Notion Of Freedom And Reality Of Unfreedom
By Anand Teltumbde
15 February, 2011
India is a living paradox: a rich country by natural endowment being a home to unparalleled poverty, destitution and misery. It proclaims lofty theses and practices ugliest antitheses. India’s liberal Constitution proudly pronounced its preamble in the name of Indian people that they have resolved “to constitute India into a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic and to ensure to all its citizens: Justice-social, economic and political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.” In reality, the working of the Constitution over the last six decades made it sound like a joke, worse than just an antithesis. While this paradox grew over the years, people reconciled the odds as the price to be paid for democracy and freedom. But from the early 1990s, with the inauguration of neoliberal reforms, they have been experiencing decline of democracy and fast erosion of their freedom. In view of this popular experience these concepts are increasingly problematic.
The Idea of Freedom
Philosophers from Plato, Kant down to Hegel regarded freedom as real and as having important ontological implications, “for soul or mind or divinity”. In philosophy, the idea of freedom comes from the concept of free will. Rudolf Steiner for instance while discussing freedom in his seminal philosophical work The Philosophy of Freedom focuses on the concept of free will. According to Steiner freedom can only be approached asymptotically and with the aid of the “creative activity” of thinking. It is the spiritual activity of penetrating with consciousness our own nature and that of the world, and the real activity of acting in full consciousness. Steiner initially divides the problem of free will into freedom of thought and freedom of action. He argues that inner freedom is achieved when we bridge the gap between our perception, which reflect the outer appearance of the world, and our cognition, which give us access to the inner structure of the world; and that outer freedom arises when we bridge the gap between our ideals and the constraints of external reality, letting our deeds be inspired by what he terms moral imagination. Steiner considers inner and outer freedom as integral to one another, and that true freedom is only achieved when they are united. According to Thomas Hobbes, for example, “a free man is he that... is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do.”
Later, freedom was influenced by ideals concerning the social contract as well as arguments that are concerned with the state of nature. It is generally spoken in terms of positive liberty and negative liberty. Positive liberty asserts that freedom is found in a person’s ability to exercise agency, particularly in the sense of having the power and resources to carry out their own will, without being inhibited by the structural inhibitions from society. In the negative sense, one is considered free to the extent to which no person interferes with his or her activity. The major impetus to the idea came from the French Revolution, which according to Hegel constitutes the introduction of real
individual political freedom into European societies for the first time in recorded history. Later, it got wider sanction through the Universal declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948 by the United Nations (UN), which championed the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to education; right to participate fully in cultural life; freedom from torture or cruel, inhumane treatment or punishment and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The UDHR is based on the “inherent dignity” of all people and affirms the equal rights of all men and women, in addition to their right to freedom. The Declaration gives human rights precedence over the power of the state. While states are permitted to regulate rights, they are prohibited from violating them. As a UN member state, India is bound by the UN Charter, which pledges member states to promote and encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion, and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Genesis of Constitutional Freedom
In India Freedom came into common parlance through the freedom struggle aimed at driving away the British rulers. It was projected as ‘self rule’ of Indians but was associated with the exit of the British. As such when the transfer of power did take place in 1947 from the British to the Congress Party, representative of the emergent class of bourgeoisie and landed interests, people were made to rejoice that they were free. The imperative of governance of a diverse polity, divided into innumerable castes, many languages, religions, races, etc and distributed in diverse regions as well as political systems (British India and 500 odd princely states) led to the creation of liberal Constitution with a lofty vision given in its preamble. In any case, the new regime could not retreat from the liberal ethos of the colonial regime and the impact of the Bolshevik revolution. The Constitution proclaimed India to be a republic with sovereignty vested in its people. People were to be its real masters. It was to be a ruse to bring people together to believe in a common destiny of an imaginary nation. The ruling classes were assured by the fact that there wasn’t a method to exercise this mastery. It had to be through them or their proxies as representatives of people.
The Constitution of India contained the right to freedom, given in articles 19, 20, 21 and 22, with the view of guaranteeing individual rights that were considered vital. The right to freedom in Article 19 guarantees the following six freedoms: (i) Freedom of speech and expression, (ii) Freedom to assemble peacefully without arms, (iii) Freedom to form associations or unions, (iv) Freedom to move freely throughout the territory of India, (v) Freedom to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India, and (vi) Freedom to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. The constitution also guarantees the right to life and personal liberty, which in turn cites specific provisions in which these rights are applied and enforced: Protection with respect to conviction for offences is guaranteed in the right to life and personal liberty; Protection of life and personal liberty is also stated under right to life and personal liberty; Rights of a person arrested under ordinary circumstances is laid down in the right to life and personal liberty. In 2002, through the 86th Amendment Act, Article 21(A) was incorporated. It made the right to primary education part of the right to freedom, stating that the State would provide free and compulsory education to children from six to fourteen years of age. The Constitution also imposes restrictions on these freedoms and rights. The restrictions are put in the interest of the independence, sovereignty and integrity of India; morality and public order. The right to life and personal liberty are supposed to be exceptions. However, all the six freedoms are suspended during a state of emergency.
The reality of Unfreedom
The Indian state is bound by the Constitution, the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966 and enforced from March 23, 1976 to respect the rights of Indians to freedom. However, going by the experience of majority of people, its track record reflects more of their violation than compliance. The traditional social structure of caste hierarchy that apportioned all rights to upper layers and obligations to lower ones, is in fact reinforced in many ways by the modern constitutional paradigm. The result has been gross negation of rights to the people whom they are most relevant. Although, given the class character of the State, these rights were not fundamentally meant to be observed, their non-observance was apologetically acknowledged until mid 1970s. The political contradictions induced by the post-1947 developmental paradigm led to imposition of emergency for nearly two years during which all rights were suspended. Its lifting in 1977 supposedly restored them but the trend for erosion of freedom was set in which soon got accelerated with the inauguration of the neoliberal reforms. The crisis unleashed by the elitist strategy over the last two decades has its direct reflection in the dismal state of freedom of people.
Constitutional rights to various freedoms have their direct negation in the reality correlates for the majority of people. Freedom of expression is decimated by the unscrupulous use of sedition laws to curb peoples’ democratic descent supplemented by the draconian laws like Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, Maintenance of Internal Security Act, 1971, National Security Act, 1980, Preventive Detention Act, 1950, Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002, Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, 2001, Terrorist Affected Areas (Special Courts) Act, 1984, Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, and so on. Intimately linked with democracy, freedom of expression is constricted to small closeted pockets like Azad maidan in Mumbai or Jantar Mantar in Delhi, surrounded by huge posse of police. The freedoms to assemble and to form associations are generally throttled with the bureaucratic processes and are brutally crushed if they speak about radical change.
Freedom of religion is directly threatened by the anti-conversion laws enacted by many states like Gujarat and Karnataka. The naked practice of majoritarian communalism by mainstream parties and tacitly followed by the State has rendered it meaningless. People do have freedom to live anywhere but no more for the poor, who could be harassed with impunity by the outfits like Shiv Sena and MNS in Maharashtra. Freedom to follow any occupation was seriously constrained by the caste ridden social structure and as such was irrelevant for teaming millions. It verily stays so; it is still structurally determined. All the instruments of upliftment progress) education, land, employment are caste dependent. The state of the freedom of thought gets exposed when the Police arrest people for being Maoists and confiscate the books by Marx, Lenin, Mao, Bhagatsingh and even Ambedkar. While it tolerates Hindutva that has killed thousands and poisoned the polity to irreparable degree, it would call naxalism as its greatest internal security threat.
In sum, the Indian people suffer extreme unfreedom, both in structure and processes of the State as well as civil society. All that is spoken of freedoms is reserved for a handful of elites, the people in the Constitution, who have made all others as non-people.
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