India's 73rd Independence Day is here, but nothing approaching true freedom has been attained yet

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire


On Thursday, 15 August, India will celebrate its Independence Day. The celebrations will come days after the Indian government removed the last remaining vestiges of autonomy from the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, many of whose residents have long made clear their desire for independence from India. Granting the state independence was not acceptable to India under Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947 and it is clearly much less acceptable to India under Narendra Modi now.

Back in 1947, when the British left, the 500-and-something — historians do not even agree on how many — princely kingdoms in the territory of modern India were asked to choose between India and Pakistan. These princely states of varying sizes and characters had remained nominally independent until then. They occupied more than a third of the geographical area of undivided India, and they were ruled by Maharajas and Nawabs who ruled over them as their ancestors had, under authority of the divine right of kings. Notions of equality between rulers and subjects were so distant as to be unworldly. Nor did the subjects necessarily have any rights.

The legal process by which the states lost their final vestiges of independence was uniform. They were persuaded or cornered into signing Instruments of Accession, which varied from state to state but at minimum required them to cede control of defence, communications and foreign affairs, and thereby joined the Federation of India established by the Government of India Act of 1935. The Instruments of Accession were followed by merger agreements, also allegedly signed under duress in some cases, which transferred powers to the new Dominion Government as it was then known. Rulers were left with the freedom to keep all their private properties, titles and privileges, and in addition were promised a privy purse for themselves and their successors.

 Indias 73rd Independence Day is here, but nothing approaching true freedom has been attained yet

People fly kites from roof tops in Old Delhi as they celebrate Independence Day. REUTERS

The Indian government went back on this promise under Indira Gandhi in 1970, when, by a presidential order, all rulers ceased to be recognised as rulers. The matter went to the Supreme Court which ruled in favour of the rulers, but the government subsequently amended the Constitution to abolish the privy purses. The independence of each of those 500-plus states was lost as a result of their integration into India, and the rulers lost their privileges. The loss of this independence is still rued by many in the former princely states of Jammu and Kashmir, and Manipur.

It is not clear, at least to this writer, what, in terms of personal freedoms, was lost to ordinary citizens. The rulers, typically, were feudal despots. The succession was along the male bloodline. The ordinary citizens enjoyed little in terms of democratic rights. A small elite related to the royal family and a collection of loyalists enjoyed feudal powers. There were certainly some enlightened despots among the 545-odd, but there were also many wastrels and nitwits.

In other words, things were much as they are now. Democracy in India is a thin patina on a deep crust of feudalism. The overlords change but the system of overlordship remains. This is something that all groups complain loudly about, until they are in a position to become the new overlords. Then they swiftly and smoothly move into the same positions and ways of life. Thus, when the British sahibs and memsahibs left, the posh clubs did not even find it necessary or desirable to change any rules including dress codes and the practice of summoning “bearers” by ringing bells. In small matters, as in big, the aim was not changing the system, but inheriting it.

This desire for continuity has been evident in all classes and sections of society across India. For example, the Hindutva commentariat, who routinely berate Lutyens Liberals, have smoothly moved into Lutyens Delhi and its posh watering holes in Khan Market and the India International Centre in Delhi. Northeast India’s hills are very different from the Hindi heartland, with a history of relatively egalitarian (as opposed to feudal) societies, but even there, the tribal elites are the new sahibs.

Political freedom has not had a very great effect on society; change, where it has occurred, has been more due to technology.

Political, social and individual freedoms are usually quite different things. Canada became fully independent of British rule only in 1982, under the Canada Act. Australia became fully independent under the Australia Acts of 1986, until which time certain powers had remained vested in the British Crown. New Zealand gained full legal independence the same year. The absence of full legal independence until so late does not appear to have greatly hampered either their economic development or the personal and social freedoms enjoyed by their citizens. India, like them, was ruled by the British crown. A more gradual move towards full political independence in India’s case may well have avoided the division of the country into three, and the millions of deaths that accompanied the process. We got the maps and flags in a matter of months in 1947, but our societies and peoples are still less free than Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.

Freedom is a big word that often means little. A map and a flag do not really constitute freedom for the people living within any territory. Nor does having a vote. These are beautiful notions. The map is, to repeat a truism, not the territory. The flag is a powerful symbol, but it is only a symbol. To have elections and a vote is better than not having any, but elections, as we all know, are impossible to win without money and “muscle power” to start with. Our MLAs and MPs, outside the hills of Northeast India, are in many cases either former or current feudal lords. They have absolute, medieval rights over their subjects and a large measure of freedom from the Indian Constitution. Take the case of former BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar. He seems to have enjoyed absolute “freedom”, unlike the people he allegedly raped and murdered.

Most people in India are simultaneously prisoners and prison guards in the cages within cages of family, job and society. They spend their entire lives in these cages doing exactly what they are told to do. From birth to death their lives are regulated and decided for them by others. They usually cannot take even one day off in a year to do only what they please. They are conditioned to eat, drink, dress and behave in prescribed ways. Conformity in everything is the sum and substance of their identities. Their freedom is the freedom of the reflex action; it is the freedom of the knee to jerk.

This is not freedom.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

Updated Date: Aug 16, 2019 09:50:08 IST