To write about freedom is to accept the inevitability of an unfinished sentence. A sense of finality, which the most impatient of us tend to mistake for achievement, is what forces some of us to abandon hope, and float in contentment. Freedom as a pause in an endless passage of struggle is a more modest way to deal with reality. It is not that the world allows no expectations as everyone who fits the mould of a freedom fighter strays from the ideals the others have set for them, whether it is in the time of wars or strenuous peace. What makes freedom a state of being is a shared realisation of the dignity of existence. It is the purest form of power individuals seek without knowing how the pursuit keeps them alive— and nations find difficult to maximise.
Still, we overuse the word as it carries within it the surge of aspirations and apprehensions, anticipations and anxieties, as if no synonym can make it as urgent a reminder as this worn-out one. You read this note because August 15 is a reminder, and, despite the usual commemorative flourish, it is a date that tells a story, and nowadays, stories from the past are told to suit the pieties of the present. And that is why we can return to the story of August 15 in a million ways, redeem the characters from the scripts written with ideological presumptions rather than scholarly insight—or condemn them, with retrospective rage, to the little Siberias our political preferences have built for heroes-turned-undesirables.
If it was the struggle for freedom more than seven decades ago, today the compelling national stories are about the struggles of freedom, which, in the political life of an independent nation, play out as attitudes of power. Just take this. There are Indians who still think that the Indian National Congress should have been dissolved after Independence. Such thinking is mostly reinforced by a sense of disillusionment as the party progressed from the ownership of freedom to the management of freedom. From the thrill of a Nation Born to the responsibility of building one. The second part was a massive project in turning the mandate of freedom into an ideological enterprise which was certainly not a logical extension of the pre-Independence Congress. Power corrupts more than the ideal. Socialist-secular state, enslaved marketplace, institutionalisation of taboos such as nation and religion —it was not democratically legitimised Sovietisation with Indian characteristics. It was a variation of the great pretence that runs through the first chapters of freedom in post-colonial societies. India did not follow the familiar path of liberators turning into dictators that set the so-called Third World apart in the history of national freedom. The all-knowing Indian liberators remained democrats throughout. Still, the builders of the perfect state needed taboos.
The closure of the Congress century was in sight because the over-moralised state only intensified the struggle of freedom. A creatively exhausted party subordinated to a dynasty with limited electoral traction was fast losing an argument to match the change India was going through. The change itself was a repudiation of the taboos, an assertion as well as an attitude. As India shed the enforced code of socialist-secular conduct, it could have certainly afforded a counterargument—Congress could not offer one. The noise against the post-2014 political culture is not a rejoinder. It is incoherence. A decade ago, freedom from the taboos was also a winning argument against the way the nation was built—and at what cost in terms of individual independence and economic choices. What makes freedom in the political life of a nation worth the effort is the persistence of arguments. We get some. We miss more.
We may call the change New India, but the usage has a weary predictability about it, for newness has always been the easiest exclamation for change-makers. And there is no permanence about the new. There are moments when nations reach a redemption junction, when calcified assumptions are cast aside and freedom ceases to be a slogan. Freedom becomes the beginning of another argument and India is at that junction, reading signs of the future and unlearning what has been force-fed by the loftier-than-thou nation-builders.
The India story only reinforces how democracy alone makes the perfect setting for freedom as a permanent struggle. Elsewhere, unfreedom is a prerequisite for rearmed autocrats to stay in power, as sole custodians of the ‘endangered’ nation. One such leader has given us the first fullscale war after World War II, bringing out the fragility of freedom—and the heroism of a people punished by both bad history and fantasists who want to control it. The dishevelled citizen president in faded jeans and T-shirt, one moment leading from the frontline and, in the other, begging for arms in Western capitals, is a living example of geopolitics as a human drama in freedom.
Freedom as an argument against enforced restraints, social or individual or political or cultural, is what Open wants to take to the following pages. Join the fray; ideas won’t hurt.