It's complicated: India's Experiments with the ideal
Roderick Matthews | 09 Aug, 2019
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
FREEDOM FIGHTERS, freedom struggle, freedom movement. Familiar expressions, all sharing a common term. But what does freedom mean? Was there ever a distinctly Indian form of freedom for which those fighters were struggling?
The freedom that Indians currently enjoy is defined principally in Article 19 of the Constitution, subdivided into six categories: expression, assembly, association, occupation, trade or business, and movement and residence within India. Under Article 25, Indians also enjoy liberty of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.
This was the fruit of the independence struggle, and it is a textbook version of the liberal, humanist idea that all people should be free to do as they wish, within the law, without harming others. It is as clear a statement of that idea as can be found anywhere. If you are building a nation state on the liberal model, why not use the available tools? No need, surely, to reinvent the wheel. But could something more bespoke have been designed?
This question immediately tumbles into others, about processes and destinations. Does your idea of freedom depend on your view of the good life? Yes, it must.
So, were all Indians struggling for the same vision of society?
Interestingly, this was not a question that was raised much during the march to independence, because to broach potentially divisive issues was to do the work of the enemy. First things first. In this, as in many other areas, the Indian National Congress represented a truce rather than a final agreement. In practice, therefore, the freedom movement was not very specific about the details of the freedom it sought.
This brings us to a centrally important point about freedom. Demanding freedom is aspirational; the more the better. But granting freedom requires definitions – limits. Freeing India and being free in India were two different headings. And the hard work began in 1947.
After three years of debate in the Constituent Assembly, the results were very much in line with international norms, not local. Could it have been different? To find out, we must take a detailed look at indigenous views of freedom.
Before the British era, Indians were not free in one single way, and the freedom they demanded during colonial rule was not one freedom either. Here is the second point about freedom. It always has a perspective in time and place. Freedom for whom to do what? So what is the longer perspective that India offers?
In the ancient world, there was little that we might recognise as political or personal freedom. Religiously sanctioned hereditary monarchy was almost a universal political model, and societal norms were received, not debated. This was perforce true of India too, and we have the literature to prove it.
The Edicts of Asoka make no attempt to promote or facilitate modern freedoms. They declare precepts and enjoin right behaviour. The same is true of the Arthasastra, which is also keen to lay down rules of good conduct. It tacitly acknowledges that there is some scope for choice in life, but those choices are rigidly binary—good/bad, wise/foolish, praiseworthy/shameful. There is certainly no freedom for women. We learn that a woman who goes on a fast without the permission of her husband is destined to hell.
These texts rested on an entirely pre-modern conception of society, which filtered back into its preferred norms. Harmony, not self-fulfilment, was the aim, and obedience under threat was the method. The result was correct dharma, bringing balance along with salvation.
There was little in this that could be adapted for modern use, though religion remained clearly discernible in the ideas of the most influential of India’s modern political thinkers. The first of these was Ram Mohan Roy, who was a great advocate of freedom, but was scarcely a theorist. Lacking wider political support, and constantly embattled with Indian conservatives as well as European colonialists, Roy could only picture the liberties of Englishmen as fit for Indians too. He was an indigenous moderniser, not a wholehearted Westerniser, but he lacked models that were not European, or vocabulary that was not freighted with foreign resonances.
Under Company rule, Roy could support the struggles of Neapolitans or Greeks all he liked, but he could make no headway in his own land. He thus became the first Indian to confront the problem that, when it came to what he wanted for India, the British were ahead in the game. This was the root of the long-lasting feeling among some Indian reformers—for example, Gopal Krishna Gokhale—that British rule was somehow providential; that God was showing Indians the way forward, and that the British were worthy guides along the path.
In Roy’s wake, the radicals of Young Bengal adopted a very Western model, with a fondness for Thomas Paine, whose writings had begun to appear in translation at the time. Henry Derozio was undoubtedly a patriot, but his kind of modernism could never build a mass movement.
The great leap forward came after 1857 when two distinct concepts of freedom emerged, particularly concerning its relationship with the nation.
The first prominent name was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Like Ram Mohan Roy, he was primarily an advocate, but the intensity of his advocacy was spectacular. Almost singlehandedly he produced a new set of associated ideas that needed no theorising, because they were all completely familiar to his audience. He made a visceral and alluring connection between the physical topography of India and the Mother Goddess.
There was no theorising in his famous novel Anandamath (1880). It was all illustration, showing how powerful a purified, revived Hinduism could be. For him, cultural strength and national unity went together, and he was the fountainhead of the subsequent school of religious nationalism that saw ardent patriotism and social conformity as two sides of the same coin. He also gave the nation Bande Mataram as an unabashed love song to an unmistakably Hindu India.
This strain followed on through BG Tilak, who took his famous demand for Swaraj as birth-right from Dayananda Saraswati. Dayananda concentrated on the spiritual rather than the political plane, but his Arya Samaj was a hugely influential vehicle for the dissemination of religiously tinted nationalism.
THESE IDEAS were taken even further by Sri Aurobindo Ghose. Liberation, in his view, would only come through mass mobilisation, not a narrow middle-class movement like the Congress of the 1890s. It was a matter of ‘blood and fire’. There would be no loyal petitions, no political apprenticeship, and no providential role for the British. If God was going to speak to Indians, it would not be in English, and the message would not be to create a parliamentary democracy. Like others of a radical religious bent, Aurobindo had little regard for Westminster-style institutions, and chose to see the state as an inorganic mechanism that should only ever hold limited powers over cultural and social matters. His concern was with spiritual freedom and the desire to become a being who “by self-knowledge, enjoys liberation and immortality”. Above all, he was keen to use spirituality to combat the depravity and decadence that he believed were the results of Western domination.
By the early twentieth century there were two paths to freedom in India, two conceptions of what it was and what blessings it was expected to bestow. These might be called the Maharashtrian and Bengali schools, with the former more collective, assertive and conformist, and the latter more individual, reflective and eclectic
The related obsessions with decline, regeneration and unity/conformity reached their intellectual peak in the hands of VD Savarkar. For him, freedom meant freedom of the nation and of some, but not all, within it. He favoured militarisation as part of a scheme of liberation through ‘relative non-violence’, which would bring the Hindu nature of India to the fore. As the father of Hindutva, he was unapologetic about the rights of Hindus to dominate national life; he granted no rights to minorities beyond speaking their own languages. Bharat was Fatherland and Holy Land, and anyone who failed to accept this was of no use to the national project and would forever languish outside it.
But all the while, there was a subtler school of thought about national liberation and what it meant, and its chief theorists were Bengalis. It too had a spiritual flavour, but its obsessions were not strength, confrontation and conformity. Instead it valued growth, self-expression and service to society.
In a lecture titled The Future Church (1869), Keshub Chandra Sen said: “The enslaved spirit of the nation must rise and bestir itself freely to the holy activities of the higher life.” In his Jivan Veda (1883) he declared that dependence on God was ‘the sole method of obtaining entire freedom’.
Swami Vivekananda was voluble on the subject of freedom. Two examples. “Freedom is the one goal of all nature, sentient or insentient; and consciously or unconsciously, everything is struggling towards that goal.” “It is our natural right to be allowed to use our own body, intelligence, or wealth according to our will, without doing any harm to others; and all the members of a society ought to have the same opportunity.” These are inclusive and liberal sentiments, but founded as much in Vedanta as nationalism. The Swami was a little hazy on the exact demarcation of nature and society, but that may have been a result of his monism rather than any lack of acuity.
Finally came the supreme laureate of Indian freedom—Rabindranath Tagore. For him, freedom encompassed all aspects of human life and was as much about social attitudes, artistic creativity and personal self-fulfilment as it was about national character. His version of liberty had unmistakably spiritual roots and promised a transcendence over necessity, the great barrier to opportunity. He pleaded for liberty of thought, action and conscience, believing that it was the sole antidote to narrow social creeds. As he wrote in Gitanjali (1910), it was the ‘counterpoise to dust and death, shame and trammels’.
All this made his spiritual vision very different from that of Bankim. God was equally present within it, but as an encouraging, nurturing leader. “Into ever widening thought and action, into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” Freedom to Tagore meant knowledge, reason and the perfection of self-expression.
So, by the early twentieth century there were two paths to freedom in India, two conceptions of what it was and what blessings it was expected to bestow. These might be called the Maharashtrian and Bengali schools, with the former more collective, assertive and conformist, and the latter more individual, reflective and eclectic. In some ways, this was also the heart versus the head, or the instinct verses the intellect.
India’s freedom, as it was finally written, was not the idealised version that optimists had dreamed of. But freedom is a deceptively complicated idea, and cannot be reduced simply into constituent elements
This split had a close parallel in the familiar contemporary political division between Extremists and Moderates within the Congress. The reason not to use those labels in this context is that in doing so we risk seeing the dispute in outdated terms.
At a surface level that dispute, which climaxed in fisticuffs at Surat in 1907, seemed to be about tactics; whether to cooperate and modify the British colonial system or to confront it. But underlying that, there were more fundamental disagreements, about the nature of the nation-building process, and the texture of the society that would emerge once the British were gone.
These were difficult issues, with a good deal of chicken and egg about them, because the kind of freedom you achieve is determined both by how you define it and how you go about getting it. Communist freedom delivered by violent revolution is rather different from liberal freedom obtained by gradualist, democratic means. In India, it was as much an issue of conformity as of violence, for unity is essential to a successful national awakening. But after freedom has been won, what then? Can an insurgent nation organise unity in revolt and diversity in self-government?
In the event, a compromise position emerged, championed by MK Gandhi, who took something from both streams, acknowledging his debt to Tilak in his methods and Gokhale in his manner. He defined a broad goal, swaraj, and a prescribed method, ahimsa. This was a more complete package than any of his predecessors, and the levels of complexity hidden within both of those major terms pays tribute to the richness of his thinking. Swaraj, of course, had a larger meaning at the national level, but also a more important, esoteric meaning at a personal level. Liberation of the nation was liberation of the self. The freedom riddle was resolved.
But his spiritual message was constantly subsumed by political events, and especially the rising influence of Jawaharlal Nehru, whose understanding of liberation was universalist and secular. It was also intimately linked with democracy, which allowed an individual “to grow and make it to the best of his capacities and ability”.
In 1931, the Karachi Resolution mapped out the kind of freedom India was going to enjoy under Congress leadership. Much of it later appeared in the Constitution, except the illiberal provision, subsequently dropped, that intoxicating drink would be prohibited. From then on, Congress freedom was recognisably the liberal freedom of the West.
And so it proved in 1947-50, when India’s leaders wrote a constitution, swiftly and in entirely appropriate language. Ambedkar made it clear that he wanted a constitution based on individuals, and here again the Bengali school outflanked the Maharashtrian. Society not God, and diversity not conformity, were the polar references that framed the eventual document.
WHY WAS this debate about freedom so contentious? Briefly, it
was because India ran two processes in parallel that had been sequential in Europe—religious reformation and national self-assertion. These two enormous cultural shifts came to Europe in different centuries, and were pioneered in different parts of the continent. Religious reformation began in sixteenth-century Germany, and was pushed a little further in Switzerland and England. National self-determination, in the modern democratic sense, had its origins in revolutionary France, and was running through a triumphant second phase in Italy and Germany in the 1860s and ’70s. Indians took on both projects at once, and found themselves trying to define both in terms of the other, while none of the major terms of the debate had a fixed meaning.
Taking the long view, the great game changer in Indian political thinking was Gandhi, who remains unique, with no European antecedent or parallel. Though not systematic, his political thought was a proudly indigenous blend of ancient and modern, traditional and revolutionary.
Now we can ask: did Gandhian freedom come to India? In short, no. Gandhi’s non-violence had no answer to the violence that killed him, and peace has yet to flourish in the way he wanted. And Ambedkar, who found little comfort in the Gandhian vision, called explicitly for an end to his methods. In the new India, there was no place for what he called ‘the grammar of anarchy’. Satyagraha had to be laid aside.
Ambedkar fully understood that true liberation necessitated change as much as continuity. How could a Dalit be free if casteism persisted? This thought had already been voiced by SC Bose a decade earlier, but this sort of social issue was rarely addressed by the Extremists, who assumed that India was at her best as a cultural monolith and didn’t care to find fault. From the left, Jayaprakash Narayan also asked what kind of freedom would come to independent India if the old socio-economic structure was allowed to persist.
Were Ambedkar’s concerns addressed? Did JP see his vision fulfilled? Again, no and no. And Gandhi’s warning, that persisting with British-style government after independence would bring not swaraj but the perpetuation of ‘Englistan’, was not heeded either. India did not become a mass of self-governing villages; the machinery of central government was preserved.
And here is the last point about freedom; it looks very different in opposition and government. Demanding it feels positive, but granting it can only be negative, or permissive. True liberty must avoid compulsion and allow for dissent and change. The greatest freedom that Indians gained was not to tell others how to be Indian, but to let Indians be whatever kind of Indian they wanted.
So India more or less got it right. Gandhi resolved the problem of aims and methods, and Nehru and Ambedkar resolved the permission/compulsion dilemma.
India’s freedom, as it was finally written, was not the idealised version that optimists had dreamed of. But freedom is a deceptively complicated idea, and cannot be reduced simply into constituent elements. Above all, as Vivekananda said, it is an aspiration. And as Tagore understood, it is a journey.
However imperfect it may be, in 2019 it is more than ever worth holding on to.