An award and an unholy trade-off

Being the ‘Global Goalkeeper’ stands in contrast with the government’s script of providing social goods but not freedoms

The Gates Foundation has awarded Prime Minister Narendra Modi its annual ‘Global Goalkeeper’ Award for initiating policies to advance the cause of public health and the building of several million toilets. The Swachh Bharat Mission and policies and programmes to build toilets can hardly be faulted, even if the outcomes are disputed. The award has, however, set off a politically charged debate within and outside India. A substantial number of global human rights activists, and three Nobel Prize winners, have criticised the Gates Foundation for naming Mr. Modi as a beneficiary of this prestigious award. Under his leadership, they write, India has descended into dangerous and deadly chaos that has consistently undermined human rights and democracy. “This is particularly troubling to us as the stated mission of your foundation is to preserve life and fight inequity,” wrote Nobel laureates Mairead Maguire, a peace activist from Northern Ireland, Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman, a Yemeni journalist and politician, and Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and political activist.

Freedoms at stake

This is not the first time that the trade-off between the right to life, liberty and freedom of expression on the one hand, and state provision of social goods on the other, has troubled theorists and defenders of human rights. Benevolent dictators have accomplished precisely this feat. They grant to their people the basic preconditions of life, but take away the right to freedom. Mr. Modi’s government has followed the script faithfully. The government concentrates on the delivery of social goods. The policy reaped rich electoral dividends in May 2019.

At the same time, human rights activists have been jailed without a shred of substantive evidence, civil society organisations are denied funds and harassed, mob violence is routinely dished out to members of the minority community, 19 lakh people have been declared non-residents in Assam, media houses have to fall in line if they want to survive, prominent Opposition politicians are put into prison and humiliated without regard for due process, and an army of vicious trolls ensures that no one dares engage with the government. Above all, we see massive violations of rights in Jammu and Kashmir, from the arbitrary dilution of the provisions of Article 370, to the infringement of every fundamental right granted by the Constitution. A new question hangs heavily over the horizon. Are citizens of India, heirs of a major freedom struggle that took on the gigantic British Empire in the cause of freedom, satisfied with, in Marx’s words, ‘a mess of pottage’ instead of the right to life, liberty and freedom of expression?

An unsettling swap

An affirmative answer might well be a tragedy in the making. We witness the forging of an unholy swap between toilets, gas connections, drinking water, and freedom. The beleaguered people of J&K are offered development as balm for their wounds. But development is the original chimera. What constitutes development, development for whom, at what cost, who loses and who wins? Freedom is natural to human kind, it is part of the human condition, it lies at the heart of democratic theory, it is the reason why democracy exists, and it justifies the existence of democracy.

In his inaugural speech as the President of South Africa on May 10, 1994, the great statesman Nelson Mandela summarised the role of freedom in history: “Let freedom reign. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement.” Mandela knew history, he knew that inglorious unfreedom motivated people to fight glorious battles for freedom. Positioning themselves against regimes bent on appropriating power to control what people thought, what their actions were, what they read, heard, wrote of, spoke of, dramatised and what transactions they participated in, democratic movements throughout history have held up the flag of freedom as the ‘absence of external impediments’. “Yes Freedom!” Lord Byron was to write in his Childe Harold, “yet thy banner, torn, but flying, Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.”

The emergence of liberty as a dominant and coherent concept in political discourse during the French Revolution in 1789, signified a ruptural moment in the biography of the political. The recognition of the significance of freedom represented the acme of what John Stuart Mill called the struggle between liberty and authority. The idea of freedom is in direct contrast to paternalistic statecraft, or the belief that those who would be controllers of our destiny know better than us what we need, aspire, and strive towards. These people might be colonialists, or our own rulers. It does not matter, fight we must against unfreedom, as people have fought since the 18th century.

Challenging unfreedom

We have come a long way since then. From the last decades of the 19th century, right into the first two decades of the 21st, victims of unfreedom began to speak back to makers of oppression and exploitation. Political movements of the working classes, of the peasantry, of women denied political rights, of the colonised, and of religious, linguistic, and racial minorities directly challenged unfreedom as a violation of what is due to human beings. As this upsurge imprinted collective consciousness, it impacted both political practices and normative political theory.

Today, political theorists realise that bare concern about freedom is simply not enough. A hungry individual cannot be a free individual. Poverty and hunger which trap human beings in a never-ending spiral of want and deprivation diminish freedom. These maladies of the human condition strip her of the option to do, or not to do. A person may be theoretically free to do whatever she thinks makes her life worthwhile. And yet she may not be able to do so for other reasons — because she has never been to school. In order to, say, write a novel an individual must have a certain amount of literary competence, she must have access to education, to books in the library or in the bookshops, she must be able to attend literary discussion groups if she wants to, to simply be a part of a community that appreciates reading and writing. If a budding literary giant cannot afford to do so, because she belongs to a poor family, she cannot be free. Therefore, there is need for social goods as prerequisites of a life lived the way we want to live.

Democratic obligation

The democratic state is obliged to provide citizens with the basic preconditions for the exercise of freedom: health, education, sustainable living wage, satisfying work conditions, food and a decent standard of life. These social goods are, however but, milestones on the road to freedom. A democratic government can hardly give people subsidised food, and take away their right to express what they desire and dream of, what they expect of their representatives, or what is owed to them as free citizens of a free country. The right to freedom tells each ruler: this is how human beings have to be treated, this is their due; below this you cannot fall. This right cannot be dispensed with.

The stand-off between toilets and the right to freedom is based on false premises. Without the provision of social goods, the right of human beings to make their own lives is neutralised. But a life of unfreedom is no life at all. Social goods are enabling, freedom is life-giving. Without freedom we are stripped of our humanity.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 6:11:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/an-award-and-an-unholy-trade-off/article29511632.ece

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