Are We Really Azaad?: Umar Khalid
NEW DELHI: Yesterday, I heard that my videos were played by BJP at a peasant rally in Vadodara. Ever since I started doing student politics in this campus, I would look forward to visits to factories and listen to the workers. I would hope that one day I would work amongst the workers and peasants, may be even address them. And yesterday thanks to BJP I was addressing a peasant rally in Gujarat! But jokes aside, this is indeed a very frightening situation for all of us. Just today, I read a report that some person from Western Uttar Pradesh has given statements to the press stating that he is going to come to JNU and gun down me and Kanhaiya before the 8th of April. While the three of us may have been Azaad from the confines of Tihar, in this larger prison that our country is becoming, there is a great deal of danger to our lives and therefore there remain many restrictions on our Azaadi – on our azaadi to move, go for field work, go out with friends and things like that! Seriously what an age it is, when to speak of freedom has become almost a crime, for it is a kind of silence about injustice, and to quote Brecht, indeed we live in the dark ages!
Now that we are Azaad after a short stay in Tihar, we have been invited to speak here on the different meanings of Azaadi. The program today has been called Jashn-e-Azaadi – Carnival of Freedom or Celebrating Freedom. But let me be a spoiler in the beginning itself, are we really Azaad? Are we really Azaad of all that our freedom movement aspired for – Azaadi from caste oppression, communal oppression, imperialist plunder and patriarchy? When dalits, as it happened right through the 80s and 90s in the state of Bihar are massacred by private armies, and when now all the killers from the Ranveer Sena are honourably acquitted by the courts, what does it reflect on the actually existing Azaadi in our country today? When muslims live in fear of being picked up at the dead of the night and implicated in a false terror case, or the outbreak of the next communal riot, and when more importantly those responsible for these riots are in power, what does it reflect on the actually existing secularism today? When the entire adivasi heartland of our country is in a state of war because big corporations, multi-national companies are scrambling for the rich mineral resources, what does it reflect on our actually existing sovereignty today? When young couples are routinely killed for marrying outside their caste and religion, or living together without marriage, what does it speak about the actually existing equality today? So what have we come to celebrate today? And I for one, have come to celebrate something today. The only thing we can celebrate at the present juncture, is in the midst of all of this, the people of this country in the past several decades have not taken these several attacks lying low.
Our University also showed that in the last couple of months. One of the most vibrant resistance movements in the world have in fact taken place in our country. Today, in fact this resistance has increased right from the forests of Bastar, to the factories in Manesar, it has come down to our universities and the streets, and these million mutinies and movements is something we really need to celebrate today. We really need to celebrate all these movements because it is these movements alone that can affect the transition, or rather the transformation, from the actually existing Azaadi to a real and genuine Azaadi for all.
This brings us as to how do we look at Azaadi after all, and how really to bring about this transformation. Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the most important leaders of our freedom movement, while delivering the Presidential Address to the Student’s Conference held at Lahore on 19 October 1929, said, “If we are to bring about a revolution of ideas we have first to hold up before us an ideal which will galvanise our whole life. That ideal is freedom (Azaadi). But freedom is a word which has varied connotations and, even in our country, the conception of freedom has undergone a process of evolution. By freedom, I mean all round freedom, i.e., freedom for the individual as well as for society; freedom for the rich as well as for the poor; freedom for men as well as for women; freedom for all individuals and for all classes. This freedom implies not only emancipation from political bondage but also equal distribution of wealth, abolition of caste barriers and social iniquities and destruction of communalism and religious intolerance. This is an ideal which may appear Utopian to hard-headed men and women, but this ideal alone can appease the hunger in the soul.”
When our constitution was adopted, it promised us all of this. The Indian Constitution starts with the preamble which reads: " WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC, REPUBLIC and to secure all its citizens -JUSTICE, social economic and political.” But the drafting chairperson of the Indian Constitution, Dr. Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar was acutely aware of the age of contradictions we were getting into. He said, “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?
Before Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh had also warned us of the dangers of a mere transfer of power from the whites to the browns without a radical, revolutionary transformation of the society and that it will not end exploitation of human beings by human beings. He also spoke of a state of war that would continue in such a scenario. A war is already unfolding before our eyes – and its theatre has expanded. It is no longer confined to the forests of Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. It has come closer home. It has come right to the National Capital Region in the industrial belt around Delhi. It is also taking place right down our nose in our universities.
At the core of this war, are two perspectives – two perspectives for our society, two perspectives for our universities. Those in power carrying on this war have a particular perspective for our country today, which Comrade Kanhaiya has already spoken about. What they want for our universities – has unfolded before us in the last 10 years, and more aggressively in the last two years. The fact that universities are in ferment and turmoil, the fact that students’ movement is the biggest challenge to the government today, is not surprising. It is inherent to the logic of RSS and BJP that they are going to go after universities. If we were facing privatization of education as a major onslaught in the last decade, today it has been coupled with Hindutva brand of saffronisation of education. We have puppet heads being put in different universities as Vice Chancellors, Directors and Head of Institutes. And it is actually a very shameful moment for us, when in University of Hyderabad a couple of days back the Vice Chancellor – the same person responsible for the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula is brought into the university with a police cordon around him. This is the same thing that unfolded in FTII as well. So at the core of this war, are two perspectives for our country, society and universities today. And from the side of the people, it is the aspirations of the Indian people for social, economic and real political equality. Azaadi is what lies at the core of our perspective in this war today. In that sense, the freedom movement, which Prof. Chandra wrote about is still unfolding before us, and as historians, students, intellectuals we need to document and write about it for posterity.
Let me explain myself – One of the most popular slogans during Nehru’s times was ‘land to the tiller’ and with much fanfare the land reform program was undertaken. But it is also a documented fact, how the big landlords and zamindars could circumvent these measures to retain their big holdings. Industrialization did happen, but with foreign aid and loans, entrapping us into an extremely vicious cycle of foreign debt, compromising our economic independence and thereby our political independence too. And as we entered into an age of liberalization, we also saw various Public Sector Units increasingly being closed down. The protests and movements of the people, for control over land, were met largely with the heavy hand of the state – which increasingly showed a tendency of suspending even the existing democracy and democratic rights to protect the interests of the rich and the powerful. The years, when the largely landless dalit peasantry organized itself also saw the ‘upper’ caste land lords organizing themselves with state supports, and suppressing brutally through their private armies their movements.
And all of this went together with the rise of right wing forces in the country. In fact, here I would differ slightly from Kanhaiya – and at this juncture, as the social and economic crisis worsened for the vast masses of the Indian people, one saw not just the RSS and BJP, but even those who called themselves committed deeply to secularism pandering themselves to majoritarian sentiments and creating communal divisions in the society. That was really very tragic for our polity from the 1980s and 1990s. It is not a surprise that the locks of Babri Masjid and that of the Indian market were opened simultaneously. It is also not a coincidence that when the spiraling of foreign debt saw the adoption of policies of liberalization, privatization and globalization also witnessed some of the worst communal riots in the country. This was a dangerous path on which the Indian polity moved increasingly – one it was difficult to go back on.
The danger of right wing forces has never been just about communal politics, it is not just about the Hindu-Muslim binary. There is actually an economic side to it too – one where increasingly, one sees not just the BJP but other parties also sharing the same vision. As far as economic policies and foreign policies are concerned, one sees a right wing shift in the Indian polity itself irrespective of the party in power. One can witness in the last 25 years, aggressive privatization, health care is in shambles, education after mining has become one of the major avenues for profit movement. This government is the most aggressive of them all, but there have been previous non-BJP governments who have followed the same policies. That is something I wish to highlight – these continuities. These are some of the challenges that our country faces today. Why create communal divisions today? Precisely to ensure these questions are not raised. And that is the challenge before us and if we are to fight this onslaught today, it has to be fought at both levels. At an ideological level, the threat that RSS and BJP pose has to be countered ideologically. But we cannot limit ourselves only to an ideological fight. We have to question the very social basis of these forces on which they have come into existence. We also have to question the economic policies, foreign policies. We also have to question the strategic interests of US imperialism in the Indian sub-continent and the Indian state’s collusion in the same.
To conclude, what JNU underwent in the last two months, the fight cannot be just to save our university spaces from the communal fascists. The fight cannot be just to save something, it also has to be a fight to build something. It cannot just be a fight to safeguard certain privileged spaces where we end up disconnecting ourselves from all that is unfolding in our country today. It cannot be a fight for privileges, it actually has to be a fight where we stand with the underprivileged. If today, one looks at this attack, it is not simply an attack only on our university spaces. This attack is part of a larger attack. Today, in Bastar in the state of Chhattisgarh, Operation Greenhunt – largely invisibilized by the mainstream media, largely not spoken about by anyone – has been intensified than ever before. The recent attacks on Soni Sori, Jagdalpur legal aid group, Malini Subramaniam and several other journalists were orchestrated to ensure that the details of this war, the loot of resources and the atrocities on the tribal people, should not be brought out from these places to people like us, who are sitting in Jawaharlal Nehru University and in other urban spaces. One of the first things that the Modi government did after coming to power in 2014 was to send additional battalions of paramilitary forces to Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand to crush the movement there, while simultaneously signing more deals with mining companies to hand over the natural resources of these state. Somewhere, we need to connect these fights. Just like the attack is not an isolated attack on the universities, our fight back as students cannot be an isolated movement of the students alone. Various movements have to speak to each other. There have been moments in history where the Black Panthers Movement in the US inspired the Dalit Panthers Movement here in India, where the anti-imperialist struggles of the people of Vietnam inspired the anti-Vietnam protests and the students’ movement in the US and Europe, where the Cultural Revolution in China inspired Naxalbari here. It is one of those similar moments in history. We can see a Students’ Spring unfolding before us – after Naxalbari, it is for the first time that the students’ movement is on such an upswing and we have this challenge of speaking to and engaging with these various movements. It is only through this unity of struggles that we can defeat the forces that are oppressing us today.
(This is the text of Umar Khalid’s presentation at Jashn-e-Azaadi organized by the Centre for Historical Studies commemorating Prof. Bipan Chandra. It has been modified to fit within the word limit. The full text is available here.)