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Rights

Our Guaranteed Freedoms in the Constitution Now Stand Subverted

This independence day, with Narendra Modi at the helm, India will celebrate freedom from rational thought, freedom from trusting democratic institutions and freedom from a free media.

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Understanding the challenges of creating unity in the diversity that was going to become India, the founding fathers of this nation drew from the constitutions of 10 other countries. The words in the Preamble of the Indian constitution are from the American and French constitutions.

“Give to ourselves this Constitution” points to the necessity that Indians believe it is theirs, and therefore, they own and apply it. This implies the securing of justice for each other.

To ensure these responsibilities and expectations are understood, the constitution expands these four points into fundamental rights. These are nothing but guarantees of freedom.

For example, the right to equality is nothing but freedom from institutional and social discrimination, injustice and oppression. Acknowledging the chains of feudalism and caste, the right to freedom has been explicitly incorporated. There is also the right to the freedom of religion, and cultural and educational rights.

Also read: The Paradoxes of Indian Democracy That Babasaheb Ambedkar Predicted Are Coming True in Unexpected Ways

The fundamental duties, taken from the erstwhile USSR, is the constitution’s practical guide for citizens. These include “abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institution; to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women; to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.

Recognising that diversity can create dissonance, the Indian constitution was not only a North Star but a handbook to achieve and maintain stability.

This year, India begins celebrations of its 75th year of independence. Also, it is the eighth year of celebrating Independence Day with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. As August 15 commemorates India attaining freedom from colonial rule, it is a good time to discuss the health of our constitutional freedoms and our ability and desire to fulfil our fundamental duties.

India’s freedom distorted

Take for example the fundamental duty of developing a ‘scientific temper’. The country’s current scientific temper is not based on the spirit of inquiry and reform. It is constructed on fragile egos, the need for self-affirmation and the desire to make real a mythological past to polish the present. So it is no surprise that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, threatened violence “if religious and caste sentiments are hurt” during the proceedings of the conference on  ‘Culture and Linguistic Hurdles in the Achievement of Scientific Temper’ co-hosted by the Central University at Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, and Montclair State University. The Central university cancelled the event hours before it began.

But what can be expected from Indian citizens when their leaders, right from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, eschew rational thought and misrepresent mythology as science to further their Hindutva agenda?

PM Narendra Modi. Photo: Facebook

It is but natural the other fundamental duties like promoting harmony and striving towards excellence are given short shrift. A scientific temper leads to respect for differing views and encouraging them. Opposing and alternate views are a political, societal and intellectual stimuli necessary for a country and people desiring excellence.  But in today’s India, this is a depreciating asset and therefore facing an existentialist crisis.

Prime Minister Modi has claimed on the international stage that democracy is an ancient tradition in India. If that is so, then why would the centuries-old caste system be so oppressive and restrictive? And why is it used to repress millions in modern Indian society?  It is possible that nobody has brought to Modi’s attention Dr. B.R Ambedkar’s quote,

“Democracy is not merely a form of Government…It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen.”

It could also be that Modi’s post-graduation in ‘entire political science’ did not cover democracy and forms of governing in ancient India. Thus, it is important to look at the state of at least two fundamental rights – the right to freedom and the right to equality.

There can be no freedom without equality, and vice-versa.

Also read: Of the ‘Thin Line’ Between Dissent and Terrorism: The Substance of Democracy

The strangeness of the country’s situation is this: Indians are choosing to be led into dystopia. Citizens are egging on leaders to carry out their plans and revel when government critics are squashed.  This in a way is the highest form of freedom and democracy.

Given how the Hindutva narrative has been built and spread over the last few years one wonders whether the choice really belongs to Indians or have they been made to believe it is theirs? When differing thoughts are labelled anti-national what choice remains?

If there is no choice, can there be freedom? There is also no equality, because the state criminalises and punishes those with a contrarian stance, and others are coerced into taking a pro-government stance and vilified for not doing so.

It is not only the absence of choice of criticising or supporting the government. The freedom to choose how to live is also narrowing. Indian Hindu-Muslim couples face the wrath of bigoted laws and society.  Moral policing by the state and zealots has extended to food and humour too.

The stability that the Indian constitution promises require freedom, respect and equality. This is being replaced by the stability of a monoculture. Therefore as Dr. B.R Ambedkar cogently and presciently observed “every act of independent thinking puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril”.

The independence, and therefore freedom, of every pillar of Indian democracy has been purposefully toyed with or curtailed. Everything from judicial independence to elections and the media has been affected. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s alleged use of Pegasus on Indian citizens suggests the value it places on the right to freedom.

Concurrently, the BJP government has bestowed on itself two freedoms –  freedom from accountability, and freedom from the truth. The Prime Minister and his government have not taken responsibility for the consequences of demonetisation, the sudden announcement of lockdown, the lack of oxygen supply and the flailing distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. This has been enabled by them using the freedom from truth. India bore witness to this when the health minister in Rajya Sabha stated that no one died from lack of oxygen.

One can’t help but see the humour, even if gallows humour, of this. In lieu of the BJP government’s seeming inability and reticence to secure for Indians the guarantees enshrined in the Constitution, it has instead provided Indians with freedom from rational thought, freedom from trusting democratic institutions, freedom from a free media while giving to itself freedom from accountability and freedom from the truth.

Samir Nazareth is the author of the travelogue, 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People. He tweets at @samirwrites.