A distortion of our freedom
On 15th August, the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh unfurled the national flag to celebrate India’s 65th Independence Day and the attainment of ‘freedom’ from oppressive colonial rule. In comparison to many of its peers who were similarly liberated from the colonial yoke, India has much to be satisfied about after 64 years.
But there are many areas of inadequacy that must cause deep concern, such as corruption, and in some areas abiding shame, as for instances of female foeticide and honour killings. The freedom and equality that was envisioned in August 1947 and formalised in January 1950 through the Constitution remains elusive for millions of Indias, and where it is ostensibly provided it is. And in may ways, the controversy over the film ‘Aarakshan’ epitomises these distortions and contradictions.
This is not a review of the film which is being perceived as anti-Dalit but it draws attention to the nature of the controversy generated by different constituencies that has resulted in the banning of the film in two states – Uttar Pradesh and Punjab – while another – Andhra Pradesh – has suspended the film.
The film, which was duly cleared by the Film Certification Board (the old nomenclature Censor Board has been thoughtfully changed to Certification by Leela Samson) was yet to be released. But the promotional dialogue and clips shown on Television were deemed to be offensive to Dalit sensibilities and the controversy grew by the day.
The freedom of speech and expression guaranteed in the Constitution was distorted in an opportunistic manner and a paradoxical sequence of events followed.
The film which was not seen by the principal protesters was assumed to be against the lower caste cross-section and cynical political opportunism introduced. The debates that raged became shrill and angry and caste-bank politics were at play. The director, Prakash Jha has moved the Supreme Court to challenge the ban imposed by some states.
More than the legal precedent endorsing Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution, that was already established in 1989 in the case of the Tamil film “Ore Oru Gramathille”, the Aarakshan controversy is illustrative of two serious malignancies in the Indian body-politic, which if ignored will have very adverse national security consequences. While the founding fathers of August 1947 and those like Dr Ambedkar who drafted the Constitution had hoped to make social equality (and religious neutrality) a reality progressively, in a feudal caste-riven society – by introducing the concept of equitable reservation in education and employment opportunities for the traditionally oppressed sections of Indian society – the reality after seven decades is ugly and dangerous.
Caste and religion have become the major drivers of Indian politics and many states in India have strong and assertive regional parties that are predicated on caste. Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are cases in point while Punjab has spawned a sectarian religion derived identity. Debate on these issues has become polarised and the backlash of the Mandal commission is still to be fully internalised.
Intolerance was at play in the controversy over the release of Aarakshan and Television discussions saw little of the objective, constructive, persuasive debate that is the bedrock of democracy. Freedom as envisioned in 1947 was about the right to have and be allowed to voice dissenting views – but the mood in the country today, whether reflected in Parliament in Delhi or legislatures in state capitals is partisan, juvenile and often abusive in form and content. When was the last time that the Indian citizen was privy to a reasoned and constructive debate in the legislature on a matter of national import ?
While caste has become the lightning rod about Aarakshan it is misleading. The film dwells more on the crass commercialisation of education in India today and here is another grave trampling of the cherished objective of equality. As a security analyst, I have no hesitation is asserting that the most serious omission of the Indian state from Jawaharlal Nehru onwards is the lip-service paid to education and the freedom denied to millions of Indians. The state and its elected representatives are culpable.
By treating education not as a fundamental right of the citizen – but a lucrative commercial enterprise – the Indian state has denied the most valuable freedom – that from ignorance and illiteracy. Aarakshan dwells on this issue, but strangely this has not attracted the kind of attention it deserves but has been distorted, lest the angry Indian parent ask inconvenient questions of the politician and bureaucrat.
It is often said that the politicisation of crime and the criminalisation of politics in India has reached its nadir and whether the 3G scam, land mafias or the current pattern in Uttar Pradesh where history-sheeters are being politically rehabilitated – the mood in the country is grim and freedom for the citizen is sullied. But the greatest crime being perpetuated by the Indian state is the denial of equitable, affordable high quality education to the Indian child, one that is relevant to the 21st century. The alternative predatory education system is the proliferation of private colleges and educational institutions run by the local political-bureaucratic nexus.
Aarakshan exposes the venality and corruption that is rampant in education today and if this is not addressed in its most holistic manner, then the millions of young Indians who will be uneducated and hence unemployable over the next 15 years will become an internal security threat. The recent London riots and looting will be a picnic by comparison.
But regrettably instead of focusing on these more serious issues, our legislators and the vested interests who manipulate India have other priorities. For instance seeking to change the law to allow red beacons – or the coveted ‘lal batti’ to be fitted on their cars. Some Indians are clearly more ‘equal’ than their fellow citizens and hence determined to protect their ‘freedom’ while denying it to others.
C. Uday Bhaskar is Senior Fellow with the Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation. A version of this comment first appeared in Hindi in the Dainik Jagran on August 14, 2011.