Azadi : The Resurrection of  a slogan

india independence day

In August we celebrate the 74th anniversary of our independence. At the time, the communists had raised the slogan then famous or rather infamous – “  yeh azadi jhoohi hai” ..  this is a false independence meaning that this  independence would not mean anything the ordinary people fighting for daily survival and that this was a festival of the elite. For a newly independent nation drunk on freedom and power and ageing freedom fighters tired of coarse khaddar and coarser prisons and prison food, this was too much to swallow. The then undivided Communist  Party was promptly banned in 1948 and remained banned till the eve of the first general elections.

In hindsight , the slogan wasn’t all that hollow. Reading newspaper reports of farmers blocking the way of the Haryana Assembly Deputy Speaker on July 11th seems to be making a mockery of the sedition laws under which luminaries like Tilak and Gandhiji were once booked.  Indeed the Supreme Court under CJI Ramana seems to have regained some credibility by asking the Central Government as to why a colonial era law should even exist at the dawn of the diamond jubilee of independence.  The government’s response is awaited. It could of could blame Nehru and his near total dominance of the political landscape for 17 years not repealing the controversial section of the law and in this case they would not be wrong.  Less than a year after India adopted the constitution, Nehru got the constitution amended incorporating the right of the State to put in place “ reasonable restrictions ” on the right to free speech and it was Indira Gandhi in 1973 who made sedition a cognizable offence making it the demon it is today.

But independence and freedom is not just about sedition and free speech. At its core it is the right to life and life in all its fullness. And at this time, I am not even mentioning the usual suspects of poverty, illiteracy, corruption et al. Not that they have gone away but all that can be said about them has probably been said except that every year there is a new data set. Rather I am talking of a kind of bondage that doesn’t get talked about much but which I have been studying for the last decade or so.

Take for instance slavery or to use the word that the global community uses – modern day slavery.  Just how many opeds have we read about the subject even in the so called most progressive of newspapers or how many shows on prime time television ? And yet as I write, an estimated 40.3 million people – more than three times the figure during the transatlantic slave trade – are living in some form of modern slavery, according to the data published by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO). 8 million of these could be in India according to the global slavery index. These figures may never be fully accurate – neither for India and neither for the world, given the complexity of obtaining accurate data. At the time of writing, the government is considering a new Anti trafficking law that is modern and deals with all forms of trafficking and modern day slavery( a term not used in India). Such an attempt was also made in the 1st term of the Modi government when the bill was introduced and passed in the Lok Sabha but was never introduced in the Rajya Sabha and eventually lapsed. While this law if enacted this time round will help bring in an umbrella legislation as against multiple laws enacted at various point of time that exists today, it is anyone’s guess whether the new law will make any substantial difference. With news laws being enacted all the time and old ones getting amended or repealed, the typical law enforcement official on the ground is often ignorant of what law is in effect on a given date.

Will there be a day when India be fully independent given these realities ? In 21st century India, the age where India is supposedly the Vishvaguru,  there are possibly more slaves living in India than anywhere else in the world , whatever be the true numbers may be.   Bound by shackles of caste, penury, generational debt and the hunger for cheap labour as “Make in India” gains momentum, human trafficking to provide a supply chain of forced labour is the most lucrative business opportunity in the country unhindered by regulators , stock exchange filings, or bear and bull runs. But clearly for those millions trapped within its jaws, freedom is indeed jhoothi.  Like someone told me recently while discussing the annual ritualism that surrounds independence day every year; we are only partly free ; even the most privileged of us. Sometimes there is light at the end of the tunnel, sometimes not ; like the moon on a cloudy night, hope is a slippery thing.

Dr  Shantanu Dutta , A former Air Force doctor is now serving in the NGO sector for many decades.

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