India at 71: The idea of independence

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanAug 15, 2018 | 11:28

India at 71: The idea of independence

Today independence is an idea that makes you nostalgic and bitter. At the very moment you toast to your freedom and salute the national movement, you wonder what we did with that freedom all these years.

For me independence meant an unleashing of the imagination, reaching out for a creativity that went far beyond the colonial limits. Maybe three anecdotes could cover what independence meant, the autonomy of thought, the creativity of the mind it entailed. Years ago, an American journalist asked Gandhi, “What do you think of Western civilisation?” Gandhi answered: “It would be a good idea.” Gandhi’s mind was already free long before Independence. The follow-up of this story is a cartoon by that mordant caricaturists and novelist, OV Vijayan. It is a cartoon of an older Gandhi hobbing on a cane and being asked, “What do you think of Indian civilisation and independence?” He said, “That would also be a good idea.”


Independence was not the mere ritual of hoisting the flag and going through the rituals of saluting it. Independence was the art of being free, the craft of inventing new possibilities, the ability to create new dreams and live them out. Our national movement had a sense of it. Where else would you find a movement so hospitable to the West, which could welcome the West as part of our freedom movement?

I remember philosopher Raimundo Panikkar tell me that independence was not just about liberation from colonialism. Independence was a time when you transcend colonial categories. Panikkar, in fact, proposed that we should not empty out Pondicherry, Serampur but have them as lenses for India to study the West. Independence was that plural time when the soul was open to new ideas. A sense of freedom went with a sense of trusteeship.

Photo: Mail Today

I guess the first narrowing of independence was when India lost its sense of civilisation and became a nation state. A civilisation was a dream of cosmologies, of alternative worlds, but a nation state was only a policing operation, an obsession with boundaries. Between Partition and the Bengal Famine, India lost its sense of civilisation and became a nation state. Today, the RSS and the BJP has made the idea of independence a mediocre idea by narrowing the idea of patriotism. The RSS had no idea of dream time.


I asked a scientist to explain his idea of dream time. He told me that India has over 100,000 varieties of rice, a hundred thousand ways of cooking, sowing and dreaming. He said independence means keeping that diversity alive, the availability of every variety as a dream of an alternative imagination. I remember my father dreamt of independence as a serial drama of other liberations. He felt that the fifties had crippled India. His favourite metaphor was hockey. He talked of the 1936 Olympics where India played against the US. For the first half an hour, we played with canvas shoes and hardly made a dent. Come half time, we threw away the shoes and beat the US 21-0. But the West introduced AstroTurf which destroyed our game. You could not play barefoot on Astro-Turf. For my father, independence was hockey without Astro-Turf. Independence to us was not just creativity, but the right to make rules. The West, he felt, had been a rule-maker for too long. My father felt that independence meant outthinking the West or any other colonial power and its right to determine our future.

I remember talking to an anthropologist and Gandhian. He said the West had destroyed forest and tribals within it. The genocide of tribes and their virtual extinction was one of the great crimes of the West. The old man added independence means not following the West in destroying the tribes, but a ritual act of sharing freedom. The tribe to be free has to be both a parallel and complementary world. Independence for him was the sense of freeing yourself from a totalitarian impetus. It is this cascading sense of creating other freedoms that we have lost. Independence is gifting freedom to other worlds and other lives.


I remember historian Dharampal talking about freedom in the 17th and 18th century. Dharampal claimed that if a king was tyrannical, the villagers would abandon the village en masse.

The king had to run behind them and apologise for them to return. Independence, to Dharampal, was the right to secede from any form of tyranny. Secession, in fact, becomes the first right of independent citizenship.

Independence, to my friend UR Ananthamurthy, meant the right to your own story and the storyteller. It is the right to relate to your world in the language of your choice. Ananthamurthy added, “Illiterate India was free. An illiterate worker spoke in six languages while a convent schoolgirl barely communicated in one.” Independence to Ananthamurthy was the right to articulate your world in your own language. He always felt Macaulay robbed us of our freedom more than Clive or Cornwallis did.

Independence for the many teachers who taught me was a state of mind free from the mind of state. Independence was a state without emergencies, where the poor were not criminalised for their poverty. What haunts India is the fact that we have corroded our independence by destroying the freedom of the margins through development, the freedom to migrate through mob lynchings, the freedom to pursue another religion through riots. Independence is the right to dissent. Independence is not independence without alternatives.

I must give the last word to a group of Kashmiri students. Independence is freedom from torture and rape, the right not to be brutalised because you left your ID card at home. Independence is the right to move and think freely without surveillance, sentencing or threats. Independence, they sadly feel, has not reached all parts of India.

Independence in that sense is a utopia we seek to build every day, a freedom invented every moment, the right to be and the right for others to be. It is a dream and a hypothesis that has to be confirmed again and again. It is a salute to the human in all of us.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)


Last updated: August 15, 2018 | 11:28
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