Dwight Eisenhower, the former President of the United Sates once said ‘only our individual faith in freedom can keep us free’. The question to ponder on this August 15, as we celebrate the Independence of India from British colonialism is whether we are losing faith in that hard fought victory of freedom with the blood, toil and sweat of our founding fathers.
Some may argue that my skepticism is rather unfounded as democracy has taken deep root in India, and freedom and liberty are ingrained in the psyche of the nation’s conscience. While that assertion may ring true in a larger sense, one needs to be concerned with eroding civil liberties and increasing threats to the basic rights of all citizens.
The preamble to the Indian constitution reads as follows: “WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:
JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation; IN OUR CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION”. In 1995, the Supreme Court has upheld that the preamble is an integral part of the constitution.
The Jeffersonian definition of freedom always referred to release from despotic restraints, whether it is freedom of religion or of the press or any other freedom. It has been said that a free conscience is indeed the beginning of freedom. Conscience is a difficult concept to study because of its abstract nature. However, freedom of conscience is without equal in a democratic society, as all other rights flow from it. The idea of choice is borne out of it. A free conscience is, indeed the beginning of freedom.
Freedom of conscience is innate; it is god-given and nobody has the right to trample on it. There is an inherent yearning in every human being to be free. In other words, people wish to live and behave towards each other in a way in which each serves the community, which in turn provides for and looks after its members.
The United States declaration of Independence spells out the basic essence of that iconic document without any ambiguity: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. — Perhaps no one sentence in American history has had such a profound impact than these powerful words written by Thomas Jefferson.
During the march in Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King, recited these words, and challenged the nation to make good on this promise. A year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson fulfilled that promise with the signing of the landmark civil rights legislation that transformed the nation once and for all. One hundred years earlier, Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg address insisted on the proposition that all men are created equal.
About 166 years later after Independence, the office of war information released a poster that added the following to that declaration: ‘we are of one mind – Hitler, Mussolini or Hirohito shall never take from us the freedom for which our forefathers sacrificed our lives and fortune’. United States today, despite many of its current shortcomings, still remains a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. .
On the eve of Independence in 1947, India’s first Prime Minister in his historical speech said the following: ‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance’. Undoubtedly, Pandit Jawaharal Nehru remained a valiant defender of the freedom of every citizen, as enshrined in the constitution, of which he was a co-architect, till the very end.
Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation said “I do not expect the India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu or Wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another’.
India’s founding fathers had a dream to create a just society based on the values of that preamble, and they strove to create Institutions that would seem to protect that hard earned freedom and liberty. It is indeed our responsibility as succeeding generations, to safeguard those cherished principles. However, the constitution cannot protect our rights if we do not protect the constitution. If we display a cavalier attitude towards those who violate the constitution, we would very likely be accomplices in undermining our own rights and ultimately the freedom of the entire nation.
The biggest challenge India is facing today is the majoritarian view of democratic governance. Unfortunately, a large segment of the voting public along with a significant section of the NRIs seem to be either antagonistic or apathetic to the very notion of an open society where the freedom and liberty of every citizen of the country is respected regardless of their caste or religion. Without fully committing ourselves to this essential creed, we may never achieve the political tranquility that is required for economic development and prosperity of all its citizens.