By now, you would have read reams about what stops our great nation from being truly free. I’ve been reading a lot of books recently that were written before 1947 or set in the ‘colonial’ era.
These books have been breaking down the neat constructs of schoolbook history. We’d been given to understand that the British sailed east, saw that India was rich, began to wage battles against ‘our’ kings and began to rule India.
But the truth is slightly different. For starters, there was no ‘us’. There were hundreds of kingdoms, all part of a power hierarchy. A kingdom could be ‘sovereign’ but it might have to pay tribute to a bigger, more powerful kingdom. That was the only way to stay ‘independent’.
It was the only way a king or queen could stay on the throne. If kings or queens were devoted to citizen welfare, they would also sign peace treaties to save people from violence and total economic ruin in the course of war. Our ‘foreign invaders’ could be Bhutanese (from Assam’s perspective), Maratha (from Bhopal’s perspective), or Tibetan (from Spiti’s perspective).
But Britain gained in power to the extent that almost all kingdoms – despite racial and cultural differences – suffered. Taxes were heavy; wealth was leaving the subcontinent. Now, there was a common enemy, racially different and blatantly discriminatory. So enough people – even the rich – could say: ‘Quit India’.
It took a long time but Britain did quit India, politically at least. And ‘India’ was born. But that didn’t mean we stopped trying to enslave other citizens.
There was a recent news article about a domestic worker from Jharkhand, a teenage girl, who was beaten and starved for three days by her employer. Does this not sound like slavery? The teenager survived, but imagine her situation – she didn’t speak any of the three main languages that most neighbours would have spoken; she had no money, and circumstances at home were probably desperate enough for her to be sent to Mumbai in the first place. Another equally shocking report from Kanpur:
A husband asked his pregnant wife to undergo a sex-determination test for the foetus. She refused. So he poured acid on her private parts. Now, think of the wife’s situation. Perhaps she had no money or property; if she walked out on her husband, she would face the risk of attacks from other men. Given the state of the police and legal system in our country, she couldn’t have hoped for timely intervention. Does this not sound like a slavery-enabling system?
It has become fashionable to dismiss Gandhi and his methods of non-violence, non-cooperation, and self-reflection. But there is a
reason Gandhi chose these tools in the struggle for freedom.
What was being done to us by imperialist forces was violence.
Indians were not necessarily being locked up in a cage, or whipped. Those might be our mental images of slavery. Our main shackles were economic and psychological. We could not make decisions for ourselves, or control natural resources. If we tried to, we confronted physical violence.
This is exactly what is happening to hundreds of millions of Indians today. If one can’t make decisions about how resources will be used, who to have sex with, and whether or not to have babies, how can a citizen be called free?
This is why the question of “women’s freedom” needs the same answer, the same tactics. Non-cooperation. Non-violence.
De-conditioning. If freedom means anything to us, we must struggle as we struggled for India, in the name of humanity and justice.