The meaning of freedom

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Prem Shankar Jha

At midnight on 14 August 1947,when the last British Viceroy boarded the Royal Yacht at the Gateway of India, India gained her independence. But future historians may record that it was only on Friday 9 March, when Anna Hazare broke the fast unto death after the government capitulated to his demands that Indians truly won their freedom. This distinction may sound a little contrived. But it has to be made if we wish to understand not only the events of last week, but all that has led up to them in recent years.

Independence gives a people the right to decide their own fate. Freedom gives them the power to do so. Freedom, in short is empowerment. That is what virtually the whole of India felt on 8 April. That was Anna Hazare’s priceless gift to his people. And, through him, that was Mahatma Gandhi’s final gift to a nation that has all but forgotten him. Power is almost never ceded voluntarily: it has to be fought for and, in most cases, taken by force. It is to Hazare’s and Manmohan Singh’s eternal credit that they have made this happen without anyone having to shed a drop of blood.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the whole of India is rejoicing. But the joy is tinged with anxiety: Indians have lived under a Maa Baap sarkar, whom they have tended to trust implicitly, for not just the last six but the last fifteen decades. This trust, which had worn thin in recent years, was destroyed by the avalanche of disclosures since last October, of corruption, cronyism and a brazen disregard for morality among the highest in the land. Indians have therefore rejected their Maa Baap sarkar, but do not quite know what to replace it with. Thus while many exult as they set out on a new voyage, others are looking back at the receding shoreline with nostalgia and wondering whether it would not be safer to turn back and head for port once again.

At this critical moment, when India needs guidance as it has never needed it before, it should not come as too much of a surprise that it is coming not from the government but from the man that has brought it to its knees. Hazare has already dismayed some of his most ardent supporters by agreeing readily to form a Joint Committee with the government to give final shape to the Lok Pal Bill. Is he too trusting? The question is legitimate but reflects how far our age is removed from the one in which Hazare grew up. Hazare is a true Gandhian, and the lodestar of Gandhi’s life had been ahimsa — a marked preference for persuasion over conflict. Hazare had begun to explore the room for compromise well before he ended his fast by asking for Sharad Pawar’s removal from the GOM on corruption. When the government complied, he shed his qualms and took the plunge into cooperation. But he has also made it clear that he does not trust the government and will brook no compromise on the essentials of the Jan Lokpal Bill for which he was prepared to give his life. He showed his distrust when he refused to break his fast till the government issued the notification of the formation of a Joint Committee. And he reaffirmed the non-negotiability of his goals when he said in a newspaper interview shortly after he broke his fast, that he expected the Lokpal Bill to end 90 percent of the corruption rife in politics and the bureaucracy. He has also obliquely warned the government against resorting to obfuscation or procrastination by announcing that the revised Lokpal Bill will be ready by 30 June. What he and his colleagues will not compromise is the victory they have already won. This is an acceptance by the government that the power to hold members of the legislature and the executive accountable to the people must reside with the people and not with these bodies themselves. To see what the social activists want to change one has only to read the terse and unambiguous list of demands contained in the Jan Lokpal Bill, and remember how the Privileges Committee of Parliament, the Central and State Vigilance Commissions and even, to a large extent the CBI, have proved to be toothless tigers, and the distrust they now universally inspire.

Whatever else they may give ground on Hazare’s nominees will ensure that the mandate of the Lokpal will extend to cover both the Parliament and the civil service; that it will have the power to initiate investigation, to make its own inquiries and conduct its own prosecution. The police who do this will come under it and not their parent bodies, and trial and punishment, where merited, will be expeditious. Most important of all, the Lokpal will have the power not only to punish MPs and bureaucrats for what they do but also for what they should, but refuse to do. The absence of any provision in law that allows the public to hold the bureaucracy accountable for not doing its duty is the highway to extortion down which we had been treading for the last six decades.

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