The day on which adult Indians are most free is the day they vote in a general election. In a striking departure from western models, in India the poor and disadvantaged vote in greater numbers than the rich and propertied. And they often take considerable risks in doing so. In Chhattisgarh, Adivasi women defy boycott calls by the Naxalites to go out and vote. Women (and men) in Kashmir and Nagaland defy separatists to do likewise.
The former chief election commissioner, J.M. Lyngdoh, once remarked that at least at the time of a general election all of India is one.
This complicated and colourful ritual, now successfully held on 16 separate occasions, is a core component of India’s claim to be “the world’s largest democracy”. But how free are Indians in between each general election?
To answer this question, let me break down the idea of freedom into four parts: Political, economic, social, and cultural. Political freedom includes the right to vote, but also the right to live wherever you wish, the right to express your views, and the right to (non-violently) protest against unjust laws or oppressive policies.
In India, the freedom of movement is substantial. The right to free speech is less so, restricted by archaic colonial laws and the rising tide of identity politics, whereby one group or another seeks to have a film, a book, a work of art banned on the grounds that it offends their sensibility. Mahatma Gandhi may be the only Indian leader, living or dead, whom one can criticise as savagely as one likes without fear of retribution. The Indian state is supposed to guarantee political freedoms, but politicians in power often seek to suppress them. The pressure on media houses not to run stories critical of ruling party politicians can be immense. Civil society organisations shining a spotlight on the state’s excesses are often harassed by tax raids. Non-violent satyagrahis protesting destructive protests are charged with seeking to destroy the nation and hauled off to jail. The Indian police can be savagely brutal in handling protesters, as witnessed most recently in Kashmir.
Such arbitrary and malevolent misuse of state power brings discredit to our democratic credentials.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Indian state was more tolerant of non-violent dissent (and intellectual critique) than it is now. But it was less tolerant of economic freedoms. There were too many curbs on what an entrepreneur could or could not do, immortalised by C.
Rajagopalachari in his phrase, “licence-permit-quota Raj”. The reforms of the 1990s greatly enhanced economic freedom. They did so by allowing entrepreneurs to invest in whichever sector they wished to, and encouraging them to engage with the global economy (this was previously discouraged or even forbidden).
India may still have a low ranking in the global “ease of business” index, but Indians do enjoy more economic freedoms than they did 30 or 40 years ago. For, as the economy expanded, and more people came to live in cities, the link between caste and occupation was also weakened. One was no longer obliged to follow the profession of one’s father. Dalits could become engineers, Brahmins could become entrepreneurs. With India still largely a rural country, the freedom to choose one’s profession remains limited today; but it is much less limited than it once was.
Historically, social freedoms in India were constrained by two forms of prejudice: That of caste, and that of patriarchy. Both were, and are, antithetical to democracy, which in theory treats every individual as equal, regardless of which gender or caste or religion they were born into.
Hindu scriptures placed Dalits at the bottom of the heap. Islamic and Hindu scriptures both treated women as inferior beings. The constitution and the political forms it established sought to reverse this. How successful have they been? Back in the 1950s, Dalits voted as commanded to by their upper caste patrons; women often voted as instructed by their husbands. That is no longer the case. That said, Dalits and women are still grievously discriminated against in everyday life.
In the countryside, when Dalits seek to assert their autonomy as human beings, they are physically attacked. This is also the case with women, as witness the spate of honour killings (by both Muslim and Hindu patriarchs) of those who dare choose their marriage partners. Nor are Dalits and women socially free in the cities. Elite clubs and professional bodies have few, if any, Dalit members. And violence against women is an ubiquitous feature of urban life in India.
Not as important as caste or gender prejudice, but not insignificant either, are the legal and social prejudices against Indians who fall in love with someone of their own sex. The fact that Section 377 of the IPC has not been abolished, and that it can be (and is) used as a tool of harassment and intimidation, is another blot on our democratic record.
I come, finally, to cultural freedoms, which I define as the freedom to worship the god of your choice (or no god at all), to speak and be taught in the language of your choice, and to eat, dress, and entertain oneself (and one’s friends) as one chooses to. Of these freedoms the one which is largely honoured is that pertaining to language. Indeed, the rejection of the pernicious one-language-one-country model of nationalism counts as one of the greatest achievements of independent India.
As for religious freedoms, these are honoured in theory, but quite often dishonoured in practice. Muslims are freer to practice their faith in India than, for example, Muslims in China. But they suffer disproportionately in times of communal rioting. Even in times of peace they can be shunned or stigmatised (as in the failure of successful and wealthy Muslim professionals to rent homes in Hindu neighbourhoods).
Indians are largely free to speak the language of their choice. They are somewhat free to practice the faith of their choice. In other matters of personal choice they face obstacles. Male Muslim vigilantes demand that Muslim women adopt inhibiting and oppressive dress codes; male Hindu vigilantes seek to instruct men and women of all faiths on what they can and cannot eat.
Sixty-nine years after independence, we Indians are more free than when the British left, but less free than what the framers of our Constitution hoped us to be. Our political freedoms, our economic freedoms, our social freedoms, our cultural freedoms, are all constrained in small or large ways. Much work lies ahead of us.