First as Freedom, then as Farce: The Limits of Independence

As India approaches its 70th year of independence, have we done enough to realise the promises made in the constitution?

Fragile Freedom: A crumpled paper flag at a doorway in Ahmedabad. Credit: Meena Kadri/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Fragile Freedom: A crumpled paper flag at a doorway in Ahmedabad. Credit: Meena Kadri/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tallow and lard: cow fat and pig fat greased the cartridges that stirred the mutiny of the sepoys across northern and central India in 1857. On the eve of the 70th year of India’s independence, they still fuel the fire of Indian politics. The role that these beasts have played in Indian history is yet to be clearly understood.

Early in 1857, the British army had introduced Pattern Enfield Rifle cartridges. And soldiers had to bite the pin off the cartridges before loading them into guns. They would then train the guns on fellow Indians.

Some 160 years on, we may have resolved most of our differences with our former colonial masters. But differences over the cow and the pig, harboured amongst ourselves, remain mysteriously resistant to resolution.

The politics associated with these mute animals is exemplified in the killing of Muhammad Akhlaq in Dadri last September, followed by similar incidents in north and central India. The recent Una agitation saw beleaguered and beaten Dalits refusing to clear the carcasses of cows to protest the violence they suffer at the hands of gau rakshaks. These incidents are a translation of the difficulties we face in figuring out the limits of our freedom.

Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1920s, Muhammad Ali Jinnah began engineering constitutional struggles for the rights of the minorities in India, particularly, his own community. He ended up with Pakistan where ironically, the minorities, Hindus or Christians, live in ghettos, not unlike most Muslims in India. The absence of secularism in the enterprise of a potentially democratic Pakistan may explain, to a great extent, why it has largely been considered a failed state.

In following the footsteps of her neighbour, India’s increasing Hindu supremacist rhetoric and rising intolerance, betrays a dangerous kinship.

This hardening of attitude has increasingly been visible in the display of the state-sponsored violence in Kashmir, and in the rampant rise of  ‘cow protectors’ across India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently made some noises against cow vigilantism; but the silence of the state so far has legitimised a form of hooliganism which swears by Hindutva ideals.

It’s only now that the Hindutva ruling classes are realising that Hindu supremacist tendencies will end up generating a polarisation – Muslims, Dalits, adivasis, and other underprivileged classes on the one hand, and upper caste Hindus on the other. And this could be detrimental to their own (electoral) well being. That the story of the Dalits being stripped and beaten was prominently carried by the New York Times, which also wrote a stinging editorial on the subject, may have had some influence in breaking Modi’s silence.

It’s a tense silence. All the issues that we sought to escape from with the founding of the Indian state in 1947 are, bafflingly enough, still in place. The nationalities problem, as represented most starkly in Kashmir, the ‘native’ Hindu vs. the ‘alien’ Muslim problem in other parts; the uncertain fate of the underclasses; all of it persists. One has to ask, how fragile – if not failed – a state are we?

In terms of religion, region, and ethnicities, the Indian state is losing its hegemonic narrative of a united nation. Obversely, perhaps, a state loses its hegemony when it loses its narrative. In short, the struggles for freedom within India and from India have not ceased since August 15, 1947.

It’s not as if the nodal points of those histories were not anticipated. And no one knew of these with as much intimacy as B.R. Ambedkar. Consider just two instances.

Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One dealt with Ambedkar’s fight against untouchability, which Gandhi cleverly co-opted. But while Gandhi’s method was characteristically a grand gesture of accommodation, meant to be borne out of the kindness of the great, forgiving Hindu heart, Ambedkar’s was militant, agitational. He did not want rights doled out as favours.

In 1927, he had led the fight for the rights of the Dalits to draw water from a public water tank at Mahad in Raighad, Maharashtra. He followed it up with another landmark battle for the rights of the untouchables to access Hindu temples. He burned copies of the Manusmriti, which argued in favour of the caste system.

Matters came to a head in 1932, when Ambedkar and the British decided on the formation of a separate electorate for the ‘untouchables’. Gandhi said this would divide the Hindu community, a fear that haunted him throughout his life.
Contrary to the popular perception that Gandhi swore by non-violence, I believe that this was not quite the case: it was just that he directed the violence against his own person. He fasted in protest, the slow equivalent of suicide within the public gaze, that became something of a specialty for him. Ambedkar gave in.

The rights of the ‘depressed classes’ nevertheless continue to be a great shaping force in Indian politics. It goes against the seemingly official state idea, as enunciated by its spokespersons (say, Arnab Goswami), that history is a static medium. This makes the nature and sovereignty of the Indian state absolute, irrespective of the fact that it is precisely this absolute narrative, that is being challenged on a daily basis in various parts of the country.

Again it was Ambedkar, who foresaw that Kashmir would be a thorn in India’s side. Ambedkar had, before retaining it, opposed Article 370 of the Constitution of India, which granted special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. He thought it would further alienate Kashmir from India, and would put India eventually on the defensive.

Jawaharlal Nehru in conversation with Sheikh Mohd. Abdullah in the Constituent Assembly. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jawaharlal Nehru in conversation with Sheikh Mohd. Abdullah in the Constituent Assembly. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The great Kashmiri leader, and close friend and partner of Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah, had advocated that after Maharaja Hari Singh’s accession to India — which incidentally Lord Mountbatten had accepted on condition of a plebiscite that never happened — India should take care of the state’s borders, and supply food and other resources. Abdullah also said that the Indian state should have only limited powers in relation to the state. Which meant Indians, largely, had no rights in the Valley.

Ambedkar warned that Article 370 would go against the interests of the Indian state, and that he would not be a party to it. But Sardar Patel had already promised Abdullah the potentially separatist article 370 and he had engineered its passing in parliament. Ambedkar did not participate in the discussions relating to the Article 370. He knew Article 370 would mean trouble.

And so it was.


On Tuesday I met a man, Abdul Nazar Maudani in Bangalore, after some 25 years. I had first met him at his fortress-like house in Karunagapalli in south Kerala.

He was a strapping young man then and could rouse stones with his speech. In his own rather fearless way, he and his followers were trying to bring Muslims, Dalits and other backward castes under one fold. In Kerala, as in India, that would amount to a majority, sweeping the upper caste Hindus to the margins, no matter what their party affiliations were.

The victim of a conspiracy by an RSS activist, Maudani lost a leg when a bomb was thrown at him. One of the many uses of a bomb is that its association can be used to brand you an extremist, irrespective of what it does to your life and limbs. Maudani was framed. He was described as the ‘mastermind’ of the Coimbatore Blasts Case (1998). Maudani was in jail for close to 10 years before the trial court found him innocent.

Soon after his release though, the police arrested him again, saying he was involved in the Bangalore Blasts Case (2008). By now it had become clear to those who followed the proceedings that the case was fabricated. In fact, activist and film maker, K.P. Shashi, has made a documentary, Fabricated, that clearly establishes that the eyewitness reports on which the police rested their case were almost all, false or inconsistent with places and dates concerned.

When I met Maudani last week, he was out on bail, lying at a hospital near Lal Baug in Bangalore. You would not see a more deserted hospital. There were cops around, and a police van. But no patients; and almost no doctors.

Maudani was lying in bed, his false foot on the floor leaning on his cot. It ended in a polished brown shoe. Its owner had shrunk to half the man he had been when I had first met him in Karunagapalli. The pitch black beard had turned silver, and he was enchantingly bald.

As a citizen of India, I thought Maudani was as good a man as any to be asked questions relating to the implications of 70th edition of August 15, 1947. August 17 this year will mark his sixth year as an ‘under-trial’. According to the National Human Rights Commission, out of the total prison population of 3,04,893, as many as 2,25 817 – or 74.06 % – are under-trials. Though there are no clear statistics, it would be safe to bet a good number of them are Muslims, Dalits and other underprivileged classes: the people that the Indian state tends to see as obviously dangerous. Yet they all qualify as Indians.

“How’s free India treating you?,” I asked Maudani with my usual charm.

Maudani smiled. It was a serene smile. There was a resignation to it, to a life that had been more or less ruined, because of the accident of his birth as a Muslim. He refrained from answering. Because, in Maudani’s free India, if he did not watch his mouth, he could be in deep trouble. So K.P. Sashi , who was present in the room, answered for Maudani: “No man can have suffered so much because he thought he could bring the marginal people under one fold. The state is the terrorist.”


Last week in Manipur, Irom Sharmila ended her 16-year-old fast, begun in protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) – also in force in Kashmir. She would have understood Maudani’s smile and agreed with Sashi’s view. Sharmila said that now she would participate in elections, and try and become the chief minster of a state whose  ethnicity varies greatly from ‘mainstream’ India. We will have to wait and see.

Irom Sharmila licks honey from her hand to break her fast during a press conference in Imphal on Tuesday. Sharmila ended her fast after nearly 16 years demanding repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Credit: PTI

Irom Sharmila licks honey from her hand to break her fast during a press conference in Imphal on Tuesday. Sharmila ended her fast after nearly 16 years demanding repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Credit: PTI

Madani down south, Sharmila up north and a hundred nameless people in Kashmir. Surely they are all silently screaming. That the Indian state operates in ways where the only social and political status they can give themselves is that of dissidents. But what makes a dissident? Is the articulation of their grievances a crime? Is a dissident, by default, a traitor? Or does she contribute to the enrichment of a pluralistic state? If Kashmiris, as a people, are dissidents, what role did the Indian state have to play in perpetuating the dissonance?

Is India as a nation a fully-formed conceptual whole or a federation of nationalities still in the process of evolution? If you subscribe to certain dominant sections of the media, a rather populist, static view of history can be observed. By that I mean we see the Indian state as having arrived. An immovable solid state with a clearly defined historical existence. We use this canonised historical existence to measure and define the ‘other’. Yet, in Kashmir, isn’t the Indian the ‘other’? And surely, for Indians, it is easier to see a Muslim as a terrorist? Surely, India thinks she is in the right in such perceptions and the actions that proceed from them as justified?

Events are what push time forward. The Soviet Union was one of the most powerful states in the history of civilisation, for close to 70-odd years. No other people marched with such stoic heroism from tragedy to tragedy, from starvation to revolution, from revolution to purge and to war, from Stalinism to perestroika to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disbanding of the Union itself in 1991. Gorbachev, under whose supervision the disbanding occurred (whose role in setting free a whole bunch of nationalities is yet to be truly evaluated,) had said at the time, “We can’t go on like this.”

The Indian state is still evolving. Which is why Kashmir is a question that is yet to be decided. It is why Nagaland is a source of worry, and also why Arunachal Pradesh is disputed by another state, China. History is movement in time and space. To define a state as an absolute will prove a near impossible task.

But the fact remains, we still have to understand what our forefathers created. The words of Nehru in his famous midnight speech have not quite been borne out by the reality of the decades following that moment.

Whether it’s the Naxalbari movement of the 1960s and 70s, the ongoing unrest of the tribals in Kandhamal, the marginalisation of minorities, the curious case of the Maoists, or the embittered relationship rising from the quota system of the upper castes to the rest of society; Kashmir, Adivasis, or just the very poor, the Indian state is in constant conflict with her own people.

It may not yet be categorised as a failed state. But it is certainly a fragile state. Altogether, these distressed people and fluid territories constitute a substantial portion of the Indian state. Its legitimacy can be questioned because its constitution, its handbook of promises to its people handcrafted symbolically enough, by a Dalit, Ambedkar, has not been substantively honoured. In fact, each significant agitation by its people is a critique of the state.


That the Indian state swears by democracy may not mean much if the initial reasons for coming into existence are not met; especially since the process that brought it into being is changing, and gathering momentum every passing moment.

Louis Althusser’s idea of the state is as useful as any other definition in the Indian context. He talks about the ruling classes and the repressive and ideological state apparatuses. It would be tempting to examine if Althusser actually offers an explanation to what’s happening in India.

One of the things Althusser says is that the ruling classes – government, courts, police and armed forces — perpetuate their presence and justifies it by repressing the subordinate social classes, which we have already mentioned.
This repression could be either by violent or non-violent means, and happens largely in the name of law and order, which all of us need, of course, for stability and prosperity. But if the quality and quantity of discontent increases, as is evident in the number of attempts to break law and order, what are we to make of these attempts except that the state does not represent the disaffected? That indeed the law and order is a problem, constructed in itself?

Althusser also talks about ideological apparatuses. The state uses an ideological apparatus in the form of educational institutions, cultural bodies, religious and quasi-religious (think of the the RSS and Jamaat) political parties to create a narrative glorifying itself. It proselytises its own version of history, a methodically reinvented past to support its own motives and ensure that it stays in power. In the Indian situation, the revisionist forces of the Hindu right would eventually alter the course of the Indian state from its professed secular and egalitarian ideals using the ideological apparatus available to them and contribute in its search for stability and order – which is, in fact, a search for a fascistic structure that is paranoid towards criticism and dissent.

The arbitrary revision of school text books, the deliberately ideological changes at the top of cultural and historical bodies like the Film and Television Institute of India and the Indian Council for Historical Research are among a hundred similar instances, all of which go far towards implementing a certain agenda which may exclude rather than include citizens.

Science too is part of that list. In Modi’s India, science grants have generally been cut; research and development grants are at an all time low. According to a senior professor in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, his department has been clearly told grants are conditional on the government’s preference for mythological projects, or stupendous – and environmentally damaging – dreams like the interlinking of rivers. Critical approaches to the givens are not encouraged. According to a newspaper report, in June this year, there was a ‘Chintan Shivir’ for government scientists held at Dehradun. As part of the Dehradun Declaration, all laboratories signed up to “develop a revenue model in a businesslike manner with clear cost-benefit analysis.” The most worrisome aspect was that representatives from Vigyan Bharati, an organisation affiliated to the RSS, were part of the discussion. The idea was to ensure that ‘indigenous science’ was also promoted.

To a significant extent, then, whether it’s the ruined Maudanis of Kerala, or the pellet-controlled populations of Kashmir, the question of the Indian state and what it represents in its 70th year is a debate that must play out, preferably, in public view. It must move away from a binary discourse – either you are are with me , or you are my enemy – to a truly pluralistic one if the loose federal nature of her peoples are to be welded into a meaningful national enterprise.

In fact, our developmental politics, of which the present prime minister is a great champion, does not explain the sorry state of our affairs. If development were the great solution to our unity, why is it that the thousands of crores that each government in power allocates to states like Kashmir, and regions like the North East, are not reaching the people?

We could answer: corruption. Invoking that word is to effectively endorse Althusser’s position that money goes to the prosperity of the ruling classes.

On the eve of the 70th year of India’s Independence, therefore, we must ask of India, has she failed – at least in her major objectives as a benevolent secular, federal state? If the answer is Yes, we are in a fragile state. Perhaps then we must begin all over again, so the next 70 years of India tell a better story, where tallow and lard do not make the ground slippery with blood.

C.P. Surendran is a journalist and poet.