As citizens of a democratic country like India, we are assured many freedoms-to speak, laugh, eat, dress, create, be different or just be. Writers, thinkers and creators help us gain perspective on how well we have done in interpreting them as a mature nation.
AS CITIZENS OF A democratic country like India, we are assured many freedoms-to speak, laugh, eat, dress, create, be different or just be. This 15 August we take stock of how well we have done in interpreting them as a mature nation. Writers, thinkers and creators help us gain perspective.
FREEDOM TO SPEAK
LAWRENCE LIANG, Lawyer and founder, Alternative Law Forum
On Independence Day, it would be useful to look at the role that ideas of freedom played in our independence movement and how successful we have been in translating them in the past seven decades. Nationalist leaders-including Gandhi, Tilak and Nehru-had been jailed under penal provisions that criminalized speech, such as sedition. The idea of a robust political sphere safeguarded by free speech was, therefore, at the core of the imagination of political liberty. And yet, we find 70 years down the line that we are still beset by the need to control and regulate speech. We have a censor board chief who treats citizens as infantile subjects, religious communities willing to take offence and a nervous State that sees seditious conspiracies in any critique of itself.
The battle over the scope of free speech will continue, especially in the legal arena. But, for me, freedom is not just about unshackling ourselves from the restrictive laws that curb our ability to participate in public debates. An equally dangerous trend seems to be the paradox that, even as new technologies of communication democratize the possibility of larger participation in public discourse, we seem to have seceded our right to mass media, which orchestrate on a daily basis frenzied screaming matches in the name of public debate. If media in India represented an important anchor of free speech, it might well be time to ask what it may mean to think freely for oneself and to arrive at principled positions, where opinions are not formed through snap polls. If freedom consists of the assertion of the sovereignty of one's thoughts, it is high time we aspire for a freedom from the 'manufactured consent' of prime-time circus and reclaim our right to an informed public sphere.
FREEDOM TO BE (YOUR OWN SELF)
NIVEDITA MENON, Academic, author of Seeing Like a Feminist
Freedom is not a simple absence of constraints, but the ability to become the best self one is capable of being.
Freedom is crafted within communities of thought, work and vision. People come to become themselves in communities they choose, not necessarily the ones they are born into.
This means that freedom requires structural constraints to be removed, which prevent one from aspiring to selves other than that is permitted. Poverty, caste discrimination, patriarchy, racism, the religious right, compulsory heterosexuality-structures that limit one's sense of possibility and ambition-are the conditions of un-freedom.
Women, for instance, learn to restrict their horizon of possibilities very early in life-the sexual division of labour that makes them exclusively responsible for care of the home, the effective ban on their unrestricted movement in public spaces, compulsory marriage. All of these are constraints that ensure that most women never imagine different selves than the ones they are forced to inhabit.On this Independence Day, I cannot do better than to celebrate someone who mistrusted the concept of nation as one that limits the imagination of selfhood-Tagore, who said: 'Nationalism is the training of a whole people for a narrow ideal; and when it gets hold of their minds, it is sure to lead them to moral degeneracy and intellectual blindness.'
FREEDOM TO BE DIFFERENT
MAHESH DATTANI, Playwright and filmmaker
Freedom to be different, to me, is the power to act, feel and express as desired, to make us respect ourselves. The right to be treated with respect is also a facet of this freedom. As is the right and responsibility to treat others with respect.
Either a society believes in freedom, or it does not. Differences exist even in closed societies. The question is: do we believe in openness? Are we okay with being openly different? I think we are yet to reach that level of sophistication. That is true freedom-to be open.
It is completely against Indian tradition to demand sameness in a society. It is entirely a political move to create a unilateral monolithic culture, because that way it is easier to manipulate people into bestowing power to the hands of a few.
Human rights are low on our list of demands as citizens of India. We still work on the primitive idea that anyone different from us is the enemy. LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer] do not have any place in society precisely for this reason. We seem to be too afraid to allow diversity in our midst.
FREEDOM TO CREATE
BOMAN IRANI, Actor
If you understand your rights and duties as a citizen, you will do the same as a creative person. Freedom does not mean you get to do what you like, such as randomly violating traffic rules while driving. We need to respect the freedom we have today because it did not come easy to us. Artists should have the right as mature individuals to create. Freedom is doing what you want to do, in a respectful way, while paying your dues to your country. Freedom is to be enjoyed, yet it's about that self-control to not jump the red light, and all that it represents.
FREEDOM TO DRESS
NISHA SUSAN, Journalist, organizer of the Pink Chaddi Campaign
This freedom determines a lot of how who we are by what we wear. Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to have a superpower than find an outfit that will get you through the day's social obligations.
One of the greatest pleasures of being an adult, and one who runs her own business, is that I can wear what I want. It makes me less resentful of the rare occasions when I do have to dress to 'please'. Being respectful towards others is easier when you feel you are the one in charge.
Some days, I enjoy the 3D puzzle of who I am today, where I have to be, what I should wear. But I often think how nice it would be to pick the first thing from my wardrobe, something dull and mismatched, and not think about it. But the pressure of looking 'good' is not going away anytime soon. We could hope to retain the idea that people can dress in a wide range of ways, and that we don't need to judge or shame them for not following the herd. I don't know about utopia, but my idea of hell is everyone wearing the same branded outfits, looking like carbon copies on trend.
FREEDOM TO LAUGH
RADHIKA VAZ, Comedian and author of Unladylike
For me, freedom to laugh is the ultimate freedom. When you hear people laugh without fear, then you know it's a progressive society.
In India, often, we are denied that freedom. Whoever is the biggest bully or has the loudest voice gets to decide what is funny. And that's not just with humour. The bullies decide who we worship, what we eat, how we speak, who we marry-it's unending. We Indians are hypocritical, and no different from the countries we criticize.
When we pay too much attention to a trivial piece of humour, we end up spending our time and energy on things that don't really matter in the long run. The idea of going after soft targets, who do not have power, money or the protection of those with power and money, is pathetic! It shows cowardice, because they are not going after the real problems-they are using us to distract people.I am tolerant towards intolerance when it makes sense. For example, you have to be intolerant towards Section 377. You have to be intolerant towards crimes against minorities, against misogyny. But we can't dictate people's lives and tell them what makes them happy, what makes them laugh.
FREEDOM TO EAT
DIPANKAR GUPTA, Sociologist
All of us are aware of what happened in the name of protecting cows. But beef versus no-beef is a superficial issue, a side order. The real problem lies in the availability of nutritious food in our country. Without this, the phrase 'freedom to eat' is meaningless. It's not just about hunger anymore-even the WHO recognizes that now. Calories and carbohydrates are not good enough; you need nutritious food to function and not just live. Being able to provide citizens of the country nutritious food is what constitutes the spirit of the 'freedom to eat'. It is a basic right that should be given universally, like education and healthcare.
When rights become policies, freedoms work. Right now, who do you hold responsible if you are denied your freedom to get nutritious food and, thereby, fully exercise your right to eat? Only when somebody can be held responsible for the denial of this right is when we know that we have the freedom to eat in the true sense of the term.