Independence without freedom

The enemy is within us. It’s name is apathy.

Amit Varma, who has been shortlisted for the Bastiat Prize, writes a powerful piece for the Independence Day special issue of Mint.

The tragedy is that for most Indians, political independence was freedom enough. What else was there to fight for?

Well, plenty. The oppressive empire from a continent away was gradually replaced by an oppressive, omnipresent state, and we did not protest. The lack of economic freedom kept India poor for decades, and we did not protest. Personal freedoms were routinely denied to us, and we did not protest. In parts of our country people are treated worse than the British treated us, and we do not protest. As a nation, we stopped caring for freedom once we gained independence. [India Uncut]

It’s easy to blame the apathy on rational ignorance. But it’s also wrong. At least two generations of Indians could have led richer, fuller and healthier lives if those shackles didn’t keep them locked in.

20 thoughts on “Independence without freedom”

  1. I don’t think it was rational ignorance.

    It was the result of a mistaken belief that political freedom — and political freedom alone — was necessary and sufficient for “making india strong” (whichever way you define it).

    We completely missed the point (and hence the bus) on economic freedom.

    Indeed, the prosperity of nations like Singapore points to the fact that economic independence is probably more important than political independence! To be frank, did we even GET political importance? We merely went from white-skinned imperialists to brown-skinned imperialists!

  2. Gaurav,

    No. The argument is that blaming rational ignorance is wrong. Investing more time for greater civic participation and demanding economic freedom would have paid off in terms of higher development and incomes. [Rational ignorance suggests that it is rational to be ignorant (or apathetic) when the benefits of “search” or “involvement” are lower than the costs.]


    As for the debate on whether economic freedom leads to greater political freedom (or the other way round), I think it’s too early to tell. It’s also largely an esoteric question for our purposes: we’ve started with political freedom, and so we need to acquire economic freedom. We don’t have a choice in terms of sequencing.

  3. Dear Friend,
    We Indians, are thinking about this pratriotism only during the republic and Independence days. So why thins much excitement for this. Even we have enough freedom to live in this country, compared to our neighbouring countries.
    People are not aware of their duties to do, eventhough they are aware of those, they try to ignore them. So where the matter of freedom comes, where the matter of Independece comes..

    Our soldiers, who guard us are thiking of all these matters every day, and not like only for those aforesaid days. So be the part of the glory of India’s Independece along with them..

    Have a peaceful Independece day, in your Heart and Home. So that it will speread throughout you to the entire country….

    Jai Hind…

  4. “As a nation, we stopped caring for freedom once we gained independence.”

    I find it difficult to believe that a greater percentage of Indian population was concerned about issues of freedom and governance during the Raj than today. Writers should analyze why the freedom fighters succeeded whereas those fired by the same zeal today to ensure a better future for Indians are not all that successful. I suspect that the reasons may — at least partly — have something to do with the lack of unity brought about by the weird form of democracy we practice that fragments people rather than unites them.

  5. Nitin,

    But “Investing more time for greater civic participation and demanding economic freedom” (in other civic virtue or civic duty)does mean that costs (for a person) will exceed benifits (to him).
    I guess in ecomonics it will be called public good (or perhanps positive externality) and in game theory some special case of prisoner dilemma.
    (I have no idea about economics or game theory. I am just ardent bhakta of Jagadguru)

  6. Gaurav,

    Neither positive externalities nor the public nature of the goods necessarily suggest that private benefits need to be lower than private costs. For example, if the ‘costs’ incurred were devoted to solving collective action problems.

    If the above paragraph contains a whole lot of jargon, a part of it serves to disguise ignorance of economics and game theory.

  7. “As a nation, we stopped caring for freedom once we gained independence.”

    The “we” is who?
    Commies and Jawaharlal Nehru?
    Or Krishna Menon’s crew?
    Certainly, “who” is not me and you..

    Because the ” red coffee” they brew

    The waiting times for Bajaj scooters and telephones grew..
    Who, after freedom, made all wait in long queues to the loo?

    You are driving us nuts and screws..

    By not telling us should get the “due”..

    The people or the “elected” few?

  8. KK,

    It’s us, the electing many,
    Who waited for scooters, phones and outside the loo,
    But cared not a penny,
    About the crew who gave us the screw.

    So yes, the who is you and I
    Who don’t have to wait for cars, mobiles and bidets anew,
    But still fail to purposefully apply
    Ourselves to loosen—if not actually remove—the screw.

  9. Oldtimer,

    Indeed, I’ve heard it being argued that the freedom movement has been overly romanticised, and that it never was a mass movement across the whole of India, as it is made out to be.

    I’ll be happy if you could elaborate on your points—or perhaps point us to links, or books that do. Do contact me via email if you’d like to correspond offline.

  10. I am not sure I agree that we don’t care about freedom after gaining independence. The mass movement to fight Indira after emergency shows that people cared for freedom – she was voted back into office not because she promised another emergency but because she went back to her old socialists slogans and the ruling Janata Party turned up a motley crew.

    BTW, it also matters what we were fighting for during independence – it was political struggle by and large, ie throwing out the white rule (actually throwing the white masters but keeping the rules with brown masters to continue the other types of tyranny with Nehru at the helm). It was not based on economic matters, say, like the American revolution – no taxes without representation, Boston Tea party type stuff, although Gandhi did try to make it an economic issue later on with boycott of British goods, especially clothing.

    Also, the movement was fairly large mass movement, involving all parts of the country and people from all walks of life, with only few maharajas and nawabs sitting on the sidelines tending to their white patrons.

  11. Chandra,

    The mass movement to fight Indira after emergency shows that people cared for freedom

    The unromantic version of this story is that people were scared that they’d be the next ones to be presented with a Murphy transistor radio and wanted to get rid of Sanjay.

    In any case, it only highlights the boiling frog syndrome. Throw a frog into boiling water and he’ll jump out; put him in water and raise the heat slowly and you’ll have a cooked frog…

  12. Dear MadMan,

    Thanks for pointing that out. However, in my defence, I’d like to say that I’m not a chef who specialises in far-eastern cuisine. Hence I’ve never tried either of the two methods.

  13. Madman, thanks for the link. I’ve heard Nitin’s story before. While scratching my head, I didn’t know what to think – to me, slow application of pain is pain too.

  14. I take offence to the aspersion cast on mental faculty of Frog who happens to be the only reader of my blog and to best of my knowledge an intelligent one too (now if only there was a talking frog it would be so cool). 😉

  15. Heck! Al Gore used the frog example in his “An inconvenient truth” documentary!!

  16. As a people, we Indians (like people everywhere) take pride in a lot of things: our respective religions, our languages, our cultures, our nuclear capacity, our traditions, our textiles, our cuisine, our natural beauty, our wildlife, our resources, even at times our railways. Some of these might well be worth taking pride in, but we often fail to take enough pride in the one thing that every Indian has good reason to celebrate: our democracy. And that, at least symbolically, is what was under attack by the terrorists.

    Think of it: how many nation-states instituted universal franchise at the moment of their birth? In most countries (even in the West, which so often claims to have a monopoly on democracy and everything else that is “modern”), women and marginalised groups had to fight for decades before they received the right to vote. In India, independence dawned with the sun of universal adult franchise shining on all, at least in theory. And note how great the odds were against us. A country of vast economic differences, much poverty, mind-boggling illiteracy, huge “ethnic” variety, all compounded by decades of authoritarian and largely exploitative colonisation: these were just some of the odds. And still India started out as a democracy and has managed to remain democratic.

    We should focus on the fact that even politicians we consider “unsavoury” largely conform to the broad outlines of a democratic system. That is an achievement in itself, though it also imposes on us a constant need for vigilance.

    No, we have reason to be proud of having established and sustained a democratic political system — and that too in the Third World where everything, not least the international movements of supposedly “free” Capital, orchestrates against popular participation in the government. We do not have reason to be complacent about it, for democracy is not an heirloom. It is an activity and a constant challenge. It depends not only on having the courage to stand up for one’s rights but, even more, on having the courage to stand up — and sometimes sit down — for other people’s rights. That, finally, is the difference between a democratic leader and a demagogue: a demagogue uses the aspirations of a group as the final argument while a democrat believes in the open and peaceful adjustment of the different aspirations of different groups. No doubt, India — like the U.S. or Denmark — has its demagogues, but the general spirit of India is democratic.

    It is this democracy that the terrorists attacked. A democracy that, like politicians, like human beings, is not perfect. A democracy that, like politicians, like human beings, has to keep striving to improve itself. But, nevertheless, a democracy that all Indians should be proud of.

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