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Need to ask at today's 'critical juncture' of India's history: Whose Freedom@75?

By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ* 

The official propaganda states that:
“Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav is an initiative of the Government of India to celebrate and commemorate 75 years of independence and the glorious history of it's people, culture and achievements. This Mahotsav is dedicated to the people of India who have not only been instrumental in bringing India thus far in its evolutionary journey but also hold within them the power and potential to enable Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision of activating India 2.0, fuelled by the spirit of Aatmanirbhar Bharat. The official journey of Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav commenced on 12th March 2021 which started a 75-week countdown to our 75th anniversary of independence and will end post a year on 15th August 2023.”
So as India completes a landmark 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 “whose freedom@75?”
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 downtrodden; 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; other sub-altern and vulnerable sections of society.
The economy is in a shambles. Inflation is on an upward spiral; the cost of fuel and other essential commodities have reached an all -time high. 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 for justice, against a regime which is anti-people, anti- Democracy and anti-Constitutional, are at the receiving end of a system which reeks of vendetta. 
All ask, “whose freedom@75?”
In the recent past, there are plenty of signs that democracy is slowly but systematically being dismantled in the country! Democratic values are being eroded and 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, with the report stating that, “an anti-plural political party driving a country’s autocratisation.” India was ranked 93rd in the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) figuring 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).
Delivering the inaugural speech recently at the Justice SB Sinha Memorial Lecture on 'Life of a Judge', Chief Justice of India, NV 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.”
Those who cherish democracy ask, “whose freedom@75?”
Human rights defenders, dissenters and others who take a visible and vocal stand for truth and justice are at the receiving end of a fascist regime that brooks no dissent. A case in point is those arrested in the Bhima- Koregaon conspiracy case’ where thirteen are still languishing in prison (for more than three years now), under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). 
There are many others who are incarcerated for no reason and even denied bail including those who protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Eminent citizens like Teesta Setalvad, RB Sreekumar, Sanjiv Bhatt, Umar Khalid and others are imprisoned and denied bail just because they spoke out against the fascist 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, in connection with the Hathras rape case.
Interestingly, on 30 June, the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana while delivering the17th Justice PD Desai Memorial Trust lecture, spoke at length about the importance of dissent and accountability in a democracy! 
Human rights defenders challenge “whose freedom@75?”
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, the communal divide has become wider.
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 different States; clearly a 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!
According to a draft Constitution for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ prepared by a group of Hindu seers and released on 12 August, the minorities (Muslims and Christians) will not be giving voting rights in the proposed ‘Hindu Rashtra’! 
So naturally the minorities demand “whose freedom@75?”
The environment is being destroyed and with that, the rights of all the citizens. The Environment Performance Index 2022, by the World Economic Forum, has ranked India last among 180 countries on the list. Sometime ago, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) gave 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, 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; 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; the NCR Draft Regional Plan 204, threatens the quality of millions of people living in the 25 districts of the 4 NCR States. The Government does not care and is on a downward spiral: destroying our precious environment and biodiversity! 
Environmentalists and other concerned citizens are aghast and say, “whose freedom@75?”
The ‘World Inequality Report 2022’ by the World Inequality Lab emphatically states that, India is now among the most unequal countries in the world:
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. Disparities are growing in India at a rapid space: the poor are becoming poorer even as the few rich amass a scandalous amount of wealth.
 Those who are at the receiving end of a corrupt, unjust and unequal system categorically demand, “whose freedom@75?”
The country needs to hand its head in shame where freedom of speech and expression are concerned. India’s rank in the ‘World Press Freedom Index 2022’ slid down to 150 out of the 180 countries that were ranked. The report, published by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF-Reporters Without Borders), ranks countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists. India’s fact file in the report declares India as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media:
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.”
Those who value free speech cry out “whose freedom@75?”
The rights of our Adivasis are systematically being eroded. 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!
India’s rank in World Press Freedom Index 2022 slid down to 150 out of 180 countries that were ranked
Their precious jal-jungle-jameen is being taken away from them. 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 gross statue in the name of Sardar Patel) were made to leave their homes overnight. The anti-Adivasi river-linking project in Gujarat has been temporarily stalled due to protests.
Adivasis are being denied their legitimate 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. Fr Stan Swamy struggled for the identity dignity and the rights of the Adivasis and was ultimately the victim of an institutional murder. 
Adivasis are becoming more vocal when they say, “whose freedom@75?”
The casual labourers, migrant workers, small farmers, slum-dwellers and unemployed, comprise a large section of India’s population; most of them are poor. They have to eke out a living to survive! They live on the peripheries of society and lack basic amenities- like clean drinking water and sanitation.
The anti-worker labour codes, the anti- farmer legislation (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 was ranked 101 out of the 116 countries.
This is abominable! 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
The poor and the hungry, the excluded and the exploited ask “whose freedom@75?”
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 legislation like the ‘Prevention of Money Laundering Act’. In an op-ed in the Indian Express (29 July 2022) well-known intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes, ‘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 subject to this draconian law is there for all to see! So, “whose freedom@75?”
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! That is the sad and painful reality. It was not without reason that Tagore wrote long years ago, “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!” 
 If we truly want to celebrate this landmark event, we all first need to ask “whose freedom@75?” and start doing something substantial and meaningful to change this serious and pathetic reality immediately!
---
*Human rights, justice, reconciliation and peace activist / writer

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