After Will Smith reduced Independence Day to a war film, August 15 can never be the same for the present generation. Exhausted after countless films on war between human societies, Hollywood now has found new enemies to glorify independence: aliens and apes. Independence, as these films repeatedly emphasise, is just another kind of war.
Independence is also a word that only teenagers, and politicians on August 15, take seriously. We all know it by now and there is no sense in acting as if we don’t: August 15 is just another holiday. The malls will be full, new films will be released and the middle class will eat out as if it is not going to get another meal. This day truly illustrates how much in-dependent we have all become: we cannot live without an-other.
Freedom and independence are two wonderful characters, and best suited for the movies. In real life they cause far more problems than they solve. In real life, these ideas need the strength of a solitary walker on the top of Agumbe who watches the sunset all by herself. Like many other ideas in modern life, these have become mere words that are meaningful only in expensive greeting cards.
But the good thing about August 15 is that it is only independence for a nation and not for its citizens. That is a relief since modern individuals cannot handle being free, cannot imagine sitting quietly by themselves for more than two minutes. We build societies so that we, as individuals, can be entertained by others or at least have others to distract our solitude.
It is this spirit of solitude that makes freedom possible but modern societies cannot deal with solitude. We are forever in each others’ faces. Cell phones intrude into the most private spaces of one another. When people don’t get instant replies to their email, their anxiety shoots up. What are we really anxious about? Is it just that others around us may have forgotten our existence? Being left alone by others leads to the potentially dangerous situation of being ignored by everybody else. How would we distinguish between being unwanted and being free?
Most of us as citizens are complicit in this denial of freedom since the only freedom that the consuming class seems to want is the freedom to indulge in its desires. The only time the notion of freedom enters our minds is when somebody stops us from doing what we want. Freedom is an excuse for playing out one’s private desires in a public domain. The notion of freedom in the context of the nation has become quite meaningless when it has been reduced to a vehicle for the consummation of individual desires.
What would we celebrate this Independence Day for? On this day, will we think about the fact that we are home to one of the largest number of slave populations in the world? In a report released last year, India was supposed to have nearly 14 million slaves, just a little less than half of the total number of slaves in the world! We may question these numbers but we cannot ignore the presence of slavery and bondage under which millions of Indians live. So, on this day, would we think about the enormously large number of deprived people in our country who do not have the freedom to eat, sleep, bathe or go to the toilet that most others take for granted? How do we understand our personal freedom in the background of the freedom of a nation?
History teaches us that every act of inhuman savagery in the form of wars, conflict and genocides is often hidden under the rhetoric of freedom and independence. One would have thought that we would have learnt some lesson at least now. But the spirit of being human seems to thrive more through conflict rather than through peace. Every day in the news, it is one disaster story after another and the feeling I get is that we are sleepwalking our way to a major crisis. We have a reached a point that when this happens we will be like all those who lived through the first two World Wars and countless other wars and genocides since: puzzled, vaguely helpless, but getting on with our job of living.
Conflict becomes the organising principle of the social, especially when we lose the art of silently being with oneself. One source of conflict is inherent in the very idea of the social: we want others to live the way we want them to and yet we want the ‘freedom’ to do exactly what each one of us wants. Perhaps the slogan for contemporary India is this: Freedom for me, but not for you. This is the tension, the paradox and the deep tragedy of our social existence. Every day this slogan is being constantly acted out around us. We want the freedom to drive as we like on the roads but that others around us should follow the rules! And what is happening in our country today in all spheres is only aggravating these tendencies.
Unfortunately, the notions of freedom and independence have largely become the Will Smith version and not those which could have been derived from a great galaxy of thinkers and doers. For example, we can take more seriously the view that freedom and independence come not from war but from individual sacrifice. Beginning with Buddha and exemplified in modern times through Gandhi, Ambedkar and a host of other leaders, we have models of struggle against injustice without demanding that others be like us.
There is a simple lesson that can still save us from the uncontrolled movement towards national and global disaster. It is only this: the first and only war that has to be fought is the war with oneself, with one’s own prejudices, beliefs and desires. The only way that each of us can be free is to enable others around us to be free: this pop-music philosophy is all we need this Independence Day, not the heavy artillery of jingoistic movies or the stale rhetoric of national freedom in the midst of individual poverty and bondage.
The author is director of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University