The Republic of Apathy

This essay of mine was published today in the Independence Day special issue of Lounge, the weekend edition of Mint, as “Those Songs of Freedom.”

Just thinking of it sends a chill up my spine. On 12 March 1930, at the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, 79 men went for a walk. For 23 days they marched, covering four districts, 48 villages, 400 kilometres. On the way they picked up thousands of other ordinary people, animated by a cause so much bigger than themselves. Then, on 6 April, by the sea at the coastal village of Dandi, Mahatma Gandhi picked up a handful of salty earth and said, “With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.” 

The empire shook. The purpose of Gandhi’s march was to protest the oppressive and unfair salt tax, and across the country people joined the battle. They made their own salt. They bought illegal salt. That year, 60,000 Indians were arrested during these protests. The Salt Law was not repealed. And yet, “the first stage in … the final struggle of freedom,” as Gandhi described it, had made an impact.

More than 77 years have passed. We have been free of the British empire for 60 of them. If we were to get inside a time machine, go back to 1930, pull in some of the men and women who marched to Dandi, and bring them to this present time, how would they react? Would they think that they were finally in the India that they had fought to achieve? 

Or would they set off on another walk?

*  *  *

The story of our freedom struggle was not the story of a Gandhi here or a Nehru there – it was about millions of people who rose up because they wanted to be masters of their own destiny. The British empire was naturally the focus of that struggle, and when we were rid of them in 1947, the relief must have been enormous. The tragedy is that for most Indians, political independence was freedom enough. What else was there to fight for?

Well, plenty. The oppressive empire from a continent away was gradually replaced by an oppressive, omnipresent state, and we did not protest. The lack of economic freedom kept India poor for decades, and we did not protest. Personal freedoms were routinely denied to us, and we did not protest.  In parts of our country people are treated worse than the British treated us, and we do not protest. As a nation, we stopped caring for freedom once we gained independence.

It is ironic that we celebrate the Dandi March so much. The taxes that weigh us down today are no less unjust that the infamous salt tax being protested then. Do some math: Calculate the percentage of your income that you pay as tax. Then apply that figure to a year, and see how many months it comes to. (For example, 25% tax would come to three months.) For that much time every year, you work not for yourself, but for the government. Add to that an approximation of the other taxes that you pay – everything you buy is taxed, so you are taxed not just while earning money, but also while spending it. You might just find that your ‘tax-freedom day,” when you actually start working for yourself, comes in May every year, or even later. Do taxes not cause a kind of part-time slavery, then?

It is not my case that taxes are unnecessary. We need a government to maintain law and order, to protect individual rights and so on, but our government is a bloated beast that goes far beyond that. Rajiv Gandhi once said that only 15 paise of every rupee that the government spent reached its intended recepient, and the planning commission later found him to be optimistic. More than 90% of our taxes are probably wasted – middle-class people like the readers of this article may not feel the pinch (unless we fantasize about what we could have done with that money), but think of our maidservants and sabzi sellers, whose every purchase feels the weight of government greed. The salt tax Gandhi protested was no worse.

Freedom for a country should mean every person being free to live their lives as they please, as long as they do not interfere with the similar freedoms of others. But our mai-baap state has long treated us as subjects, not citizens, and these freedoms have been denied to us. 

Take trade, for example. When two people make a transaction, they only do so because both are better off. Prosperity is the result of a chain of such win-win transactions between people profiting by fulfilling each other’s needs. But Jawaharlal Nehru once described profit as a “dirty word”, and gave in to the fatal conceit, to use Friedrich Hayek’s phrase, of imagining that the economy, and the lives of people, could be planned. 

Given India’s natural strengths, we should have excelled in labour-intensive manufacture and been a manufacturing superpower, but the license-and-inspection raj and our labour laws did not allow that to happen. The draconian restrictions on economic freedom introduced by Nehru and strengthened by Indira Gandhi meant that entrenched big businesses were protected from competition, and cronies of the government enriched themselves. Despite some liberalisation, most of these shackles still exist, and much of our country remains poor.

The benefits of economic freedom are unintuitive, and popular outrage has rarely been expressed on its behalf. But what about personal freedom? The Indian Penal Code, drafted by our imperial overlords in the 19th century to keep us natives in place, and tailored on Victorian morality, is filled with archaic laws that should have been repealed 60 years ago. Section 377 effectively outlaws homosexuality. Section 295(a), that makes it illegal to “outrage religious feelings,” is routinely used by bigots, from all religions, to stifle free expression. It is filled with laws that criminalise the act of giving offence, outlaw victimless crimes and treat women as the property of men.

Our constitution, written by freedom fighters, allows caveats to free speech like “public order” and “decency and morality” that are open to the interpretation of babus and judges. This has led to a culture of censorship and banning that spreads across the arts, as if Indian adults are in a special class of imbecility, and must be told what to think. Perhaps that is indeed so, for why else would we not feel aggrieved at that notion?

*  *  *

In some parts of the country, remote from our cities and our consciousness, the government treats the people as the empire once treated us. Do you remember a photograph from three years ago, of a group of Manipuri women outside the entrance of the Kangla Fort, which was occupied by the Indian army? They were protesting the gang rape and murder of a 32-year-old woman named Thangjam Manorama, who had been picked up from her house in the middle of the night by the army. Frustrated that no one cared to listen to them, that the law-and-order mechanism existed only for the rich and powerful, 12 of these women stripped naked, and held in front of them a banner that said, “Indian Army, Rape Us.”

I suspect had that image been taken in 1930, and had that banner said “British Army, Rape Us,” it would have been one of the defining images of our struggle for freedom. Today, no one cares. Across the country, law and order is a joke, and our government fattens itself on the sweat of a billion people. Free speech is endangered, and censorship thrives. Honest men wishing to start a business that will fulfil the needs of others – as all businesses must in order to survive – find themselves having to deal with licenses and inspectors.

The price of freedom, it is often said, is eternal vigilance. We let our guard down 60 years ago. Perhaps it’s time to fight back?