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Book Review: Our Freedoms

UNDERSTANDING THE STATE OF FREEDOM AND THE POLITICS OF THE ‘STATE’

15th February, 2021

Written by Hunardeep Kaur

Artwork by Arshan Kazi

“Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside…During the many years the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself… Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper… “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it”.”

– (Before the Law, Franz Kafka) 

But negotiate we must, for freedom is a manifestation and assertion of our will, for freedom is not an ultimate goal achieved but an everyday exercise of assertion and negotiation.

The book then can be seen as an interrogation into the question of freedom, a documentation of the personal and political, cultural and historical understanding of freedom, a series of ruminations about this philosophical ideal as well as the everyday understanding of it and more importantly a step forward in the quest of freedom and in the process of reclaiming it.

The world we live in today is becoming eerily Kafkaesque, marked by oppressive institutional systems and shrinking spaces for any assertion of individual and collective freedom. The arbitrary functioning of the legal and political system has jeopardised the most fundamental of values-- freedom and justice. This flawed functionality has created many Joseph Ks and Gregor Samsas, like the ones Kafka’s fiction created, people arrested and detained arbitrarily without being informed of the cause of the arrest, citizens dehumanised by the apathetic administration and bureaucracy. It seems we are all that man in Kafka’s parable, trying to gain entry into the law that was made for us, for the people, thinking it is still accessible to us. We are that man trying to negotiate our freedom with the ‘gatekeepers’-- the political dispensation of our times. But negotiate we must, for freedom is a manifestation and assertion of our will, for freedom is not an ultimate goal achieved but an everyday exercise of assertion and negotiation.

In this context, the recently published anthology of essays, poetry and short stories centred around ideas of freedom, titled Our Freedoms, becomes relevant. Edited by Nilanjana S. Roy, the anthology seeks to look at the idea of freedom in the contemporary Indian context from historical, cultural, political as well as philosophical perspectives. The book combines personal anecdotes with political and philosophical ruminations, on the concept as well as the actuality of freedom, by some of the most prolific writers and intellectuals from India.

Romila Thapar’s essay titled “Freedom and the Idea of India” explores the concept of freedom through a historical-political perspective. It elaborates on the processes that led to the formation of India in terms of its territory and culture. The idea of India is interrogated by looking into the issues of secular nationalism and religious nationalism. At a time when the idea of India is being defined in bleak and narrow terms, Thapar’s essay becomes significant in countering that narrow definition of the idea of India with a broader, inclusive and secular one. As she writes, “The idea of India has to address the citizens of the nation state, all those that create visible cultures and also those whose cultures we have treated as substratum but which have to be made visible in the shaping of the state”. For her, freedom lies in upholding the legitimacy of dissent and openness in dialogue. 

And yet, this freedom is often curtailed and dissent curbed by those in power. Aatish Taseer’s essay “Exile in the Age of Modi” details his experiences with the incumbent government as he was stripped of his Overseas Citizenship of India and blacklisted from the country for having written a story for Time about the prime minister being ‘India’s Divider in Chief’. Writing about how he felt losing his citizenship, he says, “For me, the loss was literal- I could not go back to India- but also abstract; the loss of an idea, that ‘exalted’ idea of a secular India”. 

This idea of freedom associated with belonging is also taken up in the essays by Annie Zaidi and Meneka Guruswamy. At a time when society has become extremely polarised and identities dangerous, the need to talk about belongingness becomes all the more important. Annie Zaidi’s simple yet powerful assertion -- the land where your ancestors are buried belongs to you, becomes a foil to the divisive politics of today’s time. 

Freedom from what Guruswamy calls ‘political fear’ also becomes a theme explored in several essays in the anthology. The gruesomeness of the pogrom in North-east Delhi becomes a common thread that is explored in quite a number of short stories and essays in the book. Snigdha Poonam’s “Beauty and the Beast”, “Agendas” by Roshan Ali become two such writings that look at the everyday reality of the people who were in some way affected by the violence that ensued. 

The violence perpetrated on behalf of the state and by the state takes on many overt and covert forms. The arbitrary implementation of unthoughtful policies amounts to violence on the people and so does the outright attempt to suppress the voices of reason and truth. Rana Ayyub’s essay “Why I Choose Hope” seeks to condemn and critique these forms of state violence. She specifically talks about the migrant crisis that took place during the arbitrary national lockdown following the outbreak of the pandemic. She upholds humanity and pluralism against the insensitivity of the ruling dispensation. Her condemnation of the arrest of Safoora Zargar and the chilling account of the inhuman treatment meted out to her is disturbing yet powerful. Her words ring true, “Each day in India is a slide into majoritarianism; each day in the country is an attack on the believers of love targeted through vile allegations of love jihad. Each day is an assault on our mental health as our news channels conduct a medieval witch hunt against women they hate. But fight we must”. 

Freedom from any and every form of violence and freedom to live a dignified life constitute some of the basic tenets of Freedom. Voicing the idea of freedom from the perspective of Dalit women, Yashica Dutt in her essay “The Freedom Exchange” writes, “Whether it’s the spectrum of violence that just as easily springs from degradation to murder or the prickly and arduous struggle to cut loose from the confines of this shamelessly unfair system, our freedom is a bargain we often end up making with our dignity or our lives”. The role played by the social structures such as caste and gender in assigning and allocating freedom selectively, thus, needs to be investigated and critiqued. Dutt, through her essay, seeks to deconstruct the ‘savarna gaze’ and call it out for what it really is. Dutt emphatically calls for the de-romanticisation of the idea of freedom exchanges and bargains and for the questioning of the institutions of power that seek to compromise our freedom. 

T.M. Krishna’s essay “Raga Swaraj” further takes up the idea of the contradictions inherent in the idea of freedom. For him freedom lies in the harmonious co-existence of multiple symphonies both literally and figuratively. By bringing together the ideas of form and freedom in the context of music, he imagines a world where the form will bring together a multiplicity of voices so that each voice will be heard and not maligned or strangulated. The form will then become an embodiment of freedom, of harmonious freedom. 

This philosophical approach to freedom is further interrogated and elaborated upon by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in “Afterword: A Brief History of Freedom”. The dynamics of freedom, the role of power and hierarchies in determining who really is free and the role of imagination in claiming and reclaiming freedom is emphasised upon. Bhanu Mehta beautifully describes the strength and significance of the essays in the anthology. He writes, “These essays document and enact the acts of resistance: the small constitutional victories, the acts of protest, the clinging on to truth in the face of lies, the expansion of empathy in moments of hate”. 

The book then can be seen as an interrogation into the question of freedom, a documentation of the personal and political, cultural and historical understanding of freedom, a series of ruminations about this philosophical ideal as well as the everyday understanding of it and more importantly a step forward in the quest of freedom and in the process of reclaiming it. The essays, poetry and stories in the anthology leave the reader with serious questions about the true nature of freedom, the relativity of it, the power dynamics involved in the concrete reality and state of freedom and the conflict between the individual freedom and the larger collective freedom. Is freedom, then the freedom to define oneself? Does it mean freedom to shape one’s identity? Does it refer to freedom from fear? Are Justice and Equality embedded in the very idea of freedom? How do we reconcile the idea of everyday individual freedom with larger political freedom? When and how can a lack of political freedom lead to lack of personal, individual freedom? These are the issues that become quintessential when talking about freedom, more so in the present times when there is an overt attack on identities, cultures, free speech, books, food, love and what-not. The perils to the idea of freedom have existed for long and continue to do so, in a more violent and overt form today, in the structures of caste, gender, religion and more importantly the state. Akhil Katyal’s poem from the anthology titled “These Days” can best describe the state of (un)freedom today- 

 

the sun

climbs so slowly

even the fallen seeds

throw long shadows

 

Above them

the hours spread

like locusts

 

like hunger 

 

like an illness

refusing to relent. 

 

A government uses

this convenience to

make some arrests.