After 70 years, how free we actually are?

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Dadri Lynching Incident

This year marks the 70th anniversary of our independence. A natural question is bound to arise as to how free we are in terms of enjoying the rights of pursuing our beliefs and ideas. People will also tend to evaluate how much we have achieved in freeing our masses from age old poverty and social discriminations. Only more than a year ago, on January 17, 2016, Dalit research scholar Rohit Vemula summed up the case in his suicide note, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.”

He wrote this just before he killed himself after he decided to disappear from the battle he was fighting against the university administration to restore his status as a student. The pain and agony he was undergoing for being a Dalit became unbearable when he was thrown out of the hostel and his fellowship was stopped after a complaint from Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad. He and four others had been expelled from the hostel rooms for “raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students’ Association”.

Is it the freedom for which Bhagat Singh and Mahatma Gandhi had made their supreme sacrifices? Had they fought for the democracy which forces people to die if he or she speaks his or her mind freely? If Vemula killed himself on the campus at Hyderabad, Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the students’ union at the prestigious Jawaharlal University was arrested on sedition charges. He was released only after a big agitation. Campuses had witnessed such scenes and ideological battles earlier too but had hardly seen any government openly siding with a particular ideology. Since the Modi government took over, campuses began to witness such partialities. Both students and teachers, are being forced to endorse single ideology, a single narrative of nationhood and single lifestyle.

The current regime can be identified by cow-vigilantism and mob-lynching. We must recall how in September 2015, Akhlaq Khan was killed in Dadri, just a few kilometers away from New Delhi on the suspicion of consuming beef. Scores of people have been attacked and killed since then including 16-year-old Junaid of Ballabhgarh in Haryana.
Ironically, in case of Vemula, the government was wasting its time in probing his case to prove that he was not a Dalit. A similar thing was being done in Akhlaq’s case as well. The police was investigating whether he consumed beef. How does it matter whether Vemula was a Dalit or Akhlaq ate beef? Both the investigations were done to justify the deaths.

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Caste matters: In Rohit Vemula suicide case, authorities wasted time in probing his caste to prove that he was not a Dalit

On this occasion, we need to discuss the ground we are losing as a vibrant democracy. The story of dismantling democratic institutions, in fact, begins from the dissolution of the Planning Commission. The Commission was constituted by first Prime Minister of India Jawahar Lal Nehru to monitor whether resources of the nation was being used for improving the conditions of the common people. The Commission was taking care of the poor and deprived and making plans from their side. It was protecting the environment from the loot by industries.

Modi’s NITI Aayog which has replaced the Commission has been established to help corporate use resources of the country without any hindrance. In a very short period, the think tank has prepared the base for privatization of all the important public sector enterprises including railways and the Air India.

Other big decisions including demonetization and implementation of GST also need scrutiny. The government had promised to eradicate black money, fight corruption and end terror funding. “So, in this fight against corruption, black money, fake notes and terrorism, in this movement for purifying our country, will our people not put up with difficulties for some days?” PM Modi had said in his speech on November 8, 2016 while announcing demonetization of 500 rupee notes and 1000 rupee notes.

The government demonetized 86 percent of currency in circulation. JNU Professor Arun Kumar says that the move was aimed at portraying the PM as Robinhood, who loots the rich to help poor. He says that it has neither helped curb black money, nor contributed to the growth of the economy. He has pointed out long term negative impact on the economy and argued that small scale industries have been hit hard by the move.

Professor Kumar also points out that GST has been a blow to fiscal federalism. He says that it will again harm retailers and small businesses. Both the moves, in fact, have been taken to help big companies expand and monopolize. The tirade against black money has been turned into a political witch-hunt. It is targeting small corruptions of few lakhs and few crores of opposition leaders. The big businessmen who have stashed their black money in foreign banks or have not paid huge bank loans are moving scot-free.

If we go by the government version of growth in economy, a natural question comes to one’s mind as to what has happened to the one crore employment the PM had promised? A recent survey of National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) reveals that employment is stagnating. The survey has revealed the most worrying trend in the informal sector which has been generating over 90 percent of jobs in the country. The sector is showing stagnation in terms of employment. The NSSO data shows that the sector could only employ 6.5 workers in last five years. The survey was conducted in 2015-16. The data shows the yearly addition of 1. 3 lakh jobs. The PM had promised 10 lakh jobs a year.

The story will be incomplete if we do not include UPA-2 government led by Manmohan Singh. The UPA-1 was marked by people oriented measures like MNREGA. But the UPA-2 was only concentrating on strengthening big MNCs. The policies like GST and allowing free flow of FDI into all the sectors were initiated during the regime. This is the reason why Congress could not lead the opposition to resist demonetization and the GST. The inability of the Congress in forging unity among opposition parties has been seen during presidential elections too. It only allowed JDU leader Nitish Kumar to play in the hands of ruling BJP.

On the occasion of 71st Independence Day, it is important to know who can lead the country in preserving democracy and secularism. Resistance to the government is coming from leaders like Mamata Banerjee Mayawati and Lalu Prasad and the opposition is even not able to stand by their side. The Left is also showing sort of helplessness. We are facing the question on this Independence Day the way we have never faced.

letters@tehelka.com