IT’S THE annual holiday again, time to celebrate the freedom of our nation-state. Newspaper articles searchingly ask ‘young India’: “What does freedom mean to you?” Overwhelmingly, the answers indicate that freedom is just another word for personal choice. One is free to do as one chooses in a world with multiple choices. There’s a lot of play on the word ‘free’ — free people of a free nation free to live freely. The overuse is one indication that we may be missing something.
Lately, this nation-state has given us unprecedented consumer choices, and by that count, we should be freer than ever before. Oddly, the more we assert this notion of freedom the less we are interested in the events that led to it. Select figures from the past appear in the sanitised iconography of the nation-state and the discourse about them is predetermined. Ashoka, Akbar, Buddha, Kabir, the Rani of Jhansi, Gandhi and others are ‘national figures’ now.
‘National figures’ all reside in the Indian past and contribute in some way to its free present, but we are never quite sure how. For example, one of the things we unfailingly learn about Indian independence is that Gandhi and his non-violent method were central to it. Sanitised images of a pious-looking Gandhi adorn schools, children write essays and high-school graduates gratefully forget the history lessons they were force-fed. We are so grateful to be released from the boredom of nationalist history that we don’t retain the energy to inquire into this thing called non-violence. Further, mindless controversies are generated: Gandhi was a saint — no, he was friendly with Hitler. Gandhi rejected sex — no, he was a closet homosexual.
Often, the controversies are irresolvable and only help to place the figure further out of reach of your comprehension. A web of rhetoric secures Gandhi firmly as the father of the nation who ‘won us our freedom’ — it turns out that this very nation was what he had wanted freedom from. Gandhi’s strongest critique was not against the British nation, but against a system of governance that prevented people from being responsible in the world. His criticism of the modern nation-state was centrally this — it treats people as if they can’t be responsible, it protects people from themselves. The object of his critique is still present and the State structure that Gandhi rejected is not only still in place, it has also co-opted its strongest critic.
Today, we have almost no understanding of the tools Gandhi developed in his quest for freedom from State structures. Civil disobedience was a mass movement that addressed the State and required mobilisation. The fast, unlike a hunger strike, was an individual’s act, private or public. For Gandhi, the fast was a sign of the moral strength of the individual.
Lately, this method seems to have failed us. We also have the uncomfortable feeling through the fast that we are actually condoning blackmail — although we’d agree our politicians perhaps deserve to be blackmailed. Nothing else seems to work anyway. But it’s undeniable that the fasting person today does not create an impact like Gandhi.
As children, we may have refused to eat sometimes till a demand was met. But parents soon learn to deal with this blackmail — “All right, don’t eat, but you still can’t go out till your homework is done.” If parents don’t buckle under fasting blackmail, why would an administration? It looks like the method is weak and only Gandhi’s personal aura made it a powerful tool. But Gandhi’s fasting was far from a means to force action from others.
Gandhi undertook various kinds of fasts according to his sense of responsibility; for the failure of his son to tell the truth or his own inability to control his temper among other things. The fast was not directed at his son — rather, the fast was Gandhi acknowledging that a son’s lies are the failure of his father. Refusing food wasn’t simply a heroic act; who was refusing food and why was of great importance to the act of taking responsibility.
GANDHI OFTEN asserted that all his methods were directed at a uniquely Indian practice of being responsible in the world. He insisted that as a culture, we had invested deeply in this view and created social, aesthetic and economic structures to sustain it. His method was a product of his Indianness rather than his saintliness, which makes it a legacy that all of us can claim. To live with responsibility is to be free of State protectionism.
So who does one hold responsible for corruption and how does one remedy it? Will some anti-corruption law and infrastructure stop corruption? Maybe, but, we have got these mechanisms against other crimes and nothing has stopped them yet. More importantly, the idea that people have to be prevented from doing the wrong thing is different from saying that people must be responsible for what they do. The former is a lifetime of protectionist mechanisms, as long as you are on the side that’s doing the protecting.
Gandhi’s method was a product of his Indianness, which makes it a legacy that all of us can claim. To live with responsibility is to be free of State protectionism
Today, we have a vague notion that refusing to eat publicly is somehow related to the freedom struggle. So we make much of this action and drum up our nationalist discourse. The State’s obvious response is in the manner of stern but kind parents: come now, don’t be silly, there’s due process and parliamentary representation and governance, and besides, we are doing all we can, and of course what you are saying has some merit.
Thus we have been put in place: the simple natives, guided by enlightened rulers and a ‘system’ with ‘due processes’, protected from their own immaturity and whimsicality. The state will always prevent us from hurting ourselves and each other, and it will always tell us what’s best for us.
But being responsible frees one from the need to protect. When Gandhi fasted in response to the Partition riots, he wasn’t saying: get cops to manage the rioters better and pass a real tough anti-riot Bill. He was saying: I’m implicated in these acts of violence. Similarly, to fast against corruption should mean having the courage to say: I’m implicated in the bribes being offered and taken. Today’s fasting persons merely scramble to be the first to grab the higher moral ground, from where they can sit comfortably in judgement against the State and the rest of us. Only a much distorted view of the past can link these actions to any kind of freedom.
On our Independence Day, the occasion that celebrates the very structure that distorts our common legacy, we could pause to comprehend our situation.
Hazarika teaches English at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.