Seventy years of freedom are too long for many living in the fringes of urban India. There are a few who champion their cause and are arrested, even under the British birthed anachronistic sedition law.
For instance, in Kashmir there is no attempt to talk with the civil society, instead over sixty are killed. In Chhatisgarh the tribals are brutalized over and again. Dalits are beaten, thrashed and cruelly dealt with everywhere in India. In Manipur successive women go on hunger strike for years to remove an aspect of the military might. You are not free to eat what you wish. And certainly not to crack jokes about the Indian holy cows. And Governors are appointed with a skewered conscience who had once been accused of faking documents to ease parking.
A friend who heads a prominent NGO sent me a message on Independence Day to tell me how much she loves her India, but how devastated she feels when she sees the conditions of the villages that she passes in her train to South India. I sent her one of those Independence Day self congratulatory replies on how the villages have improved, thanks to people like her. And later I felt ashamed at my facile comment.
What does improvement or development mean for a seventy year old free nation?
One of my employees rises at three in the night and sets out for work in the city. There are no lights on the road that is still the earth track it was twenty years ago. The Government has instituted several schemes for people such as her to receive cereals at a low price; some of these laws are converted to people pleasing measures as in Tamilnadu where ordinary folk get to eat incredibly cheap cooked food. But for most of India it is the marginally better off who receive such benefits because they know someone in the Panchayat.
Corruption always holds sway at who knows who level.
When such benefit schemes had first started, some responsible non governmental persons suggested to the then Congress Government that volunteers among college students should fan out to the whole of India and check if the benefits were really reaching legit beneficiaries. It was a wonderful beginning that kept things honest, and then as it happens in India, everything fizzled out.
Today, whereas one of my workers trudges through slush to reach a bus stop forty minutes away; another was called home to a neighbouring state to receive his Government decreed pension as an older card holding beneficiary. I was shocked to hear that this man who draws a fair salary was a below poverty line card holder. And it is all because his daughter in law is a Panchayat worker.
The Government has schemes (sometimes in association with foreign NGOs) to give land to those who live below the poverty line. The owners of such land tracts can grow what they need and thus become independent. In my understanding, that is development. However here too greed and corruption crept in. The owners of such land frequently sell their land and return to the city for work, whatever work it may be – because people who are unused to making their land work, cannot be forced to do so and this is where corruption steps in, to find the weakness and spread its roots.
A Chinese traveller/historian Hiuen Tsang (630 AD) had commented at the time that Indians are hot tempered deceitful people. Don’t we know it? I had once proudly said to an American friend, are we not truly free? He smiled and asked back ‘really? You think so?’
Today, I think not. If those who dare to be hopeful are willing to sacrifice much for the freedom to hope and their voices muffled; if the successive Governments behave as the British did in response. If corruption is king and development a distant dream – seventy years is too long to reach true freedom.