Cost of freedom

Published : Jan 12, 2007 00:00 IST

In Kolkata, on December 1, during a 12-hour State-wide bandh called by the Trinamool Congress against the acquisition of farmlands for the Tata Motors project in Singur. - ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

In Kolkata, on December 1, during a 12-hour State-wide bandh called by the Trinamool Congress against the acquisition of farmlands for the Tata Motors project in Singur. - ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

Bandhs organised to protest against `anti-people' policies inflict great suffering on people who are deprived of their day's earnings.

FREEDOM, it has been said, is one of the most abused words in modern times. It certainly has been used by all manner of people for all manner of ends, and if today the word provokes an immediate cynical reaction it should not surprise anybody.

But, stripping away the layers of casuistry, hypocrisy and self-advancement, there still is a basic value that the word contains. Without going into a deeply philosophical debate on it, one can simply say that it is the one condition we cherish in relation to our personal behaviour and in our collective behaviour as a society. "Give me freedom or give me death!" Patrick Henry proclaimed dramatically, embodying the value that we give to the idea, as an idea.

All this is being stated because, at the beginning of a new year, it is appropriate to look at ourselves and reflect, however briefly, on where we are. Having professed our reverence for the concept time and again publicly, we need also to consider what we have done in its name.

We sanctify demonstrations, marches, agitations and mass rallies in its name, and it is right that we do so. If we have bought nothing else, we have bought the right to do so. How else can injustice, oppression, exploitation and all manifestations of the suppression of this value in the weaker, more vulnerable groups among us be countered? Consider the determined agitation mounted by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Leaving aside, for the purposes of this essay, the rights and wrongs of the agitation, the fact is that it has brought into focus the condition of the people who have been uprooted from their homes and villages - their suffering, the nature of the compensation offered and the quality of the resettlement done.

Had the movement not been possible, the suffering of those affected by the project may well have been much worse than it is; the issue of the protection of the freedom of these vulnerable people has been brought into public focus by a method that is itself the exercise of a freedom made possible because it has been guaranteed by the Constitution.

On a different level, the continuous highlighting by the media of the attempt to evade justice by Santosh Kumar Singh after raping and murdering Priyadarshini Mattoo, and by Manu Sharma after murdering Jessica Lall, supported by public agitations, candle-light vigils, and other manifestations of public support and anger, resulted in the cases being heard quickly by the Delhi High Court and the criminals punished. One could say with a large amount of certainty that the court itself, in acting in these cases, functioned as a part of the social anger that had been aroused, and that its judgments in both cases reflected society's refusal to let criminals escape the consequences of their acts.

In other words, the media, social activists, and the High Court exercised the rights and the freedom guaranteed to all and, by doing so, expressed in a real sense the value that is collectively placed on this concept of freedom. Both examples embody this value and sanctity, what Jawaharlal Nehru called the indivisibility of freedom.

The problem is that in exercising one precious right, we often extinguish that right in others, particularly the most vulnerable, those who constitute what is called the unorganised sector of society. When a political party or a trade union, or a group of trade unions, decides to call a bandh and shut down a State for a day, lakhs of people who are in the unorganised sector - labourers, hawkers, tailors, cobblers, roadside barbers, rickshaw pullers, auto and taxi drivers and so on - lose their earnings for that day. Most of them depend on their daily earnings to manage their households and have to do without the means to feed their families.

More often than not, bandhs have no effect on public awareness of the reasons they were organised for, except in a vague way. Take the recent bandh called by trade unions, as a result of which West Bengal and Kerala virtually shut down. If one were to ask people in those States if they knew the reason, it is more than likely that most of them would not know. A bandh to protest against the "anti-people policies of the United Progressive Alliance government" is seen more correctly for what it is - a demonstration of the political power of the trade unions.

Ironically, then, a bandh professing to protest against anti-people policies becomes anti-people itself, as it inflicts great suffering on hundreds of thousands of people who have no means of protesting against the deprivation of a day's earnings, essential to run their households. It is not as if those organising a bandh do not know of its terrible consequences on the poor. But the bandh is not intended to protect the freedom of the poor or the vulnerable, as the Narmada Bachao Andolan is. It is a political statement made by one power group to another.

Nor, let it be said, is a bandh effected by taking recourse to the basic freedom guaranteed to citizens by our Constitution; it is effected by coercion and threats. If nobody works, or opens their shops, it is not because they bravely sacrifice a day's earnings to make a political statement, but because they would be punished in a brutal and manifest manner if they did not keep their shops shut or desist from earning that day's wages.

How different are the organisers, then, from, say, the coal mafia in Bihar and West Bengal, or the terrorists in the north-eastern region, in Jharkhand and in Jammu and Kashmir? They, too, exercise power to make a political statement - the difference is only in degree. Terrorists use death as the weapon of coercion; organisers of bandhs use physical violence and the threat of physical violence.

The difference is in one aspect as far as terrorists are concerned; organisers of bandhs have the support of the lawfully elected governments in their States, who deliberately allow the suppression of the freedoms of the poorest in their cities for that day. Terrorists function outside state authority, or any authority for that matter. But the similarity with the coal mafia is complete, as they too function with the tacit approval of those in power in the States - witness the summary transfer of District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police who attempt to curb the activities of these groups. It does not happen in West Bengal, but in Bihar and Jharkhand it is openly done.

It is necessary for all those parties and unions that resort to this means of inflicting suffering on the poorest in our cities to consider the value of this power they so very clearly have, the power of coercion. The parties have formed governments - the prime source of power - because they were protected by freedoms guaranteed to them as groups and as individuals. Should they then not do all they can to safeguard those rights for all, including the poorest, and not confine their concern only to the urban middle class?

As we begin a new year, let us hope that those who have worked to safeguard the rights of the deprived and the exploited, and have therefore earned the confidence and trust of the people in their States, work to protect the poorest from suffering, especially when the means to protect such people is very clearly in their hands.

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