Throughout India, flags were hoisted, speeches made and tributes paid to the great and the good. As the flag went up on this Independence Day, 15 August 2008, I listened to a speech remembering the millions who fought for freedom - the ordinary folk who believed in it enough to risk jail, even death. The people who stood in non-violent lines, offering themselves as cannon fodder, had visions of a land where the yoke would be lifted. They dreamt dreams for their children and grandchildren, the generations to come. Our Constitution is one of the finest in the world. It was written in a different era, a time of hope, by people filled with a passion for justice, equality and liberty. By people who had vision.
From mid-July to mid-August I was on a course called ‘Development From the Inside’. Every day we reviewed the plight of the excluded, the deprived, different sections of our society desperately in need of help. So it was natural that my thoughts turned to the millions in India for whom our freedom, more than 60 years after it was won, is merely symbolic, a notion, an idea. As the country celebrates 61 years of Independence, we need to stop and think of these people. Their lives remain marginalized, impoverished. Liberty, equality, justice were the theme-song for the people, even the poorest. But the dreams have turned to ashes, a cruel joke that can’t evoke laughter.
In Mysore, as the Independence Day sweets were distributed, I recalled the face of Ramu, a little boy, 12 years old. He goes to the local government school. He can’t remember his father. His mother was a beggar, alcoholic to boot. The child slept under a tree. When it rained he ran to the shelter of a temple verandah to protect his books. He did odd jobs there and earned a meal. With no encouragement from anyone, this child went to school every day, an impoverished government school with no resources and minimal teaching. Yet Ramu loved school, he yearned to read, to learn. It’s unlikely the child will realize his hopes. All he has is the freedom to dream.
A few kilometres from Ramu live Anandi, Lakshmi and Geetha. Dressed in rags and covered in filth, they were rescued from the streets by Manasi, an organization that works for women with mental health problems. Their families had thrown them out of their homes, unwilling or unable to cope with these ‘mad’ mothers. Some of the women in the shelter are middle class, educated. But society cannot accommodate them. There are very few rescue homes for such women. They are counted lucky to be in any kind of shelter at all. Most women like them wander the streets at the mercy of men who beat and abuse them mentally, physically and sexually.
On a full-moon night, hundreds of men and women are brought, in chains, to temples deemed especially effective for mad people, to exorcise the demons out of them. This often involves beating them senseless.
On a full-moon night, hundreds of men and women are brought, in chains, to temples deemed especially effective for mad people, to exorcise the demons out of them. This often involves beating them senseless. The rights of our people branded ‘insane’ or ‘deranged’ are barely addressed. In institutions they are routinely brutalized and abused. Theirs not to reason why.
Madhu from the group Vimochana Bangalore delivers a lecture in which she informs her horrified audience that three women die every day in Bangalore of unnatural causes. Few of these are reported or recorded as crimes or dowry deaths. Vimochana undertakes inquiries to ascertain the truth behind the suspicious deaths. Proving murder is not always simple. And our women’s lives are cheap. Every burns ward in the country has burnt brides - women left charred, disfigured, scarred both physically and emotionally for life.
MV Kamath informs us: ‘Every 26 minutes a woman is molested; every 34 minutes a rape takes place; every 42 minutes a sexual harassment incident occurs; every 43 minutes a woman is kidnapped; and almost every hour a woman is burnt to death over dowry; 25 per cent of the rapes involve girls under the age of 16.’
This is India in August 2008.
In Gujarat, victims of the 2002 genocide still languish in camps six years later. Harsh Mander wrote movingly in a recent Hindu column of the despair, the blatant mockery of the legal system evident throughout Gujarat. The rapists stalk the camps, strutting macho-like, confident that they will always walk free. Muslims watch in silent frustration as the butchers of their parents, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, sons and daughters get away scot-free. Once-wealthy people must merely grit their teeth in impotent rage as they watch the men responsible for murdering entire families, usurping their homes and occupying their lush farmlands flaunt the spoils of the victims of 2002. As we drove past, people pointed out the occupied farms. They were bitter but resigned to the fact that justice was not in sight, nor did they expect it from the government that masterminded the genocide.
Rereading the pages of the freedom struggle, I unravel stories of Muslims who led battles against the British, who were in the forefront of the fight for liberty. There are tales of valour and sacrifice, moving stories of Muslims and Hindus fighting side-by-side. They must be turning in their graves as they watch the politics of hate being enacted by their descendants so soon after freedom was won with their blood, sweat and tears
The founders of this nation fought to give land to our starving masses. That was the cornerstone of government policy. Every political party promised land for the landless. So, at 60, have we grown senile? Overturning everything that Independence promised, our leaders are gifting away poor peasants’ lands to multinational corporations.
Everywhere in the country, with little fanfare and no media attention, the poor are being pushed off fertile land to make way for factories, industries, malls, expanding cities. They are forced to migrate to cities in search of work, where once more they are threatened and evicted, live tenuous lives in slums or as pavement dwellers, in squalor and misery, vulnerable, insecure and totally without dignity. I once attended a lecture on globalization by former Supreme Court Justice Krishna Iyer. He dubbed these new land reforms unconstitutional and illegal, totally antithetical to the spirit of India’s Constitution.
Our farmers continue to commit suicide en masse, but little is done to improve the agricultural system. Unless radical reform takes place and a new focus on agriculture is planned, India will plunge into a massive food crisis. Studies have shown that food security is greatly endangered by the current policies, the lack of effective policies, as we focus on industrialization and illusory growth, ignoring the fact that over 70 per cent of our population still depends on agriculture to subsist.
Last week I listened to a lecture by Professor Basavaraj of the farmers’ movement on the protests being organized by the Karnataka Raithar Sangha. We attended a rally and watched in awe as the farmers around Mysore exhibited their organizing power in a protest rally.
Hope lies also in Ramu, the little boy who dares to dream, against all the odds, who sleeps under his tree and sweeps his temple, protects his books from the rain and goes to a school where little happens.
The next day I read with disbelief that Kamal Nath had told the WTO that India could not abandon its farmers’ rights or wishes. Talks were in disarray, India and China accused of blocking the way forward. Green power was actually making its mark.
On 15 August the Safai Karmachari Andolan planned to lead a huge rally announcing their first big success. A long and lonely battle had just been won. They could proudly declare that Andhra Pradesh was finally free of the shame of manual scavenging - they had got every man, woman and child to declare that they would never clean shit again. Where Gandhiji, myriad Prime Ministers and Chief Ministers and Viceroys before them had failed, a group of determined dalits had succeeded in liberating their own people, restoring dignity and pride to them.
Today, minutes past midnight, I received an email from them. The message they are sending to politicians and officials reads: ‘Every sister seeks money, clothes, gifts from her brother. I, your sister, seek freedom from this inhuman work. To liberate me is your duty… I hope you will, as part of your duty, liberate me from this abominable work.’
Hope lies also in Ramu, the little boy who dares to dream, against all the odds, who sleeps under his tree and sweeps his temple, protects his books from the rain and goes to a school where little happens. But miracles can still happen. Ramu came first in his class in a recent exam, encouraged and supported by one teacher who has taken him under her wing.
The Rural Literacy and Health Programme (RLHP) has a home for street children. Halfway through our development course, when tales of dowry deaths, dalit atrocities, adivasis deprivation and acid attacks begin to weigh everyone down with a sense of despondency and gloom, street children manage to uplift everyone’s spirits with their buoyancy, their verve, their absolute unputdownability. In the face of tremendous odds, these kids, given shelter, a smile and a hug, have bounced back. They sing, they dance. They tell their stories matter-of-factly, completely without rancour, not looking for pity. That’s been their experience of life. They plan to get on with it.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote: ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high / Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.’
We should make that our national anthem. For it is only when our people, all our people, are truly free from hunger, soul-searing poverty, fear of rape, murder and violence, that all of us will be able to celebrate joyously, gloriously and freely the dawn of a truly liberated India.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.