The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Does the abuse of a word mean the reality behind it is also abused'

When I try to remember how I met the word freedom, I see one sharp memory. My grandmother sits before the family’s new machine, our first tape recorder. The children’s chance at showing off for posterity will come later, after the older members of the family have had their messages to the future taped. I am with the other children, crouched on the floor by the machine, impatiently waiting for my grandmother to begin. Finally, after much persuasion, she begins singing in a quavering voice unlike her usual commanding one, “Khaddar kodi thonrudhe!” (I see the flag of khaddar before me!) Her song goes on, from extolling Gandhi’s sacrifices for freedom, to taking on “Victoria-rani-ammai.” The children, running through in our heads what we are going to sing or recite, giggle at the idea of Victoria as our ammai. But when I see that day again in memory, I sense a teasing quality beneath the respectful titles. It was as if my grandmother was singing, oh queen, you may be a rani and an ammai, but you have to bow to the inevitable — our freedom.

The images that follow my grandmother’s song are prosaic, but in my memory equally moving. A flag is raised; children stand at attention, I among them, and we sing the national anthem. Or we children read poems and stories, always puzzled because we have to be two people at one time: depending on what we are reading, we sometimes live in a place that was part of a glorious empire, and sometimes in a country that had to fight for freedom not so long ago.

But one way or the other, the word freedom, for each one of us, is almost as old as we are. It has grown with us. It has grown larger, more complicated and more desirable. It has also grown more elusive, and it has aged — it has as many warts, scars and wounds as we do. And like love, like empowerment, the word freedom has been subject to much abuse. (It makes you wonder sometimes — does the abuse of a word always mean the reality behind the word will be abused as well')

As a child, when I heard the word freedom, it was not a lone word. It almost always went with another word— usually movement, sometimes struggle. It seemed to me that those who fought for our freedom were the truly worthy ancestors, the kind who deserved the filial piety we were coaxed into squandering so thoughtlessly. And since these worthy ancestors had already fought the big battle and won it at great cost, we had to pay our legacy duties every day by living up to their dreams and hopes. We had, in their names and ours, to nurse this hard-won thing, our freedom, nourish it and make it grow.

But freedom did not flourish as I grew up. In fact, the word’s golden aura dazzled less; there was a distinctly tired look to its shine. I found that in my own little life it was often dented. For a young woman, I found, even a privileged young woman, freedom was a tricky thing. Now you saw it, now you didn’t. And I saw that the women around me invariably had an even smaller share of this collective legacy. So they dreamt, I assume, and I did too — of a freedom that made its way into our ordinary lives, and let women live without interference — whether it was from what the rules say, or what the neighbours will say, or what men have already said. Growing up, I often wanted to ask our fighting ancestors: is freedom big enough to fit in a woman’s freedom from fear'

But like many women, I too found out, as time passed, that we were not the only ones getting a watery share of this freedom. In a more direct way, I began to see far too many examples of people — large groups of them — who had not had so much as a lick of this freedom that had already been fought for. Everywhere I turned, there were the people whose unspoken question was always there to taunt us, the descendants of the freedom-fighters: what does freedom mean to us, the Indians who have never tasted or smelt the better life that was supposed to be part of freedom'

Now, in the 21st century, the freedom movement is not just in the past — a past with a voice as quavering as my grandmother’s. It has also lost the innocence of flag ceremonies and a lump in the throat on first learning about the freedom struggle. Now our dead freedom fighters wander the country they fought for, dispossessed ghosts in contested territory. They bear painful witness to their descendants being bombarded with new information about who our real freedom fighters were. For example, on April 7, 2003, they hear their descendants’ prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, lauding the contribution of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founder, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, to the freedom movement, and hitting out at those who “distort these contributions”. Veer Savarkar’s portrait hangs in Parliament, outstaring my grandmother’s Gandhi.

It’s no consolation that we are not the only ones who have managed to sully our inheritance so thoroughly. It is no consolation because the new muscle-flexing freedom is now colonizing the world in a way our own new freedom fighters can only imagine in their predictable dreams. The completely revised brand of freedom packaged in the land of the free and the brave has been let loose in the world with all the shock and awe official US can command. And our childhood is truly over: the word freedom no longer knows the passé “movement” and “struggle”. Now, courtesy official America, we have “freedom operations”. Bush-style freedom flattens other parts of the world with frightening regularity. The lucky Afghans, chosen as beneficiaries, got “Enduring Freedom”. Iraq, the next victim of freedom operations, has got, along blood and terror, “Iraqi Freedom”.

It is as if a travesty of Fanon’s statement that no one is free till the world is free has become the reality. The next winners in the draw for freedom are already being shortlisted. And at home, our new freedom fighters have hit on a wonderful way to take part in this lottery. The small-time freedom struggle of our ancestors is not enough for them; instead they are eyeing some bit roles on the world stage. Having inherited our historical entanglement with freedom, they plan to send Indian soldiers to Iraq to make sure Bush’s Iraqi freedom endures. Since it is a freedom operation, not a UN one, the Indians will have to pay to play mercenaries. In this sense we are going to be free agents, compared to the last time a superpower made use of Indian soldiers to prop up its empire. Our freedom, the one we heard of in more innocent days, has now come full circle. Not only do we now have the chance to free ourselves from our own freedom fighters; we can also now export our own mercenary freedom fighters.

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