Swaraj at 70

A compendium of how India looks at freedom

It’s ironic that 70 years after India became an Independent country and a democracy, the invocation of aazadi evokes bitter conflicts. Whether it is on university campuses or in the midst of the conflict in the Kashmir Valley — both calling for aazadi and challenging that call as anti-national arouses mighty passions.

By comparison, swaraj is hardly ever invoked in the public discourse. It almost seems like a historical artefact, a fragment of fading memories of the Freedom Struggle. swaraj certainly does not incite raw passions in the way that aazadi does. Yet, this is precisely why swaraj, the concept and the ideal, might be far more important to our present and future.

First, because aazadi does not necessarily ensure swaraj. And second, because Swaraj at 70 potentially draws us into a well-rounded reflection on India as a society – rather than as a nation or an economy on the global stage.

Despite the obvious glamour attached to the term aazadi, it is actually secondary to swarajAazadi more often refers to ‘freedom from’, whereas swaraj connotes ‘freedom to’ exercise a individual and collective sense of agency, to have a command over one’s destiny.

Despite the obvious glamour attached to the term aazadi, it is actually secondary to swaraj

Aazadi, both as freedom of expression and action, can easily be limited to the narrow desires or grievances of an individual or a group. But swaraj implies a freedom that is based on control over one’s passions – and thus a more holistic approach to competing claims over duties and rights.

Therefore, the opposite of swaraj is not merely the loss of your own freedom but the desire for control over others. Vigilantism is one extreme form of such control over other people’s lives and behaviour. Concentration of economic power, even when it is in the name of delivering better services, is another form of control if it happens through means that limit or restrict ordinary people’s sense of agency, their ability to take initiative.

On 13 August, Firstpost began a series titled Swaraj at 70 that examined how different people from various walks of life view the concept of swarajaazadi and democracy.

Part I:

Oriya politician Baijayant 'Jay' Panda has journeyed a long way from an education in engineering and work in the corporate sector to the Lok Sabha. Elected from the Kendrapara constituency in 2014, the 53-year-old has served as the spokesperson for the Biju Janata Dal Parliamentary Party till he was removed from the post in May this year. Panda is vice-chairman of Indian Metals and Ferro Alloys, a company founded by his parents in 1961, which now has a market cap of about Rs 1,429 crore.

His family has a large footprint in Odisha, with investments in media, financial services, aviation, infrastructure, mining, power and real estate. His Parliamentary engagements include efforts to prevent malnutrition among children and stop consumption of tobacco. He has introduced several Private Member's bills that covered issues such as: fast track courts to try cases against elected representatives; removal of exemption from criminal prosecution given to sitting MPs, MLAs and MLCs; amendments to the Information Technology law, in order to remove restraints on free speech.

Panda spoke to Firstpost about the current political scenario, cow vigilantism, land displacement, the local economy among other issues.

Read the full interview here.

Part II:

When communal violence ripped through Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993, Sushboha Barve led groups of citizens into the strife torn areas to try and restore peace. Subsequently, she went on to co-found the Mohalla Committees through which representatives of Mumbai Police still collaborate with members of Hindu and Muslim communities, in order to build bridges and prevent conflicts.

Barve, 68, is an Ashoka Fellow and the founder of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR) in New Delhi, to build an academic base for the methods she has developed through her extensive work in conflict areas. Over the last 20 years, through the CDR, Barve has done extensive ground work for peace and justice in the Kashmir Valley.

She has also led Track III Dialogues on peace and stability between India and Pakistan. Last year, Barve was part of the Concerned Citizens Committee, led by BJP leader Yashwant Sinha, which visited the Kashmir Valley and made recommendations to the government on how to address the turmoil there.

Firstpost spoke to Sushobha about the situation in Kashmir, the recent spate of mob-lynchings and the meaning of Swaraj in present day India.

Read the full interview here.

Part III:

Piyush Mishra, 54, is known for his poems and songs that reach out and connect to the youth. Laced with a mixture of anger and determination, Mishra's public recitations at colleges evoke an emotive engagement. A graduate of the National School of Drama, Mishra is a polymath of the performing arts – lyricist, music director, singer, actor and screenplay writer.

He is best known for his songs in the movie Gulaal and his work in Gangs of Wasseypur. A Coke studio recording of 'Husna', Mishra's poem on love and longing that defies national borders, has over 3.3 million views.

Firstpost spoke to Mishra about the concerns of the youth in modern-day India, casteism and the meaning of Swaraj in Independent India.

Read the full interview here.

Part IV:

Kavitha Kuruganti, 46, set out to be a development communicator and went on to become one of India's foremost champions of sustainable agriculture. While still studying for a Masters degree in communications at Hyderabad Central University, she was drawn into the world of NGOs, particularly the Deccan Development Society. Kuruganti is now the national convener of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a network of farmer groups that promote both ecological and financial sustainability.

Firstpost spoke to Kuruganti, who has acquired an in-depth technical knowledge of the agricultural sector over the years and has spearheaded the campaign against genetically modified (GM) crops. She has served as a member of the Government of India's High-Level Committee on the Status of Women in India and as a member of a government panel set up in 2013 to examine the methodological issues in fixing a minimum support price (MSP) in agriculture.

Read the full interview here.

Part V:

From the global private sector to the innards of Indian bureaucracy, Arun Maira, 73, has dealt with many shades of reality. After a long spell with Tata Administrative Services and later in Tata Motors, Maira moved abroad to work as the leader of Global Organisation Practice at Arthur D Little. In 2000, he became India chairman of Boston Consulting Group and left that role in 2009 to serve as a member of India’s Planning Commission.

Firstpost spoke to Maira, who has been an advocate of formulating scenarios that enable planners to look at systems in totality to understand how positive change can be brought about. He is the author of several books, including 'Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions' and 'Listening for Well-being: Conversations with People Not Like Us'.

Read the full interview here.

Part VI:

Ashni Biyani was born into a family that is a leader in India's multi-brand retail sector. After graduating from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, the 32-year-old became the first woman in her family to enter the world of business when she founded Future Ideas. As an innovations consultancy firm, Biyani's company works at the confluence of business, society and culture – doing extensive research on the ground.

Firstpost spoke to Biyani, who has developed a nuanced understanding of the multi-dimensional shifts unfolding in the Indian society. She also serves as a director on the board of Future Consumer Enterprises Limited.

Read the full interview here.

Part VII:

Had Vijay Mahajan not marched to the beat of a different drum, today he might have been the head of a global multi-national company. Instead, the 63-year-old chose to put both his IIT and IIM degrees to work in solving the problems of rural India.

PRADAN, an NGO Mahajan co-founded in the mid-1970s, created mechanisms for young professionals to work at the grassroots level to promote livelihoods for the poor. In 1996, he founded the Basix Social Enterprise Group, which has served three million poor households through microfinance and livelihood promotion services.

Firstpost spoke to Mahajan, who has been a member of the Government of India's Committee on Financial Sector Reforms and on the C Rangarajan Committee on Financial Inclusion. After retiring from Basix earlier this year, Mahajan is now reflecting and writing on how to build an 'Economy of Nurturance'.

Read the full interview here.

Part VIII:

Kalyani Menon-Sen has been a part of feminist struggles for human rights at the national and international level – from rural women's collectives in Mahila Samakhya, a programme of the Ministry of Human Resources in the Government of India, to the United Nations Development Programme.

An independent researcher, feminist and activist, the 63-year-old is currently a member of Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, an unfunded platform that stands with women in exposing and challenging violence perpetrated and condoned by the state.

Apart from her relationships with women's movement groups, she is also associated with groups who are challenging and resisting neo-liberal economic policies.

Firstpost spoke to Kalyani, who has been closely involved in campaigns against eviction and dispossession of the working poor in Delhi. She is also one of the petitioners in the legal challenge to Aadhaar in the Supreme Court.

Read the full interview here.

Part IX:

Siddharth Sthalekar, an IIM Ahmedabad graduate, walked away from a successful job as a stock market analyst in Mumbai to live and work at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. He dedicated four years there to rethink and reformulate his understanding of wealth and how it should be measured and stored in the 21st century.

In 2015, he founded Sacred Capital, an eco-system of users and analysts who believe that the world is poised to make a cultural shift towards diverse and multi-dimensional currencies that will empower people through decentralisation. Firstpost spoke to Sthalekar, who explains how and why this unfolding process can enhance Swaraj.

Read the full interview here.

Part X:

After living in India for 38 years, Belgian-born economist Jean Dreze identifies more with the name 'Jaan Daraz', which is how he is known to people in hundreds of villages and towns across the country. Unlike most economists, Dreze's knowledge of the Indian ground realities is based on countless days spent living among the people, whom policy makers and marketing experts perceive as the 'bottom of the pyramid'. In the late 1980s, Dreze often travelled across rural India in a manner akin to sadhus – moving on foot and depending on the hospitality of people for food and shelter.

After graduating from the University of Essex, Dreze did a PhD at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi. Dreze has taught at the London School of Economics, Delhi School of Economics and has been a visiting professor at the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. In the academic world, Dreze is known for the various books he has co-authored with Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.

But Dreze's place in history has been secured by his seminal contributions to the campaign which led to the right to food being enshrined as a Fundamental Right in the Indian Constitution. For the millions who still live on the edge of poverty or below, Dreze is a familiar face because he personally engages in extensive data collection exercises to monitor the implementation of both the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and the Right to Food.

Firstpost spoke to Dreze, who also served briefly on the National Advisory Council in both terms of the UPA government.

Read the full interview here.

Part XI:

Mahesh Sharma describes himself as a technologist with a mission for 'gram-udaya' (rural uplift). In keeping with India's syncretic traditions, he simultaneously embraces the legacies of MK Gandhi, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Ram Manohar Lohia.

Associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) from his childhood, the 68-year-old has served as general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad(ABVP) and was also a member of the National Committee formed by Jayaprakash Narayan during the students' movement of the mid-1970s. After being jailed during the Emergency, Sharma did a PhD on the technology systems of tribal societies from IIT Delhi.

Firstpost spoke to Sharma, who from 1998 to 2004 (during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's tenure) served as chairman of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC). He has also worked as the director general of the Madhya Pradesh Council of Science and Technology.

Read the full interview here.

This series of interviews was inspired by a conversation with students of the Development Management Institute (DMI), Patna. This newly formed institute chose to hold its first graduation ceremony on 18 April — the centenary of the Champaran satyagraha. When the DMI invited me to deliver the convocation address I was at first puzzled. What could one say to the graduating class on a day marking so lofty a moment in Indian history and be simultaneously real, truthful and also hopeful.

I began by assuming that contemporary calls for ‘aazadi’ probably resonate with the young management graduates while events of India’s struggle for freedom are remote. At the same time, there was a compelling need to look closely at just what happened before the magistrate in Champaran on 18 April 1917.

Gandhi’s refusal to leave Champaran, as directed by the Magistrate, and voluntarily submit to the penalty for disobedience is well known. But Gandhi’s exact words, in court that day, bear repetition. His disobedience, Gandhi said, was not due to disrespect for the law but was “in obedience of the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience”.

It is futile to lament that these ideals are hardly ever invoked in contemporary public life. Instead I invited the graduating class to look upon these ideals as the foundation of swaraj as an on-going process. This opens up countless creative possibilities, while seeing swaraj as an ever receding destination is dispiriting.

After the formalities of the convocation ceremony were completed, a free-wheeling conversation with the students confirmed that this approach has some appeal. Still more importantly it was self-evident, even in a small group of a few dozen young people, that there are many ways of looking at swaraj – particularly among those who are just starting out in life.

This observation gave rise to a two-fold resolve.

First, to explore what swaraj means today through conversations with a wide range of people from divergent vantage points in society, politics and economy.

There are many ways of looking at swaraj – particularly among those who are just starting out in life.

Second, to ensure that this exploration happens through a real conversation, instead of an interrogation. The purpose of the Swaraj at 70 conversations was to listen rather than counter, to invite reflection rather than pose a challenge.

Consequently, there are many moments in the 11 conversations of this series where an enticing or contentious idea has been left hanging – not followed through. Hopefully, this limitation of the exercise has proved to be worthwhile in the interests of opening possibilities for future dialogue.

This is amply reaffirmed by the one linking thread that runs through the diverse, and divergent, voices in this series. That thread is the appeal for self-introspection and keenness to listen to the ‘other’. Seeing this as a vital, if not defining, element of swaraj-as-process is for me the key take-away of this series.

As expected, the series also manifested the fable of the elephant and the blindmen. Each conversation is in itself true – but only one part of a larger whole. Thus, even the most sharply contrasting conversations on Swaraj at 70 do not contradict or cancel out each other. Instead, together they reflect the co-existence of multiple truths and diverse realities.

These competing truths of India’s ground reality can be seen as a chaotic, confusing jumble. They are indeed frustrating for those who want any one or two of these narratives to prevail over all else. But those who are truly willing and able to celebrate, to build upon, India’s diversity will find a profound underlying complementarity.

Yes, this quest for complementarity does run the risk of under-playing utterly unacceptable moral contradictions. So the pre-requisite for building upon the diversity of perspectives has to be a non-negotiable commitment to fundamental rights as spelt out in the Constitution of India — which is implicit in each of these conversations.

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