What it means to be independent

160815 - Oped - struggle for undiluted freedom - Mridula Mukherjee -JNU

160815 - Oped - struggle for undiluted freedom - Mridula Mukherjee -JNU

The independence that we celebrate today was won by the Indian people through a prolonged and hard struggle of epic dimensions, a larger-than-life battle in which ordinary men and women performed heroic roles. It was the culmination of a revolutionary movement which forced the rulers of an empire on which the ‘sun never set’ to surrender power to their ‘subjects’ whom they had exploited for over two centuries. It heralded the beginning of the end of colonialism, a process still called decolonisation by Western academia, to give it the appearance of a voluntary withdrawal. India was the first colony to throw off the imperial yoke, and its example inspired other countries in Asia and Africa, and by the early 1960s, most countries had become independent. The Indian national movement had supported the struggle of all colonised people, and after Independence the new Indian state under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership continued to do so. The non-aligned movement was part of this effort to give the newly independent countries an opportunity to keep out of the Cold War and the two power blocs and assert their independent voice without having to parrot the views of a hegemon.

Nature of Indian nationalism This raises the question about the nature and character of >Indian nationalism , which did not seek to promote Indian interests at the expense of others, did not seek to dominate smaller powers, instead supported and encouraged them to be independent. This was because Indian nationalism, as articulated in our freedom struggle, was a progressive, revolutionary, humane, compassionate, pro-people, anti-colonial nationalism. It was not the aggressive jingoistic nationalism of the fascist Mussolini or Nazi Hitler which was used in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s to crush democracy, and commit genocide on bona fide citizens by declaring them anti-national. Neither was it the homogenising nationalism based on language (and often religion), as in 19th century Europe, examples being French-speaking Catholic France and German-speaking Protestant Germany. The nationalist vision that inspired millions of Indians was of an independent, multi-lingual, multi-religious, secular, democratic, civil libertarian and egalitarian republic.

The >hyper-nationalism> witnessed in India in recent times is not the nationalism of our freedom struggle. It misuses nationalism, which has a positive connotation in the minds and hearts of the Indian people, to polarise, to divide, and to suppress individual freedoms. How can this be the genuine article? Our nationalism is meant to unite, to harmonise, to guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association. I particularly want to draw attention to the issue of civil liberties, as this is one of the strongest elements in the legacy of the freedom struggle which is under grave threat today. Witness the reckless use of Section >124-A to charge students with sedition , with vigilantes attacking even journalists inside law courts, with books being withdrawn and pulped, with Ministers attempting to terrorise dissenting intellectuals by labelling them as ‘intellectual terrorists’, with gau rakshaks physically attacking those who they think are flouting their diktats, especially if they belong to the >Dalit or minority communities . These attacks on freedom of expression, of movement, on freedom to eat and earn your livelihood, bring home to us the urgent necessity of resisting these attacks, and that can only be done by defending civil liberties, by defending this legacy as an integral part of our nationalism, and by declaring these attacks as anti-national. To do so, we need to arm ourselves with greater knowledge about how the battle for civil liberties was linked to our national struggle. I offer some examples below.

In fact, the leaders of the freedom struggle believed so strongly in the absolute right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, that they considered the struggle for these civil liberties to be an essential part of the national movement. Almost half a century before anti-imperialist nationalist ideas begun to emerge, >Raja Rammohan Roy , often called the Father of Modern India, as early as 1824 protested against a regulation restricting the freedom of the press. In a memorandum to the Supreme Court, he argued for “the unrestricted liberty of publication” to ensure that every individual could bring his views to the notice of the rulers.

Power of the press Much before the formation of the Indian National Congress or other nationalist organisations, nationalist ideas were expressed and spread through the medium of the press, and that too mostly the Indian language or vernacular press. Most of these were papers started by middle class people of nationalist leanings who invested their life’s savings and often their family jewellery in this enterprise. Incensed by the highly critical tone adopted by the press against the administration for their inhuman attitude towards the victims of the famine of 1876-77, the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, decided to strike hard. A draconian law aimed at the Indian language newspapers was planned in secrecy and passed in a single sitting of the Imperial Legislative Council. The infamous >Vernacular Press Act 1878 , provided for the confiscation of the printing press, paper, and other materials of a newspaper if the government thought that it was publishing seditious material.

It was well known that the newspaper that had most raised the hackles of the government was the Amrita Bazar Patrika , published by the brothers Sisir Ghosh and Motilal Ghosh from Calcutta in Bengali and English, and the plan was to take action against it under the new Act. Imagine the state of British officialdom when they woke up the morning after the passing of the Act to find that the Amrita Bazar Patrika had converted itself overnight into a purely English language newspaper, thus placing itself outside the purview of the Act.

Strong protests broke out against the new Act all over the country. The press itself played a leading part in this campaign. The first big demonstration on a matter of public importance was held at the Town Hall in Calcutta. It is a matter of great significance that the nationalist forces, even before they were formally organised, won a major victory, and that too on the issue of civil liberties. In 1881, in deference to strong public opinion, the Viceroy Lord Ripon repealed the Vernacular Press Act. So this legacy is almost a century and four decades old!

A few years later, in 1883, Surendranath Banerjea, one of the founders of the movement for independence, was sent to jail for two months for contempt of court for an editorial he wrote in his newspaper, the Bengalee , criticising a judgment of the Calcutta High Court in sharp terms. This was seen by political India as an attack on civil liberties. In Calcutta, there was a complete hartal in the Indian part of the city. Students demonstrations outside the high court turned violent and stones were thrown at the police and windows smashed. Among the demonstrators was a future Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, Ashutosh Mukherjee. Demonstrations and meetings in support of Banerjea were held in cities as far away as Lahore, Agra, Amritsar, and Poona. In Calcutta were held many open air mass meetings, a form of protest and expression that was to become the staple and defining feature of the Indian struggle for freedom.

Similarly, and on a far bigger scale, country-wide protests followed when Lokmanya Tilak was sentenced to 18 months’ rigorous imprisonment in 1897 for publishing his own speech in the Kesari , his Marathi newspaper. Again, in 1908, Tilak was convicted of sedition under the notorious Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code and sentenced to transportation for six years and exiled to Mandalay in Burma for his articles on ‘The Arrival of the Bomb’. The reaction was predictably stronger, given the timing of the attack, at the last phase of the Swadeshi Movement. Markets in Bombay were closed for a week, workers went on strike in textile mills and railway workshops, and it took the army and 16 workers dead to force them back to work.

In 1922, Mahatma Gandhi was also tried under the same Section 124-A for sedition for articles he wrote in Young India , and the judge told him he was giving him the same punishment that was given to Lokmanya Tilak: six years of imprisonment, but not in exile. The struggle for civil liberties thus entailed much suffering and sacrifice, many suffered long jail terms, others lost their life’s savings, their families paid the cost; the legacy is thereby a precious and hallowed one. A legacy which we cannot allow to be whittled away, as on its defence rests our ability to defend the humane, pluralistic and egalitarian legacy of Indian nationalism.

Words to live by I conclude with quotes from Gandhiji and Nehru which demonstrate their profound understanding that freedom cannot be diluted. Gandhiji said: “Liberty of speech means that it is unassailed even when the speech hurts. Liberty of the press can be said to be truly respected only when the press can comment in the severest terms upon and even misrepresent matters... Freedom of association is truly respected when assemblies of people can discuss even revolutionary projects.” And: “Civil liberty, consistent with the observance of non-violence is the first step towards Swaraj. It is the breath of political and social life, it is the foundation of freedom. There is no room here for dilution or compromise. It is the water of life.”

In a similar vein, Nehru said in 1940: “The >freedom of the press does not consist in our permitting such things as we like to appear. Even a tyrant is agreeable to this kind of freedom. Civil liberty and freedom of the press consist in our permitting what we do not like, in our putting up with criticisms of ourselves, in our allowing public expression of views which seem to us even to be injurious to our cause itself.”

On this seventieth Independence day, let us pledge to uphold undiluted freedom.

Mridula Mukherjee is a former Professor of Modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She was also Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

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