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8th Jit Paul Memorial Lecture

Yesterday’s bonds of freedom is today’s bondage: Rudrangshu Mukherjee

The chancellor of Ashoka University examines the birthmark of India at 75, at the Jit Paul Memorial Lecture on Day 2 of KLF

Chandreyee Chatterjee | Published 15.03.22, 04:08 PM
Rudrangshu Mukherjee delivers the 8th Jit Paul Memorial Lecture on the closing day of the Kolkata Literature Festival

Rudrangshu Mukherjee delivers the 8th Jit Paul Memorial Lecture on the closing day of the Kolkata Literature Festival

Courtesy: KLF

What is the legacy of India at 75? What did freedom mean then and what does it mean now? How does the ‘Bonds of Freedom’ established at the stroke of midnight, August 14-15, 1947, translate to today? These were the questions addressed at the 8th Jit Paul Memorial Lecture delivered by historian, author and chancellor of Ashoka University, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, on the closing day of the Kolkata Literature Festival at the 45th International Kolkata Book Fair.

In his introductory note to the lecture, Swagat Sengupta, CEO of Oxford Bookstore, spoke about Jit Paul and his legacy. “For people who have been born and brought up in Calcutta, especially in the 1970s and ’80s, we all know Jit Paul. He was a visionary and an entrepreneur. Today whatever Apeejay Surrendra Group is — shipping, tea, hospitality, logistics and warehousing — he was instrumental behind it,” said Sengupta, who mentioned that the 8th Jit Paul Memorial Lecture was part of the centenary year celebration of Oxford Bookstore.

Jit Paul

Jit Paul

TT archives

Who are ‘we’?

Titled ‘Bonds of Freedom’, Mukherjee’s presentation delved into the significance of a phrase coined by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the eve of India’s Independence — ‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny’. But instead of focusing on the ‘tryst with destiny’ part of the phrase as is usually done, Mukherjee focused on the ‘we’. Who did Nehru mean by ‘we’? Who was included in the pronoun ‘we’? 

It definitely did not include Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, according to Mukherjee. “He refused to be part of the jubilation that surrounded India’s Independence. He was in Calcutta that day and he refused in any way to celebrate India’s Independence. When a Reuters correspondent asked him on the morning of August 15, saying ‘Mr Gandhi, your task has been accomplished, your dream has been fulfilled, India is today a free nation, what is your message to India?’ Gandhi said ‘today is not a day for celebration, today is a day for fasting and prayers’,” said Mukherjee.

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Mahatma Gandhi in Calcutta on or after August 15, 1947. Gandhi refused in any way to celebrate India’s Independence

Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Mahatma Gandhi in Calcutta on or after August 15, 1947. Gandhi refused in any way to celebrate India’s Independence

TT archive

Also excluded from the ‘we’, in the phrase ‘we made a tryst with destiny’, were the millions of people affected by the Partition. Those who lost their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods, their relatives as they were uprooted on both sides of India’s western and eastern borders. “The ‘tryst with destiny’ was actually a fractured tryst,” said Mukherjee, reminding the audience that independent India did not actually begin on a happy note, a fact that even Nehru admitted after the assassination of Gandhi on January 30, 1948. 

“Independent India began on a note of fractured lives and damaged futures and, as Nehru said, more than a hint of madness. So there is a paradox in this phrase ‘tryst with destiny’. And this paradox continues to haunt India,” said Mukherjee, who then went on to examine this paradox by looking at the themes of membership — who belonged to that ‘we’ — and representation — who can represent the ‘we’.

Independent India began on a note of fractured lives and damaged futures and, as Nehru said, more than a hint of madness. So there is a paradox in this phrase ‘tryst with destiny’. And this paradox continues to haunt India

Rudrangshu Mukherjee

In terms of membership, the opening line of the Indian Constitution makes it clear that it is the people of India, who are also members of the Indian republic and the Indian nation, said Mukherjee, adding that the same Constitution, by introducing universal adult franchise, also made it clear how the people were to be represented. “There was thus going to be, through universal adult franchise, a division between the polity and the people. Nehru’s use of ‘we’ and its embedded paradox illustrates this division,” said Mukherjee, who went on to illustrate how this paradox snapped the bonds of freedom through the examples of The Emergency, that French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot called ‘India’s first dictatorship’, and of the populist regimes that exist in India today, both at the regional and national levels.

‘Constitutional dictatorship’ and the diminishing ‘we’

Mukherjee argued that though it was brief and transient, the 18-month period of The Emergency starting from June 1975 was extremely significant and important. He quoted numbers to illustrate his point, from the 11 million people who were sterilised to the 110,000 people who were imprisoned. He spoke about the members of the Opposition who were incarcerated during The Emergency, the media which was censored and Congress parliamentarians of the Lok Sabha who passed laws sanctioning and widening the scope of Emergency powers.

Mukherjee called The Emergency a ‘constitutional dictatorship’ where Indira Gandhi continued to maintain the facade of democracy by ensuring that her anti-democratic steps were taken with the approval of Parliament and Constitutional amendments were carried out within the framework of existing laws. The regime, according to Mukherjee, lacked ideology and adopted socialism and secularism, manifest in a commitment to land reforms and public housing in the Twenty Point Programme and a banning of organisations like the RSS, Ananda Margi and the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Mukherjee called The Emergency a ‘constitutional dictatorship’ where Indira Gandhi continued to maintain the facade of democracy by ensuring that her anti-democratic steps were taken with the approval of Parliament

Mukherjee called The Emergency a ‘constitutional dictatorship’ where Indira Gandhi continued to maintain the facade of democracy by ensuring that her anti-democratic steps were taken with the approval of Parliament

TT archives

“But these ‘egalitarian impulses’ were swamped by nepotism and corporatist overtones of policies formulated by the Prime Minister. The egalitarian impulses were diffused by the phenomena of political authoritarianism and social hierarchies reinforcing each other,” said Mukherjee, pointing out how Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation and gentrification drives targeted Dalits and Muslims, how, as is often wont with authoritarian regimes. The Emergency encouraged depoliticisation since politics fosters ‘discussion, debates and dissent’, and how, being anti-intellectual, the perpetrators of The Emergency were against not just freedom of expression but also universities. 

The absence of ideology, according to Mukherjee, also facilitated the building up of a cult of personality around Indira Gandhi. “The rhetoric that accompanied the growth of this cult consisted of many empty phrases which could be variously interpreted to address a mosaic of concerns. The most shameful of these was the declaration by the then Congress president Deb Kanta Baruah — ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’,” said Mukherjee, concurring that nationalism was the only identifiable ideology of The Emergency and it was used to silence political debate. “Anyone who opposed The Emergency was labelled as being anti-national,” added Mukherjee. 

Mukherjee wanted to draw attention to the fact that this resulted in the loss of freedom as one individual became the representative of the people and the nation and those who dissented were denied the membership of the nation. “The proportions of the ‘we’, going back to Nehru, had suddenly been diminished. Having a vote had become irrelevant,” said Mukherjee. 

Populist regimes and the confinement of the ‘we’ to an ‘I’

The discussion then turned to the emergence of the populist regime that evolved from an attempt to “enhance the ambit of that word ‘we’”. The recognition that the government should take care of its citizens created some tension, which was caused by the contrary pulls of what Mukherjee called legitimate and illegitimate inequalities. “There is little agreement about whether a governmental benefit is a just reward for excellence or the affirmation of unjust privilege. A compensation for historical discrimination or the bestowing of new favours. This gives rise to the populist idea that an entrenched elite is exploiting deprived people. This then becomes a source of populist anger that certain types of leaders take advantage of by rhetoric and a deliberate and clever manipulation of facts,” said Mukherjee. 

Government policies are designed to benefit large sections of the electorate to win votes. Winning the next election appears as the principal goal. Thus are born populist regimes, whose aim is to garner votes and win elections, rather than carrying out social and economic transformations

He drew attention to the essence of populist regimes. “Government policies are designed to benefit large sections of the electorate to win votes. Winning the next election appears as the principal goal. Thus are born populist regimes, whose aim is to garner votes and win elections, rather than carrying out social and economic transformations,” said Mukherjee. He went on to underline one of the features of a populist regime, namely, a leader at the helm who “projects himself or herself as the benefactor and protector of the people and is invariably authoritarian in style and not averse to crushing any opposition by force”. 

“Many political leaders in India, regional and national, display these tendencies and fit these descriptions. Thus, under populist regimes freedom is diminished and power comes to be concentrated in the hands of an individual. The ‘we’ becomes confined to the ‘I’,” said Mukherjee, elaborating how this phenomenon of the diminishing ‘we’, pronounced and visible today, was there right from the birth of the nation.   

‘Yesterday’s freedom is today’s bondage pulling India towards no one knows where,’ concluded Mukherjee

‘Yesterday’s freedom is today’s bondage pulling India towards no one knows where,’ concluded Mukherjee

@oxfordbookstore/Twitter

“It was present at the birth of the nation and remains as a birthmark on a nation that is 75 years old or 75 years young. Freedom was a bond, a tie that brought people together. Yesterday’s freedom is today’s bondage pulling India towards no one knows where,” concluded Mukherjee.

Last updated on 15.03.22, 04:17 PM
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