassed by police and paramilitaries, with some being subjected to so-called “provisional” detention for several years.”
“Freedom for Whom? Not for the Adivasis! Their rights continue to be crushed: one experiences this, the way the jal-jungle-jameen is being taken away from them. The areas which they have inhabited for centuries are used for industrialisation and commercial purposes, mining is rampant for profiteering of the mafia, the so -called ‘development’ works and other mega-projects are geared to making the non-Adivasis richer! More than two million of Adivasis and other forest-dwellers still remain at risk of forced displaced and loss of livelihoods after their claims to stay on in their habitats under the Forest Rights Act have been rejected. Many Adivasis from the Kevadia area (which is around India’s latest white elephant – a statue in the name of Sardar Patel) were made to leave their homes overnight. Fortunately, for the moment the anti-Adivasi river-linking project has been stalled due to protests. Adivasis are being denied their rights under PESA (the Provisions of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996) -- a law enacted by the Government of India for ensuring self-governance through traditional Gram Sabhas for people living in the Scheduled Areas of India. Fr. Stan Swamy struggled for the dignity and the rights of the Adivasis and was ultimately the victim of an institutional murder.
“Freedom for Whom? Not for the casual labourers, the migrant workers, the small farmers and the unemployed. Together they comprise a large section of India’s population and most of them are poor. They have to eke out a living even to survive. That is a fact. The anti-worker labour codes, the anti-farmer legislation (which is now kept in cold storage), the raw deal given to migrant workers are all symptomatic of a sick system which caters only to a particular segment of people. In the 2021 Global Hunger Index, India ranks 101 out of the 116 countries with sufficient data to calculate the GHI scores. With a score of 27.5, India has a level of hunger that is serious. Multidimensional Poverty Index 2021 (MPI) is in line with the global index released by the United Nations each year. According to the Global MPI 2021, India is ranked 66 out of 109 countries
“Freedom for Whom?” Not for those who oppose the Government! It is not only the human rights defenders who are targeted – but anyone who opposes the Government in any way including the opposition leaders. So, the Government introduces and uses draconian legislations like the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. Writing in Indian Express (29 July 2022), well-known intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, ‘By upholding PMLA, SC puts its stamp on Kafka’s law. The money laundering Act is opaque and draconian, gives state arbitrary powers over citizens. Now, it has the SC's approval’. Mehta firmly states, “So imagine a law that is Kafkaesque in its opacity. An investigation commences against you. Some vague ground of it is shared with you, but you are completely in the dark about the Enforcement Case Report (the analogue of an FIR). Or, you are summoned and you do not even know if you are being summoned as a witness or as an accused. Nor are the full grounds of arrest shared with you. Now imagine further that you apply for bail. You are considered such a threat to the state that bail cannot be granted without hearing the prosecution and you are required to prove your innocence to get bail. Now further imagine that the definition of crime under this Act is almost infinitely elastic — what counts as money laundering crimes include everything in the kitchen sink. The sovereign has immense latitude to define what counts as the relevant crime. It can also in a classic instance of rule by law change the presumption of innocence”. The way citizens are being subjected to this draconian law is there for all to see.
A few days ago, a well-known school in Vadodara had planned a field trip for kindergarten children to a mosque in the city. All the parents (mainly Hindu) had given a written voluntary consent to this trip. However, the Bajrang Dal vehemently protested against it forcing the principal to cancel the trip. One of the parents said, “My daughter was very excited for this trip and we were even telling her about a mosque as she has never been there before… It is only a field trip and as parents, we have chosen to support the school that is trying to teach children the values of harmony and unity. There was no pressure on parents to send children to any activity or field trip.” That sums it all! Freedom is being throttled in India – at every possible level! Millions of Indians are still not free! It was not without reason that Tagore wrote long years ago, “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!”
(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist / writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)