And still, it’s Independence Day in India tomorrow. (Today is Pakistan’s Independence Day – reaching out to all those devastated by the Pakistan floods.). Our media is full of the obligatory ‘cliched’ thoughts on freedom – corruption, poor governance, terrorism, naxalism, separatism, communalism, overpopulation, poverty etc et etc – ably supported by commercialization of the weekend, with obese pages of Independence Day retail ads, deals and discounts – each one cashing in on the the ‘liberated consumer’. I’d like to share some interesting reads this Saturday, on the brink of our 64th year of Independence. What I like about this selection of articles is that they are talking about specific notions of freedom – migration and free speech – not very much new content, but nicely written thought and thematic pieces that force me to look outside my urban elitist wired window.
Migration and Freedom:
I began with the Outlook Independence Day issue – The Mobile Republic – which is devoted to the challenges migrants face, and the faultlines of migration in India. Underlying this issue is the theme of an unequal India, one that pretends to be inclusive, but the cracks are many. This map reveals how much migration there actually is – making sense of mobility – metadata:
Nandan Nilekani, in his column We, The Innumerable talks of the ‘dual track’ in our development (sometimes I feel we are quite schizophrenic as a country, esp. when I travel to rural areas), and the need for a sense of ‘personhood’:
Nevertheless, growth in India is still, visibly, ‘dual track’, with the rapid transformation of urban India and the income growth of the middle class contrasting sharply with the rural country, where growth still remains an attractive but uncertain promise, and people’s aspirations are often cheek to cheek with their frustrations. Here, among the dust of the village and the faded wheat fields, it is difficult to comprehend the momentum of the Indian city.
The risk of being left behind
In the period when India experienced slow, near-stagnant growth rates, one humorous remark was that in India ‘everything proceeds at the rate of the slowest member’. The challenge today may be the opposite: that India’s breathtaking growth, combined with high rates of inequality, will leave too many behind and make the problem of our ‘slowest members’—lagging sectors and regions—an especially urgent one. In fact, in our rapidly expanding economy, inclusive growth thus becomes an even larger priority—else inequity left unaddressed means that the people left behind find themselves falling further behind every year, as the differences become too significant to overcome.
Neelabh Mishra talks of the Pardesi’s Perils - in this case, its not about migrating abroad but from state to state within the country:
Land sharks, labour contractors, businesses that need labourers in large numbers, politicians—they all feed the middle-class anxiety such a situation creates to make the migrants even more vulnerable. For instance, in Jaipur and Ajmer, a perverse reduction is being deployed: all migrants are Bengali speakers, all Bengali speakers are in fact illegal Bangladeshi Muslims, all crime and terrorist activity is their work. Whipping up communal frenzy in this way makes it easy both to deliver up slum clusters as real estate to builders and constituencies to politicians of a certain hue. Similar processes—not confined to Jaipur or Ajmer, and which other political parties are certainly not above using—create volatile situations exploited to the hilt by the predators who create them.
There is also another kind of faultline, created when powerful migrants arrive to prey upon weaker locals. The tribals of Jharkhand have long resented the Diku, or the outsider, first British, then Bengali, and later Marwari or Bihari, who exploited them. The tribals of Dantewada and Bastar too have similar terms to express their resentment for migrant communities that have long exploited them. Reduced to a minority in their own land, Jharkhand tribals first sought a separate state; now they are entwined in the Maoist insurgency. In Dantewada, many tribals are fighting a near civil war against the State, again under Maoist leadership.
And there are many other articles on migrants and their stories of success and pain as they strive for different dimensions of freedom in the ‘new’.
On, to Livemint Lounge – an issue dedicated to Free Speech. Well done @priyaramani and team – some great articles there. From Sunil Khilnani’s ‘A case for offence’ (he’s the author of The Idea of India):
All beliefs command a certain political respect—they should be heard. But let’s be equally clear that not all beliefs are equal, nor should they all be shown equal respect in intellectual or moral terms. Some beliefs are correct, others are false; some are better, others are worse. To think that the belief that widows should be burned on their husband’s funeral pyres stands on a par with the belief that all young girls should be educated, is morally repulsive and intellectually stupid.
But how are we to find this out, how do we come to evaluations that lead us to reject some beliefs—even if they are embedded in religious world views—and to embrace others? Such matters are not to be found out by consulting holy books or scriptural authorities; nor by polling the offended sentiments of religious believers.
We like to think of ourselves as argumentative, as debaters welcoming of diverse views and energized by confrontation. In reality though, what passes for argument is melodrama: shouting past one another, whether in Parliament and state assemblies, in TV studios, or at a railway counters; or else a timid refusal to really engage at all, a cowardly deference to “sentiment”.
The truth is, we’re not very good at tolerating views that question, mock or subvert our accepted beliefs—especially if we happen to be able to describe these as our religious beliefs. This collective chippiness—which makes us boastful and seeking the approval of others, but unwilling to take their criticism or questioning—is not a conducive psychological precondition in favour of free speech.
And today, those laws restrict Indian freedoms. Argumentative Indians? Maybe—so long as the argument is about cricket, or cinema, or perhaps mangoes. As the injunction says in an Irani restaurant in Mumbai, discussion about religion and politics is out of bounds. But you can talk about cutting chai and bun muska, while the owner’s father’s portrait looks over you, deciding what you can speak and think.
Technology and Freedom
I’ve yet to see much written about the intersection of technology and freedom. The articles made me reflect upon the special blend of relationship between technology & migrants, and technology & free speech. Both are complex issues – with many dichotomies. On the one hand, access to mobile phones and computers is known to empower the disadvantaged and the poor – however access issues and cost create a digital divide. In research studies we have conducted among migrant workers and technology, we’ve found that the cell phone is often the new calling card and gives migrants a sense of ‘personhood’ (to steal Mr. Nilekani’s term). It’s also a device that brings the city (work, play, relationships, entertainment, services) to them – equal opportunities??? – that’s perhaps pushing it too far. But ironically, the same cell phone and the internet can become divisive tools – when used to arouse feelings of hatred and to mobilize crowds to violate their fundamental rights as human beings and citizens of India, as the vile MNS does in Bombay.
Then there is the whole issue around free speech and censorship. These two polarizations seem to continually blend into each other, amplifying one another, feeding the divisions. Sometimes I feel, the more we change, the more we remain the same .. or even go a few steps back. Doesn’t really make sense, but it would seem that the more we (people) speak and voice our views enabled by technology, (through mainstream media and social media eg. twitter, facebook, sms, BBM, blogs, flickr, youtube etc.), the more the government feels the need to impose on our freedoms and invade our right to privacy, by censoring us and taking away access. First, Blackberry, next Google, Skype? One may argue that there is justification with all the terror attacks and threats. Still, these bans only feed back into us shouting even louder, more viciously and manipulatively and sometimes unreasonably.
None of this is freedom for anyone really.
And it’s not just the government that we incite and who incites us – caste groups, fanatical religious groups, political parties, big corporations and interest lobbies who often hide behind the face of the government, and even just ordinary people like you and me who have different views from ours and feel they have the right to say just about anything to anybody.
So we shout. They try to stifle our voice. We use our social networks and communities to amplify and spread our voice, and our opinions. We shout louder and more viciously for our freedoms, and find ways of attacking back and circumventing bans. One such case was when the Government tried to ban blogs – prompted by some misguided sense of nationalism -inept censorship at its best! And a few times I’ve been on the other side where I’ve been forced to close or delete comments, invoking my own powers of censorship over my blog.
Sanjukta Sharma writes so aptly, in her introduction to the free speech series:
We celebrate the old and new kinds of free speech in this special issue. It’s a freedom, the lack of which we remember every other day. Our right to freedom of expression in the Constitution has “reasonable restrictions”—the “reasonable” often bordering on the bizarre. Hurt sentiments over calling Billu a barber; outrage over the biography of a national hero; violent attacks on those who commemorate the spirit of a certain fun-loving St Valentine with sweet nothings and oblong-shaped balloons—something irks somebody all the time. If you laugh at Indianness, you are booed. If you have a mind, you are stupid and deserve to be called names.
The free speech issue, not surprisingly, became less about freedom and more about censorship and restriction—in art, movies, erotica and the public sphere.
The question then is, who is really free in all this? Is it possible that the louder we all shout, we stop listening to each other? And when we stop listening, we cannot understand or empathize with the underlying issues and signals beyond all the noise – real issues faced by those who censor and are being censored.
And when we stop listening, we live with fear. Look at the mess the USA is in today – fear seems to have been one of the key operating themes driving many of their decisions in the last decade.
If fear frames our next decade, we will never really be free.