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Republic Day 2021: The real seat of freedom is the imagination

Unless the material basis of freedom—the minimum condition for social respect—is brought to all, freedom remains truly an illusion

Students pose for pictures after getting their face painted to pay tribute to frontline workers fighting against the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, ahead of the upcoming India's Republic Day celebrations, in Mumbai on January 24, 2021. (Photo by INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP) (AFP)

Freedom is not a philosophical idea. It is a social and political achievement. It has to be fought for daily. Power never yields freedom to others—it has to be snatched away from them.

In this dream of a social freedom revolutions were born. We discovered a few more things about freedom. Instead of priests, a new intellectual clerisy of the gifted could dominate us.The arbitrary power of kings could be replaced by the will of people; less arbitrary perhaps, but more demanding in its subjugation of the individual. The aristocrat could be replaced, but it turned out that he who controls capital controls power. We sought to shake off the foreign yoke, by uniting as a people.

But who is the people? That stunningly simple question seemed to create a new foreignness amidst us. Who gets included and who gets excluded? So the nation state—that political form that might embody liberty, equality and fraternity—has also invented ethnic cleansing and genocide. The process of creating freedom turned out to be Janus-faced: excluding and killing, even as it prepared the conditions for freedom and democracy.

But new charters of hope were created. One was even called the Constitution of India. This Constitution had a Preamble. The Indian Preamble is spare and elegant because it is, somewhat unusually for preambles, not burdened with God, history or identity. Its pulsating heart and unredeemed promise is liberty, equality, fraternity and justice. This is not because God and history are not important. But it is because our Constitution liberates us to imagine them in whichever way we choose.

The Constitution presented a new source of hope. It created a new social contract. It promised those who had been socially ostracized, ritually excluded, materially deprived and politically marginalized a new freedom. It protected individual freedoms. But it also offered a new collective form of politics: where we relate to each other as equal citizens not enemies. The ties that bind us are not the ties of sameness but of reciprocity. It promised an India that would, to use Aurobindo’s phrase, not belong "to past dawns but noons of the future". After all, can freedom mean anything if it is not oriented to a new, different, better future? If it is tied by the dead weight of the past, if it looks back not forward, can it be freedom?

Everyone understood this was not going to be easy. That slayer of all gods, and the scourge of all pretension, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, repeatedly told us as much. Power will not bow to new dreams so easily. We will have the exhilaration of making and unmaking our own government—which remains a most emphatic assertion of freedom. But without fraternity, that minimum bond of common sympathy, this freedom will always be what it has been: a marker of the privilege of the few, not the deliverance of the many. Unless the material basis of freedom—the minimum condition for social respect—is brought to all, freedom remains truly an illusion.

The opposite of freedom is not, as philosophers like to think, determinism. It is necessity: being confined to an existence where there is literally no choice if one has to survive. Yes, we can console ourselves that freedom from want has diminished.

There was a time when India’s growth at 8 per cent created a new dream: tomorrow will be better than the present. That growth did expand opportunities for many, but it seemed to give more freedom to the plutocrats than comfort to the precariat. But, as the plight of millions of migrant workers reminded us, this is bare comfort.

In what form is freedom going to come? The material struggles to hold on to shards of freedom continue. They have, in some senses, always been the stuff of history. Freedom is tested in the struggle between those who have and those who are unfairly excluded: in the claims of agricultural workers, Adivasis, domestic help, labour, small entrepreneurs and informal workers. Our Constitution was supposed to be the framework in which these claims could, with some modicum of justice, be addressed. It is at one level an expansion of freedom that no citizen is now seeking someone else’s mercy or benevolence. They are claiming their rights, based on a sense of their own dignity.

Perhaps we underestimate the significance that the promise of a gas cylinder, sanitation, piped water and electricity holds out for freedom. Perhaps this is the freedom those who have been previously deprived now see in Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi. Will this freedom come in the form of better jobs, the sine qua non of freedom? After all what is freedom if not control over the circumstances of your work? Or will it require a basic income: a guarantee that no one has to ever experience deprivation, a floor that gives greater bargaining power to everyone to ensure they are not at the mercy of necessity? Or will economic mismanagement once again convert freedom from a material reality to a metaphysical obscurity? ...

Our Freedoms : Essays and Stories from India’s Best Writers, published by Juggernaut Books, 328 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Our Freedoms : Essays and Stories from India’s Best Writers, published by Juggernaut Books, 328 pages, 599.

The two most precious freedoms we have is the power to imagine and the power to define ourselves. The seat of freedom is not reason or truth, it is the imagination. Freedom resides in the imagination. Through the imagination we expand the boundaries of the Self, we overcome any quotidian limitations, and we imagine other worlds and other lives.

Reason is too coercive. Its conclusions are too authoritative. Its diktat inescapable. Two plus two equals four: I cannot get myself to deny that truth. Truth is too constraining. You have to adjust to the truth. Some exalted souls tell us that freedom is ultimately found only in Truth. But it feels more like that Truth might bludgeon Freedom. What kind of a freedom is this, if truth is my only choice?

My imagined Self is far more interesting, and often I think it is more me than my ‘real’ Self. The imagination seems less coercive, more expansive. Perhaps more fickle, but also more novel: more about invention than truth. Reasonable people believe in reason and truth; true pioneers imagine different worlds. There is a thrilling freedom in being able to deny the truth. We love this state of denial; and we increasingly love leaders who can enact that for us.

As the imagination expands freedom, so it can also constrict it. It allows us to live vicariously: through other lives. But it can also create vicarious connections. In our imagination our life and the life of the nation can be fused. The vicarious thrill I get when Virat Kohli hits a six is a feat of the imagination—as if his six was my six. It allows that identification with a larger collectivity. The ‘I’ and the ‘We’ fuse together. I am lifted out of my insignificance. The glories of this ‘We’ become my glories. What an alchemy of the imagination.

This alchemy can also be a trap. It allows me to leave an ‘I’, only to lose myself in a ‘We’. Instead of the narcissism of the Self (not pretty but harmless), I am now part of a collective narcissism (thrilling but potentially deadly).

Through the freedom to imagine, I also have the freedom to identify. This identification is thrilling; it is liberating; it can enjoin me to do good deeds.

And yet...in very strong attachments to groups, individuals acquire abstract passions. On the one hand, they alienate their own individuality. They are determined by something outside of themselves. This at once elevates them, makes them part of a larger and more enduring whole. On the other hand, their identities become abstract. They become one thing rather than another....The very imagination that was meant to liberate us, by producing this identification, also limits us. It is as if the imagination takes us out of a small prison only to dump us in a larger one.

Freedom chafes at the limits of this prison. This prison has a name: identity. Identities matter to people. They have to be recognized because often people are targeted simply for being who they are. But identity is also a foe of freedom. The mere act of naming itself is a loss of freedom in two ways. On the one hand, it constricts us. It makes us one thing rather than another. On the other hand, in this world, the mere act of naming takes away the power of self-definition from you.

As an act of freedom I might want to say ‘I am Indian’, ‘I am Hindu’, ‘I am Muslim’. I identify with these categories. By some act of imagination those others who identify with me also become mine. I can identify with different categories; I can have multiple allegiances. But each act of naming seems to bind me to a script. What behaviour will entitle me to use that name? As identities abound, so do scripts. Who is a good Indian? Who is a good Hindu? Who is a good Muslim? What set of expectations are associated with those terms? Our imagination creates these identities, and the identity in turn limits the reach of our imagination, and often our empathy.

Excerpted from Our Freedoms: Essays and Stories from India's Best Writers with permission from Juggernaut Books.

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